Sunday, January 12, 2014

A Queer History of the United States

I have a keen interest in understanding the history of people and groups in America who have historically been denied rights and equality.  The great American democratic experiment has proven extremely beneficial for some people, but has also (paradoxically) excluded others.  One such group that has historically been marginalized both legally and socially are LGBT people.  To understand this little-understood history, I've just read a fantastic book called A Queer History of the United States by Michael Bronski, a scholar of gender and queer studies from Dartmouth College.  This eye-opening book tells the long and fascinating history of gay and lesbian people in America, stretching all the way back to Native Americans, and well into the 20th century.  The great insight of Bronski's book is that, despite all the exclusion and persecution they have faced, gay and lesbian people have been central in shaping the ever-evolving idea of what it means to be American.   Here's what I learned from Bronski's book:

Fluid Gender Roles Among Native American Tribes

"Two-Spirit"
Before Europeans began to explore and colonize the New World, thousands of Native American tribes lived there.  Gender and sexual norms of the tribes varied greatly.  Among the Crows, for example, "men who dressed as women and specialized in women's work were accepted and sometimes honored."  Many of the accounts of these practices were written by European and American explorers, who were both fascinated and horrified by what they saw as dangerous sexual activities.  In his diary from a 1775 trip to what would become California, a Spanish Franciscan priest named Pedro Font wrote: "Among the women I saw some men dressed like women, with whom they go about regularly, never joining the men…From this I inferred that they must be hermaphrodites, but from what I learned later I understood that they were sodomites, dedicated to nefarious practices."

A bit later, In the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1810, Nicholas Biddle wrote: "Among Mamitarees if a boy shows any symptoms of effeminacy or girlish inclinations he is put among the girls, dressed their way, brought up with them & sometimes married to men."

There are numerous accounts like this, in which Europeans witnessed sexual norms which were often antithetical to theirs.  This clash of ideology would continue throughout European colonization of the New World.

The Puritans vs. "Merry Mount"

One of the great ironies of American history is the fact that the Puritans (or Pilgrims) who fled England for the New World to find a place of religious and social freedom, did not extend the tolerance they sought for themselves to others whom they encountered there.  Today, the term "puritan" is associated with rigid, old school legalism.  In regards to sexuality, the Puritans were quite traditional, believing sex was for marriage and procreation only.  The puritans, and those who came after them, would enact rather rigid "sodomy" laws which forbade sex between persons of the same gender.  The punishments for sodomy varied, but were usually quite severe.

Despite the legal and social taboo of homosexual activity among the early English colonists in America, accounts exist of same-sex activity.  Bronski writes, "The Boston Gay History Project examined court records between 1636 and 1641 of men accused of sodomy, 'lurid behavior and unclean carriage' and charted what appears to be a series of relationships among a number of men, including Thomas Roberts, John Alexander, Abramam Pottle, and George Morrey.

One of the most fascinating events of the early colonial period in America was the story of Thomas Morton.  Displeased with the overly-restrictive policies of the Puritan colonies, Morton founded his own colony outside of Boston which he called Merry Mount.  Here, he enacted much more tolerant laws between the colonists and the local tribe, the Algonquian, even allowing intermarriage.  Morton erected a giant "May-Pole" which people would hold parties and dance around.  It is suggested that same-sex relationships were okay in Merrymount.  Though Merrymount posed no physical threat to the Puritan colonies, they posed a "social" threat."  William Bradford, governor of Plymouth colony, attacked Merrymount, tore down the may pole, and banished Morton back to England.

Homosocial Relationships in the Revolutionary Era

The American Revolution was largely a product of Enlightenment thought, which posited the idea of greater personal freedom.  One interesting aspect of the Revolution are the kinds of same-sex relationships that we find, both among famous and "common" people.  A new kind of relationship emerged, which Bronksi refers to as "homosocial" -- in which members of the same sex were engaged in deep relationships of friendship and love, which may or may nor have been sexual.

