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Monday, 19 June 2006

GAY ACTIVISM IN AMERICA: YESTERDAY, TODAY AND HOPEFULLY TOMORROW

Today begins a three part series on gay activism in America.  My goal is  to provoke, inspire and motivate.  If I fail, at least I tried. Of course, this is entirely from my personal perspective and no one else should be blamed or held accountable.

At the recommendation of a good man, I have split this epic into three parts over three days in the hope of not overwhelming my readers.

Today's post is a short romp through history.  Tomorrow, Part 2 will examine fantasy vs reality.  Part 3, which will run on Wednesday, will hopefully provide a road map for guaranteeing that everything we've achieved thus far will be enjoyed by future generations of queers.

I dedicate this piece to the men and women who fought the good fight before Stonewall, the Stonewall crowd who stood up for all of us on June 27, 1969, and the tireless heroes who have worked since that fateful night in Greenwich Village to make Stonewall an enduring legacy.

Finally, a special thanks to MR who has been a bit of a muse and an inspiration.

Happy Pride!

PART ONE:  AIDS AND THE RISE OF PARTYISM

Extraordinary changes occurred in the years immediately following Stonewall.

Gay activism came out of the closet and swept across the land like an angry and joyous adolescent.  The Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activists' Alliance and many other groups took to the streets and college campuses, demanding a place next to Black Power, Women's Lib and the Anti-War movement, not always welcomed but there nonetheless.

Gay_liberation_1

But another equally potent and less considered change occurred as a result of Stonewall: Gay Partyism which manifested itself in the Saint, circuit parties, openly gay bars, clubs, bathhouses and brazenly public gay sex.  Gay Partyism also took to the streets and has been there ever since.

G6_2 

While Gay activism reflected the militancy of Black Power, Feminism and the anti-war movement, Gay partyism reflected the free love, psychedelic drugs and sense of celebration that was born out of the less militant side of the anti-war movement, Flower Power.

And unlike the militant movements, Flower Power and Hippies comfortably welcomed and celebrated their gay brethren. In fact, for a brief and wonderful moment, the sexual revolution preached the beauty and wonder of sexual diversity, neither gay nor straight.  For a fleeting second there was a movement to end the artificiality of sexual categories.

The 70s were a remarkable and unique time in gay history. So much was accomplished and so much was changed. Gay activism for civil rights flourished as never before or since.  But thanks to AIDS, today's younger generations of gay men and womenGaamarching_1 mostly remember that decade for the sex and mostly focus on just half of the legacy of the 70s: Gay partyism.

AIDS, as we all know, manifested a sea change in gay culture during the 80s but I'm suggesting that this sea change washed away much more than just unconditional and uninhibited sex, it even more effectively washed away the remarkable activism of that era.

Gay Partyism survived the AIDS crisis, obviously changed by the epidemic but still with all rainbow colors flying. Gay Activism did not fare so well. 

One of my favorite political bloggers who I will not "implicate" in this sure to be controversial entry, recently told me that it is his belief that Gay activism was fueled by the AIDS epidemic and driven by an affluent white demographic: successful, wealthy and in many cases celebrated white men who were forced out of the closet by the disease and were left with no choice but to fight.

But once AIDS, thanks to advances in science and care giving, changed for this demographic from a death sentence to a chronic disease, they drifted from demonstrations, anger and protests to gala fund-raisers, parties and parades.  In celebrating their survival, the survivors became much more cautious about the dangers and risks of activism. Activism became polite and civilized "advocacy."  Activism abandoned the energy and emotion of the streets and the smoke-filled bars and and turned into professional advocacy in air-conditioned offices and corporate conference rooms.

While an angry queer in a t-shirt and jeans may have iconically symbolized the Gay Image002_4 activism of the 70s, by the end of the 90s, gay advocacy was symbolized by  a well-groomed homosexual in blue suit and tie, adept at negotiating his way through the corporate labyrinth.

But the fall of Gay activism is much more complex and disturbing than that.  In fact, I think the notion that gay activism was fueled by the AIDS crisis is a complete mischaracterization of the facts.  Rather, gay activism was hijacked and eventually became one the most tragic and most overlooked victims of the AIDS crisis.

The fight for gay rights had been brewing for many years before Stonewall, underground and in the closet, but active and growing.  Gay activists succeeded in making Illinois the first state to decriminalize homosexuality in 1962.  Gay activists staged an open demonstration for civil rights in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall in 1965.

Mattachine

But it all came to a head on June 27, 1969 when a few queers in a Greenwich Village bar said enough is enough.  Gay activism wasn't born that night, but it did come out of the closet screaming like an angry drag queen.

