Gay Liberation Movement

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Gay Liberation Movement

The tidal wave of social change that began with the black civil rights movement of the early 1960s carried many other social movements on its crest. These included the anti-Vietnam War protests, women's liberation, and the gay and lesbian liberation movement, and all of these movements owed tremendous debts to each other. Many gay men and lesbians worked in the civil rights, anti-war, and feminist movements and their labor to fight oppression in these movements sparked dissatisfaction with the hidden oppression in their own lives. Many people, even those working politically in other

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movements, saw sexual orientation as a personal issue, removed from politics. Even progressive activists, who were sympathetic and respectful of many differences among people, often ridiculed gays as savagely as their conservative counterparts. Feminism, in particular, began to change this perception, with its emphasis on the political meaning in each person's experience. Gays began to view their sexuality as a political issue rather than a shameful personal secret.

Though there had been work historically to improve the status of homosexuals, the beginning of the gay liberation movement is often officially marked on the night of June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village. In the pre-gay liberation 1950s and 1960s, even in known gay neighborhoods like the Village, gay bars were shadowed places. Gay people kept their sexuality hidden, and much about homosexuality was illegal, from cross-dressing to same-sex dancing. Gay bars were one of the few places gays could meet in public, and these bars were often run by members of organized crime, who were happy to profit from the illegitimate status of homosexuality. Police frequently raided gay bars, where proprietors sometimes had warning systems so that gay men and lesbians could switch partners quickly when the police entered a bar. Gay bar raids were also often an opportunity for police to brutalize gays, with little fear that their victims would report them and chance being publicly labeled "queer." Those who looked most obviously gay—the drag queens in dresses and high heels and the lesbians in men's suits—were singled out for harshest treatment. That June night at the Stonewall Inn, the patrons of the bar did not respond in the passive way gays had usually responded to attacks by the police. Tired of being helpless victims, the gays fought back, rioting in the streets of "their" neighborhood, shouting the new rallying cry, "Gay Power!" The riots lasted for three days and received unprecedented media coverage.

Popular mythology says that the riots occurred on the day that singer Judy Garland died from a drug overdose, thought by many to have been intentional. Many gays, especially gay men, identified strongly with Garland's ravaged vulnerability and passionate singing style, and the story goes that when the police arrived to harass a gay community grieving over the loss of an idol, something snapped and anger and pride welled up to take the place of shame. In fact, Garland's death took place almost a week before the riots, on June 22. But there is a truth that underlies all mythology, and the truth is that the Stonewall riots were a watershed that marked a change in gays' and lesbians' perceptions of themselves. The status of homosexuals did not change overnight, but neither could things ever go back to the way they had been before the riots. Almost as if they had been waiting for a catalyzing event, gay liberation organizations began to spring up across the United States and around the world.

There had always been gay men and lesbians, and they had been more or less visible and more or less oppressed, depending on their time in history and their cultural context. In previous centuries, for example, upper-class women had lived together in lesbian relationships called "Boston marriages" which were socially tolerated. It was not uncommon for women in pioneer country to pass as men to attain some of the freedom of movement and financial independence denied to them as women, and frequently these women married and lived with their "wives." Many Native American cultures made a place for both women and men who did not identify with their traditional gender role, or who had same-sex lovers. In the early part of the twentieth century, African-American drag "debutante" balls, were major social events that drew elite society, straight and gay alike. These balls were satirical reproductions of the traditional balls where young women were presented to society, and it is from them that we derive the term "coming out," for gays and lesbians publicly announcing their gayness. The more repressive connotation, that of gays "coming out" of a dark closet, did not arrive until the 1950s, and the less socially lighthearted atmosphere of that decade.

In Europe, World War II meant Nazi aggression and the attempted genocide of European gays. However, the upheaval of war brought openness and opportunity to gays in the United States, whether in the military or on the home front. Military service had always provided a same-sex environment and gays often connected there, and the necessities of war did not permit an anti-gay campaign which would reduce U.S. forces. The defense industry attracted thousands of people to urban centers where gays who had formerly been isolated in small towns around the country could find each other. Once the war was over, society took on the job of repressing those women and gays who had found unusual freedom during wartime. Heterosexual women were sent home to be housewives, and gays and lesbians were the subject of a concerted "witch hunt" by the Truman administration. Hundreds of gays working for the government lost their jobs.

Gay and lesbian organizing itself did not originate with the 1970s gay liberation movement. As early as 1924 Henry Gerber was jailed and fired from his job for founding the gay and lesbian Society for Human Rights in Chicago. In Los Angeles, in 1950, foreshadowing the connection of gay liberation and leftist politics, a group five men, three of them Communist Party members founded the Mattachine Society. The group's goal was "to promote a sense of solidarity and group identity among homosexuals." Mattachine was one of a number of early "homophile" associations which included the lesbian group Daughters of Bilitis, founded in San Francisco in 1955. These groups promoted acceptance of homosexuals; their members wrote, spoke, and even picketed in defense of that cause. Their other function was to provide a safe place for lesbians and gays to meet, apart from the bars. Certainly the idea of social safety for gays was radical enough, but by the 1970s, influenced by the civil rights movement and feminists, gays demanded more.

