Home / General / The Mainstreaming of the LGBTQ Movement and History

The Mainstreaming of the LGBTQ Movement and History



It seems almost inevitable in the history of oppressed Americans. You have a movement that develops at the grassroots. It seeks to challenge the fundamental basis of American society. It has a bit of success at doing that, but ultimately it channels its goals into a civil and legal rights paradigm that drops the class and cultural challenges to the nation. As those legal aims are achieved, the radicalism of the movement fades and becomes forgotten about. As time passes and historical memory starts developing around these movements, narratives that reinforce Americans feeling great about themselves become dominant and the sharp edge that once defined those movements disappears. The civil rights movement becomes about Rosa Parks having tired feet and refusing to move to the back of the bus (even though it was Rosa Parks with the tired feet but a different woman) and MLK giving a 1-paragraph speech at the March on Washington. The women’s movement becomes about the Equal Rights Amendment. And now, gay rights becomes about resistance at Stonewall and then the right to marry.

In all these movements, the radical edge is blunted in public memory. Given the unusual role the federal government plays in shaping American public memory, we can look at National Park Service sites as a good starting point. There’s a NPS site for King of course, but nothing for Black Power. President Obama just named the offices of the National Woman’s Party in Washington as a national monument because of its centrality for women’s suffrage. And now the creation of the Stonewall National Monument to remember the gay rights movement at a moment when gay rights are ensured through marriage, even as gays and transgendered people are still being murdered. But ultimately all of these are celebrations of fundamental civil rights in ways that don’t actually challenge anything about what it means to be an American and they certainly don’t challenge the class structure or the continued oppression still faced by these groups.

I’m not necessarily criticizing this process, just noting what seems to be its near inevitability. The Stonewall National Monument has received almost universal praise, both within the gay community and the public at large. But it’s worth noting the process of selective memory and the silencing how truly radical the gay rights movement once was and how, maybe, there is something lost without that. That’s why I want to link to this essay criticizing the new national monument designation and the co-opting of gay rights by mainstream organizations.

The memorializing was largely celebrated by those with the loudest voices in the world of gay rights — spokespeople for organizations such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, for example. Representatives of these organizations use their platform to depict the LGBTQ movement as monolithic: one with with shared concerns and a shared agenda. But as white gay people benefit more and more from legal protection, visibility and inclusion, the LGBTQ movement is divided by the same factors that structure all inequity in the US, such as proximity to state violence and access to resources.

These differences, of course, are primarily articulated through race and income; low-income queer and trans people of color are overwhelmingly the targets of police abuse, arrests and surveillance.

This division between white, wealthy, cisgender gays, and queer and trans activists of color has been apparent throughout this Pride season, as queer and trans groups across the country pushed a #policeoutofpride campaign, opting out of Pride celebrations after cities announced increased state security presences post-Orlando.

As with the government’s pro-gay makeover, Pride celebrations across the country are as much an occasion for corporations to promote themselves as “allies” as they are a chance for LGBTQ people to gather and celebrate their survival. In 1998, the Bay Area’s LAGAI-Queer Insurrection was possibly the first queer direct action group to crash a Gay Pride parade and call out corporate hijacking, chanting “It’s a movement, not a market!” as they disrupted what had in large part become a celebration of gay consumerism, not liberation.

Some of the world’s wealthiest banks and tech companies have since solidified their place as sponsors and participants in the festivities. While it may be true that large corporations increasingly employ gays and lesbians, these hires are predominantly white and predominantly cisgender. Even more, the growth of tech industries in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Seattle continues to displace longstanding communities and bringing in hoards of high-paid corporate workers. What often goes unspoken is that lower-income LGBTQ people, especially communities of color, are forced out when white, wealthy, and highly educated gays and lesbians move in.

The whole essay is worth your time. And criticize this position if you want to, but there’s no question that the public acceptance of gay rights is a warm and fuzzy acceptance of a particular set of actions that makes everyone feel good about their own tolerance without challenging the significant repression that gay people still feel in their lives and without questioning which LGBTQ people are welcome in this new pantheon of official acceptance and which aren’t.

And how about a national monument at a site of an ACT-UP action? That would be a very different kind of historical memory creation than Stonewall, no?

