Activism is public performance for the rights of a specific group of people. It encompasses activities such educational seminars, distribution of information (paper and online), fundraising, protests, and rioting. LGBTQ activists have played an important role in Gay folklife, and activism is an important Gay folkway that intersects with many other folkways in the community. Among the many strategies developed by Gay folk activists since the late 1800s, rarely has violence been used by LGBTQ people, although violence is used against LGBTQ people in some countries.
Early Activism in Western Europe
The first form of activism was done from a quasi-institutional medical basis when homosexuality was framed as a physiological defect rather than a crime or a sin. Sexologists such as Magnus Hirschfeld and Karl Heinrich Urlichs used terms like homosexual (same-sex) and invert (a person with traits of the so-called opposite sex) to speak up in favor of rights for orientation- and gender-variant people. In 1897, the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee was founded in Germany. The organization published a yearbook and gathered signatures to end Paragraph 175, the section in the German Penal Code that punished homosexuality as a crime. Some of the people who signed the petition were Albert Einstein, Hermann Hesse, Leo Tolstoy, and Emile Zola.
But the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee would face major setbacks with the rise of National Socialism (Nazism) in Germany, and was terminated by the Nazis in 1933. Its geographical center, the Institute for Sexology in Berlin, was looted and its archives burnt.
In addition to early German activists was the French writer André Gide, who advocated for the rights of prisoners and colonized peoples, and wrote a series of articles from 1911 to 1920 defending homosexuality. These treatises were compiled into a book, Corydon.
The Homophile Movement in America
During the twentieth century in the USA, Gay men and women gathered in secret to discuss the troubles that came with being homosexual. The first American activist group was the Society for Human Rights in Chicago, founded in 1924, which was shut down by police within months. In 1950, the Mattachine Society for homophiles (same-sex loving people) was started in Los Angeles, which eventually branched out into smaller chapters across the United States (the Society was overwhelmingly male, and concerned itself with men more so than women).
The anti-communist atmosphere of the post-war era forced the organizations to be extremely secretive. It was illegal across the United States to be homosexual, and a majority of the founders of the Mattachine Society were members of the Communist Party. If the secrecy were broken, the homophile movement would have been demolished before it began.
Just because homosexual rights were associated with communism in the USA, this did not mean that homosexuality was accepted in communist countries. Mongolia, for example, did not have its first LGBTQ activist organization (Tavilan, Mongolian for “Destiny”) until 1999, nine years after the communist regime fell.
Before the Stonewall Uprising in New York City that mark the beginning of Gay Liberation movement as a worldwide phenomenon, a handful of students at Columbia and Cornell Universities in New York began the Student Homophile Leagues, the first college level homosexual student organization. The student organizations were originally designed as a way for homosexual students to meet – they also were centers for local activism. Out of the Mattachine Society also came ONE, a magazine dedicated to homosexual rights. The magazine and its parent organization, ONE, Inc., were notably inclusive, with both men and women involved in the production of the magazine.
Pre-Stonewall San Francisco: Daughters of Bilitis
The Lesbian community was politically active over a decade before Stonewall. The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) were founded in San Francisco in 1955. Like the Mattachine Society, The DOB was assimilationist, trying to work with society and conform to society’s mores as much as possible rather than confront and challenge. The Daughters were initially careful not to identify as “gay” and were not always willing to publicly call themselves “lesbian” (one option was to use the word “variant”). Members would dress in standard clothing for their gender. The DOB also published The Ladder, which called for more rights for homosexual women.
In 1960, the DOB sponsored the first national Lesbian convention in San Francisco, which included a debate about whether Gay bars were legal or moral, a sermon condemning homosexuality by a male preacher, and awards given to the men who helped the DOB (including some members of the Mattachine Society), declaring those men to be “Sons of Bilitis” or “SOBs.” The FBI was also present, making sure no women were dressed in men’s clothing.
SIR, Vanguard, Street Orphans, and ICS
The Society for Individual Rights (SIR) in San Francisco (founded in 1963), was more confrontational than Mattachine and DOB. SIR also had community programs, including drag shows, that made it much more visible to the public eye. Other San Francisco organizations, such as Vanguard for Gay youth and the Street Orphans for Lesbian street people, helped the most vulnerable.
Perhaps the most spectacular organization to arise before Stonewall was the Imperial Court System (ICS, later changed to the International Court System) in 1965. The strategy espoused by the ICS was to win over the community through dazzling pageantry of drag royalty. Its first empress was activist and local celebrity José Sarria (Empress José I, the Widow Norton), a man who help found SIR. Sarria was also instrumental in creating the Tavern Guild, a consortium of Gay bars that banded together to protect their rights and end police harrassment. In addition, Sarria was the first openly Gay person on record to run for office.
Cafeteria, Stonewall, and White Night Riots
In 1966, a group of protesters led by angry transwomen rioted at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco, an event remembered today as the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot. Three years later, the three-day Stonewall Riots in New York in 1969 occured with participation from a multiplicity of orientations and gender variations. Neither the Compton Cafeteria nor Stonewall riots were organized, although organized protests occurred after both events, including the first Gay Liberation marches held one year after Stonewall. Since then, Pride parades have been held in all over the USA, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and Western Europe, and in countries as diverse as South Africa, Mainland China, Taiwan, India, Turkey, Brazil, Guatemala, and Croatia.
