Making a Minority: Understanding the Formation of the Gay and Lesbian Movement in the United States

Stephen Engel. Handbook of Lesbian and Gay Studies. Editor: Diane Richardson & Steven Seidman. 2002. Sage Publication.

Referring to the 2000 presidential election cycle for the 31 January 2000 edition of Time magazine, columnist Margaret Carlson wrote,

In 1992, not only would no one bring up gaydar, but also the subject of gays in the military was not nearly the preoccupation it is this time … what this campaign shows is that the country has moved some distance in its acceptance of gays. Two years ago, gay bashing was a staple of the Republican right. Lately, Republicans have largely gone quiet since their pollsters warned them to knock it off. Spreading scare stories about gays just wasn’t working. Too many people had come out, and too may blue-haired mothers in the heartland didn’t like hearing that their gay son or daughter was worthless or immoral.

Carlson succinctly isolates a shift in the national political culture in the United States. What has happened in recent history that made these ‘blue-haired mothers’ come out in defense of their gay sons and daughters? Why has the Republican Party, the party of ‘traditional family values,’ refrained from overt bashing of so-called sexual deviance? Why is the slang term ‘gaydar’ suddenly becoming appropriated into national discourse? The visibility and acceptance of gay men and lesbians in cultural and political media are higher now than they have ever been as discussions regarding gays in the military are re-opened, as the controversy over the possibility of gay marriage looms and civil unions become a reality, as gay characters are now prominently featured in prime-time television. To be blunt, where did all this gayness come from?

To more fully comprehend the current status of gay and lesbian political and cultural visibility, we must understand the development of the social movement that has both enabled and promoted this visibility. A social movement embodies a sustained collective challenge against political elites and authorities led by people with a common purpose and who lack regular access to existing political institutions (Tarrow, 1994: 2, 4). Often when studying social movements, we develop a theory composed of certain variables which, in turn, represent the questions we ask. Multiple social movement theories exist; some may be compatible, others may not, but usually and most importantly, no one theory is able to elucidate all aspects of these events. No one theory is either mutually exclusive or collectively exhaustive. Divergent understandings of social movements derive from the different questions that are asked. The aim, when understanding social movements, is not to develop a totalizing theory that accounts for every potential variable, but to isolate key questions in order to provide a comprehensive understanding of the movement. In general, when investigating the formation of a movement, we seek to discover why people participate, how they (afford to) participate, and when they participate. Each of these questions underlies a specific focus whether it be oriented toward individual motivation, organizational resources, or the external/ institutional environment. A theory which can address the interrelated nature of each of these questions without necessarily privileging one above the others will provide the most comprehensive understanding of social movements and the communities that they foster. This chapter identifies three crucial factors necessary for the development of collective insurgency and the formation of a social movement—changing opportunity, pre-existing organizational strength, and cognitive liberation which leads to collective identity formation—each of which correspond to the three questions asked above (McAdam, 1997: 172-92).

Commonly referred to as the political process model, the hypothesized interaction adheres to the following pattern. A change in the opportunity structure creates the possibility for collective organizing by a minority group that usually has little or no access to political power. Yet, the mere opportunity for such mobilization is quite different from and does not guarantee the existence of a movement. Some type of pre-existing organizational network that can enable further member recruitment, select leaders, and facilitate communication must exist to harness this opportunity and convert it into organized and sustainable protest (Tarrow, 1994: 178-82). The disenfranchised minority must experience a cognitive shift characterized by a relinquishment of a victimized self-perception, an endorsement of a rights-based agenda, and a new sense of efficacy and agential power (ibid.: 183). Thus, all three factors are integrally tied in the evolution of a movement. While these factors are interdependent and necessary for successful collective action, the model presupposes the existence of some type of opportunity in the existing socio-economic and political environment such as an electoral realignment.

A historical analysis of the American gay and lesbian movement utilizing this tri-factor developmental model seeks to answer a variety of questions. What changing opportunity enabled the movement even to be contemplated? What organizations existed to capitalize on this opportunity? When did members of this disenfranchised minority realize their inherent agential power thereby experiencing cognitive liberation? What organizations did the movement spur? What response did the movement elicit from both the government and other citizens? How has the movement changed over the course of its existence? What factors have influenced this change? This chapter addresses these inquiries by studying the evolution of the American gay and lesbian movement throughout the post-World War II period.

World War II and the 1950s: Emerging Opportunity

The emergence of the gay and lesbian movement in the United States is often pinpointed to an exact date and time: 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, 28 June 1969. On this day, police officers raided a well-known gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. The police raid was not uncommon; however, the reaction of the patrons was extraordinary: they fought back, sparking two days and nights of riotous confrontation between approximately four hundred New York police officers and two thousand gay men and women, especially people of color (Cruickshank, 1992: 69; D’Emilio, 1983: 232). This event is so crucial because it signifies the emergence of group action among a previously docile, invisible, and seemingly powerless minority. Soon after the riots, various organizations including the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) were created to mobilize gay men and lesbians into a viable political force. As historian John D’Emilio notes, a curious contradiction developed between GLF rhetoric and the reality of the homosexual community. Activists of the early 1970s denounced the invisibility and silence that many felt characterized the homosexual lifestyle. However, leaders of liberation movement organizations demonstrated an uncanny ability to mobilize these supposedly silent and isolated masses: by the middle of the 1970s over one thousand gay and lesbian organizations existed in the United States (1983: 1-2). This apparent inconsistency can be resolved if we take D’Emilio’s advice: ‘clearly what the movement achieved and how lesbians and gay men responded to it belied the rhetoric of isolation and invisibility. Isolated men and women do not create, almost overnight, a mass movement premised upon a shared group identity’ (1983: 2). In other words, the gay and lesbian movement did not suddenly start at a given hour on a certain day following a specific event; rather, it embodies an historical process marked by diverse opportunities, multiple organizational networks, and instances, such as the Stonewall riots, which ushered in a shift in the personal perspectives of gay men and lesbians themselves.

D’Emilio suggests that the first significant opportunity for homosexual identity formation was World War II. The altered social conditions of the war, i.e., a sex-segregated society marked both by soldiers under the strain of warfare and a large influx of women into the domestic labor force, provided a critical opportunity for gay men and lesbians to come into contact with one another. The sex-segregated atmosphere created by militarization immensely disrupted the heterosexual patterns of peacetime life; this phenomenon is no more apparent than in the armed forces. First, by asking recruits if they had ever felt any erotic attraction for members of the same sex, the military was rupturing the silence that shrouded a tabooed behavior, some times introducing men to the concept for the first time (D’Emilio, 1983: 24). Second, the war brought previously isolated homosexuals together. Given that the recruits could merely lie about their sexual inclinations and that the draft preferred young and single men, it was likely that the armed forces would contain a disproportionately high percentage of gay men relative to civilian society (ibid.: 25). Third, heterosexual men sometimes engaged in ‘situational homosexuality’ to attain a level of physical intimacy deprived by the war experience (Vaid, 1995: 48). It was not uncommon for men to dance together at canteens, to share beds at hotels when on leave, or to share train berths while in transit (D’Emilio, 1983: 25-6). The critical point is not that the war experience fostered homoerotic feelings and a rise in homosexuality. Rather, the war’s disruption of the social environment provided theopportunity for homosexuals to meet, to realize others like themselves existed, and to abandon the isolation that characterized the homosexual lifestyle of the pre-war period. The war created a sexual situation where individuals with homosexual feelings or tendencies could more readily explore them without the absolute fear of exposure.

The return of peace brought the re-establishment of pre-war heterosexual gender norms. Yet, the war had enabled gay men and women to discover one another and to start building networks than could not easily be torn down. The immediate post-war years witnessed early forms of homosexual organizations and the proliferation of novels which featured gay characters and themes. The Veterans Benevolent Association was established by several honorably discharged gay men in New York City in 1945 to function as a social club for gay ex-servicemen hosting parties and dances. In Los Angeles, interracial homosexual couples organized the Knights of the Clock to discuss mutual problems (D’Emilio, 1983: 32). Claire Morgan’s The Price of Salt (1951) and Jo Sinclair’s The Wasteland (1946) relayed the stories of strong lesbians and their acceptance of their sexuality while Charlie Jackson’s The Fall of Valor (1946) discussed the homoerotic social environment experienced by men during the war. While these texts tended to bow to contemporary beliefs on homosexuality, portraying the characters as usually unhappy and fundamentally tragic, their publication signals a small opening of social mores and a shift in the traditional attitude toward homosexuality (D’Emilio, 1983: 32).

Gay subcultural institutions proliferated during the immediate post-war period. Gay bars, while more common in large cities such as New York City or Los Angeles before the war, opened in smaller cities such as Worcester, Massachusetts and Kansas City, Missouri (Berube, 1990: 271-2). The gay bar provided a relatively safe place for gay men to meet each other without having to maintain a façade of heterosexuality (D’Emilio, 1983: 32-3). The bars also shaped a gay identity that went beyond so-called individual ‘affliction’ toward a sense of community (Berube, 1990: 271). The gay bar therefore functioned as a vehicle by which to promote a primitive notion of collective identity before the 1970s’ era of gay liberation. As Urvashi Vaid (1995: 48) notes, the bars helped to establish a ‘nascent post-war community of gay men and women [which] was, like its nongay counterparts, ripe for political organizing. As the climate grew more overtly hostile toward gay men and lesbians, a new social movement came into being.’