Following the Stonewall Riots, new gay liberation organizations began forming. Some, like New York's Gay Liberation Front and Radical Fairies had chapters across the country. Others were smaller, local organizations, created by activists in many urban areas and progressive small towns nationwide. The Furies in Washington, DC, the Lesbian Alliance in St. Louis and the Atlanta Lesbian Feminist Alliance (ALFA) were only a few of hundreds of groups that formed and re-formed. Political gays and lesbians began by reclaiming the names that had been used against them. "Gay" itself, once a general term for immorality, had been used by gay men in the 1920s and 1930s as a code word to identify each other. Once the term "gay" had been reclaimed by homosexuals to describe themselves, radicals began to look for ways to disempower the anti-gay epithets that had been hurled at them. They began to reclaim words such as "dyke" and "faggot" for use among themselves, thus denying the words their negative power, much as African Americans had reclaimed racist slurs for an exclusive usage that reinforced black solidarity.

With few exceptions, homosexuality had previously been treated in American society as either a crime or a disease. Homosexuals who did not regularly end up in jail, often ended up in mental hospitals subjected to various brutal "cures," such as aversion therapy and electroshock therapy. Since any deviation from their prescribed societal role often landed women in mental hospitals, many lesbians suffered this form of oppression. After the Stonewall Rebellion, as it came to be called, gay activists began to work not only for social acceptance, but for legal rights. They demanded the right to live and work, free from discrimination, and they demanded that homosexuality be removed from the American Psychiatric Association's list of mental diseases. In 1973, thanks to the work of lesbian and gay activists, the APA did remove homosexuality from the list.

Gays also began to work on decriminalizing homosexuality, which was illegal in many states. In 1962, Illinois became the first state to repeal its anti-gay laws, and activists kept up the pressure until by 1998, only 19 states still had anti-gay laws on the books. Not content with mere legality, gay rights activists worked for gay rights protections with varying degrees of success. One example: in 1973, the city council in the liberal university town of Boulder, Colorado voted in a gay rights law. Outraged, the conservative citizenry not only repealed the law, but voted to recall every member of city council that voted for it.

With the new movement and the increasing number of new organizations inevitably came differences and conflict. Older gays who had come out without the support of a very public movement resented the often dismissive attitudes of the young "liberated" gays. Younger gays challenged the political conservatism and butch and femme gender roles that had often been practiced by their predecessors. Some gays, many of them white men, were fairly comfortable with their place in society, and felt that changing society's attitudes about homosexuality was all that was needed. Others saw many things about American society that needed to be changed and viewed gay liberation as inevitably connected to other progressive liberation movements. This argument over whether gay rights was a "single issue" fight or part of a larger leftist liberation struggle was to become perhaps the second biggest split in the movement.

Possibly the biggest split was between men and women. Some lesbians, coming to the movement through feminism, questioned their commonalities with gay men, preferring to ally themselves with heterosexual women instead. Insisting that "gay" was a word that defined gay men, many chose to distinguish themselves by using the word "lesbian" or "dyke." The feminist movement began by resisting accusations of lesbians in its ranks, fearful that identification of lesbians with feminism would undermine the legitimacy of women's liberation. However, many of the feminist leaders were lesbians, and, in the increasing atmosphere of gay openness, they demanded recognition. More divisions followed: lesbian feminists threatened not only the heterosexual male establishment, but also heterosexual feminists and non-feminist lesbians. Lesbian feminists themselves split, dividing those who still identified with heterosexual women's issues from the separatists, who tried to have as little as possible to do with men or non-lesbian women. While these splits created discord and discomfort, they also created an energy that propelled dozens of groups, conferences, newspapers, bookstores, and small presses throughout the country. The new atmosphere of gay liberation was creating a frenzy of dialog on subjects that had once been shrouded in silence.

Though, as with feminism, the gay liberation movement was usually presented by the press as a white and middle-class movement, gay activists came from all classes, races, and ethnic backgrounds. Many of these activists attempted in their agendas to focus on the racism, classism, and sexism within the movement, though their attempts were not always successful. Some gays of color and Jewish gays formed their own groups, seeking solidarity and support. Events such as the 1976 West Coast Conference on Faggots and Class Struggle in Eugene, Oregon, and the Dynamics of Color lesbian conference in San Francisco in 1989 are examples of the many efforts made to address difficult intra-movement conflicts.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the gay and lesbian liberation movement was its connection to the counterculture. Movement gays were no longer content to ask for acceptance by society; they demanded that society change to reflect the evolving definitions of gender and gender roles. Radical gays challenged the ideas of nuclear family, of monogamy, of capitalism, and, though not all gays agreed, the movement brought up topics of discussion, and those discussions would forever change the way American culture saw itself.

