EssaysFeatureSex & Gender

Long After 1969, LGBT People Had Everything to Lose

Stonewall was the beginning, but homophobia and shame have had a long afterlife

Over the past month, I have been watching Chelsea, my New York gayborhood, get all dolled up for the 50th anniversary of #Stonewall50 and #WorldPride. Window mannequins’ crotch bumps are restrained by rainbow jockstraps and briefs; manly plastic chests by rainbow suspenders and tee shirts that say “LOVE” in rainbow letters. Restaurants have rainbow bunting and rainbow flags. Google has whipped out its traditional rainbow O’s. The tourists do cute things like standing on Eighth Avenue looking helplessly at their phones, little rainbow flags clutched in their fists, asking: “Where is Eighth Avenue?” Public Seminar’s podcast, Exiles on Twelfth Street has celebrated with a special one-hour episode, “Kicking and Screaming: Stonewall at Fifty,” where you can listen to some of my tawdry memories, as well as great interviews with historian Marc Stein, writer/activists Pamela Sneed and Kelly Cogswell, and tales of the Drag March.

Oh, the rainbows, the rainbows. In every shop window, there are rainbow hued signs about love, and how my love is the same as your love, is the same as their love. Sometimes the sign just says “LOVE,” an abbreviation for the real catchphrase: “Love is Love.” Every kind of love is good, whether it is straight, or gay, or between folks who are gender non-binary; whether a person loves boys today and girls tomorrow; or if the lover (or lov-ee) was born to love in one body and has transitioned to another body.

It’s all just love: the big common ground we can meet on that makes homophobes look so small and cruel. Because what kind of a monster is against love? Answer: it is no accident that the Trump administration has been simultaneously intent on rolling back LGBT rights at home and around the world, and separating small children from the parents who love them at the border.

As Marianne Williamson taught us on night two of the Democratic Presidential debates, “You are so on, girlfriend!” Love is great, and we need more of it. Remember that old tee shirt from the 1970s that said “An Army of Lovers Can’t Be Wrong?” Back in the day, gay and lesbian movement folks used to refer to each other as “brother” and “sister,” which was only partially a copycat move from the Black liberation movement. It was because we genuinely felt connected in a circle of love, forged in our experiences coming out, through the networks of love affairs and tricking in our communities, at our bars, and through the intimacy you develop as an embattled social minority.

But can we not oversell love as a motivating factor for change, or a kind of universal common sense that has brought gay rights into the 21st century? Does the phrase “love is love” really describe that journey out of the closet and into the fight for the 2020 Democratic nomination?

Love is certainly, if not an antidote to the shame that was more or less compulsory when I came out, a nice way of not talking about our history of shame, how many of us were relentlessly shamed for being queer or trans for decades after Stonewall, and how many of us still are. If you are older than, say, five, chances are that you are scarred to a greater or lesser degree by shame, and have spent a lifetime overcoming it to one degree or another.

But nobody would put the word “Shame” in happy, rainbow colors, or the phrase “Shame is Shame” on a tee shirt (although “Shame” on a rainbow jockstrap probably has legs.) Fact #1: while the direct oppression of LGBT people at Stonewall back in 1969 was from the police, cops were just the tip of the spear. Fact #2: until about two decades ago, the whole society collaborated in shaming and punishing LGBT people, and if you were not complicit in that, you are the exception – not the rule.

Part of the way this was done was by censoring, hiding, and stigmatizing LGBT people in literature, art, and film. What culture one had was not promising: for example, this poem, “Two Loves,” by Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas. It was the 1894 version of a gay anthem, and was ultimately used by the court to put Douglas’s lover, Oscar Wilde, in jail. The final lines go like this:

What is thy name?’ He said, ‘My name is Love.’
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, ‘He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.’
Then sighing, said the other, ‘Have thy will,
I am the love that dare not speak its name.’

