Gay Liberation as the Quest For Community A new book provides a different take on gay American history.

Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation

By Jim Downs (2016, New York: Basic Books) 261 pages, including index and endnotes

In Stand By Me: The Forgotten History of Gay Liberation, Jim Downs argues that the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s was not just a political fight for legal rights. That fight has long been a primary focus of its history, and the history of the larger and longer gay rights movement. The most recent, and highly-applauded popular retellings are Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution (2013) by Linda Hirshman and The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle (2015) by Lillian Faderman. Rather than the outward-facing history of how the gay community fought for social and cultural change in a broader mainstream culture, Stand By Me aims to remember the inward-facing history of how a community of same-sex attracted people first organized itself around a self-avowed sexual identity. “In fact,” Downs writes, “the stories in this book reveal that many gay people sought community and their own culture over legal rights and political recognition. … Many gay people turned away from the mainstream to devote enormous energy, time and effort to creating their own culture—newspapers, churches, bookstores—and by extension their own history and identity.”

The reason these cultural fruits of this struggle have been forgotten—in mainstream understandings of gay liberation, not by those engaged in it—is because, Downs believes, gay liberation, and gay people and life more generally, have long been over-sexualized. The logic goes: AIDS came, gay men were vilified for their “dangerous” sexual behavior, sex (in its uninhibited, threatening guise), and nothing else, became the story of gay men. It is a powerful and staunchly soldered set of associations. As Downs rejoins, “My focus here is to correct the hypersexual caricature of gay men in the 1970s by exploring and recounting the everyday ways in which gay men sustained an identity and culture.” For Downs, this history of the gay community was forgotten, or killed off, by the dismissive phrase, ‘It’s all about sex.’

Looking for the roots of gay community outside political activism is as misleading a quest as looking for them outside of sex. Identifying people based on the sex or gender of their sexual object choice keeps ‘sex,’ even if unremarked upon, at the center of the discussion of gay people.

He presents the everyday ways of gay men at five foundational sites of gay community and culture, and each comprises a chapter of the book: religion, literary culture, the discipline of history, gay journalism, and advocacy for gay people in prison.

However, it is impossible to separate the everyday ways gay people formed their own culture from the legal rights and political recognition they also sought. All of the sites of gay community Downs explored were organized around sexual identity. The assertion of one’s own gay identity is always, at base, a call for recognition by ‘non-gay’ others, a call for respect and protection. Downs’ book provides one example after another.

Looking for the roots of gay community outside political activism is as misleading a quest as looking for them outside of sex. Identifying people based on the sex or gender of their sexual object choice keeps ‘sex,’ even if unremarked upon, at the center of the discussion of gay people. It is what gave rise to the concept of a sexual identity in the first place.

Hyper-sexualization is merely one of the more distracting forms of a much larger problem. ‘Sex’—whether objectified in disgust or celebration, in denouncement or affirmation of gay people—has come to stand in for the inability to articulate or even think the place of same-sex attraction and love in a larger social world. Downs’ books is a noble attempt at re-centering the discussion. I will return to the life and death implications of its success and failure.

 

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The political moment out of which an author writes shapes how he remembers the past. The present of gay liberation is characterized by a large number of LGBTQ-identified people and issues plastered across network and cable television shows, mass media publications, and mainstream news. The other most visible measure of present-day liberation is the 2015 Supreme Court ruling granting the federal right of same-sex marriage. I believe it was the growing legal recognition of gay couples over the last 10 years that has lent Downs an unspoken spotlight onto the ostensibly non-sex history of gay community formation.

Nonetheless, the present moment for gay people is still centrally ruled by the insidious and sometimes overtly violent attempts to silence, closet, and kill them. And these are also central to Downs’ story. When gay people are characterized as the same as straight people, then they are given the right to marry. When they are distinguished from straight people, then they can be legally discriminated against in 28 states. Religious conservatives continue to seek to write new “religious freedom” laws at the local and state level to exempt for-profit businesses from offering services to LGBTQ people. The businesses, mind you, will decide who those people are when they approach their counters. Add to that the recent attempts of North Carolina to choose which bathrooms transgender people can use. Chase Strangio of the ACLU tweeted in June, “The Christian Right has introduced 200 anti-LGBT bills in the last six months.” There has also long remained a disproportionate number of homeless youth who identify as LGBTQ. Considering the few welcome mats for LGBTQ people, and the active hostility against them, it is no wonder that Downs has chosen to explore how gay people have found their place in the world through the formation of communities comprising mostly  people like themselves.

