[Marxism] How Stonewall Obscures the Real History of Gay Liberation

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jul 7 06:05:02 MDT 2015

The Chronicle of Higher Education Review
How Stonewall Obscures the Real History of Gay Liberation
By Henry Abelove

In American GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans) popular memory, the 
Stonewall Riot of June 1969 is more than a major incident. It is a 
foundational myth, and it has been the subject of countless 
commemorative speeches and articles, of television shows, films, 
artworks, and even full-length books.

In nearly all of these accounts, whether naïve or sophisticated, the 
meaning of the riot is the same: This is when we GLBT Americans first 
fought back physically against our subordination. This is the source of 
our tradition of fighting back — a tradition to which all GLBT Americans 
and indeed all GLBT-identified persons everywhere are the heirs.

Increasingly, the Stonewall story figures in official American memory, 
too. President Obama has contributed to publicizing the story. He has 
invoked it at least twice. In a speech given at the White House in June 
2009, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the riot, he admiringly 
retold the story of the protesters who "stood their ground." Then, in 
his second inaugural address, in January 2013, he joined Stonewall to 
Seneca Falls and Selma in a list of key events in the progress of 
American democracy.

Historians have, of course, worked to refine and qualify the Stonewall 
story. So, for instance, some (notably John D’Emilio) have explained 
that Stonewall had antecedents, long-term causes. By 1969 there was a 
substantial record of about 40 years of homophile organizing in America. 
Such organizing, by groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters 
of Bilitis, had helped to build a sense of connection and shared purpose 
among GLBT Americans.

These were the ground-spring of assertiveness, eventually of militancy. 
The historian Marc Stein, among others, has shown that some homophile 
groups were already militant before Stonewall. Some historians 
(especially Susan Stryker) point out that there were also scattered 
riots prior to Stonewall, in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Despite such revisions of the historical record, the Stonewall story 
remains fixed in memory as hugely, overwhelmingly important — so much so 
that it has eclipsed every aspect of gay liberation except its readiness 
to fight back. Gay lib’s whole mental world — its ideas, values, 
attitudes, confusions, aspirations — has in effect been lost in the 
Stonewall story.

There is another popular story about the GLBT political past. It 
appeals, I believe, to rather more scholars than does the Stonewall 
story. This other story is sometimes just suggested, sometimes 
vigorously represented, in lots of American academic writing and 
journalism as well. I’ll call it the citizenship story. In it the 
Stonewall Riot recedes, may even go unmentioned. What is emphasized 
instead is the goal of American citizenship in the fullest sense for 
GLBT people. Here citizenship is understood to include a set of 
entitlements and rights — the right to live one’s sexual orientation and 
gender identity freely without the risk of arrest; to adopt children; to 
serve in the armed forces; to seek employment and housing in markets 
devoid of discrimination against GLBT people; to be safe from hateful 
violence; to marry.

This story says that since about 1948, the goal of civil rights and 
entitlements has been the grail, sometimes sought quietly and 
respectably, sometimes assertively. Homophile organizations sought the 
status before Stonewall; liberationist organizations sought it after 
Stonewall; present-day organizations seek it, too. The continuous 
seeking of the goal of citizenship in the fullest sense, not the riotous 
militancy of 1969, is what drives this story.

Gay lib’s whole mental world — its ideas, values, attitudes, confusions, 
aspirations — has in effect been lost in the Stonewall story.

The citizenship story is obviously different from the Stonewall story, 
but the two aren’t incompatible. They actually have much in common. Both 
underwrite or maybe even justify American GLBT political activism as it 
exists today; both make that activism seem congruent with the GLBT past. 
For surely today’s activism is a mix of assertiveness and the seeking of 
full civil rights, especially the right to marry. Both stories have 
another element in common: They obscure the mental world of the American 
gay liberationists.

