The counterculture is always repackaged and made into a product. It’s part of America. — Jim Jarmusch


The history of the gay rights movement in the United States is fascinating. Is it a civil rights movement or is it a social justice movement? Is gay a demographic or is gay a community? Are gay rights the drive for civil rights, that gay people be at liberty, as individuals, to participate in society, openly, and free from persecution? Is it a social justice movement, the gay community driven by a countercultural constituency, intent on separating itself from mainstream culture? The answer to these questions is the gay rights movement in the United States is a combination of the two perspectives. To date, the successes of the gay rights movement in the United States are laudable. The repeal of laws that criminalized homosexual sex is a significant gain. Gay people live openly and are free to marry. True, elements of anti-gay prejudice linger, mainly from the ranks of the religious and socially conservative; moreover, there is only a patchwork of laws in place across the 50 states that prohibit discrimination in employment on the grounds of sexual orientation. However, I think these are the least of the worries for the gay rights movement in the United States. While both perspectives, civil rights and social justice, contributed to the success of the gay rights movement; what most concerns me about the current state of the gay rights movement in the United States is the influence of a decidedly countercultural constituency of U.S. society on the gay rights movement. In my opinion, this only undermines the successes of the gay rights movement in the United States and hinders its progress as a civil rights movement.

The current gay rights movement in the United States began in earnest in 1950 with the foundation of the Mattachine Society. Harry Hay, a countercultural figure, member of the Communist Party USA, with a group of like-minded gay men, Konrad Stevens, Dale Jennings, Rudi Gernreich, Stan Witt, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland and Paul Bernard, founded the Mattachine Society with the following stated goals:

  • “Unify homosexuals isolated from their own kind”;
  • “Educate homosexuals and heterosexuals toward an ethical homosexual culture paralleling the cultures of the Negro, Mexican and Jewish peoples”;
  • “Lead the more socially conscious homosexual to provide leadership to the whole mass of social variants”; and
  • “Assist gays who are victimized daily as a result of oppression.” (Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History. As cited in Wikipedia)

The third point in the list of stated goals stands out. The meaning of “mass of social variants” is unclear, but presumably encompasses such social variants as cross dressers, transsexuals and polyamorists. Also, the Mattachine Society asserted that homosexual oppression was socially determined and held that strict definitions of gender roles led men and women to unquestioningly accept social roles that likened “male, masculine, man only with husband and father” and that likened “female, feminine, women only with wife and mother.” The Mattachine Society saw gay men and women as the target of a “language and culture that did not admit the existence of a homosexual minority.” (Jeffrey Escoffier, American Homo: Community and Perversity, 1998)

The Mattachine Society and its Communist leaders successfully drew public attention to the plight gay people faced in mid-twentieth century American society; but unfortunately, their efforts coincided with the Second Red Scare (1947-1957). This period also called the McCarthy era, generated hysteria against the threat of subversion by Communists of Communist sympathizers. Craig Kaczorowski observed the Mattachine Society did not go unnoticed. A columnist for a Los Angeles newspaper, writing in 1953, referred to the Mattachine society as “a ‘strange new pressure group’ of ‘sexual deviants’ and ‘security risks’ who were banding together to wield ‘tremendous political power.'” (Mattachine Society) Yes, linking gay rights with the American Communist Party during the Second Red Scare was a recipe for failure; consequently, the Communist founders of the Mattachine Society stepped down in 1953. The Mattachine Society continued at a national level until 1961. At the very least, the Mattachine Society succeeded in generating interest among gay people to advocate for their civil rights.

Following the decline of the Mattachine Society, new groups emerged, such as the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), founded in San Francisco in 1964, and the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO), founded in 1968. Both the Society for Individual Rights and NACHO advocated for the civil rights of gay and lesbian individuals on constitutional grounds through the democratic process. Primarily, “SIR’s goals included public affirmation of gay and lesbian identity, elimination of victimless crime laws, providing a range of social services (including legal aid) to “gays in difficulties,” and promoting a sense of a gay and lesbian community. […] Taking a cue from the burgeoning civil rights movement, SIR demanded equal rights and decried government-sanctioned discrimination.” (Online Archive of California) NACHO advanced its Homosexual Bill of Rights at its 1968 meeting detailed as follows:

  1. Private consensual sex between persons over the age of consent shall not be an offense.
  2. Solicitation for any sexual acts shall not be an offense except upon the filing of a complaint by the aggrieved party, not a police officer or agent.
  3. A person’s sexual orientation or practice shall not be a factor in the granting or renewing of federal security clearances or visas, or in the granting of citizenship.
  4. Service in and discharge from the Armed Forces and eligibility for veteran’s benefits shall be without reference to homosexuality.
  5. A person’s sexual orientation or practice shall not affect his eligibility for employment with federal, state, or local governments, or private employers (As cited in Wikipedia)

 Following the Stonewall riots that began on June 28, 1969, in Greenwich Village (a defining moment in the gay rights movement in the United States) activists founded the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. The Gay Liberation Front rejected the goals and strategy of the Society for Individual Rights and NACHO declaring, “we are a revolutionary group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society’s attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature.” (Gay Liberation Front) Alternatively, the Gay Activists Alliance continued the work of the Society for Individual Rights and NACHO. As Linda Rapp noted, “a central tenet of the GAA was that they would devote their activities solely and specifically to gay and lesbian rights. Furthermore, they would work within the political system, seeking to abolish discriminatory sex laws, promoting gay and lesbian civil rights, and challenging politicians and candidates to state their views on gay rights issues.” (Gay Activists Alliance) The Gay Liberation Front folded in 1973, whereas the Gay Activists Alliance continued operations until 1981.

