From the Bowery to the Castro: Communities, Identities, and Movements

Verta Taylor & Elizabeth Kaminski & Kimberly Dugan. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

Communities of people with same-sex desires—whether fairy communities in the early twentieth century, butch-fem communities mid-century, or contemporary lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer communities—have been and are essential to both the affirmation of same-sex sexuality and love and to collective resistance to cultural norms of gender and sexuality. The earliest communities made it possible for men interested in sex with other men to find each other. Over time, women, too, gained access to the public places that served as a center of same-sex community life. The first lesbian and gay social movements grew from these existing communities. Without the solidarity and shared identity that is constructed in communities, there would be no gay and lesbian movement. Yet the relationship between movements and communities is complex and sometimes adversarial. Indeed, by the last quarter of the twentieth century, the burgeoning gay and lesbian movement had given birth to new institutions and communities that sometimes came into conflict with the old ones.

In this chapter, we provide an overview of research on gay and lesbian communities concentrating on the United States. We begin by examining the way scholars have applied the term community to identify the networks, identities, territories, and shared culture organized around same-sex desire. Our discussion focuses on the historical rise and development of distinct gay neighborhoods, emphasizing their growth and elaboration in urban areas especially since the 1970s. In addition to demonstrating the role that these communities play in providing companionship and solidarity, we argue that communities are significant not only as social outlets but as political entities as well because they lay claim to public space and foster collective identities that challenge and redefine societal expectations and cultural norms of gender and sexuality. We concentrate our discussion on the relationship between gay and lesbian communities and the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender movement. Social movements emerge among pre-existing social networks where people communicate daily, develop close affective ties, and share cultural values and practices (McAdam, 1986; Morris, 1984; Taylor, 2000). Scholarship within gay and lesbian studies has established that communities are important antecedents of social movements. Here we extend the argument by suggesting that not only are the collective identities formed within gay and lesbian communities necessary to mobilize people into political activism, but, at the same time, gay and lesbian political activism both sustains and fragments gay community.

Defining Community

Scholars (see, for example, Beemyn, 1997; Chauncey, 1994; D’Emilio, 1983; Esterberg, 1997; Johnson, 1997; Kennedy and Davis, 1993; Levine, 1979; Murray, 1998; Rupp, 1999; Rupp and Taylor, 2002; Stein, 1997) have documented various distinct communities of gay and lesbian people in the United States, particularly attending to those that have developed since the Second World War. Despite such convincing accounts of gay communities, identifying specific criteria for defining community has proven problematic (Murray, 1998: 207). Scholars have competing ways of conceptualizing community. Some define community as a distinct physical territory bounded by time and space. For example, Carol Warren (1998) focuses on the concrete physical settings, including bars and private homes, that constitute the gay community and provide a separate space apart from the larger heterosexist and homophobic society in which individuals can express and celebrate gay identity. Martin Levine (1979) similarly emphasizes the spatial and territorial boundaries that set apart gay residential enclaves in large American cities.

By contrast, others who have researched lesbian and gay communities direct attention to social ties and networks rather than local identifiers such as neighborhood or public spaces. For example, Peter Nardi (1999) uses gay male friendships to draw the parameters of community, and for Susan Krieger (1983) the critical features of lesbian community are social and sexual ties and a commitment to feminist principles. Verta Taylor and Nicole Raeburn (1995) also focus on social ties and suggest that gay communities are composed of submerged networks of people who affirm same-sex sexuality and love; such networks frequently take root in mainstream institutions such as the workplace.

Verta Taylor and Nancy Whittier (1992) extend the argument that networks are critical to building community. They view the existence of distinctive institutions, cultural activities, and political organizations as essential to the identification of community. Lesbians and gay men accomplish this through the creation of independent institutions and events, such as the annual Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival and gay pride marches across the country. Likewise, Esther Newton’s (1998: 38) research on what she describes as the ‘gay world’ focuses on formal political or social movement organizations such as the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis in the 1950s, as well as social institutions including bars, cafés, and bathhouses and informal social groups or networks. However, she argues that not all gay people—especially people living outside cities and suburbs—are part of the community and suggests that the word ‘community’ implies a degree of coherence that belies the multiplicity of different lesbian and gay communities over time.

Looking at studies that have examined a range of communities over the course of the twentieth century, nevertheless we can see some common elements. First, communities are characterized by shared identities based on same-sex love and desire, although the names for and understandings of those identities change over time and from place to place. Second, communities are defined by distinct physical space—such as parks, neighborhoods, bars, bookstores, or coffeehouses—in which people gather. Third, communities are built around social networks, institutions, or events. And, fourth, communities are marked by common cultural ideas and practices, including behavior, attire, and language that stand as markers of identity (Rupp, 1999: 103-4).

