The Limits on Discourse

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | By the end of 1981, three federal agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had launched investigations into the North American Man Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).

Earlier the same year, the bureau and the New York City and Nassau County police departments served arrest and search warrants on two NAMBLA members in New York. Those arrests won widespread and fevered coverage in the mainstream press.

From NAMBLA to Siegebusters, what’s fit to discuss has been contested

While law enforcement saw NAMBLA as the Mafia of child molesters, the group responded to the police scrutiny in a manner that was not typical of criminals. NAMBLA issued press releases, held press conferences, and reached out to the broader gay and lesbian community for help.

In 1982, the NAMBLA Bulletin published a statement signed by 200 individuals or groups that did not endorse NAMBLA, but acknowledged its “purposes to be legitimate aims of a legal group acting for civil rights, political change, and public education.”

In 2011, it is unlikely that NAMBLA could get such support for its First Amendment rights. Some of the signers of that 1982 document see the community’s discussions as having grown narrow and even right-leaning in the decades since they took that bold stand.

“I think 2011 is actually more conservative around issues of sexuality,” said Amber Hollibaugh, interim executive director at Queers for Economic Justice, a progressive group. “Now it’s not even discussed… We’re talking about being normal now.”

Ed Hermance, owner of Giovanni’s Room, the 38-year-old gay bookstore in Philadelphia, signed the document because “I thought and I still think it is not smart to shut down a discussion.”

Could NAMBLA get such support today?

“My guess is no,” Hermance said. “We are too, dare I say the word, established.”

The journey to “established” probably began soon after the 1969 Stonewall riots that are seen as marking the start of the modern gay rights movement.

The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) launched that year and aligned itself with other radical movements. The Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) also began in 1969, but it focused solely on queer issues, including ending the ban on gay men and lesbians in the military and gaining the right to marry, though the group wanted to end restrictions based on both sex and the number of partners in a marriage.

GLF ceased operations in 1972 and GAA continued until 1981.

While serious and sometimes acrimonious debates have roiled the queer community since 1982, in recent years the community’s major issues –– marriage and the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell –– have advanced with little internal debate.

In 2006, 250 activists were the inaugural signers of “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage: A New Strategic Vision for All Our Families and Relationships,” a manifesto that asked the community to move beyond the two-partner family structure in its pursuit of government recognition of relationships and include a variety of “households, kinship relationships, and families.”

Nearly 3,000 people eventually signed the document. Some were asked to not engage the public debate the manifesto clearly called for.

“A lot of the pro-marriage groups felt that having a discussion like that would impact the legal strategies,” Hollibaugh said. “I know there was a lot of pressure to not talk about having a difference with the pro-marriage groups.”

Similarly, those voices that argued that the queer community was ignoring or even endorsing the US government’s militarism during the effort to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell were largely silenced.

Gay City News found a single 2010 debate taking up that controversy, between former Army National Guard Lieutenant Dan Choi and Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore on “Democracy Now!,” a daily news program that airs on radio and television. Bernstein is the editor or author of six books and a member of, an online group that critiques mainstream lesbian and gay politics.

“I think that the scope of discussions over the past 30 years… has become increasingly limited and diminished in the broader community,” said Michael Bronski, a professor at Dartmouth and Harvard Colleges and the author of “A Queer History of the United States” due to be released on May 10. Bronski did not sign the 1982 document.

That narrowing came as the community’s membership grew. In order to include new members, the radical politics that informed some early gay groups were softened and became more centrist.

“Most movements, most social justice movements begin with some radical impulse,” Bronski said. “America is not a place where radical movements last… That comes with some limitations.”

Community groups have increasingly relied on the mainstream press to get their messages out. Mainstream outlets have never been interested in the community’s internal debates, nor will they cover sexual politics in the LGBT community.

“We’re actually being held back by the restraints that that media holds itself to,” Bronski said.

The mainstream press generally relies on a handful of community groups for comment on queer issues, and the views of those groups are presented as the broader community’s views.

“Who is setting the agenda, and the second question is who is being interviewed?” Bronski said.

The desire for community institutions that open themselves up for difficult debates was in evidence at a March 13 town hall meeting held at New York City’s LGBT Community Center to discuss the Center’s banning of Siegebusters, a group that opposes the Israeli government’s policies toward Palestinians.

“I think the Center cannot in any way make decisions based on the content or controversial nature of the event,” said Urvashi Vaid, a longtime queer community leader, at the event. “I want the Center to be a place where people like Michael [Lucas] can come and organize and people like Siegebusters can come and organize.”

Lucas, the most public voice opposing Siegebusters, is the owner of Lucas Entertainment, a gay porn studio.

Many of those who seek a more expansive community discourse readily acknowledge that the state and federal governments should not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in military recruiting or in issuing marriage licenses even as they lament the narrow focus on such questions of equality.

“Political discussions within the LGBT realm are very rare and usually what large funders and LGBT organizations want to hear,” said William K. Dobbs, a gay civil libertarian. “Dissenting viewpoints have been nearly shut off… These days the agenda and discussions are dictated by funders, Gay Inc. organizations, and gay and mainstream media outlets.”