The court’s failure to acknowledge the oppression that LGBTQ people face results, in part, from the tendency of leading gay-rights organizations to emphasize the progress of the movement and their commitment to find the silver lining in each defeat.
This is a relatively new development in gay-rights activism. In the 1970s, gay liberationists understood the need to draw on history to fight oppression. A cultural fixation that equated being gay with a night at the disco threatened to obscure the genuine violence and deep-rooted oppression many gay people experienced.
So they turned to history to make their point. Newspapers like the Body Politic offered gripping accounts of violence committed against gay people, beginning with a three-part series that exposed how Nazis persecuted gay men during World War II. By charting this history, gay activists informed the public about Nazi persecution of homosexuals, which did not appear in any historical accounts until the Body Politic and other queer pamphlets published it. Historian Jim Steakley, who wrote the articles in the Body Politic, hoped history would “advance the consciousness of society” and “add knowledge” for gay people to consider about their past. As he explained, “this knowledge mobilized people to join the movement in fear that something similar could happen.”
The gay press in the 1970s also continued to publish new stories of gay people being fired from their jobs, evicted from their apartments, beaten outside gay bars, and even mutilated by the infamous “freeway killer,” to expose their continual oppression.
Even since the rise of gay liberation in the early 1970s, violence has remained rampant among queer Americans. But it often has been framed as an aberration rather than as a fact of life. While many know of the assassination of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco city supervisor who was gunned down in City Hall in 1978, few know that playwright Tennessee Williams was beaten by a gang of teenagers the following year in Key West, a gay mecca.