Although the gay communities we discuss here share these same basic elements, the content of communal identity and culture varies significantly throughout time and in different parts of the country. Within communities, people develop and cultivate networks of friends, meet partners, and define for themselves and for society what it means to be a person who desires and loves someone of the same sex. Sometimes these self-definitions are hotly contested, as, for example, when transgendered people reject the terms ‘gay and lesbian’ to describe themselves, or people who define themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ refuse to ally with the contemporary ‘queer’ identity (Gamson, 1995). Internal conflicts over identity often take the form of disagreements over the boundaries of communities, which is the case, for example, when women debate whether or not bisexuals are part of the lesbian community (Esterberg, 1997; Rust, 1995). Gay communities change over time in response to these internal identity disputes. In addition, the political and cultural environment profoundly shapes the growth of communities and the possibilities for the emergence of social movements from them (Dugan, 1999; Kaminski and Taylor, 2001).

Constructing Communities and Identities

In the decades prior to the emergence of an identifiable gay and lesbian movement in the 1960s and 1970s, men who desired men and women who desired women were actively forming their own subcultures and communities. Although some scholars argue that gay male communities existed in European cities as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (e.g. Saslow, 1989; Trumbach, 1989), the communities that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century and flourished in the 1920s and 1930s are the earliest documented gay communities in the United States. In major urban areas, men and women with same-sex desires knew where to find one another, used particular labels to identify themselves, and developed codes of dress and behavior that marked them as particular kinds of people (Rupp, 1999: 102). Barry Adam (1987: 39) points to ‘a well-developed gay underground in all the major cities’—including Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles—composed of various clubs, bars, restaurants, bookstores, residential neighborhoods, parks, and other meeting places. These early communities, which nurtured a rich public culture, were organized around shared characteristics regarding sexual object choice and gender performance (Chauncey, 1994; Garber, 1989; Johnson, 1997).

A number of social factors facilitated the appearance of these early lesbian and gay communities. Most importantly, urbanization brought large numbers of men and women into close proximity in singles’ rooming houses. The lack of privacy combined with the anonymity of city life led to the creation of a sexualized working-class culture in bars and saloons, and, in this context, men and later women began to identify around the basis of same-sex erotic desires and practices. Yet in addition to such large, urban areas as New York City, where we might expect the existence of community at such an early time period, communities organized around same-sex desire also appeared in such places as Salt Lake City, Utah (Rupp, 1999).

Although historians have recorded the existence of pre-Stonewall gay communities and their importance as social outlets for people seeking the companionship of others who desired same-sex relationships, our discussion of these early communities highlights the political impact of community-building. The gay communities that emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century consisted of submerged networks of individuals who constructed a positive collective identity—sometimes in a complex relationship with the emerging medical discourse on ‘homosexuality’—and created boundaries between themselves and the larger mainstream heterosexist society. The construction of a collective identity based on sexual-object choice was essential to the later development of a gay and lesbian social movement. Moreover, these communities claimed public space for gays and lesbians and created their own cultural norms that challenged aspects of the dominant gender and sexual system.

George Chauncey’s Gay New York (1994) presents an extensive study of a gay male community at the beginning of the twentieth century. Chauncey convincingly argues for the political nature of gay communities of the 1910s and 1920s by highlighting the ‘strategies of everyday resistance that men devised in order to claim space for themselves in the midst of a hostile society’ (ibid.: 5). The strategies men used to create their identities and network with other men with same-sex desires varied by class. Working-class men typically adopted a ‘fairy’ identity that was characterized by effeminacy as well as same-sex object choice. For example, most fairies took on women’s names and called each other by feminine terms of endearment such as ‘princess’ or ‘sister.’ While fairies did not typically dress completely in women’s clothes, they did often wear one feminine article or piece of clothing that was considered flashy, such as a red tie or suede shoes. They often colored their hair, plucked their eyebrows, or wore cosmetics such as lipstick or face powder. In addition, fairies could be identified by their gestures and demeanor that imitated feminine mannerisms. For example, fairies’ style of swiveling their hips while walking was known as ‘swishing.’

New York was not the only city in which a fairy culture emerged. Chauncey’s description of fairies in New York is consistent with Johnson’s (1997) research on a gay community in Chicago. Johnson notes that many gay men in the 1930s adopted the effeminate characteristics of the fairy role. Chauncey (1989) also describes the existence of a fairy role in Newport, Rhode Island, in his research on Navy men who engaged in same-sex sexual relations. Sailors who were accused of homosexuality in a Navy investigation in 1919-20 were typically described as wearing make-up and acting effeminate. As all of these examples illustrate, gender transgression was a salient aspect of many emerging gay male communities.

In addition to the self-defined label of ‘fairies,’ men in gay communities in the 1920s and 1930s came up with other terms for themselves such as ‘pogues,’ and ‘two-way artists’ based on the type of sexual acts they preferred (Chauncey, 1989). Unlike the terms created by sexologists, the classification system used by gay men did not suggest a dichotomy between homosexual and heterosexual based on sexual object choice. The research by Chauncey (1989, 1994) and Johnson (1997) provides clear evidence that the labels of the medical and scientific community were largely irrelevant to how gay men defined themselves, undermining the view that gay identity and communities arose as a result of sexologists’ definition of homosexuality as a separate and deviant category (Faderman, 1978).

