Gay Emancipation Goes to Market

In her 2009 essay “Stonewall was a Riot – Now We Need a Revolution,” longtime Asian American lesbian activist Merle Woo affirmed Sylvia Rivera’s argument that the Stonewall rebellion was a multicultural and multiracial insurgency. Woo wrote, “Stonewall’s customers were mostly Black and Puerto Rican, young teenage street queens, dykes and effeminate gays.” Touching on the significance of that night, she continued, “This was the night that drag queens, transgendered folks, lesbians and gays said NO! No more to gay oppression, police brutality, societal contempt. The homophobia that had oppressed so many for so many years would no longer be tolerated.” She went on to connect homophobia to the other oppressions that bedevilled folks in the Stonewall Inn and the larger society in general: “Did they say ‘No’ to racism because they were Black and Puerto Rican? Or ‘No’ because of their gender or sexual orientation? Was it ‘No’ because they were poor and working class? It was all those things.” For Woo, Stonewall was not about the triumphant and militant rise of a single-issue politics or identity. It was the night that outsiders “challenged sex-role stereotyping, racism, and class bigotry.” In her words, “They challenged the dysfunctional monogamous nuclear family, its patriarchal values, oppression of women and children, and sermons that sex is for procreation only.”

I begin with Woo because of the ways in which she contextualizes the last chapter’s discussion of Rivera, Johnson, and STAR’s broad political interventions. I also do so to point to how Woo’s retelling of the origins of Stonewall suggests an ideological struggle over the meaning and details of Stonewall. In Woo’s narrative the details are much more heterogeneous than the dominant narrative suggests. There were African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and lesbians, and in Woo’s narrative the social makeup of the people in the Stonewall Inn mattered for the kinds of political demands and visions that made up queer liberation. Indeed, the dominant narrative that has come to define gay liberation is one that occludes how Stonewall was a tributary for a variety of social struggles, not just sexuality. In Woo’s account, those social differences did not resolve themselves into a universal and one-dimensional politics that would simply assert sexual liberation to the exclusion of all else.

This chapter considers how this version of the Stonewall rebellion was replaced by a one-dimensional and non-intersectional narrative that depoliticized gay politics. Taking its understanding of depoliticization from a 1966 essay by Stuart Hall in which he defines it as the treatment of a political issue in a “non-political way,” the chapter considers how gay politics responded to the intersectional potentials of queer liberation by cleaving struggles over sexuality from similar struggles over race, poverty, and gender oppression. As sexuality was depoliticized, it was turned into a “private grouse” rather than the inspiration for public redress. Put simply, the contours of depoliticization as it came to shape queer politics emanated from a backlash to the multi-issue character of radical trans and queer politics. This depoliticization did not represent the absence of politics so much as the regulation of politics. As this chapter will show, regulating the multidimensional possibilities of queer politics was part of an effort to make that politics cohere with the political and economic stipulations of liberal capitalism.

The Political Phenomenon of Depoliticization

Three years before the Stonewall rebellion, Hall wrote the essay “Political Commitment,” which — among other things — critiqued the use of opinion polls and statistical analyses of voting and election trends as the basis of political strategies. The scholars Sally Davison, David Featherstone, and Bill Schwarz contextualize Hall’s piece by writing, “in 1960s Britain the privatisation of politics was already underway and could be named as such. Connected to this was his apprehension that a peculiar quality of the established political system was its capacity to depoliticize politics itself .” Hall described this depoliticization as part of the “end of ideology” trend within the sixties, a trend that shunned ideological positions and defined politics as the basis of that rejection. As he put it, “It is … the belief that there is something inherently wrong in seeking ideological models and explanations at all: that modern technological society renders all ideology obsolescent.” A result of this phenomenon is that ideology and politics are constructed as diametrical opposites: “Within this framework of thinking, ideologies are always described as holistic, millenarian, violent, apocalyptic: whereas politics is practical, pragmatic, middle-ranged, the art of the possible.” As Hall proposes, the end-of-ideology discourse becomes the reigning narrative of the West: “In some ways, this attempt to drive a wedge between politics and political theory, between piecemeal engineering and social revolution, is the most dynamic ideology we have ‘in the west.’”

Marcuse had pointed to this very phenomenon in 1964. He wrote in One-Dimensional Man, for instance, that technological advances and mass production and distribution had been maneuvered in industrial capitalism against social transformation and critical thinking. About this process, he said, “The most advanced areas of industrial society exhibit throughout these two features: a trend toward consummation of technological rationality, and intensive efforts to contain this trend within the established institutions.” Pointing to the ideological result of this containment, he said the “pattern of one-dimensional thought and behavior” emerges in which “ideas, aspirations, and objectives” are reduced to the given terms of the social order. In their own ways, Marcuse and Hall both pointed to how Western societies were moving toward the narrowing of political universes in the 1960s, reducing politics to the possible and the given.