Downs writes of how these communities were formed in direct response to that hostility, which they could never fully escape. In the late 1960s, the gay Christian congregations of the fledgling Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) were physically attacked, having little effect upon established church doctrines and having made little headway into most denominational networks. The first chapter of Downs’ book focuses on the little remembered fire, set intentionally by one or more passersby, that killed 32 congregants on June 24, 1973 at an MCC service on the second floor of a New Orleans bar. The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in New York City, which opened in 1967 as the first gay-themed bookstore in the country, and is the subject of chapter three, was a haven and a community center for same-sex attracted people. It also was threatened, defaced, looted, and destroyed on numerous occasions.

LGBTQ people needed to stop others from threatening and destroying their communities in order to ensure these communities’ existence and the safety of their members. Success on this front has required the adjudication of the courts and governmental interventions. This is why the assertion of a gay self is inextricably tied to the assertion of legal rights and political recognition.

Downs’ chapter on Craig Rodwell’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop persuasively argues that the bookstore was a primary result of the gay liberation moment. Its patrons gained a consciousness of a world of like-minded others, as well as a gay past that was not defined by deviancy or pathology.

Work toward achieving them in the United States began before gay liberation in the homophile movements of the 1950s and 1960s. The homophiles presented a less radical front than the liberationists. They were inspired by the contemporaneous yet much longer histories of the black civil rights and women’s movements, and the discourse of rights for minorities and persecuted groups. Although Downs suggests that the fight for same-sex marriage partly originated in the formation of gay religious congregations during gay liberation, that fight cannot be separated from the broader framework of civil rights. That Downs also makes this point is evidence that the separation of community formation from the fight for legal rights is more analytic than actual. Gay liberation and gay rights go hand in hand.

The claim for ‘rights’ balances itself on the framework of ‘identity.’ Gay people’s bid for survival was necessarily a bid for recognition as a distinct group in need of that protection. By articulating a gay identity for themselves, they could explain how they were oppressed and deserved legal rights and protection. Downs writes of young gay intellectuals meeting in college dorm rooms who “sought to upend existing power structures” of religious and medical authorities. Through their reading of Marx, authority became, for them, a question of power and exploitation. “Members of the reading group came to understand that they were not sick, but oppressed. To make that distinction was ‘mind-blowing,’ [Jonathan Ned] Katz recalled. ‘I would get dizzy and have to lie down.’”

If the categorization of gay people was to have a strong new currency in the face of oppression, it needed a history to explain how it came to be oppressed in the present. In 1976, Katz published the first history of same-sex attracted people in the United States, called Gay American History. Downs’ chapter on Katz is particularly useful in understanding how the formation of gay community required a new argument, and by extension a new history, for the gay self. Downs’ book takes on that role today. But Katz’s understanding of history was shaped by his own time and place, when not only did marriage offer no place for gay people to stand together but sexual behavior between men was a criminal act in a majority of states. Katz understood the job of the historian to track the changing language of power and dominance in society. “By charting how different periods defined same-sex relations,” Downs explains, “Katz came to further understand how those in power oppressed gay people.”

Meanwhile, Craig Rodwell, who had founded the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop a few years before, was stocking his shelves with literature themed around same-sex attraction and love to articulate a more “positive” version of gay identity. Downs’ chapter on Rodwell persuasively argues that the bookstore was a primary result of the gay liberation moment. Its patrons gained a consciousness of a world of like-minded others, as well as a gay past that was not defined by deviancy or pathology. Rodwell’s bookstore was the first place in which same-sex-loving themed literature was catalogued as “gay culture.” The Library of Congress catalogued “homosexuality” as a subhead of “criminality and medical abnormality.” Rodwell shelved histories of ancient Greeks alongside gay liberation manifestoes. But he did not sell pornography. He was not anti-sex, but he felt that paying to view or read sexually-explicit material supported “‘the establishment.’” He “coined the term ‘sexploitation’ to describe the focus on gay men’s sexual lives and the commercialization of homosexuality.”

Indeed, both gay sex and its representation could land you in jail. Gay newspapers, magazines, and journals exploded in the late 1960s and early 1970s with articles on how the legal system affected gay people, incidents of violence and harassment against gay people, and newly organized sexual cultures such as “Men Loving Boys Loving Men.” Its publication in 1977 led police to raid the offices of Toronto’s The Body Politic for distributing “immoral, indecent, and scurrilous material.’”  “It is notable,” Downs writes, “that though The Body Politic published thousands of articles on a dizzying number of topics over the course of the twenty-plus years of its existence, both the stories that catapulted the paper to international fame and the story that led to its downfall involved sexuality, violence, and government power.” The other stories Downs refers to were about Nazi persecution of gay people and their roundup into concentration camps.