Middle-class gay men typically took on a different identity. Objecting to the image of the effeminate fairy, middle-class ‘queers’ maintained a more masculine style of self-presentation to maintain their respectability (Chauncey, 1994). Chauncey describes how these men utilized a strategy of leading a double life: they participated in the gay subculture on weekends or in the evenings, but passed as straight at work. Although these men were unwilling to identify themselves as queer in the workplace because they did not want to risk losing their jobs, they did make use of gay expressions that had double meanings so that they could identify and network with each other at work but still pass as heterosexual. Similarly, Chauncey’s (1989) study of sailors in Newport reports the existence of more masculine men, termed ‘husbands,’ in that community. It was only the fairies, and not the ‘straight’ men who sought them out for sexual encounters, who took on an identity around their sexual practices and who faced repression as a result.

Although gay men had been visible in the streets of New York and in particular social establishments since the end of the nineteenth century, Chauncey (1994: 301) argues that in the Prohibition years of the 1920s, the working-class fairy culture acquired unprecedented prominence in the mainstream culture of New York City. Drag balls, which had been a part of the fairy culture, became popular attractions and led to what Chauncey terms a ‘pansy craze.’ By the 1920s, gay social communities had not only developed a subculture and identity for themselves, but their cultural events became well known to the larger public as well. Stories about drag balls appeared in tabloid newspapers, such as Broadway Brevities and by the 1930s drag balls were even being staged in Madison Square Garden and the Astor Hotel in midtown (Chauncey, 1994).

The growing public visibility of gay culture is also evident in Eric Garber’s (1989) description of the Harlem Renaissance. As Garber notes, same-sex sexuality was often the topic of literature and lyrics written by black artists and intellectuals in Harlem. In addition, gender transgression, same-sex relationships, and other markers of gay culture were visible in Harlem’s rent parties, clubs, and speakeasies. The gay culture that emerged in the Harlem Renaissance has some similarities with the culture of the fairies. Like fairies, gay entertainers in Harlem often adopted cross-gender behaviors. Gladys Bentley, for example, was a well-known lesbian musician who performed in a tuxedo and top hat. Drag balls were popular in Harlem as they were in fairy communities elsewhere in New York. Importantly, the terms—such as ‘sissies,’ ‘faggots,’ and ‘bulldaggers’—that were used in Harlem to describe those who desired same-sex relationships carried connotations of gender transgression. Although Garber labels the participants in Harlem’s gay culture ‘homosexuals,’ ‘gays,’ or ‘lesbians,’ the evidence that he presents suggests that these individuals may have actually used the terms ‘faggot’ and ‘bulldagger’ to describe themselves. Thus, like the ‘pogues’ and ‘fairies’ described by Chauncey (1989), members of gay communities in Harlem had their own system of classification and labeling that was not equivalent to the sexologists’ schemes.

Along with greater racial and class integration than other communities, Harlem in the 1920s made more of a place for lesbians. Like Gladys Bentley, many of the prominent entertainers and artists in Harlem were lesbian or bisexual. The greater involvement of women in the gay community may be a result of African American women’s tradition of involvement in the public sphere. In contrast to white women, African American women had a longer history of participation in the workforce. Lesbian subcultures are less well documented because women had less financial independence and access to both work and leisure institutions than men. Despite these constraints, some research suggests that lesbian communities did emerge during the 1920s among working-class women who, by virtue of their economic circumstances, were forced into the public sphere to earn a living. Lillian Faderman (1991) suggests that separate white and African American lesbian communities existed in Chicago in the 1920s, and Vern and Bonnie Bullough (1977) note the evidence of a lesbian community in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Along with describing the cultural characteristics of fairies and queers, Chauncey (1989, 1994) and Johnson (1997) also emphasize the importance of networks in the lives of gay men in urban America. They both describe how gay men’s ties with one another not only served as important sources of social and sexual fulfillment but also provided economic assistance and help in finding work and housing. These forms of aid were particularly important to men who had recently moved to the city in order to be closer to gay culture. Chauncey (1994) uses the term ‘chain migration’ to describe how gay men assisted newcomers to the city, thus facilitating the construction of community. Johnson (1997) notes that many gay men relied on each other for economic support during the Depression. While these networks did not constitute formal organizations, they were extremely important as survival strategies.

As networks of gay men grew and fairy culture became more visible, gay communities also claimed public, physical space. The territories that gays claimed included residential neighborhoods, such as the near north side of Chicago, bars, restaurants, parks, baths, and YMCA centers (Chauncey, 1989; Chauncey, 1994; Johnson, 1997). Although these gay spaces were sometimes confined to specific neighborhoods on the periphery of cities, Chauncey (1994) argues that, in the 1920s, gay culture was prominent in public spaces throughout New York City. Gay men, at the height of the pansy craze, were not just confined to gay neighborhoods such as Harlem, the Bowery, and Greenwich Village, but became prominent in Times Square too. Similarly, Johnson points out that gay men’s meeting places were located in the center of downtown Chicago, not on the outskirts.