One such relationship existed between George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette of France.  In a letter from June 12, 1799, Layfayette wrote:

"My dear general…there never was a friend, my dear general, so much, so tenderly beloved, as I love and respect you: happy in our union, in the pleasure of living near to you, in the pleasing satisfaction of partaking every sentiment of your heart, every event of your life, I have taken such a habit of being inseparable from you, that I cannot now accustom myself to your absence, and I am more and more afflicted at that enormous distance which keeps me so far from my dearest friend."

Washington and Lafayette
In 1804, Daniel Webster wrote to his friend James Hervey Bingham, "Yes, James, I must come; we will yoke together again; your little bed is just wide enough; we will practice at the same bar, and be as friendly a pair of single fellows as ever cracked a nut."  

New ideas of gender emerged with the American Revolution.  One example was the case of Jemima Wilkinson, a Quaker evangelist who, beginning in 1775, began seeing herself as neither male nor female, dressed in gender neutral clothes, refused the pronouns "he" or "she" and declared herself "Publick Universal Friend."  Deborah Sampson Gannett, dressed as a man, enlisted in the Continental Army under the name Robert Shurtliff.  

In the early 19th century, there was a growing interest in literature about cross-dressing protagonists.  The 1815 novel The Female Marine, or the Adventures of Miss Lucy Brewer, was about a woman who cross-dressed and spent three years as a sailor aboard the USS Constitution.  Charles Brockden Brown's book Ormond, or The Secret Witness,  was a memoir of famous cross-dressing British sailor named Hannah Snell.

While overt depictions of same-sex relationships and activities were still highly taboo in the Revolutionary era, homosocial relationships and transvestite literature were more socially acceptable.

Sexual Freedom in the "Wild West"

"Calamity" Jane
American westward expansion in the 19th century brought new opportunities for people to re-negotiate older ideas of gender and sexuality.  The "wild west" offered an escape from the socially restrictive culture of the east, both for men and women.  Notable examples of women escaping traditional gender roles in the west include Martha Cannary Burke (aka "Calamity Jane"), an innkeeper and Army scout, "Stagecoach Mary" Fields, a former slave who gained fame as a stagecoach driver, and became the first African American driver for the U.S. Post Office, and Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst (aka "One-Eyed Charley" or "Six-Horse Charley"), a stagecoach driver and later rancher.

For men, life in the west also offered an escape from traditional gender roles.  Badger Clark's poem "The Lost Pardner" demonstrates intense male-male relationships in the "wild west":

"We loved each other the way men do
And never spoke about it, Al and me,
But we both knowed, and known' it so true
Was more than any woman's kiss could be."

Following the Gold Rush in California, hundreds of thousands of (mostly) men flocked west, seeking their fortunes.  This male-filled west created a new kind of sexual-social space.  Bronksi writes, "In 1850 organized same-sex dancing was perfectly acceptable, as was entertainment featuring cross-dressing.  The public social life in San Francisco was so vibrantly nonconformist that British adventurer Frank Marryat, in his 1855 memoir Mountains and Molehills, or Recollections of a Burnt Journal, dubbed it 'Sodom by the Sea.'"

New Sexual Identities Among the Transcendentalists

A famous literary movement happened in America in the middle of the 19th century which came to be known as Transcendentalism.  It drew from both European Romanticism and a distinctly American sense of identity and reverence for nature.  Famous writers of "Transcendental" literature include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, all of whom exhibited homoerotic elements in their writings.  While a student at Harvard, a young Emerson wrote of his classmate Martin Gay: "I begin to believe in the Indian doctrine of eye-fascination.  The cold blue eye of [Emerson deleted the name here] has so intimately connected him to my thoughts & visions that a dozen times a day & as often…by night I have found myself wholly wrapped up in conjectures of his character and inclinations…We have had already two or three profound stares at one another.  Be it wise or weak or superstitious I must know him."

