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LGBTQ Radicalism as A Framework Beyond Rights

Emily K. Hobson

In the ground-breaking 1977 documentary about gay and lesbian lives, Word is Out, one of the film’s subjects historicizes gay liberation as developing “on this other side of 1968.” The speaker, actor Tom Fitzpatrick, is one of twenty-six people profiled in Word is Out, which was directed by a six-person collective of gay and lesbian filmmakers and broadcast on many PBS stations.[1] Though the film highlights some historical experiences, it makes no mention of the Stonewall riots of June 1969. Instead, Fitzpatrick cites 1968 as a moment that broke open space for many kinds of outsiders, including those moving against norms of sexuality and gender.

The film’s linking of sexual politics to 1968 offers important insights for LGBTQ history. In particular, it challenges us to take a broad view of the formation of gay liberation, as well as of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) radicalism more generally. Word is Out aside, looking to 1968 need not mean discounting Stonewall—a critical turning point by any standard, when quotidian resistance erupted into three nights of rebellion against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn, a Greenwich Village gay bar. But 1968 does help us acknowledge Stonewall not just as spark but as fire, a sign of something already set ablaze before the riots. It offers a sign by which to situate sexual politics in relation to race, class, gender, and nation, and to consider how LGBTQ radicalism has differed from rights.

The year 1968 brought a dizzying proliferation of radicalisms across the United States and globally. It was a year of dramatic violence, including the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, and the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, to name only a few examples. Workers, students, and prisoners organized general strikes around the world, and protests featured increasingly militant responses to police. In the United States alone, the anti-Vietnam War movement, Black Power, women’s liberation, Chicano, Asian American, and Native American movements expanded. The era’s multiplying and interconnected movements also propelled new thinking about homosexuality and gender expression. A growing number of activists described sexual freedom as interwoven with struggles against imperialism, capitalism, and war. As they did so, they began to build movements toward gay liberation, trans liberation, and lesbian feminism.

A growing number of activists described sexual freedom as interwoven with struggles against imperialism, capitalism, and war.

LGBTQ radicalism represented one strand—or better, one large grouping of strands—in a web of sexual politics. Gay, lesbian, trans, and bisexual radicals of the late 1960s and early 1970s placed themselves on the left. They embraced anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, and internationalism; favored tactics of street protest and direct action; and criticized liberal strategies of legal rights and electoral change, calling them inadequate or assimilationist. These stances put radicals in tension with the homophile movement, meaning gay and lesbian organizing as it had developed from the late 1940s to 1960s. While some homophile groups held leftist roots, the movement was predominately liberal in orientation.[2] LGBTQ radicals split from homophiles on issues including the Vietnam War, Black Power, feminism, self-expression, and protest tactics. For example, in March 1969, gay radicals in San Francisco asked the city’s homophile activists to abandon the goal of gay inclusion in the military and instead to oppose the Vietnam War draft.[3] When the homophiles refused, the radicals struck out on their own and formed the local Gay Liberation Front. This organization’s name purposely echoed the terms of national liberation struggles in Algeria and Vietnam.

LGBTQ radicalism overlapped with organizing by people of color, though certainly not all LGBTQ people of color identified as radicals, and white radicals practiced uneven antiracism.[4] Likewise, many gay and lesbian radicals resisted bisexual and trans self-assertion in practice, even as they celebrated gender transgression and sexual fluidity in theory.[5] The terms of recognition were limited by broader social realities, especially for trans people. Activism could risk making a carefully guarded trans identity public, while people in sex work or street economies often found they were seen as the wrong kind of subjects for organizing. The contemporary term LGBTQ helps to open a broader narrative and to name change over time. Still, the dominant categories of LGBTQ radicalism remained gay and lesbian in the late 1960s through 1980s, with bisexual and transgender (or variations) incorporated slowly, principally from the 1990s on. Starting in the late 1980s, the category-crossing framework of queer politics offered a critique of assimilation and of neat boundaries between identities.