During the 1930s, however, the public space available to gays began to shrink (Chauncey, 1994). With the onset of the Depression, people began to frown on the consumerism and excess of the 1920s. As a result, social interactions that had been tolerated in the 1920s were becoming more stigmatized in the 1930s. Police began to raid and shut down bars with gay patrons, particularly those located in Times Square. Effeminate-looking men were specifically targeted, as their fairy persona was a marker for their sexual identity. Fairies were therefore pushed back into exclusively gay bars on the outskirts of the city, while less overt and more masculine queers could remain in the public spaces in the urban center. Although gay culture may have become less visible in New York in the 1930s as gays retreated into more private spaces such as house parties and baths, it did not entirely disappear from the public sphere. Gay men continued to have a presence in the city, partly by drawing on the cultural strategies that they had developed in the preceding decades (Chauncey, 1994; Johnson, 1997).

Some scholars question whether or not these subcultures constitute a gay community because of the ‘lack of institutions, collective action, and a willingness to fight back’ (Murray, 1998: 212). In our view, community is evident in the appropriation of physical spaces, such as bars or parks or neighborhoods, in the creation of interpersonal networks and strong personal ties, and in the elaboration of gay culture, including language, dress, and mannerisms. Through these cultural enactments, men and women forged a collective self-definition of what it meant to be gay—or, more accurately, what it meant to be a fairy, a bulldagger, a sissy, or a queer. Although a formal social movement is lacking during this period, the identities and networks built in gay communities in the early twentieth century would prove to be essential resources for a later movement. Moreover, the distinctive gay cultures that emerged in this period provided men and women with everyday ways to resist heteronormative gender and sexual codes. Although these turn of the century communities may appear different from current gay communities or movements, it is evident that they constructed positive self-identities, created cultures of resistance, claimed public space, and protected individual men and women who identified with the community.

From Communities to Movements

Early same-sex communities of men and women facilitated everyday acts of resistance, what Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis (1993) call ‘prepolitical’ activism. Such resistance eventually led to formal organization. Significantly, the first short-lived social movement organization in the United States grew out of community institutions. The Society for Human Rights, officially established in Chicago late in 1924, was inspired by the vibrant gay German cultural and political scene. Its founder, who had served in Germany as a member of the American armed forces, sought ‘to promote and protect the interests of people who by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities are abused and hindered in the legal pursuit of happiness … guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence’ (cited in Katz, 1976: 385). Compared to gay communities in American cities, gays and lesbians in Berlin in the 1920s were more formally organized. One of the main organizations in Berlin was the Scientific-Humanitarian committee founded by Magnus Hirschfeld. Unlike American communities, which often challenged the labels and classification systems of the sexologists, Hirschfeld’s committee closely allied itself with the medical establishment with the aim of promoting scientific research on sexuality that would educate the public and promote greater social tolerance. The Nazi regime attacked and eventually destroyed the gay reform movement in Berlin. Similarly, the first gay organization in the United States suffered a swift demise after the arrest of its officers.

The first successful gay social movement, the homophile movement of the 1950s, grew out of the gay and lesbian communities that flowered during the Second World War. Allan Bérubé (1989) suggests that for Americans, the war facilitated same-sex interaction and provided a context in which many men and women could adopt a gay or lesbian identity. Although the official policy stated that homosexuals were not permitted in the military, gays and lesbians were tolerated during the war. The war provided men and women from rural backgrounds with their first opportunity to have contact with gay networks that had previously been confined largely to urban areas. Yet despite the tolerance of homosexuality and the fluidity of gender roles during the war, the cold war political climate of the post-war period brought repression that also facilitated the rise of organized resistance (D’Emilio, 1989b). Veterans who had served honorably found themselves dishonorably discharged for their sexuality, but a few found the voice to speak out and protest their treatment (Bérubé, 1990). In addition, the attacks on homosexuality in military and civilian life actually spread word of the gay community, making it easier for both interested men and women and hostile observers to find it. Further, the role of San Francisco as the port of debarkation for the Pacific theater increased the city’s reputation as a gay mecca (D’Emilio, 1989b: 459). As in Greenwich Village and Harlem, the bohemian culture of San Francisco’s North Beach area gave rise to both sexual experimentation and political activism. The police harassment that was so prevalent in gay communities in the post-war period provoked the owners and employees of a number of gay bars to organize the Tavern Guild to fight for the right to serve gay patrons (D’Emilio, 1983).