Take the first gay-lib group, which was founded in New York City shortly 
after the Stonewall Riot. Its members named it the Gay Liberation Front 
(GLF), in a provocative allusion to the Algerian National Liberation 
Front and the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, which was the enemy 
of the United States in the Vietnam War. The GLFers sought, in their 
very name, to claim some sort of tie to the Vietnamese enemy while the 
war was still raging. To enlist the GLFers in a movement for full 
American citizenship rights and entitlements is to leave their 
distinctive political outlook untold.

I don’t mean to suggest that the citizenship story is altogether wrong. 
The story has considerable cogency, particularly as it may bear on the 
period beginning in the 1980s. Yet I am riveted by what it doesn’t tell, 
what it, like the Stonewall story, eclipses. I sometimes think that the 
two stories are meant to produce as much forgetting and nescience as 
remembrance and understanding.

It’s difficult, however, to bring the mental world of the American 
liberationists of the late 1960s and early 1970s into focus. None of 
them wrote systematic social theory. Few wrote sustained arguments of 
any kind. What they thought and believed has to be deduced from their 
pamphlets and manifestoes and posters, their memoirs, their lingo, the 
community newspapers they founded, the demonstrations they participated 
in, the artworks they made, and the fiction and poetry and drama and 
pornography they wrote and consumed. To add to the difficulty, the 
liberationists differed from one another on many issues. They quarreled 
especially about whether they should commit themselves to the black 
freedom movement, feminism, and the Cuban revolution.

Moreover, gay lib fractured along organizational lines. Scores of GLF 
groups sprang up quickly throughout the United States after the first 
was founded in New York City. They varied in their interests and 
priorities. Besides GLF there were also other liberationist groups. Of 
these the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) was the most influential. It was 
founded in New York City a few months after the founding of the first 
GLF group. GAA groups soon appeared elsewhere as well. And, of course, 
the liberationists varied in class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual 
tastes, age, and gender.

Yet despite these multiple and confounding differences, the 
liberationists shared some views and attitudes almost universally. I 
will briefly describe three of them.

Closet. We are so accustomed to the "closet" as a figure of speech 
connoting GLBT self-protective nondisclosure that we may suppose that 
the figure of speech has always been available. In fact, it was first 
colloquially used in the 1960s. A series of historians (including George 
Chauncey and Craig M. Loftin) have confirmed that before then, there was 
no "closet" carrying the GLBT meaning familiar to us now. For American 
gay liberationists, the newly colloquial figure was crucial. They seized 
on it and depended on it, too. The demand to come out of the "closet" 
was their essential platform.

Consider the enormous power of the "closet" as a figure of speech. 
During the years before the "closet," GLBT self-concealment could easily 
be understood as a mode of discretion or prudence. However, once the 
"closet" became current, that self-concealment was bound to signify 
differently. A closet is a dark place — confining, airless, suffocating 
for anyone who stays in it too long. If self-concealment is the 
"closet," then one should certainly abandon it, if only to breathe, to 
live unconfined.

Nobody can know exactly when and in what circumstances the figure was 
devised or first spoken. But in the public sphere, it first appeared 
prominently and influentially in a poem — Frank O’Hara’s "Ode: Salute to 
the French Negro Poets." O’Hara composed it in 1958 as a tribute to the 
poets and poems of négritude, especially to the Martinican poet Aimé 
Césaire and his great epic Cahier d’un retour au pays natal. In offering 
that tribute, O’Hara wrote also of gay love in America. How O’Hara had 
come to encounter Césaire; why Césaire was important to him; why 
Césaire’s epic should have put him in mind of gay love in America — all 
these questions deserve full treatment elsewhere. Here I want to 
indicate only what O’Hara’s poem seemed to make available to its first 
readers concerning gay love. Summed up: In America, gay love is 
"traduced." GLBT Americans react to the traducing with self-concealing 
"reticence," beginning in their "adolescent" years. That reticence is 
figured as the closet. It is in effect life-denying, and it is paid for 
in "blood."

