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Social Problems, May 1999 v46 i2 p207(1)

The class-inflected nature of gay identity. Steve Valocchi.

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1999 by the Society for the Study of Social Problems, Inc. Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner. In an eloquent and insightful autobiographical essay about the intersection of class, ethnicity, and sexuality, French Canadian historian Allan Berube chronicles his coming out process in the early 1970s. With the announcement of his sexual orientation to his working class parents, he realized the class-inflected nature of gay identity in that period:

They accepted my being gay. But they heard me describing my homosexuality in the language of those more powerful and more educated than they were and saw my homosexuality as one more indication that I had entered elite worlds that were changing me beyond recognition. Through me they saw "gay" as college-educated - and I couldn't deny it, since, in my middle-class worlds, that's what I had learned too. (Berube 1997:58-59)

Of course, Berube knew that "we are everywhere," at every class level, and in every racial group. Nonetheless, a gay identity was communicated to him by middle class people, in middle class settings, and through organizations concerned with middle class issues. This process - the intersection of middle class understandings of homosexuality and the political creation of a gay collective identity - is the subject of this article. What were those understandings of homosexuality? How did they emerge? What were the alternative understandings? And how did the former set of understandings become incorporated into the early identity-making process of the lesbian and gay movement?

Sociologists who study the process of collective identity - "the shared definition of a group that derives from member's common interests, experiences, and solidarity" (Whittier 1995:15) - suggest that the identity-making process occurs as a result of both internal processes of network building, culture making, and consciousness raising as well as external processes of social control and state regulation. What is missing in these accounts (D'Emilio 1983; Gamson 1997; Taylor and Whittier 1992) is a focus on whose material and political interests are represented and pursued at both these levels in the identity-making process. While this literature has done a good job in specifying the conditions under which individuals with same-sex desire came together and made sense of their collective experience (D'Emilio 1983; Kennedy and Davis 1993), it has not examined systematically which expressions of that desire were valorized (and conversely, de-valorized) by both agents of social control, on the one hand, and the interest-pursuing populations in communities of same-sex desire, on the other. As I hope to show, the social construction of gay identity in the twentieth century took place in a structural context of state control of 'threatening' sexualities and middle class anxieties over gender non-conformity. These class-inflected influences on the emergence of a collective gay identity affected the recruitment strategies, the organizations, and the political issues of the lesbian and gay movement.

Historical research on homosexuality documents a shift that occurred during the first half of the twentieth century in the notion of 'the homosexual,' from a gendered definition (i.e., a biological man acting in sociologically feminine ways, a biological women acting in sociologically masculine ways) to a definition unhinged from gender and hinged to sexual object choice (i.e., being attracted to members of one's same-sex [Chauncey 1994]). This research also documents that a collective identity developed only in conjunction with the latter definition and did so in the latter half of the twentieth century (D'Emilio 1983). The article's first task is to examine the class-inflected processes involved in these shifts. How did the process of group formation take place for lesbians and gay men? Who created the boundaries and established the meaning systems associated with the group enclosed by those boundaries? Who was excluded from or made invisible by this process and what was the basis for this exclusion or invisibility? The second part of the article links this analysis of the class-inflected nature of group formation to the emergence of the organized collective action of lesbians and gays from the 1950s through the 1970s. How did this process affect the political organizations of lesbians and gay men? How did the boundaries constructed and the meanings implied by this process affect who would join these organizations and what the concerns of these organizations would be? Finally, what impact did the gay liberation movement have on this class-inflected definition of collective identity?

Collective Identity and Class Interests

In the past ten years or so, sociologists who study social movements have 'discovered' the concept of collective identity, viewing it as either a prerequisite of a movement (McAdam 1982), something created in the heat of struggle (Fantasia 1988), a resource used strategically in battles with elites or counter-movements (Bernstein 1997), or as a goal of a movement (Melucci 1989). While much of this renewed interest has focused on the internal factors involved in the making of collective identity, collective identities are best seen as products of both internal and external dynamics: as things made up from below by interest-pursuing populations in the process of social interaction as this interaction, and thus these identities, are shaped by the external forces of political opportunity and social control (Taylor and Whittier 1995:173). Social constructionist accounts of collective identity, for example, identify such factors as social networks of activists, autonomous cultural spaces for association, ongoing efforts at consciousness raising, and episodes of confrontation and negotiation between in-group and out-group members as key in the development of a lesbian and gay collective identity (Mueller 1994; Taylor and Raeburn 1995; Taylor and Whittier 1992). These internal processes, moreover, occur within a shifting set of political opportunities which affect both the quantity and quality of networks, spaces, and episodes of confrontation as well as the probability that collective identity can be mobilized successfully for concrete social change (Bernstein 1997; McAdam 1982; Whittier 1995).

What is left un-theorized in these analyses of collective identity is if and how power relations in general and class interests in particular shape the boundary making process implicit in the notion of collective identity.(1) Internally, the class positions of some set of actors and activists can create more powerful social networks, more highly valued cultural spaces, and episodes of confrontation where the terms of the confrontation are determined by the more class-privileged segments of the aggrieved group.(2) The concept of political opportunities is used by some social movement scholars to refer to the external power relations within which movements operate. The concept refers more often to the structural limits placed on (or structural opportunities available to) movements once that group has acquired a collective identity, and says little about either the power that dominant groups possess to name or about the material and political interests that lay behind that power. Dominant groups exercise a cultural power that labels some individuals as members of groups and others as outside of group boundaries. This labeling can occur through the cultural institutions of the media, literature, and the arts but, more importantly for groups still without recognition from the dominant culture, it can occur through the more traditionally political institutions of courts, police, and legislatures. Also, the medical establishment and other agents of social control have direct and immediate power in 'discovering' a group, pathologizing it, and stigmatizing, regulating and punishing the desires and practices of the people who embody this group. This power is frequently motivated by a larger, class-based, state-building project that involves the shifting of class power and alliances and identifying and controlling marginal populations (Foucault 1990; Mosse 1985).

