It Didn't Start with Stonewall

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A demonstration in front of Philadelphia's Independence Hall in support of homosexual rights, July 4, 1967. 

This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazineSubscribe here.

The Gay Revolution: The Story of a Struggle
By Lillian Faderman
Simon & Schuster

Lillian Faderman’s The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle begins with the late-1940s story of E.K. Johnston, a beloved professor at the University of Missouri who was considered a likely candidate to take over as college president. But everything changed when his name came up in the kind of police interrogation common in the day: one homosexual bullied into giving names, and those people intimidated into giving more names.

On no other evidence, Johnston was arrested, smeared in the media, fired from the university, and threatened with jail. Hoping for mercy, he pleaded guilty, and received a fine and a sentence of four years’ probation. A condition of his probation: “cessation of all homosexual practices.”

In an epilogue some 650 pages later, Faderman squeezes in a going-to-print mention of the Supreme Court’s June 26, 2015, ruling that made marriage equality the law of the land nationwide.

In the riveting intervening pages, The Gay Revolution tells story after story of lives destroyed by anti-gay prejudice brutally enforced by societal and governmental institutions—and of individuals-turned-activists who fought to win recognition for the sanity, dignity, and citizenship rights of LGBT people by taking on what early Mattachine Society activist Dorr Legg called the “Four Horsemen of the Gay Apocalypse”: the social, the scientific, the religious, and the legal. 

At the end of the prologue, Faderman recounts the 2012 ceremony in which Army Colonel Tammy Smith was promoted to brigadier general. Following tradition, the stars were pinned to each epaulet by two individuals most important to her. One was her father; the other, not so traditionally, was her spouse, who was also a woman. Writes Faderman:

What long-fought battles, tragic losses, and hard-won triumphs have brought us as a country from the days when a much loved and gifted professor could be disgraced, thrown in jail, and hounded out of his profession as soon as his private life was revealed, to the days when a military officer could marry the woman she loves in broad daylight and be promoted, in a very public ceremony, to the rank of general with her wife by her side?

It is these battles—with enemies and sometimes between allies—tragic losses, and hard-won triumphs that make Faderman’s book compelling reading. Drawing on years of archival research and more than 150 interviews, Faderman tells this history of social and political change through the experiences of individual people, those who found themselves in trouble and those who dedicated themselves to making constructive trouble on behalf of the rights and dignity of LGBT people.

For LGBT people not familiar with their own history, the book is an essential reminder that progress was not inevitable or easily won. The struggle for social respect and legal equality began in earnest more than 50 years ago, and was built on even earlier acts of courageous resistance.

One crucial early battle was waged through much of the 1950s by the publisher of One magazine, whose attorneys challenged a series of rulings from the Post Office that articles about homosexuals were by definition “obscene, lewd, lascivious, and filthy.” The 1958 Supreme Court ruling that the topic of homosexuality was itself not obscene, and that the Post Office had no right to confiscate copies of the magazine, “made a remarkable social statement, tacit as it was,” Faderman writes. “Homosexuality was not unspeakable.”

But it was cause enough for all kinds of persecution.

Faderman describes the earlier case of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s trusted aide Sumner Welles, whose drunken proposition of railroad train porters in 1940 was used by his political enemies to engineer his downfall. Welles’s destruction, she writes, “became the ripple that began the tidal wave of Washington’s homosexual witch hunts.”

Those witch hunts, led by the local police, the FBI, and investigators for the Civil Service Commission, were the enforcement arm of a morality hysteria that cost tens of thousands of people their jobs and forced countless others to live with daily fear that a slight slip in a carefully maintained facade could bring the world crashing down on them.

Faderman also reminds us that, contrary to much of the public imagination, the gay rights movement did not begin with Stonewall. Almost two decades before, Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles. Five years later, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin created the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco. Psychologist Evelyn Hooker’s groundbreaking study disproving widely held theories about gay men’s mental health was presented in 1956. In 1965, Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings led pickets at the White House and other government buildings challenging the federal government’s exclusion of gay people from government jobs. Gay people had protested police harassment at Cooper’s Donuts in Los Angeles in 1959, at Dewey’s coffee shop in Philadelphia in 1965, at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966, and in response to bar raids in Los Angeles in 1967 and 1968.