In a chapter about community support of gays in prison, Downs focuses on how gay periodicals featured the poetry of gay prisoners. Through the publication of their work, and the pen-pal relationships facilitated by the gay press, gay prisoners, and those placed in mental institutions for being gay, found an alternative to their non-accepting biological families. Downs suggests that the prison was an ideal space to pose, even constitute, the lonely, desiring subject seeking liberation through a community that would accept their sexual desires and ensure their protection. Their writings were inspired by Oscar Wilde’s letter from jail, “De Profundis,” as well as MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and the more radical positions Malcolm X and Angela Davis took on prisons. The Body Politic, like most gay periodicals, especially those with national and even international readerships, continued to be “a forum … to connect gay people and promote gay identity as a political identity.”

Downs’ final chapter concerns the rise of the “gay clone,” the shirtless, butch male sex symbol, which, he says, was a racist and sexist performance of macho male gender and sexuality. … His conclusion that this process helped commodify gay identity and boil it down to sex is suspiciously tidy. Yet there is a passion behind it that underwrites the book as a whole. It is a feeling of something caught in the throat.

While Downs adds to the historical record detailed information about the community and religious groups working with gay men in prison, his main objective in the book is to show how all of these sites of community formation, even those outside of urban areas, were part of gay liberation. This is his book’s greatest argumentative strength. The organization of the chapters is dissertation-like, but, overall, the book is written in clear, highly accessible language for a general, even high-school level reader. Examining community activities as sites of liberation is a subject that needs to be integrated into curriculum.

Downs views the 1970s as a “major turning point” in gay communities and culture. However, this is only true in terms of a gay identity. Any mode of social organization, such as religion, can start over, or be forgotten, under a new name. Ironically, this process was at play within gay liberation itself. Downs’ final chapter concerns the rise of the “gay clone,” the shirtless, butch male sex symbol, which, he says, was a racist and sexist performance of macho male gender and sexuality. Not only does Downs suggest that the rise of the clone was a causal factor in the diminishing consciousness of women’s issues and race in gay liberation platforms. “The macho clone also made many gay men forget the history of the 1970s.” His conclusion that this process helped commodify gay identity and boil it down to sex is suspiciously tidy. Yet there is a passion behind it that underwrites the book as a whole. It is a feeling of something caught in the throat.

 

•  •  •

 

Gay liberation came about at a time not only of civil rights but sexual liberation, which, in addition to second-wave feminism, made room for hippies, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It is pleasurable to give oneself permission to flaunt one’s sexuality in all its bodily expressions. It can also be its own kind of violence, or social disruption. Other people feel uncomfortable and lash out against all assertions of identity, whether ‘woman’ or ‘gay,’ as inappropriately ‘sexual.’ Alternatively, trying to erase marks of difference between gay and straight people, such as in the tie-and-jacket approach of the pre-liberation homophile movement, presents no less of a conflict.

When exactly ‘sex’ arises in a relationship, when we want it or fantasize about it, when we feel pressured or disgusted by it, especially in relation to supposedly non-sexual relations, is an open and perhaps unanswerable question. For this reason, people tend not to want to know about sex, and not to need to know too much about it. For this reason it is, paradoxically, not easy, or productive, to place sex to the side of an analysis of any social community. We need to rather reformulate the question as the following: how does sex as an open question, an unknown, between people play into community formation? Histories and cultural analyses that trumpet sex as the cornerstone of gay liberation cut off the fraying ends of this inquiry. They are stuck on tracing the act of sex through the architecture that facilitates it, once bathhouses and cruising grounds, now hook-up apps such as Grindr. These are wonderful ways to act on sexual fantasies, but they not the primary tools of sociality.

For the overwhelming majority of time that people live among one another, we just do not know what is going on between two or more bodies, regardless of whether they are in bed, on the dance floor, or just standing next to each other. (This is a different question from whether certain forms of genital contact count as ‘sex.’) Whatever ‘it’ is between people, the words ‘sex’ and ‘sexual’ have come to answer for the question of closeness and intimacy with a too easy finality.

What I conclude from the evidence Downs presents—and my own work as a historian and writer on same-sex attraction and the social and cultural structures around it—is that communities form precisely around the recognition and honor of the closeness between two people, especially as it cannot be boiled down to a particular sexual act. This is not anti-sex. It is human.

For the person observing that closeness and intimacy, the question is more accurately about feeling included, or left out. Sometimes, when the feeling is that others have kept too much to themselves the something they have between them, that person can turn whatever ‘it’ is into an object of disgust, unwanted and ‘not me.’ They can also, through violence toward those who have ‘it,’ eradicate the question entirely. Destructive reactions toward gay intimacy and community tend to come from straight-identified people, although not necessarily. Down quotes gay press from the time of the New Orleans fire that killed 32 people surmising that it was likely started by a gay person who felt left out of the new class-based, as well as religious, forms of gay community in the French Quarter. Downs also includes a few pages on how the threats against Craig Rodwell’s bookstore and his own life might have come from a scorned lover. I mention these not to let straight people ‘off the hook’ but to suggest how differentiating along the lines of gay and straight is a cover up rather than an explanation of the dynamics of social cohesion and destruction.