In the early decades of the twentieth century, competitive capitalism was giving way to reform capitalism. As market relations drastically altered the landscape of virtually every social institution, they created a host of social problems; at least that is how a reform-minded middle class came to see issues of immigration, race, crime, labor conflict, and sexual difference. This increasingly professionalized middle class, together with reform-minded capitalists, mobilized on virtually every front to ameliorate class animosities, regulate borders, police working class and African American communities, monitor vice and morality, and strengthen the state's capacities to legislate in all of these areas (D.F. Greenberg 1988:398; Wiebe 1967). The process of building a more secure capitalism in the United States became a process of building a capitalist state; it became a process by which state managers took an active role in maintaining conditions of profitable capital accumulation in an increasingly unstable economic world (Greenberg 1985; Weinstein 1968). This was a project that involved interventions not only in the economic realm but in the social and cultural realms as well - a project engineered jointly by corporate business interests, lawyers, doctors, and social reformers. In the arena of sexuality, it was a project whereby a professional middle class harnessed the economic power of capitalists to the political power of the state to create a collective gay identity that stressed same-sex desire and the hetero/homo binary.

The analysis presented below will pay particular attention to these class-based processes for the period of roughly the first seven decades of the twentieth century. This was the period that witnessed the rise of reform capitalism and the increased intervention of the state into many areas of social life; it was also the period during which a gay movement emerged to alter the social and cultural position of lesbian and gay people. Using a variety of secondary historical accounts of the development of gay identity, the emergence of lesbian and gay communities throughout the twentieth century, and the rise of lesbian and gay collective action from the 1950s through the 1970s, I will argue that the category of 'the homosexual' and the corresponding hetero/homo binary were constructed by agents of social control. These agents, by virtue of having political and economic resources, defined the homosexual in terms of a middle class definition of same-sex desire. Although a variety of alternative definitions existed in the sexual communities developing throughout the United States, same-sex desire emerged as the dominant definition in the middle class communities of homosexual men and women in the early twentieth century, generally as a result of gender-related anxieties about work and family. Agents of social control in the 1940s and 1950s used the post-World War II state-building agenda to make this tendency official policy, and enforced it on other communities and cultures. Thus, these agents took the varieties of people with same-sex desires and practices and transformed this amorphous, heterogeneous set of populations into a somewhat coherent, unitary category of 'homosexuals.'

Middle Class Doctors and Social Control

The definition of 'the homosexual' - a unitary label characterized by same-sex object choice - emerged first in middle class urban cultures during the first half of the twentieth century as sexologists and other medical specialists pursued the profession-enhancing scientific project of naming and categorizing. The emerging definition, however, coexisted with a variety of alternative definitions in working class and African-American urban communities even as segments of the middle class homosexual community adopted the 'scientific' definition of same-sex object choice. This middle class definition became the definition that was pushed from above as the American psychiatric establishment allied itself to state power in the mobilization for World War II. As elaborated in the pages below, this first act of naming ignored the diversity of class positions and sexual styles and transformed the criminal meanings that inhered in behaviors into sickness meanings that inhered in people. Contrary to some accounts of the development of same-sex desire and intimacy (D'Emilio 1992), the social changes accompanying competitive capitalism did not create a homogeneous gay community with a singular collective identity. Instead, these changes interacted with preexisting gender, racial, ethnic, and class differences and, as a result, gave rise to a proliferation of same-sex communities of desire and association (Beemyn 1997; Chauncey 1994; Faderman 1991; Garber 1989; Kennedy and Davis 1993; Mumford 1996; Newton 1993). Only when these communities were all labeled and punished as 'queer' and, hence all treated similarly by agents of social control, did the category 'homosexual' achieve resonance in the community as a collective identity. Until then, and as illustrated below, these diverse communities generated their own norms, practices, and behaviors.

Simultaneous to the development of these diverse sexual communities, a growing group of sexologists and medical specialists were using the methods of medical science to describe, classify, and categorize different 'species' of sexual types. Their goal was, in Weeks' words, to put the study of sexuality on a new 'scientific footing': "to isolate, and individualise, the specific characteristics of sexuality, to detail its normal paths and morbid variations, to emphasise its power and speculate on its effects" (Weeks 1989:66). This first attempt to label by external forces was, not surprisingly, a class-inflected process. The rise of medicine and the professionalization of doctors and medical specialists in the United States were part of a larger process by newly middle class people to wrest control over many areas of social life from populist impulses on the one hand and unchecked wealth on the other (Ehrenreich 1990; Luker 1984). In the first decades of the twentieth century, newly credentialized physicians played an active role in passing legislation about sexual practices such as oral sex and masturbation, signaling their interest in using their 'expertise' in the service of social control (Greenberg 1988:401; Katz 1995:130). As Foucault and others demonstrate (Weeks 1989), the medical model of homosexuality emerged out of the same bourgeois anxieties concerned with controlling workers, women, children, and deviant populations, and accompanied the shift to industrial capitalism. The binary categories of hetero/homo emerged as part of a larger project on the part of the rising bourgeoisie to organize themselves as a class and to regulate the social order they were preparing to rule. Notions of normal and perverse appetites emerged from this process (Katz 1995).