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  • slothrop1

    Women still suffer from the same sources of exploitation and domination. Not just LGBTQ.

  • I’m not familiar with Truth Out. Are they a LGBT activist publication?

    • Peterr

      Not particularly. They are more broad in their perspective, looking also at economic issues, privacy issues, and more.

    • JL

      No, they’re a general lefty publication.

      Incidentally, Grace Dunham, one of the authors of the piece, is Lena Dunham’s sibling. Grace is pretty politically active and they seem more savvy about the world than their sister.

    • Bruce Vail

      Truth Out is great! (they publish my labor news articles from time to time)

  • SqueakyRat

    I think I can guarantee that quite a few Americans feel very “challenged” by anything at all that suggests LGBT people deserve anything better than a slow death.

  • Joe_JP

    And how about a national monument at a site of an ACT-UP action? That would be a very different kind of historical memory creation than Stonewall, no?

    I’m sure it is different in certain ways but Stonewall wasn’t just a bar. It is remembered for the Stonewall riots — fighting back against police. Not very ‘warm and fuzzy’ either at the end of the day.

    • Latverian Diplomat

      Is there a concrete proposal for an Act Up memorial somewhere? If not, what’s stopping the author(s) from proposing one?

      As I understand it, some people worked for a long time to make the Stonewall Monument happen. That’s how this shit gets done.

      • I propose St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

        If the Church doesn’t like it, there’s always eminent domain!

    • JL

      Right. The issue here isn’t that the monument is at Stonewall, which was the site of a pretty escalated riot against violent queer/transphobic policing (and which was kicked off by a biracial black butch lesbian/drag king, Storme DeLarverie). It’s the sanitizing. And maybe it would be harder to do that with ACT-UP because it’s the more recent past, but I have confidence in the ability of the government and the public to sanitize sites and occasions of resistance.

    • alex284

      Yeah, I’m kinda tired of straight people whining about what teh gays should be doing. It’s just concern trolling at this point.

      Stonewall was a riot against police brutality. Sorry if that’s not radical enough for a professor who I’m sure is out-radicalling all of us every day.

      (And yes, I’m well aware that Loomis was probably just too lazy to google what stonewall was, not that he’s saying that rioting against police violence is a totally mainstream, banal thing to do.)

      Also love this mango:

      but there’s no question that the public acceptance of gay rights is a warm and fuzzy acceptance

      Oh, oh, I have a question! Why aren’t gay people part of the public?

  • JL

    I don’t want to be a jerk about Erik’s otherwise excellent post, but I do want to make a mild terminology comment. I know the acronym is awkward but one of the reasons for it is that it’s more inclusive than “gay rights” (“gay” might have been seen as an umbrella term in the ’60s but it is decidedly not now) or even “gay and transgender,” a phrasing which I am seeing with increasing frequency that totally leaves out bi and other multi-gender-attracted people as well as lesbians of a certain era who strongly identify with “lesbian” rather than “gay.” I know that “LGBTQ,” (as Erik uses in the title), “LGBTQIA,” and “LGBTQ+” all have their problems and are still not fully inclusive, but they are more inclusive than either “gay” or “gay and transgender.”

    That out of the way, thank you for this post, Erik. This is something that’s discussed constantly in politically oriented queer communities, and very rarely outside of them.

    I was pretty astounded a couple of weeks ago when a reporter asked NYPD Police Commissioner Bratton, who was at the Stonewall ceremony, whether the NYPD owed the LGBTQ+ community an apology for Stonewall, and he said no. I understand police departments weren’t going to apologize back then, but what would it have cost him to apologize on behalf of the NYPD in 2016?