But, Faderman notes, the ferocity and duration of the Stonewall riots signaled a crucial shift from the polite and respectable “homophile” organizations to an era of more aggressive activism from groups like the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance, which flourished in the 1970s. Stonewall was led by street kids and transgender people of color, but it also inspired middle-aged professional gay guys who took to the streets in creative new ways. And the widely publicized spirit of defiance changed the way many gay people looked at themselves. Faderman quotes poet Allen Ginsberg, who, having visited the Stonewall scene after two nights of rioting, said, “You know the guys there were so beautiful. They lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago.”

Many gay men took on a different wounded look during the scourge of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s. Faderman chronicles some of the villains and heroes of the era, which devastated the community and a generation of leaders, but also pushed or pulled many people out of the closet, creating expanding circles of allies and advocates among their families and friends—and setting the stage for a new generation of effective activism.

Reading Faderman’s book can give one a sense that there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to divisions within the LGBT movement. Many of the current fissures have been evident through the decades: liberationists versus assimilationists; lesbians dealing with and refusing to put up with gay men’s sexism; “born gay” versus “gay by political choice”; tensions between trans people and lesbian feminists; single-issue organizations versus a broad, social justice–oriented movement; “respectable” behavior versus in-your-face activism.

Also remarkably familiar is the rhetoric of the enemies of LGBT people. What we hear today from some anti-gay activists sounds very little different from language used to justify the witch hunts of 60 years ago. For example, as the head of the Civil Service Commission, John Macy was a stubborn enforcer of homophobic rules that forced people out of government jobs in the 1960s. In defense of those policies, he said that it made no sense to think of homosexuals as a minority, because, he asserted, homosexual isn’t even a noun and it can’t refer to a person; it is rather an adjective that refers to deviant behavior. This is strikingly similar to rhetoric from some of today’s conservative evangelicals and some of their allies in the Mormon and Catholic hierarchies, who insist there is no such thing as a gay person, just a person with “homosexual tendencies” or one who experiences “same-sex attraction.”

For all the phenomenal shifts in public opinion, we still saw many 21st-century ballot initiatives against marriage equality won by portraying gays as threats to children, the same way Anita Bryant attacked anti-discrimination laws in the 1970s. Just this past November, opponents of Houston’s transgender-inclusive nondiscrimination law convinced voters to repeal it by running ugly ads suggesting the legislation would provide an open door for child molesters.

Of course, no single book, even a large and ambitious one, can provide a comprehensive history of a movement that spans generations. There are inevitably gaps. In chapters on the marriage-equality movement, for example, Faderman has to condense into a relatively few pages something that has recently been the subject of multiple book-length treatments. It is not hard to think of individual strategists and activists who have played crucial roles in the movement but do not appear in this book.

Scholar John D’Emilio has said, in a mostly positive review, that Faderman’s focus on telling individual stories gives short shrift to the role played by organizations. It also means that there is less space devoted to analyzing the movement’s strategies and explaining how some of the crucial beneficial changes—notably huge shifts in public opinion—were accomplished. And the thematic chapters, covering overlapping periods of time, occasionally left me flipping back a few pages to remind myself what year I was reading about.

It is also worth noting that, while the book presents the history of the movement in the United States, the LGBT equality movement is increasingly a global phenomenon, as is the often deadly resistance and backlash.

Nobody understands the challenges of this kind of undertaking better than Faderman, author of numerous books on gay and lesbian history and literature, including Surpassing the Love of Men, Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, and Gay L.A., co-authored with Stuart Timmons. She says that among the pieces left on the cutting-room floor during the editing process were in-depth looks at the role played by progressive religious activists, activism aimed at influencing portrayals of LGBT people in the media, and the influence of LGBT sports figures. Faderman says she may be publishing that research in future articles.

Faderman says that she hopes her book will give LGBT people a clearer sense of their history and that it astonishes her when LGBT people say of progress toward equality, “Wow, that was quick.” In fact, it has been a long, hard slog, and, in the words of activist and author Michelangelo Signorile, “it’s not over.” The Religious Right is not going away, and is not going to abandon its opposition to LGBT equality, Faderman says. “It’s important to know how hard the struggle has been and how many defeats there have been along the way,” she writes. “It’s important to remain vigilant.”

The Gay Revolution will equip readers with a greater knowledge of the movement’s history, and an appreciation for the crucial role of individual acts of courage in winning and safeguarding equality. And it’s a great read.

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