Margaret Fuller
Regarding Thoreau, Bronski writes, "A wealth of homoerotic sentiments are present in the poems and journals."  In 1852, while watching young men bathe in a river, Thoreau wrote, "The color of their bodies in the sun at a distance is pleasing, the not often seen flesh color.  I hear the sound of the sport borne over the water.  As yet we have not man in nature.  What a singular fact for an angel visitant to this earth to carry back in his note-book, that men were forbidden to expose their bodies under the severest penalties!" Thoreau seems to be at once enjoying and lamenting the fact that male-male enjoyment is still restricted in the society in which he lives.  One of the great philosophies of the Transcendentalists was a return to Nature, with all the personal (and sexual) freedom that implied.

Margaret Fuller, a transcendentalist and early feminist writer, explored sexuality and a newly-emerging American ideal of social and personal freedom.  In a letter to a female friend in 1839, Fuller wrote: "With regard to yourself, I was to you all that I wished to be.  I knew that I reigned in your thoughts in my own way.  And I also lived with you more truly and freely than with any other person.  We were truly friends, but it was not friends as men are fiends to one another, or as brother and sister.  There was, also, that pleasure, which may, perhaps, be termed conjugal, of finding oneself in an alien nature.  Is there any tinge of love in this?  Possibly!"

Same-Sex Love in 19th Century American Literature

Romantic portrayals of same-sex love/friendship and homoerotic imagery became more common in the literature of the 19th century, as in this passage from Herman Melville's Moby Dick, when the narrator Ishmael shares a bed with a man named Queequeg: "Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg's arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner.  You had almost thought I had been his wife."

Charles W. Stoddard
The famous poet Emily Dickinson had a long and possibly erotic relationship with her friend Sue Gilbert, who eventually married Dickinson's brother Austin.  In a letter from 1852, Dickinson writes: "Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say--my heart is full of you, none other than you is in my thoughts, yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me.  If you were here--and Oh that you were, my Susie, we need not talk at all, our eyes would whisper for us, and your hand fast in mine, we would not ask for language--I try to bring you nearer, I chase the weeks away till they are quite departed, and fancy you have come, and I am on my way through the green lane to meet you, and my heart goes scampering so, that I have much ado to bring it back again, and learn it to be patient, till that dear Susie comes."

Writer Charles W. Stoddard's novels like South-Sea Idyls (1873) and A Trip to Hawaii (1885) contained more explicitly homoerotic content, as in this passage from South-Sea Idylls: "So Kana-ana brought up his horse, got me on it in some way or another, and mounted behind me to pilot the animal and sustain me in my first bare-back act.  Over the sand we went, and through the river to his hut, where I was taken in, fed, and petted in every possible way, and finally put to bed, where Kana-ana monopolized me, growling in true savage fashion if any one came near me.  I didn't sleep much, after all.  I think I must have been excited."

Noted poet Bayard Taylor's 1870 novel Joseph and His Friend "moved away from idealizations of romantic friendship and closer to presenting conjugal love."  Here's a scene between the two male protagonists:

"They took each other's hands.  The day was fading, the landscape was silent, and only the twitter of nesting birds was heard in the boughs above them.  Each gave way to the impulse of his manly love, rarer, alas! but as tender and true as the love of woman, and they drew nearer and kissed each other.  As they walked back and parted on the highway, each felt that life was not wholly unkind, and that happiness was not yet impossible."

Walt Whitman: America's Great Gay Poet

Perhaps the most famous writer of homoerotic literature of the 19th century was Walt Whitman.  Bronski writes, "Considered by many to be the most notable nineteenth-century poet of American democracy, Whitman's poems and letters are a perfect example of affectional and sexual behaviors between men in this period…Despite the criticisms, Whitman's popularity and reputation grew with each new edition of Leaves of Grass, contributing to a social climate that made other expressions of same-sex male desire permissible."

Walt Whitman
The homoerotic imagery in Leaves of Grass is abundant,
but a couple passages will suffice for our purposes:

"An unseen hand pass'd over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to
the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them.