In addition to reducing politics to the given state of affairs, for Hall depoliticization was also made up of the privatization of the political. As he stated, “I mean the experiencing of issues which are public in character as an unrelated series of private grouses” that culminate in demands that are not articulated “in terms of general expansion and development of community provision … but in a series of structurally disconnected grouses.” In terms of a political and social situation, this degradation of the political produces a situation in which “the issues fragment, disengage, dissipate. The general discontent becomes sectional discontents, and sectional discontents are by their nature conservative in temper, in that they seek to advance one section against another within the model of the scramble, the affluent free-for-all.”

Rather than a problem at the level of individuals, depoliticization was seen as a systemic process arising from dominant political and economic orders. As a way of disciplining progressive politics, depoliticization as an ideology worked to confine the political to those standpoints approved by the established systems. Part of depoliticization’s maneuvers was to neutralize thinking and actions that tried to transcend the status quo. Neutralizing progressive thinking and action entailed unraveling the potential for politics to produce a constellation of political endeavors. As such, depoliticization denoted the attempt to sever the links between the public and private as well as between one type of struggle and other sets of struggles. Thus, depoliticization denotes the process by which social grievances become private and discrete matters. In a moment of social insurgencies, depoliticization represented a variety of political and economic efforts that were attempting to achieve dominance in the context of those insurgencies.

Gay Politics and the Beginnings of Depoliticization

The seeds for depoliticizing queer politics were sown almost immediately after the Stonewall rebellion. For instance, while Woo, Sylvia Rivera, and others may have narrated Stonewall as the culmination of coalitional struggles, other forces within gay communities would narrate the rebellion in ways that would discredit its coalitional origins. For instance, an article from the Mattachine Society Newsletter stated, after describing the bloody aftermath of the fighting between police and drag queens,

[the] composition of the street action had changed. It was no longer gay frustration being vented upon unsuspecting cops by queens who were partly violent but mostly campy. The queens were almost outnumbered by Black Panthers, Yippies, Crazies and young toughs from street gangs all over the city and some from New Jersey. The exploiters had moved in and were using the gay power movement for their own ends.

The article frames the entrance of the Black Panthers, Yippies, Crazies, and young toughs as the moment that the rebellion lost its coherence. Rather than people who may have also been invested in gay liberation or queer themselves, the article constructs them as miscreants who were taking advantage of the situation. Indeed, by referring to the Black Panther Party and the Youth International Party (popularly known as the Yippies) as “exploiters,” the Mattachine article suggests that the non-queers were interlopers in the struggle for gay liberation and that the heterogeneity of the moment was counterfeit. While the Stonewall rebellion, for Woo, Rivera, and others, was part of a larger ethos of connected struggles for liberation, for the Mattachine article there were no connections to be seen.

In her book Selling Out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market, Alexandra Chasin argues that newsletters such as the one from the Mattachine Society helped to produce a thriving homophile movement. Noting the ideological function of the newsletters and the gay and lesbian press, in general, she states, “the gay and lesbian press has played a pivotal role in making gay men and lesbians think of themselves as gay, and as members of the gay community.” Moreover, groups such as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis as well as their respective publications “[downplayed] the value of social and collective action,” asserting instead the importance of gay respectability. As Chasin states, “These periodicals enjoined readers to observe convention and ‘live decently,’ in the hopes of proving that homosexuals could be productive members of society, individuals worthy of … [civil] rights.” Echoing this sentiment, the editor of the Mattachine Review, Hal Call, argued in 1963, “‘To get along, we had to go along. We had to stay in step with the existing mores of society. We had to because we didn’t have the strength of tissue paper to defend ourselves’.” Given the pressure to conform to the existing societal norms, it is little wonder that the reporter for the Mattachine Society Newsletter would frame the presence of the Panthers and the Young Lords as an exploitative rather than a possibly coalitional outcome.

As an article that interpreted the heterogeneous presence of various progressive communities as the evidence of political illegitimacy, it was also a means of trying to construct queer communities and struggles as separate from other marginalized communities and struggles. In doing so, the article was implicitly contesting the interpretations of Stonewall as a multi-faceted event that exceeded single-issue politics, interpretations that — as Rivera and Woo suggest — were coming from segments within queer communities themselves. We can read the article, seen in this way, as part of a struggle not only over the meaning of queer identity but over queer politics as well. The Mattachine article was hence paradigmatic in that it signaled an increasingly dominant response to the coalitional foundations and possibilities of gay liberation struggles. A discourse would emerge that would associate coalitions and critiques of capitalism from radical queer organizations with expressions of homophobia and totalitarianism, associations that would ostensibly prove the practicality of single-issue politics.