Despite these advances in gay subcultural and community development, gay men, lesbians, and any other individuals who failed to fit into the heteronormative pattern of post-war life encountered oppression from the religious, legal, and medical fields. Judeo-Christian tradition denounced homosexuality as a sin. At this time, engaging in consensual homosexual sex was a criminal act throughout the United States. The medical sphere tended to view homosexuals as mentally ill (D’Emilio, 1983: 12). Yet, within this last field, homosexuals tended to make the most advances, even if such advances were indirect. Although widely discredited now, Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior of the Human Male and Sexual Behavior of the Human Female, published in 1948 and 1953 respectively, provided the most comprehensive study of the sexual behavior of caucasian Americans at the time (D’Emilio, 1983: 34). After interviewing more than 10,000 subjects of both sexes, Kinsey drafted a seven-point scale to detail the fluidity of sexual orientation in which at least 18 per cent of Americans did not consider themselves universally or mostly heterosexual (1948: 636-41, 650). Such results led Kinsey to conclude that ‘persons with homosexual histories are to be found in every age group, in every social level, in every conceivable occupation, in cities and on farms, and in the most remote areas of the country’ (ibid.: 627). These findings helped to tear away the ideological barriers that hindered equality for gays and lesbians by opening up for discussion the formerly taboo topic of sexuality. In short, the reports enlarged the already existing opportunity structure provided by the war; the political environment was ripening for the formation of a homosexual movement. Yet, the Kinsey reports were also utilized throughout the 1950s as ammunition against the increased visibility of homosexuality in the United States.

The onset of Cold War anti-Communist panic marked the 1950s as a decade rife with political repression. Communists were not the only target; individuals who did not conform to the mainstream heteronormative image reminiscent of the pre-war period were perceived as enemies of the state (Adam, 1995: 61). Amidst growing fears that homosexuals—one such non-conforming group—were infiltrating the highest levels of government and threatening national security, the Senate Investigations Subcommittee of the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Department began an inquiry in June of 1950 and released its report, ‘Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in the U.S. Government,’ in December of 1950. The report’s attack on homosexuals was twofold: it degraded the personal character of gay men and lesbians, and it contended that homosexuals embodied a threat to national security. The report used Kinsey’s conclusions regarding the higher prevalence of homosexuality than previously thought to promote a sense of paranoia: these diseased individuals were everywhere and, worse yet, they could not be detected by any physical features. The committee concluded that homosexuals exhibited emotional instability and moral weakness. According to the Senate report, employing homosexuals would not only put fellow workers at risk, but would endanger national integrity (Blasius and Phelan, 1997: 241-51). The report’s ultimate conclusion was that homosexuals were fundamentally unsuited for employment in the federal government. Between 1947 and 1950, the dismissal rate of homosexuals from an executive branch office averaged five per month (D’Emilio, 1983: 44; Adam, 1995: 62). Homosexuals were officially banned from the government with the passage of Executive Order 10450 under President Eisenhower in April of 1953 (D’Emilio, 1983: 44). In total, between 1947 and 1950, 1,700 applicants for government positions were turned away because of professed homosexuality, 4,380 individuals were discharged from military service, and 420 gay men and lesbians were dismissed or forced to resign from government posts (Adam, 1995: 62-3).

While the national government endorsed an anti-homosexual stance, gay men and lesbians encountered the more immediate danger of police harassment. Bar raids were prevalent. In the 1950s, approximately one hundred gay men were arrested each month in Philadelphia on misdemeanor charges, and approximately one thousand gay men were arrested each year in Washington, DC. During the 1953 New York City mayoral election, raids on gay bars increased dramatically (D’Emilio, 1983: 50-1). In 1954, after the murder of a gay man in Miami, one newspaper ‘demand[ed] that the homosexuals be punished for tempting “normals” to commit such deeds’ (Adam, 1995: 63). In such a seemingly backward environment where the victim was blamed for murder, the American Civil Liberties Union refused to support gay and bisexual individuals in their attempts to attain equality (Blasius and Phelan, 1997: 274-5).

World War II, coupled with the Kinsey studies of the late 1940s created the opportunity for men and women unsure of their sexual orientation or already aware of their homosexuality or bisexuality to meet others like themselves. The proliferation of gay bars enabled the community development and identity formation started by the war to continue. However, military and government witch hunts and bar raids continued to demonstrate the enormous challenges that gay men and lesbians encountered daily. The increasing attacks on homosexuals may have promoted community development by making homosexuality a topic for national-level discourse; indeed, sociologists Barry Adam, Jan Willem Duyvendak, and Andre Krouwel (1999: 344), found that ‘politicization of a social group seems to be facilitated, rather than hampered, when political repression is evident but not too strong.’ D’Emilio (1983: 52) makes a similar point by contending that these attacks ‘hastened the articulation of homosexual identity and spread the knowledge that they [gay men and women] existed in large numbers …. Ironically, the effort to root out the homosexuals in American society made it easier for them to find one another.’ Even if they could find one another, the widespread condemnation of homosexuality would lead many gays and lesbians to consider homosexuality to be an individual problem indicative not of injustice but disease (ibid.: 53). Nevertheless, the juxtaposition of the opportunity provided by World War II for gay men and lesbians to explore their identity and the subsequent repressive environment of the 1950s fostered a dissonant atmosphere from which the first politically active gay and lesbian organizations emerged.

1960S: Coming Together and Early Organizing

Founded by Harry Hay in April of 1951 in Los Angeles and modeled after the communist party, the Mattachine Society was the first organization of what would become the homophile movement (Adam, 1995: 67-8). The secret hierarchical and cell-like structure was necessitated, according to the founders, by the oppressive environment fostered by McCarthyism. Yet, Mattachine drew on communism for more than an organizational template; Marxist ideology laid the blueprints to mobilize a mass homosexual constituency for political action. Adapting a Marxist understanding of class politics, Hay and the other founding members theorized that homosexuals constituted an oppressed minority group. Homosexuals, like members of the proletariat, were trapped in a state of false consciousness purported and defended by the heterosexual majority which maintained homosexuality to be a morally reprehensible individual aberration (D’Emilio, 1983: 65-6). Hence, the early Mattachine attempted to promote a measure of cognitive liberation and homosexual collective identity; it advocated the development of a group consciousness similar to that of other ethnic minority groups in the United States. Mattachine, under Hay’s direction, whether intentional or not, was capitalizing on a master frame which has had a great deal of cultural resonance in the United States: minority demands for civil rights. By asserting that homosexuals constituted a minority comparable to recognized ethnic groups, Mattachine defined itself rather than being defined by the dominant culture: homosexuality was distinct from and morally equivalent to heterosexuality. Furthermore, the comparison to ethnic minorities provided a model for action: homosexuals should follow the lead of other groups and politically organize for equal civil rights (Vaid, 1995: 52).

By 1953, the Mattachine Society had an estimated 2000 members and one hundred discussion groups stretching from San Diego to Santa Monica, California (Vaid, 1995: 71). Given the rise of McCarthyism, some members became increasingly uncomfortable with the organization’s secretive structure and leftist orientation. In order to mitigate growing dissension, the original five members called for a convention in April of 1953 to convert the Mattachine Society into an above-ground organization. The conference exacerbated the division between moderate and militant perspectives. Hay and the other founders were confronted by demands that emphasized assimilation and suggested that homosexual behavior was a minor characteristic that should not create a rift with the heterosexual majority (ibid.: 77). The growing fears about the current leaders’ communist backgrounds led to a dramatic shift in leadership. The assimilationist tendency gained control of the organization and steered it towards what D’Emilio (1983) calls a ‘retreat to respectability.’

Abandoning its communist-based ideology, the post-convention Mattachine Society no longer sought to promote a homosexual culture or mass movement. Instead, it perceived homosexuality as primarily an individual problem, and it turned to psychology to provide theories on homosexuality. The new leadership proposed and members endorsed the elimination of any mention of ‘homosexual culture’ from the statement of purpose. One, the organization’s magazine established in 1953 and devoted to topics relating to homosexuality, remained vibrant, attracting the more radical elements of the Mattachine (D’Emilio, 1983: 85, 87-9).

By the end of 1955, Mattachine Society chapters were set up in San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. On September 21, 1955, another homophile organization, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), was established by four lesbian couples in San Francisco, though Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are credited with maintaining it in early years (D’Emilio, 1983: 89, 102). This organization, similar to the assimilationist Mattachine, emphasized education and self-help activities. The DOB’s ‘Statement of Purpose’ cites as its main goals ‘education of the variant, with particular emphasis on the psychological, physiological and sociological aspects, to enable her [the lesbian] to understand herself and make her adjustment to society in all its social, civic, and economic implications’ (Blasius and Phelan, 1997: 328). Despite its commitment to legal reform, stated as its final aim in its statement of purpose, the DOB functioned ultimately as a safe meeting space for lesbians and bisexual women who did not feel comfortable in the lesbian bar scene (D’Emilio, 1983: 104). In contrast to the early Mattachine, the DOB had no interest in collectively organizing lesbians for political action; it had no agenda to promote group identity. Its main function, like that of the latter Mattachine, was to integrate the homosexual into heterosexual society by de-emphasizing sexual difference and seeking acceptance from the majority culture.