This emerging medical model of homosexuality advanced by sexologists shifted expert thought from "behavior to persons." Instead of viewing the act of sodomy as a sign of weak will or constitution, the medical profession viewed it as symptomatic of an underlying disorder with a whole host of somatic symptoms (Seidman 1993; Weeks 1989). Although this work proved quite influential among medical experts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its impact on the collective identity of gay people was minimal until gender conflicts in middle class communities encouraged more and more middle class women and men to accept the labels of the sexologists, and until these labels were buttressed by the overwhelming power of the state during and after World War II.

Middle Class Anxieties and the Shift from Gay Peoples to Gay People

As people with same-sex desire came together throughout the first half of the twentieth century they did not constitute themselves as one people but as many. As they came together on city streets, in cabarets, bars, restaurants, and in private homes, they did so not as one group creating one subculture of association and desire but as a variety of groups distinguished by class, color, sexual practices, and gender style. Of course, interaction and association did occur across these groups but this interaction for the most part only reinforced their differences.

Men who had an erotic interest in other men encompassed many different gender styles, sexual habits, and class positions, and together constituted not one but several partly overlapping networks of affiliation. In his path-breaking book on the making of gay New York in the first half of the twentieth century, Chauncey (1994) vividly resurrects these gay peoples and situates them in terms of class, race, sexual practice, and gender style. Men were not gay or straight but pansies, husbands, trade, jockers, and queers. These were not different labels for the same group imposed from outside, but internal demarcators of consciousness and culture.

In working class communities, the most visible gay man was the "pansy" or "fairy," someone distinguished by themselves and others not on the basis of sexual object choice or preferred sexual activity but on the basis of their effeminacy or "gender inversion." Others such as "trade" did distinguish themselves on the basis of what they liked "having done to them," i.e., their preferred sexual activity. Still others, "husbands" and "jockers" affected a masculine gender style and preferred "fairies" or "pansies" (Chauncey 1994, 1989). Their subjective identification and social affiliations were defined by these distinctions. As Chauncey (1994:96) states, "They were . . . men who were attracted to womanlike men or interested in sexual activity defined not by the gender of their partner but by the kind of bodily pleasures that partner could provide." The culture created by these working class homosexuals - whether it be the public space they occupied or the bars and restaurants they frequented - was also marked by these distinctions (Chauncey 1996).

It was in middle class communities in the first half of the twentieth century that the core idea of sexual object choice emerged as the defining feature of a homosexual person. Growing up beside the working class gay communities of fairies, trade, and husbands were middle class homosexuals who used these groups as "negative examples" for their own identities; they constructed their consciousness and associations explicitly on the basis of sexual object choice and not on the basis of their gender persona. They referred to themselves as 'queer' and sought out other men who were also 'queer' (Chauncey 1994:99-127). This labeling schema also hardened the categories of sexual people in that 'queer' and 'normal' became mutually exclusive categories, unlike the schema in working class homosexual communities that recognized a variety of sexual practices and sexual objects for any one individual.

Like gay male communities, women's communities were also differentiated by class and gender style. As Faderman (1991) and others (Kennedy and Davis 1993; Nestle 1987; Rupp 1989) have shown, the history of lesbian life in the twentieth century has been a history of a variety of models of lesbianism. There were the romantic friendships that dominated the middle class of the early part of the century, as well as the middle class 'kikis' who were defined by sexual object choice, secrecy, and respectability. There were also the butches, femmes, and "crossing women" in working class communities in the twentieth century who were defined primarily by gendered role playing rather than sexual object choice. The distinctions among these peoples could not be more sharply drawn: how they saw themselves; who they associated with; and where they chose to enact their identities differed dramatically from one another (Gilmartin 1996). Kennedy and Davis (1993:375) conclude their oral history of the lesbian community of Buffalo, New York from the 1930s to the 1960s by noting: "Rather than a general lesbian culture of sexuality, radically different sexual mores existed in different social groups."

As noted above, the notion of the homosexual as defined primarily by sexual object choice emerged first in middle class communities of gay women and men. This emergence was due to a variety of factors, the most important of which had to do with changes in the nature of work and gender relations in twentieth century America (Greenberg 1988). Many middle class men witnessed the loss of autonomy and increased specialization of their mental labor at work at the same time that large numbers of immigrant working class men were entering the work force and reinforcing a gender style very different from the more genteel style of the middle class man (Chauncey 1994; D'Emilio and Freedman 1988; Kimmel 1996). In addition, women gained a bit more power in the twentieth century as a result of their mobilization for the vote and as middle class women began to enter the work force. Many historians (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988; Rotundo 1993) note that these developments created a crisis of masculinity in the early decades of the twentieth century.

In an attempt to rescue their masculinity from these threats, middle class men began to define exclusive heterosexuality as a sign of masculinity (Kimmel 1996; Rotundo 1993). This was a protracted process that was also class-inflected. Middle class men, both 'queer' and 'straight,' began to direct increased hostility to the fairy - a sexual style represented in working class homosexual culture. In this climate of change in economic and gender arrangements, the fairy came to embody "the very things middle class men feared about their [now supposedly imperiled] gender status" (Chauncey 1994:115). The ever present threat of 'the fairy within us' led middle class men to police more vigilantly their own social relations for any signs of homosexual behavior. One consequence of that policing was a hardening of the categories between men who were homosexual or heterosexual. Men might feel disempowered at work but they could reclaim some of that power and hence their manhood with the practice of exclusive heterosexuality. Similarly, the home took on increased importance as the haven in an increasingly competitive world, and homosexuality was seen as undermining this fragile yet crucial institution (Greenberg 1988). This insistence on exclusive heterosexuality and the heightened surveillance of the borders between hetero- and homosexuality pushed men in the middle class to identify themselves on the basis of their sexuality and equated heterosexuality with masculinity and homosexuality with femininity.

