White Night Riots flier, 1979

Compiled by Emily K. Hobson

Interest in queer history and queer politics have grown exponentially in recent years. Among students especially, such attention has been fueled by the popularization of intersectional feminism and by the resurgence of open and violent racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. LGBTQ experiences in the United States remain wildly uneven, with queer people disproportionately subject to homelessness, poverty, criminalization (of queer youth, of HIV, and of sex work), and the detention and deportation regime. Trans people of color face intense risk of violence, and converging inequalities subject Black men who have sex with men to the highest rate of HIV infection. As Barbara Smith, co-founder of the Combahee River Collective, put it recently in the New York Times, “Unless we eradicate the systemic oppressions that undermine the lives of the majority of LGBTQ people, we will never achieve queer liberation.”

This microsyllabus, crafted with undergraduate teaching in mind, explores key episodes in the history of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer radicalism from the late 1960s through early 1990s in the United States. The resources detailed here situate but do not focus on the Stonewall riots, not because Stonewall is not important, but because there are now so many resources to teach it and from so many angles—including askance. Sarcasm over who “threw the first brick at Stonewall” has circulated as an internet meme since 2015. The joke mocks a rainbow capitalism that appropriates narratives of resistance by queer and trans people of color;  thus Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen, and an ad for Herbal Essences shampoo have all been nominated as throwing the first brick. It also registers exhaustion with a loop of commemoration fueled as much by nationalism as by contestations from the left. Many representations of Stonewall reflect a confusion over political definition, as if all organizing by sexual and gender minorities seeks the same vision of freedom. Yet LGBTQ politics, cultures, and communities have varied sharply, with “rights” and “liberation” pointing toward different goals. This year especially, radicals have called for “police out of pride,” defining uniformed officers as fundamentally out of place in events seeking freedom, including in celebrations of an uprising against mafia-complicit police abuse. Since well before and since 1969, LGBT and queer activism have been shot through with schisms of class, race, and gender; of ideology and praxis; of deviance and respectability. Queer radicalism has emerged through the interplay of many movements, and crystallized especially where activists define sexual and gender freedom as interwoven with anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist, and anti-imperialist struggles. What follows are six entry points into the history of this politics.  

Screaming Queens: the Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, produced by Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman (2005)

The film Screaming Queens details a 1966 trans and queer uprising against police harassment in the Tenderloin neighborhood of San Francisco. The documentary skillfully locates the Compton’s riot in multiple contexts. It explores how trans identification was shaped by emerging medical technologies, alongside settings of drag and sex work that were inflected by race, class, and gender presentation. It describes how trans and queer life became increasingly policed under urban renewal, while fueled by the counterculture and Vietnam War deployment. Homophile and civil rights activists sought War on Poverty funds to meet the needs of the Tenderloin’s queer and trans street people, and a radical gay youth group, Vanguard, met at Compton’s and picketed to protest mistreatment. Soon thereafter, queens and sex workers socializing in the late-night cafeteria—not part of Vanguard—fought back against police harassment in an uprising with dozens of participants. Screaming Queens offers rich lessons. It weaves together oral histories and archival clips, and illustrates the research process as Stryker appears on screen finding sources at the GLBT Historical Society. It frames the stakes of trans and queer history, as Stryker narrates how the Compton’s riot—initially well-known in San Francisco gay liberation—became forgotten in favor of a Stonewall narrative, then memorialized through contemporary trans organizing and responses to gentrification. I recommend providing an advisory about the film’s inclusion of 1960s terminology such as street queen, transsexual, and transvestite, since these terms can misdirect inexperienced audiences while disturbing those well-versed in contemporary terms. Situated within the film’s historical rigor, such language offers another window into the forces that set the riot into motion, and why the Compton’s story matters. Useful sources alongside Screaming Queens range from Hazel Newlevant’s cartoon introduction to pre-Stonewall riots to Stryker’s Transgender History to the edited volume Trap/Door.

