Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution - Linda Hirshman (2012)
Chapter 5. The Good Gays Fight the Four Horsemen: Crazy, Sinful, Criminal, and Subversive
Richard Socarides, fifteen years old and gay, had his family’s Manhattan town house at Seventy-eighth Street and Third Avenue to himself the last weekend in June 1970. Richard brought his high school boyfriend to spend the night. After making love Sunday morning, they decided to go to Central Park. As they crossed Fifth Avenue, they encountered a vast throng of people holding up signs and chanting about gay rights. Smilingly, Richard said to his lover, “Well, I think we did our little bit for gay rights this morning.” Twenty-five years later, Socarides took his place in the White House as the first official adviser to an American president on gay and lesbian matters. Socarides still remembers his chance encounter with history: “It was great foreshadowing about how my life just accidentally crossed the movement at the very beginning. I march in that parade every year now no matter what.”
The euphoria of Stonewall gave way to the realities of the battle for real social change. By pushing back, gays showed they were scary enough so that the society had to include them in the social contract, agreeing to protect them in exchange for their not making war on other citizens—the first principle of the liberal state. But the four horsemen of the gay apocalypse—Crazy, Sinful, Criminal, and Subversive—still blocked their passage to full social equality.
In the next few years, the newly empowered movement created an infrastructure of institutions to earn the badges of social membership for gay people. They took on the mental-health profession, started churches of their own, challenged the criminal sodomy laws, and pressed the government to stop excluding them from the civil service. Sometimes the institutional agendas overlapped: being classified as sane helped the argument that gay diplomats were not likely to be disloyal. But regardless of whether they proceeded together or independently, pretty much everyone in the newly hatched mass movement understood that establishing their sanity, sanctity, sexual legitimacy, and loyalty were the tasks at hand. The big story of the post-Stonewall years is how they did it.
Trying to change a society with such a broad array of resources available to hate and fear them, in the early hard years after Stonewall, American gays and lesbians enjoyed nearly every advantage any social-movement theory required for success. As classical theory predicted, the social changes of the Sixties, chiefly feminism, had reframed gender behavior as a matter of social convention, rather than natural order or biblical imperative. Gays and lesbians were thus able to see their oppression as a decision society made rather than as an inevitable consequence of their “deviation” from a gender behavior commanded by nature or God. The sexual-liberation movement of the Sixties had split the establishment on the subject of what constituted good sexual behavior, weakening the resistance. In new social movement terms, as the radical movements had become more gay and the gay movements more radical, the new gay activists saw themselves as aggrieved even before they came out and broke away. They had what sociologists call “oppositional consciousness.” Coming out engendered a powerful group-based interest binding the participants into the movement. The new identities rewarded participation: in years to come, the annual Stonewall parade would feature marchers with a banner, “Marched in 1970 Parade.” As the proud and happy marchers left Central Park, they had all this going for them. The movement could not have succeeded otherwise. They were so few and the tasks were so great.
Crazy: “Faggot! Get Out of Here!”
Gay stalwart Frank Kameny had had his eye on the first horseman—Crazy—for years. Driven by the primal scene of his political life—being fired from the civil service—he was painfully aware of how the psychiatrists enabled the politicians and bureaucrats to banish homosexuals from their own government. Kameny, the scientist, knew the assertion that gays were crazy was totally unscientific, and he knew it was harmful.
The gay movement was not the only social movement to resist the psychiatrists. The feminist movement waged epic battles with the “scientists” who assumed that women were naturally passive actors with foundational penis-envy problems. Yet, unlike gays, women were not crazy by definition. There was no DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s quasi-official classification of mental disorders) category for uppity females who asked for pay raises, which could be used to fire them if they were caught working while female. Feminism battled Freud in elite journals, in academic seminars, in literary magazines, and in a thousand private battles. It was a culture war. The gay activists had to attack the institution of the APA head on, as if it were the government itself, yet without being able to invoke any of the arguments like equality and privacy that constrain the actual liberal state.
Before Stonewall, as Kameny went around trying to radicalize the homophile organizations, he had always made the psychiatrists’ treatment of homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disturbance the centerpiece of his presentation. But until Stonewall turned their little band into an angry, acting-out liberation front, the movement did not have a lot of ammunition. Not six months after Stonewall, a band of activists disrupted the San Francisco meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. In response to the demonstrations, the chair of the program committee for the next meeting in DC agreed to let some nonpatient homosexuals speak for themselves.
The gay activists picked Kameny and several other pre-Stonewall veterans of the fight to represent them. Unknown to the cooperating docs, however, the panel members were also involved in plans to zap the DC meeting. The proper, educated Kameny was the last person you’d expect to see hanging around the commune with the group of DC hippies, hitherto unknown to the homophile movement, who made up the Washington Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Craig Rodwell’s story of Kameny ordering the lesbians to stop holding hands a week after Stonewall makes him sound like all the other middle-aged homophiles. True, Kameny wasn’t crazy about the Gay Liberation Front. “People talked endlessly, there was no way of coming to a vote, nothing really got accomplished, and there was no way of defining what we were doing.” But once the DC front got organized, he attended virtually every one of the endless meetings. And the rebels rewarded him by turning out in force to zap the shrinks at the DC meeting.
The psychiatrists gathered only once in one place at each annual meeting, at the convocation. The 1971 convocation was scheduled for the Regency Ballroom in Washington’s Shoreham Hotel. Thanks in part to Kameny’s spadework, the importance of defeating the psychiatrists was so patently obvious to anyone in the gay community that all the fractious factions of the DC gay movement—the fading DC Mattachine Society, the Gay Liberation Front, and the Gay Activists Alliance of DC, which had just formed a few weeks before—cooperated to plan and execute the attack.
The zap followed the basic script Marty Robinson and the others had developed in New York. The gay activists scouted out the Shoreham Hotel and designated a speaker to present their position once the invading gay troops had secured the microphone. They placed wedges underneath the fire doors at the back of the room so they could get in unannounced.
Kameny and his copanelists were officially in the Regency Room sitting in the audience, when the demonstrators stormed the room. As Kameny tells it, “There sitting offstage were all these psychiatrists wearing gold medals, and the psychiatrists beat our people over the head with their gold medals and they drove them out the door. We had designated one person to seize the microphone but he had been beaten off by the psychiatrists.” Perry Brass, a GLF stalwart from New York who came to DC for the big May Day antiwar rally but stayed to zap the shrinks, describes the scene in the Regency Room as something out of Dante’s Inferno. In the brief moment before someone slammed the fire door shut on him he heard voices shouting, “Faggot! Get out of here! We don’t want any more people like you in here.”
Kameny saw the designated speaker shoved out the door. “For a few moments nothing was happening at all. Our people were just sitting there. I saw the whole thing was going to disappear and I realized that something had to be done. I marched across the room, stepped up on the stage, and the psychiatrist in charge said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to speak.’ ” Some of the psychiatrists had pulled the plug on the microphone. “I’ve never needed a microphone to be heard,” Kameny says, “and I’d made the speech many times.” The angry shrinks paused, and Kameny told the assembled professionals that they “may take this as a declaration of war against you.” With that, the 1971 APA meeting broke up.
The War Against the Psychiatrists
By the time the gays formally declared war on the psychiatrists in 1971, all the conditions for a classic successful social action on the psychiatric front were in place. The sexual revolution created an unrelated change in the social norms of “normal” sexuality, the act of coming out inherently involved recognition of their sexuality as healthy and normal, Frank Kameny’s circle provided strong leadership, and the psychiatric elites were divided.
It had been a long process. The assault on the “crazy” designation started, like so much of the gay revolution, with the Kinsey Report. If homosexuality was a sociopathological mental disease when, in 1947, sex surveyor Professor Alfred Kinsey supposedly found that 37 percent of all adult males had had a homosexual experience at some point, it meant there were an awful lot of crazies around. Slowly, after Kinsey’s report, the gay challengers gained allies.