As a result, as we moved through the 70s, Gay activism flourished and shattered many barriers and opened many doors.  Gay rights associations formed on college campuses across the nation. And it was this spirit of activism that rallied our community in the early 80s spearheading the battle against AIDS.

Unfortunately, AIDS quickly overwhelmed and ultimately derailed the fight for civil rights and equality.  Understandably the battle now necessarily focused on medications, research, care giving, housing, food, clothing and compassion for those in dire need.

Browning01

Having accomplished much during the late 80s and 90s in the fight against AIDS, the white affluent gay community and its celebrity friends, older, tempered by AIDS and left somewhat sullen moved on to gala dinners, celebrity endorsements, self-congratulation, beach parties and lavish Pride Parades focused on how fabulous and beautiful we are.  And we are.

But by the end of the 90s, with so much accomplished in the battle against AIDS, the fight for civil rights and equality seemed less important than a celebration of survival and life.  The fight for civil rights, the centerpiece of the gay world in the 1970s has now become the "responsibility" of a sorely under-funded and tiny minority.

In the 1950s many white Christian Americans still considered "Negroes" to be sub-human and incapable of working and living like civilized people.  Inter-racial marriage was illegal in many states.  These same virtuous and high-minded Americans also believed that women belonged in the home, blindly obedient to their fathers and husbands; after all women were obviously less intelligent and less skilled than men.  Homosexuals were mentally ill at best and more likely evil perverts.

Blacks and women came out of the 60s and 70s completely reinvented.  We look back at Amos & Andy and the mothers of Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows with Best with a mixture of horror, embarrassment and laughter.

We wonder about a world where Samantha abandoned limitless power to become a dutiful and subservient wife.

We can't even imagine a world in which Black entertainers couldn't share a table in most restaurants or sleep in the same hotels as whites.

Obviously racism and sexism are not dead in America, but the advances made by Black Americans and women in the arena of civil rights and discrimination have been monumental.

Bp_1 Wl

The story is very different for queer America.  We badly fell behind.

Thanks to the AIDS crisis, the fight for gay civil rights was side-tracked and very much was left undone.  As result, despite festive parades, gay games and an increasing presence in television entertainment, we remain almost as vulnerable as we were on June 27, 1969.  I realize that is a sweeping and seemingly insane statement, but without the protection of law, we remain subject to the whim of the majority.

Browning03_1

PART 2: THE PERILS OF COMPLACENCY AND A HARD LOOK AT THE NUMBERS.

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Comments

Thanks for this timely topic. As a community we face the same situation as our predecessors in 1930's Germany. No one wants to believe that our rights and the luxury of our current visibilty could ever end.

But subconciously, we all know the corner has been turned and a fight is coming.

Looking forward to reading the rest of your epic!

Absolutely! I was born in 1960, homosexuality was (partially, grudgingly) decriminalised in the UK in 1967 and in the late seventies I was doing the coming out/getting a life thing and feeling like we were actually getting somewhere as a subgroup. Then AIDS came along. People forget these days how much it was "a gay thing" (remember GRID?) and how much (re)hatred it engendered. It was like having the rug pulled from under our feet. All you had to do was cough to clear a room...

In the UK it feels now (for my generation) as though we're back to almost where we were at the start of the eighties in terms of recognition and progress.

Religious intolerance (yes, I know that the phrase is tautological) worries the heck out of me - a hateful backlash is a-coming methinks and we'd better strap on the old kevlar underwear in preparation. From this side of the Atlantic it seems to me that America is de-evolving socially and it doesn't look pleasant.

I just stumbled on your blog via Rawstory.com... This topic is very timely for myself, as I've thought of how much has (and has not) changed in my 42 years. I've only been a part of the "party scene" for the past 5 years and have found it to be an amazing conduit to get in touch with my sexuality and spirituality. I, for one, am extremely grateful that the party scene exists...yes, even with the ills associated with it. It has been an indespensible part of my journey to self-fulfillment.

Why am I discussing this? Because I believe (for myself at least) that this journey, as its unfolding, has had the surprising effect of making me more politically aware. As I explore more about my sexuality, it becomes clear that I don't ever want to go back to living in sexual fear. If we are going to re-start the gay activist "machine", then we need to have a very frank conversation about sexuality, in general and the broader society that exists to repress it. As long as what I do in the privacy of my own bed (or sling) scares the crap out of some people, then there will always be a barrier to the rest of the world.

