The gay rights movement has hit a brick wall. Yes, we have same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. Yes, the Supreme Court overturned state anti-sodomy laws. Yes, gay characters are all over mainstream TV. Still, after 35 years of slow, incremental progress, we are at a decisive crossroads. Simply put: to bring about social change—dependent on truly transforming hearts and minds—we need to reassess what kind of a movement we want it to be. Will it be a movement that continues arguing, with diminishing success, for the rights of its own people—and even at that, only for those who want to formalize a relationship? Or will we argue for a broader vision of justice and fairness that includes all Americans? If the movement does not choose the latter course, we risk becoming not just irrelevant, but a political stumbling block to progressive social change in general.
The right template for the future can be found in the gay rights movement’s own history, in the insights of gay liberation—the radical, grassroots politics that emerged in the June 1969 Stonewall Riots when queers fought in the streets of Greenwich Village for three days to protest police harassment.
A week after those street riots came to an end the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed. While its original membership included drag queens, ragtag queer youth, and old-time reformist gay activists, it was spearheaded by men and women seasoned in progressive, coalition-based politics with ties to labor groups, women’s liberation, peace groups, economic justice organizations, and black and latino liberation groups. In addition, almost everyone was engaged in some aspect of the national movement to stop the war in Vietnam. And—no surprise—all of these people were influenced by the late-1960s culture of anti-authoritarianism, sexual freedom, and personal liberation that was sweeping the country. While I was not at the Stonewall Riots, I did join GLF shortly after it formed. I was a 20- year-old lower middle-class college student active in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and anti-war protests. The idea of a politics that acknowledged, indeed was predicated on, my sexual desires was initially mind-boggling. This became the cornerstone that made my other political work make sense.
Gay liberationists have learned a lot over the past 35 years as we’ve watched post-colonial liberation struggles give rise to Islamic fundamentalism; watched a deeply reactionary fundamentalist Christian constituency take center stage in U.S. politics, endured the ravages of AIDS, and, yes, enjoyed some of the piecemeal gains made by the fight for gay rights. But it’s time to incorporate those lessons into the foundation we laid long ago, which provides a much sounder basis for the future than anything based on the limited notion equal rights for gays can offer.
GLF wasn’t fueled just by sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It was part of a worldwide political movement committed to social justice both nationally and internationally. Its name—Gay Liberation Front— came from the newly formed Woman’s Liberation Front, which in turn was taken from the North Vietnamese’s National Liberation Front and various calls for black liberation that had spun off from the civil rights movement. These queer activists pursued coalitions with a wide range of progressive political groups, including the Black Panthers, National Organization for Women, anti-Vietnam war groups, and labor unions.
Not all of these coalitions were successful—although Huey Newton, the Black Panthers leader, supported gay liberation—but they marked the beginning of a coalition-based movement for gay rights that could have become larger and stronger.
By early 1970 more moderate, strategically limited gay organizations formed. These groups— Gay Activists Alliance and National Gay Task Force were the largest—focused on the far more narrowly defined concept of “gay rights.” They argued that freedom for gay men and lesbians would be best achieved not by addressing anti-gay discrimination as part of a larger pattern of discrimination in the U.S., but by focusing on specific legal inequalities that only affected homosexuals. This strategy resulted in a mindset of strict legalism that hindered the gay move- ment’s growth and effectiveness.
The singular theme of the more limited rights-based movement was that “gay people were just like everyone else,” by which it meant heterosexuals. This was a wrong move, predicated on the ridiculous notion that heterosexuals were all alike, with no differences—class, racial, ethnic, sexual—among them. The gay rights movement not only ignored the myriad differences within each group, they ignored the shared similarities—and potential points of connection—that existed between the groups.
As a result, the gay rights movement became culturally and politically isolated, as liberalism in the 1970s and 1980s gave way to identity politics. By focusing only on legal inequalities—albeit, an important aspect of seeking basic civil rights—the movement never argued, as the African American civil rights movement did, for a comprehensive vision of social justice.
A clear example of this tunnel vision lies in the movement’s long- time insistence on fighting for the right to sexual and personal privacy. While the aim of the fight for privacy was to keep the government out of people’s bedrooms (a good thing), it also perpetuated the idiotic and incorrect idea that homosexuality was a completely separate aspect of a person’s identity. The “privacy” argument was attractive to mainstream culture because it kept gay people invisible. But the downside was that it also continued the social isolation of gay people, removing them from the public sphere. A right to privacy is no help to the openly queer high- school student who is forbidden by school administrators from forming a gay-straight alliance or wearing a gay T-shirt in the hallways. The right to privacy is of no use to the gay man who is visibly living with HIV/AIDS or to the lesbian couple with kids facing discrimination in school or housing.
Perhaps the best and most recent example of the fallout from this single-issue mindset can be seen in the fight for same-sex marriage. True, the marriage equality movement scored a big win in Massachusetts. But this single win generated an enormous national backlash resulting in 17 states passing constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage. In eight of those states the amendment language also prohibits civil unions and, in some cases, other legal protections, such as private-sector domestic-partnership programs. The Massachusetts win also piqued substantial interest in a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage on the federal level.