In the early fifties, the movement attracted the attention of heterosexual UCLA psychologist Evelyn Hooker. This was not entirely an accident. Hooker’s best grad student, homosexual Sammy From, had gone out of his way to be her friend, hanging out after class and driving her home. One day he took her to a drag show and, observing her open and amused response, put his real agenda on the table. It was her professional duty to study homosexuals who were not in therapy or in prison. He knew, he told her, a whole world of gay people living happy, productive lives. It was an academic’s dream, as one of her colleagues in the psych department said, “A whole area of research no one has touched. Ask for a grant right away!”
The psychiatrists’ data almost without exception came from their patients, by definition a skewed sample. For fifteen years, Hooker collected histories of nonpatient homosexuals. Her survey yielded a detailed picture of people leading lives of average or better adjustment. When she gave the subjects and a heterosexual control group the contemporary standard psychological tests, reviewing psychologists were unable to distinguish between the two groups. Published in 1957, Hooker’s pioneering study suggested that “homosexuality as a clinical entity does not exist, homosexuality may be a deviation in sexual pattern which is within the normal range, and the role of particular forms of sexual desire and expression in personality structure and development may be less important than has frequently been assumed. It may be that the disturbance is limited to the sexual sector alone.”
Empirical research was not common in psychiatry. Because, in a crude Darwinian sense, without heterosexual intercourse there would be no humans at all, Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, assumed that heterosexuality was the natural and desirable end of human sexual development. He speculated about whether homosexuality was biological or involved the usual suspects—the mothers—but his general pessimism about the possibilities of therapy and his Evelyn Hooker-like observation that homosexuals were not otherwise functionally impaired led him to conclude that his profession should leave homosexuals alone. Nonetheless, by the 1940s, Freud’s prudent skepticism had been supplanted by an ambitious faith in treatment. In 1952, homosexuality was listed in the first DSM. That so many homosexuals seemed so well-adjusted to their condition that the psychiatrists had to classify homosexuality as sociopathological—a disorder without distress or anxiety—might have raised a red flag.
Instead, having categorized homosexuals as crazy, the New York Society of Psychoanalysts began studying its homosexual patients for signs of “cure.” In 1962, the society published the results in a study, Homosexuality, authored by Irving Bieber. According to Bieber, homosexuality is presumed to be pathological, it’s probably Mom’s fault, and there’s a good chance it can be cured. Psychoanalyst Charles Socarides (Richard’s father, unbelievable as that seems) upped the ante, attributing homosexuality to a toddler’s pathological attachment to the mother and characterizing its practitioners as schizophrenic, paranoid, and obsessive. Happily, he reported, his practice produced a 50 percent cure rate. As psychiatric reformer Robert Spitzer would later admit, “In terms of evidence that is acceptable to most scientists [the evidence for homosexuality as a mental disorder] was very limited.” Unlike their colleagues in the medical profession, Spitzer says, psychiatrists at that time operated on an “intuitive sense that males and females adapted to each other … [so] from an evolutionary standpoint one can argue that if a man is unable to be attracted by a woman something is not working.”
For gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians, this was not just another battle of the intellectuals. In the years when psychoanalysis dominated social thinking, homosexuals were subjected to every weapon in the psychiatric arsenal. Horrifyingly, those treatments included electroshock therapy and shock-based aversion therapy, sometimes at the insistence of their families, sometimes through the coercive power of the state. Although hormone and surgical treatment had existed for decades to enable them to alter their gender to some degree, transsexuals were subjected to a veritable psychiatric gauntlet in order to get what they wanted from the university-based clinics that dominated the field. Eligible transsexuals had to report a devastating degree of psychological suffering and propose to transform themselves into unidentifiable members of the other gender with accompanying heterosexual desires. Unlike the happy homosexual, transsexuals, who wanted something from the medical establishment, didn’t have the option to just walk away. There’s a reason Kameny called it a war.
Unfortunately for the psychoanalysts, modernity was about to intrude on their cozy realm. First, health-insurance companies and, after 1965, Medicaid, which were being asked to pay the bill, were unconvinced by psychoanalysts’ just-so tales and pushed the APA for some scientifically defensible diagnoses and provable treatments. In 1960, one of psychiatry’s own, Thomas Szasz, of the State University of New York, published The Myth of Mental Illness, charging his colleagues with putting a cloak of unproved medical language over what was merely disapproved behavior. Few in the profession were willing to adopt the prescriptions of Szasz and the other “antipsychiatrists.” Still, the empirical challenges to psychiatry’s unscientific explanations for something as important as mental illness set the stage for a radical revision of their diagnostic and therapeutic claims.
Gay activists rapidly adopted the growing skepticism about the judgment of mental health professionals. When the conservatives had taken over the Mattachine Society in the early fifties, they had, for a period of time, considered the psychiatrists their allies. After all, the gentler Freudian treatment of their condition as an ailment seemed vastly preferable to being put in jail for criminal sodomy. But as the psychiatrists’ claims of illness and cure grew more ambitious and the gay population experienced more and more aggressive attempts to “treat” their “illness,” the alliance frayed.
It is difficult to overstate the effect of Kameny’s leadership. His standard speech heavily focused on the unscientific circular reasoning that passed for medicine in the psychiatric treatment of homosexuality. So obviously unjust was the psychiatric treatment of homosexuality that his speeches, for example to the New York Mattachine Society in 1968, not only radicalized the chapter on the issue of gay pathology, it radicalized the chapter in general. Even before Stonewall, gay militants started disrupting “scholarly” presentations of the evidence that they were crazy. In 1968, Charles Socarides met with the first of such protests directed at him specifically, when he spoke to a convention of the American Medical Association in San Francisco.
The worst was yet to come. If Stonewall-era liberation meant anything, it meant, as the GLF paper was called, COME OUT! Nothing was less compatible with coming out than going to a psychiatrist to get yourself changed. The psychiatrists’ insistence that homosexuality was pathological was a threat to the very foundation of the liberation movement. As the great chronicler of the conflict between homosexuality and American psychiatry, Ronald Bayer, puts it, going to a psychiatrist was considered collaboration. Not surprisingly the post-Stonewall liberation groups produced a limitless supply of protesters to take the psychiatrists on. The gay protesters were particularly visible at the meetings of behavioral therapists, because those specialists were the most aggressive in using aversion therapy like electric shocks (the protesters called it torture) to try to cure homosexuals. The gay activists used the disruptive techniques like the DC zap to empower the “good cops” like Kameny and the Gay Activists Alliance’s Ron Gold, who were negotiating with sympathetic APA insiders to get them heard at successive meetings.
Propelled by all these advantages, the victory came quite quickly. It was the Sixties, after all. Dissent over the treatment of homosexuality was but one of the divisions within the profession. A group of young psychiatrists, the Committee of Concerned Psychiatrists, had already begun to defy the cozy APA old-boy network, especially on opposition to the war in Vietnam. By 1971, the young Turks had made declassifying homosexuality one of their planks. After garnering 40 percent of the votes for APA president in 1971, the insurgents’ next candidate, Alfred Freedman, a professor at New York Medical College, slid to victory by two votes the next year. In the election after the 1972 meeting, the young psychiatrists ran a whole slate and swept the election.
The gay protesters also gained a valuable ally in Robert Spitzer, a very smart academic psychiatrist who sat on the Nomenclature Committee, the group that named the disorders. Spitzer, an intellectual gadfly and relentlessly energetic individual, met the protesters at a meeting of the association for the advancement of behavior therapy: “They had a panel on the treatment of homosexuality and there was a speaker who came all the way from England but he never got to give his talk because the meeting was broken up by some gay activists. I went up, and spoke to the gay activists later and said that wasn’t a very nice thing that you did. And they found out that I was on this committee on nomenclature and they asked me if it would be possible for them to make a presentation to that committee.” Spitzer went to the head of the committee and told him that the group wanted to make a presentation; the chairman agreed.
By all accounts, the gay activists’ presentation to the committee was a triumph. The presenters, Spitzer says, made the irrefutable argument that there was no scientific evidence for classifying homosexuality as a mental disorder, that the arguments were all based on a preexisting prejudice, and that the classification does terrible things to gay people. “Something had to happen; we could not just ignore their protests anymore.”