I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn'd
over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your 
tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you held
my feet.

In many passages, Whitman equates same-sex male love with an ecstatic vision of American democracy, as he does here:

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of
America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over
the prairies;
I will make inseparable cities, with their arms about each other's
necks:
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades."

Charlotte Cushman and "Boston Marriages"

"Charlotte Chushman, one of the most famous Shakespearian actors of the nineteenth century," Bronski writes, "was unabashedly open about her intimate relationships with women…Beginning in 1848, she and writer Matilda Hays were publicly acknowledged as a couple…Over the next few years, Cushman and Hays were involved in a series of affairs with other women."

The case of Cushman and Hays was not totally unique.  There were other cases of (mainly upper class) women living together as domestic partners.  This arrangement became known as a "Boston Marriage."  Some notable examples of "Boston Marriages" in the 19th century included: Annie Fields and writer Sarah Orne Jewett, Alice James (sister of Henry and William James) and Katherine Loring, sculptor Anne Whitney and painter Abby Adelaide Manning, poet Amy Lowell and actor Ada Dwyer Russell.

it is not documented whether all of these women were engaged in sexual relationships; however, "some of their letters and journals certainly indicate that their passions were physical as well as emotional."  These "Boston Marriages" also provided a measure of personal and economic freedom for women.

Charlotte Chushman and Matilda Hays

Gender-Bending on the Stage and Screen

In the late 19th and early 20th century, various groups formed to safeguard "traditional" morality, such as the Women's Christian Temperance Union (1874), the Union for Concerted Moral Effort (1891), and the American Purity Alliance (1897).  These groups sought to define and regulate, among other behaviors, the sexual morality of Americans.  Bronski writes, "The social purity movement…reinforced social standards that were directly antithetical to sexual freedom and directly harmful to many women and men who desired their own sex.  These standards, predicated on traditional heterosexual grounds of gender, were written into laws clearly delineating what was pure or impure."

However, as social purity groups railed against the "danger" of homosexuality, and doctors and clergy defined it as an illness (or worse), and lawmakers passed various laws against homosexual activity, there was at least one social space in America where people were freer to explore different, and freer, ideas of sexuality…the Theater.

Julian Eltinge
One relatively common feature of plays in the early 20th century was the idea of "gender-bending", or cross dressing.  Famous examples of this included Julian Eltinge, who was a female impersonator.  In a 1916 poem, Dorothy Parker wrote about Eltinge:

"My heart is simply melting at the thought of Julian Eltinge;
His vice versa, Vesta Tilley, too.
Our language is so dexterous, let us call them ambi-sexterous--
Why hasn't this occurred before to you?"

Mae West's play The Drag featured homosexual characters and an onstage drag ball.  Sholem Asch's classic 1907 Yiddish drama The God of Vengeance was set in a brothel and had lesbian themes.   This gender-bending on the theater was not without resistance from authorities, however.  In 1927, the New York assembly instituted restrictive laws like the Wales Padlock Law, which "allowed police to close a theater for a year if the owners were convicted of presenting a play that violated obscenity laws."

The 1920s saw the birth of the film industry, and this new medium allowed further exploration of sexuality.  Marlene Dietrich, silent film star, "known for her affairs with both men and women, would cross dress in a film such as the 1930 Morocco."  Another lesbian actor was Marie Dressler, whose lovers included Elsie De Wolf, a famous social leader.

Lesbian and Gay Themes in the Literature of the Early 20th Century

Despite the rigidly-defined gender roles of the legal and political framework of America, one place where the conversation was more open was in the world of the arts and literature.  The literature of the early 20th century saw a further exploration of gay and lesbian themes, characters and situations.   Classic world literature, which Americans read, reflected changing ideas about sexuality.  A couple examples of this would be Marcel Proust's 1922 novel Cities of the Plain, and Thomas Mann's 1912 novel Death in Venice.

