The Summer of Our Discontent

The same edition of Gay & Lesbian Review that I touched on last time—its Stonewall Special—contains an essay by author and publisher John Lauritsen: “The Rise and Fall of the GLF.”1 I reread the piece last month.

Shortly after Stonewall in the summer of ’69 Lauritsen attended a meeting of gay people who were debating whether to align with the antiwar movement, with which John had been involved since 1965. He and the other radicals at the meeting carried the day and so the group eventually was dubbed Gay Liberation Front, a nod to the National Liberation Front—aka Viet Cong—of Vietnam. This is an example of the overlap I always saw as perfectly natural. As a kid I organized against the war in high school and did a book report on James Baldwin’s Another Country.2 Others might have preferred cubbyholes over connections.

nAIDSayer

I first became acquainted with John Lauritsen’s writing through the pages of the New York Native, a gay biweekly founded by Charles Ortleb, publisher of Christopher Street magazine. I’d been picking it up in L.A. and later subscribing because of its stories critical of the medical establishment’s stance on HIV and AIDS. (Only later would I read that the Native published the first article in the popular press about AIDS, in 1981.3) The Native’s Wikipedia entry features an image of the biweekly’s cover of June 1, 1987, quoting Lauritsen’s critique of AZT. Besides Lauritsen I’d been reading other AIDS renegades like scientist Peter Duesberg, who questioned the role of retroviruses in cancer and AIDS and whom John was the first to interview. (Read about John’s many writings on the subject here.)

New York Native cover image

Gay Liberation’s 150th Anniversary

More recently I’ve consulted Lauritsen’s book The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864–1935) coauthored with David Thorstad.4 The authors begin by observing that

the Stonewall riots represent not the beginning of gay liberation but the beginning of a new wave of gay liberation. 1969 marks a rebirth, an anniversary—indeed, one might say the 100th anniversary of gay liberation.5

And the authors describe yet another historical overlap—in their chapter Socialism and the Early Gay Movement. It’s a good introduction to an under-appreciated period in the struggle for liberation(s).

Early Homosexual Rights Movement cover image

Versus the Voice

On my second reading of Lauritsen’s essay about GLF I took note of what he calls the group’s “first major demonstration.” It was a picket line—not against, say, The New York Times, which forbade the word “gay” until 19876—but against The Village Voice. I was astounded. I’d subscribed to the Voice in the ’80s in order to stay on top of music trends, and I found it to be extremely gay friendly. What a difference a decade makes. And I suspected I might know why GLF had targeted the Voice.

In a footnote to my previous post, Vaniegem and Bubblegum, I mention that one of the two reporters in the Voice’s immediate coverage of Stonewall, Lucian K. Truscott IV, wrote this past February about another, earlier subject: being groped by Cardinal Spellman while trying to interview him for the West Point cadet magazine The Pointer. I kinda forgot about that until rereading Lauritsen, who writes that the GLF picket line was incited in part by the Voice‘s “antigay article about Stonewall.” I wondered if Truscott might have been the author. Fortunately, Google now archives publicly the Voice’s run of 999 editions between 1954 and 2004.

The initial riot reporting is riveting, regardless of subsequent scrutiny. Truscott was joined on the front page of the July 3, 1969 issue by columnist Howard Smith. Truscott—a newly minted West Point grad waiting to report to Fort Benning—was well read enough to compare the first night of Stonewall to a William Burroughs novel. And a “fairy tale.” Apart from the usual mention of limp wrists as well as Truscott’s martial “forces of faggotry” and “gay brigade” the piece is relatively straightforward. As is Smith’s; he actually followed the police into the Stonewall Inn while they waited for reinforcements. Could either of these be the anti-gay story that caused the GLF to picket?

Since I’d corresponded with John Lauritsen in 2012 about an unrelated matter I didn’t hesitate to ask him about this last month. No, the article was penned by Walter Troy Spencer in the July 10 edition of The Village Voice.

Spencer begins that installment of his occasional Last Call column, titled “Too Much My Dear,” with what NBC News in June (2019) called “coincidence” rather than “cause and effect.” And it’s been quoted often, even if Spencer’s source is all but forgotten:

The combination of a full moon and Judy Garland’s funeral was too much for them, Dick Neuweiler said the other day, assessing the cause of the Great Faggot Rebellion.

Spencer strings a strand of tedious complaints lodged over the years anytime people rise up: the inconvenience, the injury to themselves and their businesses, the cops such great guys (with a sense of humor) and, as Spencer puts it, the “ugliness on both sides.”

Still, why the GLF ire? Reading Spencer today he seems typical of the time. Except that it was The Village Voice. And except that the other motive for GLF’s picket line, explained by Lauritsen in his essay, is that the Voice “refused ads for the GLF dance on the grounds that ‘gay’ was a dirty word.” And except that the second page of Truscott’s July 3 article features an ad, reproduced below: innuendo ignored.

Spoiler alert: The GLF demo “was a resounding success,” as Lauritsen writes in his essay. He recounts this and more in deliberate detail in a GayToday.com story from 2004.

West Side Y ad image

Querying the Q-word

John also sent me a personal reflection on Stonewall’s 50th anniversary in which he argues against adoption of the term “queer.” As he states in the GL&R essay, while the GLF men met night after night to define their aims, they concluded that “gay” should be the preferred term for use by themselves and others—despite any unfamiliarity by the general public. “It was not clinical like ‘homosexual,’ timid like ‘homophile,’ or hateful like ‘queer.’”

Fast forward to a world where “queer” has been embraced from the avenues to academia. One might make a comparison with gay appropriation of the Nazis’ pink triangle a generation ago (not to mention Christians’ embrace of the instrument of crucifixion). But a symbol is not a word, even in this emoji-laden era. I 🔻 You?

