American Homo: Community and Perversity

Gaa-
The Philadelphia Gay Activist Alliance in the early 1970s.

We are excited to announce the publication of Radical Thinkers Set 17, featuring four indispensable works from the gay and lesbian left. In American Homo: Community and Perversity, Jeffrey Escoffier tracks LGBT movements across the contested terrain of American political life, where they have endured the historical tension between the homoeroticism coursing through American culture and the virulent periodic outbreaks of homophobic populism. Escoffier explores how every new success enables a new disciplinary and normalizing form of domination; only the active exercise of democratic rights and participation in radical coalitions allows LGBT people to sustain the benefits of community and the freedom of sexual perversity.

Here we present an excerpt from the Introduction:

Somehow we suddenly knew something in our guts that we hadn’t know before, or at least hadn’t known as assuredly or profoundly: “Human beings make their own history,” as Marx wrote in 1852. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, we realized that whatever had seemed “natural” in the 1950s, such as war, race relations, gender roles, sexuality, and capitalism, had in fact been shaped by social processes. The utopian promise of the 1960s was that we could and would change society. Years later, we learned the lesson embodies in the second half of Marx’s famous formulation: “…but [they make their own history] not of their own free will; not under the circumstances they themselves have chosen, but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted. The tradition of the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the minds of the living.”

Nonetheless, the years between 1968 and 1971 were a utopian moment in American culture. Black power, feminism, and socialism were on the agenda. When the account of the Stonewall riots appeared in the Village Voice in June 1969, my life changed all at once. I had long known that I was queer—that is, a homosexual—but I had never applied the word gay to myself. (Gay was the word used by homosexuals themselves.) Although I did not immediately join the gay liberation movement that emerged from the riots, within months I had consciously begun the process of coming out.

I moved to Philadelphia in the fall of 1970, and I arrived there as an openly gay man. Soon I heard about the Philadelphia chapter of Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). I joined and, not too long afterward, became its president. But I knew nothing about gay life; I had just begun going to gay bars and did not really have a gay social life. In addition, although I had immersed myself in the radical political theory of the New Left, I was a closet activist and had not participated very much in the antiwar movement. I was suddenly a “leader,” but I was pretty ignorant about political organizing. I imagined a political vision by adapting theories and political strategies from the black liberation and women’s liberation movements. My comrades and I in Philadelphia’s GAA also took guidance from the ideas and strategies of several groups, including the original GAA chapter in New York; activists in New York and Philadelphia who had been involved in the Gay Liberation Front (the organization that had preceded GAA); and the older members of the Homophile Action League, Philadelphia’s pre-Stonewall homosexual civil rights organization, particularly Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin.

Like many people in other 1960s movements, we thought only of the future. We had little interest in the gay and lesbian culture that already existed, except for relying on it to find sexual partners. Instead, we set out to create a liberated gay culture. Those of us in GAA constituted a new generation. We were often more contemptuous than we had any right to be of the older lesbians and gay men who participated in the “old” world of gay bars, butch/femme roles, and drag balls. At the same time, we dismissed a little too glibly those who, as “homophiles,” had sought to prove that homosexuals were not sick and were, in fact, just like other Americans, aside from having sex with members of their own gender.

Trying to Make History

A whole generation of men and women made an exhilarating discovery: so many of the stultifying norms, oppressive institutions, and social customs in 1950s America were not natural or permanent, but rather were social. It was a profound revelation. Racial injustice was not a natural law. Poverty could be eliminated. Young men did not necessarily have to fight wars that older men had started. Young men and women were able to break with what seemed to be eternal customs and mores: they could fuck whomever they wanted, smoke marijuana, and challenge authority.

There are very few moments in history when a whole generation is grippe by such a complex idea. When a moment like this occurs, it can have cathartic effects. The French Revolution was such an event, as were the unsuccessful European revolutions of 1848 and, after World War II, the independence movements in Africa and Asia.

So much of what one thinks of as “the 1960s”—its politics, sexual revolutions, drug experiences, and even ultimately the disillusionment of those involved—makes no sense unless one remembers the wildly exhilarating discovery that human beings could change the world. Of course, the militants of social change eventually discovered for themselves that history was hard to make—that “the social” could indeed prove intractable. The backlash against the 1960s—with a retreat to New Age fads, religion, therapy, and recovery—grew out of this disappointment.

In the wake of the disillusionment and frustrations about the social struggles of the 1960s, the significance and the awareness of the social almost disappeared. Because social change was difficult, painful, and demanding, requiring patience and persistence, we began to deny that it was possible. It seemed easier to try to change ourselves—to go to workshops on “the games people play”; to experience the primal scream; to learn massage, Zen meditation, or tai chi; to run or go to the gym; to stop smoking, drinking, eating, and fucking; to search for that oceanic feeling, that spiritual connection to nature or the goddess. The emotional turmoil of social change, as well as our youth, led us to seek refuge in religion or spiritual disciplines. There was a Zen to the art of motorcycle maintenance, but was there also a Zen of revolution—a wisdom that would enable us, potentially, to copy with the emotional trials of making history?

We lost sight of the social and its corollary—that men and women can make their history. Instead, we began to think increasingly in terms of psychological explanations or cultural interpretations. We reduced the social to a person’s needs, experiences, and childhood traumas, or to texts in which we searched for cultural codes. By a process of reduction and substitution, we impoverished the idea of the social—we now consider only economic processes and institutions to be social. All those other processes that shape our society (such as class formation, social stratification, or acculturation) have disappeared from our everyday intellectual frameworks. Many of these processes became “renaturalized” in the 1980s; people began to view gender differences, intelligence, ethnic characteristics, and sexuality as innate processes, not social ones. Without a sociological imagination, we lost our ability to navigate social change.

- taken from American Homo: Community and Perversity by Jeffrey Escoffier