One thing that really stuck in my mind whilst reading the three sources this week was the gay liberation movement, perhaps because it was the primary focus of two of the readings and an entire chapter in Sex in the Heartland; regardless, what stuck in my mind goes beyond the revolutionary change that the gay liberation movement brought about. The gay liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s was significant, there is no denying that; it challenged heteronormative America, and it faced multifaceted oppression head-on. However, it was also exclusive. It was dominated by white middle class men, and there was not enough racial, class, gender, and other sexual identity representation. Looking at Beth Bailey’s Sex in the Heartland, John D’Emilio’s “My Changing Sex Life,” and Jeffrey Escoffier’s “Fabulous Politics: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Movements, 1969-1999,” we see the gay liberation movement’s challenge to heteronormative American culture and the creation of a new culture but also its lack of diversity.
The gay liberation movement helped to turn the sexual revolution into a cultural revolution. It changed American culture by creating a culture of its own. This culture celebrated sex and the gay identity, and it provided spaces where gay men could feel a sense of community. The dances described in Sex in the Heartland exemplify this transition of gay life into the public sphere, as they served as safe spaces (to an extent, as there were harassments). Bailey states that “the dances moved gay liberation from… private (what two people do in the privacy of the bedroom) to a very public, embodied fact” (2516-2517). Gay people were creating their own culture and their own spaces, and as Bailey puts it, “they were simply enjoying who they were” (2519-2520). John D’Emilio confirms this in “My Changing Sex Life.” D’Emilio asserts that his personal experience in the counterculture and gay liberation movement “impelled [him] a host of other values, among them the embrace of sex as good in and of itself, of sexual pleasure as transformative of individual lives and social structures” (D’Emilio, 203). Beyond the sexual aspect of gay liberation, the movement changed American culture by challenging traditional gender roles. According to Bailey “gay and lesbian activists argued that socially prescribed masculine and feminine roles not only created a gulf between men and women but circumscribed the potential of all human relationships” (2862-2863). Gay liberationists pushed for the transcendence of the restrictive notions of masculine and feminine. Essentially, the gay liberationists refused to conform. When D’Emilio describes his realization that oppression was actually about injustice instead of constraints on sexuality, he explains that the essence of injustice “is the insistent requirement of conformity” (D’Emilio, 208). By challenging America’s heteronormative culture and creating a culture of its own that publicly celebrated sex and the gay identity, gay liberationists refused to conform.
Now we must examine the negative. The challenge to traditional America and the creation of public gay culture are both great accomplishments of the gay liberation movement; however, it is important to recognize the lack of diversity in this movement. Examining the three readings from this week, we can plainly see this. The bulk of this discussion is in Escoffier’s “Fabulous Politics.” Escoffier points out that “gay men were often no less misogynists than most heterosexual men,” causing many gay women to break their ties with gay organizations to focus on the feminist movement (Escoffier, 198). Sexism did not just disappear in gay culture. In these readings, there is little information about lesbian-specific issues or accomplishments. Why? Because male-dominated culture consumed the gay liberation movement. Bailey describes that in 1970 San Francisco “gay liberationists circulated a manifesto… explicitly for and about gay men, not lesbians” (2405-2406). The white patriarchy was very much intact in the gay liberation movement, perhaps just as much as in mainstream American society at the time. Beyond sexism, this gay liberation movement was of the white middle class. Turning again to Escoffier, he tells us that “discrimination and racism directed toward people of color existed throughout the gay community,” and that “gay men and lesbians of color also faced racial discrimination in housing and employment and therefore did not have the same opportunities that white homosexuals did” (Escoffier, 200). Oppression for gay people of color was coming from both sides. They had to face racism along with homophobia and transphobia. One final note about the exclusivity of the 1960s-1970s gay liberation movement is its assertion of the gay/straight binary. Noelle’s blog this week highlights this, stating “gay culture also fell short of inclusivity of all sexual orientations,” alienating people who identified as neither straight nor gay. As Escoffier notes, many lesbians and gay men… believed neither in bisexuality nor in the reality of polymorphous desire” (Escoffier, 197).
The gay liberation movement of the late 1960s and the 1970s was revolutionary, as it challenged the norms of American society and created a culture in which gay people could celebrate their sexuality. However, it is important to recognize the exclusivity of the movement during these years, as the movement did not protect or include gay women, gay people of color, or people that did not fit into the gay/straight binary. The liberation was not for everyone.
Bailey, Beth. Sex in the Heartland. (Cambridge, MA and London, England: Harvard University Press).
(Note: page numbers for Sex in the Heartland are based off of the e-book version)
D’Emilio, John. The World Turned: Essays on Gay History, Politics, and Culture. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002). 199-209.
Escoffier, Jeffery. “Popular Sociology, Reading, and Coming Out.” In Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality, edited by Kathy Peiss, Page 393-403. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.