This framing of gays as a political constituency may be taken for granted today, but it wasn’t then. When Barbara Gittings, the founder of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, met Kameny in 1963, “He was the first gay person I met who took firm, uncompromising positions about homosexuality and homosexuals’ right to be considered fully on par with heterosexuals,” she said. “Frank really raised my consciousness on this matter!” The author Edmund White traces his own, and others’, conversion on that same subject to the events of Stonewall itself: “Up till that moment we had all thought that homosexuality was a medical term. Suddenly we saw that we could be a minority group—with rights, a culture, an agenda.”
The wider political currents of the ’60s enabled such epiphanies. White described the Stonewall uprising like this: “Angry lesbians, angrier drag queens, excessive mourning, staggering heat, racial tensions, the example of civil disobedience set by the women’s movement, the antiwar protesters, the Black Panthers—all the elements were present and only a single flame was needed to ignore the bonfire.”
Revolution was in the air, but more than that, it was a generation’s practice, a way of seeing the world, rooted in experience. Take the case of Sylvia Rivera, the influential drag queen and activist. Before she was involved in the Gay Liberation Front, she had joined anti-war marches and the black-liberation movement. “My revolutionary blood was going back then,” she said. “I had to do something back then to show the world that there was a changing world … I had so much anger.” Elsewhere in The Stonewall Reader, the activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya reflects on the kinship between women’s liberation and gay rights—“parallel consciousness-raising movements.”
The connection between revolutions was not always obvious, though. A group of lesbians calling themselves the Lavender Menace ambushed a meeting of the National Organization for Women in 1970, protesting homophobia in the feminist group. “Wow, I really need to hear this tonight,” an audience member said. “I thought I could put off dealing with my feeling for a woman for at least two more years.” Wrote the activist Karla Jay, “We knew we would no longer accept second-class status in the women’s movement or the gay movement. We would be equal partners, or we would leave the straight women and gay men behind.”
The linkage between black liberation and gay rights could be fraught, too. In his memoir, an essay called “Growing Up Black and Gay,” the choreographer Joel Hall wrote of being bounced between detention facilities since age 12, when he was arrested for running away with a man. As an adult in prison, he found the era’s identity movements had hardened into competing cliques :
There was quite a movement in jail between black people around Malcolm X. I was in jail when I first heard about the Black Panther party, and related to it very positively, but out of a black sense, not out of a gay sense, because they were offing gay people, saying things like, “this white man who is fucking you over is a faggot,” and that was getting to me, because I was a faggot and I wasn’t no white man! Finally their consciousness has changed somehow, and they’ve begun to relate to homosexuals as people, as a part of the people.
Hall added that when racial progress and queer progress began to seem like a common cause, “That’s when I really became a revolutionary, began to live my whole life as a revolutionary.”