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Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement


Marc Stein


New York & London: Routledge, 2012

Paperback. 240 pages ISBN: 978-041587409. $26.95


Reviewed by Antoine Servel

Université François Rabelais - Tours



Marc Stein is Professor of History and Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies at York University, Ontario, Canada. He has already written a large number of books on American History and gay and lesbian history and is the editor-in-chief of the three-volume Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History in America (New York: Scribners, 2003).

Reading the title of the book, Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement, the reader immediately wonders if there is indeed room for rethinking a movement whose history has been largely documented. Marc Stein quickly answers this question in the introduction. The gay and lesbian movement needs rethinking in the “context of decades of change and continuity” [2]. He places his work as heir to Jonathan Katz, Toby Marotta and John D'Emilio's books, and considers the huge amount of resources available now to LGBT researchers as both inspirations and sources for their work. His own research is first “a way to synthetize what we know, reflect on what we do not know and think about what we might want to know in the future” [2], but also a way to both “help address the widespread lack of knowledge about that history,” and convince people of its relevance and significance” [3]. It aims at placing that history in both the personal history of LGBT people who might not have access to models and the history of the US, as it “can help us understand how our world has come to exist, what alternative worlds are imaginable for the future, and how we might get from here to there” [3]. Finally he argues that his book is dedicated to those who fight every day to “promote equality, freedom and justice,” and need support [4].

That being said, the author quite cleverly explains key terms and parameters. He gives a clear and simple description of the difference between homophile, gay and queer, as well as the definition of what he considers is a movement : “[it is] an organized, collective, and sustained effort to produce, prevent, or reverse social change” [9]. He distinguishes between “movement” and “resistance,” which is not organized and can sometimes not be part of a movement. Another particularly enlightening element of the introduction is the acknowledgment by the author that the movement has been predominantly led by “gender-normative middle-class white men”; that information is completed many times in the book and provided me with insight on the topic of class and sexual identities in capitalist society that is the core of my own research. Marc Stein insists that being critical of the movement does not mean rejecting its achievements but simply putting them into perspective.

For the LGBT Studies teacher, the book may be thought of as pedagogical material. From the preliminary explanations to the six chapters, divided in unequal subchapters targeting particular events or analyses, the reader is given a more than thorough account of the history of gay and lesbian movements. It is also to be noted that Marc Stein, although he does insist that he will not tackle transgender or bisexual rights, does it anyway when it is relevant, especially during the years of gay liberation and gender transgression. At the end of the book, suggestions for further reading are given, once again organized in 26 themes (“General Studies of US Gay and Lesbian History,” “World War II,” “Science, Medicine and Psychiatry,” “Lesbian Feminism” etc.)

Chapter One, entitled “Before the Movement,” provides a good summary of previous works, such as those of John Katz and Vern L. Bullough, and starts with a presentation of the Berdaches as a way to introduce the link between gender and homosexuality, more commonly referred to as a third sex, an assertion that was at the core of both medical institutions and early movements. The pages that were most interesting to me were those presenting the growth of industrial capitalism and the way it changed sexuality. The few paragraphs on US anarchists were also very clear and enlightening, notably those on Emma Goldman, who in the 1910s supported “Uranians” as part of the Human family but who on the other hand rejected lesbians as being a “crazy lot” for being antagonist to men.

Presenting the Prohibition as one of the pivotal events that led to the creation of gay and lesbian bar culture, Stein contributes greatly to the current research in the field. The fight with the State Liquor Authority proved successful in altering the face of activism, “[changing] an older strategy of resistance which consisted of denying that the authorities had proven that homosexuals were served at the bar with a newer and boarder strategy, which asserted that as long as homosexuals were neither diseased or disorderly, there was no legal basis for the actions of the authorities” [37].

Chapter Two, entitled “Homophile activism,” endeavors to reexamine the well-known events that led to the creation of homosexual movements, such as Dr. Kinsey’s research, and early homophile groups such as the Young Socialists, or the Veterans Benevolent Association and the Knights of the Clock. Stein also shows contradictions inside the movement that are still relevant today. Gay bars and entrepreneurs financially supported the movement and referred clients to them, but the movement did not want to be associated with consumption, as most of its members were positioned on the left. Gender was also an issue, as some activists considered being gender-normative as the only way to get acceptance, while others wanted to question gender roles. Marc Stein also presents the birth of the first widespread movements such as the Mattachine Society and its ideological and conservative shift, to the more community-building oriented Society for Human Rights as a parallel to the growth of gay and lesbian consumption venues.