Relative to gay men, lesbians had to navigate a dual identity that suffered a dual oppression. Lesbians were oppressed because they were lesbians, but also more generally because they were women; consequently, an internal debate erupted in many women about whether to remain active in the homophile movement through DOB or whether to defect to the women’s movement through networks such as the National Organization of Women. Personifying this struggle, activist Shirley Willer, in a 1966 address to the National Planning Committee of Homophile Organizations, contended that problems such as police harassment and sodomy law, which seemed to make up the majority of the homophile agenda, did not affect women (Marotta, 1981: 52-3). Willer further claimed that ‘there has been little evidence however, that the male homosexual has any intention of making common cause with us [lesbians]. We suspect that should the male homosexual achieve his particular objective in regard to his homosexuality he might possibly become more of an adamant foe of women’s rights that the heterosexual male has been’(Blasius and Phelan, 1997: 344). Such harsh comments were mitigated by Willer’s simultaneous desire to maintain the DOB’s participation in the homophile movement so as to at least expand the perspective of the male-dominated movement.

The ascension of the moderate perspective did not drown out more radical voices seeking direct action. One such radical was Frank Kameny who started a Washington, DC, branch of the Mattachine Society (MSW) in 1961. In a speech given to the Mattachine Society of New York (MSNY) in 1964, Kameny was angered by the homophile preoccupation with discovering a cause of homosexuality and the deferment to the psychology establishment’s labeling of homosexuality as a mental sickness. Homosexuality, in Kameny’s view, was not an illness; it was a characteristic of a particular group of people. In his speech he utilized the cultural frame established by the African-American civil rights movement. He contended

I do not see the NAACP or CORE worrying about which chromosome and gene produces black skin or about the possibility of bleaching the Negro. I do not see any great interest on the part of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League in the possibility of solving the problems of anti-semitism by converting Jews to Christians … we are interested in obtaining rights for our respective minorities as Negroes, as Jews, and as homosexuals. Why we are Negroes, Jews, or homosexuals is totally irrelevant, and whether we can be changed to whites, Christians, or heterosexuals is equally irrelevant. (Marrota, 1981: 24)

Beyond a mere scolding of current homophile leaders for guiding the movement down a path that failed to lead to homosexual equality, the above passage reveals a resurgence of the ethnic minority model utilized by Hay and the founders of Mattachine. Yet, by the middle and late 1960s, activists no longer had to rely on Marxist ideology to learn about the development of collective consciousness and social insurgence. Kameny drew on the burgeoning civil rights movements and feminist movements in the United States. Both of these movements, especially the later stages in which black power and radical feminism took hold, exemplified the development of New Left politics. The New Left engendered renewed militancy in the homophile movement and led to a situation ripe for the emergence of a gay rights movement by the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s.

While various organizations of the homophile movement were mired in an unending moderate versus militant debate, mainstream attitudes toward homosexuality continued to inch toward a more liberal perspective. The Mattachine Society successfully defended its right to publish The Mattachine Review to the US Supreme Court in 1958. Throughout the 1960s, gay and lesbian-oriented novels such as Jean Genet’s Our Lady of Flowers, Herbert Selby’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, and John Rechy’s City of Night were published. Bestsellers of the decade including Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent and James Baldwin’sAnother Country contained gay characters and gay-themed subplots. In October of 1961, the Production Code Administration of Hollywood allowed homosexuality to be portrayed in film. In 1962 and 1963, films such as The Children s Hour, Walk on the Wild Side, and The Best Man all had gay characters; however, they usually portrayed the gay and lesbian characters as experiencing some kind of tragic end, thereby reinforcing common tropes of loneliness and self-destructive behavior stereotypically linked to homosexuality. In December of 1963, The New York Times published a front-page feature detailing the emergence of a gay subculture, and related articles appeared in Newsweek, Time, Harpers, and Life (D’Emilio, 1983: 134-9). In 1961, Illinois became the first state to adopt the Model Legal Code of the American Law Institute that decriminalized private consensual homosexual sex (Adam, 1995: 75).

Relative to the previous decade, the 1960s embodied a great deal of reform and liberalization of attitudes toward homosexuality. In the legal field, this change was not necessarily represented through an actual alteration or repeal of existing laws, but rather a broadening of support among the heterosexual community for an expansion of civil rights and the attainment of some measures of gay and lesbian equality. For example, only Illinois and Connecticut repealed their anti-sodomy legislation; however, Americans for Democratic Action, the New York Liberal Party, and Wisconsin’s Young Democrats accepted the principle of a basic right to private consensual sex. The supreme courts of California, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania all recognized the basic right of gay men and women to congregate thereby providing legal protection to gay bars and recognition of the growing gay subculture. More gay-related legal cases were reaching federal appellate courts. Between 1960 and 1964 only 12 cases were heard, but this number increased 250 per cent between 1965 and 1969. Finally, in 1967, the ACLU accepted the premise that individuals have a fundamental right to privacy, reversed its policy towards homosexuals, and guaranteed them legal support (D’Emilio, 1983: 211-13).

In the medical field, the model of homosexuality as indicative of mental illness came under increasing attack. In 1967, Evelyn Hooker was appointed by the National Institute of Mental Health to study homosexuality; the investigative committee’s report, released in 1969, gave credence to the liberal notion that human sexuality covered a wide spectrum of behavior and that homosexuals exhibited no inherent signs of mental illness (D’Emilio, 1983: 215-17). In short, the political and cultural environment had undergone a liberalizing shift that created the opportunity for the emergence of a mass homosexual movement. Despite this increasingly liberal environment and consequent ripening of opportunity, and despite a multitude of gay and lesbian organizations throughout the country, a mass gay rights movement failed to materialize at this time for three reasons. First, few examples of the positive effects of gay mobilization existed. Coming out was considered too risky if social change had not yet been proven to be feasible, and the DOB and Mattachine had yet to demonstrate their ability to make any significant political changes. Second, while the political environment was entertaining more debate on homosexuality both in popular culture and medical circles, the vast majority of this debate was led by heterosexuals (D’Emilio, 1983: 124-5, 147). Third, the homophile movement, after the 1953 convention and before the resurgence of militancy, engaged in the paradoxical process of disassembling itself. By advocating that homosexuals should assimilate, and that the only difference between homosexuality and heterosexuality was fundamentally unimportant, it destroyed any possibility of mass mobilization because it devastated the potential for collective identity formation (Marotta, 1981: 68). Not until many more gay men and women were willing to participate, overcome their self-perception as mentally ill or isolated, and recognize homosexuals as an oppressed minority with potential for collective action, would a full movement become possible.

1970s: Coming Out and Cognitive Liberation

What we now perceive as the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) movement at the beginning of the twenty-first century planted its roots in the 1970s; however, the movement that took shape in that decade bears little resemblance to its modern form of various and highly organized state and national-level organizations. To conceive of a gay and lesbian rights movement in the 1970s is to confront a decentralized history of numerous short-lived organizations, clashing personalities, grassroots, local, and state-level activism, the rise of a religiously-based conservative backlash, and the curious denouement of a movement before it seemingly reached political climax. The struggle for gay and lesbian rights in the 1970s unfolded in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Miami, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Eugene, Oregon, and Wichita, Kansas. The cast of activists is wide and varied: Craig Rodwell, Jim Owles, Jim Fouratt, Marty Robinson, Frank Kameny, Elaine Noble, Harvey Milk, Virginia Apuzzo, Barbara Gittings, Rita Mae Brown, Bruce Voeller, Steve Endean, Kerry Woodward, Jean O’Leary, Midge Costanza, Reverend Troy Perry, Barney Frank, Allan Spear, David Goodstein, Sheldon Andelson, David Mixner, and countless others. For the first time, the gay and lesbian rights movement attracted nationally-known or soon-to-be-known politicians: Senator Edward Kennedy, President Jimmy Carter, President Ronald Reagan, Governor Jerry Brown, Senator Diane Feinstein, and Washington, DC, Mayor, Marion Barry among others.

The movement engendered a powerful countermovement. Spearheaded by Anita Bryant’s ‘Save Our Children’ Campaign to repeal Dade County, Florida’s gay rights ordinance, the message of traditional family values, carried forth by Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, led to a rash of anti-gay initiatives and/or the repeal of recently-won expanded civil rights protections inclusive of sexual orientation throughout the late 1970s. Yet, as the movement took shape in the 1970s, it suffered also from repeated internal fractures as lesbians fought to distinguish and ultimately separate from a gay male culture seemingly preoccupied with sodomy reform and other laws related to sexual activity. It struggled through each internal rupture managing to establish numerous lobby organizations and political action committees including the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activist Alliance, the National Gay Task Force, the Municipal Elections Committee of Los Angeles, and the Gay Rights National Lobby. The decade ended with the unprecedented March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights on 14 October 1979 that attracted anywhere from the Parks Service estimate of 25,000 to marchers’ estimate of 250,000 participants (Clendinen and Nagourney, 1999: 408).

By the end of the decade the political side of the gay and lesbian rights movement almost seemed to fizzle faster than any of its predecessors. Spun out of similar concerns that grounded the civil rights and feminist movements, the gay and lesbian rights movement emerged as much of the leftist energy began to wane and as the national culture turned conservative. Having established a vibrant culture and exuberant lifestyle in safe enclaves of San Francisco’s Castro or New York City’s Greenwich Village, the movement appeared to de-politicize just as it acquired the numbers, public visibility, and cultural confidence to become political. Characterizing the culture of the gay male community as it entered the 1980s, Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney note: ‘These men had no inkling of gay liberation … and, by all appearances, very little notion of oppression, at least now that they had escaped their hometowns for the gay life of San Francisco. Gay liberation had somehow evolved into the right to have a good time—the right to enjoy bars, discos, drugs and frequent impersonal sex’ (1999: 445). Afraid to come out of the closet at the end of the 1960s, only ten years later gay men enjoyed an unprecedented hedonism that pushed political activism into an increasingly secondary position relative to embracing the new liberating gay lifestyle.

