Gay Rights Movement Essay

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The Gay Rights Movement - A Historiographical Analysis

Homosexuals have been despised for much of history, but only in the latter half of the 20th century and the 21st century have gay people gained greater visibility and acceptance. In the United States, this could happen because of the Gay rights movement that originated in the 1950s. Some historians address the Gay Rights movement in regards to the mainstream perception of gay people. Others address the movement in regards to how they were viewed in the American political landscape; some even talk specifically about the political landscape and gay people during the specific eras, such as the Cold War or the AIDS Crisis. Some writers would also write about the political organization of this movement, and some specifically talk about how it interacted with other movements as well.

In Benjamin Bishin, Thomas Hayes, Matthew Incantalupo, and Charles Anthony Smith’s journal article, the authors discuss the mainstream response to LGBT issues, more specifically about the potential backlash the community might face. The thesis of this article is that through the examination of online and natural experiments involving LGBT issues, researchers have found that marginalized groups need not fear backlash from the public when promoting their cause. Backlash is when a dominant group reacts adversely to social changes pushed by an oppressed group and is stimulated by any action (legal or political) that causes large-scale change. Through experimentation, they found that there was a lack of backlash, and it was not attributed to changes in attitudes towards gay people. This allows the researchers to conclude that marginalized groups shouldn’t fear backlash, as groups that claim backlash will happen are politically motivated.

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The first chapter of Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, also talks about how gay people lived within the mainstream culture during the early 20th century. The author talks about what life was like for homosexuals during the early to mid-1900s before the gay rights movement was formed. She talks about homosexuality during Prohibition, during which people could be gay more openly, as, during Prohibition, the lines between commoner and criminal were much blurrier. She also talks about the medicalization of homosexuality, and homosexuality during World War II. The classification of homosexuality as a disease prevented some homosexuals from serving in the military, but most served anyways as they could lie about it. Hirshman also writes about how men who were discovered to be gay in the army were not entitled to veterans’ benefits after World War II.

Leila Rupp’s article deals with the intersection of gay and straight history. The thesis of this article argues that LGBT history has had an impact on all sorts of history outside of itself. The author writes about how gay love ended up playing a part in defining what heterosexual love is. She also writes about the intersection of homosexuality and other topics, such as race, the history of certain political ideologies, and certain important historical events. She also talks about homosexuality in the contexts of both urban and rural areas.

In Scott Hoffman’s article, the author discusses the social impact the martyrdom of Matthew Shepard had in regard to LGBT acceptance. The thesis of the article is that Matthew Shepard’s death and the culmination of the social and political circumstances of the time led him to become a martyr, which gained lesbians and gays more acceptance. The author writes that in America, martyrdom has a different context than the Christian context assigned to it. He also writes about the series of events after Matthew’s death, including the increased acceptance of lesbians and gays and protective legislation against hate crimes (Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Act). The article also writes about how increased sympathy for gay people with AIDS helped Shepard’s death become a tipping point for widespread LGBT acceptance, how discussions on the internet fueled the belief that he was a martyr, and how the common occurrence of martyrdom in American history contributed to Shepard’s martyrdom.

A.S Cohan’s journal article talks about the mainstream point of view of the Gay Rights movement as well, but it also delves into the political response to the movement, as well as the organization of the movement.. The thesis of this article argues that there are four main obstacles for the gay rights movement: Gay people’s unpopularity, the unwillingness of the Supreme Court to recognize them as a group deserving of rights, the cumbersome nature of the American government, and the fractured nature of the gay rights movement. The article argues that because gay people are a minority, they are subject to the tyranny of the disapproving majority. It also talks about the fractured nature of the gay rights movement, as well as the difficulties the movement faced while trying to secure legal rights.

Shana Kushner Gadrian and Eric van der Vort’s journal article talks about how homosexuality is treated in American political rhetoric. The thesis of this article is that disgust rhetoric is extremely influential and powerful, especially when used in the context of gay rights. The authors write that disgust has been frequently used in rhetoric against the LGBT community. Disgust rhetoric invokes feelings of disgust, connecting things such as lesbians and gays to completely unrelated ideas that evoke a primal feeling of disgust, and it establishes a societal boundary for what is deemed acceptable. However, these attitudes can be changed through certain means, such as representation in the media.

