May 20, 2013
Gay Marriage: From Stonewall to Albany
Posted on Jun 27, 2011
By Larry Gross
Twoscore and two years ago an urban riot in New York’s Greenwich village became the symbol of a new movement for liberation [see accompanying article on Stonewall], so it is fitting that crowds gathered at the site of the Stonewall Inn to celebrate Friday’s historic vote by which New York became the largest state to legislatively approve marriage equality for lesbian and gay citizens.
The struggle for GLBT rights did not begin at Stonewall—that honor, if it is to be awarded to a particular place and particular persons, probably goes to a small gathering of leftist gay men in Los Angeles who founded the Mattachine Society in 1950—but symbols are important, and just as Stonewall became the embodiment of militant queer activism, so too New York’s action last week signifies more than just one more state added to the list of those permitting same-sex marriage.
The first full-scale polemic for equality, Donald Webster Cory’s “The Homosexual in America: A Subjective Approach,” was published in 1951. Cory presented a forceful argument that homosexuals constitute a minority within American society: “Our minority status is similar, in a variety of respects, to that of national, religious and other ethnic groups: in the denial of civil liberties; in the legal, extra-legal and quasi-legal discrimination; in the assignment of an inferior social position; in the exclusion from the mainstream of life and culture.”
In a 1963 follow-up book, “The Homosexual and His Society: A View From Within,” written with John LeRoy, Cory restated his thesis “that the invert is a member of a minority group, differing from ethnic and other minorities essentially in that his status as a minority group is unrecognized,” and celebrated the “feeling of group recognition [that] has grown among these people,” leading to the launching “of a struggle for the rights guaranteed to all citizens of a free democratic society.” Describing the beginnings of that movement in “small secret underground groups,” Cory and LeRoy note, “With diminishing secrecy, several distinct groups and societies have found their way on the American scene, fighting a legal, social and political battle in order to help win public acceptance for the invert and his way of life.”
By the early 1960s, movement leaders emerged who were inspired by the civil rights movement to proclaim that “gay is good!” They began taking their struggle to the streets, demonstrating in front of government buildings and demanding an end to laws that criminalized gay people and promoted discrimination and harassment. The gay liberation movement in the Stonewall era was a child of its times, inspired by the civil rights, the anti-war and women’s movements, and it shared a belief in the possibility of radical social transformation. Gay liberation was seen as part of the full spectrum of radical social change that the period celebrated, challenging and overturning conventional norms and expectations. Like these other movements, it was also largely a movement of young people, less invested in the status quo and more willing and able to take risks. And risky it was, as homosexual acts were illegal in all but one state, and gay people could be fired or denied housing or access to public accommodation without any legal recourse. Thus, among the first goals of the liberation movement was the achievement of basic civil rights; here, too, the analogy to the civil rights movement and the recently passed Civil Rights Act was explicit.
The movement that burst into flames across the country after the Stonewall riots followed in the model of all American minority movements by building its strength in big cities, where the concentration of numbers could translate into voting blocs and financial support for friendly politicians. Eventually, as in the election of Harvey Milk—one of the first openly gay elected officials in the country—to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, concentrated political power in big cities resulted in the enactment of city ordinances prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The early successes of the gay movement were quick to bring a reaction from a religious right that was newly energized as a political force after the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. In 1977 orange juice spokesperson and former Miss America second runner-up Anita Bryant led a campaign to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance in Florida’s Dade County. The campaign, under the name Save Our Children (as Bryant put it, “They [homosexuals] can’t reproduce, so they have to recruit”), was successful, and set the tone for similar fights across the country.
In California, state Sen. John Briggs failed in an attempt to outlaw homosexual teachers, in part because labor joined forces with gay activists to defeat the measure. Even former Gov. Ronald Reagan opposed Brigg’s Proposition 6. But the lines were soon to be drawn more starkly, as the Republican Party soon cemented an alliance with the religious right that put anti-gay policies, along with opposition to reproductive rights, at the center of its social agenda.
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