Alex Blaze

Brokaw responds to criticisms about his book

Filed By Alex Blaze | January 16, 2008 4:32 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History
Tags: 1960s, Boom, LGBT history, Stonewall, Tom Brokaw


The NBC journalist released a straight-washed history book on the years between 1963 and '74 back in November. No references to Stonewall, the DSM dropping "homosexuality" and taking on "gender identity disorder" in 1973, or a whole list of other events, like the coining of the term "gay", the first gay demonstrations, or the Compton's Cafeteria riot.

His response, from The Advocate:

Obviously I feel bad. It was not that it wasn’t on my mind, but it was not the defining history of the ‘60s. I was trying to do the five big pillars, which in my judgment were race, war, politics, women, and culture. There were a number of important movements that also grew out of the ‘60s and certainly gay liberation was important among them.

I struggled with the absence of any real reference to Hispanic political power. In California, for example, there was, what we used to call in those days, the Chicano movement, which organized a big anti-war demonstration and that was kind of the foundation of what became a considerable Hispanic political situation. Having said all that, I think it was a mistake not to make reference to Stonewall. And we’re going to do that in subsequent editions.

I went back through Charlie Kaiser’s book on 1968, and he makes one reference—one—about the consequences of 1968. He makes one line referring to gay liberation and the gays who began to live more openly and honestly after the Stonewall rights of 1969. That’s it. I’m not using that as a defense, but in reference to that particular period, I think it came along a little later.

My own strong feeling was that the gay liberation movement really got national attraction in the truest sense of the word later in the ‘70s, in the ‘80s, and especially in the ‘90s. Roy Aarons was a very good friend of mine in California, and when I left there in 1973, Roy was not yet out. A couple of years later he was in touch with me about the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, which he didn’t start until 1990. It was not an attempt to slight what became a very important movement, but I just had to make some tough choices. I feel bad that people feel that I deliberately slighted them—that was not my intention.

700 pages are only long enough for "five pillars"? I mean, he couldn't have even used one of those pages for Stonewall?

There wouldn't be so much of a problem if he weren't marketing this book as an exhaustive look at how the 60's shape politics and culture today. It's being marketed as "a full spectrum of opinions about the impact" of that decade, "an epic portrait of another defining era in America as he brings to life the tumultuous Sixties, a fault line in American history," and that it'll spark "frank conversations about America then, now, and tomorrow."

If it were really about those "five pillars", he should have just called the book "Five Pillars of the 60's" or something like that.

(He could also start start struggling with trying to get a real understanding of what "Hispanic" means. The word didn't change; "Chicano" refers to a specific group of Mexican-American immigrants and protesters who adopted that term and "Hispanic" refers to someone from a Spanish-speaking country, and sometimes Brazil, or their descendants. Jeez, you'd expect a pop-historian to know things like that.)

He continues:

On civil rights, I thought very strongly about primarily African American rights. I mean, we had institutionalized, legalized discrimination against the fundamental rights of citizenship. Gays have never been denied the right to vote. They’re not told to go to a separate drinking fountain. They were not told they couldn’t stay in a motel if they crossed the state line. The terror the blacks lived in, north and south, that really sparked the Civil Rights Movement was a different order than what happened with gay liberation. As far as the sexual liberation, it was not, it seemed to me, as inclusive as the women’s movement, which was the first to come along in terms of sexual liberation.

Maybe because he and other MSM types are right now at Construction of the Suffering Olympics Summer Camp (the CSOSC, oh a palindrome) to push the "Blacks vs. Women" dynamic on Hillary and Obama, he sees everything that involves equality as a contest to see who can prove that they're the "most" discriminated against. That lens works very well for a straight, white man.

But what's this about leaving the gays out because the women's movement was more "inclusive"? Leaving aside the problems with calculating which was more inclusive, isn't that the exact criticism people are making of his book, that it isn't inclusive? If something that is less inclusive is worth less (I'll agree to that), then Brokaw should be applying that mentality to his own book.

Oh, well, at least he said that Stonewall will be in subsequent editions of the book. Probably tacked on, right at the end.

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Great post and commentary, Alex.

I thought his answer was kind of weak. The gay rights movement may not have been a "defining issue" for him, but for many is was and still is. To erase us from that history is more than a bit insulting.

Michael Bedwell | January 16, 2008 5:55 PM

The guy made my skin crawl the first time his talking head appeared on my TV. Placid and immobile as he usually is, he has always SCREAMED "Straight White Status Quo Male," and we could sit on his face and STILL be "invisible" to him.