What I conclude from the evidence Downs presents—and my own work as a historian and writer on same-sex attraction and the social and cultural structures around it—is that communities form precisely around the recognition and honor of the closeness between two people, especially as it cannot be boiled down to a particular sexual act. This is not anti-sex. It is human. Posing community as a question of the absence or presence of ‘sex’ evades the complexities of standing by and feeling close to someone. People who see themselves as outside communities because they do not have ‘sex like that’ are simply denying their ability to recognize this closeness, and hence forgetting its past. As a result, the place of same-sex intimacy in society-at-large will continue to be limited by all the associations (wrong, sinful, and sick; right, sacred, and healthy) that attach to sexual identity or ‘homosexuality’ as a coherent concept which you can claim or disavow, vehemently or politely.

Except, when that intimacy momentarily explodes in tragedy, we are newly sensitized to its traces as we look to bring a community back together. Downs’ first chapter is a harrowing, if sentimental, account of the burning of the 32 people at the religious service in New Orleans. He highlights circumstantial details such as the ring on a barely identifiable dead man’s finger, which Downs surmises was the symbol of a union with his longtime partner, and the man who died lying on top of his mother, trying to shield her from the fire and smoke. She was attending the service with both her sons. All three died that night. These details articulate what we should call a higher truth because whatever bound together those who gathered and worshiped with one another cannot be pinned down by a discourse of legal rights and protections. It is argued through the position of bodies, the exchange of rings, and, elsewhere, the images and moments that capture our attention in literature and poetry as we scan their shelves.

The June 12, 2016 shooting death of 49 people at the Orlando gay club Pulse has replaced the New Orleans fire as “the largest massacre of gay people in American history.” In its wake, Downs wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times to remind readers of the history of violence against gay people joining together. “As it becomes increasingly likely that … the … gunman … was motivated by an extremist ideology,” Downs writes in The Times, “we likewise run the risk of forgetting the L.G.B.T. victims of this most recent attack as well.” We would be more remiss to explain away the shooter’s motivation as “extremist ideology.” The Orlando massacre took place at a prime site for a community to form itself around the ambiguity of what bodies, including the shooter’s, are feeling between each other, the question we too swiftly and ignorantly consider as one of ‘sex,’ rather than how and why a person feels included or left out, and thus disposed to honor or degrade community.

… it is crucial to remember that talk of the repression and self-loathing of one’s sexual desires—just as much as talk of being out and proud with one’s sexuality—does not in itself form community or explain its refusal. Relatedly, the fight inherent in the search for connection, and the feeling of liberation that connection brings, is never fully over. It can only come to rest in ever stronger moments of recognition and honor of the intimacy between people.

The battle for legal rights, political recognition, and now gun control has essentially forced the recognition of the socially vital intimacy between members of the same sex. Rights and recognition around sexual identity is the main way people in the contemporary United States argue for their respect. The reality and history of oppression of “gay people” does not provide other options. Reasserting a gay identity today is to pull the reigns that hold back others from discrimination and violence.

Downs is trying to articulate and argue for the social bond in other ways. If we join in this goal it is crucial to remember that talk of the repression and self-loathing of one’s sexual desires—just as much as talk of being out and proud with one’s sexuality—does not in itself form community or explain its refusal. Relatedly, the fight inherent in the search for connection, and the feeling of liberation that connection brings, is never fully over. It can only come to rest in ever stronger moments of recognition and honor of the intimacy between people. These moments gain their power as a symbolic experience of community for others.

A young couple who had been living together died standing next to each other in Orlando. In an interview, the sister of one of the men said, “They were honestly so in love. They were soul mates. You can tell by how they looked at each other.” The mother of the other man had the idea to hold a joint funeral for them, where the friends and family of both men could join together. “If it’s not a funeral,” the sister added, “they were going to have a wedding together.”

Michael Amico

Michael Amico is currently a Researcher at the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. He holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale University. His dissertation, “The Forgotten Union of the Two Henrys: A History of the ‘Peculiar and Rarest Intimacy’ of the American Civil War,” is about the romance between Henry Clay Trumbull and Henry Ward Camp of the Tenth Connecticut Regiment. He is the author, with Michael Bronski and Ann Pellegrini, of “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People (Beacon, 2013), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Nonfiction. He can be reached at mjamico@gmail.com.

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