Queer Reading: SF State prof sees reasons for rethinking LGBTQ history

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Tuesday June 20, 2023
Share this Post:
San Francisco State University professor Marc Stein holds a copy of his new book, a second edition of "Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement." Photo: Brian Bromberger
San Francisco State University professor Marc Stein holds a copy of his new book, a second edition of "Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement." Photo: Brian Bromberger

For Marc Stein, professor of history at San Francisco State University, queer history is a calling, realizing he is part of a network and a community of gay intellectuals. Many U.S. college history departments don't even define queer history as a bona fide field or it's been ghettoized to a few classes, despite the fact courses in the subject are very popular with students. Even Stein is technically a historian of constitutional law and politics at SF State.

Stein has become an evangelist for the promotion of gay and lesbian history, rooted in his orientation as an activist. His passion for the field is exhibited in his newest book, a totally revised second edition of his 2012 classic, "Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement," (Routledge, $42.95) including a new chapter, "LGBT and Queer Activism Beyond 1990." When he wrote the first edition his aim was to provide an up-to-date account of the movement that was "national in scope, comprehensive in chronology, and synthetic in ambition," he noted.

In his book's introduction, Stein lists the reason why gay and lesbian history needs to be rethought: to help address the widespread lack of knowledge about that history; to serve the needs of today's gender and sexual dissidents, along with everyone who identifies with the movement's agendas and aspirations; and to teach people about some of the major political and philosophical questions that have absorbed the U.S., such as what is meant when referring to freedom, liberty, equality, and democracy, especially pertinent in these politically partisan and divisive times.

Stein mentions that studying this history can help readers reflect on why some people become activists, why movements develop when and where they do, why they adopt particular strategies and goals, and why they rise and fall. He notes in the introduction that the book also underscores the historicity and variability of sex, gender, and sexuality, especially how these forces changed the movement and vice versa; shows how people can support those who are working to promote equality, freedom and justice in the 21st century; and finally, to show the interrelationship between political and cultural activism, which has promoted social change.

Stein, 59, discussed the new second edition with the Bay Area Reporter in an email interview, and explained why he decided to add the new chapter.

"As a gay man who was born in the 1960s and came of age in the 1980s, I've long been fascinated by the history of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, the decades that most directly shaped the world I came to know in the 1980s," Stein wrote. "I don't think historians are particularly good at analyzing the present or the very recent past. Other types of scholars, including sociologists and political scientists, tend to focus on the present. But many publishers and many members of the public commonly want historians to include a 'bring the story up to the present' chapter or conclusion. I often teach my students that those chapters are commonly the weakest in historical studies. As I say in both editions of my 'Rethinking' book, that perspective haunted the writing of the book's final chapter.

"In any case, I was pleased when Routledge informed me that my volume was one of the most successful in its social movements series and commissioned me to write a second edition. Since the original version was published before the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decisions and before the Trump era, the 2012 edition was outdated," he added, referring to the high court's Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in 2015 that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide and Donald Trump's election as president in 2016.

"I originally was only going to substantially revise the final chapter, but because there's been such great LGBT history scholarship about the pre-1990 era published in the last decade, I ended up revising the whole book. Because the post-1990 period now includes the Trump era, I was able to strengthen my arguments against historical narratives that assume that progress is linear and inevitable," Stein stated.

Stein writes that the gay and lesbian movement has been replaced or superseded by LGBTQ and other movements in the post-1990s era. There's even been controversy in the title of his book.

"My book's title has been misunderstood as implying that I am anti-queer or that I don't appreciate the broader coalition that we invoke when we refer to the LGBTQ+ movement," he wrote in the email. "Nothing could be further from the truth. I helped found an early queer activist group, Queer Action, in Philadelphia in the early 1990s. My first book, published in 2000, offers critically queer perspectives on the history of gay and lesbian politics in Philadelphia. I have commonly used LGBT, LGBTQ, and queer as key terms in other projects. But as a historian, I believe it's important to be true to the historical evidence of the periods we're studying."

Stein doesn't think there was an LGBTQ+ movement before the 1990s, but rather a gay and lesbian movement.

