Fifty Years After Stonewall

What will LGBT scholarship look like over the next decade? Scott McLemee asks around.

June 24, 2009

When the police conducted a routine raid on the Stonewall Inn, a bar in Greenwich Village, during the early hours of June 28, 1969, the drag queens did not go quietly. In grief at the death of Judy Garland one week earlier, and just plain tired of being harassed, they fought back -- hurling bricks, trashing cop cars, and in general proving that it is a really bad idea to mess with anybody brave enough to cross-dress in public.

Before you knew it, the Black Panther Party was extending solidarity to the Gay Liberation Front. And now, four decades later, an African-American president is being criticized -- even by some straight Republicans -- for his administration’s inadequate commitment to marriage rights for same-sex couples. Social change often moves in ways that are stranger than anyone can predict.

Today the abbreviation LGBT (covering lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people) is commonplace. Things only become esoteric when people start adding Q (questioning) and I (intersex). And the scholarship keeps deepening. Six years ago, after publishing a brief survey of historical research on gay and lesbian life, I felt reasonably well-informed (at least for a rather unadventurous heteroetcetera). But having just read a new book by Sherry Wolf called Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of LGBT Liberation (Haymarket) a few days ago, I am trying to process the information that there were sex-change operations in Soviet Russia during the 1920s. (This was abolished, of course, once Stalinism charted its straight and narrow path to misery.) Who knew? Who, indeed, could even have imagined?

Well, not me, anyway. But the approaching anniversary of Stonewall seemed like a good occasion to consider what the future of LGBT scholarship might bring. I wrote to some well-informed sources to ask:

“By the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, what do you think (or hope) might have changed in scholarship on LGBT issues? Please construe this as broadly as you wish. Is there an incipient trend now that will come to fruition over the next few years? Do you see the exhaustion of some topic, or approach, or set of familiar questions? Or is it a matter of a change in the degree of institutional acceptance or normalization of research?”

The responses were few, alas -- but substantial and provocative. Here, then, in a partial glimpse at what may yet be on the agenda for LGBT studies.

Claire Potter is a professor of history at Wesleyan University. In 2008, she received the Audre Lorde Prize for “Queer Hoover: Sex, Lies, and Political History,” an article appearing in Journal of the History of Sexuality.

One of the changes already underway in GLBTQ studies is, ironically, destabilizing the liberation narrative that begins with Stonewall in 1969 and ends with the right to equal protection in Romer v. Evans (1996). Part of what we know from the great burst of energy that constitutes the field is that the Stonewall Riot we celebrate as the beginning of the liberation movement is not such a watershed, nor is the affirmation of equal protection the end of the story.

For example, I begin the second half of my queer history survey with Susan Stryker’s “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Café” documenting a similar San Francisco rebellion in 1966, three years prior to Stonewall; I end with Senator Larry Craig being arrested in a Minneapolis men’s room. GLBTQ liberation is unfinished and becoming more complex as the research emerges that takes us on beyond Stonewall. But I would also add a caveat: Where are the transnational and comparative histories that are on the cutting edge in other fields, like ethnic studies, cultural studies, anthropology and women’s studies?

Just as significant, in my view, is that the greatest social stigma and official discrimination (not to mention inattention in queer courses and integration into the mainstream curriculum) is still aimed at the group we celebrate when we celebrate Stonewall, transgendered and transsexual people. This is an area where we need a lot of growth.

What I would like for transgender studies in 10 years is what is happening already in gay and lesbian history: placing the emergence of identities and the emergence of liberation struggles in a longer history that goes beyond the North American 20th century. Often senior scholars view trans history as “impossible” to write, a past without an archive other than interviews with the living. However, people said that about gay and lesbian history, African‑American women’s history and other new fields, and it always turned out not to be true.

Furthermore, I would argue that trans studies has a tenuous and often politically situational relationship to the GLB and Q of the field, and that needs to be addressed because the critical issues that are specific to trans studies are not being taken seriously in most curricula that claim to actually teach the field.

The final thing I would like to see by 2019 is graduate students writing dissertations in GLBTQ studies being honestly considered for regular old history jobs, rather than jobs in the history of gender: these young people are writing in legal history, urban history, the history of science, political history, medical history and whatnot -- and they are often only considered seriously for jobs in gender or women’s studies.

What pushes a field ahead is when young people can do important research, not be professionally stigmatized for it and know they can make a living as scholars.