Gay liberation, in part, evolved from one transcendental moment which symbolized the shift from victim to empowered agent and came in the late evening of Friday, June 27, 1969 at a seedy gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village. Patrons of this particular bar ranged in age from late teens to early thirties and included what historian Toby Marotta (1981: 74) has called ‘particularly unconventional homosexuals,’ e.g., street hustlers and drag queens. When officers raided the bar, numerous customers did not flee the scene. As the police arrested some drag queens, the crowd became restless, and, as escapes were attempted, rioting broke out. The July 3, 1969 edition of The Village Voice reported that:

Limp wrists were forgotten. Beer cans and bottles were heaved at the windows and a rain of coins descended on the cops. … Almost by signal the crowd erupted into cobblestone and bottle heaving … From nowhere came an uprooted parking meter—used as a battering ram on the Stonewall door. I heard several cries of ‘let’s get some gas,’ but the blaze of flame which soon appeared in the window of the Stonewall was still a shock. (D’Emilio, 1983: 232)

Perhaps their unconventionality freed these rioters from more reserved tactics; they could rebel because their personal circumstances enabled them to proclaim their homosexuality without the threat of gravely negative circumstances. Before the end of the evening, approximately two thousand individuals battled nearly four hundred police officers (D’Emilio, 1983: 232).

On Saturday morning a message was haphazardly scrawled on one of the bar’s boarded-up windows: ‘THEY INVADED OUR RIGHTS … LEGALIZE GAY BARS, SUPPORT GAY POWER’ (Duberman, 1993: 202). Rioting continued Saturday evening; by most accounts, it was less violent than the previous evening. On Sunday morning a new sign was posted on the outside of the bar: WE HOMOSEXUALS PLEAD WITH OUR PEOPLE TO PLEASE HELP MAINTAIN PEACEFUL AND QUIET CONDUCT ON THE STREETS OF THE VILLAGE—MATTACHINE’ (ibid.: 207). These two messages encapsulate the growing rift of ideology in the existing homophile movement. The former advocated a militant, adversarial, and radical position while the latter maintained more staid and conformist tactics. The use of words such as ‘gay’ as opposed to ‘homosexual’ indicate a radical shift in self-perception. Phrases such as ‘gay power’ belie how dependent the gay liberation movement was on the precedent-setting cultural frames used by both the black power and radical feminist movements.

The movements that embodied the New Left—the student movement, the anti-war movement, the black power movement, and the feminist movement—began to utilize a new vocabulary to describe their present circumstances. Instead of viewing themselves in terms of discrimination, minority groups spoke of structural oppression inherent in the capitalist system. Instead of aiming for equality and integration, the goal shifted to liberation and self-determination (D’Emilio, 1983: 224-5). These movements represented a new blend of politics and culture that moved beyond standard Marxist concentration on economic class to incorporate other areas of oppression that were perhaps now more relevant. Black power perceived oppression as fundamentally racial; feminism introduced the notion of gender as systematically enforced; and gay liberationists contended that underlying sexism was heterosexism (ibid.: 224-8; D’Emilio and Freedman, 1988: 321-1; Echols, 1989: 6-11, 15-18). Gay men and lesbians often participated in both the civil rights and feminist movement, although often without disclosing their sexual orientation. Carl Whitman, who wrote ‘A Gay Manifesto’ in 1970, was a national president for Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Robin Morgan, Charlotte Bunch, and Leslie Kagan were lesbians who were all heavily affiliated with the women’s movement (Vaid, 1995, 56). Yet, despite the New Left’s commitment to equality, the movements that composed it were rampant with sexism and homophobia. Stokely Charmichael, one of the leaders of the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, remarked that ‘the only position for a woman in the SNCC is prone’ (Adam, 1995: 79) and that ‘homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape or wanting to be head of General Motors’ (Marotta, 1981: 135).

The gay liberation theory which emerged in the post-Stonewall era was essentially New Leftist in that it was not concerned with the goals of gays and lesbians alone, but with overturning the white male hegemony that characterized modern capitalism. The theory entailed a shift away from the class-based Marxist principles to a struggle over cultural representation. By asserting that all individuals were innately sexually androgynous, gay liberation theory attempted to obliterate the boundaries of the patriarchal gender dynamic that insist on masculine/feminine and homo/hetero division (Seidman, 1993: 109-13). Gay liberationists contended that since they questioned hetero-sexuality itself, they were necessarily combating notions of sexism. In this sense, they saw themselves as not only integrally tied to the New Left but as the vanguard of New Left political action (Seidman, 1993: 115).

Liberation theory was organizationally embodied in the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Gay men and women, but especially the former, disgusted with the moderate tactics and assimilationist aims of the New York Mattachine Society, established this new organization in July of 1969 as a militant arm of the New Left. The GLF proclaimed itself to be ‘a revolutionary homosexual group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished’ (D’Emilio and Freedman, 1988: 322). The GLF was not preoccupied with discriminatory employment practices, ending police harassment, or repealing of anti-sodomy laws. The GLF made no explicit statement on the attempt to achieve civil rights legislation or work through the existing political system at all. Rather, as its name suggests, the organization sought liberation from constraint inherent in capitalism itself. It intended to work in concert with all oppressed minorities: women, blacks, workers, and the third world for revolutionary social change (Marotta, 1981: 88-91).

In order to end structural oppression, the GLF, following the lead of radical feminists, sponsored consciousness-raising sessions. Consciousness-raising served to bring gay men and women together, to share their experiences, and to discover commonality. Similarity of experience fostered a collective identity. It also encouraged the notion that such similarity could not exist if oppression were not inherent in the system itself (Adam, 1995: 83; Jay and Young, 1992: 193-7). The liberationist ideology that infused consciousness-raising sessions inspired cognitive liberation; it provided gay men and women with a basis to reject legal, medical, and religious definitions of homosexuality and, for the first time, to define themselves. Such definition is apparent in the name ‘Gay Liberation Front.’ The term homosexual was imposed upon gay men and women by the medical establishment as a term of illness. The term ‘homophile’ symbolized the assimilationist tactics of the Mattachine and DOB (Marotta, 1981: 91). Radicals chose the word ‘gay’ because it was how homosexuals referred to each other; the word symbolized self-definition and, as such, was a recognition of internal power.

Gay liberation also fundamentally restructured the definition of ‘coming out’ in order to build and strengthen a mass movement. Whereas the phrase had previously referred to an individual acknowledgment of homosexuality to oneself, gay liberationists transformed it into an extremely public and political act. Coming out symbolized a total rejection of the negative definitions that society inflicted on the homosexual and substituted both acceptance and pride in one’s gayness. Coming out was the ultimate means to conflate the personal and political. Coming out was no longer perceived as a simple onetime act, but as the adoption of an affirmative identity (D’Emilio and Freedman, 1988: 322-3). Furthermore, by acknowledging one’s homosexuality, a person exposed himself or herself to social injustice ranging from verbal discrimination to physical violence. Hence, individuals who did come out had a personal tie to the success of a gay liberation movement (D’Emilio, 1983: 236). Through the process of coming out, the victim status was discarded; homosexuality was transformed from a stigma to be hidden to a source of pride to celebrated. Indeed, by coming out, the homosexual became gay. Coming out was the necessary psychological break necessary to do what the homophile movement could never accomplish—attract a large following.

The ideology of liberation was that critical element that had been missing from the earlier attempts to mobilize gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals. Even if individuals did not actively participate in the political movement, notions of prideful identity trickled into the subculture. Yet, despite their importance in promoting mobilization and insurgency, the GLF, like Mattachine before it, was soon wracked with internal division. The disagreement centered on the extent to which the GLF should foster the aims of other New Left organizations as opposed to focusing on gay oppression as a single issue. Numerous activists—including Arthur Evans, Jim Owles, and Marty Robinson—contended that the GLF was spreading its energy too thin, that its meetings devolved into tedious theoretical discussions that never manifested action, and that its avoidance of hierarchical structure fostered a fundamentally disorganized group (Adam, 1995: 86-7; Marotta, 1981: 140-7). Recognizing the benefits of the liberationist philosophy, i.e., the emphasis on consciousness-raising and coming out, and also understanding that MSNY was too mild and regressive, these activists established an organization in December of 1969 that lay between these two extremes: the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA). The GAA stressed working within the system to promote improvement in the everyday concerns of gay men and women by sponsoring candidates, holding rallies, converting its firehouse headquarters into a fund-raising massive gay disco on the weekends, and utilizing chaotic mixes of street theater and politics called zaps to attain media attention. Indeed, its first act, the promotion of a gay rights bill prohibiting employment discrimination against gays and lesbians, could not have more starkly marked the different guiding principles of the GLF and GAA (Clendinen and Nagourney, 1999: 50-6).