    Other issues, along with police violence against LGBTQ people and especially those of color, that are not being addressed enough in the mainstream: The plague of rape, sexual assault, and intimate partner violence against bi people. Bi+ and trans poverty. Poverty among queer people of color. LGBTQ+ youth homelessness. Trans suicide. The extreme mass incarceration of black trans women (something like 40%, if I remember correctly). The abuse, by staff and by other inmates, of LGBTQ+ prisoners and immigration detainees (and look at all the liberals who thought it was great when Obama rebuked a trans Latina for heckling him about the abuse of undocumented trans people at a reception). The murders of transfeminine people of color. The needs of LGBTQ+ elders. LGBTQ+ access to domestic violence shelters. Courts, police, and mainstream domestic violence services assuming that domestic violence situations among similar-gender couples are “mutual abuse” or that the more butch person must be the aggressor. HIV treatment access for poor people, and the classification of surgery to address deformities resulting from HIV drug side effects as “cosmetic” and thus not covered by health insurance. The problems faced by gay and bi men who were arrested in the ’80s for being in public places, on suspicion of lewd behavior, who were marked as sex offenders for life and couldn’t get adequate work or housing. Trans kids being sent to conversion therapy. Black trans women being profiled as sex workers (and LGBTQ+ sex workers being mistreated). The surprising difficulty of getting asylum as an LGBTQ+ person fleeing persecution. Some of these are often not even discussed in politicized queer communities (bi+ people’s issues, for instance, are still largely unfashionable and invisibilized). And I’m sure I’m missing some important ones.

    Ironically, I would say that the big mainstream group that is best about this is the National LGBTQ Task Force – it hasn’t been the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force in a few years – which for some reason this essay singles out along with the Human Rights Campaign as being emblematic of the problem. They run a huge annual activism conference that, while it has its problems, covers most of these issues, and where I learned about some of these issues.

    These issues are all being addressed by parts of the movement. Just not enough of it.

    A nitpick with the article: I don’t actually think “wealthy tech companies hire gays and lesbians but not other LGBTQ people” is the problem. For one thing, there are, um, a LOT of bi/pan and trans people in the tech sector (especially trans women – the trans woman techie is kind of a trope). There are not, however, a lot of queer/trans black, Latino, or Native people in the tech sector, and queer/trans Asians, like Asians in general in the tech sector, get pigeonholed as not management material. Also, the gentrification that the tech companies don’t seem interested in mitigating (even as many of their younger employees wish they would) hurts the queer/trans people who DON’T work for tech companies, those who are poor, working-class, homeless, disproportionately of color. Which the essay does get into.

    • Murc

      I know that “LGBTQ,” (as Erik uses in the title), “LGBTQIA,” and “LGBTQ+” all have their problems and are still not fully inclusive, but they are more inclusive than either “gay” or “gay and transgender.”

      See also: the current dustup within the community between folks who are all “I’m queer, I encourage non-queer people to use the term queer, and feel like it’s a great umbrella term” and “the q-slur is just as vile as the n-slur and by promoting it you’re betraying us all.”

      • delazeur

        I’m all for reclaiming slurs, but I think it’s pretty unfortunate that it has been promoted as something that is acceptable to use in academic publications and by straight people. I go along with it because I think the damage has pretty much been done at this point, but people who are not ready to reclaim this word for themselves should not be subjected to its use by their oppressor class. (Especially since my sense is that the people in the “queer is a great umbrella term” camp tend to be the wealthy white queers who have rarely, if ever, had someone sneeringly call them a queer.)

        • Murc

          I’m all for reclaiming slurs, but I think it’s pretty unfortunate that it has been promoted as something that is acceptable to use in academic publications and by straight people.

          Its classification as having always been a slur that needs to be reclaimed is something that’s open to debate, in fact; I’ve seen a lot of rip-roaring arguments about how treating it that way is actually ahistorical.

          I am using the passive voice here because I don’t know enough about it to have my own judgment; the historiography I’ve seen looks pretty convincing but you can produce convincing historiography for anything.

          There seems to be a big age divide in play; younger members of the community are more likely to call it “the q-slur” and insist its use has always been hateful and wrong, whereas older members are more likely to be “you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, we were fighting to get a ‘Queer Studies’ course into university curriculum back in the early 90s before you were even born; this is OUR word.”

          • delazeur

            That’s interesting, and I don’t really know enough about it (even less than you, it would appear) to judge either way, but I am not willing to grant people who were college students in the 90s the mantle of arbiters of How Things Were. In the context of this thread, those people have no more right to say what Stonewall was about than people who are in college today.