The triangle had more than a fifteen-year lead in use and so it seems almost relegated to a bygone era. Not necessarily so for queer. While staffing a booth at the Creating Change conference in 2015 (we offered books from AK Press, an oasis in a desert of NGOs and such) a man older than me came up to the table and remarked that queer to him was a pejorative. Impatient with my inarticulate explanation, a woman younger than me interjected: Suppose I’m a lesbian and have a relationship with a trans* man; gay simply isn’t expressive enough.

Read Lauritsen’s “Stonewall 50 Manifesto: Gay Men Are Not Queers!” and see what you think.

Lauritsen is not alone in his criticism of queer, however, reprinting four other authors’ reflections (and two more of his own). He begins with John Rechy, who himself begins by picking apart the male/female use of the suffixes “-or” and “-ess.” This is a slippier slope than gay/queer because it nearly begins and ends with the terms actor and actress. Rechy writes:

In an excess of purported equality, some Hollywood actresses want to be called “actors.” How sad and self-defeating. Doesn’t opting for the male-designated noun, actor, imply superiority of that male form?

We’re so familiar with these two terms that the switch to which Rechy refers is a jolt (if we hadn’t been paying attention). But why it matters to Rechy—and anyone else—says a lot about how we regard thespians and thespiennes in contrast to those engaged in other pursuits. The feminine suffix -ess is applied to female sculptors but generally not to painters; to female masters but few curators; sometimes to female authors (retaining the “o”) but rarely to operators. To female abbots, adulterers, and even tigers, but rarely to female scholars and tutors and barbers. As a child I recall a neighbor discussing her experience with a negress—but never since. This week, while seeing a dermatologist, I abandoned any impulse to address her as Doctress.

And since I’m nitpicking…. Another of Lauritsen’s reprints, by Arthur Evans, invokes

Ganymede, the beloved of Zeus. In ancient Greek, the word “Ganymede” (Ganumedes) means both cheerful and homosexual, just like our word “gay”. Both words come from a common Indo-European root (ga-).

I realize this supports Evans’s contention that gay and its meanings precede the nineteenth century, but Zeus’s “beloved” often is portrayed as having been abducted. And I realize also: that was then and this is now. But to cite Ganymede in the course of discussing the “insult” of queer is noteworthy because this mythology touches the taboo of pedophilia and, well, kidnapping, trafficking, and servitude if not slavery, even as Ganymede was compensated as celestial cupbearer and made immortal—whether he liked it or not.7

What’s in a name?

Rechy, Evans, Lauritsen, and the two other writers he presents—Wayne R. Dynes and Stephen O. Murray—all remark on the q-word’s mean meanings.

1queer adj [origin unknown]  1 a : differing in some way from what is usual or normal  b (1) : ECCENTRIC, UNCONVENTIONAL (2) : mildly insane : TOUCHED  c : absorbed or interested to an extreme or unreasonable degree : OBSESSED  d : sexually deviate: HOMOSEXUAL  2 a : WORTHLESS, COUNTERFEIT〈~ money〉b : QUESTIONABLE, SUSPICIOUS  3 : not quite well
  2queer vt  1 : to spoil the effect or success of〈~ one’s plans〉2 : to put or get into an embarrassing or disadvantageous situation
  3queer n : one that is queer; esp : HOMOSEXUAL8

The writers point out that embrace-of-queer disregards the sting of queer-as-invective for older people. Dynes argues, “In the seasoned veteran’s view the newcomer seeks to reinvent the wheel.” Murray’s belief is “that those who despise differences will always be very happy to accord that label to anyone who wants it.” Of course, this is the conundrum of sexual liberation: to be given permission to be different, to revel in difference, to be tolerated in difference, to revolutionize in difference, to homogenize difference….

The arguments collected by Lauritsen are laid out well and the reader can decide on the vigor of their various vintages—Dynes 1995, Murray 1997, Lauritsen 1998 (and 2019), Rechy 2005, Evans 2009. And yet I wondered as I read them why I was unmoved. Coming into a sexual sensibility in the 1960s, I am old enough also to have a sense of queer. Still I can’t recall it ever being used. Fag on the other hand seemed to be the insult of choice. And like Rechy, I can’t imagine an academic discipline coalescing under the designation of “fag theory.” Reimagining gay, just as queer has been, is worth considering, if it’s not too late.

Header image: spread from
The Gay Liberation Book (1973),
ex-University of Vermont Library

Notes
  1. A teaser for the essay is available here.
  2. A couple of years later I would find all of Baldwin’s books on the shelves of my future wife Andrea Carney. Years after that we became acquainted with Stan Weir, who had worked and dialogued with Baldwin. See this section of my earlier post The feeble strength of one.
  3. Edward Alwood. 1996. Straight News: Gays, Lesbians, and the News Media, New York: Columbia University Press, 211.
  4. The book was published in 1974 with a revised edition in 1995. In my review of Martin Aston’s 2017 volume on gay music I note the similarity between the production notes included in Early Homosexual Rights Movement by its publisher, Times Change Press, and those in a 45 RPM single issued by the British band Scritti Politti.
  5. Lauritsen and Thorstad, 5.
  6. Brian Bromberger, “The Man Who Took On The Times,” Gay & Lesbian Review, Mar–Apr 2017, 17.
  7. For a wry take on this tale see W. H. Auden’s “Ganymede.” And the late John Boswell discusses Ganymede at length in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1980).
  8. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1981, 939.

2 Replies to “The Summer of Our Discontent”

  1. My objection to the word “queer” to describe homosexuals is that it is too much like the word “different.” Different from what or whom, I ask? It implies some norm that homosexuals (and all those on the LGBTQIA spectrum) are not part of. The norm is human, and it inlcudes LGBTQIA and add one more — H for heterosexual.

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