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How Boomers Helped Shape the LGBT Movement

'The Gay Revolution' author on the struggle and what's left to do

Having come of age — and come out — in the 1950s, historian Lillian Faderman has personally witnessed the advent of the modern LGBT rights movement. In books like Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians and two memoirs, Faderman has chronicled aspects of the community as it exited the closet and sought to claim its place in the larger world.

In her ambitious new book, The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle, Faderman depicts the LGBT movement’s historical arc from the 1950s to the present day. As part of her research, she interviewed dozens of significant figures, including former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.); Edie Windsor, a plaintiff in the lawsuit overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and Cleve Jones, founder of the AIDS Quilt.

Faderman talked to Next Avenue about the impact of boomers on the rise and success of the LGBT movement, President Barack Obama’s role in shaping LGBT history and why gaining the right to marry isn’t the final step in the quest for equality. Highlights:

Next Avenue: You’ve written extensively about the LGBT culture and movement. What surprised you most during the research for The Gay Revolution?

America has changed in wonderful ways, but it’s dangerous to think that even if we defeat the right on the marriage issue, our fight is over.

— Lillian Faderman, author 'The Gay Revolution'

Lillian Faderman: What was astonishing to me even four years ago, when I started doing the writing, is how much things had changed.

I came out as a lesbian at the age of 16 in the 1950s. Those were the bad old days, probably the worst time in the history of the country to be gay or lesbian or transsexual. The psychiatry profession defined us in its diagnosis and statistical manual of mental disorders as sick, beginning in 1952. In every state of the union, sodomy was against the law — all homosexuals were criminals.

The 1960s began with gay rights picketers in suits and dresses holding orderly pickets in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia and ended with the tumultuous Stonewall Riots in New York. What role did boomers play in this shift?

[Pioneering activists] Barbara Gittings and Frank Kameny from the homophile organizations were extremely brave, considering what the 1950s were like, and to do as much as they did in the early ‘60s was astonishing.

What fascinates me is that the last demonstration in front of Independence Hall in 1969 came just a few days after the Stonewall Riots. They were getting young people from New York to join the protests in Philadelphia. But their expectations were different.

Lillian FadermanCredit: © Phyllis Irwin
Lillian Faderman
The young people didn’t grow up wearing suits and ties and dresses. They were products of the ‘60s. They saw the black movement and how the real attention came when African-Americans rioted. They saw the feminist movement and how the real attention came when women invaded the Miss America pageant and burned their bras. They saw the anti-war movement and the mass protests and how appropriately scruffy the protesters looked.

You don’t have to dress up to make your point. You make your point better if you don’t, and if you’re not marching in an orderly oblong.

How did these more aggressive tactics trickle down to the mainstream?

The Stonewall generation was loud and got attention. It allowed other people who weren’t young to tell their stories.

I write about Dr. Howard Brown, who had been the health commissioner for the city of New York and was living in Greenwich Village during the Stonewall Riots. He was first repelled by the rioters, but they gave him the courage to come out. His story was told many times over by middle-class and upper-middle-class people because scruffy radicals made it safer to come out than it had been before.

Let’s fast forward to 2006, when you saw then-Senator Barack Obama speak at the Miami Book Fair. Did he give an inkling that he would become a major champion for the LGBT community by ending the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and becoming an advocate for marriage rights?

He said: ‘If I were starting a movement, I wouldn’t begin with gay marriage.’ Of course, the movement had started before he was born. [He also said] when his mother and father were married in 1961, there were 18 states in the United States where they could not have married — ‘How could I be against same-sex marriage?’

I realized this is a guy whose heart was in the right place, and realized he was going to go far.

Now that marriage equality has become the law, what’s left to be accomplished on the LGBT rights agenda?

There’s no question that America has changed in wonderful ways, but I think it’s dangerous to think that even if we defeat the right on the marriage issue, our fight is over. For instance, we still don’t have a federal bill that protects us all in things like employment and housing and public accommodations.

How does this legal uncertainty affect people over 50?

Even for people who came of age in the ‘60s and were out their whole lives, they sometimes have gone back in the closet when they have to move to a senior facility and don’t want to deal with the hassle of discrimination.

Until we get a federal [non-discrimination] law such as the one [the late Rep.] Bella Abzug tried to pass in 1974, even if we can get married, we’re not absolutely safe. In many states, we can get married on Sunday and fired on Monday.

How would you classify the LGBT movement and its advocates today?

Marriage captured the public’s attention — it’s something straight people can understand, wanting to commit to someone, wanting to have a settled life. But it’s not for all LGBT people. I wanted to show the huge diversity of us. There is no one LGBT movement.

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