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The gay '70s: From "queer power" to "gay rights"


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At Public Books, Sam Metz reviews two new books about US gay activism in the 1970s: Stand by Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation by Jim Downs and Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics by Timothy Stewart-Winter. In addition to chronicling the most radical era of gay activism, these book attempt to explain how an emphasis on “queer power” in the '70s has evolved into a more assimilationist and conservative emphasis on “gay rights” today. Here’s an excerpt from Metz’s review:

Most of the Stand by Me’s pages document the manner in which gay people worked less to appease a society that excluded them than to give themselves a sense of pride and meaning by rallying around each other and founding their own institutions.

In this project, Downs is not alone. Another historian, Timothy Stewart-Winter, has also recently released a book that emphasizes organizing power over persecution in its retelling of the LGBTQ past. Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics tracks the history of queer mobilization within the patronage system of Chicago’s infamous machine politics. Queer Clout and Stand by Me both situate the 1970s in a context of modern-day activism—its pivot away from the idea of “gay liberation”—and contemplate the shortfalls of our much more conservative times, in which advocacy has prioritized gaining full access to the military and the institution of marriage. Stand by Me recalls a time in which many gay activists “critiqued democracy and capitalism … [and] sought community and their own culture over legal rights and political recognition,” whereas Queer Clout resists the convenient narrative that suggests the fight for marriage began with the 1969 Stonewall uprising, claiming gay activism to be “more radical in its origins” than those looking back now recognize.

Queer Clout is engaging and timely when it delves into the tension between politics of assimilation and politics of liberation, explaining how radical elements began aspiring to clout within electoral politics. “Paradoxically,” Stewart-Winter writes, “although gay liberation was a radical movement suffused with rhetoric of revolution,” the work of its members—who fashioned themselves after groups like Chicago’s branch of the Black Panther Party and cared little about appeasing the society that oppressed them—ultimately incorporated them into that very society. Through actions like pride parades, groups like Chicago Gay Liberation and Chicago Gay Alliance “set in motion the greater visibility” of both “gay life on the North Side” and consequently “in urban machine politics.” Chicago’s activists weren’t able to elect any openly gay aldermen or pass a gay rights bill in Illinois, but increasing visibility “prodded those machine candidates facing independent challengers to back gay rights or, at a minimum, to meet with and listen to gay activists.”

A related paradox lives on today, with the more radical activists prioritizing coalitions and advocating for broad visions of justice on issues that asymmetrically affect queer people—like Project Fierce, which works to alleviate LGBTQ youth homelessness in Chicago, and Queer Detainee Empowerment Project, which works to support the queer and undocumented in New York—and those of more mainstream groups like Human Rights Campaign, which organize as lobbies and strive for access to those in power, often working in tandem rather than in opposition to confront an unlivable status quo

Image: New York City Department of Health PrEP Advertisement. Via Public Books.