Expansion and Resistance: The Twentieth Century
Increasingly, however, during the twentieth century, the world did learn about same-gender relations, moving an underground world into greater public consciousness. The willingness of popular culture to deal with sexuality, along with the growing influence of psychology and the experience of World War II, hastened the trend. In the 1920s, for example, a Broadway play, The Captive, dealt with lesbian relations. Novels such as The Well of Loneliness created fictional lesbian characters, while black entertainers addressed same-sex attraction in songs like “Sissy Man,” “Fairey Blues,” and “Bull-Dagger Woman,” popular tunes on the so-called race records of the interwar years. The infiltration of psychiatric and psychoanalytic concepts into popular culture contributed to the labeling of homosexual desire, even as it cast a shadow over homosexuality. For example, with the onset of World War II, psychiatrists were incorporated into the nation’s military effort, screening inductees for evidence of mental instability and, in the process, asking millions of young men questions about homosexual desire.
World War II did more than propagate psychiatric definitions of homosexuality; it also created substantively new erotic opportunities that prompted the articulation of a gay identity and the rapid growth of a gay subculture.7 The war pulled millions of American men and women away from the social controls of their families, small towns, and ethnic neighborhoods in large
cities and deposited them in a variety of sex-segregated, nonfamilial institutions. For men, this meant service in the armed forces; for many women, it meant migrating to cities for war jobs and socializing in often all-female environments. For a generation of young Americans, the war created a setting in which to experience same-gender love, affection, and sexuality and to participate in the group life of lesbians and gay men — terms that had begun to circulate within the homosexual subculture. As a teenager in Iowa, for example, Pat Bond had felt “forever alone” in her attraction to women; when she entered the Women’s Army Corps, she found that “everybody was going with someone or had a crush on someone.”
When young men and women left home to find employment, they escaped family surveillance and found space for sexual exploration. Thus, Donald Vining moved from southern New Jersey to New York City, where, living at the ymca, he wrote in his diary, “The war is a tragedy to my mind and soul, but to my physical being, it is a memorable experience.” Like many gay men and lesbians, Vining did not return to prewar patterns. After the war, he stayed in New York to participate in the gay life of the city. Pat Bond settled in San Francisco, where she patronized the lesbian bars that had opened during the war. Throughout the postwar era, a bar subculture spread and stabilized, relieving somewhat the isolation of an earlier generation and, by the 1950s, integrating black and white lesbian subcultures.8
The expanding possibilities for gay men and lesbians to meet did not pass without a response. The postwar years bred fears about the ability of American institutions to withstand subversion from real and imagined enemies. Political leaders mobilized the public to support a global commitment to contain communism. The ensuing Cold War left Americans prone to hunt for scapegoats to explain how the fruits of victory in World War II could sour so quickly. In an atmosphere of such anxiety, homosexuals suddenly found themselves labeled as a threat to national security and the target of widespread witch hunts. In June 1950, the U. S. Senate authorized a formal inquiry into the employment of “homosexuals and other moral perverts” in government. Dismissals from civilian posts increased twelvefold over the pre-1950 rate. In April 1953, the recently inaugurated President Dwight Eisenhower issued an executive order barring gay men and lesbians from all federal jobs. The Federal Bureau of Investigation initiated a widespread system of surveillance to keep homosexuals off the federal payroll. The armed forces sharply stepped up its purges of homosexual men and women; yearly discharges doubled in the 1950s and rose another 50 percent in the early 1960s. Throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s, gay men and lesbians were subjected to unpredictable, often brutal crackdowns. In Washington, D. C., for example, arrests topped 1,000 per year during the early 1950s. Newspaper editors often printed the names, addresses, and places of employment of those arrested in bar raids.
Thus, hand in hand with the expansion of gay identity and subculture came official resistance to its emergence through policies that in fact may have further encouraged gay community formation. Just as the earlier medical labeling of same-gender love as “deviant” had not suppressed but may have encouraged the construction of gay identity, the antigay hysteria of the postwar era raised the political consciousness of a small group of lesbians and gay men who founded a “homophile movement,” organized to improve their status as a minority group and to fight state suppression. In San Francisco, for example, the dob — the Daughters of Bilitis — founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, began publishing The Ladder, a long-lived lesbian political and literary magazine. DOB organized chapters throughout the country to defend the basic human rights of lesbians. Once the social upheavals of the 1960s unleashed the energy and language of liberation movements — as civil rights turned to Black Power and women’s rights to women’s liberation — the historical stage was ripe for a “gay” liberation movement to build on the foundations of the defensive homophile-rights organizations of the 1950s.
