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A missed opportunity to explore the evolution of gay men in America

Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation

By Jim Downs

Basic Books

272 pages, $27.99

By Colin Dabkowski

With “Stand By Me,” a slim book filled with stories about gay churches, bookstores and newspapers long forgotten, Jim Downs has attempted to save gay history from itself.

Instead, he has segregated it into two distinct camps that can now snipe at each other with a little bit more ammunition.

One camp views gay history primarily through the lens of sex and sexuality. The other, Downs’ chosen faction, views it primarily through the lens of social relationships and institutions.

Neither approach is correct.

But instead of exploring in the complex middle ground on which gay America has long stood, Downs invents a more simplistic terrain. He then adopts the poses and strategies of the polemicist in order to fight for his chosen side, to the detriment of his argument and his readers.

Downs, an associate professor of history and American studies at Connecticut College, arrives in the introduction with a bold and promising proposition. He wants to “correct the hypersexual caricature of gay men in the 1970s” by exploring the social and religious institutions that preceded and sometimes emerged alongside the gay liberation movement’s focus on sex as a political act.

It’s a noble effort, but it is constantly muddled by Downs’ evangelical tone.

“All history is political,” he writes in his introduction, going on to write with unwitting insight that “people in the present often construct a particular past in the service of a particular ideological agenda.”

Instead of a taking a dispassionate or measured approach, Downs does this himself throughout the book, which contains a series of interesting stories about gay churches, newspapers, prison activists and bookstores that served as social and political nodes for gay men to interact with each other.

Absent the author’s continual and repetitive assertions of his main theme, the book might have served as an enlightening pamphlet about the social institutions of the era immediately preceding the HIV/AIDS crisis – many of which do need rescuing from the single-minded and exclusionary march of mainstream history.

It is peppered with looks into the formation of gay religious organizations and churches like the Metropolitan Community Church, community institutions like the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York City and newspapers like The Body Politic, based in Toronto.

But each chapter is merely a sketch-level setup for Downs’ talking points rather than a full-fledged portrait. His chosen topics are more interesting than his chosen opinions. Even so, if you can mentally redact Downs’ heavy-handed proselytizing, there is much essential knowledge to gain from the stories he tells.

The best chapter concerns the life and downfall of The Body Politic, a once-essential gay newspaper distributed internationally that hobbled along for a decade after its confounding if fully legal decision to print an essay by an avowed pederast in 1977.

The worst comes toward the end of the book, when Downs employs every blunt rhetorical weapon in his arsenal against “The Macho Clone,” or the popular sexualized image of the mustachioed and muscled gay man that emerged in the ’70s.

It would be one thing if Downs spent a chapter exploring the social and religious pressures that led gay men to create the so-called “macho clone.” Were he interested in writing a nuanced history instead of a long-form retribution, he could have dissected that clone to demonstrate how a marginalized population invented a self-defense mechanism using the very language and tools of its oppressors. Instead, he simply lays the blame for the erasure of gay men’s social and religious lives at the feet of the loathed archetype itself, without attempting to trace that creation back to its sources.

In his preface, he repeats the idea almost ad nauseam that the “hypersexual caricature” of gay men during the 1970s emerged as a way to “rationalize” the HIV/AIDS crisis of the following decade, a fascinating if problematic argument that he never returns to in any depth.

In the end, “Stand By Me” is a book-length false dichotomy. Instead of illuminating a common origin for religious and sexual expressions of gay male identity in America, it reinforces the artificial boundaries between the two. This is a failure of intellect, a failure of empathy and a failure of history that further obscures what it purports to illuminate: The essential commonality among the people who built the gay liberation movement and those who benefited from it.

Colin Dabkowski is The News’ arts critic.