"For most of the period from 1950 to 1990, the gay and lesbian movement functioned largely as just that; it was commonly anti-bisexual and anti-trans, even as bisexuals and trans people argued for the gay and lesbian movement to change," Stein explained. "Bisexual and trans people were part of the gay and lesbian movement, but that doesn't mean the movement prioritized their issues. People with disabilities were part of the movement, but we don't talk about the [lesbian, gay, disabled] movement because the movement did not organize or understand itself that way."

Stein stated that a largely autonomous trans movement started in the 1950s and 1960s, which he discusses in the book.

"Starting in the 1970s, there was a largely autonomous bisexual movement and I discuss that," he stated. "We know of key episodes in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s when bisexual and trans activists pushed the gay and lesbian movement to be more inclusive; they commonly failed in those efforts until the 1990s. 'Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement' devotes lots of attention to these issues, in some cases more so than other books that purport to cover LGBTQ+ history, but I try to avoid the problem of projecting today's favored terms and concepts onto historical periods when they don't work particularly well."

People filled the Castro to celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court's same-sex marriage decision on June 26, 2015. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

Political coalitions
Stein is interested in the ways in which political coalitions come together and fall apart.

"I think the LGBTQ+ political coalition is a remarkable achievement; we should pay attention to how, why, and when it happened (and how, why, and when it did not include other groups that might have become part of the coalition but didn't)," he wrote in the email. "I'm glad that since the 1990s we've developed a stronger LGBTQ+ political coalition; I just don't believe that we should minimize the efforts that it required to make that happen. As for the future, movements come, go, change, adapt, and reconfigure themselves. It would be arrogant for anyone to assume that today's language and today's way of thinking will be embraced by future generations; haven't we learned enough from the past to know better?"

Queer activism today
In characterizing the new queer activism of today, Stein stated that he resists the tendency to consign the pre-1990 movement to the dustbin of history.

"It shows that much of what queer activism values — celebration of gender and sexual dissidence; rejection of gender and sexual privilege; critiques of racism, sexism, capitalism, colonialism, and ableism; intersectional multiculturalism — existed in nascent form in the pre-1990 era," Stein stated. "But something happened in the 1990s, when radically queer tendencies within larger LGBTQ+ worlds became more influential and powerful. This had happened before — in the immediate aftermath of Stonewall, for example, and in the second half of the 1980s, when radical AIDS activism emerged — but in the early 1990s there was a more sustained transformation, one that was significant enough that we now find it difficult to talk about the 'gay and lesbian' movement when we're talking about post-1990 developments."

Stein also talked about the gay and lesbian movement's biggest success and failure.

"If we're talking about the period from 1950 to 1990, I would say that the movement's biggest success was changing mainstream and lesbian/gay ideas about lesbian/gay people," he wrote in the email. "We could talk about concrete policy successes, including the 1973 declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness; the decriminalization of sodomy in half of the states in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; the passage of sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws in many local and state jurisdictions in the 1970s and 1980s; and the emergence of lesbian/gay people as an important part of the Democratic Party's electoral coalition in the same period. But underlying all of those policy successes was lesbian/gay political mobilization, which transformed mainstream and lesbian/gay consciousness about gender and sexuality.

"As for the biggest failure, I think the movement was more successful at combating anti-homosexual bias, discrimination, and prejudice than it was in challenging heteronormative privilege," Stein stated. "The movement succeeded to some extent at convincing many straight people to adopt 'live and let live' philosophies, but not at forcing straight people to renounce their special rights and privileges or encouraging everyone to come out. More concretely, I think the movement of 1950 to 1990 failed at transforming the country's educational system, which continues to relentlessly reproduce heterosexuality, heteronormativity, and gender normativity."

Current backlash
Stein was asked how to interpret the rash of anti-trans legislation sweeping across the country and whether it's a backlash to the queer movement's successes.

"I think in part we can see the rise of anti-trans legislation as an example of backlash politics, and the particular type of backlash politics that bullies some of the most vulnerable components of a disenfranchised community," Stein stated. "Without the trans-affirmative reforms that occurred in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s, I don't think we would be seeing the anti-trans backlash that we are seeing in the 2020s. But, there's also something else going on that relates to the politics of conservatism, populist conservatism, and fascism, in and beyond the United States.