I researched it, and, in addition to the nationally-noted events already mentioned, there was a very active, publicly demonstrating gay movement when he was stationed at KNBC in Los Angeles in the 60s.

And though he includes the women's movement [with, we assume, no mention of the vicious attempts of matriarch Betty Freidan to drive out open lesbians], he clearly STILL does not get how homophobia is based on sexism. And transphobia, too.

And while, shamefully, he probably couldn't identify Frank Kameny, Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin, or the recently passed Barbara Gittings, he damn well knows who Barney Frank is and could have included him, the same age as Brokaw, among the "over 50 famous people and ordinary citizens who lived through the 1960s" that he quotes in the book.

Throw in the same pot, and turn to "Boil," Ken Burns and his hallowed but totally gayless "The War" documentary, and his arrogant anger when Hispanics DARED suggest that his original version slighted their contributions.

I still fail to understand the big deal. It is his book. He wrote it. Write your own in response. 700 pages about a seminal year in history may sound like a lot, but you should be familiar with enough historical texts to understand something is bound to get cut. There are historians who write about nothing else but very narrow windows in history. Robert Caro is about to publish a fourth 1000+ page book on the life of LBJ. I believe he stated he has written at least twice that which never made it to the final draft. We don't expect them to get everything out in one book. We expect them to write from a unique and personal point of view that we either agree with or we choose to read someone else.

Are you going to write to David McCoullough about not trying to find a gay soldier to put in "1776?"

Seeking to force your own artistic vision on others results in muddled work product. For example, the aforementioned "The War." It was very obvious which parts had been added to placate people, as the natural flow of the piece was brought to a halt.

I think the situation at hand, like that of "The War," is an example of trying to hijack a book or series due to its anticipated popularity more than any actual objections and slights. If Joe Brokaw was writing this book, would you have bothered?

It is his book. He wrote it.

Well, I still fail to see how that's a relevant argument. No one's saying that the government should step in, chain him to a computer and force a re-write. It's called criticism, and we're criticizing. That's it.

Robert Caro is about to publish a fourth 1000+ page book on the life of LBJ.

Tom Brokaw is no Robert Caro.

Are you going to write to David McCoullough about not trying to find a gay soldier to put in "1776?"

And entire entry or blog about a LGBT issues may sound like a lot, but you should be familiar with enough blogging to understand something is bound to get cut.

I think the situation at hand is an example of trying to hijack a blog due to its anticipated popularity more than any actual objections and slights. If Joe Blaze was writing this blog entry, would you have bothered?

Seriously, what's you problem, Chuck? You don't disagree on substance (i.e. that Boom is in fact gay inclusive, that inclusion is a good thing), you just think I should STFU. On something that I can't really see the big deal to you. And you keep on bringing up the "personal point of view" thing, when that isn't how he's marketing it and you know it.

And yes, I'm trying to hijack the book and I'm trying to control Tom Brokaw and I expect everyone to bow before my will and I just want to ruin everything by putting gays in it because gays ruin things....

I think one of the problems might be perspective. While we know about Stonewall and mark it as historical, do most straight people know about Stonewall? Nope. Why?

Because it wasn't really national news. There wasn't days upon days upon days of "Queens take back streets from corrupt cops!" headlines. It happened. It got a brief mention. It passed. And life moved on.

At the time it wasn't much more than a standard riot. It's historical angle has only emerged after we've stepped back from the event by some decades - and even then only among a niche of people affected by the event.

I think it was a classic example of seeing only what's in front of your nose and ignoring the surroundings. Brokaw's world view doesn't really venerate or revere Stonewall, but the civil rights battle, the suffragists movement, etc were HUGE back then like gay rights are now. I'd argue that gay rights have made more history in the 90's and 00's than we did in the 60's. These would be the years that we'd be written about.

I'm relieved that Brokaw is open-minded enough that he didn't just respond, "It's my book and if you don't like it, (1) don't buy it, and (2) go hump yourself!"

His leaving out this and leaving out that proves that his book fails at being the definitive book about the 60's --- and such book probably will never be written, because the 60's are such a turning point in history that authors will be writing about them for maybe another one hundred years.

Bedwell makes a good point I also wanted to make: Brokaw not only left out Stonewall, he also left out the lesbian controversy within the Women's Movement itself. You can't produce a comprehensive discussion of the Women's Movement in the 60's without covering the lesbian issue, it was huge.