In the established historical narrative, the Stonewall Uprising in New York City in June 1969 marks the birth of the modern political struggle for gay rights. But historian Justin David Suran argues that an all-encompassing aspect of the Sixties has been downplayed or even ignored in what he calls this “Stonewall-centered version of gay history.”
This was the movement against the war in Vietnam. The war radicalized a generation and made homosexual liberation “a political force” among many young, gay men of that generation. The first street protest in San Francisco by large numbers of out homosexuals, for instance, was an antiwar demonstration not a gay rights demonstration.
“Identity-based solidarities were a crucial factor in antiwar organizing and antiwar activities played a critical role in the formation of identity-based movements such as Gay Liberation,” writes Suran. “A militant antiwar ethos was absolutely central to the formation of a specifically ‘gay’ identity in the United States.” The personal was very much political: antiwar politics brought gay liberation out of the political closet.
“Antiwar organizing was, for many, sexually liberating,” he writes.
Suran explores the Vietnam generation’s differences from the earlier homophile civil rights groups that coalesced after World War II. The Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and later, the Society for Individual Rights were typically made up of people with memories of the military’s anti-homosexuality purges in WWII and Korea. (In 1952, for example, the Navy discharged more than a thousand men for homosexuality.) The homophile organizations understood dishonorable discharges as socially and economically disastrous for those affected and argued that respectability for gays necessitated their integration into the military.
Twenty years after WWII, however, a new generation faced the draft. Draftees had to answer yes or no to a question about having “homosexual tendencies.” Whatever that meant, it put some in a terrible bind. If untruthful, checking “no” was a violation of federal law and a reason for dishonorable discharge. Checking “yes” on the other hand, could mean loss of security clearances, no chance for civil service jobs, or a listing at the FBI. And, because draft boards were local affairs, “yes” could also lead to a forced outing in one’s own community.
But by the second half of the Sixties, disqualification from service became the goal of many, consequences be damned. “Because induction interviews were more about seeming gay than being gay,” writes Suran, heterosexual men helped normalize the acknowledgement of homosexual “tendencies” or conduct by trying to “queer out” of the draft.
This made it harder to for young men to prove they were homosexual, especially if they didn’t fit the stereotypes of effeminacy. Evidence was demanded, including arrest records and letters from doctors or psychiatrists. “As a consequence of such requirements,” notes Suran, “homosexual men were sometimes disbelieved and drafted, while heterosexual men able to obtain the appropriate letters or mimic homosexual stereotypes were deferred.”
So the Vietnam-era draft forced gay men “not merely to admit their homosexuality, but to assert a homosexual identity.” What was a political awakening for many—asking why Americans were in Vietnam—was also a political-sexual awakening for young, gay men. Wartime mobilization mobilized radical dissent that acted as an internal push for coming out: “many gay people chose to oppose the Vietnam War as gay people.” [italics in original]
Gay liberation groups were deeply involved with the antiwar movement. From San Francisco’s Committee for Homosexual Freedom to New York City’s Gay Liberation Front—a name chosen to invoke Third World revolutionary movements—these radicals defiantly opposed the war, “macho” militarism, and “the long-standing homophile demand for integration into the armed services.”
As a consequence, when Leonard Matlovich challenged his discharge for coming out as homosexual in the Air Force in 1975, becoming one of the most famous gay Americans of the decade, he initially had little support in Gay Liberation circles.
The year 1975 also saw American withdrawal from South Vietnam. The draft had been ended in January 1973. These were victories for the antiwar movement but also the beginning of a general de-radicalization and a depoliticization. The Seventies would be about the self.