Toward the end of the 1970s, openly-Gay Harvey Milk was elected city supervisor for San Francisco, California. Fellow supervisor Dan White assassinated Milk in 1978, and 50,000 mourners spontaneously formed a candlelight march to City Hall after sunset that same day. In 1979, Dan White was convicted of manslaughter, the lightest conviction possible. Citizens rioted at City Hall, and police retaliated by attacking Gay men in the Castro District, raiding the Elephant Bar and beating its patrons. Once again, the riot was followed by protests and increased activism.
AIDS and Activism
One of the most significant things to inspire further activism since the early 1980s has been the effect of AIDS on the Gay community. Even though AIDS has hit primarily Gay men and transwomen within the LGBTQ collective, every facet of the community has been active in countering the homophobia resulting from public hysteria, and has helped raise money for treatment and prevention. Organizations such as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) have taken drastic action in order to force awareness upon the public at large. Different organizations involving artistic communities including dancers, musicians, painters, and actors, have come together to raise money and awareness.
Physical symbols of AIDS activism were created to give movements visibility and cohesion. The Visual AIDS Artists Caucus In New York designed the red single-loop AIDS ribbon, an internationally recognized symbol. The AIDS Quilt, begun by Cleve Jones in San Francisco and currently perhaps the world’s largest single folk project, is also an example of material-culture activism resulting from AIDS. Harm reduction advocates such as ACT (AIDS Committee of Toronto) and Montreal’s RÉZO regularly launch innovative campaigns with posters, pamphlets, and workshops in bathhouses. Behaviors associated with HIV transmission (drug use, certain sexual practices are not condemned, but options on how to avoid seroconversion are presented. The Theater Offensive in Boston has gone to public areas where men seek out other men for sex to give mini-performances and impromptu workshops.
Bathhouse Raids, Wigstock Riots, and Reduction of Violence
Public resistance to homophobia after Stonewall would take different forms in different places. In Toronto, police made an unprecedented sweep of men’s bathhouses in 1982, destroying property and handcuffing near-naked clients outside in freezing temperatures while directing homophobic remarks at them. This led to a public protest considered by some Canadians to be their “Stonewall moment.” Angry marchers overturned police cars, and activists inspired Gay and Straight citizens to push for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Similar activism would happen in Quebec’s “Stonewall moments” after the police raided Montreal’s Truxx Gay bar in 1977, and the Sex Garage raid in 1990, where Montreal police were recorded on video beating and harassing attendees leaving a popular after-hours party.
But not all “Stonewall moments” have been violent. In 1998, police in Tel Aviv, Israel forced Wigstock, a public drag show, to close an hour early for Shabbat, the weekly Jewish holy day that starts at sunset Friday and ends sunset Saturday. Protesters blocked a major intersection and flew the rainbow flag at city hall, leading to few arrests and little if any violence.
In 2000, there was a raid by Toronto police on the Pussy Palace, a special bathhouse event for women, in which five male officers inspected the premises while clients were still in various stages of undress. Public protest of the raid was designed to be as humorous as it was confrontational. The Pussy Palace Panty Picket Protest featured protesters waving their undergarments and posters in front of the police station, and chanting slogans such as “Keep Your Hands/Off Our Panties” and “What Do We Want? Pussy! When Do We Want It? Now!” in front of an amused crowd, including amused police officers.
One of the earliest examples of successful religious activism is the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), founded in Los Angeles by Troy Perry in 1968 to give LGBTQ people a place to worship and organize. Perry’s church had a strong activist ethos from its inception, and Perry himself would go to places where atrocities against Gay people were committed to show his support for survivors and members of the community. Under Reverend Brent Hawkes, The MCC in Toronto helped bring about the legalization of same-sex marriages in Canada. In 2001, Hawkes conducted Gay weddings while wearing a bulletproof vest and under the watchful eye of a police escort, a reversal of the police-as-oppressors to police-as-protectors.
Since the founding of the MCC, there have been movements to champion the rights of Gay people in every major religion, such as the Al-Fatiha Foundation for Gay Muslims, the Gay Buddhist Sangha, and the Zoroastrian GLBT-Straight Alliance. Growing visibility and acceptance of Gay people inspired anti-Gay religious activism and ex-gay movements, especially among Fundamentalist Christians worldwide, which in turn brought forth ex-ex-gay organizations.
In terms of religious parody with a foundation in a deep sense of ethics and spirituality, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence (founded in San Francisco and currently are found throughout the United States as well as Australia, Colombia, England, France, Germany, Scotland, Switzerland, and Uruguay), accessorize nuns’ habits and use hilarity in their public performance of activism for LGBTQ causes.
