U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Gay Sixties

A few weeks ago I argued here that the short era known as the “sixties” should be understood to have been radical, relative to short eras before and since, even though such an understanding need also be tempered by knowledge, bolstered by a growing historiography, that plenty of non-radical history happened in the sixties as well. Claims about the radicalness of the sixties are especially true when the history of gay liberation, largely absent from standard accounts, is included. Or, as historian John D’Emilio argues in his splendid essay, “Placing Gay in the Sixties”—chapter two of his indispensable collection, The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture—the inclusion of gay history in the larger history of the sixties changes the standard sixties narrative.

The first standard element of the sixties narrative that the inclusion of gay liberation complicates is declension. Whereas many historians and other assorted commentators (Todd Gitlin comes to mind) draw a hard-and-fast line between the “good” early sixties and the “bad” late sixties, or assume that the liberation politics of the sixties quickly gave way to the regressive politics of the seventies, D’Emilio guesses “that for many gay men and lesbians, the sixties happened in the seventies.” “While millions of gay men and lesbians around the world look to 1969 as the dawn of a bright new age,” he writes, “everyone else reads it as part of the ‘bad’ sixties and all that follows.” In other words, at the moment when the civil rights and antiwar movements were foundering on the shoals of sectarianism, police repression, and cultural backlash, the gay liberation movement had its watershed moment with the Stonewall Riots.

The best history of the Stonewall Riots, and really, one of the most interesting history books I have ever read, is Martin Duberman’s Stonewall. Duberman analyzes the Stonewall Riot, what he calls “the emblematic event” of the gay right’s movement, and its larger historical context by way of a close biographical study of six individuals. These six people were key figures in gay liberation, if not necessarily lead actors in the actual events of the riot that followed a police raid of a gay bar on Christopher Street in Manhattan on June 27, 1969. The biography of Karla Jay, currently Distinguished Professor of English and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University, and one of the six lives Duberman chronicles, provides evidence of how the history of gay liberation shakes up standard sixties narratives.

Jay came of age in in a pre-Stonewall world. Although the gay rights movement predated Stonewall, represented by the two homophile organizations founded in the 1950s—the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis—awareness of gay rights was limited. Even many gay rights activists were hesitant about public displays of homosexuality. The Mattachine Society, for example, relied upon alliances with respected heterosexual liberals who spoke on behalf of gay rights, since most Mattachine members preferred not to “out” themselves. Such reticence was logical given the broader cultural stigma attached to homosexuality, a stigma reflected in and reproduced by the dominant professional psychological paradigm that understood homosexuality as pathological. The American Psychological Association (APA) finally declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder in 1973, in large part due to the gay liberation movement, which targeted APA meetings for disruption.

Political repression was mirrored by the personal. Jay grew up in a fairly traditionalist Jewish household where heterosexuality was assumed normative. Thus, she was unable to form a sense of what her sexual feelings meant, one way or another. In her freshman year at Barnard in 1964 she awoke to the reality that homosexuality was taboo when two of her classmates were expelled after a peeping tom witnessed them having sex in their dorm room. The young man who ratted on them suffered no consequences for his peeping, to the contrary, he was hailed as a protector of public norms. Given this, it is no surprise that Jay hid her sexuality until she was an adult.

Like many in the gay liberation movement, Jay got her activist start as part of the broader New Left and counterculture. Formative to her cultural awakening was drug use, which she claims opened her mind to alternative viewpoints. Formative to her political awakening was participating in the 1968 protests at Columbia University, against the university’s expansion into nearby black neighborhoods, and against the institution’s military-sponsored research. But, like so many other New Left women, she grew convinced that sexism plagued the movement.

By 1969, feminism became Jay’s political priority. But just as the feminist movement gained a rebirth, signified by the 1968 Miss America pageant protest in Atlantic City,
it suffered from a wave of sectarianism every bit as divisive as the sectarianism the larger New Left experienced after the 1968 debacle in Chicago. The many thousands of women who sought to join up with the feminist movement, like Jay, had to choose sides in this sectarian struggle. Many selected the more reformist route and joined the National Organization for Women (NOW). But those feminists tied to the New Left, and thus interested in more revolutionary stances than those advocated by NOW, joined up with various radical feminist groups. But, as Alice Echols shows in Daring To Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967-1975, radical feminism experienced its own schisms even apart from its differences with establishment groups like NOW. The divide, at first, was between those who sought to relate the issue of women’s liberation to larger issues already on the New left’s front burner, and those who sought to prioritize the patriarchal repression of women. Jay chose the latter since, according to Duberman, she “disliked the then common notion that feminism should take a backseat to the ‘main’ struggles against capitalism, racism, and imperialism. She saw that argument as a convenient one for men, as a long-standing rationale for deferring women’s liberation by insisting that its time had not yet come, while arguing that it would automatically come once the ‘larger’ struggle had been won.”