Radclyffe Hall's 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness dealt with lesbian love.  Nella Larsen's 1929 novel Passing, and Blair Niles' 1931 novel Strange Brother were both set in Harlem, and dealt with gay and lesbian themes.  "Gay male themes were also prevalent in lowbrow novels," Bronski writes, "such as Andre Tellier's 1931 Twilight Men and Lew Levenson's 1934 Butterfly Man, but also in more literary works, such as Kay Boyle's 1933 Gentlemen, I Address You Privately and Djuna Barnes' 1936 Nightwood."

The Lesbian Feminist Social Justice Movement

Some of the greatest social contributors and reformers of the 20th century were lesbians.  Marie Equi, a doctor who lived in San Francisco with her partner Bess Holcomb, provided disaster relief work after the devastating 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which earned her a commendation from the U.S. Army.

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who wold become Equi's partner later in life, was a famous labor organizer and social activist.  She helped run the highly successful 1912 factory strike in Lawrence, Kansas, "in which ten thousand women won safer working conditions and higher wages after a three-month walk out."  During the strike, she made temporary foster arrangements for the children of the striking workers.  Flynn was also involved in the birth control movement, and a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 1920.

Margaret Foley and her partner Helen Elizabeth Goodnow worked in the women's suffrage movement.  Foley was also an important activist for trade unions like the powerful Women's Trade Union League.   Jane Addams, in 1915, was elected the first head of the Women's Peace Party, and later presided over the International Congress of Women, a peace conference at The HagueElizabeth Irwin, whose partner was the famous biographer Katherine Anthony, was a progressive educator who founded the Little Red School House in Greenwich Village.

Elizabeth Irwin and her partner Katherine Anthony


Eleanor Roosevelt's "Ladies Brain Trust"

In the 1930s, as pretty much everyone knows, America experienced The Great Depression, which saw unemployment rates as high as 25 percent.  President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in collaboration with others, created something called The New Deal, a massive government program which gave millions of unemployed Americans jobs during this bleak time.  FDR's New Deal was not just his idea.  It was also influenced by his wife Eleanor Roosevelt, who was romantically and sexually involved with journalist Lorena Hickok.

Bronski writes, "Many of the women who became prominent in the New Deal were lesbians.  Esther Lape, a journalist, and her partner, lawyer Elizabeth Reed, were Eleanor Roosevelt's political mentors.  Nancy Cook occupied a high position in the Democratic Party's Women's Division; her partner, Marion Dickerman, ran for public office and was involved in education reform.  Molly Dewson was influential as the director of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee; her partner, Polly Porter, had a long history of working in the suffrage movement.  All of these women were deeply committed to women's rights, progressive education, labor reform, racial justice, international human rights, and antimilitarism.  The person who helped their ideas influence government policy--they are unofficially called the 'ladies' brain trust'--was Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the president, a close friend to all of them, and in many ways the center of their circle.

FDR's appointments, on Eleanor's advice, of Frances Perkins as the first female secretary of the treasury and of Mary McLeod Bethune as director of the Division of Negro Affairs in the National Youth Administration--making her the first African American woman appointed to a position in the federal government--were groundbreaking."

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok

Homosexuality During World War II

The advent of World War II, and the massive militarization of the United States, created a situation where "for the fist time in American history, large-scale highly-organized single-sex social arrangements were considered vital to national security."  The definitive book on homosexuality during World War II is Allan Berube's Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women During World War II, which was made into an award-winning documentary in 1994.

While the U.S military created unprecedented homosocial environments for American men during World War II, U.S. military policy condemned homosexuality.  Bronski writes, "The benefits of the military for homosexuals were outweighed by the reality that sodomy was prohibited by Article 125 of the US Code of Military Justice.

The USO, which staged elaborate shows for servicemen, provided an occasional outlet for both overt and covert homosexual themes.  Bronski explains, "Since there were no women in outlying camps, enlisted men wold perform female roles in drag."  Irving Berlin's Broadway show "This is the Army," which portrayed cross-dressing soldiers, later became a hit Hollywood film starring Ronald Reagan.