As the 1970s progressed and the ideological rift between a single-issue and multi-issue perspective widened, the movement experienced further gender-based schisms. The dual oppression of lesbians strained their allegiance to the women’s movement and the gay liberation movement. In the late 1960s, Betty Friedan denounced lesbianism as a ‘lavender menace’ that threatened the integrity and credibility of feminism. Yet, in 1971, following the Second Congress to Unite Women in New York, NOW reversed its stance declaring that the oppression of lesbians was a legitimate feminist issue. With the women’s movement’s relative acceptance of lesbians, women began to abandon the gay movement in increasing numbers between 1971 and 1973 (Adam, 1995: 99-103). The GLF and GAA, which were overwhelmingly male from their beginnings, tended to ignore the structural oppression which lesbians faced as women. As activist Marie Robertson claimed, ‘Gay liberation, when we get right down to it, is the struggle for gay men to achieve approval for the only thing that separates them from the “Man”—their sexual preference’ (Adam, 1995: 99). Gay organizations responded to the female exodus too late and often viewed these lesbians with confusion and/or resentment as they established an autonomous feminist-lesbian subculture throughout the decade.

The 1970s ushered in an entirely new stage of gay and lesbian rights. Whereas the GLF had collapsed by 1973, the cognitive liberation produced by a redefinition of ‘coming out’ and homosexuality itself profoundly affected gays throughout the nation. While the revolution for which liberationist theorists hoped never occurred, the movement witnessed incredible growth. In 1969, before the Stonewall riot, fifty homophile organizations existed in the United States; by 1973, there were over eight hundred gay and lesbian groups, and by the end of the decade they numbered into the thousands. One such organization, the National Gay Task Force established in 1973 and renamed the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in 1986, would become one of the leading LGBT rights organizations in the United States. Gay bars continued to proliferate, but now gay-friendly and gay-owned health clinics, book stores, cafés, law offices, travel agencies, and churches and synagogues (most notably Troy Perry’s Metropolitan Community Church) also sprang up. In 1974, the American Psychiatric Association de-listed homosexuality from its register of mental illnesses. In 1975, the ban on gays in the Civil Service was lifted (D’Emilio and Freedman, 1988: 324). The gay press expanded, producing magazines and newspapers such as The Advocate, Washington Blade, Gay Community News, Philadelphia Gay News, and the Windy City Times(Vaid, 1995: 66). Before the end of the decade, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles, San Franciso, Houston, and Washington, DC, incorporated sexual preference into their civil rights codes. Openly gay and lesbian officials were elected to office including Elaine Noble to the Massachusetts State Assembly, Karen Clark and Allen Spear to the Minnesota State Assembly, and Harvey Milk to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. In 1980, the Democratic Party adopted a gay and lesbian rights plank at the national convention and an African-American gay man, Mel Boozer, was nominated to be the Democratic Vice Presidential candidate (D’Emilio and Freedman, 1988, 324; Shilts, 1988: 32). Before the end of the decade, a national gay and lesbian civil rights bill had been introduced in both the House and Senate (Clendinen and Nagourney, 1999: 405, 426). As historian Dennis Altman notes, the 1970s produced a gay male that was ‘non-apologetic about his sexuality, self-assertive, highly consumerist and not at all revolutionary, though prepared to demonstrate for gay rights’ (1971: 52). Perhaps the most stunning example of the effect that cognitive liberation had on the growth of the moment is that the July 4, 1969 march at Independence Hall in Philadelphia attracted seventy-five participants, whereas the first National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights on 14 October 1979—a mere decade later – attracted between 100,000 and 200,000 participants (Duberman, 1993: 209; Vaid, 1995: 67).

Despite these strides, by the end of the decade a new political conservatism swept across the nation and the gay and lesbian movement encountered an active New Right counter-movement. Anita Bryant spearheaded ‘Save Our Children’ and rallied for the repeal of a gay rights ordinance in Dade County, Florida, in 1977. Following Bryant’s precedent, recently passed gay rights ordinances were repealed in Wichita, Kansas, Eugene, Oregon, and St. Paul, Minnesota (Clendinen and Nagourney, 1999: 290-330). These defeats fostered a massive initiative to prevent passage of the Proposition 6 (the Briggs Initiative) in California. This bill, which advocated the removal of homosexual teachers from public schools, was defeated 58 to 42 per cent after then-Governor Ronald Reagan came out against it (Clendinen and Nagourney, 1999: 377-390). San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated on 11 November, 1978 by Dan White, an ex-Supervisor; White was convicted of manslaughter and received a sentence of eight years and seven months. Shock at the lenient sentencing on 21 May 1979 led to riots at San Francisco’s City Hall. By the end of the 1970s, opportunity for movement expansion dissipated. Gay liberation as a tenable ideology had died, the movement was weakened by diverse aims among gay men and lesbians, and political conservatism bolstered by a growing radical Christian right began to tear away at the inroads that movement organizations had made earlier in the decade. In short, the 1970s ushered into existence and concretized a highly visible gay male and lesbian culture. By the end of the decade, gay politics appeared to be subsumed by an ever-expanding gay cultural lifestyle; however, the increased visibility and attention given to that subculture by both mainstream media and a backlashing counter-movement testify to the political impact of that cultural visibility. By the early 1980s, gay and lesbian rights were being actively debated at all levels of government despite or because gay cultural institutions were coming out of the closet. Yet, the nature and content of these debates on civil rights and privacy would dramatically shift after the discovery of a microscopic retrovirus that would come to be known as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

1980s: The Double-Edged Impact of AIDS

In 1981, The New York Times reported that five gay men had acquired a curious cancer; in the nineteen years since its discovery, over 300,000 Americans have died from that disease now identified as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), approximately 210,000 of whom were gay men (Vaid, 1995: 72, 81). If only measured in terms of its massively destructive impact, AIDS has fundamentally altered the gay and lesbian movement. Yet, to measure the disease’s influence only by positioning the death rate within a specific community dramatically and dangerously oversimplifies how AIDS has affected the movement. In numerous ways, the AIDS crisis produced a variety of positive externalities; however, not only did AIDS provide further anti-gay fodder for the New Right, it also spawned a related but distinct movement increasingly in competition with the equal rights agenda of the gay and lesbian movement. The AIDS movement had distinct aims from the gay and lesbian movement, but, perhaps more importantly, it achieved those aims through strategies never conceived as possible by gay rights activists in the 1970s. AIDS, therefore, dramatically shifted the tactics of sexual minority movement organizations throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The most immediate impact of AIDS was the incredible rapidity with which it spread throughout the 1980s. By the end of 1981, 225 cases were reported nationwide. In the spring of 1983, this increased to 1,400; only two years later, AIDS cases rose by over 900 per cent to 15,000. In 1987, this figure increased to 40,000 cases reported (D’Emilio and Freedman, 1988: 354). The disease’s seemingly unstoppable nature coupled with the government and mainstream media’s silence and lack of concern regarding both the virus itself and its most prominent class of victims in the United States, i.e., gay men, forced the gay community to mobilize itself. Hundreds of community-based organizations including Shanti, Coming Home Hospice, Project Open Hand of San Francisco, and, most notably, Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), developed to provide services to individuals coping with the virus (Cruikshank, 1992: 182). The sexual minorities community also shaped the early response by supporting more open and frank discussions of sexuality in the media and by spearheading campaigns for ‘safer sex’ (Adam, 1995: 157-8).

The onset of the AIDS crisis also fostered a dramatic increase in the amount of people who were willing to come out. The lack of an adequate response from the Reagan and Bush administrations forced gay men and women to believe that they were being abandoned by their government. Gay men who would not publicly express their homosexuality in the pre-AIDS era were becoming involved. GMHC itself was started by men who were relatively uninvolved in gay and lesbian politics during the 1970s including Larry Kramer, Nathan Fair, Paul Popham, Paul Rapoport, Larry Mass, and Edmund White. Many of these individuals brought money, contacts, and business experience that pre-AIDS organizations never mustered (D’Emilio and Freedman, 1988: 356; Vaid, 1995: 91; Clendinen and Nagourney, 1999: 460).

As AIDS also forced a variety of celebrities out of the closet, the most notable of whom was Rock Hudson in 1986, it received expanding media coverage. By extension, the visibility of the gay and lesbian community dramatically increased. Books such as And the Band Played On by Randy Shilts, published in 1987, and films including Philadelphia, released in 1993, demonstrated the greater willingness of heterosexuals to come to terms with both the AIDS epidemic and a politically active gay and lesbian minority (Bersani, 1995: 17-9). Linking gay visibility with AIDS explicitly, Urvashi Vaid (1995: 81) notes that ‘perversely put, we won visibility for gay and lesbian lives because we died in record numbers.’ Gay visibility also increased as a result of many pre-AIDS organizations becoming nationally-oriented in order to lobby the government more effectively for support. While gay liberation was predominantly a grassroots and local political movement, the AIDS movement functioned at a national level. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) moved its headquarters from New York City to Washington DC, and the ACLU hired a lobbyist specifically to cover AIDS issues for its Washington office (Vaid, 1995: 74). Hence, AIDS enabled gay and lesbian politics to be heard in national public policy debates and electoral politics. Whereas most gay movement interest groups had acted with local and state political institutions, they now began to promote agenda implementation through Congress and the office of the President.

AIDS also re-established and strengthened gay male ties with both the lesbian and straight communities. Lesbians often wavered in their commitment to the gay movement throughout the 1970s, opting to join the feminist movement instead and fostering an independent subculture focusing on women’s needs and marked by women-only festivals, bookstores, and cafés. AIDS, or rather the Right’s exploitation of and the government’s ignorance of AIDS, showed many lesbians and bisexual women that homophobia was still deeply ingrained in American culture (Vaid, 1995: 89). Furthermore, the families of people with AIDS (PWAs) became involved in movement politics, taking part in marches such as the 1987 March on Washington for National Gay and Lesbian Rights. AIDS and straight allies featured prominently in this demonstration, which attracted approximately 650,000 participants. The Names Project AIDS Quilt was displayed on the Washington, DC, Mall on 11 October 1987, and the parents of PWAs were invited to lead a candlelight march that evening (Rofes, 1990, in Blasius and Phelan, 1997: 654). Whereas the gay liberation movement of the 1970s attracted predominantly young countercultural white participants, the AIDS movement of the 1980s attracted Caucasians, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Latinos, women, men, gays, straights, and bisexuals.

