The Radical Roots of Pride Month

As we celebrate GLBT Pride Month, Executive Editor Niels Hooper looks back at the radical movements throughout history that expanded and redefined notions of gender and queer culture.

Guest post by Niels Hooper

June is traditionally Gay Pride or GLBT Pride month, and countless smaller towns—and Los Angeles— have already held their pride celebrations so as not to compete with the main tourist events in New York (the East), Chicago (the Midwest), Toronto (Canada), and San Francisco (the West). Here the apocryphal anniversary of Judy Garland’s 1969 funeral, or the Stonewall Riots, is always celebrated on the last weekend of June. Never mind the fact that the first transgender riots in US history occurred here in San Francisco, at the Compton’s Cafeteria in August 1966, the lead up to which you can read about in Nan Boyd’s Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco (UC Press, 2005) and which is also mapped in Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (UC Press, 2010). Or never mind that the nation’s first enduring gay rights movement emerged even earlier than that, in the hills of Los Angeles’ Silverlake, as Daniel Hurewitz describes in Bohemian Los Angeles (UC Press, 2008).

The Compton’s Cafeteria Riot is well documented in Susan Stryker’s Emmy Award-winning film, Screaming Queens (2010), and it’s particularly apropos that we return not to gay identity per se but transgender action this year. As a transgender TV star graces the cover of Time Magazine for the first time (the Orange is the New Black star, Laverne Cox, May 2014), Stryker, along with Paisley Currah, has just launched the groundbreaking Transgender Studies Quarterly (Duke, 2014). Chelsea Manning, the Wikileaks whistle-blower, is the first “cover girl” because—as the editors write—“it is virtually impossible, in the wake of the Manning case, to ignore transgender issues or not to have opinions about them.” And Stryker’s home institution, the University of Arizona, is currently hiring an unprecedented transgender studies faculty cluster and building a graduate degree program. It’s a sign of the cutting edge nature of this subject that authority comes from its ability to reach to places like Arizona, decentering the temples of the urban, eastern Ivy Leagues.

Yet despite the fact that fiery debates are raging this month within the urban-centered gay “communities” of Los Angeles (where Ru Paul’s Drag Race is filmed) and San Francisco (where Trannyshack—now T-Shack—is a much-beloved institution) over the politics and power of calling trans people, Tucson, Arizona has as much a right to this history as anywhere. Peter Boag’s prize-winning Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past (UC Press, 2012) paints a vivid picture of a rural West where cross-dressing—for both men and women—was pervasive, and where easterners as well as Mexicans and even Indians could redefine their gender and sexual identities. Nayan Shah’s Stranger Intimacy (UC Press, 2012), and the collection edited by David Adams and Crista DeLuzio, On the Borders of Love and Power (UC Press, 2012), further up-end fixed notions of intimate relations and sexual life amongst diverse working-class immigrants and communities of the 19th and early 20th century West and Southwest, before firm racial and sexual citizenship requirements obliterated or hid them.

These books shows how powerful discourses make transgender and queer histories invisible in places thus deemed on the periphery, like Arizona. Others restore queer and transgender histories to whole spaces of cultural life. Molly McGarry’s Ghosts of Futures Past (UC Press, 2012) challenges the secularist bias of the history of sexuality by showing how American Spiritualism embraced the transfiguration of bodies and genders. And Nadine Hubbs’ Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (UC Press, 2014) reveals working-class acceptance of queerness outside the traditional hubs of gay identity. And there’s gay labor, for instance Phil Tiemeyer’s Lambda Award nominated, Plane Queer: Labor, Sexuality, and AIDS in the History of Male Flight Attendants (UC Press, 2013), which explores men joining a workplace traditionally identified as female, and fighting homophobia, expanding the 1964 Civil Rights Act against sex discrimination, achieving pioneering GLBT gains like partner benefits, reinstating workers with AIDS and so paving the way for the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

As another Gay Pride month passes, supposedly celebrating GLBT achievements such as these, it’s still surprising how little memory there is of the often radical and countercultural action that was necessary for them, and how much has been lost. Sarah Schulman’s Lambda Award nominated, Gentrification of the Mind (UC Press, 2012) is a powerfully important corrective companion to this month’s televised version of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, for our gentrified times. As Schulman writes, “gentrified happiness is often available to us in return for collusion with injustice,” a warning indeed to pride itself.

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For the month of June, UC Press is offering 30% off these books and more with discount code 14W3882. Explore more books related to gender, identity, and GLBT rights.