Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

Reflections on the Gay Movement

Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This essay may not be republished without the permission of the author.

NOTE: This essay first appeared in Gay Sunshine Journal 22 (published in 1974 with Boston's Fag Rag as a fifth anniversary celebration of Stonewall. It was reprinted, with some amendments, in Gay Roots: An Anthology of Gay History, Sex, Politics and Culture, Volume 2, edited by Winston Leyland (Gay Sunshine Press, San Francisco, 1993). I have decided not to amend it further, but to present it as a historical document.

The primary cause of the modern gay liberation movement is the massive invasion of privacy characteristic of modern western culture. It isn't so much that we are coming out of the closets, but that our closets have been invaded and there's little else we can do. For fear of subversive revolution, the police state in America has broadened its definition of the public domain so as to extend its control over private life styles – a form of behavior typical of dying regimes. Teachers are being trained on the principle that their right to teach (i.e., their right to propagandize) extends from the public classroom into the private home, where parents weren't socializing children as effectively as the state required. One of the motivations behind the community involvement of progressive university programs is the need to divert the growing unrest of the potentially revolutionary lower clases.

The masters of the media have exploited bedroom/bathroom activity not merely to increase the market for deodorants and sex-aids, but to mould the patterns of private behavior into predictable, and hence controllable, outlets. Psychiatrists/psychologists/sociologists, through their official affiliation with educational/business/governmental agencies, have crippled the vital strangeness of intimacy, and have brought us to a poverty of the private self that forestalls revolution just as effectivelly as does abject economic poverty. The starving person is kept working for tomorrow's daily bread, or tomorrow's lay, rather than going without for the sake of next year's revolution. Civil police agents have become plainclothes decoys and private investigators into criminal activity, vice, drugs, conspiracy, and other phenomena of the countercultures and subcultures that a rapidly decaying culture can no longer afford to ignore in self-confident security.

Whather such developments are good or bad, or can or should be reversed, is beside the point. The point is that the old-line homophile ideology of the right to privacy was no longer tenable to those of us who recognized that privacy is virtually non-existent in modern culture. Of course we still talk about the right to privacy, adn it's a useful concept when arguing the fine points of constitutional law. But it's an ideal whose substantive reality can never be reclaimed. The modern gay liberation movement had little recourse but to proclaim, in effect if not in rhetoric, a right to publicity, and developed an ideology of coming out as a matter of course. The closet was becoming so intolerably delimited by the claims of an open-orientated society that it was becoming virtually impossible to live a double life of which half could still remain a secret. Somewhere in our educational/military/credit dossier is a note indicating that someone knows about our closet; gone are the days when homosexuals could have a large circle of friends who could provide a security next if one had to leave town quietly.

My point is that we didn't come out; we were squeezed out by those very same forces that heretofore had tried to keep us in. "Come out!" need never have been shouted so loudly. Whether they liek it or not, more and more people will be forced by society to join our ranks. This suggests that we will have larger resources from which to draw in the future. We would be foolish strategists indeed were we to waste these resources by channeling all of our energies towards any specific goal, such as a gay civil rights amendment to the Constitution. A great many rivulets will be emerging, and we've got to avoid damming them up as we did at the outset of the movement.

At this grass-roots/popular level of people who are out of the closet simply because of circumstances rather than political choice, the general mood will be conservative. This was also true at the beginning of the movement, and our failure to recognize it prevented us from effectively facilitating the growth through the reformist stage towards the revolutionary stage. There will be increasing numbers of us gamboling about looking for something to do, and hopefully we will be able to accommodate all workers. An ideology of "Never trash thy brother or sister" must become a categorical imperative. And at the same time we must recognize the difference between "trashing" and "using," between "exploiting" and "facilitating," so that we can develop strategies of implementating the functionally subversive potential of even the least radical thrusts of any part of the movement.

I wish we could postpone the revolution. I wish we could quietly spend our leisure time developing a sound ideology of liberation, while we spend much of our gay activist time engaged in humanistic reform. The simply humanitarian task of gay liberation is immense, so immense as to almost preclude the possibility of a large enough popular base for a program of revolution. Most of us still get barely enough sex / love / friendship to sustain us: the fifty-year-old homosexual priest still has his problems about coming out and getting old and being Roman Catholic; most of us still don't know what to do about our parents; and our ideology, such as it is, is thoroughly enmeshed with the American Dream.