Jay joined Redstockings, a radical feminist group founded in 1969 by Shulamith Firestone and Ellen Willis. The Redstockings rejected many doctrinaire New Left positions, but maintained a Marxist analysis about gender inequality. They argued, for example, that women mostly married out of material needs. In terms of tactics, Redstockings focused on consciousness-raising rather than direct action. Consciousness-raising, where activists gathered together to voice their individual struggles, enabled feminists to relate their personal problems to the larger political problems of living in a patriarchal society. When Jay finally came out of the closet at a Redstockings consciousness-raising group, she realized she was among many lesbians. Thus she began the process of expanding her feminist activism to her gay rights activism. In fact, “coming out” as a political tactic was similar to consciousness-raising. Jay explained the theory that guided “coming out”: “the process of self-realization that would emerge from speaking freely and honestly to other gays in the protected atmosphere of a consciousness-raising session would ramify outward, that speaking truth would end by cleansing and reconstituting society at large.”

Jay was not a Stonewall participant. Few women were. Duberman writes about her because he seeks to demonstrate the overall effect Stonewall had on the push for gay rights. Stonewall shifted the tone of the gay right’s movement. Rather than quiet and demurring, the after effects of Stonewall enabled many young activists to be confrontational and demanding of their rights. Out of this the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) formed. Duberman writes: “Karla had been initially disdainful of the ‘little penny-ante thing’ going on at Stonewall; to her it was just another all-male squabble with the prize nothing more than the right to lead an unhampered bar life—a life she scorned. But then she got wind of the effort afoot to form a Gay Liberation Front—men and women working together to produce broad social change. Now that did interest her.”

Most of the founding GLF activists were veterans of other New Left groups. “When these young gay and lesbian radicals now flocked to join the Gay Liberation Front, they brought with them a rich set of insights from their prior involvements: from the black civil rights movement came an awareness of the inequities of American life; from the women’s movement, consciousness of sexism and the profoundly important idea that the personal is political, that one’s experience mattered; from the antiwar struggle, the revelation that the government operated as a bulwark of conformity and privilege; from the countercultural revolution, the injunction to reject all received authority, to ‘do it now, to be what you want to be.’” In this, Duberman not only relates gay liberation to the larger New Left—to the radical sixties more broadly construed—he also implies that the GLF was the culmination, the full flowering, of New Left sensibilities. The GLF carried the radical sixties into the seventies.

Stonewall—1969—was a watershed for gays, a hopeful moment in their efforts to end the sadistic homophobia that dominated American culture. 1969, then, was not the end of liberation politics. D’Emilio argues that this history of gay liberation, when included in the broader narratives at all, often serves to support the declension narrative. He draws a pithy analogy: “without exactly saying as much, gay becomes associated with reaction, backlash, and social decay. We might as well be reading Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the classic eighteenth-century work that tied Rome’s collapse to sexual immorality.” In this vein, the fall of the New Deal order, the decline of labor, is implicitly connected to the rise of gay liberation: too much is made of the changing demographics in the Democratic Party that followed the 1972 reform commission headed up by George McGovern, after which the number of minority, women, and gay delegates came to more closely represent the number of such constituents in the party, diminishing the number of (white, male) labor delegates. Jefferson Cowie’s excellent book, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class seeks to correct this labor declension narrative by replacing it with an alternative one: the white working class helped usher in its own demise by allowing its racism, sexism, and homophobia to override class solidarity.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that the declension narrative that either ignores gay history or relates gay liberation to reaction should be replaced by Whiggish interpretations of unbroken progress. Although life in America is undoubtedly better for gays and lesbians, there has been much heartache along the way. As Lisa Szefel makes clear in her review of Age of Fracture, any history of the 1980s that ignores how the AIDS epidemic was allowed to go largely unchecked due to rampant homophobia of is not getting a very full picture. I’m working hard to avoid that mistake in my book on the culture wars. I spent a week in the Reagan archives last summer, where I discovered mountains of evidence that Reagan administration officials, especially liaisons to the Christian Right—Morton Blackwell during the first Reagan term, Gary Bauer during the second—helped spread anti-homosexual propaganda in order to slow the government response to the AIDS crisis.

But back to the sixties. If you’re interested in an alternative analytical model for understanding them, I highly recommend the D’Emilio’s chapter. It has much more in it that I have yet to mention, including a short but fascinating intellectual history of four sixties thinkers who also happened to be homosexuals: James Baldwin, Bayard Rustin, Allen Ginsberg, and Paul Goodman. D’Emilio argues their homosexuality is significant because, prior to gay liberation, to be public about one’s homosexuality, as these four men were to various, limited degrees, was a mark of protest, a willingness to thumb one’s nose at tradition. D’Emilio regards these thinkers as emblematic of a “gay sensibility” that worked to erode American traditions. Being publicly gay “branded one’s consciousness with a marker of difference… It necessarily made one perpetually aware of separation, of division in the body of humanity, of marginalization and ostracism.”

Ginsberg’s relation to gay liberation is fascinating. Although he wasn’t necessarily an activist in the typical sense of that role, the eponymous beat poet seemed to appear at all the sixties moments of radical lore. He makes an appearance at the Stonewall Inn, for example, two nights following the 1969 riot. When he saw “Gay Power!” scrawled on the front of the bar, he told a Village Voice reporter: “We’re one of the largest minorities in the country—10 percent, you know. It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves.” Ginsberg went inside the bar, which had been cleaned up and reopened, and described the customers as “beautiful—they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.” As Duberman relays: “Deputy Inspector Pine later echoed Ginsberg: ‘For those of us in public morals, things were completely changed… suddenly they were not submissive anymore.” That’s a radical shift.