From Gay Power to Gay Mardi Gras

Dennis Altman. The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review. Volume 6, Issue 3. July, 1999.

Last year was the 20th anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, an event that we like to claim as the biggest street party in the world, and now one of the high points on the international gay and lesbian social calendar. What is less well known is that Mardi Gras had its origins in a small march commemorating the anniversary of Stonewall and ending in a nasty confrontation with the police. A few years later it was moved from late June (which is winter in Australia) to the end of summer, and is now a three week festival, parade and party held in early spring, one that the government officially sanctions—and recognizes as a sizable magnet for tourist dollars. Marching last year with the “Seventy-eighters” at the front of the parade was more thrilling than I’d anticipated. It is only from inside the parade that one gets a full sense of just how vast the crowd is, while the cheers and applause, three miles of it, echo that of the triumphal Royal Tours of earlier times. “This is what it feels like to be part of a successful social movement,” I remember thinking at the time.

The story of the Sydney Mardi Gras encapsulates the principal changes in the global gay/lesbian movement over the past thirty years: the move from the radical margins of society to a position much closer to the mainstream; the internationalization of ideas about gay liberation originating largely in the United States (although there was a simultaneous development of radical gay theory in post-1968 France and Italy). As I write this I am also preparing to attend an official consultation on the next Australian National HIV/AIDS Strategy, one in which the gay community will be heavily represented.

My own involvement with the movement began in the U.S. in the winter of 1968-69, when I crisscrossed the country largely unaware of the already well-organized network of homosexual organizations, but nonetheless caught up in the new mood of affirmation of gay male culture in cities like New York City, San Francisco, and L.A. One evening in New York I went dancing at the Stonewall Inn itself, just months before the famous riots, and experienced the exuberance of sweaty young men without shirts wearing bandannas around ever longer hair.

Somewhere along the way I wrote a short piece called “The Faggot as Nigger,” which was never published, little knowing that others in the States were also drawing these parallels. But I was beginning to think of writing a book using that metaphor. I had begun to conceive of being gay as a central part of my social identity rather than a private and difficult aspect of my life that I needed to keep compartmentalized from everything else. I returned to Australia determined to get back to America as soon as possible, and negotiated an eight-month leave from Sydney University beginning in August 1970. This was a period of enormous cultural and social change in the U.S., in which the Black Power and anti-war movements and countercultural values seemed to threaten the very foundations of American society. Feminism was being reborn: when I arrived at Honolulu Airport that year I bought a copy of Kate Millett’s 1970 book Sexual Politics, which was to have an enormous influence on my own ideas.

The previous year a three-day riot after a routine police raid on the Stonewall Inn had led to the founding of the New York Gay Liberation Front and the emergence of the slogan “Gay Power.” (A month later men first walked on the moon.) The riots at Stonewall went almost unnoticed in Australia: the origins of our first open lesbian/gay organization, the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP), had little to do with the details of what happened in the U.S., but was certainly influenced by the larger cultural changes that were emanating from America. I arrived in New York a year after Stonewall to find a radical gay community in the making, one that quickly became my political home.

I took up residence with a painter, Adolph Garcia, on the edge of the East Village. Adolph lived in a sprawling seven-room apartment on Second Avenue, decorated with his paintings of shoes, and made the apartment available for meetings of the new gay liberation paper, Come Out. I gravitated to the burgeoning network of radical gay groups forming in New York, writing for the paper and attending interminable meetings, which were exciting and welcome because they offered a kind of community that I had not yet experienced in the commercial world of bars and saunas. Gay women and men—the word “gay” was used inclusively then—had been radicalized by the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, and a reborn feminist movement, and gay politics was a natural progression from these struggles.

The excitement of this period was reflected in my first book, Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, which grew out of my experiences of New York over the winter and spring of 1970-71. That book recounted in some detail the politics and discoveries of the first several years of gay liberation. It also reflected the enormous influence on my generation of gay writers such as James Baldwin and Christopher Isherwood, and a number of social theorists, notably Herbert Marcuse, who had fled Germany for the U.S. in the 1930’s, and whose attempt to synthesize Marxism and psychoanalysis in Eros and Civilization (1955) became a cult must-read in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. It was through Marcuse that I came to Freud, almost by accident, and it wasn’t until after completing Homosexual that I read his writings systematically. Like some of the European gay liberation theorists—and unlike American gay activists—I found in Freud a radical defense of sexual diversity, a plea for acceptance both of human variety and of human weakness. This has not been a popular position in the Anglo-American gay world, which has tended to assume that psychoanalysis was part of the normalizing apparatus of homophobia.

Freud’s concept of “polymorphous perversity,” the notion that there’s a human potential for enormous fluidity of sexual desires, which I found quite appealing, was anathema to a movement that was increasingly insisting upon a fixed dichotomy between “gay” and “straight.” Only in the last decade have “queer” attacks on identity politics revived a belief in the fluidity of sexuality, though often without any apparent awareness of the origins of these ideas in Freud. I spent the last three months of 1970 in New York City writing proposals for the book and seeking a publisher. A number of promising leads turned down the project, but the now defunct Outerbridge and Dienstfrey cottoned to the idea.