Because we've been squeezed out at this particular time and place, the Healthy Happy Homosexual seems likely to conquer the gay liberation movement. More and more healthy happy homosexuals, quite ordinary blokes (like the ad say, no freaks, fats, fems, drugs, dopes, or leeches), are getting it together as couples, and together happily buying houses and cars and cameras, washing their underwear and "keeping it clean," preparing joint income tax returns like most other just plain folk in America, and healthily dancing to funky rock 'n' roll at healthy happy homosexual discos. When I discovered that most of us were mediocre instead of different, and that, if given half a chance, we would indeed become these healthy happy homosexuals instead of pure perverts, I wasn't at all liberated. I wasn't happy; I was a bit bored. When I discovered the existence of proud practicing pederasts, and sadomasochists, and drag queens and genderfuckers – then I was liberated.

When I first became active in the movement, I was always arguing tht the age of consent should be lowered to three (i.e., I wa shoping that the oppressive distinction between "child" and "adult" could be replace dby the revolutionary concept of "person"); and that total consent wasn't really absolutely necessary for determining the morality of an act; and that orgy was grand and S/M was fine (and maybe even water sports were okay). But people started yelling at me for upsetting the apple cart and killing the horse. Like most supersensitive adult male homosexuals, I shut up. I began my dutiful stint of appeariung on campus panels to present the cae that we all – every goddam last one of us – were normal, middleclass, respectable, and non-pederastic. I constructed such a perfect gay mirror'image of the American Dream that I almost believed that maybe we were normal, middleclasse, respectable, and non-pederastic. The thought filled me with utter horror, so I ceaed being an active gay activist. I became instead something of a "humorist gay historian" in public and a radical ideologue in private. I'm peeping out again.


In terms of submovements within the movement, the most significant development during the past five years (1969–1974) is the increased humanitarian emphasis within local communities. Telephone conseling services, child-care programs, community service centers, half-way houses, crash pads, etc. are noticeably increasing, paraprofessions who've abandoned the sickness theory of homosexual love are being effectively recruited, and the antihumanitarian aspect of homophobia in straight institutions is being challenged more and more successfully. Within this humanitarian movement there's a great deal of sloppy sentimentality, a great many silly notions about health and happiness and the key to the scriptures, and many do-gooders who attack the symptoms rather than the causes of oppression.

In the very long run this humanitarian movement, like all movements with strictly humanitarian goals, is doomed to failure (the Red Cross never stopped a war). Appeals to sentimentality, pity, and charity tend to reinforce condescending and patronizing attitudes which backlash when it comes time to demand one's rights; health and happiness is the normative pattern of the American Dream; do-gooders tend to be moralists. But I'm still glad that the humanitarians are very much on the scene. For one thing, they are valuably concerned with the age extremes that the liberationists and the reformists have tended to ignore, must to the deteriment of the gay community. We've exploite dour elderly for financial donations from behind the scenes, and abandoned our yougn for fear of a pedrastic image. People at the age extremes are ipso facto conservative ir not reactionary, and it's quite true they can be stumbling blocks for any ethic revolutionary group.

Revolution becomes increasingly difficult to the degree to which advanced cultures can preserve the presence of their older members and prolong the dependency of their younger members – I take that to be a neutral fact with which all revolutionary movements must somehow cope. I'm not sure how to cope with it except on the humanitarian level, which can be condescending, but I do know that it's crass and barbaric to ignore or exploit or repudiate the elderly for the sake of an imaginary future generation. The increasing number of under-age coffee-houses, crash pads, and parentl advisory services to a great extent have a specifically Christian religious motivation which is anathema to any ultimate liberation. But it's at least a start towards meeting the needs of a steadily increasing number of homeless young gay people.