A second step in this class-inflected process hardened the boundaries between homosexual and heterosexual and encouraged a definition of the homosexual defined by sexual object choice - the influence of Freud among middle class doctors and sexologists. This reformulation of sexual categories no longer talked only about gender inversion as the telltale sign of homosexuality; as Chauncey (1994:124) states, "it made the sex of the body with whom a man had sex the arbiter of his heterosexual normality or homosexual abnormality." As we will see below, however, this reformulation existed mainly in academic circles and did not influence the lives and identities of the majority of men until World War II (Greenberg 1988:418).

The same economic and social changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that led to the crisis of masculinity among middle class males, gave women, by contrast, more resources to affect changes in the cultural conception of middle class womanhood. The increase of middle class women at work and in public space, the rise of consumerism and public leisure in middle class culture, and the existence of different sexual norms in immigrant cultures led to a resexualization of the women in mainstream sexual ideology and middle class practice (Chauncey 1983:143; D'Emilio and Freedman 1988:171-201). Erotic interest became divorced from procreation, and 'normal' women were now seen as sexual beings. This resexualization, however, posed a problem for middle class definitions of lesbianism. Although medical practice often used gender inversion to identify lesbians in the early twentieth century (Minton 1986; Terry 1990), popular conceptions revolved around notions of overt sexual interest: women who expressed sexual interest were suspect of lesbianism. Once these changes in middle class culture occurred, however, it could no longer be sexual interest per se that made a women suspect of lesbianism. Beginning in the 1920s, this resexualized women became increasingly tied to the companionate marriage in middle class circles, a model that emphasized mutual happiness and pleasure as the basis of marriage; this in essence gave women sexuality but inscribed notions of the proper (i.e., heterosexual) sexuality more firmly to the institution of the family (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988). Thus, particular sexual interest, rather than sexuality, began to define lesbianism. With women of the middle class, as with men, the categories of association became defined by sexual object choice and the boundaries around those categories started to harden.

This definition of the homosexual, which in the late twentieth century became the major definition of the group, coexisted with the variety of other identifications and associations. The move to the model of hetero/homo binarism, first espoused in the middle class, was pushed "from above" as the burgeoning field of psychiatry joined forces with the state in the mobilization for World War II and to create, once again, a class-state alliance in the preservation and extension of a capitalist social order. The alliance continued into the post-World War II era as the national state and local social control agents fiercely policed the moral and political landscape in the McCarthy era. As we will see below, these external forces of social control essentially selected out of the diverse communities of gay people one aspect of their culture - their same-sex desire - and named that as essential to group status. That naming resonated most powerfully for middle class men and women in that it enabled many to re-assert their masculinity and femininity at a time when it was being called into question by changes at work and in the family. Thus, naming by external forces, itself a product of the class dynamics associated with the making of the capitalist state, was a class-inflected process.

Forcing a Collective Identity: Psychiatry, the State, and the Police

Vice squads and police forces adopted the biologically constituted medical categories developed by the sexologists of the early twentieth century to label and prosecute 'sex perverts'; however, the extent and pervasiveness of this social control activity varied widely. As Chauncey (1996:258; 1994:203) and others (Garber 1989; Mumford 1996:409) have demonstrated in their treatments of emerging urban gay male subcultures, much of the policing that took place on the streets in the early half of the twentieth century was done not primarily to eliminate the threat of the homosexual but to enforce bourgeois conceptions of public order. Homosexuality was considered one vice along with other vices such as prostitution and drunkenness. The development of gay subcultures within or adjacent to black areas only added to a concern that spoke of immigrants and African Americans as the "dangerous classes."

This pattern of social control changed with the fusion of Freudian psychiatry to the growing power of the state during World War II. The war provided the opportunity for a state-centered alliance of corporate and military personnel to come together and thwart the popular elements of the New Deal. These forces continued after the war to create a state-class alliance carefully attuned to sustaining the domestic economy and rebuilding the international economy (Waddell 1999). As with the earlier state-building project, this involved not only economic interventions but social and cultural ones as well. The psychiatrists provided the 'scientific' rationale for some of those interventions. The Cold War provided the 'political' rationale.

At the urging of these psychiatrists, millions of men and women were placed in common settings and questioned about their sexual orientation - defined in terms of sexual object choice not by sexual practices or gender style. As Berube (1990:260) states, "the military policy directed officers to consider the active and passive partners . . . as equally homosexual and equally responsible for their acts." This definition became the basis on which the military and then the federal government at large spied on, dishonorably discharged, fired, and disparaged its homosexual members, employees, and citizens. With the war, the stakes in the state-building project of reform capitalism were raised considerably, and thus a higher level and different kind of social control was necessary to police more precisely a group of people supposedly dangerous to military morale and national security.

Psychiatrists who worked for the government's military establishment had unprecedented opportunities to construct and implement a new model of homosexuality that focused on personality type and that distinguished individuals by the degree to which they had successfully transferred their sexual object choice from the same-sex parent to an opposite-sex adult mate. This understanding underscored the research they did, the directives they had a hand in drafting, and the education that the military conducted on the stresses and strains of wartime.

As Berube (1990:256) describes this process, the influence of psychiatry in the context of wartime created a whole host of punitive conditions to which all homosexuals were exposed. The common situation created common understandings:

Psychiatrists, as the military's pioneer experts on homosexuality, gave soldiers as well as military officials a biased but useful new language and set of concepts - such as the word homosexual and the idea of a "personality type" - that some did use to categorize homosexuals, understand homosexuality, and use to define themselves. . . . As these soldiers were thrown together into psych wards and queer stockades, they endured the same hardships together in small groups, better able to perceive themselves as compatriots who were victims of the same persecution.