In such an environment, gay and lesbian communities made individual survival possible and facilitated the construction of a collective identity that challenged cultural norms of gender and sexuality. The research by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline Davis (1993) documents a working-class lesbian community in Buffalo, New York, from 1940 to 1960. This community, like others of the time period, was organized primarily around bars and structured by butch and fem roles. Butches enacted their sexual and gender identities by adopting a particular style of dress. Typically, they wore short, greased-back hairstyles, pants, and starched men’s dress shirts. Fems, by contrast, did not follow a dress code unique to the lesbian community but instead conformed to the dominant fashion trends for women. Yet fems as well as butches exhibited what Joan Nestle calls ‘sexual courage’ by making public their same-sex relationships through the simple act of being together on the streets (Nestle, 1981). Kennedy and Davis (1993) convincingly argue that the social networks and solidarity forged by working-class butches and fems were instrumental in mobilizing a gay and lesbian political movement in later decades. Yet during the 1950s, the bar culture remained separate from the emerging political organizations of the homophile movement.

The first lasting gay social movement organization was the Mattachine Society, founded in 1951 by an active member of the Communist Party, Harry Hay. Hay turned to the lively gay community of Los Angeles to recruit his first members, taking copies of a petition opposing the Korean War to the gay male beaches, assuming that any men willing to sign might be likely candidates for a homosexual rights organization (D’Emilio, 1983). Hay turned to the gay community again when a founder of the organization was arrested in a public park, using the case to recruit in gay neighborhoods. Even after Hay and his radical compatriots were forced out of the organization they had founded (Epstein, 1999), the male homophile movement had more success in mobilizing the existing gay community than did the women’s organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, which was explicitly founded as an alternative to the bar culture. Despite the gender segregation of most lesbian and gay communities, however, some women and men worked together. A member of the Ell Club in blue-collar Bridgeport, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, in 1957 described the club as ‘bringing closer unity between the boys and girls,’ since they were all ‘working for one goal, to be accepted’ (Stein, 1994: 210).

The two major homophile organizations worked to form communities around the goal of winning basic human rights for gay and lesbian people, and they fostered a culture of ‘middle-class respectability’ (D’Emilio, 1989a: 469). They encouraged gender conformity, especially in dress, and the Mattachine Society worked to repress the ‘stereotypical promiscuous image of male homosexuality’ (ibid.: 460). As a result of this assimilationist stance, however, women in the bar culture and men who were part of the traditional gay world had little use for these organizations.

Yet what is generally marked as the origins of the contemporary gay and lesbian movement—the Stonewall riot—was not an entirely unique act of resistance to a police raid by bar patrons (Adam, 1987; Cruikshank, 1992; D’Emilio, 1983; Duberman, 1993). Gay men and women—and especially butch dykes and men in drag—were often the target of police harassment in the 1950s and throughout the 1960s (Adam, 1987: 76; D’Emilio, 1983; see also Duberman, 1993; Epstein, 1999; Rupp, 1999). In 1969, police raided a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. On that night, the police action provoked substantial physical resistance from ‘drag queens, dykes, street people, and bar boys’ (Adam, 1987: 75). The resistance at Stonewall gave birth to ‘a large, grassroots movement for liberation’ (D’Emilio, 1983: 239).

Gay liberation did not, of course, simply emerge out of nowhere. The movements of the 1960s—the civil rights, New Left, and women’s movements—set the stage for the transformation of the gay movement. In contrast to the homophile movement, gay liberationists rejected an assimilationist stance and instead touted gay culture and community as a source of ‘pride and strength.’ Perhaps most significantly, the movement spun off not only a host of new organizations, but also a wide variety of more explicitly political community institutions to add to the bars and bath houses that had been around for decades, as well as restaurants and coffee houses, bookstores, business guilds, community centers, sports leagues, and support groups of all kinds (Rupp, 1999). The movement originally grew out of the social networks and identities fostered by existing communities, but now the movement was helping to create new community institutions and collective identities. This trend toward agenda setting by local and community-based networks in addition to national level organizations that characterizes the modern lesbian and gay movement is typical of the pattern of development of most of the major social movements spawned in the 1960s and 1970s (Castells, 1997).

The Movement as a Source of Diverse Communities and Contested Identities

In the wake of the liberation movement, gay communities spread across the country. Martin Levine’s (1979) research suggests that in several American cities, gays and lesbians formed distinct neighborhoods or ‘gay ghettos.’ Similar to ethnic enclaves, gay ghettos are characterized by separate institutions (such as gay bars, bookstores, coffee houses and other businesses, religious organizations, periodicals, banks, and social welfare organizations), a visible gay culture, and a concentration of gay residents who work and socialize primarily within the boundaries of the neighborhood. One of the first ghettos to fit that description is the well-known Castro district of San Francisco. Called the ‘first gay neighborhood,’ Castro residents created both an active gay business area as well as a distinct culture. The Castro culture in the 1970s was considered a ‘carnival where social conventions were turned upside down just for the pleasure of [it]’ (Fitzgerald, 1986: 12). The festival spirit of the Castro manifested on Halloween, in street fairs, and on gay holidays, with men dressing as bikers, nuns, Betty Grable look-a-likes, or professionals (Fitzgerald, 1986: 12).

