The 1970s: Disco Fever and Respectability

Historical Essay

by Will Roscoe


Gay Pageant 1975

Photo: Crawford Barton

The years between 1970 and 1975 saw more progress in gay rights than the previous two decades combined. Disco culture highlighted a new self-awareness in the gay community that created a celebratory self-image. By the middle of the decade, though, the gay men and lesbians began to diverge politically as they worked to define their new, more public lifestyles. Political agency moved into a more mainstream direction, with rising power for elected officials and lobbyists. 1977 proved to be a landmark year for the successes and failures of the gay movement, as politicians such as Harvey Milk and anti-gay Anita Bryant entered the national spotlight. While the gay community was a political force, it struggled to combat homophobia among the general public. Eventually, the gay movement from radical transgression towards assimilation and non-subversive action, with statements such as "we are no different except for what we do in bed” widely circulating in and out of the movement.

The years between 1970 and 1975 brought more breakthroughs in the area of gay rights than those of the previous two decades combined. Few could have predicted the impact of the Stonewall generation: several states repealed sodomy laws, many cities adopted civil rights protections for gay people, lesbians and gay men were elected to public offices. Presidential candidates endorsed gay rights and local gay community centers received federal grants to provide services to gay people. And everywhere the driving beat of disco music heralded a new era in gay self-awareness.

Disco provided the anthem for gay men celebrating the triumph of their struggle against self-hate and denial. The disco culture was, above all, a gay fashion. No longer had we to conform to stereotypes we had no part in creating. In the style, the flair and customs of the dance, gay men created a self-image out of their own fantasies and dreams.

Women, too, created an affirmative culture in the 1970s, as the popularity of women's music provided opportunities for large numbers of women to gather and celebrate their own experiences and culture.

By the mid-1970s, however, the cultural and political energies in the gay community appeared to be moving apart. Lesbians and gay men devoted increasing attention to refining the details of their new life-styles and identities. At the same time, gay organizations relied less on mobilization, turning to lobbying and vote-garnering to win limited, pragmatic concessions from the political styles.

"Professionalism" became the movement buzzword. Groups like the National Gay Task Force (founded 1973) hired professional lobbyists to influence legislation and media coverage of gay people and achieved some success. But the days of active participation by a broad grassroots of gay people were largely over. The most political act of many gay people at the end of the 1970s consisted of casting their ballots according to the endorsements of the local gay Democratic club.

The year 1977 proved another watershed for gay people. The successes-- and failures--of the movement were brought into sharp contrast by four events: Anita Bryant's campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance in Miami; the anti-gay murder of Robert Hillsborough in San Francisco; the overwhelming turnout of gay people across the country on Gay Pride Day; and the election of Harvey Milk as a San Francisco supervisor. While the gay community had emerged as a political force, its ability to alter the deeper levels of homophobia in American society remained limited. Advance and setback, one following the other, characterized the progress of the gay movement at the end of the decade. The string of victories that followed Stonewall seemed to be coming to an end.

The tendencies of accommodation, assimilation and image-conciousness crept into the gay movement. Gay rights became human rights. Gay professionals, who disdained the colorful street actions of the Stonewall period, assumed roles as leaders and trendsetters within the movement. Lesbians and gay men were no longer encouraged to take action in the streets; the call was for voting power and economic clout.

On the cultural level the official line became, once again, "We are no different except for what we do in bed" -- the position taken in 1953 by the conservatives in Mattachine. At the same time, a thriving, multi-faceted gay community had developed, based on the assumption that gay people are different and need specifically gay institutions, organizations, and businesses to meet their needs. This contradiction points to lingering insecurities that are not fully banished by the progress since Stonewall. In fact, at the onset of the 1980s, lesbians and gay men found themselves faced with serious challenges to both the political and personal gains of the previous decade.

The AIDS crisis has imposed itself as the gay issue of the 1980s. After two decades of setting its own goals, the gay movement is faced today with an issue that no one wanted--or could even have imagined.

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