Although many psychiatrists did not endorse the punitive treatment of people who, in the psychiatrists' eyes, needed therapy rather than prison terms, the preoccupation with the homosexual during wartime was the creation of the psychiatrists. This preoccupation became one of the nation's obsessions during the 1950s.

The campaign to bar homosexuals from the military, from civil service jobs with the federal government, and from private employers doing business with the federal government after World War II is well known (Berube 1990; D'Emilio 1983; D'Emilio and Freedman 1989; Epstein 1994; Howard 1995). When Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10405 in April, 1953 which identified "sexual perversion" as grounds for not hiring and for firing federal workers, he was extending a process of exclusion and surveillance already underway at the national level.(3) Fueled by cold war-inspired anxieties about internal and invisible enemies, and by post-depression and post-war anxieties about family and gender norms, attacks on homosexuals and homosexual meeting places spread to the local and state levels.(4)

The most important factor operating to fashion one group out of several groups was the changed nature of the post-war repression. Prior to the war, local police, politicians, and urban reformers thought of the problem as one of the fairy and the butch - the visibly effeminate man and masculine women - and the periodic bar raids and arrests for solicitation were conducted with those types in mind. In addition, most of the arrests and harassment took place in working class areas and were part of a general attempt to police working class culture and enforce middle class notions of family and public morality on immigrants and African Americans (Chauncey 1994; Mumford 1996). As Chauncey (1994:177) argues, in New York this "left most men safely in the shadows and made it easier for them to meet their friends in restaurants throughout the city without provoking the attention of outsiders." It also reinforced the differences among subcultures of gay people in the city.

After the war, the nature of the surveillance changed. Although gay people were still stereotyped on the basis of gender inversion, the elite definition of the homosexual had changed. The psychiatrists had succeeded in advancing a view of the homosexual unhinged from gender style and hinged to sexual object choice.(5) In essence, this new definition ignored the differences in the subcultures and included everyone in its chilling embrace. Moreover, in the context of the aforementioned anxieties and the increased surveillance capacities of government, this meant that all people who had same-sex desire were at risk and had to be rooted out. In essence, the object of attack shifted from those who did not "pass" to those who did. Both groups now were seen as embodying a distinct personality type. In order to define this personality type, local governments added sexual psychopath laws to the list of laws prohibiting solicitation and the wearing of clothing inappropriate to one's gender. These were sodomy laws that allowed for indefinite incarceration for mental illness and that required registration as a sex offender.

The social control forces unleashed by World War II and the post-war assault on dissident and deviant peoples, groups, and cultures, had two dramatic consequences for people with same-sex desire. First, these forces treated them all the same and thus gave them common grievances. Second, these forces succeeded in completing a process that was already underway in middle class subcultures of gay men and women; that is, they defined the group in a fashion similar to the understanding used by middle class 'queer' men and women in the twenties and thirties. Of course, this definition was accompanied by a host of negative meanings that did not exist within those emerging subcultures.(6)

As we will see below, these forces and meanings even affected the first enduring political and social advocacy organizations for lesbians and gays. The Mattachine Society, the organization for men, and the Daughters of Bilitis, the organization for women, eschewed the people, interests, and styles of many of the erotic subcultures, and accepted the categories of middle class homosexuals. However, they provided the social support and organizational resources to recast the meaning of the category from a negative to a positive (or at least morally neutral) label.

As Foucault (1990) and others have pointed out (Namaste 1994; Weeks 1989), the category of "homosexual" was primarily an externally imposed category - first within sexology then in the judicial and psychiatric fields of knowledge. It is imposed as part of a much larger state-building project of a professional middle class. As the internal dynamics of the gay organizations demonstrate, this category was extremely powerful in organizing the initial and the ongoing collective identity of the movement. As demonstrated above and as elaborated below, this externally imposed category did resonate with at least one segment of 'queer people' in mid-twentieth century America.

This labeling process was not easy or automatic; repressive forces had to contend with already existing communities defined, at least in part, in opposition to these repressive forces. Indeed, many accounts of the development of local lesbian and gay communities document the formation of oppositional cultures and acts of resistance in the face of the ever present agents of social control (Beemyn 1997; D'Emilio 1981; Garber 1989; Kennedy and Davis 1993; Nestle 1987). These accounts illustrate, however, that it was easier to resist the negative meanings inherent in the label than it was to resist the label itself. Those who created the category of the homosexual - the psychiatrists - had the power to make the label stick since it was supported by the power of the government, the police, and the courts. This situation presented homosexuals with a dilemma: if they wanted to contest collectively and publicly the negative meanings associated with the category, they had to do it using the publicly understood category, a category that was class inflected in its creation and in its operation.(7)

Collective Action and Middle Class Group Identity

The first organizations of lesbians and gays dedicated to changing the status of the homosexual in society in the fifties and sixties accepted many of the definitions and understandings used by the psychiatric establishment. Both Mattachine and the Daughters of Bilitis understood the 'homosexual person' in a manner similar to that of the psychiatrists - as an individual problem, situation, or condition (D'Emilio 1983; Timmons 1990). Indeed, one of the major activities of the Mattachine Society during the fifties and sixties was lectures by sympathetic psychiatrists and doctors on understanding and coming to terms with one's homosexuality. The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was primarily a support structure for middle class lesbians struggling with the issues of employment, marriage, gender roles, and isolation (Gorman 1985). For DOB, the notion of the lesbian did not include working class lesbians of the butch/femme variety. Indeed, one of the motivating factors for the formation of DOB was to establish a place where women could meet in places other than the bars which were frequented by working class lesbians (Tobin and Wicker 1975:50). Thus, the initial framing by gay and lesbian organizations further contributed to unhinging homosexuals as a group from the various communities in which homosexual people were rooted, and further reinforced the distinctions implicit in the hetero/homo binary.

