“The most profoundly revolutionary…” Notes (Ella)

Hillman, Betty Luther. “The most profoundly revolutionary act a homosexual can engage in”: Drag and the Politics of Gender Presentation in the San Francisco Gay Liberation Movement, 1964–1972” Journal of the History of Sexuality, JANUARY 2011, Vol. 20, No. 1 (JANUARY 2011), pp. 153-181. University of Texas Press. Electronic.

  • “In June 1968 The Queen was released in major cities across the United States. A behind-the-scenes documentary of a drag queen beauty contest in New York City, the film was hailed by the New York Times as “an extraordinary” depiction of the art of female impersonation that also managed to humanize the men behind the performance.” (Hillman 153)
  • “The social and cultural events publicized in the pages of Vector, however, might have suggested otherwise. Six months earlier the magazine had displayed photographs from the fifth annual Beaux Arts Halloween Ball, sponsored by the Tavern Guild of San Francisco, in which SIR members appeared in full drag.3 Nor were the photos from the 1967 ball an isolated incident – every year SIR reported on its drag theater productions and drag balls, which served as key social functions and important fund-raising events. Enthusiastic participants were prominently featured in the magazine’s photo spreads (see Figure 1). Figure I).4 While the reviewer for SIR’s magazine might have protested The Queen’s portrayal of homosexuals in drag to the public, drag played a major role in the organization’s social and cultural events as well as in the broader culture of the San Francisco homosexual community.” (Hillman 153-154)
  • “The San Francisco Bay Area’s gay cultural scene, which has flourished since at least the 1930s, has prominently featured drag shows and female impersonation.6 As historians have noted, drag queens and “street queens” participated actively in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City, and drag queens have played a headlining role in gay pride parades that began in the 1970s to commemorate the rebellion and continue to take place in cities worldwide.7 In the 1960s and 1970s, however, as the homophile movement transitioned into a larger, louder, and more militant gay liberation movement, drag and drag queens – defined in what follows as biologically male individuals presenting as feminine or female to the outside world – became a source of contestation among gay activists.” (Hillman 154-155)
  • “Gay cultural figures in the twentieth century, such as the effeminate “fairy” in turn-of-the-century New York and butch – femme lesbians in the 1950s, solidified images of gender transgression as a key component of homosexual identity.9 However, as homosexuals first began to form organizations to fight for their rights, combating stereotypes about homosexuality and separating their sexual identities from gender deviance became two of their primary goals. Dress codes requiring suits for men and dresses for women at official functions of the Mattachine Society, a nationwide homophile group established in the 1950s, underscored how gender-normative presentation was a central tactic in the quest for rights and respectability.” (Hillman 156)
  • “Three particular developments in the 1960s contributed to the new debates that emerged about drag and gender presentation within the gay community. First were changes in gay organizations themselves. The relaxation of censorship laws by the Supreme Court in 1957 increased media attention to homosexuality in the 1960s, and organizations such as SIR and the Mattachine Societies of New York and Washington, D.C., gained publicity, membership, and militance. The civil rights, Black Power, New Left, and anti-Vietnam War movements expanded opportunities for social and political protest, and well before Stonewall, young gays participating in student activism were becoming politicized around their own homosexuality.” (Hillman 156-157)
  • “Second, changes in dress and gender presentation more broadly influenced gay organizing in the 1960s. The Beatles inspired teenage boys to grow their hair long, and the hippies grew their hair even longer; black men and women sported Afros to signify Black Power; feminists removed their bras and scorned makeup and high heels; and youths wore blue jeans, floral prints, and ruffled shirts to mark the rise of unisex fashion trends for all.13 Parents, newspaper columnists, and social authorities lamented the blurring of sexual distinctions.” (Hillman 157)
  • “On the other hand, gender- bending dress styles garnered significant social backlash: police officers derided hippies as “queers,” school officials attempted to restrict men’s long hairstyles, and some political campaigns forced youth volunteers to cut their hair in order to participate.” (Hillman 158)
  • “Third, increased public attention to transsexuality spurred public confusion over the difference between homosexual and transsexual identity. Christine Jorgensen’s sex-change surgery in Denmark in 1952 marked the beginning of public awareness of transsexuality – the notion that a person could be born as one sex but surgically transformed to live as the other. In 1966 the publication of Harry Benjamin’s The Transsexual Phenomenon brought new legitimacy to transsexuality in the medical community, and within a few years gender identity clinics opened at Johns Hopkins University, the University of Minnesota, Stanford, and UCLA.” (Hillman 158)
  • “Current gay activists, for example, do not equate a drag- ball fund-raiser at a fancy hotel with a dance for poor transgender youths, even though the attendees of both events transgress gender boundaries in their dress.20 The class implications of drag and gender transgression – particularly surrounding the role of working-class “street queens” in the early gay liberation movement – complicated these debates on drag even further, challenging notions of class as well as gender respectability.” (Hillman 159)