Gentle Activism, Creative Approaches
Forms of gentle activism, appealing more to aesthetics, fashion, and humor, have become popular as mainstream acceptance of LGBTQ causes increases. The NOh8 photo campaign against California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage (enacted in 2008) recruited people, many of them celebrities, across the political and orientation spectra to pose for professional photographers with silver duct tape across their mouths. (On June 26, 2013, the US Supreme Court declared the portion of the Defense of Marriage Act that bars government recognition of same-sex marriages unconstitutional, and let stand a lower court’s ruling against Proposition 8.)
Innovative approaches to activism include outreach in the form of larger than life heroes, such as Santo Gay (Spanish: “Saint Gay”) an openly Gay Mexican American luchador (professional wrestler in the lucha libre tradition) who is a champion for LGBTQ people in Dallas and Mexico City.
Two Canadian activists, Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millan. They have engaged in humorous activism in the twenty-first century that confronts homophobia, sexism, and classism with wit. They have created the Consideration Liberation Army, accessorizing militant language and dress in the promotion of civility. On their website, www.considerationliberationarmy.ca, Dempsey and Millan state the following:
Are we fascists? Do we insist upon kindness and relentlessly punish those who are unkind? Yes. We spank mean adults until they remember what they know to be true. We lock mean adults in rooms filled with challenging reading material. We deprive mean adults of food and drink until they cry out for community…
We are the Consideration Liberation Army. We are dedicated to forcing rampant engagement with ideas. Our goal is to take back the terror and place it once again in the rightful hands of artists, who confuse, mystify, and take up your valuable time… For those who do not join our cause there is no pity: we seek to shame the rude, alienate the greedy, and frighten the complacent. You, the narcissistic, the ignorant, and the bland: the time for change is now. Stupidity is no longer an option; “Whoops,” no longer an excuse; indifference no longer tolerated. Examples will be made, metaphor will be made, rehabilitation will occur. The indifferent will be tattooed with troubling questions. The thoughtless will be flogged with compact lines of verse. And the cruel and condescending will held captive in waterparks until they learn to laugh like children. So be forewarned. Consider repentance, consider each other, consider anything, but consider it now. It is your only salvation from the long arm of Consideration Liberation Army.
Activism and Mainstream Acceptance
On the national level in the USA, there are organizations such as Lambda Legal and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) that are well organized and fairly well funded. It is becoming less obvious, however, that such organizations are folk movements because of their acceptance by the public at large.
At the local level, grassroots organizations are the organizations with which people have direct and often daily contact with communities, such as the many Stonewall organizations across the world and Pride Parade committees.
National organizations that prize grassroots involvement, such as the Gay American Heroes Foundation (dedicated to memorializing LGBTQ people who have been murdered), have a nationwide mandate but connect closely with local communities. An organization at the local and national level with membership that is mostly Gay allies is Parents, Friends and Families of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).
Non-national grassroots organizations for each locale are different, and information can be found at local Gay community centers, each center being a grassroots activist organization in itself. Many organizations at the local level deal with problems that are best addressed one-on-one with activists who are familiar with local conditions, such as the Buckeye Region Anti-Violence Organization (BRAVO) in Central Ohio that works to raise awareness of homophobic and domestic violence.
Activism in Post-Colonial Countries
LGBTQ activists in other countries besides Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and the USA have had notable success. Sometimes Gay activism in former colonial powers results in better conditions for LGBTQ people in former colonies that have maintain close cultural ties.
In Spanish-speaking continental Latin America, for example, legalization of same-sex marriage in Spain (2005) inspired activists to push for landmark changes in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Gay marriage and civil unions have been legalized in places such as Argentina and Uruguay (Argentina legalized same-sex marriage in 2010). Between 2007 and 2009, Gay activists in organizations such as Colombia Diversa convinced the Colombian government to remove almost all legal forms of discrimination against LGBTQ people. This was a dramatic turn of events, following the violence of the 1980s and 1990s, in which Gay Colombians were killed as part of social cleansing in response to Gay Liberation and the AIDS crisis. Paraguay’s official tolerance of homosexuality pre-dates Stonewall and Gay activism—homosexual acts have been legal since 1880, and there is no legal discrimination in its armed forces.
Although LGBTQ rights have been significantly hindered by the Roman Catholic Church in many South American countries, Ecuador included sexual orientation as a protected category in its constitution in 1998, the Peruvian military and police decriminalized homosexuality in 2009, and significant steps have been taken in Venezuela to promote equality for Gay people in 2010 with the encouragement of its dictator, Hugo Chávez. Gay Pride marches have been held in Chile and Bolivia despite a close relationship between church and state that has undermined reform.
Portuguese-speaking Brazil has also been making progress, inspired in part by Portugal, which recognized same-sex unions in 2001 and legalized same-sex marriage in 2010. Brazil has granted same-sex unions the same status as common-law marriage since 2004. In terms of festive activism, the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in Brazil have some of the biggest Pride parades in the world.
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Loughery, John. The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century Reader. New York: Henry Holt, 1998.
Teal, Donn. The Gay Militants: How Gay Liberation Began in America, 1969-1971. New York: St. Martin’s, 1971.