Tracing the Internal Queer Revolution

Riots and parades have made LGBTQ people visible. But a new anthology of writings from before, during, and after Stonewall shows the inward changes as more essential.

Lucy Jones
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series about the gay-rights movement and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

The very first Pride parade in Los Angeles was organized alphabetically. Toward the front of the march, The Advocate newspaper presented “a carload of groovy guys in bikini swimsuits,” as described by the Reverend Troy Perry in his memoir, The Lord Is My Shepherd and He Knows I’m Gay. “This was a mass of muscle calculated to turn everyone on. It did.” Soon came a group from Orange County whose sign read Homosexuals for Ronald Reagan (“I can forgive them for being homosexuals, but not for being for Ronald Reagan,” a bystander cracked). Later arrived “shrieking drag queens,” leather-clad motorcyclists, “a young beautiful man fastened on a cross” to protest police brutality, and a pet section. “One fellow had a big white husky dog on a leash,” Perry wrote. “He had a sign on his dog reading, ‘All of us don’t walk poodles.’”

The parade was in 1970, the same year as New York’s inaugural Christopher Street Liberation Day, and to read Perry’s account excerpted in the recently released Stonewall Reader anthology is to see how the visual signatures of gay liberation were set from the start. The famous flag wouldn’t arrive till 1978, but all along the aesthetic was rainbowlike: politics and pleasure, flesh and sacrament, stupid puns and serious slogans. As parades bustle in cities around the world this June, as celebrants and celebrities and even lawmakers don glitter, Pride remains a visceral and visual fest. It’s meant to, as Perry put it, turn everyone on—not just sexually, though that too.

But to flip through The Stonewall Reader—the New York Public Library’s excellent compilation of first-person accounts from before, during, and after the pivotal 1969 riot—is to also be reminded how invisibility was once the ideal for LGBTQ people. The retired G.I. Christine Jorgensen felt “towering rage” in 1952 when, recovering from gender-confirmation surgery in Denmark, news of her private procedure hit the front page of a New York newspaper. As the novelist Audre Lorde explored romance from the closet in the 1950s, she observed that “there were no rings to make tangible the reason for our happy secret smiles.” The artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt hung out with Stonewall Inn regulars who’d been forced, through hate crimes, into being seen. One drag queen had “an enormous burn scar covering her face and most of her body” because “her mother didn’t want men to be ‘tempted’ by her son’s beauty.”

(Penguin Classics)

Stories such as those, and all the flags and floats this month, make it appealing to think of gay pride as a story about that watchword of minority-rights movements: visibility. It indeed has been a campaign against the need to conceal, and to protect those who never had the option to do so. How fitting that when cops invaded a dimly lit queer hangout in 1969, the result was a profusion into the streets: an unveiling, a spectacle, a myth taking shape. “Whoever assumes that a swishy queen can’t fight should have seen them, makeup dripping and gowns askew, fighting for their home and fiercely proving that no one would take it away from them,” the journalist Mark Segal wrote. “According to some accounts, though I did not actually see this, drag queens formed a Rockettes-style chorus line singing, ‘We are the Stonewall girls / We wear our hair in curls / We wear no underwear / To show our pubic hair.’”

But something had to happen before visibility, and alongside it. Deeper shifts, below surfaces and within individual minds, took place. They are harder to track, and more important to understand. The activist Perry Brass, writing about the New York City Christopher Street Liberation Day parade in 1970, described a joyous, dazzling scene much like the one Reverend Perry saw in Los Angeles. But he also noted the departure it represented. “For some people this would be the first time in their lives they had indeed come out, come out of hiding, come out from the docks, the dark bars, the unlighted avenues that have been their refuges,” he wrote. Of the Stonewall riots themselves, Lanigan-Schmidt wrote, “We were being denied a place to dance together. That’s all.” But, he added, “The total charisma of a revolution in our CONSCIOUSNESS rising from the gutter to the gut to the heart and the mind was here.” Gay pride’s colorful trappings express the hope for mass psychic change. How to say when a revolution of minds and hearts has been won?

In a satirical 1965 work by Judy Grahn, the character Edward the Dyke sits down with a psychotherapist attempting to cure her of homosexuality. The shrink suggests “only four years of intensive therapy and two years of anti-intensive therapy, plus a few minor physical changes,” which include an eight-inch height reduction. He also asks the patient to explain what “homosexuality” means to her. Edward’s answer: “Pastry. Gingerbread. Warm, sweet bread. Cinnamon toast poetry. Justice equality higher wages. Independent angel song. It means I can do what I want.” The therapist chides that doing what she wants isn’t, really, what she should want:

What have you got to show for it? Do you have a wife or children or a husband or a home or a trip to Europe? Do you have a bridge club to show for it? No! You only have a thousand pleasurable experiences to show for it. Do you see how you’re missing the meaning of life?

The passage is jokey, yet only so far-fetched. The Stonewall Reader features a diverse array of voices—folks from across the LGBTQ spectrum telling their stories over decades in essays and interviews and letters. But a striking number touch on the tyranny of the mental-health establishment. The American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a sickness until 1973, and the implications of being pathologized reached deeply into people’s lives.

“Most Lesbians were completely downtrodden, having been brainwashed by a powerful heterosexual church and by the much-touted precepts of psychoanalysis,” the activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon wrote of the scene they found when they started the “homophile” group Daughters of Bilitis in 1955. To counteract that “downtrodden” attitude, the daughters built a community via meetings and a magazine, The Ladder. But education—and moreover, affirmation—was key, too. Martin and Lyon held public “lectures by attorneys, psychologists, psychiatrists, employment and marriage counselors … to dispel some of the fears and anxieties of the Lesbian.” Their reasoning was “that at a ‘public’ meeting you could hear about ‘those’ people and not necessarily be so identified simply by being in the audience.”

