The gay activist movement: 30 years of finding itself

The story of gay politics in the 1990s has been, in large part, a tiresome Oedipal drama. Parent-ally alienated gays have acted out their unresolved adolescent rebellions in public. It wasn't always so. Once upon a time, the gay rights movement was about rights, not arrested development.

As Martin Duberman related in his social history "Stonewall" (1993, Plume, $14.95), the movement began in 1969 when a group of queers in Greenwich Village fought back for the first time as police raided one of their bars, the Stonewall Inn. Before Stonewall, gay life had been a clandestine affair involving constant police harassment and even frequent arrests of bar patrons.


Cultural historian George Chauncy wrote about secret clubs like the Matachine Society (for men) and the Daughters of Bilitus (for women) forming the core of what was then an outlawed lifestyle in "Gay New York" (1995, Basic Books, 496 pages, $18). This was true oppression, and one can see why, after decades of living such dangerous double lives, gays were more than justified in taking hearty part in the Stonewall riots.

After Stonewall, however, things began to change. Comparative freedom had been won. Raids and harassment declined, and the '70s became a liberation period for gays, especially gay men, who underwent an understandable delayed adolescence, partying with virtual impunity in bars and bath houses, and relishing their new-found freedom to be themselves.


Lesbians, on the other hand, were more intent on making their presence felt politically, infiltrating the women's movement as what, according to books like Judith Hennessee's biography "Betty Friedan: Her Life" (Random House, 320 pages, $27.95), some feminists bitingly referred to as the "lavender menace."

Of course, gay men's saturnalia came to an abrupt end in 1981 when the Gay Related Cancer, as it was then called, began ravaging Shangri-La. Much of the '80s was spent in mourning, and this produced something of a boom in the publication of AIDS memoirs; the best, elegies like Paul Monette's "Borrowed Time" (1988, Harcourt Brace, 342 pages, $22).

But there were less constructive, less mature responses to the epidemic, and this was when gay activism really became petulant and paranoid, and the Freudian street theater began in earnest. For example, as veteran reporter Randy Shilts documented in his tome "And the Band Played On" (1987, St. Martin's, 672 pages, $16.95), when the Centers for Disease Control moved to close the bath houses in San Francisco, purely as a means of attempting to contain the spread of a deadly disease, it met furious resistance from gay activists, who saw the measure solely as Big Brother's attempt to curtail their sexual freedom.

Tantrums were had, and continued to erupt throughout the '80s and '90s, with these same shrill activists who fought the CDC's containment policy claiming that not enough was being done about AIDS because it was primarily a gay man's disease. Hence the lobby group ACT UP's famous mantra "Silence=Death."

No one publicly acknowledged until much later that, perhaps, bath houses, too, equaled death. They were too busy pelting massgoers in St. Patrick's with condoms, and stretching themselves across major thoroughfares during rush hour. The irony, of course, is that while our poor late father figure par excellence, Cardinal O'Connor, was taking the Oedipal flak from his prodigal gay sons, he was emptying AIDS patients' bedpans with his own hands. How sharper than a serpent's tooth it must have been.

But there were good churchgoing gay boys, too, the square elder brothers of the movement, who decided in the mid-'90s to speak out. It began in earnest with literary critic Bruce Bawer, who wrote the groundbreaking and excellent "A Place at the Table" (1994, Touchstone, $13).

Bawer insisted that being gay didn't mean you had to conform to the callow mandates of an anarchist, sex-obsessed gay subculture. Bawer introduced the truly revolutionary idea that what gay people really wanted was a place at the big table with everybody else -- that is, they wanted to enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals, including the right to marry and hold a job.

Naturally, Bawer's book sparked a vicious backlash among progressive queers, who wanted it known that they didn't in fact want a place at the table. They wanted to turn the table over -- i.e., remake patriarchal, sexist, racist, monogamist society. The then director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Urvashi Vaid, represented this progressive point of view in her book "Virtual Equality" (1996, Doubleday, 14.95).


On Bawer's heels, other journalists began picking apart the "gay subculture." In his book "Life Outside" (1997, HarperCollins, 352 pages, $13). gay journalist Michelangelo Signorile took a close, hard look at the post-AIDS gay scene.

He criticized unsparingly the excesses of gay male culture, especially the rampant and dangerous sexual promiscuity and drug-taking that seemed to have peaked again in the early '90s. A new generation of peaked again in the early '90s. A new generation of complacent, post-AIDS holocausters had been fueling a revived party scene, and Signorile warned that failing to learn a lesson from the '80s plague would prove disastrous. Needless to say, Signorile became the gay Cassandra -- a prophet of doom whom nobody believed.

By the time the Signorile report surfaced, it had become clear that there were two distinct and mutually acrimonious camps burgeoning in gay culture. In one camp, you had the in loco parentis contingent -- made up of journalists and other public intellectuals like Bawer, Signorile, and, most famously, former New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, who in his book "Virtually Normal" (1995, Vintage, $12) further defined Bawer's mainstream gay politics as a fight for equal treatment under the law. Sullivan became famous for advocating gay marriage as a civilizing influence. Law professor William Eskridge also emerged as a leading rights-based activist when he published "The Case For Same Sex Marriage" (1996, Free Press, $25) and "Gay Law" (Harvard University Press, 462 pages, $45).

In the other camp, the rowdy romper room, you had daring academics like Judith Butler, who wrote "Gender Trouble" (1989, Routledge, 256 pages, $19.95), Eve Kosofsky Sedgewick, who wrote "Epistemology of the Closet" (1990, University of California Press, $17.95), and Michael Bersani, who wrote "Homos" (1995, Harvard, 208 pages, $22.95). These postmodern gender theorists and others like them weren't interested in the real world.

They had spent the late '80s and early '90s churning out unreadable and useless reams of text. Their theses on the social construction of gender spawned a lucrative field in academia called queer theory, but it did little or nothing for your proverbial queer on the street.

The war between the Jedis and the dark knights of Sodom began officially when Michael Warner, a professor at Rutgers, founded a group called Sex Panic! The group, made up mostly of academics and budding queer theorists, formed ostensibly to defend gays against an alleged crackdown on public sex being inflicted on New York City by Mayor Giuliani and the NYPD. Last year, Warner published his manifesto "The Trouble With Normal" (Free Press, 208 pages, $23).


This, at last, was the crest of the Oedipal, anti-authoritarian tide. It was official. Gay life wasn't about fair treatment or equal rights. That was mainstream Goody-Two-Shoes fare. No. It was about deviance, for deviance's sake. It was about rebellion, about dog-paddling proudly in the free and glorious sea of abnormality. Epater le bourgoisie! As for rights talk, well that was traditionalist bunk. So much for Stonewall.

And there you have it. Currently, the culture monsters are very pleased with themselves. They like to think of their mainstream gay siblings as imitating the big man, and they like to imagine their American Gothic moms and pops wringing their hands, tearing out their hair, agonizing over what they did to deserve such thankless children. This June, every leather queen and biker dyke in the gay pride parade could wear a T-shirt that would sum up the gay millennium nicely in three words: "Payback's a butch."

Norah Vincent is a free-lance journalist in New York City. She writes the biweekly "Higher Ed" column for the Village Voice, as well as a politics and culture column for the national gay and lesbian news magazine the Advocate. She is writing a biography of Hamlet for Encounter Books.