Of course, this is not to say that Mattachine or Daughters of Bilitis accepted unequivocally the pathological view of homosexuals held by many members of the medical establishment and of the society at large. Some chapters did; some did not. Those that did became essentially support groups that sought to demonstrate both to themselves and to others that, despite their pathology, they could be 'good' citizens. Those that did not, subscribed to the notion that societal prejudice was the root cause of the homosexual's problem. What they all did accept, however, was the defining feature of the group that they claimed to represent. As the middle class leadership of Mattachine stated in 1954, "the sex variant is no different from anyone else except in the object of his sexual expression" (quoted in D'Emilio 1983:81). Similarly, one of the founders of Daughters of Bilitis noted that "her [the lesbian's] only difference lies in her choice of love partner" (quoted in D'Emilio 1983:113). In order to make this case, these organizations seized every opportunity: Kinsey's research which treated homosexual activity and heterosexual activity on the same value-free continuum; Evelyn Hooker's research which showed that homosexuals were no more likely to suffer mental disorders than heterosexuals. The organizations also berated the elements of the subculture that threatened to undermine their view: the butch/femme role-playing in the lesbian community; the camp theatrics and drag in the male homosexual community; the demimonde world of the bars and public cruising (Seidman 1993:126-127; Streitmatter 1995). With all of this activity, the homosexual was seen as an individual, not as a member of a group.

The fact that these new homophile organizations adopted a definition that first emerged in the professional middle classes in urban areas during the 1920s and 1930s is not surprising, given the class composition of their leaders. The founders of the 'reconstituted' Mattachine in 1954, Ken Burns and Hal Call, were college educated and held professional positions: Burns as an engineer; Call as a newspaper journalist. The two founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, were also college educated and worked as editors of a professional trade journal when they met in the early fifties (Tobin and Wicker 1975:51).(8)

By insisting that 'the only difference' was the object of desire, both organizations ignored either implicitly or explicitly the class, racial, and erotic diversity that existed in the subcultures of homosexuals. With the few resources they had during the fifteen years prior to Stonewall, Mattachine and DOB were able to start newsletters and magazines, hold regular meetings, form nation-wide conferences; in a word, they were able to assert and explicate a definition of the group that was compelling to at least some people with same-sex desire.(9)

The civil rights movement of the their provided the nascent gay movement with the language and politics of minority groups. Further, the movement for black equality proved quite seductive to many middle class men and women who were captivated by its energy and the attention it received. Some of the members of Daughters of Bilitis and Mattachine were participants in the black freedom struggles, and these activists used the language of discrimination, civil rights, and equal opportunity in their marches to protest discrimination against homosexuals in the armed services and the federal government (Marcus 1992; Streitmatter 1994; Timmons 1990:220). Embracing a minority group model did not change the definition of the group as "people with same-sex desire." Instead, it encouraged a reading of the group not as an internal or psychiatric category but as an external or political category. Nothing captures this shift better than the declaration of "coming out" to announce one's homosexuality. Instead of hiding the "condition of homosexuality" (i.e., treating it as an individual level characteristic) the gay movement promoted filling up this medical category of homosexuality with positive identity features based on group-level characteristics. The hetero/homo binary remained intact but the meanings associated with the homosexual category were now challenged or contested.

Despite the brief interlude of gay liberation from 1969 to 1973, which called into question the minority group understandings and gave rise to a set of understandings that were inherently destabilizing, the minority group model emerged as dominant from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s (Epstein 1987; Seidman 1993). Established in 1973, The National Gay Task Force, for example, subscribed to the notion of gay people as a minority group and defined the agenda narrowly as the struggle for the civil rights of gay people, with little or no reference to issues that had proven so central (and so tumultuous) for the gay liberationists: race; class; power; sexual style; or gender performance (Duberman 1996; Marcus 1992:257259). The founders of the organization, Bruce Voeller and Ron Gold, were middle class white men who were frustrated with the disorganization and posturing of liberationist politics and thought that the focus on issues of class, race, and sexual style was partly responsible for the disorganization and lack of success of gay liberation (Duberman 1996:62). A more narrow focus on issues of discrimination and prejudice, they thought, would be a more productive strategy for the movement and would facilitate the resource gathering necessary for a national organization. The consequence, of course, was that this strategy reinforced the middle class nature of the movement and re-inscribed the hetero/homo binary that had been briefly called into question by gay liberation.(10)

Gay Liberation and Destabilizing Group Identity

Because the gay liberation movement from 1969 to 1973 emerged out of new left politics, feminism, and the sexual and personal liberation ethos of the counterculture, different understandings of 'the homosexual' emerged. There were also direct challenges to the authority of the police, the state, and the medical establishments (Altman 1993; Teal 1971). In the process of challenging many of the dominant institutions during this time, several other understandings of gay identity were created that were rooted in oppression, sexual liberation, and heterosexism (Valocchi 1999). Not surprisingly, the class composition of this brief liberationist interlude was very different from what came before and what came after.

The organizational epitome of gay liberation, The Gay Liberation Front (GLF), saw gay oppression as simply one face of a comprehensive oppression that affected working people, racial minorities, and women. In the eyes of GLF, gay people were not to be thought of as a single cohesive group, but as a loose collectivity whose "deviance" tied its members to other people with little power and whose interests were served by a total restructuring of social institutions (Altman 1993). Another organization that emerged after Stonewall, Gay Activists Alliance, had members who were especially affected by the counterculture, and broadened the definition of their group to include transvestites and transsexuals (Marotta 1981). Picking up on other counter cultural themes, some activists in both organizations saw the group as even more porous and malleable as they spoke of the need to unleash the homosexual in all of us - to promote a "diffuse body eroticism" (Seidman 1993:113; Wittman 1992). Women defined the group first in gendered terms - i.e., by their feminism. Lesbianism for some became the political practice associated with freeing oneself from patriarchal institutions and practices (Echols 1989). Many eschewed the label lesbian for "women-identified woman" (Jay and Young 1992). In essence, these understandings and analyses challenged the core notion of the homosexual as defined by sexual object choice and the corresponding notion of a hetero/homo binary.