In spite of the basically reactionary home / family / childhood concepts that humanitarians tend to approve, their parental advisory services tend to weaken the nuclear family unit just as heterosexual marriage / family counseling generally fails to hold families together while creating a more realistic situation in which they separate amicably. Regardless of the conservative nature of most humanitarian ideals, their activity itself is functionally subversive. if only because modern humanitarians tend to espouse slightly more radical ideas than their Victorian forebears. Most importantly, however, they broaden the base of functional people – people who are no longer helplessly hamstrung by their fear / guilt / oppression / isolation / loneliness, who will have more time and ability to contribute to the more liberationist part of the movement. All things in due course.


The reformist movement is proceeding about as well as we can expect it to proceed. The early women's rights movement channeled all of its energies into the single issue of obtaining the vote, and after fifty years of hard work they achieved the vote and found that it didn't make much difference. I imagine that the gay civil rights movement as such will take the same course, but that, given the more rapid pace of society, it will attain its dubious achievements more rapidly. I'm exceedingly relieved that the reformist front is being taken over by the professionals. It's unsufferably tedious for the gay liberationist to argue the fine points of any specific anti-gay law when the concept of "law" itself is an incarnation of oppression and of course has got to go. And the gay humanitarian is always frustrated when he or she leaves the courtroom or legislature. The reformists persevere because of their worldly wisdom – "it's all in a day's work" – and that helps the morale of the gay populace. We can conserve our energies while the experts handle things. Exactly what is being accomplished I'm not quite sure, and it's somewhat preposterous to argue for civil rights within the context of the death of civilization (hasn't anybody noticed?). It's rather had to argue that gay teachers should be allowed to be role models for gay students, when the concept of "role models" is almost as archaic as the "leadership model" of education, and educational systems are wobblings on their last legs.

It's feasible that the great education campaign of the reformists has inadvertently educated our oppressors as to the options open to them for effecting our oppression. If we had not attacked the sodomy statute on the grounds that the phrase "unnatural and abominable" was void to vagueness, the legislatures wouldn't be listing oral-anal and oral-scrotal acts to make everything crystalclear. But I don't blame the reformists for this – I think it was an inevitable reaction to the dying police state. Right now I think the reformists are functioning as a diversionary tactic, distracting society from the revolutionary principles at the core of gay liberation.


What really upsets me is that the liberationists haven't developed a radical ideology. For a variety of reasons, GLF groups are collapsing everywhere (are there any left?). The gay liberation movement that began in 1969 is now defunct, a matter for historical research, and we left-over liberationists have scuttled mostly to the humanitarian ranks, wondering why things happened the way they did. We didn't hold firmly enough to a "never trash they brother or sister" philosophy. When inner-directed guilt was transformed into out-directed anger, we weren't quite prepared for the fact that such anger automatically attacks the nearest available object instead of the enemy-at-a-distance. So we kept getting into these incredible bith fights. We might have gotten things under control if we hadn't run off to Washington and Cuba and conventons of other oppressed groups. But there's no use lamenting the passing away of what could have been.

But, being an incorrigible ideologue, I'm still disappointed that nothing of ideological significance has appeared since Carl Wittman's A Gay Manifesto. In that document – the most important document of gay liberation so far – Wittman made a number of very important points, including the following: "kids can take care of themselves, and are sexual beings way earlier than we like to admit"; s/m can be a "highly developed artistic endeavor, a ballet"; "we shouldn't be apologetic to straights about gay people whose sex lives we don't understand or share." Since then, we have internalized our oppressors' ideology to such a degree that Dennis Altman in Homosexual Oppression and Liberation can, by a curious doublethink, call hiimself a liberationist and still utter these thoroughly establishment sentiments: "My personal belief (hope?) [his parenthesis] is that transvestism / sexism would disappear were our social norms not so oppressive of men who exhibit 'feminine' traits and vice versa. Similarly I suspect sadomasochism is a product of a screwed-up sexuality that is also like to pass. The relationship between gay lbieration and those who practice both transvestism and sadomasochism, usualy stigmatized within as well as without the traditional gayworld, is one of the real challenges faced by the movement." Altman confesses that he wasn't able to meet the challenge in 1971, and by 1973 it still hadn't been met: in the Liberation Book Len Richmond and Gary Noguera acknowledge that they weren't able to collect any essays on S/M or transvestism. And we hardly hear a whisper about that other radical challenge: pederasty. Our ideology is going practically nowhere.

