Martin Duberman has seen the long arc of history. The 93-year-old historian, writer, and activist protested the Vietnam War in the ’60s, watched Sylvia Rivera speak in the ’70s, and has dedicated his long academic career to histories of LGBTQ+ life and the American left. Now professor of history emeritus at Lehman College in the Bronx, Duberman has written more than 25 books and several award-winning plays.

His latest offering, The Line of Dissent: Gay Outsiders and the Shaping of History, profiles a series of queer trailblazers from sexologist Alfred Kinsey to radical feminist Andrea Dworkin. While his vibrant writing looks to the past, Duberman insists that the work of dissent is never done. Throughout the book, he provides searing critiques of both the straight left and the mainstream, “insistently parochial” national gay movement of today.

Kirkus recently spoke with Duberman over Zoom from his New York home (“Leave New York at your peril!” he warned). This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Many of the profiles in the book were initially published in the Gay & Lesbian Review, starting in 1997. How did you start writing for the G&LR?

It was mostly the result of having material left over from some of the books I’d written. I wanted to help [the G&LR] because I felt there was a real need for such an outlet—writing that was meant for an educated but not academic audience. I’ve done scholarship all my life, but I like nothing better than to take a breather from it. As a result, I’ve written a couple of novels and a number of plays. I see myself as someone who’s outside the mainstream of academia and therefore like to address some of those readers who simply don’t read scholarly material.

Right—the book isn’t academic, but it also doesn’t compromise on nuance. How do you write about these icons of queer history without being hagiographic or simplistic?

I think the guide should be very simple: Tell the truth. Tell the truth to the degree that we can ever tell the truth, abstracted from the corrupted materials that are left behind after a person’s death. What’s left is often the merest shreds of a life. If you’re doing a biography, you start out by trying to tell the truth to the greatest extent you can, but it should become apparent that there’s no way you’re going to be able to. It’s the combination of limited leftover material from the past and the [individual perspective] of the historian. You put those two together, and you get several miles of difference between what you turn out as a book and what “actually happened.”

Most of the chapters discuss figures whose self-identification was somewhat contradictory, according to the categories we use today. How did you approach this question of terminology in historical context?

The individuals in the book weren’t very self-conscious about terminology or vocabulary. It was very much a different time period in terms of academic writing and the political movements they were involved with. Everything changes through time. No matter how strenuous [someone’s] effort at historical objectivity, as I’ve already said, it’s not really attainable. It’s approachable, if the historian is scrupulous. But it isn’t achievable.

Could you tell readers more about a favorite figure in the book?

[Activist and writer] Barbara Deming [1917-1984] was a real hero of mine, probably more so than any of the other people. She’s one of the few people in the book I never met, let alone knew well. But she comes across to me (third-hand, anyway) as the essence of what authenticity is, even down to how she presented herself as a person—the sort of clothing she wore, the kind of makeup she did not wear. Barbara was a lifelong activist, and on the political spectrum she very much moved with the tide of events.

These are the kinds of people who are the most attractive to me. They’re flexible enough not to be wedded to their old selves—and “old” can mean as recently as last month. They pick up the vibes of the culture as it emerges, and they don’t have to wait 20 years in order to become aware of that, and then subsequently to write about it.

It’s certainly true that a lot of your subjects weren't just engaged in queer issues. They were coalition builders who fought for racial justice, or anti-imperialism, or labor rights. Could you say more about this coalition-building work and how it shows up in the book?

I don’t quite know what bothers people so much about enjoying differences rather than piling on the security of similarity. I’m attracted to what I don’t know. I don’t want close friends who share my exact values or my perspectives—though, inescapably, in order to exchange feelings and ideas, that will be true of our closest friends in most cases. But I’d like to know a wider range of people.

And it isn’t easy. It’s never been easy. One of my problems is the inability of the majority of straight intellectuals to first of all want to understand—and then, secondly, make the effort to understand—the differences between the gay subculture and the middle-class patterns of the majority of people in this country. You really can’t find many straight people, for example—intellectuals or otherwise—who are familiar with [gay] literature, some of it very important not only for gay people but for everybody human.

I can remember an exchange of letters between Barbara Deming and David McReynolds. David had devoted his whole life to the War Resisters League, and when the gay rights movement came along, even though David was gay, he was…scornful is a little strong, but indifferent is probably closer to the mark. To him, it wasn’t important, it didn’t involve a considerable number of people, and it certainly had nothing to say to those who were not gay. And Barbara simply could not understand this.

Where do you see queer radicals at work today? What work do you think is being done to carry forward the “line of dissent”?

Oh, I think the trans movement, without question. It’s very frightening to most people, but it has a lot to tell us about things that we thought were biologically rooted and unchangeable—that is, the differences between maleness and femaleness.

The culture was dominated for many, many decades by definitions of what a healthy male or a healthy female should pursue as a life pattern. Now people are paying a lot of attention to the trans movement, and to drag, and so forth, much more attention than they ever paid them in the early days. The early [gay and lesbian organizations] Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis were outwardly quite conformist. When they demonstrated, the men wore suits and jackets. The women wore dresses.

When gay people look back at that period, they scoff at the importance of that early gay movement, but in fact, it took a hell of a lot of courage. They put themselves in real danger in order to struggle for greater civil rights for themselves: to go public, and then dare beyond that. To parade and demand.

Sasha Carney is an Indie editorial assistant.