"The Second Largest Minority": Analogies between Race and Sexuality in the American Homophile Movement, 194468

Sunday, January 6, 2019: 11:40 AM
Crystal Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Nikita Shepard, Columbia University
How did white LGBTQ people come to see themselves as a political "minority" analogous to African Americans? This paper traces the history of the analogy between race and sexuality in the United States and examines the central role of race in the construction of homosexual political identities. While gay men and lesbians deployed various frameworks to make sense of their experiences in the first half of the twentieth century, a few activists in the late 1940s and early 1950s began to conceptualize their collective identity and imagine new forms of political engagement through the lens of the black freedom struggle. As African American civil rights struggles expanded in the 1950s, the early homophile movement sought legitimacy by claiming equivalence between homosexual and black minority status. By the early 1960s, the catalytic power of the analogy with race had displaced alternative frameworks and become hegemonic among an emerging network of homophile militants. Yet this analogy, by constructing homosexual political subjectivity as normatively white, rendered gay and lesbian movements vulnerable to charges of racial insensitivity and appropriation, the legacies of which echo to this day. This research provides a new explanation for how and why a "homosexual minority" emerged in the mid-twentieth century United States, while broadening our understanding of the black freedom struggle’s impact on American society and offering critical perspective on contemporary LGBTQ activism.
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