Intro to Part IV: Stonewall’s Legacy

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This year marks The Gay & Lesbian Review‘s 25th anniversary, and to commemorate this milestone we’ve published In Search of Stonewalla collection of articles selected from our first 136 issues, since 1994. Starting today and every week in January, we’ll be highlighting sections of the book. Below is the the fourth & final installment, Richard Schneider’s introduction to Part IV: “Stonewall’s Legacy: Whither the Revolution?

 

THE Gay & Lesbian Review came into being amid an epic debate that was in full swing in the early 1990s over the state and direction of the LGBT movement. With the 25th anniversary of Stonewall in the background, it was perhaps a generational shift that writers were noticing and that was in fact taking place, one that Michael Bronski summed up (in The G&LR’s Winter 1994 issue) as a shift from “sexual liberation” to “identity politics” as the guiding model of political action. The former was the vision that had held sway from the post-Stonewall era through ACT UP and into the ’90s; the latter was being embraced by well-funded organizations like the Gay & Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign, which expressly rejected the earlier revolutionary goals. This debate was remarkable both for its passion and for its volume (as in volumes published), and also the extent to which it became polarized between these two positions.

         It didn’t take long for The G&LR to get into the act. Our second issue featured an “open letter” from David Bergman (our longtime poetry editor) critiquing a book by Bruce Bawer titled A Place at the Table (1993), which argued that the gay movement should stop trying to change the world and instead focus on achieving basic civil rights as other minorities have. Bergman objected that this would be a formula for allowing dutiful, law-abiding citizens to sit at the table while relegating everyone else to the margins. And who said we want to be at their table, anyway?

         That question, or a version of it, was at the heart of the argument. Identity politics was all about being allowed to participate fully in institutions such as marriage and military service that were closed to LGBT people. Someone like conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan became an early advocate of marriage equality; his argument was that the goal should stop at full legal equality, while sexual orientation ought to be irrelevant to a person’s public life. In contrast, the writers in this section—all activists who can remember the days of “gay liberation”—tend to regard the marriage quest as emblematic of the abrogation of the “spirit of Stonewall” in favor of an assimilationist agenda.

         As Bronski points out in his 1995 piece, the “identity” model simply adopted the tried-and-true politics of African-Americans and women by redefining LGBT people as a minority group in need of legal protection. He associates the sexual liberation model with behavior as distinct from identity; it was sexual practice that needed to be liberated from the straightjacket of puritanism—for everyone. In contrast, the identity model, in order to make the case that sexual orientation is involuntary and immutable, had to adopt a highly essentialist position captured by the title of Lady Gaga’s song “Born This Way.” Altering the metaphor, Frank Browning characterized this shift as a transition from the language of “desire” to the language of “pride” (Spring 1998).

         Other pieces that appeared in The G&LR in the ’90s characterized this shift in various ways. Arnie Kantrowitz focused on the growing commercialization of gay culture; and indeed it was in the ’90s that there suddenly arose a host of slickly produced magazines (OUT, Genre, Curve, et al.), gay travel companies and cruise lines, LGBT movies and film festivals, and the “gay publishing boom.” In a similar vein, Dennis Altman recalls that the old liberation ethos included a critique of capitalism and inequality along with a rejection of repressive sex codes and anti-gay discrimination.

         The articles in this section form two clusters (not that it was planned this way): the writers mentioned above from our early years (1994–99) and a group from more recent issues, with a gap of almost fifteen years in between. Those in the first group were in the trenches, acutely aware that a change of course was underway, and on balance they were not sanguine about this trend. The recent writers are looking back on changes that were inchoate in the ’90s but now look like a fait accompli. LGBT people can now serve in the military, get married, adopt children, move out to the suburbs, and so on. The collective sigh that one hears from these writers is a nod to the importance of these accomplishments mixed with a sense that something has been lost in the bargain.

         Perhaps the clearest expression of this critique is that of D. Gilson, who coins the term “homonormativity” to describe an idealized LGBT community that has indeed achieved equality with the hetero majority, but which is disproportionately white, male, and affluent, excluding many slices of the queer community. Dolores Klaich expands on this theme by showing how each gain in LGBT equality comes at a cost. Thus, for example, marriage equality is a great achievement, and marriage really does confer advantages—which means that unmarried gay people will be further marginalized vis-à-vis the larger community.

         Amy Hoffman in a piece titled “The Quest for Identity” raises the basic question of what it means to base one’s identity on a sexual orientation. What if one is closeted in some contexts but out in others? What if the social constructionists are right and “gay” and “straight” are just socially defined categories; are we then just succumbing to society’s controls? As if to answer this, Larry Kramer launches a screed against the entire edifice of Queer Theory and social constructionism, which insists that gay identity is a recent invention that cannot be mapped onto other cultures.

         Kramer, of course, is an unreconstructed essentialist, as are most people outside of academia, where the theories of Michel Foucault (Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, et al.) still predominate. Which is somewhat remarkable, given that an unspoken essentialism has been the dominant ideology of the mainstream LGBT movement for decades. The underlying assumption of the identity model is that sexual orientation is a fixed trait analogous to race or gender, and this doctrine has proven highly effective as a strategy for securing such rights as military service and marriage equality.

         But lest we get too comfortable, recent developments point to another shift in consciousness as a new generation comes of age. The main struggle today is for transgender rights, and indeed the whole concept of gender as a binary system has come under close scrutiny. Sexual orientation, too, is seen as a more slippery concept than advertised, with Millennials resistant to labels of all kinds, and the concept of “sexual fluidity” back in fashion. Indeed the new mindset can seem remarkably reminiscent of the zeitgeist of the early gay liberation era, when a favorite slogan was “Hey, hey, what d’ya say? Try it once the other way!” The notion that gender and sexuality are fluid and variable and subject to whim is not a new idea. The wheel keeps turning.

 

Richard Schneider Jr., editor, is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide (until 2000, The Harvard Gay & Lesbian Review), which he launched in 1994. Taking his doctorate in sociology at Harvard in the early 1980s, he was a university lecturer for the next decade before founding The G&LR as a sideline while working for a Boston consulting firm in the ’90s. The magazine has been his full-time job since 1999. He lives in Boston with his partner Stephen Hemrick.

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