The following is based upon a talk given for New York City‘s Gay Liberation Front (GLF) during the week-long celebration of Stonewall 25.
The Stonewall Riots were the beginning and the defining moment for the contemporary gay and lesbian liberation movement. Although such homophile groups as Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis existed in the 1950s and 1960s it was at Stonewall in June 1969 that actual revolt happened. But the Stonewall Riots and the Gay Liberation Front would not have happened were it not for the enormous social vitality of the times–the Black Power movement, the second wave of feminism, the youth culture, the civil rights movement, the drug culture, the hippies, yippies and rock and roll. Without them, the raid on the Stonewall Inn would have been one more petty police harassment against one more mob-owned drinking hole that imprisoned another dozen queens. The words “Gay Power” were a re-visioning of “Black Power. ” The phrase “Gay Liberation” was a tribute to the already existing cultural power of “women’s liberation.” The energy that erupted on Christopher Street that night was prompted by the energy of rock and roll and the drug and street culture.
We are here to talk about the future of Gay Liberation. There are three topics that are vital to discuss if we are going to think about moving into the future are race, identity and behavior (or as the lawyers put it: status and conduct) and sex.
The Gay Liberation Front talked a lot about racism. We understood that racism was about the lives of all U.S. citizens black or white. Even our name reflected anti-racism battles: the National Liberation Front of Vietnam and the Algerian Liberation Front. We understood that the Black Panthers had a political force and a vision that made sense in our times. GLF was hardly perfect in dealing with racism, most of its members were white, much of its discussion about racism involved breast-beating and platitudes. But we understood that racism was part of our fight, both for our sake as well as theirs.
The situation is quite different in the gay movement today. Now we talk about (and do little about) “diversity” and “multiculturalism. ” Both are good words but are used far too often to evade the real discussion. I discovered several months ago that the word anti-Semitism was coined as a Victorian euphemism to replace the phrase “Jew hating.” If we are going to move forward in dealing with issues of race and ethnicity it is important to keep in mind that what we are talking about, much of the time, is not so much “diversity” but white racism.
If the gay movement is going to work in coalition with other movements for social change–if we intend to defeat the religious right wing we must re-examine how we think, talk and act. In organizing around the gays-in-the-military issue we heard phrases like “gays are no longer going to tolerate sitting at the back of the bus” and “gays are the last minority it is legal to discriminate against.” The Committee for Military Service, the only national group organizing on the military issue, called for a cross-country bus caravan to replicate the voter registration drives of the 1960s civil rights movement. In press release after press release they compared the gays-in-the-military fight to the civil rights struggle of 30 years ago apparently with no consciousness of what this might mean, or sound like, to African Americans. Tanya Domi, a spokesperson for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force announced publicly regarding gays-in-the-military “I don’t think that we need affirmative action. I think that we have comported ourselves and distinguished ourselves in an outstanding manner.” What? So those people who need affirmative action are unable to perform their jobs correctly or competently? There is always much talk in the organized gay rights movement about forming coalitions, yet in the past six months some of our national spokespeople have mouthed slogans that may be deeply offensive to people of color.
For the past three years I have been the Program Coordinator for the OutWrite conference, a national gathering of lesbian and gay writers. Each year I am more and more appalled at a growing backlash by some white lesbian and gay writers against the Conference’s stated multicultural policy. While everyone agrees that “multiculturalism” is important when it comes down to implementing, or even dealing with it, there are problems. Last year I had a moderately famous white writer tell me that she didn’t want to appear on a panel with any people of color because no matter what the stated topic was the question of race always came up. In another conversation I mentioned to a writer that the Conference had a commitment to include at least one person of color on every panel. He took exception, saying that the only criteria for panelists should be that they were “interesting.” I said I thought the committee could find at least one “interesting” person of color for every panel. He then began pushing to have two established white male writers appear on panels. When I pointed out that I knew he thought these particular white male writers were boring as artists and people, he admitted that was the case but because they had done “so much work for the community,” they “deserved” a place.
Two years ago, on a book review panel I was moderating, I mentioned that I had just read a novel by a white gay male writer set in Mobile, Alabama and was amazed not only that there weren’t any African-American characters in the book, the entire city of Mobile seemed to be populated by white people. If we are going to write, read, and review realistic fiction, one of the criteria to judge it on is how “realistic” it is in representing the cultural presence of race and ethnicity. In the next two months three separate reviews of the conference that accused me of “cultural Stalinism” because of my “demand that every fiction writer include black characters in their work.”
The past year also saw the fight over the “rainbow curriculum” in the New York City school system. It was a difficult fight that pitted the religious right against gay activists and found local school committees–many in communities of color–in conflict with a citywide school board plan implementing new multicultural materials including some materials on AIDS education and gay families. Unspoken in much of this fight was that in the new revised “rainbow” curriculum the lavender stripe was almost always white. Until the gay community (writers, publishers, politicians) begins promoting the idea that the gay and lesbian community is multiracial, there are going to be conflicts forming coalitions with other progressive, predominantly nonwhite groups.
One of the biggest changes over the past 25 years has been the cultural and political shift from arguing for “gay rights” based on behavior to arguing for “gay rights” based on identity. These two concepts are, of course, intertwined but quite distinct. After Stonewall we were fighting for the right to behave homosexually–to commit homosexual acts; the right to a sex life. Now the organizing tactics have shifted: we are now arguing for the right to identify as homosexuals. Several months ago an appeals court in Seattle ruled that a lesbian Air Force nurse who had been discharged because of her sexuality had to be reinstated. The judge who issued the ruling wrote “there is no rational basis for the Government’s underlying contention that homosexual orientation equals `desire or propensity to engage’ in homosexual conduct.” This was terrible for two reasons.