Lesbians were intent on creating and developing "women's culture" that included new forms of spirituality, literature, and music, all stemming from and connected to lesbian feminist politics. Lesbian music became a growing art form and women's recording artists gained popularity on both coasts and in the midwest. In 1975, hundreds of women attended Michigan Women's Music Festival. The Michigan festival, organized by lesbians, combined concerts and political workshops and was the largest of many regional women's cultural events.

The notion of free sex, espoused by the counterculture hippies had opened up acceptance of differing sexual lifestyles among the young, as well as legitimizing styles of dress and appearance formerly considered outlandish. Gay men in particular reveled in the new sexual openness. Their celebratory exuberance resulted in the rocketing popularity of the disco phenomenon. As gay identity became more proud and less shameful, the image of the gay bar as a dark hideaway also changed. Gay disco bars, which had flashing lights and loud music with a driving sexual beat became the social centers for gay men, and, to a lesser extent, lesbians. The trendy, exciting bars also attracted straight people, and this moved gay culture into the mainstream in a way that demonstrations could not accomplish. The disco scene was also heavily associated with casual sex and recreational drug use, which in part was responsible for its end.

By 1981, medical authorities were beginning to identify a new virus the called GRID or Gay Related Immune Deficiency. Soon, they had changed the name of the disease to Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and re-evaluated its connection to the gay community. Though AIDS is not a gay disease, it is sexually transmitted and the promiscuous lifestyle and drug use common within many gay male communities made them an ideal place for the virus to spread. It did spread, and, as thousands of gay men died, AIDS became a focus for the work of gay rights activists.

By the late 1970s, the revolutionary fervor that had characterized early gay liberation politics, had succumbed to the same backlash that had quieted much of the 1960s activism. Fundamentalist Christians were particularly threatened by any legitimization of gay lifestyles, and the anti-gay agenda became a platform issue for conservative Republicans. Right-wing Christian activist Anita Bryant launched her anti-gay Save Our Children campaign in 1977, and many gay rights advances were threatened. Though leftist gay activists continued to fight the challenges of the right wing, the excitement of the nationwide movement had been dampened. In 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) formed to fight for de-stigmatization of the AIDS virus, money for AIDS research, and other AIDS related issues. The arrival of ACT-UP with its 1960s-like aggressive street tactics, politicized the gay male community and many supportive lesbians around the issue of AIDS, and led the way to other "second generation" activist organizations such as the Lesbian Avengers, which originated in New York and expanded to chapters across the country. The first gay and lesbian rights march in Washington, D.C., in 1979, attracted one hundred thousand marchers. By 1993, when the third march on the capitol was held, almost a million people attended.

Of all the contributions that gay activism has made to society, one of the most unexpected is that it has given young gays a very public older generation. As in every other grouping, an older generation supplies mentors and role models—and something to rebel against. Like other children of the baby-boom generation, the 1970s gay activists have been nonplussed to find their own "children" espousing quite different politics and beliefs than the ones that drove them. Where post-Stonewall gays rejected gender roles, 1990s gay youth has rediscovered and embraced butch and femme. While feminism provided the foundation for many 1970s lesbians to discover and acknowledge their own identities, some lesbians in the 1990s call themselves "post feminist" and reject what they see as the unnecessary polarity that feminism espouses. Their gay liberation movement has expanded to include bisexuals and transgendered people.

The Stonewall riots are commemorated each year around the end of June on Gay Pride Day. In cities all over the world, gays gather for parades, marches, celebration, and political action. The 1990s have brought renewed energy to right-wing attacks on gay rights as well as "gay bashing" and other violent attacks on gays. Media coverage of gays and lesbians is limited to gays that fit the conservative "middle America" stereotype, and coverage of radical gays is almost nonexistent. Disagreements among gays over sex, race, class, and politics continue. Gay and lesbian identity is still stigmatized, and "coming out of the closet" is still an act of personal courage and risk that many feel unable to perform. However, gays are no longer invisible figures of the shadows. Gay characters appear on many prime-time network television shows and on the covers of national magazines, not only as political figures or as curiosities, but as celebrities and role models. Gay and lesbian youth, while still at risk in many ways, no longer have to rely on whispered epithets to learn what the words "gay" and "lesbian" mean. The decades of secrecy, shame, and oppression that culminated in three days of rioting in Greenwich Village ended that summer, and a new era began. That era is still unfolding.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

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. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1983.

Grahn, Judy. Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Boston, Beacon Press, 1990.

Johnston, Jill. Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1973.

Vaid, Urvashi. Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation. New York, Anchor Books, 1995.