Spitzer realized he had a political problem with his colleagues, when, after the gay presenters made their case, the head of the Nomenclature Committee said, “Okay, Bob, you got us into this mess, what do we do now?” Spitzer decided to have a symposium on the issue at the 1973 APA meeting in Hawaii. There, for the first time, the assembled doctors heard gay people debate the question among themselves, instead of the psychiatrists offering a solid front against demonstrating activists.
Still, gay activists, like Gold, were uncertain of Spitzer’s commitment to them. Gold knew there was a covert caucus of closeted gay psychiatrists. When he appeared in Hawaii, he made a pitch for them to come out. Although they did not do that, they invited him to their off-site soiree at the Bamboo Bar, and, in a risky and dramatic move, Gold took Spitzer with him. The largely closeted group, whose members rightly feared for their jobs, were not pleased with the unannounced appearance of one of their most powerful colleagues, but Gold convinced them to tell him about their lives and how the reconsideration of the issue would help them. One gay psychiatrist, who had just come out of the army, where he was forced to closet himself every minute, cried as he explained how important the change was. Spitzer says it humanized gay men in his eyes, made him identify with their suffering, and convinced him to be helpful to the extent that he could. The gay movement’s political strategy of the tragic anecdote was born.
Spitzer figured out that what he had to do was propose a policy that would give therapists the option of treating homosexuals for something. So he wrote a statement that homosexuality by itself, while an irregular sexual development, is not a psychiatric disorder unless the homosexuals are distressed by their homosexuality. For the next six or seven months, Spitzer’s compromise wound its way through the many levels of the psychiatric bureaucracy. Bolstering the series of votes on the proposal to change the treatment of homosexuality in DSM was the firm commitment of Freedman and the insurgents at the top to seeing this get done.
Finally, on December 15, 1973, the Spitzer proposal was presented to Freedman’s liberal board of trustees. Freedman knew that he had the votes. But Freedman wanted this profound social and professional conversion to be as close as possible to unanimous. To gather more support, Freedman agreed to weaken some of the pro-homosexual language. Thus, the original statement that “homosexuality in itself does not by itself constitute a psychiatric disorder” was changed by the board to say that “homosexuality in itself does not necessarily constitute a psychiatric disorder.” This was no small change, but, at the end of the day, the first proposal in history to withdraw homosexuality from the list of psychiatric disorders passed unanimously. “Victory for Homosexuals,” the New York Times proclaimed the next morning.
Twenty-six years later, on December 15, 1999, Alfred Freedman woke up to see that the Washington Post had chosen as the most important December 15 of the twentieth century, December 15, 1973, the day the Board of Trustees of the American Psychiatric Association announced that homosexuality in itself did not necessarily constitute a psychiatric disorder, for its “This Date in History” feature.
The gay movement did not just change America for gay people. Because of the challenge to psychiatry by the well-adjusted homosexuals, academic psychiatrist Spitzer and his colleagues were forced to address a question central to the treatment of mental illness for everyone. What is the status of behavior that society doesn’t like but that the people who practice the behavior think is fine? Rightly or wrongly, to this day, Spitzer thinks there’s something not optimal about homosexuality, a behavior that does not lead to survival in a simple Darwinian world. He figured out right away that in order to protect the homosexuals whom psychiatry had hurt so badly and with no defensible scientific proof of treatable illness, he had to distinguish between what he calls less than “optimal social functioning” and disease. From there, the entire diagnostic machinery had to be re-engineered from the ground up, with a big effort to avoid pathologizing behaviors that are just socially unfamiliar. The process eventually produced the famed DSM III, an attempt to frame mental illness as a medical condition, not just some analyst’s intuition or interpretation of the work of Dr. Freud.
Spitzer was the chief draftsman of DSM III. He says it was the gay challenge that started him down the road of rethinking the whole procedure of identifying mental illness. In an article about DSM III and Spitzer, the New Yorkerconcludes that, “In the course of defining more than a hundred mental diseases, he not only revolutionized the practice of psychiatry but also gave people all over the United States a new language with which to interpret their daily experiences and tame the anarchy of their emotional lives.” And so the gay revolution changed America for everyone.
Sinful: God Does Not Have Any Stepsons and Daughters
Troy Perry started his campaign against the classification of gays as sinful by trying to commit an old-fashioned sin: suicide. Fortunately, his roommate came home unexpectedly to their little apartment in LA that night in 1969 and found Perry with his wrists bleeding into the bath. A couple of years earlier, after decades of denial, Perry, a Pentecostal minister, husband, and father of two, had finally recognized the truth: “Troy Perry, you’re a homosexual.” He left his wife and children and his successful ministry, moved to LA, found a boyfriend, and had the best six months of his life. But when the lover broke it off, Perry decided to die.
As he lay in his room at the LA County General Hospital, waiting for the doctor to come and sew him up, an African American nurse walked into his room. “What’s the matter with you?” she demanded. “Don’t you have somebody you can talk to? Can’t you just look up?” She used all the tenets of his faith, he recalls, and left him crying uncontrollably, when the doctor walked in. “Well,” boomed the doctor, “Do I need to lock you up for seventy-two hours? I’m not going to be responsible for you. Are you going to be OK?” He would be, Perry answered, because for the first time in six months, he had prayed to his familiar God, asking for forgiveness. So the doctor let him go home. The next morning, his roommate asked him the same question: Can I leave you alone today?
“I’m laying in bed,” Perry says, “and in the middle of this something happened and this has been my testimony for forty-two years: I prayed and I felt good after my prayer, but I said, ‘God, I know you don’t love me,’ and all at once there was that joy of our salvation in my heart, and I said, ‘Oh God, wait a minute, this can’t be right, [that] you can’t love me, the church has told me that.’ And I tell people to this day that God spoke to me. A still small voice. That’s one of the few times I heard the authentic voice of God. God said, ‘Troy, don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, you’re my son. I don’t have stepsons and daughters.’ And with that I knew I was a Christian and I knew that I was still a gay man.”
From the beginning, Perry’s revelation was both religious and liberationist. Inspired by his divine moment of free consciousness, Perry knew he was not sinful and he was going to take that horseman on. He figured out that if God loved him, he must love the others too, and “that was the message to my community.” It’s hard to imagine a more potent consciousness-raiser than hearing the voice of God. Once God says, Gay Is Good, then the arguments against homosexuality are not just mistaken—they’re heresy.
Perry’s revelation was the more potent because it came against a backdrop of almost uniform hostility to homosexuality by all the institutions of Western monotheism. (Some of the most liberal San Francisco churches had started supporting the gay movement a year or two before, but that alliance was a tiny first crack in the long-standing, remorseless clerical condemnation.) Not only is the sex act that separates gays from the heterosexual majority stigmatized as sinful, but, centuries ago, the church prohibition on sodomy got absorbed into secular law, a crime with no victim in any earthly sense. The entire apparatus of criminal law—such as police sweeps and bar raids—rested on the back of the sinful horseman.
In many modern social movements, the strategy for dealing with religiously based oppression is to walk away from the sinful argument and just say, well, it’s my private behavior; you may think it’s sinful, but in the liberal state you hold your nose and tolerate it. The government has no more business criminalizing sodomy, the argument goes, than requiring everyone to eat only kosher food. Indeed, that’s the argument the gay lawyers made when they took on sodomy in the years after Stonewall.
Perry’s position—that God loves gays just like everyone else—is much stronger than the thin claim for “tolerance” and “privacy.” Perry said there must be something wrong with the way you’re reading scripture if it conflicts with God’s love. If gay sex isn’t sinful by definition, by the way, it follows that the police in the bedroom are a threat to all people’s private sex lives. And he started a Christian church, Pentecostal no less, right in the face of the most committed opponents, to stake the claim. Perry’s church was not some wishy-washy universalist kumbaya circle; belief in the Trinity is the first principle of Perry’s Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).