One: it is complete nonsense and rubbish. Two: it paves the way for legal reform that would continue to stigmatize gay and lesbian sexual behavior.
No one would ever argue that a heterosexual orientation would not lead to a desire or propensity to engage in heterosexual activity. And yet this ruling is praised by the entire gay civil rights community. The religious right has so stigmatized gay sexuality and gay behavior that we–in a misguided attempt to find secure tactics in our fight–have ceded them this ground. The flight from defending behavior is apparent in the many calls from within the community to keep fringe groups such as drag-queens and leather people at low profile in events such as the 1993 March on Washington. It is in the constant calls for gay people to present a “good image” to the straight world. It is in the new wave of books for kids of gay families like Uncle What-Is-It Is Coming to Visit that presents non-“normal” looking homosexuals as frightening to children. It is in the “don’t ask/don’t tell” policy. It is in the essays of gay conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan, Bruce Bawer, Marvin Liebman, and Mel White when they say that the “good gays” are being denied their rights by the “bad gays” who insist on talking about sex.
The is homosexuality without sex–of a gay world that is an exact replication of the straight world except that we cannot admit to having sex–occurred for many reasons. The assimilationist trend in the movement has always downplayed the difficult question of sexuality. According to them if we just never mentioned sex (or indicated it by thought, word, deed or dress), we would be accepted, or, at the very best, go unnoticed. But the energy (and common sense) of Stonewall, the sexual revolution, the 1960s all ensured that the concept of gay rights meant the right to be sexual, the right to act on our sexuality in the same way that heterosexuals do. It is only recently that the gay movement has begun to predicate its agenda for gay rights on identity, not behavior.
The other reason for this shift in thinking and tactics has been AIDS. AIDS is indisputably about behavior. Identity is not even a question here. Gay men are not at high risk for AIDS–men who have sex with men are. The specter–and the reality–of AIDS is so overwhelming, so ingrained in the everyday lives of the gay community that on some level we gave up arguing for our right to behave the way we wanted to. Behavior was too much about sex, too connected to AIDS to make us–or anyone else–feel comfortable keeping behavior as the cornerstone of our fight for freedom.
Recently an AIDS care worker, speaking about a new bathhouse opening in Boston, said to me “this is the last thing we need now.” When I pointed out that the facility was to be completely supervised, filled with safe-sex information and supplying condoms and that more unsafe sex happens in homes, not in public, he responded “I don’t care. This makes it look as though all gay men are interested in is sex.” Bruce Bawer, in his gay-conservative apologia A Place at the Table, argues that the bad behavior of gay men (everything from looking at porn to kissing in public to marching in a leather vest) stigmatizes the whole community and makes it very difficult for younger gay people to come out. Bawer’s presumption that young people are interested in “identity” (that is, being gay) and not “behavior” (that is, acting gay: i.e., having sex) is symptomatic of his own personal problems, not a reflection of reality.
Stonewall was about many things. It was about freedom of association, about identity, about visibility, about not being discriminated against, about the right to wear drag, about not having basic human rights violated. But it was also about sex: sex without guilt, better sex, sex at home, sex at the baths, sex with love, and sex without love. When we talk about being homosexual–or gay, or queer, or lesbian or bent, or whatever–we are talking about many things. But the bottom line is that we are talking about engaging in sexual activity with a member of the same gender. If we are fighting a battle that will grant us the right to identify as gay but not the right (and the protections) to act this way we have failed completely. If we are going to accept social policy that refuses to admit that our identity does not create a desire or propensity to engage in sexual activity, we have failed completely. If we think we can gain acceptance, or even toleration by hiding the fact that our sexual desires and actions are important, vital aspects of our lives we have failed completely.
We live in a culture that both hates and obsesses about sex. And those are the heterosexuals. No wonder it’s hard to talk about sexuality if you are a homosexual. We bear the burden of having to be both completely defined by our sexuality and pilloried for it at the same time. We are presumed to be obsessed with sex and are told that only be refuting sexuality will we be accepted. Seeing same-gender couples walking hand-in-hand at Stonewall 25 was great. It should remind us that such behavior isn’t allowed the rest of the time. Even though sex is consumerized constantly–in both mainstream and gay culture–we are no longer talking about the importance it plays in our lives, in our organizing, in our community building, as a major part of our identity and as a way to secure self-respect. The AIDS epidemic insists that we deal directly and honestly with how we have sex, what it means to us, and how we can continue to have sex in a safe, responsible manner.
If the religious right, as well as run-of-the-mill conservatives, are going to dwell on all aspects of our sexuality–from s/m, NAMBLA, drag and cruising–we have to have solid, progay, pro-sex answers. Simply saying “not all gay men are drag queens” or “NAMBLA isn’t about homosexuality, it’s about pedophilia” isn’t enough. We have become ashamed of our sexual desires, we have allowed the religious right, conservatives, “good taste” and convention to dictate what we can talk about and where, what we can do, and with whom.
Until we can begin again to talk honestly and openly about sex, sexuality, our own personal sexuality, what we do and how we feel about it, we will never move ahead. Twenty-five years ago the Stonewall Riots and the formation of the Gay Liberation Front were a revelation. They were not perfect, by any means, but they pointed us in the right direction. The inspirations and instincts we had then can provide us with a way to work through to the future.
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