Finally, the intransigence of the Reagan and Bush administrations as well as the relative lack of visibility in the more mainstream press revitalized direct action protest tactics reminiscent of the liberationist zaps of the 1970s. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was created in March 1987 to promote media attention for the AIDS crisis in hopes of raising universal awareness and acquiring political leverage. ACT UP espoused a democratic and participatory culture reminiscent of the GLF; it often belittled more reform-orientated and ‘political insider’ organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign or GMHC for working too slowly and utilizing behind-the-scene tactics that were so-called undemocratic and failed to represent anyone except the middle-class gay white male (Vaid, 1995: 94-102). ACT UP was bolstered by the above-mentioned silence of the Republican-dominated executive branch, its visibility at the 1987 March on Washington, increased media coverage, and the inability of more conservative AIDS groups to compete for participants. On 11 October 1987, the day following the March, 5,000 individuals staged a National Civil Disobedience protest on the steps of the Supreme Court. The demonstration ignited enthusiasm for such activism. ACT UP’s popularity derived from its ability to acquire media exposure even if only in the short term. ACT UP’s rallies, speak-outs, placard-painting, and leaflet-distribution represented a wide range of participatory opportunities and were all oriented to attract media coverage.

However, just as AIDS enabled many of these positive externalities—media visibility, further political organization at the local and national levels, expanded support from both the gay and straight communities, a resurgence of direct action—many of these same benefits carried with them negative impacts on the movement. To mention nothing of the death toll or the vehement attack orchestrated by the New Right, AIDS engendered negative visibility for the gay, lesbian, and bisexual community, fundamentally derailed the movement’s original agenda from equal rights to medical and social service provision, and produced an offshoot movement utilizing different methods and having distinct goals.

The New Right exploited AIDS as a weapon with which to maintain inequality, to overturn the achievements of the 1970s, and to return the nation to an era of more traditional heteronormative values. After fighting and winning the de-listing of homosexuality as a mental illness, gays and lesbians now confronted conservatives’ use of AIDS to re-link homosexuality with sickness. Two-time Republican candidate for President, Pat Buchanan, furthered the myth that AIDS was a gay disease: ‘The poor homosexuals—they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution’ (The Gay Almanac, 1996: 77). Conservatives discussed quarantining early-identified high risk groups, i.e., gay men, IV drug users, and black and Hispanic men. The United States military imposed mandatory testing. Congress required all immigrants to be tested and forbade entry to anyone who was HIV-positive. Bathhouses and bars, staples of the gay subculture, shut down in record numbers (D’Emilio and Freedman, 1988: 354; Adam, 1995: 155). The ultimate legislative achievement of the New Right was the passage of the Helms Amendment in 1987 which prohibited the use of federal funds to ‘provide Aids education, information, or prevention materials and activities that promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual sexual activities’(133 Congressional Record, 14 October 1987, S14216 in Stychin, 1995: 50).

Far more damaging than any attack from conservatives was the derailing effect AIDS had on the celebratory concepts of coming out and gayness introduced by gay liberation philosophy. The visibility that AIDS conferred on gay men and women was characterized by prominent queer theorist Leo Bersani (1995: 21) as ‘the visibility of imminent death, of promised invisibility. Straight America can rest its gaze on us, let us do our thing over and over in the media, because what our attentive fellow citizens see is the pathos and impotence of a doomed species.’ In this analysis, homophobic reactions in the media are declining because AIDS has essentially usurped the role of the homophobe.

In an effort to attain media coverage and government support in combating the virus, many gay and lesbian organizations attempted to ‘de-gay’ AIDS and de-sexualize homosexuality. Existing institutionalized homophobia meant that AIDS could not be successfully combated if it was continually thought of as a ‘gay disease.’ In promoting the truthful notion that heterosexuals were also susceptible, the gay and lesbian movement abandoned the overarching and long-term aims of equality and fighting institutionalized homophobia for the immediate need of survival. ‘De-gaying’ the disease also inhibited people from coming out since people could donate to AIDS organizations without the stigma of being associated with a gay organization (Vaid, 1995: 76-7). ‘De-gaying’ has also paradoxically led to a measure of invisibility of a minority which accounts for 70 per cent of all AIDS cases in the United States. For example, at the 1987 March on Washington, no mention was given to the gay or lesbian community in the program regarding the Names Project AIDS Quilt nor during the five speeches given during the candlelight vigil (Rofes, 1990 in Blasius and Phelan, 1997: 645-5).

While AIDS did attract wider participation from the gay and straight communities, especially among upper middle-class gay men, such participation further steered the movement away from its traditionally leftist orientation. The influx of this group, while bringing immense resources, also brought political conservatism: ‘in place of liberation, the AIDS movement substituted nondis-crimination; instead of building a movement, it built agencies and bureaucracies; instead of placing its political faith in training and organizing gay and lesbian people, and our allies, into an electoral coalition, it placed faith in friends in high places’ (Vaid, 1995: 91). This more conservative tendency also led to a de-sexualization of homosexuality itself, disregarding the connection between sexual freedom and gay liberation; since AIDS exposed gay sexuality, gay men and women often responded by de-emphasizing that liberated sexuality and promoting a new image espousing monogamy and safer sex.

While the virus may have caused higher rates of involvement in various AIDS-related organizations, such groups rarely maintained the civil rights oriented agendas of earlier social movement groups. Most AIDS organizations did not directly promote sodomy reform, but were instead primarily social service groups that focused on goals enabling survival rather than the long-term objective of overcoming homophobia (Vaid, 1995: 88). The immense public health crisis which AIDS had created pushed organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force to focus on national-level politics and concentrate less on grass-roots activism aiming for legislation at the local and state level. In this sense, the gay and lesbian and the AIDS movements are distinct entities. The latter grew out of the former, but the latter also dramatically impacted and altered the strategies of the former: ‘The spread of the AIDS epidemic also drew more and more gays and lesbians to the view that federal intervention on gay-related issues was essential’ (Rayside, 1998: 285). Furthermore, the AIDS movement responded to a fundamentally different opportunity—the onset of a public health crisis—and, as such, it more readily attracted non-gay allies, increasingly distanced itself from the gay and lesbian movement, and became a competitor with that movement for legislative and popular support.

Most circumstances engendered by the AIDS crisis carried dual implications. Visibility was gained, but much of it was negative. It acquired national prominence, but AIDS overshadowed gay and lesbian rights at the national level. The movement expanded, but became increasingly mainstreamed into the Washington political power structure at the expense of grassroots participation. Direct action was rejuvenated, but at the expense of both movement solidarity and heterosexual support. These dramatic changes brought about by the AIDS crisis established the gay and lesbian movement as a major minority constituency in mainstream American politics; yet, as the various circumstances of the 1990s illustrate, this achievement, so vigorously fought for since the early 1950s, is now paradoxically threatening to weaken the movement itself.

The Gay 90s and Beyond: (In)Visibility and the Movement Today

The American gay and lesbian movement, or rather gayness in general, has become increasingly visible in politics and popular culture throughout the 1990s. Enormous volumes of pro- and anti-gay legislation have been debated, passed, and rejected mostly at the state level, but also at the national level, and the movement has continued to fight against an increasingly powerful Christian right. Yet, such visibility, while enormously powerful in promoting the civil rights-based agenda of the movement, has revealed the multiple factions that currently exist in the movement—most importantly, the exclusion of people of color – as well as threatened the viability of earlier liberationist aims to end institutionalized heterosexism. While gays and lesbians may have received new prominence in national electoral politics—revealed by the 1992 presidential election and the resurgence of controversy over ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and hate crimes legislation in the 2000 election—the movement also demonstrated its political weakness and lagging mainstream cultural acceptance at the national level by its inability to achieve a full lifting of the ban on homosexuals in the military, its failure to secure passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in 1996, and its inability to secure national hate crimes legislation.

Throughout the 1970s and the 1980s, the struggle for gay rights has been viewed as a primarily white male movement. The concerns of women and people of color were never foremost on the gay agenda. The essential ‘whiteness’ of the movement became startlingly visible as gay African-Americans, Asians, and Latinos established separate sexual minority rights and AIDS organizations to help members of those particular ethnic minorities cope with both civil rights violations and the illness. The establishment of the Latino/a Lesbian and Gay Organization (LLEGO), the Native American AIDS Task Force, the National Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Network, and the National Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum revealed that mainstream gay and AIDS organizations failed to recognize internalized elements of racism and sexism (Vaid, 1995: 90; Rayside, 1998: 286).