Christina B. Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence

Hanhardt’s Safe Space traces gay and lesbian struggles over urban space from the 1960s through the 1990s in San Francisco and New York. Historicizing both queer radicalism and gay and lesbian liberalism, the book fuses theoretical rigor with close archival research. Safe Space builds well on Screaming Queens, as Hanhardt’s first chapter explores homophile and civil rights organizing in the 1960s Tenderloin, illustrating this setting’s potential for a multi-issue politics that could fuse the demands of street youth, trans people, gay and lesbian activists, and communities of color.  The rest of the book alternates between explorations of gay and lesbian liberalism and the queer left, a balance that frames the stakes of radical queer politics and historiography. Hanhardt coins the term “militant gay liberalism” to analyze activists of the 1970s who pursued neighborhood-based safety from anti-gay violence. Embracing street protest yet moving away from left critique, these activists aligned gay freedom with police power and capitalist development, and defined communities of color as threats to gay safety. By contrast, 1970s and 1980s groups such as Lesbians Against Police Violence, the Third World Gay Coalition, and Dykes Against Racism Everywhere saw sexual freedom as interdependent with fighting gentrification and police abuse. Hanhardt further offers a critical accounting of gay and lesbian campaigns for hate crime legislation, and of the ways affluent, largely white gay and lesbian activists came into conflict with young, working-class, queer youth of color in battles amidst real estate speculation and the first tech boom. By analyzing how LGBTQ politics have both sustained, and challenged, hierarchies of race, class, gender, and respectability, Hanhardt reveals the difference that queer radicalism seeks and makes. Texts through which to extend her analysis include work by Horacio N. Roque Ramírez, Sarah Schulman, Samuel Delany, and Dean Spade.

Resources on gay liberation, lesbian feminism, and the Black Panther Party

Relationships to the Black Panther Party provoked fierce debate in early gay liberation and lesbian feminism. The growth of Black radicalism propelled the shift from gay “rights” to “liberation,” and encouraged many to see sexual repression as a tool of capitalism, racism, and war. But misogyny and homophobia expressed by some in the Black Panther Party, especially Eldridge Cleaver, stoked controversy among gay and lesbian radicals. But just at the moment that gay liberation and lesbian feminism began to flourish—in 1969 and 1970—the Black Panther Party came under increased attack through police murders, infiltration, and court trials. International solidarity in defense of the Panthers grew, Eldridge Cleaver’s influence waned through his exile, and women’s leadership in the Party expanded. Then, in August 1970, Huey Newton—in one of his first public statements following his release from prison—called on members of the Black Panther Party to form alliances with gay and women’s liberation. The next month, gay and lesbian radicals participated in significant numbers in the Party’s Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. This shifting history reveals queer radicalism as relational and contingent. Jared Leighton offers the most detailed account from the perspective of gay (especially men’s) liberation, revealing substantial gay collaboration with the Black Panther Party in the Bay Area. Ronald K. Porter, centering his account from within Black radicalism, considers statements and recollections by Cleaver, Newton, Ericka Huggins, Angela Davis, and James Baldwin, and shows how changing attitudes on sexuality grew out of the Party’s processes of collective education. Leighton and Porter’s articles can be taught alongside primary sources including Newton’s letter; short essays in Karla Jay and Allen Young’s classic Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation (held in most libraries); and the poetry of lesbian feminist and Black Panther Party member Pat Parker. Other useful resources include Chapter 4 of Kevin Mumford’s history of Black gay politics; Chapter 3 of Timothy Stewart-Winter’s history of gay politics in Chicago; and clips from Arthur Dong’s 1995 documentary OutRage ’69.

Resources on transfeminisms and lesbian feminisms across the 1970s

Transness and transphobia hold long histories in gay, lesbian, and other queer spaces. Over time, exclusions of trans women have claimed a place in the origin story of 1970s lesbian feminism, especially through hostilities aimed at folksinger Beth Elliot, Olivia Records music engineer Sandy Stone, and activist Sylvia Rivera. Yet, as several scholars of trans history have begun to argue, accounts centering solely on exclusion obscure a more complex reality of trans activists’ engagements with feminisms, as well as possibilities for trans solidarity in settings constructed as gay or lesbian. In other words, anti-trans exclusions were hotly contested in the past, as well as today. Finn Enke, noting that “1970s feminists is often used as a shorthand genealogy of today’s racist and trans-exclusionary feminists (TERFs),” has called for reconsiderations that more carefully analyze “the experiences, labor, and critiques by feminists of color, trans and queer people” across the decade. Enke’s call builds from a 2016 issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly, in which articles by Emma Heaney and Cristan Williams, an editorial from Lesbian Tide, and interviews with Tommi Avicolli Mecca, Sandy Stone, and Jeanne Córdova trace the transfeminist 1970s in the United States. These sources reveal diverse engagements by both trans and cis people. They recover constructionist as well as essentialist approaches to gender, showing how both approaches became battlegrounds over the materiality of trans (and) women’s lives, as well as movement leadership, decision-making, and racial representation. Additions to the discussions in TSQ mightinclude the 1977 treasure The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions (reprinted this year with introductions by Tourmaline and Morgan Bassichis) and Córdova’s memoir, When We Were Outlaws.