Doug Ireland is a veteran political reporter covering both sides of the Atlantic. He is currently the U.S. correspondent and columnist for the French political‑investigative weekly Bakchich, and international affairs editor for Gay City News, New York City's largest LGBT weekly newspaper.

Sad to say, much of what comes out of university gay studies programs these days is altogether too precious, artificial and written in an academic jargon that is indigestible to most LGBT people. Reclaiming our own history is still not getting enough attention from these programs (witness Larry Kramer's long and ultimately failed fight to have the Larry Kramer Initiative he and his brother endowed at Yale become more history‑oriented and relevant).

The OutHistory website -- founded by superb, pioneering gay historian and scholar Jonathan Ned Katz -- desperately needs more institutional financial support to continue and expand its important work of creating the world's largest online historical archive of LGBT historical materials. OutHistory's innovative program to cooperatively and simultaneously co‑publish historian John D'Emilio's work on Chicago LGBT history in that city's gay newspaper, the Windy City Times -- a program which it also hopes to expand -- should be a model for the way gay studies programs can become more relevant to the majority of queers outside the hothouse of academe and to the communities by which our universities are surrounded.

We need to know where we've been to know where we should be going, yet there is still a paucity of attention paid to the history and evolution of the modern gay movement, to the death of gay liberation, with all its glorious rambunctiousness and radical emphasis on difference, and its replacement by what Jeffrey Escoffier has called the assimilationist "gay citizenship movement," which is staid, narrow‑gauge in its fund raising‑driven focus (on gay marriage and the like), and inaccurate in the homogenized, white, nuclear‑family‑imitative portrait of who we are that the wealthiest entities in the institutionalized gay movement present and foster.

One of my greatest criticisms of today's institutionalized gay movement is its isolationism. Our largest national organizations shun the concept of international solidarity with queers being oppressed in other countries, claiming their "mission" is only a domestic one. This is in sharp contrast to European LGBT organizations, where the duty of international solidarity is universal and a priority.

Gay studies programs should be encouraging more scholarship on the 86 countries which, in 2009, still have penal laws against homosexuality on the books, and in helping to give voice to the same‑sexers and gender dissidents in those hostile environments who have difficulty publishing in their own countries or where gay scholarship is banned altogether.

To cite just two examples, the ongoing organized murder campaign of "sexual cleansing" in Iraq being carried out by fundamentalist Shiite death squads with the collusion of the U.S.‑allied government is killing Iraqi queers every day, and the horrors of the Islamic Republic of Iran's violent reign of terror against Iranian LGBTs is driving an ever‑increasing number of them to flee their homeland ‑‑ gay scholars have a role to play in helping these people reclaim their history and culture.

Why is it that the most sensitive, rigorous, and complete account of the way in which homosexuality has been extensively woven into Persian culture in sophisticated ways for over 1500 years has just been published by a non‑gay historian, Janet Afary (Sexual Politics in Modern Iran, Cambridge University Press)? In the hands of Iranian queers, this book will become a weapon of liberation against the theocratic regime's campaign to erase that history and keep it from the Iranian people. University presses need to publish more work by queer writers from LGBT‑oppressing countries (as MIT and Semiotexte have just done with Moroccan writer Abdellah Taia's fine autobiographical novel Salvation Army).

In many countries, homophobia and homophobic laws are part of the legacy of colonialism, and were imported from the West. But where is the gay scholar who has developed a serious critique of and rebuttal to the homophobic conspiracy theories of Columbia University's Joseph Massad, who has invented a "Gay International" he accuses of being a tool of Western imperialism (Massad provides a theoretical framework utilized by infantile leftist defenders of Teheran's theocratic regime for attacks on those, including Iranians, who expose the ayatollahs' inhumane persecutions of queers and sexual dissidents)?

One small, concrete and simple but powerful gesture of international solidarity would be for gay studies programs to sponsor book donation drives to make gay history and culture available to those many queers in oppressed countries who thirst for it as they construct their own identities and struggle for sexual freedom. I can tell you from my own reporting as a journalist that making such knowledge available can save lives.

Let's hope that it won't take 10 years to have less artificial, picky intellectual onanism of the obscure theoretical variety and more gay scholarship that's accessible and relevant to people's lived lives and struggles, in other countries as well as our own.

Marcia M. Gallo is an assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. In 2006, she won the Lambda Literary Award for her book Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement (Carroll & Graf).