Some postwar novels explored homosexual relationships between soldiers during World War II, like The Invisible Glass by Loren Wahl, The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks, and From Here to Eternity by James Jones, which of course became a hit film.

Gay Organizations of the 1940s and 1950s

The publication of Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior of the Human Male in 1948 was a watershed moment in American culture and society.  The so-called Kinsey Report, based on thousands of interviews with ordinary American men, revealed some shocking statistics: "37 percent of all males had some form of homosexual contact between their teen years and old age; 50 percent of males who remained single until the age of 35 had overt homosexual experiences to orgasm; 10 percent of males were more or less exclusively homosexual for at least three years between the ages of sixteen and fifty-five; 4 percent of males were exclusively homosexual throughout their lives."

The publication Vice Versa, written and edited by Edith Eyde beginning in 1947, is generally regarded as the first gay publication in the United States.  To clear up any confusion regarding its content, Eyde subtitled Vice Versa "America's Gayest Magazine."

In the late 1940s, gay labor activist Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society, a social group for gay men.  The groups "missions and purposes" stated: "The Mattachine Society holds it possible and desirable that a highly ethical homosexual culture emerge, as a consequence of its work, paralleling the emerging cultures of our fellow-minorities--the Negro, Mexican, and Jewish Peoples.  The Society believes homosexuals can lead well-adjusted, wholesome, and socially productive lives once ignorance and prejudice against them is successfully combated, and once homosexuals feel they have a dignified and useful role to play in society."

The official publication of the Mattachine Sociey was ONE, which was first released in 1953.

In 1955, Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin, and three other lesbian couples (two of them inter-racial) formed the first official lesbian social group, called the Daughters of Bilitis.  In 1956, they began to publish The Ladder, which focused on lesbian issues.

Rebels, Playwrights, and Beats

As in previous decades, the theater and film provided a way for people to explore same-sex desire.  Many of the "rebel" type movie stars of the 1950s were gay, though it was often a private thing.  James Dean, Rock Hudson, and Montgomery Clift are a few examples.  The classic film Rebel Without a Cause features a troubled gay teen named Plato, played by Sal Minero.

Gay playwright Tennessee Williams, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, often explored themes of homosexuality (in both covert and overt ways) in plays such as A Streetcar Named Desire, and Cat on a Hot Tin RoofCaffe Cino, a Greenwich Village coffee house, became the first off-Broadway theater, which presented works by gay playwrights like Oscar Wilde, Thornton Wilder, and William Inge.

Many of the writers who formed the nucleus of the "Beat Movement" (mid-century writers challenging aspects of American culture and society) were gay.  Allen Ginsberg, one of the most important poets of the 20th century, was gay, as was William S. Burroughs, whose novel Naked Lunch is a classic of contemporary literature.

Some mid-century authors were exploring the dual identities of being black and gay.  One of the most famous is James Baldwin, whose books Giovanni's Room and Another Country "dealt with the complicated intersections of sexuality and race through homosexual characters."

Allen Ginsberg and partner Peter Orlovsky


Bayard Rustin
The Revolt of the 1960s

As most people know, the 1960s were a time of radical social change in America.  Many groups who had previously been denied rights were organizing and speaking up for their rights:, like African Americans, Chicanos, and gay people.  One important early figure in both the African American civil rights struggle and the gay rights struggle was Bayard Rustin, an African American who organized the famous March on Washington in 1963, in which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech.  Rustin was a tireless advocate for civil rights, but never got the full credit he deserved because he was also gay.  The documentary "Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin" gives a fascinating portrait of Rustin, an overlooked but hugely important figure in modern American history.

