This article originally appeared in the July 5, 1993 issue.
When I came out in Boston in the mid-l970s, I had no way of knowing that the lesbian and gay movement I was discovering was in many ways unique. As a new lesbian I had nothing to compare it with, and there was also nothing to compare it with in history. Stonewall had happened only six years before and the militance, irreverence and joy of those early days were still very much apparent.
As a black woman who became politically active in the civil rights movement during high school and then in black student organizing and the anti-Vietnam War movement as the sixties continued, it seemed only natural that being oppressed as a lesbian would elicit the same militant collective response to the status quo that my other oppressions did. Boston’s lesbian and gay movement came of age in the context of student activism, a visible counterculture, a relatively organized left and a vibrant women’s movement. The city had always had its own particularly violent brand of racism and had become even more polarized because of the crisis over school busing. All of these overlapping influences strengthened the gay and lesbian movement, as well as the political understandings of lesbian and gay activists.
Objectively, being out and politically active in the seventies was about as far from the mainstream as one could get. The system did not embrace us, nor did we want it to. We also got precious little support from people who were supposed to be progressive. The white sectarian left defined homosexuality as a “bourgeois aberration” that would disappear when capitalism did. Less doctrinaire leftists were also homophobic even if they offered a different set of excuses. Black power activists and black nationalists generally viewed lesbians and gay men as anathema–white-minded traitors to the race. Although the women’s movement was the one place where out lesbians were permitted to do political work, its conservative elements still tried to dissociate themselves from the “lavender menace.”
Because I came out in the context of black liberation, women’s liberation and–most significantly–the newly emerging black feminist movement that I was helping to build, I worked from the assumption that all of the “isms” were connected. It was simply not possible for any oppressed people, including lesbians and gay men, to achieve freedom under this system. Police dogs, cattle prods, fire hoses, poverty, urban insurrections, the Vietnam War, the assassinations, Kent State, unchecked violence against women, the self-immolation of the closet and the emotional and often physical violence experienced by those of us who dared leave it made the contradictions crystal clear. Nobody sane would want any part of the established order. It was the system–white supremacist, misogynistic, capitalist and homophobic–that had made our lives so hard to begin with. We wanted something entirely new. Our movement was called lesbian and gay liberation, and more than a few of us, especially women and people of color, were working for a revolution.