Of course there is such a thing as "a symptom of internalized oppression," but that's a very broad idea, and we tend to carelessly apply it before engaging in radical analysis. It is only superficially apparent, for example, that pederasty imitates a dominant / subordinant exploitative power structure. Radical analysis reveals that pederasty challenges the child/adult dichotomy imposed by Western culture, and it sould certainly be to our tactical advantage to foster pederasty because of its relevance to a radically transformed child-rearing. (I know PTA mothers will holler, but PTA mothers are obsolete.) Of course there are exploitative patterns in pederastic relationships, but it can be fairly well documented that such patterns were created by the oppressive "school" concept invented in the nineteenth century (and nothing in modern life had not been corrupted by this "school" tradition), but the root itself is still revolutionary. We've handled transestism in a similarly superficial and dismissive manner. We should have noticed that drag queens do not "imitate women" – the difference between drag queens and women should have been obvious to us, and not just because some drag queens are inept with their greasepaint. The "women" imitated by "female" impersonators are not "women" – they're "famous stars," usually Amazonian/lesbian type women who are self-defined and not simply an extension of The Man. Of course there's a lot of sexism in a lot of drag shows, which just means that sexism may have corrupted something that was not inherently sexist. If sexism originates in patriachal culture, as it does, then it is indeed strange that transvestism and transsexualism originated in the matriarchal culture of Asia Minor around 3300 B.C. Homosexual marriages (formal "mateship" contracts recognized by law) also originated in matriarchal cultures, it it's not the "pure and simple truth" to suggest that homosexual marriages "imitate" heterosexual marriages (there' some evidence to suggest eactly the opposite). It's been said tht sadomasochism is one of those dominant–subordinant things that will magically pass away with liberation comes. Any honest leatherman will tell you that he's neither sadist nor masochist but both, alternately and simultaneously, and a clear pattern of oppressor/oppressed or the master/male/active exploiting the slave/female/passive exists to the degree that it exists only becaue it has been corrupted by a society that demands sexist role-playing.

The primary ideology that's been developing lately is a very vague concept that Altman calls "androgynous bisexuality." The theory that we will all become androgynous bisexuals lacks a materialist basis and is frighteningly normative. We've fallen into the subject/object trap of heterosexism/dialectism, and wrongly defined "the polymorphous" in terms of sex stimulus rather than sex gratification. Pansexuality, a proper liberationist goal, simply means that one's entire body becomes erotically responsive (e.g., as in the cae of "cuddle freaks"), regardless of the gender of the stimulus (male, female, child, animal, veetable, Coke bottle, porn pic, what not). Such a goal can be achieved entirely within the context of exclusive homosexuality, though some of us are copping out to a "humansexuality" that still bears the traces of The Man's definition of (hetero)sex.

I don't think anyone has done much with our most radical idea of liberation: perversity. That's because it's our most dangerous (non-reformist, non-humanitarian) ideology, an ideology that even goes beyond cautious liberationism. Altman refers to Mick Jagger as a symbol of the androgynous bisexual goal, without mentioning that Jagger is also a symbol of Lord High Satan. If we're hearty radical analysts we should be able to go beyond androgyny (a mixture merely of male and female) to a mixture of human and ahimal. The great god Pan, symbol of pansexuality, was half-goat, and Satan has goat feet. Well, I'm becoming metaphoric. But I don't believe that revolution will be possible until we can open up the abyss, or that Satan can be transformed into bright Lucifer until we can climb upon him and achieve our desire. I don't mean to frighten away our humanitarians and reformists and cautious liberationists, but as a radical ideologue I simply can't close up shop at the point of humanism with its false dichotomy of human/inhuman, which is the origin of the false dichotomy of natural/unnatural.