Many who embraced liberal frameworks of gay, lesbian, or LGBT rights saw their radical colleagues as pursuing left agendas at the expense of gay and lesbian concerns. But radicals argued that the politics of gender and sexuality could not be addressed without transforming structures of class, race, and nation. Thus, in the split over the draft, gay liberationists saw the Vietnam War as part of a system that oppressed them as gay people. They defined draft resistance as a means of subverting the masculine norms that excused antigay violence. Many gay radicals encountered intense homophobia in the student left but found a welcome in antiwar veterans’ and GI groups. By 1971, several leaders of Vietnam Veterans Against the War came out as gay, antiwar GI newspapers covered gay politics with interest, and gay radicals organized open contingents in antiwar marches.[6]

Police abuse presented another galvanizing issue. Opposition to police harassment, entrapment, and raids certainly predated Stonewall and bridged homophile and gay liberation organizing. But while homophiles had principally turned to the courts, the kindling of a new radicalism was struck in protests to defend urban spaces frequented by trans people, people of color, and young, countercultural gay and lesbian community. The 1966 riot at Compton’s Cafeteria, led by trans women and drag queens in San Francisco, and protests at Los Angeles’s Black Cat bar, led by younger gay men in 1967, were two early flashpoints.[7]

LGBTQ radicals’ responses to police were tied to their transgressive approaches to gender and sexual expression. Homophile activists were not prudish; many defended the publication of erotica and pornography, citing rights to privacy and free speech.[8] But they were more likely to suggest that gay men and lesbians should address police mistreatment by avoiding cruising sites, visiting only the most “respectable” (white and middle class) gay bars, or refraining from gender transgression. As the sexual revolution and counterculture took hold, homophiles’ relative normativity fell out step.[9] Radicals sought freedom through public difference: not just a right to privacy, but the ability to express gayness “in the road, in the streets.”[10]

Alongside these claims, radicals expressed antiracist critiques of police. They described mistreatment of LGBTQ people as continuous with other police abuses, especially against Black, Chicano, and Puerto Rican people. At times, particularly when responding to police abuse of gay and lesbian people of color, they understood racism and homophobia as working together. By 1969, LGBTQ radicals began to join in defense of the Black Panther Party and its jailed leaders. This support raised controversy in gay liberation and lesbian feminism, as many were shaken by the misogyny and homophobia expressed by Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver. But the Panthers drew strong backing from people of color groups such as Chicago’s Third World Gay Revolution and New York’s Black Gay Caucus, as well as from mixed groups with a strong presence of people of color, such as the Gay Liberation Front in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and Gay Women’s Liberation in the Bay Area. Expressions of solidarity grew wider following Huey Newton’s declaration, in the fall 1970, of the Party’s support for gay and women’s liberation.[11]

If looking to 1968 sheds light on LGBTQ radicals’ early goals, it also helps us examine the persistence of LGBTQ radicalism over time. Popular narratives of LGBTQ history tend to describe the late 1960s as a short-lived era of political theater, soon eclipsed by more coherent legal, legislative, and electoral advocacy for gay and lesbian rights. But it is more accurate to describe the gay and lesbian rights framework as growing alongside radical approaches. By the mid-1970s, radicals were building a lasting gay and lesbian left. Through publications, protests, conferences, and local campaigns, they organized in defense of the radical underground, in support of gay and lesbian prisoners, against racism in gay bars, and on many other concerns. They were guided variously by socialist-feminist, Marxist-Leninist, women of color feminist, and anarchist approaches. Across these differences, they shared a view that sexual and gender freedoms were inseparable from broader revolution, and that gay and lesbian people had something to teach the wider left.

By the end of the 1970s, LGBTQ radicals played central roles in campaigns against the New Right. Their participation in such alliances were strategic and contingent. Dominant frameworks posed liberal engagement in the Democratic party as the best means of curtailing conservatism. Leftists were suspicious of whether these avenues could be successful and wary of losing their independence by joining in. Threats such as California’s Proposition 6 (the “Briggs Initiative”), which sought to ban gay and lesbian teachers, and the Supreme Court decision upholding laws against sodomy (Bowers v. Hardwick, 1986), drew leftists and liberals together in large mobilizations.[12] Yet LGBTQ radicals also fought back against conservatism through other means. They brought gay and lesbian issues into activism against the racist right; they worked in the antinuclear and anti-apartheid movements; and most powerfully, they organized gay and lesbian solidarity with Central America—that is, in movements against U.S. intervention in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.

The Central American solidarity movement began in the mid-1970s among Central American exile and immigrant communities. It grew across the Reagan-Bush years, peaking in the mid- to late-1980s. LGBTQ people not only participated in straight-dominated Central American solidarity groups, but also formed distinct, specifically gay and lesbian organizations and travel brigades. Latinx gay and lesbian activists, including Central American exiles and immigrants inside the United States, played important roles.[13] The movement bridged LGBTQ and Latinx communities, especially in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and the Southwest. It also built ties to gay and lesbian organizing inside Central America, challenging the assumption that LGBTQ identities belonged to the global North.