This didn’t have to happen. For instance, queer activists and academics Lisa Duggan and Richard Kim (she is chair of American Studies at New York University where he is a graduate student) suggest in a July 18, 2005 Nation article “Beyond Gay Marriage” that, “in order to counter conservative Republican strategy…gay activists and progressives will have to come together to reframe the marriage debate” by building coalitions with labor activists and economic justice advocates to promote marriage as one of many ways individuals and households might access badly needed benefits. Duggan and Kim argue that the gay rights movement might have been far more successful by working in coalition with other groups and arguing for a comprehensive system of social and economic protections for all families and household groupings.
This is political organizing 101—find people with shared interests and bring them together to enact social change. But, in many ways, the gay rights movement never passed “political organizing 101” so this would be a total revamping and revisioning of how “gay politics” have traditionally been done. Indeed, it strikes at the heart of what has been wrong with the gay rights movement for three decades —its myopic view of what “justice” might mean. The gay rights platform—“equal rights for gay people”—has never seriously grappled with the hard fact that many gay people had rights based on wealth, race, gender, class status that other gay people didn’t have. But worse than that, it has refused to embrace a grander vision—a moral vision— of how the world might be better for everyone.
The gay rights movement has learned a great deal from the civil rights movement’s anti-discrimination legal models to fight the overwhelming discrimination lesbians and gay men face in jobs and housing. Yet, national gay rights groups never thought of forming political or strategic alliances with the civil rights groups that pioneered this type of legislation. When fighting for the rights of gay men and lesbians to adopt and parent children, the gay rights movement never took a broader stand on children’s rights and health. While it is true that the movement often sought endorsements from groups such as the National Association of Social Workers, claiming that gay people could be fine parents, they never worked closely with these groups on larger issues relating to families and children. When fighting for the right of gay people to be in the military, they rarely grappled with the basic economic and class biases of how the military is constituted, not to mention the role of militarism in U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps the most shocking example of this refusal to entertain and enact a larger political and moral vision is that, after hundreds of thousands of gay deaths from AIDS, not one national gay rights or AIDS group broached the issue of universal health care or some other modification in the broken U.S. heath-care system.
Will a return to the political and moral vision of gay liberation be the best way to enact such changes? Well, yes and no. The vision of the Gay Liberation Movement to radically reorder the entire world on the principles of justice, fairness, and individual and collective freedom could not work in 1970 and will not work now. In the best tradition of utopianism, gay liberation was maddeningly ambiguous, incredibly naïve, and wildly impractical. It refused to take seriously the impact and importance of religion in people’s lives. It also turned a blind eye to deeply entrenched gender traditions and was woefully ignorant about money and the workings of capitalism, relying instead on romanticized notions of pre-industrial economics.
The movement was also naïve in its view of human nature, feeling that people—and groups—would simply do the right thing because it was the right thing. So while they understood the concept of coalition politics, often they didn’t understand how to make those arguments convincingly and portrayed an almost comic insensitivity to the cultural and political differences among organizations. For instance, taking its cues from second wave feminism, GLF was adamantly against “macho” as a style of masculinity and celebrated a playful, gender-challenging male affect. But it had no ability to understand how black men—long subjugated as “boys” by white culture—would want to lionize their new found, aggressively masculine political personae. (Similarly, black leaders such as Eldridge Clever would attack openly gay black men such as James Baldwin as “faggots” and betrayers of black pride.) Very problematically, men in GLF would promote a newly-found sexual freedom, disregarding the fact that the experience of many feminists was that sex was a male weapon and “sexual liberation” was yet another patriarchal straight male ploy to further exploit them.
But despite these problems, the early Gay Liberation Front never believed in strict identity politics or a zero-sum approach to politics. Rather than seeing human and civil rights as identity specific they understood that if everyone worked together, there would be no losers. It also believed that truly productive political work could only occur when the full needs of all people—economic, health, safety, housing, spiritual, and sexual—were addressed and met.
Luckily, there are signs that changes are under way. When lesbian commentator Jasmin Cannick argued on her website (jasmyne cannick.typepad.com) that the rights of native-born gay men and lesbians were more important than those of illegal immigrants, she was criticized by other gay activists. Over the past year, lesbian activist and civil rights lawyer Chai Feldbaum has argued, persuasively, that rather than hiding behind the slogan “gay people are just like everyone else,” facing sexual differences is important and that the best argument for same-sex marriage is that “gay sex is good.” Even Matt Foreman, the executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, spoke in the human rights idiom of gay liberation when he told Bay Windows in January, “There is still a question of our fundamental humanity and equality. Either we’re fully equal and fully human or we are not. There is no other way to frame it.”
Foreman’s radical recasting of gay politics, coming from a national gay rights spokesperson, is welcome even if it is more than three decades late. But if gay politics is going to survive and prosper, as it faces increasingly intense pressure over the next few years, it will have to continue committing itself to just such a new vision of openness, self-respect, and fairness—for all.
Michael Bronski teaches Women and Gender Studies and Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. His last book is Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s Press, 2003).
Reprinted from Zmagazine July 2006-under Fair Use guidelines