Gay & Lesbian Pride & Politics

Four decades ago, homosexuality in Boston was a taboo subject shrouded in silence. Many gay and lesbians remained closeted or invisible for fear of persecution or harassment. Since then, however, Boston-area activists, community organizers, writers, and artists have won major legislative and cultural victories for gays and lesbians, moving them from the margins to the mainstream, forcing recognition of the problems of homophobia, and lobbying for the extension of equal rights and protection for all sexual orientations. Today, the gay and lesbian communities are a visible, vibrant part of Boston’s political and cultural landscape.

In the Boston area, gay and lesbian activists have organized for diverse purposes around a variety of issues. Collectively, they have formed a vocal minority community that has challenged existing political and social practices, proclaiming their collective identity proudly and defiantly. In the 1970s, liberation groups such as the Gay Liberation Front and the Fort Hill Faggots sought to transform society entirely, eliminating its restrictive paradigms for sexuality, gender, and eroticism.

Beginning in the 1980s, political lobbying groups, such as the Greater Boston Lesbian/Gay Political Alliance and the Gay and Lesbian Labor Activists Network, called for civil rights protection, the end of discrimination, and the extension of domestic rights to same-sex couples. Other groups formed networks for support and socialization in the 1970s and 1980s, including student groups at universities, the Gay Community Center, and Black and White Men Together. Some organizations used public forums to express gay and lesbian issues and engage audiences creatively and intellectually, such as the progressive Boston-based national gay and lesbian newspaper, the Gay Community News, published between 1973 and 1999, and the Theater Offensive, performing guerilla street theater and award-winning stage productions since 1989.

In the absence of federal legislation outlawing discrimination against gays and lesbians, activism for social justice at state and city levels has been extremely important. Especially noteworthy for Boston gays and lesbians were the passage of the gay and lesbian civil rights law in Massachusetts in 1989 and successful gay and lesbian Pride demonstrations in Boston annually since 1970. National events and movements also had significant impact in Boston. The modern gay movement can be traced to the formation of the Mattachine Society for gay men in Los Angeles in 1951, and the Daughters of Bilitis for lesbians in 1955. Boston gay men founded the second branch of the Mattachine Society in 1968, and Boston lesbians established a branch of the Daughters of Bilitis in 1969.

The Stonewall Riots in New York City, however, is often hailed as the symbolic birth of modern gay and lesbian activism and pride. On June 27, 1969, police raided a popular gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, in Greenwich Village, and the patrons fought back, spawning a riot that lasted for two days.

Throughout the country in the subsequent decade, gays and lesbians employed the rhetoric and methods of the African American civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement to achieve recognition of the discrimination they faced and the rights they deserved. In the 1980s, the methods for achieving for political and social action became as diverse as the causes they represented. Gay and lesbian activism nationally included lobbying all levels of government for civil rights and domestic partnership benefits, struggling for artistic and commercial expression of gay lifestyles without censorship, preventing harassment and anti-gay violence, and celebrating difference in gay and lesbian identities.

Gay & Lesbian Pride & Politics explores how Boston-area gays and lesbians defined and empowered themselves and fought for positive social change. Representative documents from the Northeastern Archives and Special Collections have been selected to highlight gay and lesbian struggles for political equality and recognition, the expression and celebration of gay and lesbian identities, and the forging of supportive communities.