lgbt activism

How LGBT Activism Turned Politics Gay

It is 2016 and we all know that this is an election year. Like every other quadrennium it is a year that politicians vie for the support of everyone they can. One of those large groups of supporters is the gay community. It wasn’t until the US Presidential Election of 1992 when the first nationwide poll asking voters about their sexual orientation that we saw the gay demographic documented. According to Murray Edelman, the director of Voter Research and Surveys, an association of the four television networks, which conducted the poll, said that 2.4 percent of the voters identified as gay or bisexual. He also estimated that it may have an undercount since many choose either not to disclose or fail to complete the poll questionnaire all the way to the end. He estimated that it could have been as high as 5 percent.

QueerClout

But LGBTQ influence inside politics certainly did not begin in 1992. The book Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics by Timothy Stewart-Winter offers us a glimpse into the trajectory of the gay movement from the 1950s all the way to the 1990s. This time the story shifts from well-known Metropolises in California or New York and brings it inland to the Midwest.

Stewart-Winter is the Assistant Professor of U.S. history, specializing in political culture, social movements, and urban history in the Newark College of Arts and Science. He has written for the Journal of American History, the Journal of Urban History, Gender & History, the Journal of the History of Sexuality, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Dissent. He also holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago.

In a lecture by Stewart-Winter at the University of Chicago, he spoke about the struggles that Gay and Lesbians endured only half a century ago:

“Gays and Lesbians were social and political pariahs facing harassment wherever they go. The path of Gays and Lesbians to political power ran through City Hall and developed primarily in response to the constant threat and harassment under which they lived.”

During the ’50s and ’60s gay people were persecuted relentlessly. They were fired from their jobs in the infamous “Lavender Scare” of the 50s under Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti communist propaganda. Their bars were targeted and raided resulting in mass incarcerations. The police force resorted not only to harass them publicly but also employed entrapment tactics where they would dress in plain clothes and proposition homosexuals, once the person agreed they were arrested. The ones incarcerated were further shamed by having their names, addresses and place of employment printed on the local newspapers.

Little by little small organizations of “Homophiles” (they adopted the word on the assumption that if you took out sexual from the portrayal of gay people it would be easier to the general public) gathered in different areas around the country discussing ways that they could influence success of their cause against inequality.

Amidst all the opposition from the government and society Stewart-Winter recounts that cities were becoming a sort beacon for gay people to be around like minded people and seeing that the migration had a political effect Stewart-Winter adds that ” it was then that they recognized they had rights that were being violated and that becoming engaged in the political process as gay people was one possible solution to the problems that they faced in everyday life.”

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Gay Liberation Front rally in downtown Chicago April 16, 1970, Photographer: Margaret Olin

Groups of gay activists such as Mattachine Midwest among others forced themselves and encouraged others to be an active part of the election process. Throughout the coming decades they gathered and enlisted voters to such a degree that they were recognized as a powerful movement. Such was the case that politicians that years later had garnered votes by raiding their establishments and taking them to jail were now ironically campaigning in those same bars to gain their support.

“By the 1970s gay people had created explicitly gay organizations, agencies, clinics, religious congregations and more for the first time.” — Stewart-Winter.

In June 26, 2015 we saw one of the biggest victories regarding LGBTQ rights when Gay Marriage was made legal nationwide in the USA. The Gay and Lesbian cause has traveled a long road and being involved in the political process of our nation has been a great influence in making that a triumphant one.