The precise origin of a mass movement was Friday, 27 June 1969, when a group of Manhattan police officers set out to close the Stonewall Inn, a bar in the heart of Greenwich Village frequented by black and Latino gay youths. For the first time, lesbians and gay men — visibly led by drag queens — resisted arrest and attacked the police. Rioting continued far into the night as crowds of angry homosexuals battled the police up and down the streets. The following day, graffiti proclaiming “Gay Power” was scribbled on walls and pavements in the area. The rioting that lasted throughout the weekend signaled the start of a major social movement. As word of the Stonewall riots circulated among radical youths who were gay as well as among other disaffected homosexuals, the liberation impulse took root across the country.
How and why did gay liberation arise so rapidly in the 1970s? Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, a gay subculture had been growing, providing the setting in which homosexuals might develop a group consciousness. In the 1960s, the weakening of taboos against the public discussion of sexuality in general, the pervasive police harassment of the era, and the persistent work of a small coterie of pre-Stonewall activists — in the dob and other groups — combined to make many lesbians and gay men receptive to the message of “Gay Power.”
It was in this context that coming out of the closet became a key tactic of the movement, suggesting the extent of transformation in the meaning of same-gender love over the centuries. Coming out became basic to assumptions about being gay. It represented the adoption of an identity in which the erotic became emblematic of the person rather than an isolated act and in which identity was chosen rather than imposed as a medical label of deviance. The self-affirmation of coming out was, of course, part of a larger national obsession with the centrality of the erotic in American life. As radical as gay liberation may have seemed, it was, in a sense, the logical extension of the sexual liberalism that had been transforming American sexual attitudes — toward contraception, abortion, and premarital heterosexual relations. Like others in the 1960s and 1970s, lesbians and gay men were embracing the claims of psychological experts concerning the importance of sexual expression for personal well-being; by the 1970s, gay male subculture was paralleling the consumerist values that had already made sex a highly marketable commodity. In a sense, gay identity, gay communities, and gay politics emerged as much in tandem with as in opposition to mainstream American sexual history.
Over the past twenty-five years, a homosexual identity has found a place in the American social and political landscape, not just in isolated medical journals or an urban underworld. How are we to interpret this sweeping history of change? One way to encapsulate this past would be to see the emergence of gay identity and politics as a kind of progressive “success” story, from repression to liberation, from an unnamed category to a central form of identity and the basis for a mass political movement. An alternative interpretation, emphasizing the social construction of sexuality, suggests that economic, social, and intellectual forces have shaped and reshaped sexuality— in this case, same-gender love — in uneven patterns. Not everyone in this society experiences historical forces in the same way or at the same time. Thus, there is no unitary experience, and at any given time, there are in fact a variety of social constructions of sexuality, including the cross-gender berdache; romantic friendships; urban, anonymous sex; longtime companions and Boston marriages; bar culture; and gay identity and political consciousness.
I would argue that all of these social constructs can coexist at any given time as long as the material support for them continues. Thus, today we can still find cross-gender males, “passing women,” celibate passionate friends, and monogamous homosexual partners. We can also find anonymous or “stranger” sex, along with a variety of other behaviors, such as married, heterosexual men and women who also seek same-gender sexual partners, whether they identify as bisexual or not. Increasingly, the gay movement has tended to claim all of the above under the single rubric of homosexuality — and more recently, through the redemption of the once stigmatizing term “queer.” In many ways, this broad claim to the contents of the label “gay” is an astute political strategy, for it brings the largest number of constituents into one’s camp. But the homogenizing label can mask the reality that not everyone experiences his or her “homosexuality” in the same way.9 Whether “gay” identity will remain a stable feature of our socially constructed sexuality or whether further historical changes will reshape yet again how we think of ourselves remains to be seen.
In the meantime, in looking at the historical construction of homosexuality, it is worth remembering that the best way to understand the various behaviors described above may not come from asking the question “Were they ‘gay?’ ” — that is, did they have modern, late-twentieth-century sexual identity. Rather, we need to ask how women and men in the past understood and experienced their own sexuality. Asking this question allows us to have a “gay history” that illuminates our own contemporary experience but at the same time remains respectful of those who, in the past, lived within a differently constructed sexuality than our own.
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