Making and Unmaking Minorities: The Tensions between Gay Politics and History


Since 1969, when the Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village gave birth to the current phase of gay and lesbian political struggles in the United States, the gay and lesbian movement has evolved from one emphasizing gay liberation to one emphasizing gay rights. Within that shift in terminology lies a major alteration in social analysis, political strategy, and ultimate goals. In its gay liberation phase, the lesbian and gay movement employed a language of political radicalism. It saw itself as one piece of a much larger political impulse that strove for a complete reorganization of institutions, values, and the structure of power in American life. Gay liberation sought to achieve its aims by organizing masses of gay men and lesbians whose political activity would occur largely outside courts and legislatures. These activists viewed accepted categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality as oppressive social con-structs. The movement perceived human sexuality as diffuse and polymorphous in nature, and potentially destructive of rigid social hierarchies.

Over the last fifteen years, the movement has become exceedingly diverse.Today, gay and lesbian organizations include a host of constituencies – men and women, black, hispanic, Asian and white, young and old, entrepreneurs, middle-class professionals, and unionized workers. Homosexuals have formed political clubs, churches, synagogues, health centers, and theater companies.Although no unified vision or political strategy animates these constituencies, we can say that as Stonewall has receded into the past, the movement as a whole has become less politically and socially radical. Its portrayal by the media, the statements of many movement leaders, and the program of action of individuals and organizations convey an image of the gay movement as one in quest of equal rights. That evolution, from gay liberation to gay rights, places the political and social struggles of lesbians and gay men in a familiar, well-established equal rights framework, deeply rooted in American history.

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