In 'The Politics of Gay Rights in American Communities: Explaining Antidiscrimination Ordinances and Policies,” the authors explain what factors in an area lead to the creation of anti-discrimination policies for gay people. The thesis of this article is that whether states or cities pass legislation that supports the lesbian and gay community depends on the area’s level of urbanization, diversity, the strength of the lesbian and gay community there, how easy it is for groups to gain power in government, and how liberal or conservative the area is. More urban areas tend to have more protections for gays and lesbians because these areas have a large culture from their own, somewhat insulating them from the larger culture, which allows subcultures to develop and politically organize. Also, people from urban areas tend to be more indifferent or permissive to people who practice behaviors that they themselves don’t practice. Areas where there are more gays, where local government officials are more likely to be gay, or where there are more gay-oriented services (like gay bars) are also more likely to have more protections for homosexuals. If an area’s government is open to changes in interests, political support is available for groups involved in government, and the area has a better-educated population, the area will tend to have more legal protections for gays as well. Also, because the gay cause runs contrary to traditional models of family, gender, sex, and the like, areas that tend to be socially conservative will have fewer protections for gay people.

In 'Americanism, Un-Americanism, and the Gay Rights Movement, “ the author write about the political response to the Gay Rights Movement during the Cold War era. The thesis of this article is that during the origins of the gay rights movement during the Cold-War era, the movement received lots of criticism for being “Un-American,” or damaging to American society and that this criticism has been a common theme in this ongoing movement. The article documents how the movement would respond to such criticism. The movement would generally accuse those who accused them of being Un-American, stating that to deny LGBT people of rights is contrary to American values. At the end of the article, the author writes about how using this sort of rhetoric results in larger consequences, making relations between disagreeing groups more polarized.

In 'Support for Confrontational Tactics among AIDS Activists: A Study of Intra-Movement Divisions.', the authors discuss how the AIDS crisis affected the gay rights movement. The thesis of this article is that political distrust, suffering, more radical ideologies, and differences in the location of members lead to intra-movement divisions. This is demonstrated by the gay rights movement during the AIDS crisis. ACT-UP, a group within the gay rights movement, made disruptive demonstrations pushing the government to take action. However, some people were less willing to take such action, generally because they were in different social circles that weren’t as affected by AIDS (the straight men in the movement, for example). These differences led to divisions within the movement.

In 'Coming out against the War: Antimilitarism and the Politicization of Homosexuality in the Era of Vietnam.', the author discusses the Vietnam war and how it impacted the structure of the gay rights movement at the time. This article’s thesis is that antiwar protests against the Vietnam war helped fuel the gay rights movement. This article puts the movement in the broader context of the various radical movements that occurred in the 1960s, which were triggered by the antiwar protests. Specifically, the article puts the gay rights movement in the context of the rising New Left. It also shows how specific issues of the Vietnam war, such as issues surrounding the draft for gay men, were handled by gay activists.

In Kenneth Wald, James Button, and Barbara Rienzo’s article, the authors show that the structure of the Gay Rights movement at the time is what allowed the events at the Stonewall Inn to become a catalyst, rather than the other way around. It also shows how the type of message the movement was oriented around played a part in its success. The thesis of the article is that the practice of social action, the active empowerment of oppressed communities, is vital in activism, as demonstrated by the gay rights movement. The author writes that the gay rights movement was meticulously planned and well structured when Stonewall happened, rather than relying on spontaneous events or charisma. The gay and lesbian community gained political footholds all over the nation so that when Stonewall happened, the news could be communicated throughout the country. The gay rights movement also relied on tactics similar to black liberation movements, such as civil disobedience. They also focused on demanding equality, not on assimilating to the rest of society.

In Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution, the author writes about the formation of the early gay rights movement. In the second chapter, Hirshman talks about the founding of the first gay rights organizations. The group that is most talked about is the Mattachines, which was founded based on communist theory about marginalized groups. Their notable achievements were the first gay magazine ONE, and their success in getting Roth v. United States overturned. This allowed the dissemination of gay media, such as magazines or poetry. In the third chapter, Hirshman writes about the gay rights movement in the context of the sixties. The sexual revolution ended up helping the gay rights movement, as the sexual revolution led to the introduction of The Pill, which, along with several Supreme Court cases (Skinner v. Oklahoma and Griswold v. Connecticut), made birth control legal.