I agree. Compartmentalizing our sexuality and social outlets, aka 'the party scene' should be avoided at all costs. Every young person deserves the freedom to explore themselves in whatever venue they choose.

Our struggle IS because we congregate and our fight IS because of who we fuck.

However... and this is a big one..

We have been co-opted by major corporations who dictate the dance.

This corporate rule is also taking over our Pride marches which are now called "festivals". We USED to march to state capitals... now we march to penned-in, stridently controlled, corporately owned and operated functions that supress any real political action.

When was the last march on Washington again?

Thank you for this series you are producing. Though it is a microcapsule of the gay community's history, the 20's up through the 50's would be an interesting period (Mataccini Society etc), it's a nice Homo 101 starter.
My partner of 30 years and I have often discussed this very topic. I came out in 1976 and he a couple of years earlier. But we both participated in gay marches that were overwhelming and huge. We did the Disco thing too. The last march we attended was March on Sacramento 1978 where we had 40,000 gay and lesbian marchers in a pouring rain. BUT the impact on the media was irrefutable. We have lost this dynamic and partly it's because, not only AIDS "sidetracking" but also KILLING those early activists. They were the first who passed as we had no meds or treatments of any kind. I remember reading of "GRIDS" in LA in 1981, bringing the articles back to my partner and attending the first symposium on AIDS in Sacramento. AIDS became the next galvanizing force. We started in the first AIDS Foundation in Sacto, I organized the first AIDS bicycle fundraiser in 1983; Sacto to San Francisco.
But now we are in better means to cope with HIV, so there IS a new desease that has flared up. Radical right Religion is taking a front seat in the hate campaign. I saw a good number at our recent Pride March and Fair. We harangued and intimidated them. But, we need to get our bodies back out there and start pushing back! To hell with the Christnazis!

Since the first election of Reagan and the corresponding rise of the neo- and proto-fascists disguised as fundamentalist Christians and their passive conspirators, the Democrats, and their active conspirators, the Republicans, human rights has been on a nose-dive into oblivion in the USA. Currently, the fight for full human rights for GLBT folks has taken a back seat to a very heterosexual-appearing agenda: marriage rights and the right to adopt. Meanwhile, gay men, lesbians, bi-, and trans-people are being beaten, murdered, knifed, and booted out of our parents' homes because of the effective demonization and dehumanization propagated by the various fundamentalist religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) all declaring that they speak for a supreme moral being. Seems to me the real enemy is blind faith in the guise of religious ideology.

Excellent. Bravo. Wonderful!
I think the term of gay partyism really explains the path the gay rights movement has tumbled down. Look forward to your other installments.

I wonder, however, is it fair to compare gay rights activism with female rights and black rights activism? I may be wrong, but I thought your posted that gay activism only took off in the 1970s while, from what I figure, the female rights and black rights fights were decades and decades in existence already by that time. Also, in my opinion, civil rights for anyone is dead in this country. I don't have to list all the civil rights infractions we've been subjected to under the thin guise of "homeland security" in the past 6 years.

And then there are people like me who shake their heads in disbelief but then go out to the next party. Sad thing is, I've fought on behalf of women's rights. I've marched and written congressmen. I have never felt comfortable in my own sexuality to go as far for my OWN rights. Could that be a problem with other gays as well? If you go out in a street and march,you're open and vulnerable and eveyrone can see who you are. It's cowardly when you think of it. Shameful even, but it's a reality. It's one thing to spend a Friday night in a gay bar but another to spend Friday daytime marching down Broadway demanding same sex marriage rights. It's kinda like what Bill Cosby said to young blacks, that alot of them might unknowingly house self-hatred that keeps them from fighting.

Perhaps, finding a way around hurdles like that is the key to making activism the new PRIDE like before pride was PRIDE every June.

In many ways, I don't really know where I come from. Being the straight son of a gay man and a lesbian, I glibly describe myself as culturally gay to a credulous straight world, mostly to poke fun and to strike a properly ego-stroking "ironic" pose. But in the end it is BS, because I don't know my parents' histories in this (civil rights struggles) respect.

Thanks for posting this here and at dKos.

great article...one thing i noticed and has nothing to do with you article but everything to do with your subject...the ads that line both sides of your article are flesh, sex, flesh and sex....i am not a prude but any stretch of the imagination....but those ads speak to the what is gay culture in america today...flesh, sex, party, party, party...i did it when i was young, although it is not as organized as it is today....and i have nothing against it and more power to more fun and sex...but....sex and parties have become the gay movement...and that's what you are addressing and i appreciate the article...jamie, blue ridge, ga

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