Maybe only Perry could have pulled it off. In 1982, Dennis Altman, one of the major theorists of the gay movement, called Perry “perhaps the most charismatic leader yet produced by the American gay movement.” Perry comes from a family of southern preachers. He heard the call to the ministry at thirteen and had been actively pursuing the Christian gospel all his life. It is typical of this mold-breaking homosexual that he thinks his character was defined by his years in the military. “Once they send you where people are shooting you, you get pretty brave,” he says. A tall, handsome, muscular, and charismatic individual, all his churches, before his coming out (and defrocking), had grown with beanstalklike speed.
After getting the Word, Perry took out an ad in the Los Angeles Advocate, announcing the first service, to be held at his home. He had a plan for people who had been thrown out of religious groups, who said they weren’t loved. Twelve people came—nine friends to comfort him when his effort failed and three new churchgoers.
Perry told the little flock that there was no such thing as hell and that God loved them. He had a simple, obvious message, which is the basic gospel of the MCC to this day. He believed, first, in Christian salvation. Second, in Christian community: if someone is hungry, feed them. Third, and more predictably, that the church strongly advocates Christian social action—go downtown with me and hold demonstrations.
Perry had some things going for him: The gay community was filled with spiritual people who had been forced out of their churches and totally without any place to turn; many of his early congregants were defrocked clergymen like himself. They were ready to believe God loved them, too, and Perry was an inspired leader. Christian salvation and Christian community seem like obvious steps.
But while Perry was explicitly modeling his effort on the inspiration of Martin Luther King Jr., gay Christian social activism was hardly a foregone conclusion. Perry’s first demonstration—in support of a man who had been fired for being homosexual—attracted ten people. In spite of Perry’s exhortation to remember the Christian position on death and resurrection, they were afraid. This was not paranoid; in early 1970 vice cops dragged a hapless homosexual from his room at LA’s Dover Hotel and beat him to death. But Perry’s first ten marchers included the militant activist Jim Kempner, the mainstay of the incomparable ONE magazine during the darkest years of the fifties, and Kempner brought, out of the past, Harry Hay. It was nine months before Stonewall.
As Perry’s church was getting off the ground, his polar opposite, the lefty union organizer and antiwar activist Morris Kight, founded the third chapter of the Gay Liberation Front in the country—GLF/LA. A few weeks later, Kight showed up at Perry’s office with the letter from the Stonewall March committee. “Troy,” Kight said, “I got this letter from New York. Maybe we could do something to celebrate this.” “They wanted a march,” Perry says, “but this is Hollywood. We have to have a PARADE!” When the odd couple went to the city to get a permit, the police chief said he’d rather have thieves and burglars marching in his town. They had to get the ACLU to file a lawsuit. The permit came just forty-eight hours before the day, so they got on the phone to all their flock. “Build floats. Bring your cars. Bring your pets!” the organizers exhorted. Twelve hundred marchers came, and tens of thousands to watch the spectacle on Hollywood Boulevard. It was the first gay parade to close the street.
The Metropolitan Community Church spread like early Christianity. From the beginning, unlike almost any other organization of the gay revolution, they met weekly; it was Sunday services after all. “First there were twelve and then twenty-four and then three hundred,” Perry remembers. Two years after Perry started, in 1971, the Metropolitan Community Church held its first service in its own building. A thousand people attended. Jews came and decided to start the first gay synagogue. By 1970, there were MCC churches in Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Chicago, and Honolulu, and enough leaders for a “federation, the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches.” Within a few years there were MCC congregations all over the world.
The MCC had the first gay-rights lobby in Washington, with an office right down the street from the Supreme Court. For two years, they were the only gay lobby in DC. During the AIDS epidemic, the MCC made buttons that read GOD IS STRONGER THAN AIDS. The church buried five thousand of its members. And then, “We ended up preaching funerals for people who were not members of MCC,” Perry says. “The parents would come to me and say would you preach my son’s funeral. We’re from Alice, Texas, and our Baptist Church wouldn’t understand.” MCC pastors went in and washed the bodies before the morticians would touch them. Today there are forty thousand members in three hundred congregations. In towns that are not obviously gay friendly, like Jacksonville, Florida, churchgoing gay people, often southerners and African Americans, find a welcoming home in the local MCC. Yet Perry still says, “If you had told me that the largest organization touching the gay community should be a church I would have called you a liar.”
Churches matter. They are part of the unofficial apparatus of social approval, so central to the gay revolution. When the movement needed resources beyond what the formal language of legal equality could provide, the MCC was there. Perry was the protester who demanded to be arrested in order to challenge California’s sodomy law. He was the plaintiff in the state same-sex marriage case. When someone had to debate fundamentalist Southern Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell, Troy Perry went. After all, he could go chapter and verse with the other reverend.
An early congregant had suggested that Perry elevate the modest surroundings of his first gatherings by wearing clerical robes. His presence in his beautiful clerical garb added a note of ritual and respectability to his most radical enterprises. For decades, when a gay delegation was invited to the White House, Perry was there. The image of the upright gentleman in his clerical collar in the White House Red Room makes arguments that no formal claim of reason can make.
Troy Perry at the White House (Photograph by Phillip De Blieck)
Criminal: Of Course, No One Wants to Defend Homosexuals
In 1963, Michael Lavery was in that temple of reason, law school, when he heard a knock on his dorm room door. Two postal inspectors were standing in the hall. Had he received a copy of ONE magazine? Or joined one of the “correspondence clubs” (a sort of early matchup service) the magazine was advertising? The post office had put a mail watch on his PO box and the inspectors knew he had.
By chance that day, Lavery’s constitutional-law class had been discussing censorship. Yes, he said and suggested to the two men in brown shoes standing in his hallway that there was a Supreme Court decision to the effect that there was nothing wrong with his receiving ONE magazine. Well the correspondence club was illegal, the postal inspectors suggested. Would Lavery like to give them any information he received by way of correspondence? Lavery, an unprepossessing-looking guy with a shy air and thin dishwater hair, said he would not. In that case, how, one inspector asked, would Lavery like his law school to know about what he was reading?
But it was 1963, not 1953. Unbeknownst to the feds, their bashful victim had already joined the antiwar movement and was appealing the denial of his status as a conscientious objector. “Well,” Lavery said, “if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.” But nothing happened to Lavery.
In 1969, Lavery, who was practicing law in New York, and his lover, Rob, went to a demonstration in Berkeley while on vacation in San Francisco. They ducked into a bookstore to escape the tear gas and picked up a copy of the alternative paper, the Berkeley Barb. There had been a riot in New York. “Something’s Happening Here,” Lavery remembers thinking. From the song. When he got home he ran right over to the first rally after Stonewall, joined Martha Shelley’s Mattachine Action Group and then the GLF and then the GAA. There, another young lawyer, Carrington Boggan, started a legal committee and then a law partnership with a third gay lawyer, Bill Thom.
The three GAA lawyers thought that their movement needed a legal arm. By 1972, the idea of a legal defense fund was hardly a brilliant insight. With its carefully structured series of escalating attacks on the Jim Crow regime in the South in the 1950s and ’60s, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund had transformed the face of America. The ACLU had played a major role in achieving legal equality for women. The third horseman of the gay apocalypse—that by virtue of the sexual desire that defined them as a minority, gay people were criminals under the sodomy laws in forty-nine states—seemed an obvious candidate for the conventional civil rights approach, asking simply to be let alone.
For some reason, the young gay lawyers took their inspiration from the Puerto Rican Defense Fund. They just scribed their incorporation papers, putting “homosexuals” wherever “Puerto Rican” appeared, and sent them in to the New York courts for approval to practice law as a benevolent or charitable corporation, as New York law allowed. They would be the Lambda Legal Defense Fund.
The New York judges didn’t think “homosexual” was a synonym for “Puerto Rican.” In a classic example of how the gay activists had a different—and harder—task than their counterparts in modern activism, the judges ruled that the homosexuals were not the same as any minority with a history of oppression. They weren’t just the wrong skin color; they were doing something wrong. Representing homosexuals was neither “benevolent” nor “charitable,” the judges ruled. Puerto Ricans couldn’t help it if they were poor and no one wanted to represent them. But if no one wanted to represent homosexuals, the court said, it was probably because they made reprehensible choices no one wanted to defend. Although there is no mention of the church, the opinion rests clearly on the clerical history of benevolent and charitable corporations. In the church-inflected world of benevolence and charity, gay sex was sin. There would be no homosexual legal defense fund in New York.
