Book Shelf

Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement.

Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement by Marc Stein, published originally in 2012 and revised for a second edition in 2023, is a volume in a Routledge book series on U.S. social movements. The book was written primarily for classroom use and public education purposes. It provides a chronologically-expansive, geographically-broad, and culturally-diverse overview of the history of U.S. gay and lesbian activism, focusing in particular on the period from 1950 to 1990.

The book begins with an introduction that discusses the importance of gay and lesbian movement history, describes the reasons the book focuses on "gay and lesbian" (as opposed to LGBT or queer) activism, and defines a movement as an organized, collective, and sustained effort to encourage or discourage social change.

The first chapter provides a broad survey of the pre-history of the gay and lesbian movement, introducing key developments in the years from 1500 to 1940 that made it possible for the movement to emerge in the post-World War Two era. After discussing evidence of same-sex sexual desires and acts in 16th, 17th, and 18th century North America, the chapter considers the rise of same-sex sexual identities and communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the resistance to anti-homosexual oppression that developed in the absence of an organized movement, and the reasons a gay and lesbian movement did not emerge in this period.

The second chapter begins with a discussion of key developments in the 1940s, including World War Two and the publication of the Kinsey Studies, and then turns to the history of the homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The chapter distinguishes between three periods in the history of homophile activism. From 1950 to 1953, the movement was led by the California-based Mattachine Society and its dominant political orientation was leftist. From 1953 to 1961, the movement expanded organizationally to include Mattachine, ONE, and the Daughters of Bilitis and its dominant political orientation was liberal. In the period from 1961 to 1969, the movement diversified and radicalized as new homophile groups emphasized political militancy, sexual liberation, and community mobilization. While the chapter emphasizes that the homophile movement tended to be dominated by middle-class white gay men, it also highlights the important contributions of working-class people, people of color, and women. Overall, the movement in the 1950s and 1960s laid the foundation for developments in subsequent decades.

The third chapter begins with the New York City Stonewall Riots of 1969 and then explores the politics of radical gay liberation, radical lesbian feminism, and gay and lesbian liberalism in the period from 1969 to 1973. In this period, gay liberation and lesbian feminism were radical and multiracial movements that supported revolutionary social change, promoted alliances with other social movements, and encouraged everyone to liberate their sexual desires. Within a few years, however, gay and lesbian liberalism and middle-class white gay men again came to dominate the movement. Together, these three political tendencies supported the mass gay and lesbian mobilization that occurred in this period, which contributed to important movement victories. The chapter concludes with a review of the successful campaign to convince the American Psychiatric Association to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness and a discussion of the early gay and lesbian pride parades that commemorated the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.

The fourth chapter, which focuses on the years from 1973 to 1981, examines gay and lesbian activism in an era of conservative backlash, when the political successes of the New Right and Christian Right created new challenges for the gay and lesbian movement. While the chapter highlights the predominance and politics of gay and lesbian liberalism in this period, it also emphasizes the ongoing influence of gay and lesbian radicalism and the new importance of multiracial gay and lesbian organizing.

The fifth chapter, which focuses on the period from 1981 to 1990, discusses gay and lesbian activism in the age of AIDS. Much of the chapter addresses the role played by gay and lesbian activists in struggles against AIDS and the ways in which AIDS changed and challenged the gay and lesbian movement. After considering the work of AIDS service organizations in the early 1980s and the rise of radical AIDS activism in the late 1980s, the chapter reviews the other important successes and failures of the gay and lesbian movement during this period.

The final chapter provides a broad overview of developments since 1990, when LGBT and queer activism partially displaced and superseded the gay and lesbian movement. After reviewing major developments in law, politics, science, business, religion, and popular culture, the chapter and book conclude with a section titled "Back to School," which challenges readers to engage in political activism to make the history of the gay and lesbian movement more important in the U.S. educational system.