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On Untamed, The Deviant’s War, and the Respectability Problem

Respectability continues to be a confounding issue. But progress seems to accelerate when movements are broad-based, with space and freedom for people to fight in their own ways. Both Untamed and The Deviant’s War explore this topic.

To quote Lil’ Kim, whose birthday we celebrated this weekend, and whose existence we celebrate daily: “Took us a break but we back now.”

As we’ve been engaging in this national dialogue on racism, I’ve been focusing spare time and energy away from this blog. Among other things, I’m trying to do my part, however small, to antagonize (ahem, I mean, “hold accountable”) a racist local elected official — who happens to be my neighbor — and also working to make some positive changes in spaces and communities I interact with daily.

If you follow on Instagram or Twitter, you may already know this.

But I’m still reading, albeit a bit slower than usual, and I wanted to say something about two recent selections, both of which were excellent.

In The Deviant’s War, by Eric Cervini, we follow Frank Kameny — and other pioneers like Barbara Gittings — through a decades-long campaign to win acceptance and end federal discrimination against the gay community. And in Untamed, we join Glennon Doyle, who rose to prominence as a bestselling Christian author, as she works to shed the constraints placed on us by society and find radical self-acceptance in her same-sex marriage.

(My knowledge of Glennon Doyle was extremely limited before starting this book, so I only learned while reading that her marriage happens to be to soccer legend Abby Wambach.)

Abby and Glennon.

In one particularly resonant scene in Untamed, Doyle is talking with her children about race and racism. Her youngest asks if their family would have been like the white people who marched and protested with the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Her initial inclination is to say, “yes, of course,” but her older daughter jumps in before she can answer: “No,” she says. “We wouldn’t have been marching with them back then. I mean, we’re not marching now.”

Doyle isn’t breaking any new ground by pointing out that Dr. King was not universally popular during his own time and that many white people took issue with the protests and marches. Too much, too soon, too loud, “I’m not racist but I don’t approve of their tactics,” yada yada. The same stuff we hear today about the Black Lives Matter movement.

Our collective, hegemonic [not really accurate] telling of history has attempted to retroactively bathe civil rights leaders in an aura of respectability that didn’t really exist at the time.

Respectability — and respectability politics — has been, and continues to be, a confounding issue. That is true for citizens taking in and situating social and protest movements, and also for the leaders of those movements. Doyle’s recognition on respectability becomes an important inflection point in her ongoing anti-racist journey, but even movement leaders aren’t immune to this struggle (see, for example, unique challenges faced by Bayard Rustin and Pauli Murray).

This emerges as an important theme in The Deviant’s War.

For Frank Kameny, the main protagonist, respectability is essential: think picketers forced to wear suits and dresses, while carrying signs of uniform sizes — five staples per side — with pre-approved language and a predetermined marching order.

It’s hard to fault Kameny for this when you consider that, at the time, gay people were widely viewed as deviants and perverts, were criminals under the law, and were classified as mentally ill by the medical and psychological professions. For an astronomer and former Pentagon employee who was fighting to make the case that gay people could be granted security clearances and could serve their country responsibly, respectability surely made sense tactically. But it also played on privilege and hierarchies within the broader LGBT community and no doubt exacerbated fractures and problematic biases and divisions that still exist today.

The Deviant’s War is sympathetic to Kameny and readers will rightly come away regarding him as a hero in the fight for LGBT equality. But Cervini also credits those less interested in respectability:

“For several hours, trans women, drag queens, and street youth — hustlers who worked the piers and 42nd Street — fought and taunted the riot police. Facing the helmeted officers, the street youths sang, “We are the Stonewall girls,” chained in a chorus line, kicking their heels. Night sticks swung at heads and backs.”

Whether by causation or correlation, progress seems to accelerate most rapidly when the movement is broad and inclusive of all who want to fight, with the space and freedom for people to do so using different approaches. We need the Gay Liberation Front, the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, and ACT UP, and we also need people like Frank Kameny and organizations like the Mattachine Society and the ACLU to suit up and operate within the system to win court cases and change laws and regulations.

We lose something, I think, if we view these two tracks as inherently antithetical or oppositional.

In the labor movement — which is a large part of my professional background — we know that a successful strike requires people in different roles. You need workers who can sit with management, in often tedious negotiation processes, poring over dense contract language, and extract concessions bit by bit. You also need rabble rousers who can make magic with a megaphone and keep picketers energized through hours-long protests, day after day.

These are rarely the same people. And yet there is room for both. We need both. We win when we empower both.

It’s not hard to draw parallels to today’s movement for Black lives. We need Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative and the NAACP and Congressional Black Caucus. But if you’re only supportive of those individuals and organizations — if you find yourself reacting negatively when you see an anonymous Black woman twerking at police, or activists doing pro bono racist statue removal — make like Glennon Doyle and challenge yourself to get out of your comfort zone and think beyond respectability. Think of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” or of a chorus line of “Stonewall Girls” kicking their heels to taunt a violent mob of police.

Movements by and for marginalized people should make us uncomfortable.

Untamed was an excellent read. I regret that it has been marketed primarily (maybe exclusively) to women. Why do we gender books like this? As Doyle notes, societal and self-built cages certainly aren’t exclusive to women. Anyone can benefit from the wisdom that Doyle extracts from her journey. And she is masterful at merging memoir and self development, so the result is engaging and approachable even as she tackles big, tough issues.

The Deviant’s War is a compelling history, exactly the type of narrative nonfiction that feeds my soul and sets my curiosity on fire. Cervini lays out decades of progress, but never loses the anchor of a central figure who keeps the history personal, coherent, and tightly wound. It’s the kind of book that will send you running to Wikipedia a hundred times over, eager to absorb more about the characters you encounter along the way. I learned much, and will continue to learn even after closing the book.

Both four-star reads.

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