Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 November 2020
This chapter zooms in on lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) mobilizations in the 1980s and 1990s and emphasizes the fact that the current LGBTQ movement is situated in the continuation of the political moment that began in the 1990s. This chapter discusses the changes that occurred around the 1990s and, in particular, the political mainstreaming and institutionalization of the then lesbian and gay movement. These changes had a profound impact on the movement's attitudes toward sexuality and explain the current paradoxical situation around which this study is built: the objective, instrumental success of the movement and the subjective, symbolic failure of its grassroots militancy.
Keywords: LGBTQ movement, movement fragmentation and coalescence, political mainstreaming, movement institutionalization, desexualization of homosexuality, decline of grassroots militancy
In the United States, the two final decades of the twentieth century were starkly different from each other, both in terms of general politics and LGBTQ activism. The 1980s were marked by both the outbreak of AIDS and the growth of an influential, ultraconservative Christian right. The latter played an important role in the election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 and his subsequent reelection in 1984. This context of intense political, economic, and moral conservatism was the backdrop to the reemergence of an aggressive lesbian and gay activism in the second half of the 1980s. ACT UP took no prisoners; its opponents were clearly identified, and it proudly proclaimed sexual minorities’ right to sexual liberation. This organization reactivated a radical potential that had remained dormant since the middle of the previous decade.
In the wake of the Reagan presidency, the United States experienced a relative political appeasement after his Republican successor, George H.W. Bush, took office. When Bill Clinton became president in 1993, he sought to shift the political balance toward the center and overcome the opposition between the two major political parties through his famous “triangulation” strategy. The Democrats initially benefited from the weakening of partisan ideological oppositions, as evidenced by Clinton's reelection in 1996, so that there were fewer political incentives to polarize the debate than during the previous decade. This created a context that was relatively favorable to LGBTQ rights.