  • “Inspired by the rhetoric of civil rights activism, SIR portrayed itself as more politically militant than the Mattachine Society, which had dominated the homophile scene in the 1950s but was losing steam and membership numbers in the 1960s. SIR also envisioned itself as a social and communal organization, hosting parties, dances, dinners, and shows to promote social interaction among its members. Drag often played a role in the organization’s social and cultural events, as previously mentioned, and in doing so the group carried on a tradition of drag balls and drag shows as hallmarks of San Francisco gay culture dating from the 1930s.” (Hillman 160)
  • “On a summer night in August 1966, the first “gay riot” broke out in San Francisco when drag queens dining at Compton’s Cafeteria on Turk Street fought back against police harassment. Some San Francisco gay activists remembered the riot years later as “the first recorded violence by Gays against the police anywhere,” predating the violence of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York City by almost three years.29 One participant in the Compton’s riot proclaimed seven years later: “Those dizzy fags back in New York think that Christopher Street was something, honey, let me tell you now, they should have seen Turk Street ’66.”” (Hillman 161)
  • “with essentials. SIR members reflect a more financially secure crowd.”39 Class was not the only difference that Vanguard members believed alienated them from SIR, however; gender presentation was also a significant factor. “There are many organizations for homosexuals all over the country,” the president wrote in the second issue of Vanguard. “Most of them have rules like: No drag, no hair fairies, etc., etc. This is fine in a legal situation, but, why shouldn’t we take the chance of getting busted? These people are homosexual just like us. We all want unity, but no-one will fight to get it.”” (Hillman 163)
  • “Implicit in this debate in Vector were divergent understandings of the meaning of drag. Was drag a cultural marker of gay community, to be used as a “caricature” at private events or in stage productions? Or was drag something else – a marker of “femininity” and a sign of the inherent gender deviance of homosexuals? Perhaps to separate homosexual identity from conceptions of gender deviance, comments in Vector began to stress differences between homosexuals (like themselves) and drag queens and transsexuals (of the Tenderloin).” (Hillman 164-165)
  • “If their gender identity was inherently masculine, transvestism was nothing more than dress-up. SIR members could therefore claim that their private drag balls and drag shows did not make them inherently feminine or confused about their gender identity: “Those experts who closely study this subject frequently find that individuals who dress in clothing of the opposite gender (transvestites) possess a secure masculine outlook,” the article explained.” (Hillman 165)
  • “Vanguard also forced SIR and its members to question the role of drag and in the gay community as the meanings of drag shifted in the late 1960s to encompass poor street youths, drag queen prostitutes, and transsexuals as potential constituents of gay activism. Rather than draw the circle of the gay community larger, however, SIR distinguished between types of drag – as dress for special occasions or for the everyday, at private events or in public on the street, as a “caricature” of gayness or a marker of inner gender identity – to differentiate itself from the poor street youths of the Tenderloin and to delineate more specifically the image of middle-class, noneffeminate homosexuality that SIR wished to portray to the broader public.” (Hillman 166-167)
  • “The question for historians to ask, of course, is how gay organizations decided which issues were most central to gay rights and what assumptions and ideologies shaped those decisions. Debates on drag in emerging gay liberation groups illustrate how multi-issue politics created ideological divisions among gay activists over the role of gender politics in gay activism, as individuals and groups struggled to incorporate class and racial activism, women’s liberation, and New Left critiques of capitalism alongside gay rights activism.” (Hillman 168)
  • “This language of masculine militance both aligned gay activists with the political rhetoric of other radical groups like the Black Panthers and implicitly challenged the stereotype of homosexuals as “weak” and effeminate by asserting their manhood as the basis of their rights claims.” (Hillman 169)
  • “In combating stereotypes of “weak” homosexuals with the rhetoric of masculine militance, CHF left little room to include drag queens and gender transgression in the politics of gay liberation. This exclusion became apparent when CHF and other gay liberationists picketed the San Francisco Tavern Guild’s annual Beaux Arts drag ball in October 1969.” (Hillman 169)
  • “One activist mimicked “going down” on a woman wearing a short hair wig and a dildo, another drag queen flashed the crowd with her “very real bosom,” and a number of male participants dressed in drag but refused to shave their beards or legs.68 For these budding gay liberationists, not only were drag queens included in gay activism, but gender transgression in dress and self-presentation was adopted as a public, political tactic. After the Beaux Arts Ball picket, some activists began to include drag queens in the movement as part of their broader goals of fighting class, racial, and gender oppression.” (Hillman 170)