I'm disappointed that there hasn't emerged a fourth group of gay strategists who might set about seeking way to interelate the activities of the humanitarians, the reformists, and the liberationists. Probably one reason for this lack is that we've been so excessively abused as non-persons that we justifiably refuse to use/exploit others in an impersonal manner. however, all known revolutions have require dthe Machiavellian manipulation of bodies of people, both one's own and one's enemies', often to their hurt and with full cynical knowledge that every revolution has its casualties. Herbert Marcuse in Eros and Civilization (1955) – a book that increasing numbers of gay liberationists are referring to – says quite bluntly that cultural revolution will first of all require an interim dictatorship in which the oppressors are eliminated and their repressive ideologies are purged. That's a bit heavy for young idealists, and most of them time we use the phrase "cultural revolution" strictly as a metaphor. I'd really like toknow if anyone is preparing a contingency plan just in case a real revolution comes, guns and all.

Of course guns are phallic symbols, and that raises the specter of male power structures. But not necessarily. In strict symbology, a gun is no more phallic, and no less phallic, than a television tower, and even the purest women's liberationists have not advocated not using the media because of its inherent power/influence structure. A gun is simply a tool like any other, which can be abused as an exploitative tool, or used for corrective repair. In some of my more "what's-the-use" moments, e.g., in response to a story about the use of the drug prolixin to "cure" homosexuals by inducing acute anxiety death panic, I envision a holocaust that seems the ievitable outcome of our collective rage, and I ope someone's around to direct that rage upon the nearest available heterosexist institution. My entire personality is so imbued with the influence of the humanist educational tradition that I cannot come to grips with questions relating to revolutionary violence as an instrument of change, so maybe it's just as well that the reformists and humanitarians are keeping us busy with committees and more committees and campaigns and community projects.

But I think it would be wise for us to at least give some careful attention to the potential revolutionary strateies inherent in the gay situation itself. Whereas women cannot persuade men to come womn, and blacks cannot persuade whites to become black, gays can certainly persuade straights to go gay. I see absolutely nothing wrong with proselytizin; to cringe under the accusation of proselytizing probably is a symptom of internalized guilt, and certainly exhibits a lack of gay pride. Proselytizing could be used to slightl swell our ranks, but mainly as a subversive tactic to play upon the self-doubt of machismo males. There's no better way to destroy machismo than to fuck it in the ass. We have a reformist ideology of the function of the secret voting booth; what we need is a radical revaluation of the function of the closet – certainy our invisibility would make for excellent saboteur tactics, if such become necessary. Some really interesting possibilities come to mind once we start thinking about it.


The consciousness-raising flurry at the beginning of the gay liberation movement held out the promise of transforming society by the aid of our heightened consciousness; i.e, it held out the hopes that a raised consciousness would automatically reveal ideologies and how to implement them. Because of our learned behavior for itnrospective anaysis, we quickly digressed into encounter therapy, encountering each other instead of confronting society, and at best achieved a temporary alleviation of loneliness. The radical gay media have become an extension of this encounter-therapy model, and the papers are filled witih many short testimonials and personal statements that don't really go anywhere. This is an important period for us men – and the gay movement is mostly a male gay movement – to go through, in order to release pent-up sorrow and discover fraernal tenderness. But now that we've told each other our sob stories, several times, with variations of rage, pity, joy, anger and other of the primary emotions, we're discovering a gnawing emptiness because we men, as men are presently defined/oppressed, still need that abstract idea to keep us going. On our road to gay liberation we've stopped long enough to weep over the slain. Insofar as our status for several hundred years has been that of anti-persons (demons, anti-social criminals, anti-religious sinners, unnatural / contra naturam / against nature, perverts) rather than merely inferior perons with the second-class citizenship of women and blacks, it was inevitable for us to clasp onto the very personal as a part of our liberation. And it is part of our liberation. But our emphasis upon the dignity of individual personality,particularly our obsessive insistence upon "personal" rather than "theoretical" discussion, indicates that we're becoming trapped by the false dichotomy of public/private constructed by our oppressors. I hope that gradually we begin re-recognizing that "dispassionate objective radical analysis" can also be an effective path to liberation. Personal self-affirmation and the joyful exuberance of first coming out has sustained us, but only just sustained us, for the grim and earnest tasks that lie ahead.

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton, "Reflections on the Gay Movement (1974)", Gay History and Literature, 12 April 2012 <>.

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