As I read The Right Side of History: 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism (Adrian Brooks, ed., published by Cleis Press) I vacillated between feeling like this collection is an important addition to the queer U.S. history canon and wishing that it could be just a little bit more. I found the pre-Stonewall chapters quite refreshing, something different from a lot of the histories I’ve read that tend to be either highly academic and theoretical in discussing gendered behavior and queer urban geographies, or tightly centered around the specifics of the 1950s-1970s gay and lesbian movements. Several of those books have a place in my heart, Martin Duberman’s Stonewall in particular, but I’m always in favor of a new twist, and the opening chapters of this book deliver.
The Right Side of History falls in between anthology and single-author work, with about a third of the chapters written by Brooks and other authors taking up one or two chapters each. The topics coalesce around the theme of 20th century queer activism in the U.S., but also vary quite a bit, discussing people as much as movements and wandering between major historical figures and the more obscure. I particularly liked how the pre-Stonewall section of the book focuses on topics you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find in a history of queer or gay activism: Isadora Duncan, Josephine Baker, the 1934 Longshoremen’s Strike. There are some great threads picked up here around how anarchism, socialism, labor movements, and racial justice movements contributed to the development not just of queer activism in the U.S. but of a culture in which queer activism takes place.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find that those threads were consistently followed through to modern history in this collection. The mishmash of personal stories, interviews, and more removed histories is enjoyable, and there were certainly chapters I appreciated about movements post-Stonewall—Merle Woo’s chapter was a highlight, as was the inclusion of a piece by intersex activist Tiger Howard Devore—but the later chapters for the most part fail to deliver on the radical promise of the book’s introduction. While I appreciated the framing of actions in the 1950s and 1960s as radical for their time, I don’t love the way the book sets up an arc from truly radical movements to the 1990s and 2000s gay nonprofit-industrial complex as if interviews with Barney Frank and Evan Wolfson are a natural conclusion to this activist story. While inclusion of authors of color and trans authors is certainly a welcome relief in such a collection, I found myself bothered by the fact that Miss Major Griffin-Gacy’s account of Stonewall is the only chapter that gets a sort of disclaimer and is followed by other witnesses’ memories of the event. Certainly, there are a lot of debates around the facts Stonewall, but was this really necessary?
Overall, I think the book is a worthwhile addition to the canon, and I love the way it ties together political and social history with cultural and artistic history, jumping among perspectives, but it could have gone further. I’d have loved to see interviews with Reina Gossett or CeCe McDonald, for example, rather than so many snippets from Brooks’ personal history.