Gay and lesbian solidarity developed particular strength in support of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution, which overthrew a U.S.-backed dictatorship and replaced it with populist socialism. The Sandinista government’s lack of codified antigay policy stood in clear contrast to the early years of the Cuban Revolution, and this, combined with the strong presence of women Sandinista leaders, galvanized feminist, lesbian, and gay support.[14] LGBTQ radicals in the United States described themselves and Central Americans as sharing common enemies under Reagan and Bush. They saw cuts to U.S. social programs as conjoined to efforts to overthrow the Sandinistas and to back the right-wing Salvadoran government. With the AIDS crisis mounting, bumperstickers, banners, and chants declared “Fight AIDS, Not Nicaragua,” and “Money for AIDS, Not War.” Informed by this, at the start of the first Gulf War in 1991, queer and AIDS activists interrupted the CBS Evening News by storming the broadcast studio chanting “Fight AIDS, Not Arabs.”[15]

Radicals argued that the politics of gender and sexuality could not be addressed without transforming structures of class, race, and nation.

Left influences on HIV/AIDS activism carried well beyond slogans. The scope of the epidemic, both for gay men and for women, children, and IV drug users, made it evident that antigay policy could not be neatly divided from profit-driven health care, poverty, or racism and sexism in medical treatment. The first AIDS protests, in 1984 through 1986 in San Francisco and Chicago, were led by activists experienced in antinuclear and Central American activism.[16] By 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) formed in New York and mushroomed nationally. ACT UP captured media attention with direct action protests and powerful graphics, many by the arts collective Gran Fury.[17] Targeting institutions from Wall Street to the National Institutes of Health, it played a key role in valuing the lives of people with AIDS, including by addressing intersections of racism, sexism, and homophobia. ACT UP helped lead a years-long, ultimately successful campaign to expand the Centers for Disease Control definition of AIDS to include women and IV drug users. It fought to expand drug trials to include people of color, and to address the housing needs of people with AIDS.[18] ACT UP was just one among many radical responses to HIV/AIDS. For example, another mode of queer radicalism developed behind bars, as incarcerated people organized HIV/AIDS peer education in prisons and jails.

While LGBTQ radicalism persisted from the 1990s forward, organizing for gay and lesbian rights gained growing influence, and became coupled to a neoliberal politics of privatization and market-driven inclusion. Many rights activists invested deep hope in the Bill Clinton presidency, and though betrayed by his administration on issues of marriage and military inclusion, came away more deeply invested in these goals. Queer radicals, by contrast, remained opposed to military inclusion, and many saw marriage equality as both a misdirection of organizing resources and a misguided approach to economic equality.[19] Today, marriage equality has been won, and military inclusion gained for lesbian, gay, and bisexual people, while withdrawn for trans people under Trump. Yet radical LGBTQ agendas persist, encompassing issues including anti-trans violence, LGBTQ immigration, policing and incarceration, and the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis among African Americans and in the U.S. South.[20] Rights activism forms an essential part of LGBTQ history, but it does not describe every aspect of LGBTQ politics, nor has it succeeded in incorporating all LGBTQ goals into a unitary vision.

With growing attention to trans politics, to histories of intersectional feminism, and to tensions between left and liberal agendas within and outside the Democratic Party, the time is ripe for scholarship and teaching that takes seriously the history of LGBTQ radicalism. Addressing this history is essential to a full accounting of the queer past as well as of social movements. Starting with 1968, as a symbolic moment of interconnection and proliferation, offers a useful entry point for understanding the myriad ways that LGBTQ radicals have understood sexuality and gender as sites of political connection and sources for transformational social change.


Emily K. Hobson is the author of Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (2016). A scholar of radical movements and LGBTQ history in the postwar United States, she serves as Associate Professor of History and Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as the Co-Chair of the Committee on LGBT History.


[1]Word is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, directed by Mariposa Film Group (1978; New York, New Yorker Films, film); Greg Youmans, Word is Out: A Queer Film Classic (2011).

[2]On these shifts and tensions, see especially Marc Stein, Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement (2012); John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 19401970 (1983); Nan Alamilla Boyd, Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (2003); Emily K. Hobson, “Policing Gay LA: Mapping Racial Divides in the Homophile Era, 1950–1967,” in The Rising Tide of Color: Race, State Violence, and Radical Movements Across the Pacific, ed. Moon-Ho Jung (2014), 188–212.

[3]“Homo Revolt: ‘Don’t Hide It,’” Berkeley Barb (March 28–April 3, 1969). For further discussion, see Emily K. Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (2016).