Love? Shame? Love? Shame? It was always so hard to know what to feel in the 1970s, when I was coming out, in part because having lots of sex and hiding it is a more or less full time job. I can tell you one thing – most LGBT people I knew back in the day were compelled as much by lust as by love, but we were all constrained to a greater or lesser degree by the shame imposed by a pervasively homophobic society.

It wasn’t that homophobia didn’t have its charms. The first lesbians I ever knew, the gym teachers at my all-girls school, were complete closet cases, They also had buckets of fun, and were objects of fascination among those of us who were lesbians in training. They drove snappy British sports cars, wore kilts with knee socks, and had cute little breed dogs. They had short, boyish haircuts, roguish smiles, and ambiguously gendered nicknames that suggested either the boyfriend you wanted to have or the boyfriend you wanted to be. They strode around the school, and the hockey pitch, with loping, unlady-like, strides.

Because all those women – and the headmistress in my first seven years at the school, who lived with her “friend,” a classics professor at a nearby college — were all in the closet, most of us were a little confused about the lesbian thing. But we pretended we weren’t: homophobic fun in girls’ schools in the 1970s included sneaking up to another girl, breathing hotly into her ear, and growling: “LEZZZZZZZZbe friends!” Touching someone by mistake, or at the wrong time, might earn the casual insult: “Stop lezzing out on me!” One summer some of us read Muriel Stark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where Stark makes it pretty clear that any unmarried woman found teaching in a girls’ school is probably a latent, if not an active, lesbian. We became fond of repeating Miss Brodie’s catch phrase, in an affected British accent: “Little girls,” (pronounced gels) we would proclaim archly. “You are the crème de la crème.” And then we would fall out, because lesbians were so ridiculous, right?

This odd juxtaposition between having women in our midst who were so deeply desirable and a state of being, lesbianism, that all the authorities agreed was universally repulsive, created a lot of psychological conflict and shame. To paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, no LGBT person is born self-hating: we become that way, and it is a long and painful process to undo it. I recently opened up one of my early journals, one that described my first sexual experience, and found that I had written pages about – why I could do those things but not really be a lesbian. (FYI: while it took me another four years, and a few more women, to really come out as a lesbian, it has taken me 40 to come out, at this moment, as a cliché.)

Incredibly, I did not even know about Stonewall until I had graduated from college. Why? Shame. Nearly all the LGBT professors were in the closet, even though we gossiped about them relentlessly. We students identified ourselves to ourselves, and agreed without words not to uncover each other. I had one serious affair in college with a woman who had a boyfriend; a second with a woman who had a husband. You lived with the contradictions, because love isn’t only love – it can also be a big fat lie.

This was not just the period before LGBTQ studies: it was when women’s studies barely had its feet on the ground. The one LGBT course I took at Yale was taught by the distinguished gay poet Sandy McClatchy: McClatchy was not in the closet (we made excuses to deliver our papers to his home to try to get a glimpse of his partner at the time, Alfred Corn) but the course was. It was titled “The Literature of Ambivalence,” since the chair of the English Department (whose son was gay, and extremely out) was said to have decided, in all his wisdom, that no Yale student should have the burden of the words “gay” or “lesbian” on their transcript. Or even get the chance to be so foolish as to have those words on their transcript. Or maybe he just thought the words defiled a Yale transcript.

Who knows. But the closet was pretty darn big, and I can say definitively that shame, not love, had the upper hand well into the 1990s. The mainstream media didn’t really cover LGBT news; the first book to document LGBT history, Jonathan Ned Katz’s  Gay American History did not appear until 1976; and the New York Times did not even use the word “gay” to describe a homosexual until 1987.