But some in the movement criticized the drive to rely on figures of authority for validation. “When our groups seek out the therapists and psychologists, to me this is admitting we are ill by the very nature of our preference,” the activist Ernestine Eckstein said in an interview with The Ladder. “I think the best therapy for a homosexual is reinforcement of his way of life, by associating with people who are like him … I think the whole anxiety business comes in when he is constantly pitted against a different way of life—you know, where he’s the odd-ball.”

It’s the same realization that Grahn hinted at in “Edward the Dyke”: to the extent that gay people might have widespread mental problems, they’re probably linked with being repeatedly told that their identity is a disease. Change would come partly through figures such as Dr. John E. Fryer, who in 1972 addressed the American Psychiatric Association in a mask and voice disguiser. Calling out other gay psychiatrists, he implored, “When fellow homosexuals come to you for treatment … develop creative ways to let the patient[s] know that they’re all right.”

Stigmas did not only flow from the medical profession, of course. In a passage from his memoir, the novelist Samuel Delany recalls what happened when he checked himself into a mental hospital in the 1960s. There, he internally struggled with whether to discuss his sexuality in group sessions for fear that other patients might be homophobic. Eventually, he did bring up his gayness, and what stung him the most was not others’ reactions, but the way he had described himself. “There in the hospital, I had not been dwelling on the physical pleasure of homosexuality, the fear and power at the beginnings of a political awareness, or the moments of community and communion with people from over an astonishing social range,” he wrote. He’d instead spoken of himself as a sufferer, with an ailment. “Where, then, had all the things I’d said that morning come from?”

Delany, remarkably figured out an answer:

They’d come from a book by the infamous Dr. Edmund Bergler I’d read as a teenager that had explained how homosexuals were psychically retarded and that told how homosexuals were all alcoholics who committed suicide. They had come from the section on “Inversion” by Krafft-Ebing in Psychopathia Sexualis, which I’d also read … Some of it had come from Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar and some from André Tellier’s The Twilight Men. Some had come from the pathos of Theodore Sturgeon’s science fiction story “The World Well Lost” and his western story “Scars.” And some had come from Jean Cocteau’s The White Paper and some came from André Gide’s The Immoralist. And some had come from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room.

In this telling, Delany’s self-descriptive language had been shaped by the scant literature about homosexuality he’d been exposed to—the scant literature that had been available. His story makes for a fascinating distillation of the chicken-and-egg way “visibility” and inner life are linked. Understanding oneself is a personal matter, but being able to see oneself reflected in the world helps.

Changing mind-states en masse, though, is a job not only for art and psychology, but also for politics. On that front, no history of gay rights is complete without mention of Frank Kameny. In 1957, Kameny was fired from his government astronomy job for being gay, making him one of the thousands of federal workers terminated for their sexuality under Dwight Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450. Kameny then devoted the rest of his life to queer activism—which is to say, to a sort of evangelism.

The Stonewall Reader contains letters he wrote to John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, lobbying on behalf of gay rights, and they’re remarkable for their crisp, matter-of-fact expression of what was then a radical idea. “The nation’s homosexuals,” he wrote to Kennedy, are “a minority group in no way different, as such, from the Negroes, the Jews, the Catholics, and other minority groups.”

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.”

Today, as disputes about once-unquestionable definitions of gender and sexuality unfold in mainstream politics, it’s easy to see how gay rights has entailed a “consciousness shift” not only for queer people but also for straight ones. The process for either group has in part been incremental: individual encounters, individual lessons. In The Stonewall Reader, the trans woman Virginia Prince recounts the saga of her second wife coming to terms with Prince wearing women’s clothes. “Although she went along with me, she didn’t really understand,” Prince wrote. But then:

One morning about 4 A.M., I was awakened by a phone call. It was she and the first thing she said was, “I understand!” … She had lain awake for a long time and suddenly a light had burst on her and she knew that this TV-feminine [transvestite-feminine] expression was as much a part of me as brown eyes—that it was an inherent part of my personality.

Such awakenings have not always been so sweet. Martha Shelley’s bracing 1969 manifesto “Gay Is Good” was partly addressed directly at straight people, threatening that the Gay Liberation Front was “springing up like warts all over the bland face of Amerika.” Hers was a take-no-prisoners, we-are-what-you-fear argument. “We want you to be uneasy, be a little less comfortable in your straight roles,” she wrote. “Straight roles stink.” She thought back to her “own revulsion against the vacant women drifting in and out of supermarkets, vowing never to live like them.”

Broadsides of this sort could also be directed at other queer folks. Steven Dansky’s 1970 essay, “Hey Man,” condemned the developing gay-male establishment as hopelessly misogynistic—a charge that still holds some force today as queer people root out their own equivalents of Harvey Weinstein. He rejected cruising spots and gay bars as overly conquest-focused and female-exclusionary, and advocated, “We will instead begin to remold our homosexuality by developing a communistic sexuality of sharing.” Another mandate: “Our recognition of male heterosexuality as our oppressor will mean that we will have to confront every male heterosexual with whom we come into contact.”

The most radical visions haven’t been fully enacted, a half century after Stonewall. Still, in a small but profound way, Dansky’s hope for constant confrontation has come to pass—not simply through LGBTQ visibility per se, but through the argument underlying it: Gay is okay. Describing the first Pride Parade, Perry Brass recalled one man on a sidewall shouting at passersby, “If your mother could only see you now.” Wrote Brass, “Well she certainly could if she tried hard enough, and it’s about time she did.”