One of the most prominent civil rights movements of the last four decades has been the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement, in part due to the influence of other successful civil rights movements and in part as a response to the political environment that explicitly marginalized gays and lesbians. The study of gay and lesbian political identity has included analysis of gay rights as a social movement, simultaneously creating a group identity while engaging in political activity. Scholars have examined the ways the movement has adapted strategies to changing political environments that have required not only challenging governmental policies but also challenging public opinion about sexual orientation and gender identity. Like many social movements, the pursuit of simultaneously political and cultural rights has also produced an internal struggle over the nature of the group’s identity, its political interests, and the inclusiveness of the group.
Coming Out: The Early Years Of The Movement
The roots of gay and lesbian politics can be found in the early twentieth-century social clubs, like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, founded to provide a safe space for individuals interested in same-sex relationships. Since gay and lesbian relationships were considered socially unacceptable and were often criminalized, self-identifying as a sexual minority was itself a political act. Most early gay and lesbian organizations were located in metropolitan areas, and while white professionals dominated many of these social and political organizations, areas such as Harlem also had a thriving gay and lesbian subculture. In the 1950s, local, state, and federal lawmakers increasingly targeted gay and lesbian populations with antisodomy statutes, and the Eisenhower administration expelled suspected gay and lesbian employees in the federal workforce and military.
The social movements of the 1960s profoundly influenced the organization of gay and lesbian politics. For example, the feminist movement had an ambivalent relationship with lesbian politics, caused by fears that association with lesbians would delegitimize the feminist cause and others arguing for a connection between gender equity and gay rights. The alliance between lesbians and feminists marked a divide within the movement between the priorities and interests of gay men and lesbian women. Gay liberationists, inspired by the sexual revolution of the 1960s, encouraged members to “come out” to make sexual minorities less stigmatized.
The 1970s saw an increase in activism, including the election of the first openly gay public officials and the decriminalization of same-sex sexual activity in many places, but also generated backlash. Much of the opposition was religious in nature, setting up a primary opposition between religious groups, mostly the Christian right, and the gay rights movement.
The Movement Matures: The Transformation Of Gay Rights
In the 1980s, the AIDS crisis precipitated a dramatic transformation of gay and lesbian politics both in terms of focus and strategy. HIV/AIDS forced the movement to focus less on sexual freedom and more on health care, research funding, and policy. Gay rights organizations—from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) and the Lambda Legal Defense Fund—faced significant obstacles in a government reluctant to invest in an illness that was seen as primarily impacting an unpopular minority. In spite of the negative response, the AIDS crisis helped transform gay rights into a major civil rights issue in the United States as the emergent political organizations, especially the HRC and Lambda Legal, developed a coherent national strategy of legislative and legal challenges, and the Democratic Party adopted a more gay-friendly platform. The AIDS crisis also highlighted legal inequalities in areas such as access to health care and end-of-life decision making. On the social front, an increasing number of public figures came out of the closet to make gays and lesbians more visible.
The 1980s also saw growing rifts in terms of gay identity and group interests. The AIDS crisis highlighted the public health concern of primarily gay males, reinforcing a general feeling of exclusion voiced by women and minorities in the movement. Amongst activists themselves significant differences developed over the strategy and direction of the movement. ACT-UP had splintered off from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis over a belief that the GMHC was too conciliatory and insufficiently radical, a split that would be reiterated in later struggles. Many felt the AIDS crisis had made the movement too focused on “normalizing” the image of gays and lesbians and assimilation into mainstream society, leaving behind the goals of sexual freedom and societal transformation. These differences also manifested in differences over the inclusion of transgendered persons in the movement. While the gay rights movement had always been identified with challenges to gender norms, the distinct concerns of the transgendered communities surfaced with some ambivalence within the gay and lesbian community over whether the embrace of transgender rights would interfere with public acceptance of gay rights.
A NATIONAL MOVEMENT: THE PROMISE AND PITFALLS OF THE GAY 90s
During the 90s, the gay rights movement saw some successes in passing state and local antidiscrimination laws and had their first major national success with Romer v. Evans in 1995, striking down a state initiative in Colorado that would have forbidden local measures protecting gays and lesbians. Nevertheless, gay activists were disappointed by President Bill Clinton, who professed support of gay rights but nevertheless adopted the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military, under which gays and lesbians could serve only at the price of silence about their orientation. Further, legal backlash, led by conservative Christians, grew against samesex marriage. Gay questions also received greater attention on the cultural stage with the increasing visibility of gays and lesbians in popular culture.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies (LGBT) gained a foothold in academia with the first research center opening at the City University of New York (CUNY) in 1991 and the proliferation of academic research on LGBT populations during this time. Again, the expansion of the movement was met with resistance and concern over the development of gay and lesbian identity. Concerns remained over what was seen as an increasing assimilationist agenda amongst mainstream gay rights organizations that, in arguing for equal rights, emphasized gays and lesbians were a part of mainstream society, rather than making a case for changing society.
These rifts perpetuated into the first part of the twenty-first century, as same-sex marriage became the dominant item on the gay rights agenda, and some proponents argued for samesex marriage as equivalent to the “normal” institution of marriage while others critiqued it precisely because it adopted an already oppressive paradigm. Others felt the focus on marriage distracted from other political goals such as antidiscrimination or hate crimes legislation.
Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, And Bisexual Identity In Political Science
The evolution of LGBT political identity has been of interest to political scientists for several reasons. The first is an examination of social movement strategy and evolution. As with any movement, LGBT political action has required a response to the political environment, in this case responding to the cultural politics of the twentieth century that placed gay rights alongside abortion, gender equity, and sexual expression as key debates in social policy. The gay rights movement has also responded to the institutional specificity of the U.S. political arena, having to develop strategies that were geographically specific, finding the greatest success in coastal and urban areas, and appealing to state and local governments as well as the federal government. Specific events such as the AIDS crisis have profoundly shaped the movement’s goals and identity. The movement has, at different times, had to respond to political reaction to their successes, most notably reactions within the religious right. As with other social movements, gay rights activists have often found greater success as a political minority appealing to the courts rather than legislative or direct channels. The movement also demonstrates, however, that reliance on legal strategies can also make the movement highly dependent upon professionalized experts, moving away from grassroots and direct action.
Finally, LGBT politics also demonstrates that so-called identity politics are not premised upon a fixed political identity determined by difference from the mainstream. This identity may change over time, as the AIDS crisis prompted a shift from liberationist strategies to policy-oriented public health concerns, placing gay men at the center of the struggle. The identity may also be created by tensions and debate within the movement itself over its own identity, as demonstrated by the growing consideration of transgender issues and debates over the exclusion of women and minority from the movement.
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