Queer Nation attempted to overcome internal division within the movement and set forth a new seemingly post-identity-based agenda in which all elements of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community could come together under a single unifying banner. Queer Nation developed in the summer of 1990 and drew upon the direct action tactics of ACT UP. Unlike ACT UP, which sought to attain media visibility and subsequent political response for the AIDS crisis, Queer Nation aimed to bring to the forefront the fundamental issues that AIDS had subsumed and sidetracked, namely combating institutionalized homophobia and achieving full gay equality (Fraser, 1996: 32-5; Epstein, 1999: 60-4). In doing so, Queer Nation sought to move away from the racial and gender divisions that plagued the movement by asserting a new unitary identity of ‘queer’:

Being queer means leading a different sort of life. It’s not about the mainstream, profit margins, patriotism, patriarchy or being assimilated. It’s not about executive director, privilege and elitism. It’s about being on the margins, defining ourselves; it’s about gender-fuck and secrets, what’s beneath the belt and deep inside the heart; it’s about the night. Being queer is ‘grass roots’ because we know that everyone of us, every body, every cunt, every heart and ass and dick is a world of pleasure waiting to be explored. Everyone of us is a world of infinite possibility. (Anonymous in Blasius and Phelan, 1997: 774)

Queer Nation struggled to create a unified group of sexually marginalized individuals. By uniting under the label, ‘queer,’ these activists took a once derogatory term and transformed it into a statement of pride, power, and militancy. Assuming the label of ‘queer’ was, in this sense, a second form of cognitive liberation that many activists experienced. The Stonewall generation, through coming out and proclaiming their gayness, overcame the self- and societally-inflicted victimization of being homosexual. By asserting their queerness, queer nationals countered the damage incurred by the AIDS crisis and the resurgence of the far Right.

Defining oneself as queer, as the Stonewall generation defined themselves as gay, was as much an expression of individuality as it was one of collective identity. In some sense, being queer was not so much a positive identification as it was identifying as what someone was not. Such negative and reflexive identification enabled a disparate group of individuals to come under one banner. By attempting to stand as a representative for all disempowered individuals, Queer Nation affirmed a unity built out of difference. By blaming heterosexual society for constructing this difference, it denied the existence of any essential distinctive identity ultimately suppressing the internal differences which it sought to represent (Seidman, 1993: 133). Hence, instead of working through the gender and racial rifts which have damaged the movement, queer nationalism subsumed and belittled them in order to preserve cohesion. Filmmaker Marlon T. Riggs (1991: 15) found the centrality of white middle-class concerns of Queer Nation profoundly alienating: ‘the New [Queer] Nationalists, on the rare occasion they acknowledged my existence at all, spoke of me with utter contempt, spat and twisted my name like the vilest obscenity.’ Queer Nation did not, as its advocates contended, become the ultimate unifier, but rather an expression of the internal factions – age, gender, race, and class—that the movement has confronted since its emergence.

Similar to ACT UP, the prevalence of Queer Nation chapters and other queer groups such as Lesbian Avengers and Women’s Action Coalition, as well as the occurrence of direct action tactics have declined steadily throughout the 1990s. Some activists became tired of the protests that were extremely energy-intensive. Some members of the gay and lesbian community could not relate to the ‘in-your-face’ brand of activism and were disinclined to contribute. Queer Nation was heavily identified as a youth movement to which many in the sexual minorities community could not subscribe. In its attempts to avoid labels and promote an ideology of fluid sexuality, Queer Nation struggled to find an organizational premise, and thus succumbed to a similar problem which afflicted the Gay Liberation Front. Many of the original supporters died of AIDS. Queer Nation may have been a short-lived organizational network, but its long-term legacy lies in cultural transformations ranging from the advent of queer theory to the positive connotation of ‘queer’ to the fashion craze of body piercing which queer identity popularized. Yet Queer Nation not only succumbed to internal disorganization and disunity, but failed because the in-your-face politics which it espoused no longer appeared as relevant or appropriate given the political climate taking shape by 1992. Both the political and popular cultural environment became increasingly open to gay visibility; in 1993, Andrew Kopkind wrote in The Nation that ‘Gay invisibility, the social enforcement of the sexual closet, is hardly the problem anymore. Overexposure is becoming the problem.’ By then, especially in the presidential election of 1992, it seemed that gay issues were becoming mainstreamed, and suddenly the gay and lesbian community was no longer shunned, but courted … at least by the Democratic Party.

The 1992 election found the incumbent Republican President Bush battling an economic recession, a gay minority and its straight supporters increasingly disillusioned with the Republican response to AIDS, and an increasingly powerful Christian right which aimed to revive ‘traditional’ family values. AIDS and the Right’s negative response towards the disease brought gay issues to the forefront of the election forcing each Democratic contender to take a stance on gay rights. The position they took contrasted starkly to their Republican opponents. Every major Democratic candidate promised to increase AIDS funding and to lift the ban on gays in the military. Gay rights had been a topic on which the Democratic Party had wavered since the 1972 election, and which party leadership had chosen to downplay in 1988 after Walter Mondale’s poor showing against Ronald Reagan in 1984. However, the gay constituency had money and votes. Indeed, Bill Clinton’s emergence as the candidate to receive the overall endorsement of the gay community had less to do with his stance on gay rights—a law criminalizing same-sex sodomy was passed while he was attorney general of Arkansas—and more to do with the fact that he actively sought the gay vote, in direct contrast to anti-gay Republican sentiment couched in traditional family values rhetoric (Rayside, 1998: 289-91). Nor did the help of an openly gay political consultant, David Mixner, harm Clinton’s campaign. Mixner advised Clinton to tailor his speeches to stress the inclusion of gays and lesbians in his cabinet as well as a sincere desire to use federal resources to stem the AIDS crisis. An estimated 75 per cent of the gay vote helped Clinton secure the presidency (Gallagher and Bull, 1996: 69-79).

The unprecedented visibility of gays and lesbians at the 1992 Democratic Convention and the prevalence of the ‘gay issue’ in the election, especially in relation to the military ban, brought the movement into the realm of mainstream politics. Gay visibility increased in popular cultural arenas as well, however, such visibility has had both positive and negative consequences. This visibility promotes and reflects greater tolerance of homosexuality; homosexuality is considered a legitimate topic of exploration, as demonstrated by the proliferation of gay and lesbian studies at the university level as well as the increased portrayal of gays on the small and large screen. Popular musicians such as Melissa Ethridge, Ani DiFranco, and k.d. lang, and actors including Ellen DeGeneres, Anne Heche, Rupert Everett, and Nathan Lane are all open about their homosexuality or bisexuality. The musical Rent, which discusses AIDS and gay sexuality, won the 1996 Tony Award for best musical. Tony Kushner’s gay-themed play Angels in America won a Pulitzer Prize. Films such as Philadelphia (1993)—nominated for various academy awards and for which Tom Hanks won an academy award for best actor—confronted the impact of AIDS on gay men. Popular films that have reached a mainstream audience and that have explored gay themes or had gay characters include My Own Private Idaho (1991), Threesome (1994), Clueless (1995), The Birdcage (1996), Chasing Amy (1997), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997), In and Out (1997), As Good as it Gets (1997), High Art (1997), The Object of My Affection (1998), Wild Things (1998), Go (1999),Cruel Intentions (1999), Big Daddy (1999), Trick (1999), American Beauty (1999) and The Next Best Thing (2000). Gay and lesbian characters abound on television. MTV’s The Real World is always careful to select a gay, lesbian, or bisexual individual as one of its seven housemates on the popular docu-drama. Other mainstream prime-time shows that have had recurring gay characters or have had episodes exploring gay themes include: L.A. Law, Thirtysomething, The Golden Girls, Friends, Mad About You, Frasier, Roseanne, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, Party of Five, My So-Called Life, Veronica’s Closet, South Park, E.R., Chicago Hope, Spin City, NYPD Blue, Ally McBeal, That Seventies Show, Felicity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Queer as Folk, Six Feet Under, Sex and the City, and The West Wing. A huge amount of media attention was focused on openly lesbian comedian Ellen Degeneres; her character, Ellen Morgan, came out of the closet on the sitcom Ellen, aired on April 30, 1997. The show earned the highest ratings the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) had all season, and DeGeneres became the first and only gay leading role in a television show (Stockwell, 1998: 92). In 1998, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) premiered its now-popular sitcom, Will and Grace, which features two gay men—Will Truman and Jack McFarland—as lead characters. In 1999, the Warner Brothers (WB) Network introduced Jack McFee, a gay high school student as a lead character to its immensely popular teen drama, Dawson s Creek. While such visibility suggests an immense degree of mainstream cultural acceptance, the inherent danger in this visibility is that it legitimates only particular elements of the movement. The gay image that mainstream culture has appropriated tends to be that of the middle-class white gay male.

Indeed, the graver danger is that movement organizations, viewing that certain representations of the gay subject are acceptable to the heterosexual majority, will privilege that identity at the expense of silencing non-conforming members of its own community. This has been the experience of some gays and lesbians of color who, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, led a backlash against ‘mainstream’ gay culture. Theorist Barbara Smith (1981: 121) claimed that the creation of a separatist lesbian feminist subculture ‘seems much like a narrow kind of politics and … it seems to be only viably practiced by women who have certain kinds of privilege: white-skinned privilege, class privilege.’ Joseph Beam isolated racism in the gay and lesbian movement:

It is possible to read thoroughly two or three consecutive issues of the Advocate [a national gay and lesbian news magazine] … and never encounter, in the words or images, Black gay men.… We ain’t family. Very clearly, gay male means: white, middle-class, youthful, Nautilized, and probably butch, there is no room for Black gay men within the confines of this gay pentagon. (Seidman, 1993: 119)

This kind of selective visibility both promotes and reflects greater tolerance of homosexuality, thereby signaling the erosion of heteronormative values and institutions. Yet, it utilizes a narrow but presently widely-accepted and innocuous image of the homosexual to do so.