O’Hara’s figure of speech took wing, first presumably through his 
friends, many of them players in New York City’s culture industries, and 
then through its dissemination in the pivotal anthology New American 
Poetry, which was published in 1960. During the decade that followed, 
the "closet" was widely adopted in GLBT colloquial usage. For the 
"closet" combined easily with a much older vernacular term, "coming 
out," which referred originally to the social introduction of 
debutantes. Chauncey has shown that early in the 20th century, that term 
referred also to one’s self-presentation to the crowd at a drag ball. 
"Coming out" had later come to mean one’s self-presentation to others in 
any company of the sexuality- or gender-nonconforming. "Coming out of 
the closet," a phrase that quickly caught on, brought together the two 
terms, and transformed the meaning of coming out. Now it meant the 
shedding of life-denying reticence in the face of the public at large.

Moreover, the "closet" was evidently felt to be preferable to two other 
terms that connoted something similar. Now almost entirely forgotten, 
these terms are "canned fruit" and "cedar-chest sissy." Both are 
indicatively male, while the closet is gender-nonspecific. Both are also 
derogatory about gay persons — fruit, sissy — while the closet is 
derogatory only about what it represents as a place of self-confinement.

In the mid-1970s, as gay lib waned, some GLBT people began to criticize 
the then familiar liberationist demand to come out of the closet. During 
the 1980s and 1990s, the volume of criticism increased. Some critics 
said lots of us are too malleable in sexual disposition or gender or 
both to declare a singular position honestly. Some said lots of us have 
strong commitments that rightly preclude coming out — commitments to 
racial or religious solidarities, or to family. Some said coming out 
must always be a misconceived gesture, because it assumes falsely that 
we humans have a deep interiority that requires excavation and exposure.

This last criticism, heard especially in the 1990s and afterward, would 
have puzzled most liberationists. I find little to suggest that they saw 
coming out as the result of a truth-seeking journey deep into a supposed 
interior self. They thought of it rather as a release from a quite 
deliberately assumed reticence. Coming out was also important to them in 
another way. It was an indispensable means, they thought, for the 
building of a political movement whose members would be publicly 
identifiable. If the liberationists had a favorite slogan, it was: "Out 
of the closets, into the streets."

Defiance. For five years, from 1965 to 1969, a small, ad hoc group of 
lesbians and gay men gathered in Philadelphia on July 4th, They marched 
just outside Independence Hall, where the Liberty Bell is kept. 
Inscribed on the bell is a verse taken from Leviticus: "Proclaim liberty 
throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof." Dressed with 
middle-class propriety, the marchers conducted themselves quietly and 
carried signs with captions such as: "Homosexual Americans Still Don’t 
Have Our Sacred American Rights." This demonstration was called the 
Annual Reminder. It was last held just a few days after the Stonewall 
Riot and the founding of the first GLF group. Those liberationists who 
attended the Annual Reminder felt dissatisfied with it and some decided 
to replace it with another sort of action.

What the liberationists conceived to replace the Annual Reminder was a 
parade, also designed as an annual event but planned for the last 
weekend in June, in celebration of the riot, rather than for July 4th, 
the day of American national celebration. This parade was first held in 
New York City in 1970, and it was originally called the Christopher 
Street Liberation Day Parade. Now, many years later, it is still held 
annually, and it is called the Gay Pride Parade or, simply, Pride. 
Similar parades, not always at the same time of year, are held in some 
140 sites throughout the world. These parades are demonstrations of 
proud GLBT presence. In America, the parade, at least in its origins, 
was more than that. It was also a displacement of the national holiday 
as the appropriate occasion of pride. Those origins of the parade now 
seem to be obscured or forgotten. It’s important to recall them to 
comprehend the politics of the liberationists.

In turning away from the Annual Reminder — the respectful petitioning 
for the redress of grievance in front of the Liberty Bell, on the iconic 
date of July 4th — the liberationists didn’t reject, still less did they 
betray, America. But they certainly didn’t feel especially proud of 
America, state or society, and they wanted to say so. It seemed right to 
them, and necessary, to make their defiance vividly public. No doubt 
they held differing views of what their defiance meant. For some 
liberationists, the point of abandoning the Annual Reminder and founding 
the new parade may have been simply: No more deferential petitioning! 
For others, the point was to stand furiously and scornfully apart from a 
whole range of American policies and practices. These liberationists 
sometimes spelled "America" with a "k" rather than a "c" so as to show 
even in their orthography just how furious and scornful they were.