But honestly, loving someone of the same sex, or harboring the lurking knowledge that you weren’t really a boygirl at all you were a girlboy, was really not the central issue. LGBT people weren’t born wanting to keep secrets. No one invents heterosexual relationships, or swaps the pronouns of who they are really dating, for fun, or because they want their fucking privacy. They do it because they are afraid. The central issue for LGBT people has never been curiousity about whether our love measures up to your love. It has been navigating the relentless shame raining on us from everywhere else: every unmonitored hour, of every unmonitored day, promised some sort of shame. And then, from time to time, the shaming escalated to physical attacks: I don’t know one lesbian, gay or trans person who has not been physically or sexually assaulted by a family member or a complete stranger. Too many of us have been murdered.

Being out after Stonewall, in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, was no bowl of cherries, people. “Love” could get you plunked in a mental institution, and actual sex, in jail. In 1986 – almost seventeen years to the day after Stonewall — the Supreme Court of the United States issued a majority decision in Bowers v. Hardwick that the constitutional right to privacy established in the (straight) birth control case Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) did not extend to “homosexual conduct.” Were that the case, Justice Byron White wrote, “and if respondent’s submission is limited to the voluntary sexual conduct between consenting adults, it would be difficult, except by fiat, to limit the claimed right to homosexual conduct while leaving exposed to prosecution adultery, incest, and other sexual crimes even though they are committed in the home. We are unwilling to start down that road.”

Shame, shame, shame. LGBT people are the same as rapists and pedophiles. And we in the LGBT community lived with that, and with death from a mysterious virus, for the next decade. Bowers, although it was neutralized by Romer v. Evans in 1995, was not overturned until 2003.

Anyone for a tee shirt that says, in rainbow letters, “Rights are Rights”?

The narrative that Stonewall “changed everything” isn’t true – what changed everything, if there is something that changed everything, was AIDS. Despite the ways that many of us played the homophobia game by being deliberately dishonest about our private lives (I wasn’t unequivocally out until I was in graduate school), it was truly shocking to many of us who had grown up white and privileged that our government, our parents, our employers, and our insurance companies were just going to let people die. And not just die, but punish us for dying: firing us, evicting us, denying us health care, letting us waste away in our own shit and puke, refusing to bury us.

The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) mobilized thousands of people worldwide to fight for the LGBT lives, incarcerated lives, and people of color lives that were being destroyed by a disease that the government was almost completely uninterested in diagnosing, much less curing. Let this sink in: the first public announcement that gay men were dying of a mysterious set of symptoms was in 1981. The first protease inhibitors, which gave people with AIDS a fighting chance to actually treat the disease, were released in 1996.

There are more books to be written about the culture of love within ACT UP, and how social movements breed a kind of erotic intimacy that intensifies, with or without sex. But what ACT UP really was about was rage, and the realization that many of us had been shamed into the belief that we deserved to die, and that we had something to lose by coming out, when really, we had nothing to lose but our lives. And for the first time, LGBT people turned the mirror of shame back on the state, the church, both political parties, the police, our own parents, the courts, the government, the schools, employers, and anyone else that thought letting us die quietly was the best solution for everyone. And we were clear about one thing: they weren’t willing let us die for how we loved, but specifically for how we had sex, which they found scary and repulsive.

ACT UP not only fought homophobia, it actually put queer and marginalized people at the center of a new civil rights movement, one that laid the political tracks for Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo. It created a new model for activism that rejected shame and claimed rights. Was ACT UP about love? In part: go here for an online archive of the movement.

So today, when you are celebrating #WorldPride, you are, indeed, celebrating an arc of history that, if it has not brought an end to the official shaming of LGBT people, has indeed brought an end to the silences that made that shame a universal condition. It has been uneven progress, it isn’t complete, and we have to set backfires constantly, but even 53% of evangelical Christians between the ages of 18 and 29 support gay marriage.

Love is love?

No, not really. The truth is that shame is shame, rights are rights, and sex is probably just sex. But love isn‘t just love. I have lived long enough to tell you this: the love that you have to fight for is actually better.

Claire Potter is Professor of History at The New School for Social Research, Executive Editor at Public Seminar, and host of the podcast, Exiles on 12th Street. You can follow her on Twitter @TenuredRadical.

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