Levine’s book Gay Macho describes a unique gay identity that emerged out of the communities of the 1970s. In the context of the gay pride movement, many men rejected the stereotype of gay men as effeminate, instead projecting a hypermasculine image. They cultivated the macho look through body building and showed off their muscles in tight Levi jeans and white tank tops. They also adopted other articles of clothing, such as work boots and flannel shirts, that projected a masculine working-class image. Yet their meticulous grooming—clean fingernails, short haircuts, and well-trimmed mustaches or beards—signified that they were not really blue-collar workers. The macho look was so prominent that Levine calls the men who adopted it ‘homosexual clones.’ Members of this subculture embraced and exaggerated other masculine characteristics, in addition to their styles of dress. By engaging in a sexually promiscuous lifestyle, gay men enacted and magnified an image of sexual prowess that was associated with masculinity in the broader American culture.

As in earlier periods, lesbians in the 1970s typically formed their own subcultures and communities, separate from those of gay men (Taylor and Rupp, 1993). Deborah Wolf’s Lesbian Community (1979) provides a rich description of a mainly white and middle-class lesbian-feminist community in the San Francisco Bay Area. Unlike members of earlier lesbian communities, the women in this 1970s’ community viewed their identity primarily as a political rejection of male domination rather than a manifestation of sexual desire. In the 1970s, the identity that emerged among lesbian communities was greatly influenced by the second wave of the feminist movement. Community members viewed lesbianism as a lifestyle based on the values of cultural feminism, including co-operation, egalitarianism, and an ethic of caring (Taylor and Rupp, 1993). These values were put into practice through the creation of alternative women-centered institutions, including feminist bookstores and coffee houses and a women’s music industry. Also, lesbian feminists defied dominant standards of femininity by embracing androgynous styles of clothing, such as blue jeans and t-shirts, and refusing to shave their legs. Thus feminism provided the standards of behavior and dress through which women presented themselves as lesbians.

But these new communities of ‘clones’ and lesbian feminists did not replace the traditional worlds that gay and lesbian people had built (Buring, 1997; Franzen, 1993). Effeminacy remained as a gay male style, and bar dykes and softball players who embraced more conventionally masculine styles continued to flourish in communities all over the country. At the same time, over the years new identities emerged within increasingly more diverse communities. Arlene Stein’s book Sex and Sensibility (1997) shows how lesbian identity is defined, negotiated, and revised within lesbian communities. Stein shows that lesbian communities of the 1970s were centered on a feminist discourse that defined lesbianism through political affiliation. By the 1990s, however, lesbian communities had become more fragmented, and lesbian-feminism was no longer the dominant lesbian identity. This ‘decentering’ of the lesbian community resulted from critiques made by women marginalized by the narrow definition of ‘lesbian’ that emerged from the 1970s communities. Women of color felt excluded by the largely white and middle-class feminist communities that ignored the issue of racism and celebrated styles alien to their cultures. And ‘pro-sex’ lesbians—those who emphasized the pleasure over the danger of sexuality—felt that the feminist emphasis on politics over desire was stifling. As a result, lesbian communities of the 1990s diversified and embraced multiple and competing ways of defining and presenting oneself as a lesbian. Lillian Faderman’s (1991) account of lesbian life at the end of the twentieth-century notes the multiple subcultures and identities—including ‘lipstick lesbians,’ punk lesbians, and s&m lesbians—that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, and we would expand this list to include lesbian mothers and lesbians who embrace female masculinity (Halberstam, 1998).

Gay male communities, too, diversified in the late twentieth century. Often perceived as white, male, and middle-class by those outside of these privileged classifications, people of color pointed to the gay community as an inhospitable place for the racial-ethnic diversity (see for instance, Almaguer, 1998; Cochran and Mays, 1998; Hanawa, 1997; Peterson, 1992; Romo-Carmona, 1997; Shah, 1998). The communities that developed post-Stonewall, according to Almaguer (1998: 544), ‘were largely populated by white men who had the resources and talents needed to create “gilded” gay ghettos.’ Yet men from all racial and ethnic groups identify as gay.

A common dilemma for members of racial-ethnic minority communities stems from the fact that they often feel like outsiders in the gay and lesbian community and invisible in their ethnic communities (Shah, 1998). In writing about Latina lesbians, Mariana Romo-Carmona’s describes ‘straddling a fence’ or trying to fit into two cultures, one Latino and stripped of sexual orientation and the other sexuality-based and without Latino culture (1997: 36; see also Anzaldúa, 1987). Likewise, since South Asian immigrant communities and families provide a safe haven against ‘racial hostility and cultural misunderstanding,’ coming out sparks fear among many South Asian gays (Shah, 1998). Despite the fact that homosexuality has been documented in all parts of the world, there is a lingering perception that homosexual behavior and gay, lesbian, and bisexual identities are a white, western, and middle-class phenomenon. South Asians living in the USA tend to see homosexuality as a ‘white disease’ (ibid.: 484), despite the fact that in South-East Asia, gay and lesbian organizations have established a significant public presence in the twentieth century. As a result of the invisibility experienced at both ends, South Asian gay and lesbian people have had to create ‘their own support groups, organizations, events, and newsletters in the US and Canada, in India and Great Britain (ibid.).