Countercultural thinking in gay rights activism resurfaced in 1990 with the introduction of Queer theory; this is an ideological position that repackaged the goals defined by Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society in 1950. In brief, as Renee Janiak notes, the Queer theory holds:

To be queer means, “fighting about social injustice issues all the time, due to the structure of sexual order that is still deeply embedded in society” (Warner: 1993). Queer people are not assigned into a specific group or category, which would be comparable with any other type of grouping such as “class” or “race” (Warner: 1993). Queer people have made a change with how they identify themselves, they went from “gay” to “queer”. The self- identification change is due to that fact that “queer” represents the struggle of not wanting to fit into the systems of being “normal”. Queer theory has allowed for new political gender identities (Butler: 1990). (Queer Theory)

Queer or LGBTQI replaced gay and lesbian, meaning gay and lesbian people not wanting to fit in “existing social institutions,” defined by the queer theory as “heteronormativity.” Queer activists strive, just as Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society did in 1950, to organize a community composed of “the more socially conscious” gays and lesbians “to provide leadership to the whole mass of social variants” in developing a parallel “queer culture.” Yes, they are free to promote this narrative and pursue their desired goal. That said, in reality, gay remains gay, a demographic, not a community. Moreover, for many (if not most) gay people in the United States, the gay rights movement remains a civil rights movement driven by the efforts of gay and lesbian individuals using the democratic process and pressing their case for their civil rights on constitutional grounds.

Indeed, two pivotal victories in the push for the realization of gay rights in the United States include Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003) and Obergefell v. Hodges, 576 U.S. (2015). The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) in a 6-3 decision in Lawrence v. Texas repealed sodomy laws. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, ruled that the state could not single out gay people for harassment and discriminatory treatment simply “because of ‘moral disapproval’ of homosexuality. He wrote of ‘respect’ for same-sex couples and warned that ‘the state cannot demean their existence,’ describing same-sex relationships as a ‘personal bond’ involving much more than just sex. Kennedy also wrote that reducing same-sex couples to ‘sex partners,’ as anti-gay organizations often do, is offensive in the same way that describing a husband and wife as nothing more than sex partners would be offensive.” (National Gay and Lesbian Task Force) Lambda Legal took on Lawrence v. Texas and successfully shepherded it through the lower courts all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. Established in 1973, Lambda Legal states that its “mission is to achieve full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and everyone living with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work.” (Lambda Legal)

Obergefell v. Hodges, albeit in a split decision (5-4), handed down on June 26, 2015, lifted the ban on same-sex marriage in the United States. The background to this ruling involved court challenges mounted by multiple gay and lesbian couples in four states: Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The Oyez Project noted in its summary of Obergefell v. Hodges,

The plaintiffs in each case argued that the states’ statutes violated the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and one group of plaintiffs also brought claims under the Civil Rights Act. In all the cases, the trial court found in favor of the plaintiffs. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit reversed and held that the states’ bans on same-sex marriage and refusal to recognize marriages performed in other states did not violate the couples’ Fourteenth Amendment rights to equal protection and due process. (Oyez Project)

Justice Anthony Kennedy mused, in writing for the majority,  “It is of no moment whether advocates of same-sex marriage now enjoy or lack momentum in the democratic process. The issue before the Court here is the legal question whether the Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry.” (The Supreme Court’s most memorable quotes on gay marriage) Constitutional grounds are the basis for the SCOTUS decision to lift the interdiction on same-sex marriage in the United States. Justice Kennedy wrote, “especially against a long history of disapproval of their relationships, this denial to same-sex couples of the right to marry works a grave and continuing harm. The imposition of this disability on gays and lesbians serves to disrespect and subordinate them. And the Equal Protection Clause, like the Due Process Clause, prohibits this unjustified infringement of the fundamental right to marry.” (The Supreme Court’s most memorable quotes on gay marriage)

Thus, the successes of the gay rights movement as a civil rights movement in the United States rests firmly with gay and lesbian individuals who exercise their right to employ the democratic process. The successes of the gay rights movement and the strategy behind them are grounded in the principles of liberalism as defined by John Stuart Mill. Mill advanced the proposition, “the only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, we shouldn’t attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind gains by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.” (As cited in Mill’s On Liberty at 150: Its Legacy for Freedom of Speech & Expression) The goal of the gay rights movement is full civil rights for gay and lesbian people as individuals so that they may participate freely and openly in American society; where their sexual orientation has no more significance than that of their heterosexual neighbours.

Given this reality, it is proper that gay and lesbian civil rights advocates in the United States acknowledge the historical contribution to their movement by the countercultural constituency represented by Harry Hay and the Mattachine Society. Also, they should firmly distance themselves from the current countercultural interest, that is Queer activists, as their efforts to build a parallel “queer” culture only impedes the push for full civil rights for gays and lesbians in the United States.

Posted by Geoffrey



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