Fortunately for the gay lawyers, the higher courts had a somewhat more worldly vision of what the secular state of New York should require. Even in 1972, turning down the gay lawyers just months after approving the Puerto Ricans, and in a constitutionally sensitive area like the right to legal representation, was a recipe for reversal. The New York Court of Appeals reversed and ordered the judges below to reevaluate Lambda’s application. On reconsideration, the original judges made Thom strike from the list of the fund’s purposes the goal of encouraging more homosexuals to practice law. Their behavior was still wrong and the court did not want more of it. They let the gay lawyers incorporate, but the fight over it illustrates how far they had to go just to qualify as a garden variety … insurgent social movement.
For many years, Lambda was a sorry bunch. They worked out of Thom’s apartment. They had no money. The liberal foundations would not touch them. New York lawyers were scared to death to be identified as gay, so it was almost impossible to get volunteers. They could do only the most basic cases—representing people who were arrested, kicked out of their homes, losing their children, or being deported. They could mostly only take cases in the New York metropolitan area; they had no money for travel. Often they did not even find out about a crucial case until it had gone up on appeal and all they could do was file an amicus brief.
At that very moment, the Orthodox, Jewish, heterosexual female, improbably blond and blue-eyed Marilyn Haft had just gotten a job at the national office of the ACLU in New York. Haft was determined to make a name for herself. “Who needs me?” she thought. There was no shortage of lawyers for race cases, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to be doing a pretty good job at the Women’s Rights Project, but the gay movement was just getting started. They did not have lawyers, she noticed, just people “walking around with torn legal briefs.” She admits frankly it was not because of her passion for the gay issue—she was just trying to find a group who needed somebody to make the law for them. But she called a meeting. Carey Boggan came from Lambda, which was in its very earliest days. She also attracted Bruce Voeller, the controversial president of the GAA. Maybe the New York courts didn’t think homosexual lawyers were pure enough for incorporation, but Haft correctly figured out that the militantly secular new Playboy Foundation would be open to funding something called the “Sexual Privacy Project.” And so they did.
From the standpoint of the young gay legal movement, the ACLU was establishment. And Haft played its establishment credentials to the hilt. She used the ACLU’s legitimacy and longevity to make the next move into the establishment, appealing for help in reforming the law to the establishment institutions that governed the legal profession, the American Bar Association (ABA) and the Practicing Law Institute.
Like the American Psychiatric Association, after the Sixties, the prestigious and stodgy ABA had become the target of its younger members. The insurgent liberal lawyers were concentrated in the section of the ABA that focused on individual rights, so Haft and Boggan politicked the committee to pass a resolution saying that gay people are entitled to be protected against employment discrimination. This seemingly innocuous position was as radical as it got at the ABA in the early 1970s—Haft and her crew had to lobby the committee repeatedly to get the resolution adopted. She believes her success was due in no small part to the fact that she was a straight woman and coming from the ACLU. “There was all this women’s rights stuff going on,” she recalls. “I made a comparison to the women’s movement, I always did and I always talked about equal protection of the laws. The women’s movement was something they could understand and they could justify.” Haft and Boggan got a straight-male white-shoe lawyer from DC to coauthor their volume in the ACLU rights series, The Rights of Gay People.
An antidiscrimination resolution was okay, but the name of the game was getting rid of criminal sodomy. The Lambda lawyers knew it, Haft knew it, and the bold activists at GLF/LA knew it. As long ago as 1950, Harry Hay knew it: repealing the sodomy laws was the first campaign he imagined for his Bachelors for Wallace. If the very sexual act that distinguished gays and lesbians from the heterosexual population was criminal, everything else followed, from arresting them on the street to refusing to hire them for jobs.
Despite the threats to “out” Lavery to his law school and the gratuitous slap at Lambda for trying to recruit new gay lawyers, the days when people could be fired from their government jobs because homosexuals were believed to be inherently disloyal—the fourth horseman—were coming to an end. In 1975, the civil service lifted the prohibition on employment of gay people, which had been in effect since President Eisenhower bowed to the force of the McCarthyite storm. But as long as homosexual sex was criminal, the movement was always on the defensive. The first wave of gay activism against the regime was to separate the criminal from unassailably constitutionally protected conduct like speech and assembly in the 1958 ONE magazine case. Even if sodomy was criminal, a series of cases dealing with gay bars established that employees who might engage in criminal sodomy still had the right to gather in bars in the hours when they weren’t at work.
Sooner or later, however, the issue was going to have to be attacked directly. As usual, California led the way. In May 1974, LA’s Morris Kight and Albert Gordon, a straight lawyer with a gay son, organized the Felons 6—a gay male couple, a lesbian couple, and a heterosexual couple (the sodomy law there, as in many jurisdictions, applied to everyone, gay or not)—to confess that they recently had committed sodomy. Kight made a citizen’s arrest and took the criminals to the local precinct, where the police refused to arrest them. Finally, the whole crew went to the district attorney, who issued a statement that “it is the policy of our office not to file criminal charges where consenting adults, in private, engage in sexual acts which might be considered violations of the penal law.” (The district attorney thus saved himself from throwing one of the self-described felonious gay men, the Reverend Troy Perry, Pentecostal head of the thousand-plus member Metropolitan Community Church, in the slammer.) In 1975, the California legislature repealed the sodomy law.
The Felons 6 strategy, like much American social history since the sit-in at the Greensboro lunch counter, worked by forcing the establishment to enforce its discriminatory laws—or to back down. It was a media-based strategy; the Felons 6 had a posse of media with them at every stage of the sodomy-in. California was much further along in the process of treating its gay residents like citizens than New York was. Instead of dancing away like Mayor Lindsay’s police commissioner did and then raiding their bars, the Los Angeles police just didn’t enforce the sodomy laws, period. By 1975, California gays had enough muscle to get a repeal enacted through the agency of representative government, the legislature.
At about the same time as the Felons 6, a rising Lambda Legal found a courageous individual to defend himself against New York’s manifestly unconstitutional loitering statute, one of the superficially neutral laws the police used to regulate gay public life. When the prosecutor realized he was going to have to go to trial, he dropped the charges. Undaunted, the young legal-defense fund sued the state to declare the statute unconstitutional, but the court declined to hear it on grounds that the plaintiff was in no danger of being prosecuted. Although the authorities denied the gay activists a clear-cut victory in both cases, the tactic was working to force the authorities to keep attesting to the fact that they would not enforce the antigay laws.
In 1980, the highest court of the state of New York struck down the New York sodomy laws as unconstitutional. Lambda, by then ensconced in an office at the New York Civil Liberties Union and beginning its ramp up to a big national law firm, led the friends of the court in shaping the argument. The New York decision came five years after sodomy-law repeal in California and a court decision is never as politically weighty as a legislative act, but the decriminalization of homosexuality seemed to be under way.
Subversive: The Time Had Come for Mainstream Politics
But the hardest job still lay ahead. In a democracy, no conversion of psychiatrists, establishment of churches, or even court victories is ultimately enough. Calling gay people traitors—the fourth horseman—meant more than just keeping them out of the State Department. By 1969, “McCarthyism” was a political dirty word. But Communists or not, gay men and women were still treated as unfit to be full citizens of the American democracy—their elected governments paid no attention to their needs; unless they were closeted, they were not officeholders—they were not even candidates. When Stonewall erupted, no governing body in the nation included a publicly gay member. Yet the gay revolution needed more from the government than simply to be left alone. Gays were going to need affirmative protections for the basic human enterprises—love and work. Sooner or later, the dramatic and amazing new gay movement was going to have to stop parading around and zapping and start acting like any other participants in the democratic process—raising money, electing their friends, and punishing their enemies. Protected against violence and with private sex lives, they were still going to have to claim the third principle of the liberal state, democratic self-governance.