African American gay men, too, have developed ‘informal social networks’ with other gay men from within black communities in the United States (Peterson, 1992: 154). Although in major urban areas, gay bars are sometimes located in black neighborhoods and some black gay political organizations might exist, for the most part, African American gays generally do not have access to black gay institutions, such as newspapers, businesses, and political organizations. As a result, gay black men often identify and develop friendships and socialize with each other at private events, such as entertainment in people’s homes and other privately sponsored parties and dances (Cochran and Mays, 1998; Peterson, 1992).

For gays and lesbians, developing community depends above all on adopting an identity based on sexuality. But in some minority communities, participating in a same-sex sexual act may carry no consequences for one’s identity. In Mexican and other Latino sexual systems, as in the world of the early twentieth-century fairies, effeminacy and the nature of the sexual acts one performs determine identity. Unlike the less differentiated exchange common among Euro-American gay men, some Mexican men are either strictly passive or active participants in sexual encounters (Almaguer, 1998: 542; see also Carrier, 1976, 1985). Men who maintain a strict active or insertor role may avoid stigma for such behavior because it is seen as conforming to a masculine role, while those who take a passive role are considered in more feminine terms (Almaguer, 1998: 541-2). As Almaguer (ibid.: 543) writes, the Mexican sexual system actually militates against the construction of discernible, discrete bisexual or gay sexual identities because these identities are shaped by and draw upon a different sexual system.

Bisexuals and transgendered people also blur the boundaries of gay and lesbian identity and community (see Esterberg, 1997; Feinberg, 1996, 1999; Rust, 1996, 1993). Bisexuality is often perceived by those in gay communities as either confusion or a temporary condition (Ochs, 1996). Likewise, transgender persons are often misunderstood and marginalized. Rather than building an identity around sexual object choice, persons who consider themselves transgendered see as central the lack of congruity between their own perception of their gender and the perceptions of others (McCloskey, 1999).

By pointing out the existence of diverse subcultures within the gay and lesbian community, recent studies raise questions concerning the boundaries of the community and the assumption that a unified community exists at the start of the twenty-first century. These concerns are at the heart of Kristin Esterberg’s (1997) research on two groups of women, those who identify as lesbian and those who claim the label ‘bisexual.’ Esterberg suggests that the boundaries between lesbians, bisexuals, and heterosexuals are permeable and constantly renegotiated. Moreover, she calls attention to the multiple and diverse identities of lesbian and bisexual women based on race and class identification. She concludes that scholars should not describe the lesbian community as if it were monolithic but, instead, should conceptualize it as existing of ‘overlapping friendship networks’ with blurred boundaries. The gay and lesbian community is a collage of these small and diverse subcultures.

As a result, identity disputes flourish in the movement, often grounded in the difference between an assimilationist versus a liberationist politic (Adam, 1987; Dugan, 1999; Duggan, 1995; Gamson, 1995; Reger and Dugan, 2000; Rupp, 1999). As in the homophile movement, the assimilationist tendency, leading to goals such as civil rights in the military and the workplace and the right to marry, emphasizes the similarity between gay men and lesbians, on the one hand, and straight people, on the other hand. By contrast, gay liberation insists on a ‘revolutionary struggle to free the homosexual in everyone, challenging the conventional arrangements that confined sexuality to heterosexual monogamous families’ (Adam, 1987: 78). The larger political and cultural environment plays a role in highlighting one tendency or the other: a hostile climate not only inhibits movement growth and activism but may favor assimilationist strategies, whereas a hospitable environment allows for movements to thrive in the pursuit of more fundamental social and political change.

If the growing diversity of gay and lesbian communities has made what is now generally referred to as the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender movement more contentious, the rise of direct political attacks on the movement and the appearance of AIDS in the gay community ironically tended to bring people together and to strengthen gay communities both in urban and rural areas of the United States. In the late 1970s, the ultraconservative New Right led anti-gay crusades in different parts of the country (Adam, 1987; Diamond, 1995). Most notorious was the 1977 landmark case in Florida, where Christian fundamentalist Anita Bryant and her organization, Save Our Children, successfully moved voters to repeal a newly passed pro-gay antidiscrimination law (Adam, 1987; Button et al., 1997; Epstein, 1999). That next year gay rights laws in St. Paul, Minnesota; Eugene, Oregon; and Wichita, Kansas met with a similar fate at the hands of conservative forces (Button et al., 1997). Save Our Children then took its energy and resources to California in 1978 to support the anti-gay Proposition 6 or Briggs Initiative. This failed initiative, had it passed, would have banned openly gay or lesbian people from teaching in California’s public schools (Adam, 1987; Diamond, 1995).

