Festival Staff / February 13, 2017
Lilian Faderman is the author of a dozen books about LBGTQ+ and ethic histories in the United States and abroad. Her books include compelling, relatable stories while still providing the full pictures of the gay experience and the immigrant experience. Her 2003 memoir, Naked in the Promised Land, touches on her mother's experience as an immigrant whose family died in the Holocaust, growing up as a lesbian, and being groundbreaking in the development of Gay and Lesbian Studies. Her 2015 book The Gay Revolutionis a masterpiece of history and social commentary that tells stories of real people.
What inspired you to write The Gay Revolution?
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people began their struggles for equality in the 1950s. It’s an epic history: filled with hard-fought battles, bitter defeats, tragic setbacks, and incredible triumphs. There are brave and colorful heroes in that history, and grim and dastardly villains. But it’s a history that’s almost never found its way into history books. Most people may have heard of the riots at the Stonewall Inn and the assassination of Harvey Milk (because of the film about him), and maybe they’ve heard of the recent Supreme Court decision that gave same-sex couples the right to marry. But they know nothing about how truly bad things once were, and the long and brilliant battles that made them better. I wanted to fit LGBTQ history into the broader history of the struggles of minorities to be recognized as first-class American citizens—and I wanted to do it by a vivid telling of stories that would make the events come alive for the reader.
You’ve written a lot, covering a wide expanse of time and space. What was your favorite time period to research and write about?
I found myself very caught up in the entire history, but I was especially moved by the history of the struggle that LGBT people had with the “mental health” profession. I heard chilling personal stories from several older people I interviewed about how they were defined as sick because of who they loved and how they were forced into “cures,” which were virtual tortures that cured nothing. In the book I trace the dramatic battles and amusing skirmishes with which gay people fought the American Psychiatric Association, and how they finally won when the APA agreed to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. With a stroke of the pen, we were “cured.”
Where do you see writing in Women and Gender Studies going in the future?
There are various kinds of writing in Women and Gender Studies. I’ve never been interested in writing theoretical books intended solely for an academic readership. Queer theory and its various permutations are not what I do. I love working in archives where I get to read old letters and journals and newspapers. I love interviewing people and listening to their stories, and then trying to make sense of it all in historical context. I want to rescue stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender people that have been largely forgotten or overlooked or misinterpreted, and I want to present those stories in a compelling way and in language that’s free of academic jargon.
What does the day-to-day business of being a writer actually look like for you?
When I have a project, I spend much of every day either researching or writing. I’m very lucky to have a partner who aids and abets. I don’t think I could do it without her. I’m in the writing phase of a book now. That means I get up, have breakfast with her, read a bit, and then write. Then I stop for lunch with her—and then get back to writing. Then I stop for dinner with her—and then get back to writing. When I describe it like this, it sounds exhausting. But the fact is, I love it.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
From my own experience, I would say that an aspiring writer needs to read a lot and love to read, and needs to write a lot and love to write. I think if you want to write you’ve got see what other writers have done—figure out what you like or don’t like in writing, and what it’s possible to accomplish. And then you’ve got to sit down and write—and then do it over, and then over again. If you don’t like to revise and re-revise—to try to perfect every word and sentence—maybe writing isn’t what you need to be doing. I didn’t think of myself as a writer until I was able to take a red pen (nowadays it would be the delete key) and cut out page after page, which had taken me weeks or even months to write, because I realized that the manuscript would be better off without them. It was hell, but having done it I knew I cared more about the piece than about my wasted efforts, and because of that I had the right to think of myself as a writer.
What are you working on right now?
Now I’m working on a biography of Harvey Milk. I’m really enjoying this project because he was such a complex person. It’s a delicious challenge to present him warts and all, with all his many flaws, and yet make the reader see what was touching and heroic and very admirable about him.
Where can we buy your books?
I miss the days when there were women’s book stores and gay book stores and independent books stores all over the country. They’ve mostly disappeared, which is a big loss to both readers and writers. But my books are available in many of the independent stores that still exist, and of course in Barnes and Noble and through Amazon and other online stores.
Find Lillian Faderman at the Festival: LGBTQ Keynote on Saturday, March 11; Lillian Faderman and the Gay Revolution on Sunday, March 12. She will be available for signings after each event and books will be for sale.