In 1969, as movement polemicist Carl Wittman was putting the last touches on his jeremiad on San Francisco as a refugee camp from “Amerika,” the refugees began to take over the camp. Ladylike California state senator Dianne Feinstein, Jewish, conventional, daughter of a doctor and wife (serially) of several wealthy men, was the improbable game changer. Feinstein ventured into politics back in the late 1960s when she ran for San Francisco’s city council, the Board of Supervisors. In those days, the eleven-member board was elected citywide, six in one election and five in the next. Such a system put a high premium on coalition building, as there was no one group in San Francisco large enough to carry an election by itself. Feinstein had two unenviable support groups—Jews, who were not numerous, and women, who were not reliable. So, at the advice of Morris “Mo” Bernstein, fight promoter and classic political wheeler-dealer, the refined Mrs. Feinstein sought out the assistance of the new gay organization the Society for Individual Rights (SIR).
And did she get it! Money, volunteer workers, votes; not since gay waiter José Sarria had temporarily abandoned his role as Carmen to run for office in 1961 had the gay community turned out in such numbers. Once they turned their attention to politics, they were really smart about it. Jim Foster, head of the SIR political committee, knew that to succeed in a multicandidate election, you concentrate all your votes on the candidate you really care about. Forget the other five. The gay movement didn’t have five candidates who had sought their support in 1969. They had Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein was elected with the most votes of anyone running and thus became, in her first term, the powerful president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. (In 1992, Feinstein became a United States senator.)
Foster was one of the many socially privileged guys who landed in the gay revolution after being radicalized by the gay-hunters in the army. Halfway through his obligatory stint in 1959, Foster, a Brown University graduate from a Republican family, got the full military treatment: interrogation, demand for names, dishonorable discharge. In San Francisco, Foster joined forces with Rick Stokes, who was making a fortune as the owner of the city’s most popular bathhouse. In 1971, they were joined by Wall Street star David Goodstein, whom Wells Fargo bank had recruited to California only to fire him when they found out he was gay. In 1974, Goodstein used some of his Wall Street money to buy the Advocate, the largest gay publication in the country. As San Francisco transformed itself from a largely manufacturing and port city, educated gay men came pouring into town, taking jobs in the new service sector that was emerging. The San Francisco gay community recognized that they had a collective grievance against society, they threw up strong leaders like Jim Foster, and they gave him sufficient resources, such as Goodstein and Stokes could command. All the elements of a successful social movement were in place.
Winning the supervisor race for Feinstein was just the beginning for the angry gay men. Foster’s next idea was to organize a gay Democratic club. California was fertile soil for clubs, because, as in most western states, the turn-of-the-century Progressive Movement had weakened the power of formal political parties. In 1953, energized by Adlai Stevenson’s presidential run, a group of California activists established a formal structure for such clubs, the California Democratic Council. The CDC quickly became a kind of parallel Democratic Party, convening, cheekily, when the formal state Democratic Party had its convention. And they began to win elections, putting a Democrat in San Francisco City Hall in 1964 and launching the career of the inimitable Willie Brown, the first African American speaker of the California State Assembly.
On February 14, Valentine’s Day, 1972, the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club held its first meeting. The dues were two dollars a year. Schoolteacher Gary Miller, later club president, but then just a grunt, remembers thinking, “What? We can join the Democratic Party?!” Having two statewide organizations—the regular party organization and the club council—was a crucial element in the success of the San Francisco gay movement. Stokes ran for office unsuccessfully, but finished respectably and, perhaps more important, the club ran at least one person for the board of the Democratic Party organization. The Foster troika immediately plucked counterculture favorite, lefty, antiwar, civil rights advocate Richard Hongisto from the police force, where he was, to put it mildly, languishing, and pushed him for sheriff. In 1972, the city passed an ordinance forbidding people holding contracts with the city from discriminating against gays and lesbians.
For many years, no liberals ran for office in San Francisco without a stop at the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club. The California club structure also explains in part why the gay revolution in California took such a different path from its counterpart in New York. There were Democratic clubs in New York, and they had substantial success in organizing against the old New York party machine. But the New York clubs were organized according to the districts represented in the New York State Assembly. So New York gays had a much harder time generating identity-politics special interest clubs.
The myth of Stonewall, so powerful in New York, is but a faint presence in this idyllic setting. Carol Ruth Silver, later a supervisor herself, but then working for the newly elected Sheriff Hongisto, tells a story of being assigned to take special care of the homosexual people who happened to be jailed in his jurisdiction. The last thing they wanted was another Stonewall. They didn’t even want to go to the Stonewall birthday party. On June 28, 1970, there were a few hundred people in Golden Gate Park for a “gay-in.” “We knew it had happened,” Gary Miller remembers, “but it was not part of our consciousness.” San Francisco gays were already moving to claim the benefits of the liberal state through conventional politics. They really didn’t think they needed a parade.
When the presidential primary rolled around in 1972, Foster mobilized his new organization for the liberal George McGovern. Knowing that California rules rewarded the top spot on the primary ballot to the person who got his nominating petitions in first, Foster organized gays to register voters and sign McGovern petitions at bars all over San Francisco the night before the petitions were due. When the secretary of state’s office opened the next morning, gays had secured McGovern enough signatures to score the top line on the ballot. On July 12, 1972, Foster became the first openly gay person ever to address a national political convention.
New York Makes Politics Outside the Liberal State
Without a structure for penetrating the Democratic Party like the California club movement, the New York gay activists faced the much more daunting task of mainstreaming their liberationists. In 1973, the GAA elected property-owning, previously married father of two, Rockefeller University biologist Bruce Voeller to be their next president. Voeller must have been more than a trifle alarmed when he looked around at a GAA meeting right after he took office and saw one of the loudest of the liberation front founders, leather-clad provocateur Jim Fouratt. When the Gay Liberation Front imploded shortly after GAA broke off, it unexpectedly catapulted the loose activists right into the organization formed to escape them. In no time, GAA was arguing over everything and meeting until the wee hours.
GAA barely made it into 1973 when Voeller and a handful of other bourgeois professionals abandoned the increasingly disorderly mass organization to organize a new group—open this time by invitation only. They had had it with the cross-dressing queens whom the sensation-seeking media quickly elevated to representatives of the gay movement. Despite his long blond hair and beard, Voeller wasn’t all that interested in liberation. He just wanted gay people not to be fired from their jobs. And he didn’t think the costumes were helping.
Transgender activists, three decades later leading their own militant identity movement and demanding the support of the gay and lesbian establishment, attribute the divide to this development. How did it come to be, they ask, reasonably, that a movement revived in part by the queens at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 found them unpalatable allies so soon afterward? As soon as the formerly despised gay men got a little power, they developed a heavily masculine presentation of self, leaving little space for their comrades who also challenged norms of gender.
Like their garb, Voeller’s new organization, the National Gay Task Force, was boring. Members were expected to pay dues, not just show up at the firehouse for a dance and the occasional protest. The organization was going to be run by its board, which, like most boards, would be expected to raise money. Voeller and his establishment cronies intended to hire a paid staff, and to lobby for legislation in New York; for the first time the new movement also set its eyes on Congress.
The gay social movement thus began to enact the most conventional movement script. The early charismatic leadership like the Gay Liberation Front (“Sweet! Bullshit! [Force is] the only language that the pigs understand!”) gave way to conventional qualifications for office—education and money. People called the Task Force the “doctors’ group” and Voeller and his colleagues were indeed doctors, the PhD being soon joined by Mayor Lindsay’s former public health commissioner, the newly outed Dr. Howard Brown, and the original gay PhD, Franklin Kameny. Being educated or wealthy or both, such new leaders occupied an elite status that separated them from their membership. The Advocate accused the new group of “aping high class values.” Arthur Evans told the new leaders they should just call their group the Gay Professional Association. One by one, the old activists drifted away—Arthur Evans moved to San Francisco, where he took up with a spiritually oriented group, the fairy circle, and devoted himself to neighborhood politics; attendance at GAA meetings went way down; someone set fire to the firehouse.
