Hobson Response to Downs

Ian Rocksborough-Smith's picture

I appreciate the opportunity to respond to Jim Downs’ critique of my review. I’d like to answer his three major points in depth.

First, about the discourse of AIDS. I do mention AIDS in relation to Downs’ work, albeit briefly, when I cite “liberationist responses to AIDS” among the legacies of gay liberation into the 1980s. Beyond that minor point, I certainly understand that HIV/AIDS has been used to narrate the gay 1970s as exclusively about sex, as well as to characterize gay sexual cultures as the epidemic’s cause. As I state in the review, I am very critical of these narratives, which are historically inaccurate though prominent in popular culture. I believe we can best understand the gay 1970s the way participants lived the era – moving forward through time – rather than looking backward through what Patrick Moore calls the “scrim” of AIDS (Beyond Shame). But if we are to write a history as participants lived it, we must take sex seriously. We must consider the ways that sexual life was interwoven with other dimensions of gay liberation, including religious activism, print culture, and other themes Downs emphasizes. We must pay more attention to how gay men rethought sex, including how so many found (and find) pleasure and freedom in bathhouses, cruising, leather, and other too-often discredited forms of sexual life. I believe Downs makes a serious mistake by suggesting that the historiography on gay liberation has been somehow oversexed, when the real problem is that scholars have only barely begun to write it.

Second, Downs states that I have “accus[ed him] of focusing only on men.” This is a bit surprising. Stand By Me is clearly centered on gay men; to note this is to make an observation, not an accusation. My review terms Downs’ focus on gay men “worthwhile,” and my insistence on the historical importance of gay men’s sex lives underscores that stance.

This brings me to Downs’ responses about the place of feminism, lesbian and otherwise. I do not state in my review that Downs fails to consider lesbian feminist responses to the pedophila debate, nor do I claim that he ignores women or lesbians generally. Rather, I contend that his discussions of gay men’s own engagements with feminism, particularly socialist-feminism, are limited and flawed. Gay men who engaged with feminist thought did so not only because they cared about women (and they did), but also (and just as importantly) because they were rethinking their lives as men – men’s gendered roles in society, men’s relationships to state and vigilante violence, men’s sex lives. I encourage Downs and his readers to more fully explore gay men’s self-interest in feminism as one among many topics important to the history of gay men themselves.

Emily K. Hobson