Gay and Lesbian Movement

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GAY AND LESBIAN MOVEMENT. The Gay and Lesbian movement in the United States refers to organized efforts to fight prejudice, discrimination, and persecution resulting from the classification of homosexuality as sin, crime, or illness. While its proponents disagree about both tactics and definitions of homosexuality, they unite around the concept of homosexuality as a component of personal and political identity. Although historians often date the movement's origin from the June 1969 riot at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City where patrons fought with police, early manifestations of gay and lesbian activism date before World War II.

Although distinct gay and lesbian subcultures were present in American cities for most of the twentieth century, the military deployment of World War II offered homosexuals unprecedented opportunities to meet one another, increasing the size and visibility of these subcultures and reinforcing the concept of homosexual community. Lesbians, in particular, benefited from the greater freedoms in mobility, labor, and dress that women in general experienced through wartime work. The new standards for acceptable female behavior more closely matched their own. At the same time, the greater visibility of homosexuality coincided with increasing fears of deviance. The military initiated psychiatry to define gay people as unfit for service, encouraging the belief that homosexuality was a mental illness.

In the 1950s anticommunists associated homosexuality with political danger, arguing that gay people were mentally or emotionally unstable and therefore security risks, while others simply equated homosexuality with communism. Many persons suspected of homosexuality lost their jobs, some were imprisoned, and others were subjected to "therapies" ranging from shock treatment to castration. In this atmosphere arose the homophile movement embodied in the gay men's group, the Mattachine

Society, founded in 1950–1951, and the lesbian society, the Daughters of Bilitis, founded in 1955. Both groups, the first sustained organizations of their kind, sought to unite homosexuals around social and political goals and by the late 1950s emphasized accommodation to heterosexual society while seeking support from the legal and medical professions. These groups focused on normalizing homosexuality, and their publications discussed, among other issues, proper roles and dress for gay men and lesbian women. Outside of these movements, others continued to develop roles by which to define themselves in relation to each other and to straight society. Butch-femme roles became prominent among working-class lesbians, and many gay men continued to dress in drag (female attire).

The early 1960s witnessed a distinct radicalization of the gay and lesbian community, as a younger generation began to question the accommodationist stance of their elders. Homosexual organizations experienced the same tensions that characterized other movements. Coalitions such as the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) and the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO)broadened the movement by the mid-1960s, while such groups as the Society for Individual Rights (SIR)and dissenters within older organizations advocated a more assertive stance. Leaders of gay and lesbian communities began publicly to assert their sexuality in ways inconceivable to the former generation. In 1965 gay and lesbian groups staged a march on Washington, strategically adopting conservative dress to distinguish themselves from the anti-Vietnam protesters.

By the late 1960s emerging grassroots gay and lesbian communities embraced the militance and sexual openness of the counterculture. In the wake of the Stonewall riot, "gay liberation" built upon the growing sense of identity within the general climate of revolution. From the civil rights movement and the New Left came tactics and ideas, while feminism and sexual liberation shared many goals and strategies with gay liberationists. The phrases "gay power" and "gay pride" emerged, and political organizing was revitalized. According to the historian John D'Emilio, the two features of gay liberation were "coming out" (publicly declaring oneself a homosexual)and the development of lesbian feminism and a lesbian liberation movement. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF)represented a rejection of what liberationists saw as the homophile movement's overreliance on experts and assimilation. Out of the GLF came the Gay Activists Alliance, a less radical group devoted to reform within, which produced the National Gay Task Force (later the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force).

In the 1970s the new activism reached into higher education in the form of the Gay Academic Union, caucuses within academic organizations and student groups, and the first gay and lesbian studies courses. The concept of a gay community became important socially and politically. Bars continued as the primary locus of the movement, while symbols, styles of dress, newspapers, fiction, and even music and humor arose as part of an open gay-lesbian movement. Gay-pride parades were opportunities to unite publicly. Gay and lesbian activists scored several victories. The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its diagnostic manual, and a few communities adopted antidiscrimination laws. Harvey Milk, an openly gay San Francisco supervisor, was murdered in 1978 along with Mayor George Moscone, and the light sentence given the man convicted of both shootings galvanized gay communities.

In the 1980s two factors brought setbacks for the movement: the AIDS epidemic and the hostility of conservative Christian groups. But visibility continued as the main strategy of gays and lesbians. Entertainment and sports figures came out, including the movie star Rock Hudson, who died of AIDS, the tennis champion Martina Navratilova, and the country singer k. d. lang. Gay advocates such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD)monitored the media for tone and content, while others formed direct-action groups, such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power)and Queer Nation. After 1990 the movement focused increasingly on fighting the ban on homosexuals in the military, continuing the struggle for equal legal treatment, and promoting the idea of gay people as an economic as well as political force. In 1987 and 1993 gay people participated in marches on Washington to protest government support of discrimination in such areas as employment, housing, health care and insurance, parental rights, and adoption.

By the turn of the twenty-first century, a two-pronged effort to encourage employers to offer domestic partner benefits and governments to legalize same-sex marriage had achieved some concrete results. Vermont gave some legal sanction to same-sex unions in 2001. But despite such progress, a conservative movement, rejuvenated by the Republican victory in the 2000 presidential election, continued to promote a campaign to pass "defense of marriage" laws at every level of government. These bills, which defined marriage as a union between men and women, explicitly responded to what some conservatives viewed as an attack on traditional family values.


Adam, Barry D. The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Bawer, Bruce. A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society. New York: Poseidon Press, 1993.

Cruikshank, Margaret. The Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement. New York: Routledge, 1992.

D'Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

D'Emilio, John, William B. Turner, and Urvashi Vaid, eds. Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: Dutton, 1993.

Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.: A Documentary. New York: Harper & Row, 1985.

Streitmatter, Rodger. Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995.

Vicki L.Eaklor/h. s.

See alsoAcquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) ; Defense of Marriage Act ; Sexuality ; Sexual Orientation .