The Task Force was not clearly destined for survival. Despite singular and repeated efforts, the city council of its own liberal cosmopolis kept rejecting the proposed gay civil rights ordinance. Its fund-raising efforts were anemic; the larger society was experiencing a robust and hostile conservative revival. It didn’t even have a proper lobbying office in DC, using the Metropolitan Community Church’s Washington office when it came to town. The New York group did not have the comfortable model of political organizing the Californians stepped right into.
Yet the Task Force limped along. People gave modest contributions. New York congresswoman Bella Abzug introduced a gay civil rights bill in Congress. It wasn’t the most popular bill to say the least, but a marker had been laid down. Whenever “official” gay representation was required, people turned to the Task Force. They connected with activists in other cities, as the title “national” implied. It was—briefly—the only national game around.
And it managed to achieve that rarest of accomplishments: a long-term political alliance between gay men and lesbian women. One day in 1975, former nun and lesbian activist, the small but feisty Jean O’Leary showed up in Voeller’s office. Voeller had had little good history with O’Leary, who had led the lesbian women out of the GAA during his tenure as president and into a splinter movement, Lesbian Feminist Liberation (LFL). After two years with the LFL movement, O’Leary was ready for a little coalition politics.
The feminist lesbians who came back to the Task Force were not your Stonewall-era Radicalesbians. They had now had five or six years’ experience successfully fighting the homophobia in the feminist movement. Feminist mother of us all Betty Friedan, who had called lesbians the “lavender menace,” had been pushed out of National Organization for Women (NOW), and the lesbians were firmly ensconced in the formerly hetero-only institution, maybe the first nongay political organization in history with lesbians firmly ensconced. Voeller and O’Leary shared an office. Within a year, she was cochairing the Task Force with Voeller and the group had passed a resolution that their board would always be fifty-fifty male and female.
The Task Force was by no means an edenic exception to the constant strain of gender politics. Many of Voeller’s male board members objected strenuously to the quota system on the board. (Let the best man win, they said.) The lesbian feminists immediately began holding angry potluck suppers in Brooklyn to plot strategy for greater influence in the organization. Still, the conventional social behavior and agenda of the Task Force men removed a real source of strain with the women, most of whom did not like the rowdy promiscuous male sexuality of the liberation movement. For an important stretch, the alliance held.
And the lesbians helped the men move toward the mainstream. O’Leary was lovers with Democratic activist Midge Costanza, not publicly out, who became the president’s assistant for public liaison when Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election. Thus it was O’Leary who arranged for the first homosexuals to present their political demands at a White House meeting. (As O’Leary told it, “I rolled over in bed and said, ‘So, when are we going to the White House?’ ”) The president was not there and none of the issues the Task Force delegation presented got anywhere during Carter’s only term. But it was a photo op: Homosexuals at the White House. And just seven years before, the New York police had been carting them off from the Stonewall and tossing them in the slammer. The Task Force was doing pretty well.
The Ultimate Mainstream: Taking a Lesson from the Republicans
By the late 1970s, the American “mainstream” had moved so far to the right that acceptance by the Democratic Party was getting the gay movement no traction; nobody really wanted a meeting with Jimmy Carter. And the gay movement had just the character to take it further to the right: California’s David Goodstein. Goodstein had long been a voice against the people he called “spoilers,” meaning the weirdly dressed, angry spokesmen the media loved to feature when any gay issue was on the table. Goodstein did not play well with others. The preeminence of the National Gay Task Force (NGTF), which he did not control, was a real thorn in his side. Since he couldn’t buy the Task Force, in 1976 he called an invitation-only conference of gay activists, putting them all up at a fancy hotel at his expense. When his handpicked troops were gathered, Goodstein proposed something new, the Gay Rights National Lobby (GRNL), to be located in Washington, DC, like a proper lobby, and targeted at law reform. No more perching on a desk at the Metropolitan Community Church DC office for Goodstein’s group. No more costumes. Good plan, the gathering concluded. After the conference voted to establish the lobby, however, the uniquely ungrateful invitees organized it to be just the kind of radical organization Goodstein despised, with a huge, unmanageable board and all kinds of democratic accountability. In a heartbeat, Goodstein decided not to fund it.
With this inauspicious beginning, the Gay Rights National Lobby was launched. Within a couple of years it was pretty broke. But luckily for the gay revolution, one of those natural young political operatives who fuel all political movements, Steve Endean, was at loose ends. Endean, a slight winsome collegiate type, had come out of the gay-friendly precincts of the University of Minnesota to spend a couple of frustrating years trying to get some local gay civil rights law passed. In 1978 he had about given up on Minnesota possibilities and agreed to take on the defunct GRNL. Living hand to mouth in DC on donations from anonymous donors and from the brochures he put around dirty-book stores, little by agonizing little, Endean actually began to build a lobbying operation. The Task Force, which by then was in the hundred thousand dollar budget range, did not see the competition coming. After all, there had been no breach, which was the usual pattern for the gay revolution, just this Minnesota kid and some unreliable donors. But little by little the more establishment lobby began to occupy the rich soil on the right.
In 1980, Endean decided to imitate the Republican election machine and start a gay political action committee (PAC). If the gay lobby couldn’t convince the existing legislators to support gay rights, maybe they should start electing people who would. After all, that’s what the Republicans had just done in the 1980 election. By then Endean knew some gay millionaires other than Goodstein (whom he loathed). Together, Endean and his gay plutocrats founded the Human Rights Campaign Fund (HRC-F), a gay PAC with no mention of homosexuality in its title. And so in a decade, the gay movement went from the leather-clad SDS alums of the Gay Liberation Front to an elite club of the richest gay men in America—what San Francisco social chronicler Armistead Maupin called the “A-gays”—meatpacking heir James Hormel, the impossible David Goodstein, even a Republican, beer heir Dallas Coors. A-gays in LA had been meeting at one another’s fancy homes for several years now. A handful of courageous California pols even stopped by to make speeches (and raise money). HRC-F took it national. The blockbuster black-tie gay fund-raiser was born.
The Milk Machine
As Goodstein and the others were tying the ties and setting out the champagne buckets, a very different phenomenon was developing in San Francisco’s Castro District: the rise of Harvey Milk. As happens so often in America, the course of events was ultimately determined by a madman with a gun; in 1979 fellow San Francisco supervisor Dan White shot and killed Milk, the first out gay member of San Francisco’s city council, the Board of Supervisors. Had Milk lived, gay politics might have transformed America for everyone. But he did not live. So we must be content with what he did achieve.
Milk was more than an elected official. He was a phenomenon. His election put a genuinely charismatic gay figure squarely in the public spotlight just as California felt the full impact of the religious attack on the new gay movement. Forty-six weeks after being elected he was also a martyr, gunned down, alongside San Francisco’s liberal mayor, by a conservative, disgruntled ex-colleague. Memorialized by the premier chronicler of gay life in America, Randy Shilts, in his book The Mayor of Castro Street, Milk then became a martyred phenomenon. His martyrdom accelerated the process of gay political participation exponentially. “If you had given Harvey the choice of living long and thriving or being martyred to advance your cause like the suicide bombers,” his friend and political ally, Carol Ruth Silver, says, “he probably would have said dying was worth it.”
No one better exemplifies the transformative power of charisma—the elusive quality of outsize spiritual and rhetorical leadership—than Harvey Milk. Charisma fell out of fashion in social movement theory with the rise of economic analysis of politics in the 1960s. Thinkers tended to emphasize the mobilization of resources like Goodstein’s money and changes in the cost-benefit analysis of acting, as when the Sixties fractured the self-confidence of the governing elites. But the role of the charismatic leader with a powerful relationship to his followers reemerged in the scholarship with the appearance of movements, like the gay revolution, that could not be explained by the cold-blooded calculus of economics alone. The charismatic leader fit comfortably with the emphasis of new movement theory on emotional motivations and the role of common identities in motivating people to act, and Harvey Milk was charisma incarnate.