          • JL

            There’s an age divide, but I don’t think it’s quite the one you’re saying. A lot of older folks actually do so it as a slur and have forever, since it was one of the slurs of choice when they were young. Most millennials that I’ve met use it freely as a label for themselves and as an umbrella term. There’s now a subset of younger millennials and whatever the next generation is that, for reasons that I can’t figure out, are coming out hard against it.

        • JL

          Especially since my sense is that the people in the “queer is a great umbrella term” camp tend to be the wealthy white queers who have rarely, if ever, had someone sneeringly call them a queer.

          Anecdotally, my experience has been not quite the opposite, but close. Wealthy white gays tend not to like it as an umbrella term unless they’re academics or activists. But nearly all the LGBTQ+ people of color that I’ve met use it – QPOC and QTPOC groups are all over the place – and so do most of the bi+ and trans people.

          • delazeur

            Our difference in experiences might be generational. Among the young queers I know, the wealthy white ones are more likely to be enthusiastic about straight people using the term. Looking at the population as a whole, though, you are probably right.

      • JL

        I have no idea where this whole recent “q-slur” thing came from. I’m familiar with the history of queer as a slur, and older folks who will never be comfortable with it or apply it to themselves for that reason. But the “q-slur” thing is being driven, AFAICT, by young people on places like Tumblr.

        I’m not a fan. Even though I want an umbrella term and like “queer” I won’t force it on the people old enough to remember before it was reclaimed. But I feel like some of the people in the recent dustup just don’t want us to have an umbrella term at all, and when you don’t have an umbrella term, it’s the less visible parts of the community that get marginalized. I get a strong sense that some of them just want to be able to say gay, gay, gay and not have the BTQ+ portion of LGBTQ+ complain about exclusion.

        • Pat

          Occasionally I use the term “bendy” around my teens to refer to a person who isn’t straight. They don’t much like it as an umbrella term, but it does lack the baggage of “queer.”

          Interestingly, in my kids’ high school being a trans teen is considered by most to be a medical condition: a complicated one, but pretty much just that. My daughter disputes the inclusion of heterosexual, fully transitioned teens in the queer spectrum.

          She also found the treatment of the trans-woman character in Rent to be utterly shocking.

          • JL

            Whether straight trans people consider themselves queer is, anecdotally, an enormously case-by-case thing, with opinions among such folks covering the whole spectrum of “absolutely obviously yes” to “hell no, absolutely not.” It’s one of those things where I would really not want to make an assumption without asking the person.

            In my own circles, trans people generally consider themselves queer, but my circles are no more all-encompassing than anyone else’s.

            The popularity of “queer/trans” as a coalition term is an attempt to address this range of opinion, I think, by acknowledging that someone can be trans but not consider themselves queer.

  • (((Hogan)))

    And how about a national monument at a site of an ACT-UP action?

    St. Patrick’s Cathedral, maybe?

  • Peterr

    I very much share the concern about the corporatization of Pride events, but I also look at the pushback against so-called “Religious Freedom” laws and bills and see at least some of these same corporations putting their money behind the LGBTQ community. It wasn’t moral outrage that got Indiana to back down from their Religious Freedom nonsense — it was the threat by big name corporate citizens to pull out of Indiana. Ditto for North Carolina.

    I’m no Pollyanna. There is lots and lots and lots of work yet to do, but the fact that more institutions devoted to the pursuit of the almighty dollar are beginning to choose inclusion and protection of LGBTQs rather than exclusion and rejection is a very good sign.

    As for monument sites, how about a certain stretch of road just east of Laramie WY?

    • Pat

      Allies are always key to progress.

  • delazeur

    I am very much on board with criticisms of the way Pride has become corporatized, but I find complaints about memorializing Stonewall a bit confusing. The Stonewall narrative has been whitewashed and co-opted by wealthy, white, cisgender gays, but the events themselves were not the “respectable” part of the gay rights movement they way Rosa Parks and the I Have a Dream speech were the “respectable” parts of the civil rights movement. Stonewall was marginalized queers rising up violently against their oppressors, not a well-mannered and carefully managed P.R. campaign. I can’t find it right now, but I have seen pictures of white men in suits picketing the White House with signs that read something like “Don’t Judge Homosexuals by Stonewall” or “Some Homosexuals Are Respectable.” (Google images shows me gay white men in suits picketing the White House, but not with those particular signs.)