Also during this period, the movement "bit the hand that named it" by constructing critiques of, and launching political attacks directed against, government, medicine, and the police. Part of this offensive was simply changing the meaning of the category of homosexual as gay and lesbian organizations asserted the right of the homosexual to be free from discrimination and harassment in employment, housing, and public spaces. Another part of it, however, was an effort on the part of the organizations themselves to take control over the naming process. To paraphrase a statement made during one of the zaps on psychiatrists in 1970, "we are convinced that a picket and a dance will do more for the vast majority of homosexuals than two years on the [psychiatrist's] couch" (cited in Altman 1993:118). Implicit in this statement is the assertion that the medical establishment will no longer be allowed to define who we are; instead, this definition will come from processes and activities within the group itself.

Not surprisingly, the gay liberation moment that produced these understandings destabilized the hetero/homo binary, and was perhaps the most class diverse moment in the history of the movement. The men and women that became the rank and file of the gay liberation movement in these early years (1969 to 1973) were drawn from many quarters, some from the old homophile movement, some from feminism, some from the new left, and some from the counterculture (Bravmann 1997; Duberman 1993; Jay and Young 1992). As Jay and Young (1992) point out, gay liberationists came from both working class and middle class backgrounds and included African Americans among its ranks. Also, and important in terms of class composition, many gay liberationists were young and steeped in the counter culture (Binkey 1994). Implicit in that counter-culture was a critique of class and class striving. Regardless of their future class positions, many gay liberationists at that time had actively rejected class privilege and saw gay liberation as a piece of that generalized rejection. Thus, for a brief period of time, the class-inflected nature of lesbian and gay identity was actively contested.

Discussion and Conclusion

The gay identity Allan Berube learned in the early 1970s was the outcome of an almost century-long process in which external social control forces emanating from the imperatives of reform capitalism combined with gender anxieties in middle class communities to produce the idea of the homosexual as defined by same-sex desire and the essentialist split of the hetero/homo binary. In response to the economic and social changes of the early twentieth century, middle class 'queers' and 'straights' began distancing themselves from their working class and minority counterparts. For queers, this distancing took the form of claiming exclusive homosexuality without the gender or sexual style trappings associated with same-sex desire in other communities. This middle class understanding dovetailed with the medical categories that were developing throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a process which had its roots in the efforts of middle class professionals to lay claim to solving the social problems accompanying a capitalist market society. Once this new middle class definition of homosexuality got the explicit backing of the state with World II and the Cold War, the label was inscribed in culture, law, and popular consciousness. As Berube intuited, and as the analysis here argues, the making of gay collective identity was a class-inflected process - a process that cannot be investigated apart from the dynamics of capitalism and the role of the state in monitoring, assisting, or altering capitalist market processes.

The minority group language adopted by Berube and others during the seventies to redefine and politicize gay identity was well-suited to an American style of interest-group politics in which groups define their interests in the political realm and then join the fray of pluralist politics to get these interests met (Epstein 1987; Gamson 1995). In addition, this language was well-suited to the era of reform capitalism which reached its contradictory apex in the 1960s. As the state became an increasingly important institution in addressing economic and social problems - a process initiated by the professional middle class in the first two decades of the century and then pushed in a more egalitarian direction by the popular insurgencies of the 1930s - it became the natural target for politically marginalized groups. The major group, of course, was African Americans. With the partly successful mobilization of black people in the 1960s, their language became very attractive to other groups in similar positions of subordination. The minority group language spoke quite loudly for middle class African Americans in the civil rights movement, middle class women in the feminist movement, and middle class men and women in the lesbian and gay movement; it involved calls for incorporation, state protection, or changes in state practices so that members of the subordinate group could enjoy fully the benefits of capitalist society.

For gay people since the 1970s, this minority group language has interacted with the consumerist ethos of capitalism to reshape the dynamics of a lesbian and gay collective identity. As suggested above, the minority group language reinforced the middle class notion of an essentialized gay identity and the distinction between gay and straight people. Unlike the situation of African Americans, for which a chief source of repression was restricting access or denying opportunity to an already visible and segregated people, gay people operated with the oppression of 'the closet' whereby state and cultural prohibitions encouraged people to hide their same-sex desires, relationships, and networks. The lesbian and gay movement of the seventies was built on shattering the closet - on the notion of coming out and claiming the essentialized identity. Since that identity had been privatized for so long, the chief task of the movement was to construct a set of social institutions, practices, and cultural traditions that asserted a public identity (Adam 1987). The public sphere was a commercialized sphere and, in this way, new opportunities appeared to make money marketing the identity by setting up bars, stores, and neighborhoods that catered to people who possessed that identity, and by developing products, images, and entertainments that became the embodiment of that identity (Escoffier 1997). The categories that provided Allan Berube with the raw material for his gay identity were created by the contradictory dynamics of reform capitalism; the categories available now derive from the dynamics of consumer capitalism.