Darius Bost, Evidence of Being: the Black Gay Cultural Renaissance and the Politics of Violence

Darius Bost examines Black gay cultural production from the late 1970s through early 1990s, centering on writers and poets in New York City and Washington, DC including Essex Hemphill, Melvin Dixon, Joseph Beam, members of Blacklight magazine, and the Other Countries Collective. In addressing the “politics of violence,” Bost draws on Hanhardt’s work, yet shifts focus to the ontological devaluation of Black life and to the power of cultural expression. Each chapter of the bookcenters an individual or group of writers, placing close readings of their work within histories of their social and creative networks and accounts of their artistic formation. His work enters the reader into a world of literary readings, journals, and bookstores, offering students a model through which they might imagine crafting their own political formation and cultural expression. Like his subjects, Bost builds on the work of Black lesbian feminists inside and outside the academy. While engaging the ways that Black gay writers have addressed a white gaze, he places his central focus on how Black gay men talked with and to each other, and how Black gay mourning “accounts for cultural loss even as it acts as productive force” (93). Short and layered, Bost’s book will be especially effectively taught alongside the literary work he analyzes. Some of this contained in the widely held anthologies In the Life and Brother to Brother; other sources are available through journal issues, such as Joseph Beam’s essay “Caring for Each Other” in the first issue of Black/Out, the magazine of the National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s volume on the Combahee River Collective, How We Get Free, and Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied are indispensable accompaniments to Bost’s work. Students will also benefit from reading lesbians of color contemporaneous with Bost’s subjects, such as Cherríe Moraga and Barbara Smith.

United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, produced by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman (2012)

If you expose students to one history of AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s, let it be United in Anger, a multi-voiced documentary of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in New York. Directed by Jim Hubbard, featuring interviews from the ACT UP Oral History Project, and weaving in clips from activist video, the film illustrates how ACT UP blended direct action organizing with artistic vision and media savvy. United in Anger brings together a racially and gender diverse mix of activists, some of whom carried longtime radical histories and others of whom who were newly politicized by AIDS. A significant strand of ACT UP (nationally as well as in New York, as Deborah Gould, Jennifer Brier, and others have shown) developed an intersectional vision addressing how race, class, and gender converged with sexuality in driving HIV/AIDS. They called not only for medicines and research, but also a safety net including universal health care, housing supports, cash benefits to ensure survival, and drug treatment. The breadth of ACT UP’s agenda fueled it through dozens of actions, many depicted on screen and targeting entities ranging from the FDA and Wall Street to the National Institutes of Health and the Catholic Church. Particular energy fuels the film’s account of the years-long, ultimately successful campaign to expand the CDC definition of AIDS to better include its effects among women, IV drug users, and poor people; this mattered because only those with a CDC-approved diagnosis could receive disability supports through Social Security. United in Anger brings to screen the exhilaration and pain of AIDS organizing with a pull I have only seen bested by BPM (120 battemants par minute), a fictionalized drama of ACT UP Paris. Readings that will enrich students’ engagement with United in Anger include the aforementioned work by Gould and Brier; chapters from Tamar Carroll and Avram Finkelstein’s After Silence; and the film Nothing Without Us, tracing Black women’s AIDS activism in the United States, Burundi, and Nigeria.  Keep your eyes peeled for forthcoming issues of Souls and the Radical History Review on Black and other radical histories of AIDS.

Author Bio

Emily K. Hobson is the author of Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (University of California Press, 2016), and co-editor, with Dan Berger, of Remaking Radicalism: A Grassroots Documentary Reader of the United States, 1973-2001 (forthcoming in 2020 from the University of Georgia Press). She serves as Associate Professor of History and of Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as co-chair of the Committee on LGBT History.