Published online by Cambridge University Press: 21 November 2020
This chapter presents lesbian and gay mobilizations in the United States chronologically from the mid-twentieth century and identifies a major pivotal moment that occurred in the 1990s. The chronological approach is broad, extending from the post-World War II period to the early twentyfirst century. This chapter demonstrates that the successive stages of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) movement are characterized by the existence of two parallel pendulums, one swinging between politicization and depoliticization, and the other between sexualization and desexualization. The 1980s are analyzed as a crucial period, the provocative activism of the time echoing that of the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Keywords: lesbian and gay movement, politicization/depoliticization of homosexuality, sexualization/desexualization of homosexuality, gay liberation and gays rights movements, AIDS
Since the postwar period, lesbian and gay movements in the United States have fluctuated between periods of mobilization and demobilization, and between the sexualization and desexualization of collective identities. These fluctuations have consisted of three successive cycles. The homophile movement was the first specifically and explicitly gay political movement in the United States and appeared on the West Coast in the early 1950s. This movement's founders saw homosexuality as having a strong potential for political protest, thus highlighting the specificities and differences of homosexual identification. Over the course of the 1950s and 1960s, however, the homophile movement shifted toward a clearly assimilationist position, in which sexual orientation was interpreted as having little significance. It was not until the second half of the 1960s that a new aggressive and radical protest dynamic took shape with the emergence of the gay liberation movement. This grew out of the anti-Vietnam War movement, the counterculture, and an increasing desire to assert homosexuality as a politically valid sexual option. This movement owes part of its vitality to the fact that it transcends standard identity-based movement categories (universalism/differentialism, integrationism/separatism).
This was the start of a second cycle of gay and lesbian mobilization where, from the early 1970s onward, gay liberation morphed into a communitarian movement with the development of gay enclaves in major American cities, the delegation of political initiatives to an internal elite, and the overall political demobilization of the grassroots.