“To Fight for an End to Intrusions into the Sex Lives of Americans”: Gay and Lesbian Resistance to Sexual Surveillance and Data Gathering, 1945–72

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 9:30 AM
Murray Hill West (New York Hilton)
Nikita Shepard, Columbia University
The first nationwide gay rights platform, crafted in February 1972, called for a ban on the “compiling, maintenance and dissemination of information on an individual’s sexual preference, behavior, and social and political activities for dossiers and data banks.” This demand, later adopted by the McGovern campaign, reflected a very different political logic than contemporary LGBTQ organizing. This paper traces the curious career of the gay and lesbian demand to end data collection about sexual orientation, how it arose as a key issue for the emerging movement, and how it vanished and reversed in the decades to come.

I begin by exploring the changing landscape of surveilling and punishing sexual nonconformity in the post-war United States, emphasizing how the federal Lavender Scare formed only one node in a circuit of techniques, personnel, and discourses regulating homosexuality through exchanges between federal, state, and local law enforcement as well as private companies. Following early resistance to sexual surveillance by homophile groups, I trace the formation of the Gay Activists Alliance Fair Employment Committee that first began to agitate for legislation restricting sexual orientation data collection. Analyzing the 1972 National Coalition of Gay Organizations conference at which the platform was formalized and tracing the demand’s circulation into Democratic Party organizations and the McGovern campaign, I situate these developments within broader questions of privacy, surveillance, and the state in American politics in the 1970s. But the shifting conditions of the 1980s complicated and redirected the movement’s positions on data collection, indexing a shift from a politics of defense against state intrusion to a politics of demand for state recognition and incorporation. I conclude by reflecting on how the history of gay and lesbian opposition to sexual data collection might inform a critical sexual politics for the data-driven, surveillance-saturated social and political landscape we inhabit today.

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