Gay Liberation Movements

Gay Liberation Movements
Gay Liberation Movements

The birthplace of the modern gay liberation movement in the United States is usually considered to be the Stonewall Inn, where riots took place in June 1969 in New York City. The Stonewall Riots and the social movement they engendered were influential in many countries. Stonewall did not occur in a vacuum, and there were social movements advocating gay liberation in the United States and elsewhere long before 1969.

Although gay and lesbian communities thrived in certain cities early in the 20th century in the United States, the fact that same-sex behavior was both illegal and widely considered immoral made it difficult for gay people to organize. The Society for Human Rights, founded by Henry Gerber in Chicago in 1924, was shut down by the police a few months into its existence.

Several longer-lasting organizations were founded after World War II, including the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1951 (for men); ONE, Inc., in Los Angeles in 1952 (for men and women); and The Daughters of Bilitis in 1955 in San Francisco (for women). These organizations were more conservative than the post-Stonewall gay liberation organizations, and often stressed how similar homosexuals were to heterosexuals and advocated “blending in” to the dominant culture.

The Stonewall Riots took place in Greenwich Village on the weekend of June 27–29, 1969. Not coincidentally, Judy Garland, an icon of the gay community, died on June 27, 1969. Although eyewitness accounts of the actual events of the Stonewall Riots differ, all agree that the precipitating event was a police raid in the early morning of June 28 on the Stonewall Inn, a bar on Christopher Street frequented by members of the gay community.

Patrons of gay bars were used to police raids; normally the patrons would peacefully allow themselves to be arrested, but on June 28 they decided to fight back. The situation quickly turned into a brawl outside the bar. Passersby joined in the action, people began throwing stones and bottles, and eventually the outnumbered police had to take refuge in the bar.

A riot-control unit was summoned, and the crowd was dispersed, but on the evening of June 28 another large crowd gathered outside the Stonewall, and there were more confrontations with the police into the early morning of June 29.

A change of spirit was noted in the gay community, as gay people realized that they did not need to accept second-class status and that they had sufficient strength in numbers to resist harassment from the police or anyone else.

The first modern gay liberation organization, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), was formed a month after Stonewall. It was modeled more on other radical social organizations of the 1960s such as the Black Panthers.

The GLF’s agenda was radical: They believed a societal transformation was necessary to ensure the rights of gay and lesbian people, and they also opposed racism, sexism, and militarism. Many other gay liberation groups were formed in the following years. The success of these organizations in winning full civil rights for gay people was uneven and varied within the United States.

The word homosexual first appeared in a German pamphlet published in 1869, and Germany was the home of many pioneer theorists of gay liberation as well as the first gay liberation movement of the modern era.

Leaders included Adolf Brand (1874–1995), publisher of the first homosexual literary journal, Der Eigene; Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935), the most prominent leader of the early German gay liberation movement; and Kurt Hiller (1885–1972).

Although same-sex activities were technically illegal in both Germany and Austria, in fact the laws were frequently ignored, and a thriving homosexual subculture existed in major cities. This period of freedom came to a halt with the rise of National Socialism.

More than 100,000 homosexuals were arrested during the Nazi years, many serving time in prison or concentration camps. Gay and lesbian activism revived in the 1970s in Germany and Austria, and in 2006 both countries recognized same-sex civil unions.

The Netherlands was also a leader in gay liberation: The country legalized same-sex behavior among adults in the 19th century. In the 1970s many gay and lesbian groups formed, and most forms of discrimination against gay people were abolished. In 2001 the Netherlands became the first country to recognize same-sex marriage, including the right to adopt children.

Many western European countries had gay liberation movements similar to those in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, as did countries with a predominantly European culture such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

In many ways, gay men and lesbians in these countries had more rights than they did in the United States. Most European countries have decriminalized homosexual behavior and have outlawed discrimination against homosexuals.

Belgium and Spain became the second and third countries to recognize same-sex marriage, in 2003 and 2005, respectively, and many other countries recognize same-sex civil unions, including Portugal, France, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland, Hungary, Croatia, and Denmark.

The idea of gay liberation and antigay prejudice became more prominent with the onset of AIDS. Originally, AIDS was referred to as gay-related immune deficiency (GRID) until it became evident that the disease was not limited to the homosexual community. For many, AIDS was seen as divine retribution against the homosexual lifestyle; others saw the disease as a justification for antigay discrimination.

It is difficult to generalize about gay liberation in non-Western countries. In some countries the history of rights for gay people is similar to that of western Europe. In general, greater prosperity may be associated with greater personal freedom, but this is not always the case.

For instance, Singapore, which has one of the highest standards of living in the world, outlaws homosexual behavior between men. Japan, an equally industrialized country, has a history of tolerance of homosexual behavior; gay organizations within that country have been oriented more toward entertainment and culture than political reform.

In Turkey, a country that in 2006 hoped to become a member of the European Union, same-sex behavior is not technically illegal but gay people are often harassed by the police. This combination makes the formation of a gay liberation movement difficult, but two Turkish gay liberation organizations were founded in the 1990s: Lambda Istanbul (for men and women) and Sappho (for women).