Ironically enough, the book was given wide publicity by a review in Time that was by no means flattering. “The chest thumping insistence that homosexual love is just like (and exactly as desirable as) heterosexual love,” the reviewer wrote, “is self-defeating. It is also biologically inaccurate and socially unsound.” But even a poor review in Time magazine can sell books, and this recognition gave the book an enormous boost. My next two books—a collection of essays, Coming Out in the Seventies (1979), and The Homosexualization of America (1982)—were both in a sense sequels to Homosexual.

The contemporary lesbigay movement was born in the years after Stonewall, when a whole set of social, cultural and political movements seemed to promise a new society. Odd as it may seem now, the possibility of revolutionary change appeared real to people as divergent as President Nixon and the Black Panthers. Of the movement’s goals Jonathan Katz wrote: “In that heady, hopeful, exhilarating dawn of gay and lesbian liberation, the abolition of heterosexuality and the end of homosexuality were in the air. We dared to imagine a radically free and different sexual future.” Katz’s idea of abolishing the sexual categories foreshadows some of the ideas of queer theory in the 1990’s. That the “queer” concept presented itself as a critique of today’s “mainstream” movement underscores the radicalism of the early movement’s outlook and objectives.

Perhaps the most important development was the growth of a commercial sector around the gay and (to a lesser extent) lesbian world. Bars, saunas, and restaurants proliferated, joined by a plethora of gay publications (The Advocate, The Body Politic, and Gay Community News being the most important ones in the 70’s). New institutions such as the Metropolitan Community Church and the Gay Games legitimized new ways of being lesbian and gay—and spread to thousands of people outside the U.S. Gradually, being gay or lesbian came to be something one could integrate with the rest of one’s life, rather than a dirty secret that had to be protected from public disclosure (even if many remnants of the latter attitude remain in force to this day).

“Do you rescind anything in Homosexual?” I was asked recently by someone deliberately echoing that favorite malapropism of politicians. Allowing for the rhetorical excesses of the early 70’s, I’d have to say that the answer is no, and that I’m somewhat surprised at the extent to which this book—and more importantly the political world it reflected—set a framework that’s still relevant today. While the gay liberation movement itself is fading into memory, it did succeed in raising almost all of the large questions with which we’re still struggling, above all the central dilemma of how both to create a homosexual community and to assert the right to be fully integrated into the larger civil society. In those early days we knew intuitively, I think, that there was a tension between wanting to build gay/lesbian community and seeking full equality as citizens. It was the same sort of tension that all oppressed groups have faced in defining themselves in relation to the majority. We also knew that homosexuality touched on a range of taboos around sex and gender, even if we lacked the subtlety—and the jargon—of people like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Judith Butler.

At the time, we thought we were the political radicals and scorned those whose focus was on decriminalization and legal change. We assumed, in the dominant leftist ideology of the time, that gay liberation was both part of and depended upon larger social change. What we failed to foresee was that Western societies could become more economically unequal and more socially liberal at the same time. I don’t think any of us foresaw how advertisers and Hollywood would come to chase the “pink dollar.” For in the end it is capitalism, not moral argument, that has rendered homophobia old-fashioned and unacceptable.

In Homosexual I had written: “Gay liberation is part of a much wider movement that’s challenging the basic cultural norms of our advanced capitalist, industrial and bureaucratic society, and bringing about changes in individual consciousness and new identities and lifestyles.” We don’t much talk in this language anymore, but there is an echo of such talk in some of today’s politics around indigenous and multicultural lesbigay groups, and, for all the postmodern blurring of terms, what can still be recognized as a voice from the left.

The gay and lesbian movement has had extraordinary achievements in the past decade or two, ranging from the creation of an extensive community-based response to AIDS to the successful use of international human rights institutions to overturn sodomy laws in a number of countries (though not yet in the U.S. state of Georgia!). Openly lesbian and gay politicians have been elected to a number of Western legislatures; some countries (and in South Africa the Constitution itself) include us among their protected categories in antidiscrimination measures. Much remains to be done, but the rate of change has been faster than we might have predicted 25 years ago. On an international scale the inability of the U.S. to scrap its sodomy laws remains a bizarre anomaly, equivalent to the American commitment to capital punishment—both of them linked to the peculiar religiosity of American society.

It is currently fashionable to question the reality of fixed sexual identities and to deconstruct the concept of a community based on sexual orientation. Rather than question their authenticity, in my view, we might better spend our energies examining the sorts of communities we have created. To what extent, for example, are we replicating within our own communities the sexism, racism, and class structures of the broader society? To do this requires more knowledge of the history of our movement than the contemporary vogue for theory and deconstruction allows. One of the great paradoxes of much contemporary queer writing is the way in which it removes the concrete actors whose hard work is what made institutions like Mardi Gras—and queer theory itself—possible at all.