Milk, a tall, dark-eyed New York Jew with a nose job, arrived in San Francisco in 1972 as part of the flood of gay men in the seventies, drawn by the city’s long history as an open city and by the growth of the service and tourism economy. Many of them wound up in the Castro, a formerly Catholic ethnic working-class enclave somewhat removed from San Francisco’s glamorous downtown. The Castro was the perfect gay colony—cheap housing, left behind as the working class fled the newly white-collar city, and a dense commercial central corridor, perfect for meeting and greeting. Always a theatrical personality, before coming to San Francisco Milk had tried on a number of roles: navy man, teacher, financial analyst, and theatrical producer. Being really smart, he was successful at most of them, so when he decided to chuck all convention and move to Castro Street, he had a little cushion. Milk, at fortysomething, was almost twice as old as the other cool gays walking down the newly colonized gay Castro neighborhood in their tight jeans. But he did bring his current lover, the perennially younger man of the moment, Scott Smith. Scotty and Harvey opened a camera store in an old Castro storefront, just to do something, not that they knew anything about cameras.
By the time Milk surfaced, historians estimate that somewhere between 20 and 25 percent of the population of San Francisco was gay. As the gay migrants flooded in, they were greeted with every imaginable inducement to register to vote. The bars were registering gay voters; the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club was registering gay voters. As Carol Ruth Silver puts it bluntly, “Gays were the most reliable liberal voters in town.”
Milk was, by all accounts, the best natural politician the gay revolution has ever produced. Before a year was up, streams of local residents were stopping into the camera store for help with potholes of every stripe and for advice on their personal lives. Never the soul of patience, Milk, the newcomer, unknown and unsupported, decided to run for supervisor. He ran on a genuinely liberal platform—protecting the neighborhoods against the increasingly rapacious San Francisco real estate developers, getting enough money to the schools, and legalizing marijuana.
The upstart candidate soon attracted the attention of the power brokers at the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club. The cautious, reform-minded lawyers and media moguls had a somewhat more gradual plan than Milk did—cultivating liberal allies and slowly infiltrating the political process by running for tiny obscure offices. The wealthy establishment gays at Alice were comfortable with the limousine liberalism of someone like Dianne Feinstein, then president of the Board of Supervisors, and cozy with the real estate developers and the like. If someone was going to break the heterosexual barrier, it wasn’t going to be a guy who still sounded like the New York upstart Harvey Milk. Milk, Jim Stokes explained to him, you can’t join a church and expect your first job to be pope. Milk lost. Within two years, in alliance with the Teamsters, Milk got the gay bars to support the union boycott of Coors beer and founded the merchants association of Castro Street—and a rival Democratic club, the San Francisco Democratic Club. In 1975 he ran again and lost and ran for state office and lost.
Then Milk caught a break. All eleven supervisors had always run citywide, an arrangement that benefited the most well-funded coalition builders and the establishment interests like the downtown developers. In 1976, a coalition of more liberal forces pushed through a referendum to divide the city into geographical districts for board elections. In 1977, on his fourth try, Milk, who had always carried the Castro neighborhood, won the election to represent the new Castro district. At every stage of his political rise, Milk broadened the reach of the Milk Machine, particularly with the still robust representatives of organized labor in that longtime labor town, but also with the environmentalists, the dope smokers, and the prostitutes’ union, Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics (C.O.Y.O.T.E.).
Milk’s life and brief tenure mark a shift in the story of the gay revolution, particularly in California. First, because he had the nerve to run for high office as an out gay candidate, he greatly accelerated the process of gay participation in San Francisco elections. From the midseventies, the votes were there, but the Alice folks were too timid to take advantage of the change, and their old-fashioned culture—hillside mansions, suited professionals—would never have made a mass movement out of the blue-jeaned throngs cruising the Castro. It took a leader like Milk—old enough to be serious but hip enough to be relevant—to mobilize the electoral power of the new San Francisco gays. His club, renamed the Harvey Milk Democratic Club after his assassination, claims to be the largest Democratic club in California.
Second, because Milk was in office, the gay community had the advantage of his charisma, energy, and political skills when California faced its first challenge from the surging forces of the newly energized religious right. It was a scary moment. In an unrelated development in 1978, President Jimmy Carter’s Internal Revenue Service suggested stringent regulation of the formerly tax-sheltered all-white private schools, affectionately known as “segregation academies,” that had sprung up after the Supreme Court ordered the desegregation of public schools in 1954. The religious right sprang into political action almost overnight. Once on the political scene, the believers found many things not to like: abortion, the curtailment of school prayer, and the handful of gay antidiscrimination ordinances passed in liberal cities or college towns where the Task Force had gotten a little traction. The right found its antigay voice in the person of singer and evangelical Anita Bryant, who started an organization called, effectively, Save Our Children. In short order, Dade County, Florida; Wichita, Kansas; and the college town of Eugene, Oregon, all repealed their gay civil rights laws. The morally grounded gay revolution met another movement of moral certainty and the battle was joined.
California state senator John Briggs thought an antigay initiative would be just the thing to advance his gubernatorial ambitions. Since there was no gay civil rights act for him to repeal in California yet, he decided to go on the offensive and get the gay teachers tossed out of their jobs. Had Briggs succeeded in California, the gay revolution, already staggering under the force of the recent religious revival, might have been set back for decades. But he did not. The successful fight against the Briggs initiative had the proverbial parentage. Former antiwar activist and just-out political guru David Mixner and David Goodstein ran a perfect conventional fight, involving a heterosexual campaign manager and the invaluable endorsement of ex-governor Ronald Reagan. But Milk gets a big piece of the credit, too. He deployed his now signature volunteer-based door-to-door precinct machine in San Francisco, arguing that nothing would be worse than losing a gay fight in San Francisco. The precinct-working Milk strategy set the pattern for any successful resistance to popular antigay initiatives from then on. It might not guarantee success, but, as gay activists would learn and relearn, they cannot win without it.
Milk’s death, like his life, too, changed the story of the gay revolution. The night the jury let Dan White off for Milk’s murder with a trivial sentence for manslaughter, the gay community erupted in a bloody and violent march, culminating in a siege of San Francisco City Hall and hand-to-hand combat between the police and gays swinging tree branches and parking meters. By daybreak there was not an intact pane of glass in the symbol of civic governance. Smoldering police cars lined the streets. “Avenge Harvey Milk,” the signs said. Once again, almost exactly ten years after Stonewall, gay citizens had to resort to violence to stake their claim to the social contract. If the state did not protect their lives by punishing their killers, they would take revenge themselves. No state can survive if a significant segment of its population does not agree to yield private vengeance to the promise of public justice. It’s the oldest political lesson in the book.
But unlike the angry Stonewall rioters, San Francisco gays were registered to vote. They turned their political wrath on the politicians they held responsible for White’s light sentence: they retired the district attorney who unsuccessfully prosecuted White as well as every member of the Board of Supervisors except Milk’s gay successor, Harry Britt. The liberal establishment had to pass the first big-city gay civil rights law in the country. Thereafter gay candidates and balanced tickets were synonymous in the city by the bay.
In death, Milk became an icon. Randy Shilts chronicled his life. He was immediately the subject of a documentary. Eventually he ascended to the realm of the Hollywood biopic with Milk. Milk was so charismatic and hardworking and clever and energetic, it is not a stretch to imagine him as the mayor of San Francisco, and thus the first gay mayor of any American city, large or small. Had Milk lived, the genuinely populist coalition he started could have transformed that city and been a model for a revived liberal politics everywhere.
Instead, the Alice Club’s reform-minded gradualists, funded and to some extent dominated by the wealthy David Goodstein, recaptured control of the important San Francisco branch of the gay movement. The substance of their agenda moved to the right—they just wanted to be included in the gentrification of San Francisco instead of being allied with labor and other marginal groups to make the process more just for everyone. As America moved to the right and the seventies drew to a close, gays were not idealistic insurgents, but part of the California political establishment. Maybe it’s just as well. They were soon going to need every weapon they had.