Marc Stein covers the 1960s, which are frequently forgotten in LGBT history books, and he cleverly explains the evolution of the movement with mainstream movements continuing and extending their political orientation and actions (public education mostly) and their fear of direct political actions, the growing feminist discontent, the rise of gay community businesses and the rise of more assertive gay rights groups such as the Mattachine DC, and Vanguard.

Chapter Three does not miss its point either. Marc Stein gives a thorough analysis of the liberation movements of the 1970s. He clarifies the reasons for the 1969 Stonewall riots, insisting on the influence of all the homophile movements gathering homosexuals around ideals of equality and outrage; looking at the influence of the Civil Rights movement’s consumer protest traditions, as well as at the radicalization of Americans, leaving behind the death of Judy Garland, which has often been referred to as one of the triggers.

The author then describes the different gay and lesbian liberation movements, presenting their beliefs in a “third world gay revolution,” fighting against racism, sexism and capitalism. Marc Stein provides a description of the members of the liberation movements, predominantly white but more multiracial than the homophile movement. He shows how the movement found its strength in its racial, class, gender diversity, and how that same diversity led to its dismembering. He also presents the rise of the gay-oriented liberal activism of the Gay Activists Alliance, and this movement’s need to “defend, liberate and expand gay and lesbian territories.” [89]

Chapter Four is arguably the most interesting one. What makes Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement such an essential book is the fact that its author does not neglect any part of history. This chapter, entitled “Conservative Backlash,” provides crucial elements to understand both the following decade’s health crisis and today’s division on homosexuality in America.

Stein explains that “the expanded gay and lesbian economy challenged the heterosexism of capitalism but strengthened bourgeois consumerism,” and that “the cultural changes that occurred in the 70s made it seem less necessary and desirable to participate in the movement” [119]. He insists however, on the influence of business owners and cultural leaders who wanted to be agents of change but at the same time distanced themselves from political radicalism. Although the book is extremely well documented, sometimes the author tends to give us a whole list of events, and that makes it a bit hard to follow. Maybe one or two carefully chosen elements would have been enough.

In this chapter, he successfully presents the rise of a two-faced America. On the one hand, the movement was expanding, mostly thanks to this newly-found consumer culture, and on the other hand, other people felt alienated by the changes and found answers in the Christian Right, that would get access to the White House with Ronald Reagan in 1981. That polarization of America characterized the answer to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

Chapter Five presents the situation in the 1980s, in which LGBT communities had to face both the AIDS crisis and the Republican Party backlash. This chapter ingeniously presents the way the lack of response from the government (simultaneously refusing to react to the crisis and also blocking most gay legislation) gave birth to a new form of power in the form of ACT UP, but also caused a reinvention of relationships, from safe sex to (heteronormative) monogamy, and the need for the gay and lesbian community to acknowledge its diversity.

Building its successes and failures in the 1980s and influenced by the transformations brought by AIDS, the gay and lesbian movement achieved unprecedented social and sexual change in the last decade of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first. At the same time, the movement changed so significantly that it becomes much more difficult to talk about a gay and lesbian movement after the 1980s. [181]

The final chapter of the book, entitled “LGBT and Queer Activism beyond 1990,” is also a conclusion. Marc Stein apologizes for not being able to give a complete account of the movement from the 1990s to today, stating quite rightly that “we have to wait for the dust to settle [and to] benefit from the critical distance that the passage of time allows” [183]. He does, however, address the changing meanings of “queer,” and establishes that queer theory has become a prominent academic field. He also explains why some “argue that the movement’s successes are attributable to the fact that many of its recent demands have resonated with the country’s conservative values” [189] of marriage and adoption, leaving behind the radical aspirations to liberate sexuality and gender only to consider “normalization as the price and ticket to success” [189], and being promoted by mainstream media and business politics.

The final pages on education bring the last stone to Marc Stein’s work. He presents gay and lesbian history as now indispensable in education. He regrets that LGBT Studies are not more often taught at school and more present in libraries, museums, on television, etc., since “rethinking the history of the U.S. gay and lesbian movement could and should lead to the rethinking of U.S. history in general” [207].


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