The movement has attained a high degree of visibility in the political arena in the 1990s through the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ compromise; ironically, the policy was, in part, intended to maintain gay invisibility within the military. No longer is the homosexual act grounds for discharge, but rather the mere verbal expression of the act. According to theorist Leo Bersani, coercing soldiers to keep their sexual orientation secret illustrates an awareness of the potential threat of queer politics to the maintenance of patriarchal institutions. The enforced silence further bolsters, or at least avoids the destabilization of, heteronormativity (Bersani, 1995: 17-18).

The gay and lesbian movement’s inability to press for a successful lifting of the ban also exposes the movement’s weakness at the national level. The military ban was not at the forefront of the gay and lesbian agenda when the movement started to organize heavily at a national level; AIDS was. Furthermore, the leftist ideological bias of the post-Stonewall generation included a heavy anti-militarist bent (Vaid, 1995: 157). Despite the creation of the Military Freedom Project (MFP) in 1988, which aimed to repeal the ban, the ban did not receive much media attention until Pete Williams, the Department of Defense’s chief spokesperson was outed as gay in the Advocate, a national gay and lesbian news magazine. This event forced Dick Cheney, the Secretary of Defense, to assert that the military ban was outdated and that its repeal should be considered. Yet, despite increasing media attention on gays in the military and high-level support for change, the vast majority of activists were concerned that the military ban had replaced AIDS as the prominent gay-themed issue of the election (Vaid, 1995: 159-61).

Once Clinton was elected, national movement organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) encountered uncharted territory of interacting with the first gay-friendly administration. Instead of coordinating with each other, different organizations lobbied on their respective issues. They organized independent demonstrations and failed to put together a coherent agenda that could be presented to the Clinton administration (Vaid, 1995: 163). Both movement organizations and the Clinton administration underestimated the conservative congressional culture of Washington as well as the increasing power of the religious right. While NGLTF and HRC pushed for an executive order to lift the military ban, i.e., a fundamentally top-down approach, the Christian Coalition was conducting a more successful grassroots campaign to ensure that the ban remained intact. Organizations such as MFP (which now included HRC, NGLTF, ACLU, and NOW), the Ad Hoc Military Group, the Joint Chiefs, the Gay and Lesbian and Bisexual Veterans, the respective staffs of Representative Gerry Studds, Representative Barney Frank, Senator Bob Dole, and Senator Sam Nunn, failed to coordinate their efforts and often engaged in outright conflict, despite working on the same issue (Vaid, 1995: 166-7). Furthermore, despite amassing vast resources relative to both their past history and to any other sexual minorities movement around the world, the American gay and lesbian organizations could not compete with the resources of a growing Christian right counter-movement that fought for the maintenance of the ban (Rayside, 1998: 242-3). In short, the movement ignored signals that the administration was deeply divided on the issue, failed to muster a grassroots campaign to counter that of the right, and President Clinton, lacking military credibility for being an alleged ‘draft-dodger,’ latched onto Representative Frank’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ compromise as political cover (Vaid, 1995: 170-1; Gallagher and Bull 1996: 151-60).

The failure to lift the ban and the implementation of a far more homophobic standard—the institutionalization of the closet in the armed forces—demonstrate that the gay and lesbian movement is at a dramatic crossroads at the turn of the new century. First, movement organizations are much more successful at attaining legislation at the state then at the national level. Second, and more importantly, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and all others who do not conform to the heterosexual norm, have achieved a potentially dangerous kind of pseudo-equality, what Urvashi Vaid terms ‘virtual equality.’ The movement has secured a large degree of civil rights legislation at the state level. It has achieved positive Supreme Court litigation outcomes such as Romers v. Evans (1996). The 1990 Hate Crimes Bill included sexual orientation as a category that signaled a bias crime. The ban on gay immigrants was lifted in 1991. AIDS funding increased significantly under the Clinton administration. Despite its failure in 1996, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act missed passage by only one vote—a remarkable achievement given that most politicians considered the bill untenable only three years prior (Rayside, 1998: 310-11). These successes do not include the gay and lesbian community’s unprecedented degree of mainstream cultural visibility attained over the last decade. Yet, such achievements threaten the movement since they inadvertently misrepresent the movement’s level of success, providing a false sense of security for the sexual minorities community. The movement is still far from achieving its most fundamental aim: the destruction of institutionalized homophobia or even the passage of national level civil rights legislation inclusive of sexual orientation. The maintenance and, indeed, strengthening of the military ban as well as the power and popular resonance of Christian right anti-gay rhetoric, vividly reflect this failure. In order to counter successfully the mobilization of the far right, the movement must create a dual agenda focusing on civil rights legislation at all government levels, on the one hand, and liberation and cultural reform on the other. It must combine a grassroots with a top-down approach to ensure that its constituents are mobilized and their voices heard.


In one sense, the modern American gay and lesbian movement did commence at 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969. At that moment, the cognitive liberation necessary to spark a movement took shape. The organizations and the opportunity existed, but until a shift from victim to empowered agent occurred, there was no modern movement. The riots themselves were the symbolic critical moment for gays and lesbians that provided that crucial cognitive liberation without which no cohesive social movement could occur. The riots inspired gay men and lesbians to shed their internalized victim status imposed upon them by heteronormative society. Coming out was transformed into a profoundly political act that helped accomplish what the homophile organizations could not: attract a large number of participants.

Changing opportunity was fostered by World War II, the publication of the Kinsey studies, and the expansion and legitimization of a movement culture throughout the 1960s. Black power and radical feminism especially provided the frame that would inspire gay liberation in the 1970s. Organizations such as the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis exploited these opportunities and testify that proto-movement developments existed before the Stonewall riots; however, they were unable to establish a mass movement because their assimilationist tendencies failed to provide the basis for an affirmative and prideful collective identity. Such an identity emerged after the Stonewall riots in the shape of gay liberation. Increasing gay and lesbian political visibility engendered the lifting of the ban on gays in the Civil Service in 1974, the de-listing of homosexuality as a mental illness from the APA register in 1974, and the election of openly gay individuals to political office.

Once the movement started to accomplish its aims within the realm of civil rights legislation at the local and state level, it was challenged by both a powerful religion-based conservative counter-movement, first expressed in Bryant’s ‘Save Our Children’ Campaign, and, far more devastatingly, by AIDS. AIDS was both a crisis and an opportunity; it fostered the development of more and diverse movement organizations, helped to mobilize non-gay allies, provided another policy angle by which to achieve gay visibility and legislation, reoriented the strategies of gays and lesbians toward national-level politics, further broke down the closet door, and vastly increased the number of movement participants. AIDS created an offshoot movement with its own organizations, such as GMHC and ACT UP. The AIDS crisis acts as the changing opportunity that interacts with the pre-existing gay rights organizations and affirmative collective gay identity to produce the AIDS movement with its own interest groups. Queer identity, while not directly linked to an AIDS movement, was inspired by ACT UP and provided another element of cognitive liberation. The inadequate response to the AIDS crisis by the Reagan administration (and to a lesser extent by the Bush government), given legislative shape in the Helms Amendment, also provided an opportunity which helped to foster this new form of queer cognitive liberation.

The fundamental conclusion of this study is that the American gay and lesbian movement exhibits a developmental history emphasizing changing opportunity structures, pre-existing organizations to manipulate this opportunity, and cognitive liberation leading to collective identity formation. Research also suggests that AIDS both promoted and derailed the gay and lesbian rights movement, providing greater political visibility, expanding movement membership, attaining new allies, and forcing national level mobilization while reinvigorating grassroots activism. Yet, it inflicted huge casualties on the community, forced a shift from a long-term human rights agenda to a public health service provision and survival orientation, subjected gays and lesbians to negative visibility, and provided anti-gay fodder for the religious right. Finally, the tail-end of the twentieth century has witnessed an explosive growth of media representation of gays and lesbians in popular television and film, however, the representation is often one-sided and exclusionary, focusing on the members of the gay and lesbian community who do not pose a substantial threat to the prevailing middle-class heteronormative gender dynamic. Gays and lesbians, to make no mention of bisexuals and transgenders, who do not fit the middle-class, white, and usually male paradigm remain beyond the pale of current American media representation.

Future research might carry this investigation of movement formation beyond the boundaries of the United States to explore whether a similar tri-factor pattern can account for movement development in other nations. Preliminary research suggests that this theory holds for the gay and lesbian movement in the United Kingdom, however, the model’s robust quality may be strained if the analysis is shifted to a non-Anglican culture, i.e., France, Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, or Brazil. Different national cultures may condition movements to form in diverse manners.

The analysis could also be extended beyond examining movement formation to exploring movement maintenance; such research might evaluate how interest groups interact with political institutions; the investigator might want to select specific examples, such as the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), or the recent state Supreme Court decisions regarding gay marriage in Hawaii and Vermont to understand not only why certain bills or court battles succeed or fail, but why certain institutional venues are targeted, and which is the most open in terms of agenda access for the movement. This type of analysis could easily develop into a comparative study that ascertains not only why movements develop differently in distinct national settings, but also the reasons why different movements have achieved distinct levels of politico-cultural freedom. The reasons may lie as much with the movement as with the political institutional environment of a given country. In short, much more investigation and analysis is called for that links social movements to mainstream questions regarding social movement theory. Not only would such research enable a better understanding of movement strategy, but it would continue to evaluate the validity and usefulness of certain theoretical models as well.