What united the liberationists wasn’t a political program. They didn’t 
share any one understanding of the nation’s wrongs and failures or one 
view of how best to rectify them. What united them was rather the 
affective mode of their politics. That mode was defiance, aimed 
typically at America. It was defiance of this sort that they 
demonstrated in naming the GLF after the National Liberation Front of 
Vietnam, in setting aside the national holiday as the rightful occasion 
of their pride, in coming out of the closet. Even when some Gay 
Activists Alliance members adopted the anodyne strategy of lobbying the 
New York City Council, they acted defiant rather than conciliatory.

Authorization. At the end of the 1960s, same-sex sexual practice was 
illegal in most American jurisdictions. Some trans expressive practice, 
too, was illegal. And all practice of both sorts was commonly loathed. 
Church and synagogue condemned it as sinful, and psychiatrists and 
psychoanalysts called it sickness. Very few American scholars or public 
intellectuals had anything positive to say concerning it. That GLBT 
practice was neither authorized nor supported, or rarely even tolerated, 
by any major American institution is surely a part of the reason for the 
liberationists’ defiance. It is also a part of the reason that GLBT 
people — and the liberationists in particular — hoped to provide 
authorizing support to one another in what they imagined as their community.

Some formed or joined consciousness-raising groups. These were 
particularly important to lesbians, and, as Esther Newton and Shirley 
Walton have shown, gave their members "an enhanced sense of 
self-acceptance and worth." Some liberationists formed or joined 
collectives, meant to be communal in their living arrangements, 
supportive in effect, and politically committed. One such New York City 
collective was called Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries 
(STAR). Its home was first a trailer truck, then a squat in the East 
Village. Some others started, or contributed to, liberationist 
newspapers and magazines, all of which were designed to promote feelings 
of mutuality and confidence among their readers.

Before gay lib, GLBT people searched for authorizing support. They 
discovered or construed or fantasized gayness in heroes of culture like 
Plato, Sappho, Whitman, and Thoreau, or in former societies, like 
ancient Rome or Stuart England. During the liberationist years, the 
claim on the past grew to be bolder, more insistent.

So, for instance, Drum, a gay men’s magazine founded in 1964, during the 
pre-liberationist era, took its name by allusion to a famous passage in 
Thoreau’s Walden: "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, 
perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the 
music which he hears, however measured or far away." Drummer, a gay 
leather magazine founded in 1971, during the liberationist years, took 
its name from the same passage. Drummer reprinted the passage often and 
once even supplemented it with a drawing of a muscular gay leatherman, 
naked at the genitals, reclining while reading a book, which was 
evidently Walden. In a broadsheet that Marc Stein has recently 
reprinted, Drum (with tongue in cheek) called the Thoreau passage a 
"mandate." Drummer went one step further. It provided an image of a man 
for the date. Both magazines appropriated Thoreau’s words to encourage 
their readers to shape their erotic lives as they wished. And the 
encouragement the passage seemed to give was all the more valuable 
because it came from a canonical work of literature much esteemed in a 
nation that regarded GLBT people with contempt.

Among the liberationists in particular, the need for authorization was 
deeply felt, if seldom admitted. That need was the obverse of their 
defiance. These three are only some of the commonalities that bound the 
liberationists together. They shared also a distinctive attitude toward 
prisoners of state, toward friendship, and more. Yet their differences 
and divisions broke them. Gay lib as a movement ebbed and then 
disappeared in the mid-1970s. It has an afterlife as an influence in 
contemporary GLBT political culture, but the two familiar stories we 
tell one another concerning GLBT history — Stonewall and citizenship — 
tend to lessen that influence continuously.

Henry Abelove, a professor emeritus of English at Wesleyan University, 
is the author of Deep Gossip (University of Minnesota Press, 2005). He 
is at work on a book about gay liberation.

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