    • Aaron Morrow

      the I Have a Dream speech were the “respectable” parts of the civil rights movement.

      Once upon a time, MLK wasn’t part of the “respectable” parts of the civil rights movement. Hell, I have to train myself to remember that it was March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, because that narrative has been whitewashed as well. At the time, many mainstream liberals thought he was a radical for calling for a national income “pegged to the median of society,” and some still do.

    • Pseudonym

      Especially in the light of recent events, I’m surprised that a violent riot against the police by a class of people being systematically oppressed by them isn’t considered radical but rather mainstream.

  • Ahuitzotl

    In all these movements, the radical edge is blunted in public memory.

    So, some movements become more mainstream, losing their radical edge. Others retain their radical edge, failing to move mainstream thereby.

    This seems staggeringly obvious.

    • Bill Murray

      losing their radical edge does not mean that the movement must forget it’s radical edge

  • LeeEsq

    Mainstreaming is how society changes and social acceptance for marginalized groups occurs. There was never going to be a big general social change and the destruction of heteronormative behavior. The idea that there was going to be a big revolution and complete social change is foolish.

    • Pat

      There was an absolutely super article by an older trans woman some months back that discussed how the bright line that separates the unspeakable from the controversial is always moving.

      In her experience, for example, the words “I am actually a woman” would have been met with fatal violence for most of her life, rendering those words unspeakable even as they were true. She wrote of how much work it took to move that statement into the realm of the merely controversial.

      • LeeEsq

        Pretty much. Marginal groups always gain acceptance by being adopted to the mainstream rather than radically transforming the mainstream. This is true for Jews, African-Americans, or the entire LGBT community or even nerds. There is always some minor and major changes in society when marginal groups advance their rights but nothing as total as the more radical members imagined for a variety of reasons. My brother would put this as you know that LGBT people are accepted when you see advertising companies trying to go after them.

        • DrS

          Well, sure they want our money.

          Still can’t donate blood though. It might have gay cooties, I guess.

          • Pat

            Long way from Diane Arbus’ photographs of transsexuals in the fifties and sixties.

          • LeeEsq

            That is a government and not a market based decision though.

        • JL

          But only some LGBTQ+ people are accepted now. That’s the point.

          • Origami Isopod


  • PhoenixRising

    the public acceptance of gay rights is a warm and fuzzy acceptance of a particular set of actions that makes everyone feel good about their own tolerance without challenging the significant repression that gay people still feel in their lives

    Citation please.

    At a time in which we who are not gender-compliant-enough are facing significant push-back against using public restrooms throughout the South, our youth are 450% more likely to be homeless, and a ‘right’ to refuse service to our families in every type of public venue is being asserted by fuzzy minded bigots all over this country*, I’d like to see the receipts for this tolerance and inclusion you’re suggesting is a substitute for…whatever it is you’re suggesting.

    Stonewall was a riot. If these writers are too young to know that, or have confused an NPS historical site recognizing the birthplace of an American civil rights movement with a current locus of activism, they are excused on the grounds of youth and not being historians.

    *(not just wedding cakes; I know families that have been refused a family membership at the community pool…a kid whose sports future was hemmed in by rejection of his dads as part of the parents’ group for the team…graduation party for a HS grad can’t be held at the church hall because her moms…etc.)

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Try reading that again.

    • were-witch

      I somewhat agree that “without challenging the significant repression that gay people still feel in their lives” doesn’t go far enough to encapsulate all of what you mention, especially since “feel” unfortunately always carries a subtle insinuated accusation of exaggeration or delusion, but.. what exactly are you pushing back against, here?

    • alex284

      No, those writers in the linked article had an understanding of what happened. Their argument is basically “Stonewall was radical, giving it mainstream approval while the government continues to oppress queer people is wrong.”

      It’s an old argument that I find really tiring: government functions aren’t super radical. Thanks for the insight!

      Loomis read the first 2 paragraphs of the article, didn’t really understand them, and that why he’s implying that Stonewall wasn’t radical. But at least the other writers had an idea of what they were writing about.

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