"In the 1960s and 1970s, key conservative leaders in the United States made critical decisions about the future of their electoral coalition," he explained. "Faced with the prospects of permanent political marginalization, foreign policy and economic conservatives formed coalitions with religious and social conservatives, most notably in the Christian right. By the Trump era, the culturally reactionary tail was wagging the economically conservative dog. Anti-trans politics, like anti-Black and Brown, anti-abortion, and anti-immigrant politics, works by deluding working-class and middle-class white people into thinking that their interests are aligned with corporate America, traditional values, and strong-man authoritarianism rather than with broad-based democratic coalitions of the dispossessed."

Stein also discussed the current effort on the right to ban books in schools and libraries, including many on LGBTQ topics.

"I think this is all about so-called child protection. For centuries, we've seen gender and sexual conservatives weaponize ideas of "child protection" to further their aims," Stein wrote in the email. "We've also seen them instigate 'moral panics,' where popular sentiment is mobilized to address problems that are exaggerated far beyond empirically valid foundations.

"In the past, cultural discourses about sexual 'perverts' and gender 'deviants' played up the innocence of youth, who were seen as vulnerable to enticement, grooming, recruitment, and seduction," Stein stated. "This led, for example, to the passage of 'sexual psychopath' laws in many states in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. In the 1970s, similar dynamics led to Anita Bryant's 'Save Our Children' campaign against sexual orientation anti-discrimination laws and to California's Briggs initiative, which targeted LGBT teachers and their allies."

Stein talked about work he has done.

"In one of my recent research projects, published this spring in the journal Law and Social Inquiry, I showed that in the 1970s, students at 14 U.S. colleges and universities, including two California State Universities, had to go to court when their institutions denied formal recognition to newly established lesbian/gay student groups; one of the common justifications offered by school administrators was that vulnerable young people might be tempted to try out homosexuality if there were officially recognized lesbian/gay student groups," he explained.

Stein sees many parallels between what is occurring today with what happened in the 1970s.

"In both cases, social and cultural conservatives responded to gender and sexual liberalization by attempting to freak people out with moral panics," he stated. "Unfortunately, many media outlets play into conservative hands by reporting relentlessly on issues that are framed in reactionary terms. Today, for example, we rarely hear about the seven states that have mandated LGBT history education in public education [including California]; we rarely hear empowering stories about drag queen story hours; we rarely hear about the joys of athletic competition from the perspectives of young trans people and their allies.

"We also don't hear about the ways in which social and cultural conservatives want our children to be taught rigid and inflexible ways of thinking about gender and sexuality — we don't hear, for example, about the ways in which traditional educational practices offer up narrow and propagandistic lessons about gender identities and sexual orientation," he added. "It would be fascinating to see what would happen if the states that are banning public school lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation actually were true to that notion — imagine a future world in which 'boys' were not taught to be 'boys,' 'girls' were not taught to be 'girls,' and children were not taught to be straight!

"As for book banning in particular, this arises in all of the contexts I've just mentioned, but it also arises in the context of declining support for public education in the United States, attacks on colleges and universities, and anti-intellectualism in public discourse," Stein stated. "LGBTQ+ liberals and leftists should be mobilizing to support public education, not just to defend LGBTQ+ interests. Beyond that, I would just add that it's a little bizarre to be focusing on banning books at this particular historical moment, when information is increasingly shared in forms other than books."

Effort to silence queer history
Stein is concerned about the silencing of queer history in school curriculums.

"First, I would encourage us not to ignore the seven states that have mandated LGBT history education in public schools. When's the last time we read a mainstream media report (or even a queer media report) about how that's going or how things are going in the next set of states that will do likewise?"

Stein mentioned Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law, which Republican Governor and presidential candidate Ron DeSantis signed last year that bans discussion of homosexuality or gender identity in schools through the third grade. Recently, DeSantis signed a law extending the ban through eighth grade — and the Florida Board of Education expanded the limiting of classroom instruction through 12th grade.