As advertisers turn their gaze on niche markets, they learn that identity can be commodified, marketed, and sold. One need only look at the national magazines of the gay press to see this dynamic in operation. Everything from Absolut Vodka, Olivia Travel, Tzabaco Clothing, and Kiehl's Skin Care Products send the message that if you buy the product or consume the service, you are doing it along With many other gay people: indeed, if you are truly 'gay' or 'lesbian,' you will consume these commodities. Of course, not all gay people have the discretionary income to do that, thus implicitly conflating income with a valorized gay identity. Thus, as Gluckman and Reed (1997:7) state: ". . . the market is slicing off every segment of the gay community that is not upper-middle class, (mostly) white, and (mostly) male." This "market slicing" reinforces the idea of a narrowly defined people with a narrowly defined agenda. More importantly, it subtly shifts the nature of gay identity away from a political category that requires analysis and action to a consumer category that requires money and constant attention to the shifting winds of gay fashion and style.

Just as reform capitalism provided the basis on which an earlier generation of lesbian and gay people resisted some of the negative meanings associated with same-sex desire and practice, consumer capitalism may contain the seeds of a similar resistance. The discovery of 'gay people' by advertisers and the entertainment industry has led to a proliferation of explicitly gay and lesbian images in mainstream society and to an unprecedented level of cultural visibility for lesbians and gay men. This visibility could serve as the springboard for new social movement organizing and for new repertoires of collective action by the movement. Some advertising strategies, moreover, may inadvertently soften the edges of discrete sexual categories and thus open up new opportunities for the movement to move away from a narrow identity politics to a more inclusive coalitional politics. In their attempts to expand their markets, advertisers often attempt to expand the consumer niche and code advertising so that it speaks simultaneously to heterosexuals and homosexuals. Clark (1993:188) refers to this strategy as gay window-dressing advertising where advertisers research demographics, buying habits, and attitudinal variables and create generalized consumer lifestyles that are profitable. This is accomplished most often in the world of fashion, music, and entertainment where a collective interest in style and performance can serve to blur the boundaries between gay and straight and normalize what has been seen as a deviant sexual identity. Identities become not something that inhere in people but something chosen like fashion (Clark 1993:199). Admittedly, this is a thin basis on which to resist the hetero/homo binary, but the recent politics of such groups as Queer Nation and ACT UP, with their emphasis on blurring the boundaries and on a politics of performance, suggest that the possibility exists. The demise of these groups amidst accusations of racism, sexism, and classism, however, further suggests that the class-inflected nature of gay collective identity still exists. It also reminds us that it will take going beyond the possibilities inherent in consumer capitalism to actively construct more coalitional and oppositional notions of lesbian and gay collective identity.

I thank the anonymous reviewers of Social Problems for their comments and suggestions. Special thanks goes to Josh Gamson for his careful reading of several drafts of this paper and for his helpful comments and criticisms of the manuscript. Direct correspondence to: Steve Valocchi, Department of Sociology, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut 06106. E-mail:

1. Some research sees the gay movement as emblematic of a new social movement not rooted in economic subordination but rooted in a post-scarcity need for personal and cultural recognition (Cohen 1985; Kriesi et al. 1995). Not surprisingly, this research views the gay movement as well as other new social movements as middle class in nature, movements that get their impetus from those who have the middle class resources of time, money, and access. This research assumes what must be explained: Why did middle class people tend to dominate especially when there were other people who recognized and resisted the 'oppression?' Also, how did this domination affect the ways in which the movement framed its issues and defined its collective identity?

2. We see class interests affecting the mobilization process of other social movements, notably the civil rights movement and the feminist movement (Bloom 1987; hooks 1981; Moraga and Anzaluda 1981).

3. This order applied to every agency and department of the federal government and every private company or corporation with a government contract. Berube (1990:269) estimates that the order applied to more than 20 percent of the labor force in 1953.

4. A variety of political, economic, and cultural changes created these anxieties: the destructiveness of the bomb; the Soviet threat; women's increasing employment outside the home; the growth of the state; and population shifts (D'Emilio and Freedman 1988; Epstein 1994; Faderman 1991).

5. The change in the elite definition of homosexuality occurred very quickly. In research conducted during the 1930s, psychiatrists and psychologists "assumed that sexual behavior was linked to the individual's expression of masculinity or femininity" (Terry 1990:318). By 1943, this definition had changed from one that emphasized gender inversion to one that emphasized sexual object choice (Berube and D'Emilio 1984:761).

6. D'Emilio and Freedman (1988:292-293) note that medical authorities, psychiatry, and the state in this period agreed that "homosexuals lacked emotional stability and that their moral fiber had been weakened by sexual indulgence. Homosexuality took on the form of a contagious disease imperiling the health of anyone who came near it."

7. Gamson (1995) points to a similar dilemma for the queer movement of the 1990s. For a general discussion of this dilemma, see Epstein (1987).

8. Mattachine 'reconstituted' itself in 1954 as a rejection of the cultural minority approach to 'the homosexual problem.' This approach saw the conditions of homosexuals as analogous to those of the working class and African-Americans. The dissenters dismissed this analogy and the leaders of the organization that insisted on that analogy (see Hay 1996).

9. The archival materials available for Mattachine Society of New York as well as for the variety of regional conferences cosponsored by Mattachine New York throughout the 1960s provide ample testament to the middle class nature of the movement at that time. The men and women involved in these activities, for the most part, had white collar jobs, flexible schedules, access to office supplies, mimeograph equipment, and so forth. The organizations were run according to Roberts Rules of parliamentary procedure. Even during the few public demonstrations sponsored by Mattachine and DOB, a strict middle class dress code (suits and ties for men; dresses, hose, and heels for women) was enforced.

10. Throughout the 1970s, NGTF would be charged periodically with being elitist and 'out of touch with the needs of ordinary lesbians and gays . . . and unwilling or unable to embrace nonwhite or working-class cultures" (Duberman 1996:74). This charge resonated even louder when gay conservative and Seattle businessman, Charles Brydon, was elected to the NGTF board in 1979 (Duberman 1996:75; Marcus 1992).


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