This established that sex and reproduction are two separate things in the eyes of the law, and Justice Wiliam O. Douglas’ opinion stating that people have a right to privacy in the bedroom helps further the legal cause for gay rights. The sixties also led to the further radicalization of the movement, which led to several Supreme Court victories (Scott v. Macy, Norton v. Macy) that were huge steps to protecting gay people from being fired. This decade is also characterized by shifting public opinion towards gay rights, and generally more attention being brought to the movement. However, the movement was getting caught up in New Left politics, causing them to take up New Left issues, resulting in internal divisions. The biggest dividing factor in the movement was whether to emphasize the similarity gay people had with heterosexual people, or whether to establish themselves as their own community, separate from straight people.

All of these sources were well written and relatively easy to read. However, the most engaging source was definitely Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. The language is clear, engaging, and easy to comprehend. Rather than being written like rote history, it is written like a novel; it makes the movement seem like a grand quest. Because it is written like this, the obvious protagonist becomes the supporters and organizers of the movement. This leads to a bias towards the movement, but it is still a great source nevertheless. It is also the most comprehensive, covering from the beginning of the 20th-century to close to the present day. One source that presents an intriguing insight is “'Last Night, I Prayed to Matthew': Matthew Shepard, Homosexuality, and Popular Martyrdom in Contemporary America.” This provides an interesting insight as to how Matthew Shepard’s death pushed LGBT acceptance into the mainstream, as well as encouraging discussion about martyrdom in American culture. Another intriguing article is “The Gag Reflex: Disgust Rhetoric and Gay Rights in American Politics,” providing illuminating insight as to how exactly some politicians have conveyed disgust towards gay people. The discussions in this article can also be applicable to other marginalized groups as well, making it all the more intriguing.


  1. Bishin, Benjamin G., Thomas J. Hayes, Matthew B. Incantalupo, and Charles Anthony Smith. 'Opinion Backlash and Public Attitudes: Are Political Advances in Gay Rights Counterproductive?' American Journal of Political Science 60, no. 3 (2016): 625-648.
  2. Cohan, A. S. 'Obstacles to Equality: Government Responses to the Gay Rights Movement in the United States.' Political Studies 30, no. 1 (1982): 59–76. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9248.1982.tb00519.x.
  3. Gadarian, Shana Kushner, and Eric van der Vort. 'The Gag Reflex: Disgust Rhetoric and Gay Rights in American Politics.' Political Behavior 40, no. 2 (2018): 521–543. doi:10.1007/s11109-017-9412-x.
  4. Hall, Simon. 'Americanism, Un-Americanism, and the Gay Rights Movement.' Journal of American Studies 47, no. 4 (2013): 1109-1130.
  5. Hirshman, Linda. Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2012.
  6. Hoffman, Scott W. ''Last Night, I Prayed to Matthew': Matthew Shepard, Homosexuality, and Popular Martyrdom in Contemporary America.' Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 21, no. 1 (2011): 121-164. doi:10.1525/rac.2011.21.1.121.
  7. Jennings, M. Kent, and Ellen Ann Andersen. 'Support for Confrontational Tactics among AIDS Activists: A Study of Intra-Movement Divisions.' American Journal of Political Science 40, no. 2 (1996): 311-334. doi:10.2307/2111626.
  8. Poindexter, Cynthia Cannon. 'Sociopolitical Antecedents to Stonewall: Analysis of the Origins of the Gay Rights Movement in the United States.' Social Work 42, no. 6 (1997): 607-615.
  9. Rupp, Leila J. 'WHAT'S QUEER GOT TO DO WITH IT?' Reviews in American History 38, no. 2 (2010): 189-198.
  10. Suran, Justin David. 'Coming out against the War: Antimilitarism and the Politicization of Homosexuality in the Era of Vietnam.' American Quarterly 53, no. 3 (2001): 452-488.
  11. Wald, Kenneth D., James W. Button, and Barbara A. Rienzo. 'The Politics of Gay Rights in American Communities: Explaining Antidiscrimination Ordinances and Policies.' American Journal of Political Science 40, no. 4 (1996): 1152-1178. doi:10.2307/2111746.
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