Many regard the so-called Stonewall Riots as the birth of the modern gay rights movement.  On June 28, 1969, the New York police conducted a routine raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village.  Police harassment and raids of gay bars was common, but during this particular raid, the patrons being evicted and harassed refused to leave.  A crowd gathered, and clashes with police took place over the new few days, with more and more people joining with the protestors in solidarity.  This event politicized the emerging gay rights movement.  On July 24, 1969, a flyer circulated announcing a meeting and the formation of a gay rights group.  The flyer read: "Do you think homosexuals are revolting?  You bet your sweet ass we are."  Out of these meetings emerged the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), and their publication Come Out!  This group and publications quickly spread to other cities around the country.  A movement had begun.



The 1970s: From Radicalesbians to Harvey Milk

The 1970s were a time of disillusionment for some radicals of the 1960s, but this was the hey-day of the modern gay rights movement.  No longer would people hide their sexuality in coded ways.  In the 1970s, gays and lesbians emerged onto the national scene as a distinct group with common political and social goals, mainly equality and acceptance.

As with any movement, there were many groups and individuals who played a prominent role in this movement.  Rita Mae Brown formed a group called The Lavender Menace, a lesbian guerrilla action group which eventually became Radicalesbians.  Brown also wrote a groundbreaking lesbian novel called Rubyfruit Jungle.

By the early 1970s, major U.S. magazines like Time and LIFE had run cover stories on the emerging gay rights movement, with titles like "The Homosexual in America" and "Homosexuals in Revolt".  In 1973, The American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.  A New York Times headline summed it up, "Doctors Rule Homosexuality Not Abnormal."  But just because doctors declared it normal, didn't mean the majority of Americans were comfortable with it.  The 1970s saw some epic battles with emerging religious right groups, like Anita Bryant's Save Our Children, and gay/human rights activists.

In 1978, a famous struggle played out in California over Proposition 6, which sought to ban gay teachers from public schools.  The proposition was written by a state senator from my home town of Fullerton named John Briggs.  In San Franscisco, recently elected gay supervisor Harvey Milk helped lead the fight against prop 6, which was ultimately defeated.

Harvey Milk


Resistance and Backlash

While the late 1970s and early 1980s saw some fantastic strides for gay rights, it also saw a backlash in the emergence of "a conservative political, and religious backlash that is still happening today."  This backlash sometimes took the form of violence, as in the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978.  It also took the form of hate speech by prominent religious leaders, such as Jerry Falwell, Anita Bryant, and Pat Robertson.

With the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, some religious leaders saw an opportunity to demonize gay people.  Pat Buchanan, a conservative Catholic Republican leader wrote that "AIDS is nature's retribution for violating the laws of nature."  Falwell stated that "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals.  It is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals."  Prominent anti-gay voices created a culture of fear and prejudice against gay people, right at the time when the gay community was being devastated by one of the worst health epidemics in U.S. history.

Lawmakers were slow, almost negligent to deal with the AIDS crisis, and this apathy and neglect led to the formation of groups like ACT UP, who "marched on Wall Street demanding an end to profiteering by drug companies and easier access to experimental HIV drugs."  In the late 1980s, ACT UP, along with other AIDS groups "took part in civil disobedience at the White House to protest the federal government's inaction on AIDS."  The famous NAMES project, or the AIDS quilt, was meant to shame lawmakers into action.

The AIDS Quilt


Into the 21st Century

Bronski's narrative ends in the early 1990s, but the struggle for gay rights continues.  In my own life, I have witnessed both tragic setbacks, and glorious triumphs in the struggle for rights and equality.  In 2008, California passed the infamous Prop 8, which explicitly denied gays and lesbians the right to marry.  Just this year, in 2013, the U.S. Supreme court ruled prop 8 unconstitutional.  President Barack Obama repealed the military's "Don's Ask, Don't Tell" policy.  In the 21st century, television, films, plays, and literature continue to explore and reflect the possibilities and struggles of LGBT people.    This summer, I attended my first gay wedding.  It felt historic, especially because it took place in historically conservative Orange County, birthplace of Prop 6.  I do not believe we have arrived at a place to total equality and acceptance for gays and lesbians, but strides have definitely been made, and will continue.



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