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Martin Duberman, Reaching Ninety. Chicago Review Press, 2023.

Reprinted from the Gay and Lesbian Review 

     Martin Duberman has been, without doubt, one of America’s most important public intellectuals and a major figure in the LGBT movement for decades. As an openly gay historian, biographer, playwright, activist, organizer, and essayist, he has been a pioneer. The founder and first director of CLAGS, the Center for LGBTQ Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, he has done more than perhaps any other single individual to advance queer scholarship in the United States, both through CLAGS and through his own work. He has been, in many ways, indispensable. 


     He has also produced a series of memoirs, and this latest is a summing up of a long and remarkable life as he reaches his ninetieth birthday. In it, he covers some of the ground he has covered before—coming out at a time when it was exceedingly difficult to do so (he was born in 1930), a long roster of therapists-- and, at the same time, he goes beyond previous volumes, saying out loud some of the things he was no doubt hesitant to say earlier in his life. At ninety, one imagines, he doesn’t really care what offense he may generate or what people think.  


     He discusses here what it’s like to grow old and struggle with inevitable health crises, in his case, his heart. Gay male aging is not a topic that receives much attention, and it’s refreshing to find someone willing to meet the topic head on. To be sure, there’s a tad of self-pity here and there in the narrative, as he finds it difficult to concentrate on his work and struggles to fit into a community where youth and beauty are the coin of the realm. But the personal story he tells is both touching and instructive. As Bette Midler once said, at a certain age, the body develops a mind of its own; rarely has that process been described with such honesty. 


     But Duberman here goes well beyond the personal. Along with his description of how and why he wrote the books he wrote, taught the classes he taught, two things about the narrative stand out.


     The first is the degree to which homophobia persisted well into the 1980s and 1990s and into the present day, even in New York City, even in the relatively rarified, intellectual circles in which Duberman traveled. And the second story, intertwined, is the story of how difficult it was to establish CLAGS in the first place, and then to make and keep it relevant to all segments of the community.  


     There was initially the possibility of setting up a gay studies center at Yale, Duberman’s undergraduate alma mater, and he writes with brutal honesty about the resistance he met from the Yale administration and from John Boswell, the eminent gay historian on the Yale faculty (now deceased). Some non-academic readers may find these sections a bit too much insider baseball, but the story is important and Duberman was a key figure in this struggle, the first person to set up a serious institutional center for queer studies in the United States. For better or worse, academia is where most knowledge is produced, and creating an institutional home in academia for queer scholarship was an essential task. The snobbery and biases Duberman encountered at Yale matter, as did the initially paltry financial support of CLAGS by the powers that be at CUNY. I found myself incredulous at how few resources a major academic institution was willing to devote to a groundbreaking institution, and at how much scut work Duberman had to perform himself. The Provost at CUNY once described CLAGS to me as his institution’s crown jewel, but Duberman makes clear that the powers that be wanted the diamonds and rubies acquired at bargain basement prices. 


     There is some score-settling in this part of the narrative, along with a dollop of New York kvetch thrown in, but mostly Duberman tells his story straight-forwardly. It is, of course, his story, and others might no doubt contradict him on various points, including his description of the infighting on the CLAGS board. That is, of course, the inevitable drawback of a memoir—it is one individual’s story, one point of view. 


     But what an individual, and what a story. A gay man who survived and thrived in pre-Stonewall America, reached his prime as AIDS devastated his community, exceptionally brave, searingly honest, a brilliant and almost unbelievably productive scholar and writer, an institutional visionary.


     One of a kind. His story matters, and should be read widely.



H.N. Hirsch is the Erwin N. Griswold Professor of Politics Emeritus at Oberlin College and the author of the mystery novel Fault Line and the academic memoir Office Hours.

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