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