In considering what I might wish to have changed by the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, a 25‑year old quote from Audre Lorde came to mind: “Somewhere on the edge of consciousness, there is what I call a ‘mythical norm,’ which each one of us knows ‘that is not me.’ In [A]merica this norm is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure. It is within this mythical norm that the trappings of power lie within this society. Those of us who stand outside that power often identify one way in which we are different, and we assume that to be the primary cause of all oppression, forgetting other distortions around difference, some of which we ourselves may be practicing.”

By the time 2019 rolls around, we will need to have plumbed the depths of the “mythical norm” and revealed the “distortions around difference” that still separate the L from the G and the B as well as the T not to mention the Q and the I. In the next decade, I would hope that we deepen our understanding of, and mount effective challenges to, the seductiveness of normative values; question the conflation of equal rights with social justice; and celebrate the significance of queer inclusiveness, innovation, and radicalism.

Specifically, our scholarship must:

(1) acknowledge and analyze the continuing marginalization – and strategies for resistance ‑‑ of many queer people, especially those who are poor, homeless, currently or formerly incarcerated;

(2) restore the “L” -- meaning, give credence and visibility to the power of women’s experiences and leadership, still sorely lacking in our consciousness and in our publications;

(3) refocus on the importance of activism -- especially at local and regional levels, beyond the coasts -- to our research and writing.

Christopher Phelps, currently an associate professor of history at Ohio State University, will join the School of American and Canadian Studies at the University of Nottingham later this year as associate professor. In 2007 his paper “A Neglected Document on Socialism and Sex” appeared in Journal of the History of Sexuality.

I'd like to suggest that the interpretive problem of homosexuality and capitalism still cries out for exploration. John D'Emilio, David Halperin, and others have demonstrated that although same‑sex desire extends to the ancients, homosexuality is a modern phenomenon. As a sexual orientation or identity, homosexuality arose only with the individual wage labor and the separation of household and work characteristic of capitalism.

A mystery remains, though, for how did the very same mode of production that created the conditions for this new consciousness also produce intense compulsions for sexual repression? Why, if capitalism gave rise to homosexuality, are the ardent defenders of capitalism, whether McCarthyist or on our contemporary Republican right, so often obsessed with attacking same‑sex desire? How does capitalism generate both the conditions for homosexuality and the impulse to suppress it?

This relates closely to the modalities by which homosexuality and homophobia are to be found in the same minds, from J. Edgar Hoover and Roy Cohn in the 1950s down to the Ted Haggards and Larry Craigs of the present day. I believe this goes beyond self‑hatred. It speaks to a cultural ambivalence, one still present today. We live in a moment when capitalism is experiencing its deepest crisis in fifty years, even as the movement for gay acceptance seems to be advancing, if haltingly. The recent state approvals of gay marriage, for example, contrast markedly with Nazi Germany, where the economic crisis of the 1930s led to the scapegoating of gays forced to wear pink triangles. How to explain this contrast? In what ways is capitalism liberatory, in what ways constrictive?

Conversely, we need a lot more conceptual thinking about homosexuality and the left, by which I mean specifically the strand of the left that opposes capitalism. Many of the signal breakthroughs in what is now called the gay civil rights movement were the result of thinkers and doers who came out of the anti‑capitalist left, most famously the Mattachine Society and the Gay Liberation Front. This is also true of many lesser‑known examples, such as the Marine Cooks and Stewards, a left‑led union of the 1930s and 1940s that Allan Bérubé was researching before his death. (To topic‑seeking graduate students out there, by the way, Bérubé's project deserves a new champion, and we badly lack a definitive study of the GLF.)

To make such breakthroughs, however, gay leftists often had to break with the parties and movements that taught them so much and enabled them to recognize their own oppression. The founders of the Mattachine were men forced out of the Communist Party, which saw homosexuality as reactionary decadence. The libertarian left, both anarchist and socialist, broke free of the impulse for respectability, but such libertarian and egalitarian radicals were on the margins of the styles of left‑liberalism and Stalinism prevalent on the left at midcentury.

So this deepens the mystery, because it means that while capitalism generated homosexuality, it often takes radicals opposed to capitalism to push sexual liberation forward‑‑and yet sometimes they must do so against the instincts of the dominant left. We would really benefit from a deeper theoretical excavation of this set of problems.


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