  • “The next month, when CHF and various other gay liberation organizations banded together to hold an “anti-Thanksgiving” rally and march, they invited drag queens from the Tenderloin to join them. The San Francisco Free Press reported: “Along the way two beautiful Queens in full drag were cheered by the throng as they came into the street to join the march. During the rest of the journey they walked, liberated, at the head of the line.”70 This newfound embrace of drag queens also allowed liberationists to deride SIR for what they believed were its gender- conformist and class-exclusionary tactics.” (Hillman 170)
  • “The New York Gay Liberation Front (New York GLF), the premier gay liberation organization in New York City that formed immediately after the Stonewall Rebellion, argued that homosexual oppression was “based on sex and the sex roles which oppress us from infancy,” borrowing from radical feminist analysis of the social construction of gender roles as the cause of women’s oppression.73 Similarly, gay liberation organizations in San Francisco began to adopt explicitly feminist rhetoric and politics, connecting homosexual oppression to the rigidity of sex roles in American society.” (Hillman 171)
  • “In the first issue of Gay Sunshine, a new Bay Area gay liberation periodical that appeared in 1970, Allen Young argued that drag was problematic for gay liberation, as it catered to the stereotypical expectations that many heterosexuals held about gays: “It is straight society which tells us that to be Gay is to be womanly (read: inferior). Our fight to reject sex roles, and to reject heterosexual male chauvinism is to reject terminology and humor which reinforces . . . those same straight roles.”76 In the second issue of Gay Sunshine, another editorial defended drag, arguing that “blatant” gays were “freer” to be themselves, unconstrained by society’s sex roles.77 In this second view “campy” dress – including drag – challenged notions of gender by proving that “masculinity” and “femininity” were not naturally tied to males and females.” (Hillman 172)
  • “Del Martin, a longtime lesbian activist in San Francisco and one of the founders of Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, epitomized this critique in a public statement in 1970, criticizing the gay community’s sexism and failure to address women’s issues. Drag was an important aspect of her argument: “Goodbye to the Hallowe’en Balls, the drag shows and parties. It was fun, while it lasted. But the humor has gone out of the game. The exaggeration of the switching (or swishing) of sex roles has become the norm in the public eye. … It is time to stop mimicking the heterosexual society we’ve been trying to escape.”81 By exaggerating sex roles, Martin argued, drag performances confirmed the validity of those roles rather than aiding their elimination. Another lesbian feminist argued that drag was “a mockery and put-down of women. They dress up in clothes that no woman would wear and then make women out to be all of the stupid things that society ever said we were.”82 Feminist criticisms of drag borrowed from a broader feminist politics of dress and gender presentation that shunned makeup, high heels, and miniskirts as sexually objectifying and oppressive to women, constraining their movement and culturally codifying their weak, subservient position in relation to men…. As Robin Morgan concluded in her speech at the West Coast Lesbian Feminist Conference in 1973, “We know what’s at work when whites wear blackface; the same thing is at work when men wear drag.”83” (Hillman 173)
  • “For some gay liberation groups, “gender fuck” tactics became prominent at meetings, public protests, and demonstrations. Male gay liberationists sometimes appeared at Berkeley GLF meetings in women’s dresses while sporting unshaven beards.88 Unlike SIR members at drag balls, these GLF members were not attempting to pass as women but rather were protesting against culturally constructed gender norms symbolized by gendered modes of dress.” (Hillman 175)
  • “These debates highlighted how gay liberationists found themselves at a crossroads, struggling to include drag queens in their fight against gender, class, and racial oppression but also seeking to appease New Left ideals of manhood, feminist critiques of sexism, and their own movement goals of shedding cultural stereotypes about male homosexuality. As discussion about drag continued, many of the early gay liberation organizations began to dissolve.” (Hillman 177)
  • “Debates over drag in gay organizations of the 1960s and 1970s illustrate how gender presentation became a central ideological concern for the gay movement. Competing understandings of the meaning of cross-gender presentation among queer individuals – a cultural form marking gay community at private events, an everyday display of class and gender identity, a critique of social constructions of gender, or a perpetuator of stereotypes against women and homosexuals – garnered different responses to drag as a political and cultural statement, dividing gay activists along lines of class, gender, and political ideologies.” (Hillman 179)
  • “Gay activists were not alone; gender presentation was a central source of political and cultural contention across the United States in the 1960s and 1970s not just for gay liberationists but for numerous other social and cultural movements as well. When the police derided long-haired hippies as “queers,” when Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign in 1968 forced its male youth volunteers to cut their long hair in order to participate, and when Betty Friedan looked on in horror as members of Boston Female Liberation cut their hair at the 1969 Congress to Unite Women, fearing that their “unfeminine” appearance would fuel stereotypes of feminists as lesbians, they signaled how much dress and gender presentation were hotly contested among both the members of 1960s social movements and their Onlookers.” (Hillman 180)

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