Gay men and lesbians have also come together in the face of the AIDS epidemic. When AIDS first made the news, it was constructed as a ‘gay disease.’ And, of course, gay male communities were in fact hit hard. Although the incidence of HIV is much lower among lesbians than gay men, the anti-gay rhetoric that emerged during the AIDS crisis targeted both men and women and caused gays and lesbians to work together for protection and survival (Levine, 1998; Weston, 1991). As writer and activist Sarah Schulman put it, ‘the coming together of feminist political perspectives and organizing experience with gay men’s high sense of entitlement and huge resources proved to be a historically transforming event’ (1994: 11). In every region of the country and in both rural and urban areas, the battle against AIDS spawned new institutions, as well as alliances between lesbians and gays and between gays and heterosexuals that added to the institutional completeness of lesbian and gay communities (Murray, 1998).

Further diversification and fragmentation of gay communities occurred, beginning in the early 1980s when groups that took on the identity of ‘queer’ such as ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Queer Nation, and the Lesbian Avengers, moved liberation philosophy to new heights. Rejecting assimilationist tactics in favor of in-your-face direct action, queer activists held kiss-ins, distributed condoms in public, and engaged in disruptive protests (Duggan, 1995: 173). If such groups sometimes led to struggles over the meaning of who should or should not be included in lesbian and gay communities (Gamson, 1997), they also spawned new networks of solidarity that secured recognition for participants’ identities and interests. Another example of the important role that political movements play in some gay people’s lives is illustrated by the new and interrelated community networks that formed among the vast number of gay, lesbian and bisexual employee groups that have spearheaded campaigns to win domestic partnership benefits and other forms of equal treatment for gays in the workplace (Raeburn, 2000). Participation in these types of local activism affirm same-sex sexuality and love and provide a source of identity and support for lesbians and gays working for mainstream corporations.

Sociologists interested in understanding the changes taking place in modern complex societies argue that contemporary social and political movements, such as the gay and lesbian, feminist, environmental, fundamentalist, and other racial and ethnic movements, are major sources of community, meaning, and identity that are replacing earlier more traditional sources such as nationality and class (Castells, 1997; Melucci, 1996; Taylor, 2000). If the networks and positive identities nurtured in pre-Stonewall gay communities supplied the solidarity necessary for lesbians and gay men to organize for social change in the first place, the social movements that emerged out of gay communities have, in turn, affected lesbian and gay communities by expanding the number of supportive social networks available and by securing recognition for a wider range of identities of people with same-sex desires.


There is considerable published research demonstrating that since at least the end of the nineteenth century, people with same-sex desires identified others like them, gathered in particular locations, and expressed their sexuality through mannerisms and physical attire. From the fairies of New York to the butches and fems of Buffalo, communities of gay men and lesbians formed identities, built social worlds apart from mainstream heteronormative society, and nurtured a rich and elaborate oppositional culture. These gay and lesbian communities served as sites of resistance by making space where individuals collectively built and negotiated identities that challenged dominant gender and sexual codes. These collective identities, in turn, made possible the emergence of a political movement.

We have focused our discussion on the relationship between gay community and the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement because recent scholarship has emphasized the key role of interpersonal networks and collective identity in movement mobilization. As we have seen, with the emergence of the lesbian and gay liberation movements in the 1970s, social movement communities began to attract lesbians and gay men in numbers that rivaled the bars and other traditional institutions of gay life. As a result, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a lesbian or gay man would find that in many areas of the country—not just in San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, but in Key West, Florida; Atlanta, Georgia; Columbus, Ohio; and Eugene, Oregon—she or he would find a full range of institutions making it possible to concentrate social relations almost entirely within the lesbian and gay community. Yet disputes over identity and struggles between assimilationist and confrontational tendencies in the movement are common, and some individuals continue to keep their distance from explicitly political gay organizations, making it more accurate to think in terms of multiple communities rather than a unified lesbian and gay community. As a new century and new millennium dawn, communities and movements undoubtedly will continue their complex relationship.

Despite the rich scholarship on diverse gay and lesbian communities, it is important to take stock of the questions that we still need to address. First, while there is beginning to be a literature on gay and lesbian communities in places such as Brazil (Green, 1999; Kulick, 1998), Japan (Leupp, 1995; Robertson, 1998), and South Africa (Murray and Roscoe, 1998), we know much less about gay communities outside the United States and Western Europe. Second, while there is considerable historical research on lesbian and gay communities in the major urban areas of the United States, there is less sociological analysis of the demographic and social charactersitics of diverse contemporary communities. Most notably, we know little about contemporary lesbian and gay communities in the South and much less about gay rural life in America. Finally, the important question arises as to what impact lesbian and gay communities and the social movements they have spawned have had on mainstream culture and politics. In past decades, visible lesbian and gay communities have changed the face of social and political life in the United States, and an important research agenda remains for future scholars to trace these effects.