"As for what's going on in more conservative states, I wrote a satirical piece recently for the History News Network that praised "R. DeSantis" for banning lessons about gender and sexuality in public schools. I was trying to get at what I hope will prove to be a legal fatal flaw in these policy initiatives," Stein wrote. "We commonly refer to these laws as 'don't say gay,' but they're more than that: they ban lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation, which presumably means that public schools should no longer be teaching boys to be boys, girls to be girls, or all people to be straight. Imagine a second grader who asks which bathroom to use; under Florida's new laws, the teacher should be prohibited from answering. And the laws have to be framed in theoretically neutral ways, or they would be vulnerable to First and 14th Amendment challenges based on free speech and equal protection. If interpreted literally, these laws ban teaching youth about gender and sexual normativity, just as they ban teaching youth about LGBTQ+ identities and orientations."

Stein stated that as a college professor, the bans don't really affect him. But he has other concerns.

"As someone who teaches in the post-secondary education sector in California, I'm not concerned about those types of bans," he stated. "But that doesn't mean I don't have ongoing concerns about how we teach LGBTQ+ history in colleges and universities. My university seems to be happy to have a set of specialized courses on LGBTQ+ topics. But do colleges and universities have ways to encourage faculty who teach courses on other topics to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ issues? Do my colleagues who teach introductory history courses incorporate LGBTQ+ history into their classes? I honestly don't know."

The future
Stein discussed the future of the queer movement.

"I'll say that asking a historian to talk about the future is like asking a doctor to draw up architectural plans for a new house," he stated. "I know this: there's much more work to be done. My book's new conclusion references a whole series of recent commentators who contend that the LGBTQ+ movement is finished, having succeeded in accomplishing all of its major goals. And these are not comedians. I'd like to see the movement broaden out, forming effective coalitions with other gender and sexual dissidents. I'd like to see the movement more effectively utilize creative direct action protests and mass grassroots mobilization. I'd like to see the movement focus more on education."

Last year, Stein authored his "Queer Public History: Essays on Scholarly Activism" (University of California Press, $29.95). He defines himself as a queer scholarly activist. He explained that role.

"My 'Queer Public History' book reprints more than 30 essays that I've written for general rather than scholarly audiences, some for LGBTQ+ newspapers such as the B.A.R.," he stated. "It also reflects on how queer publics nourished LGBTQ+ history projects, long before there was a place for LGBTQ+ history in college and university history departments. I use the notion of scholarly activism in a few different ways. It refers to the use of research for activist purposes; it refers to the activism that was necessary to make a place for LGBTQ+ studies within higher education, academic disciplines, and scholarly associations. I've been engaging in that work for decades and I used 'Queer Public History' to reflect on that."

Stein recently has received two accolades recognizing his role and contribution to both academic and public history.

"In January, gay public historian Jonathan Ned Katz selected me to replace him as the director of the OutHistory website," he stated. "One of my first major exhibits on OutHistory, since becoming its director, is a study I completed with my students that documents more than 600 LGBT direct action protests from 1965 to 1973; we're now working on expanding the study to cover 1974-76."

The B.A.R. reported on the direct action history study when it was released in March.

"Then in April, the Organization of American Historians, which represents thousands of U.S. historians, nominated me to become its president in several years," Stein stated. "If elected this fall (and I'm the only candidate, so I'll be very embarrassed if I lose!), I'll be the first president whose work has focused primarily on LGBTQ+ history and the first to come from the California State University system. I see the nomination as a statement about an entire generation of us who succeeded in using scholarly activism to make a place for LGBTQ+ history in primary, secondary, and post-secondary education."

Ultimately, Stein believes that rethinking the history of the U.S. gay and lesbian and LGBTQ movements should lead to a more general rethinking of U.S. history.

"This will likely only occur if more students, teachers, and scholars engage in political activism to change the ways in which history is learned and taught in primary, secondary, and postsecondary educational institutions," Stein stated. "It might mean trying to convince LGBT, queer, gender, and sexuality studies programs to make the history of political activism more central in their courses and curricula. And it might mean developing new ways to promote critical thinking about LGBT and queer history outside the classroom: in libraries and museums, on television and the internet, in film and video, and in various other venues. In other words, we need a new movement to rethink history."

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.