[4]For the 1970s and 1980s, sources include Kevin J. Mumford, Not Straight, Not White: Black Gay Men from the March on Washington to the AIDS Crisis (2016); Horacio N. Roque Ramírez, “‘That’s My Place!’: Negotiating Racial, Sexual, and Gender Politics in San Francisco’s Gay Latino Alliance, 1975–1983,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 12 (2003): 224–58; Hanhardt, Safe Space.

[5]See for example Emma Heaney, “Women-Identified Women: Trans Women in 1970s Lesbian Feminist Organizing,” TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, 3 (2016), 137–45.

[6]Richard R. Moser, The New Winter Soldiers: GI and Veteran Dissent during the Vietnam Era (1996), 92, 100, 150; Andrew E. Hunt, The Turning: A History of Vietnam Veterans against the War (1999), 136–37; Ian K. Lekus, “Interview with Amber Hollibaugh,” Peace & Change, 29 (April 2004), 266–321. The gay liberationist newspaper Gay Sunshine and the GI newspapers All Hands Abandon Ship and GI Gay Liberation Experience are among important primary sources.

[7]On the Compton’s Cafeteria riot, see Susan Stryker and Victor Silverman, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2005; San Francisco: Independent Television Service, DVD); Susan Stryker, Transgender History (2008); Christina Hanhardt, Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence (2013). On the Black Cat protest, see Hobson, Policing Gay LA, 188-212.

[8]Marc Stein, “Canonizing Homophile Respectability: Archives, History, and Memory,” Radical History Review, 120 (2014), 53–73; Whitney Strub, “The Clearly Obscene and the Queerly Obscene: Heteronormativity and Obscenity in Cold War Los Angeles,” American Quarterly, 60 (June 2008), 373–98.

[9]See especially Betty Luther Hillman, “‘The most profoundly revolutionary act a homosexual can engage in’: Drag and the Politics of Gender Presentation in the San Francisco Gay Liberation Movement, 1964–1972,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, 20 (January 2011), 153–181; Tanisha C. Ford, Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (2015).

[10]“Gay . . . Gay?” flier, undated [late 1969], Charles Thorpe file, San Francisco Public Library.

[11]Hobson, Lavender and Red, 31–4, 51–3; Amy Abugo Onigiri, “Prisoner of Love: Affiliation, Sexuality, and the Black Panther Party,” Journal of African American History, 94 (Winter 2009): 69–86; Marc Stein, “‘Birthplace of the Nation’: Imagining Lesbian and Gay Communities in Philadelphia, 1969–1970,” in Creating a Place for Ourselves: Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Community Histories, ed. Brett Beemyn (1997), 253–88. See also Timothy Stewart-Winter, Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics (2016).

[12]Useful sources include Miriam Frank, Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America (2015); Vicki L. Eaklor, Queer America: A People’s GLBT History of the United States (2008).

[13]Latinx has become adopted as a gender-neutral term to refer to Latina and Latino people and communities. Gay and lesbian solidarity groups included Gay People for the Nicaraguan Revolution, Lesbians and Gays against Intervention, the Victoria Mercado Brigade, and the Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Work Brigade. The Boston-based Gay Community News, among other publications, covered Central American solidarity extensively.

[14]On debates over Cuban policy, see Ian Lekus, “Queer Harvests: Homosexuality, the U.S. New Left, and the Venceremos Brigades to Cuba,” Radical History Review, 89 (Spring 2004), 57–91.

[15]“AIDS Protestors Enter Sets of 2 Newscasts,” New York Times, Jan. 23, 1991, p. 18. The second interruption, on the Macneil/Lehrer Newshour (PBS), did not occur before a live camera and so was not broadcast.

[16]Hobson, Lavender and Red, 155–58, 162–5.

[17]Avram Finkelstein, After Silence: A History of AIDS Through Its Images (2018); Deborah B. Gould, Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight against AIDS (2009).

[18]Jennifer Brier, Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses to the AIDS Crisis (2009); Gould, Moving Politics.

[19]Tim McFeeley, “Getting It Straight: A Review of the ‘Gays in the Military’ Debate,” in Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights, eds. John D’Emilio, William B. Turner, and Urvashi Vaid (2000), 236–50; Lisa Duggan, The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy (2003); Dean Spade, Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics, and the Limits of the Law (2011).

[20]For an introduction, see Linda Villarosa, “America’s Hidden HIV Epidemic,” New York Times, June 6, 2017.