Wednesday, May 31st, 2023

A reductionist organizational history of the rise of gay San Francisco

Forging Gay Identities

by Elizabeth Armstrong

Published by University of Chicago Press 

Published December 2, 2002
History / Social Theory
290 pgs. • Find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

May 1, 2003

It would be an exaggeration to say that Elizabeth Armstrong’s (2002) Forging Gay Identities combines the worst of qualitative sociology with the worst of quantitative sociology, but only a slight exaggeration.

The worst of quantitative sociology is presuming that numbers are important without considering whether what is counted can meaningfully be aggregated or compared. What Armstrong counted was listings in directories of homophile, gay, lesbian, and AIDS organizations in San Francisco gay resource guides dating from 1963 to 1995. Leaving aside the incomparability of different guides from different eras, the trend lines she displays involve adding together as equivalent units of large-budget, large-staff organizations such as the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (headed by a heterosexual woman for most of its existence prior to Armstrong’s book) and one-person organizations that paid for listing. I don’t think that “number of organizations” is a valid metric of anything.

Armstrong does not specify for readers what her criteria were for deciding to count an organization as, for instance, a “gay AIDS” organization rather than as an “AIDS organization” (serving some gay men but not a “gay organization”) or a “gay organization” (with some focus on some aspect of AIDS), or for distinguishing “lesbian organization” from “women’s organizations.” Armstrong does not report intercoder reliability either for inclusion/exclusion from the database of her general gay/lesbian organizations or for her subtypes. It is not clear to me how, on the basis of resource guides, she was able to “separate the profit from the non-for-profit organizations” (p. 209), and I do not think that whether “organizations defined themselves as lesbian or gay” (p. 209) could be clear with the data on organizational self-consciousness only being resources guide listings. Moreover, excluding organizations “shaped by the logic of profit seeking” (p. 209) biased the results—intentionally biasing them, ostensibly because “the identity political logic was more purely in evidence in the nonprofit organizations” (p. 209).

The book contains a number of charts but no statistical analysis beyond “eyeballing” lines with year as the independent variable, number of organizations the dependent (“explanatory”) variable. The text that accompanies these charts (and some well-chosen photographs) similarly conflates the purpose of organizations with diverse aims (as well as widely differences of scale) as promoting “gay identity,” after Armstrong purged the institutional landscape of profit-seekers.

Analyzing invalid enumerations—rather than conscious bias of data included—is what I consider the worst aspect of contemporary quantitative sociology. The bias of the purportedly analytical history (both its political bias and forcing data into the procrustean bed of a particular “theory”) is what I consider most deplorable in contemporary qualitative sociology (and other fields).

I find the idea that the “New Left” was about “identity politics” dubious and Armstrong’s focus on the “new left” as the source of gay identity, affirmation, and mobilization so vastly exaggerated as to be classifiable as a fantasy. Obsessed with organizations, she fails to register the wide cultural ferment, much (most?) of which was apolitical or antipolitical in traditional senses of “political.” 1 San Francisco was a center of beat(nik) counterculture during the mid-to-late 1950s and of hippie counterculture during the mid- to late-1960s, as of earlier bohemian life, all of which were more accepting of homosexual relations than the dominant culture was. In both beat and hippie instances, turning on (with drugs) and dropping out of participation in mainstream society—in particular, politics—was not accompanied by the theory or the practices of either old or new lefts.

During the late-1960s and early-1970s, antipathy to being drafted and undergoing military discipline was considerably more widespread among those of draft age than principled opposition to neocolonialism and capitalism. “Question authority” was a mantra within the Baby Boom generation, particularly among those rejecting US military adventures in Vietnam, but the identity involved for that was youth, not (neo-)Marxist or leftist (or proletarian). Moreover, homosexuality was only one of the “alternative lifestyles” flourishing in the Bay Area. Experimentation with open relationships, “swinging,” nonmarital sexual relationships, high rates of divorce, and of childless married couples made lifetime monogamous and procreative heterosexual marriage unfashionable, at least among young white urbanites and suburbanites. Within “the sexual revolution,” the San Francisco Bay Area was notoriously avant-garde in challenging “traditional family values” within heterosexual relations and relationships. These were not products of New Left discourse (nor instances of “identity politics”) and are missing in Armstrong’s narrative/analysis.

The conscious and direct model for combating stigmatization and legal discrimination was the Negro/black civil rights movement with its combination of challenges in court and public demonstrations. This exemplar preceded the brief florescence of “the New Left” and was characterized by a determination not to be associated with the “old left,” though before the Hitler-Stalin pact the Communist Party USA attempted to organize and “guide” Negro frustrations (see Naison 1983 [and McKay 2017]).

The affirmation of heretofore stigmatized peoples and valorization of their differences occurred in a world in which de-colonization was not yet complete but had already substantially redrawn the map of the world. The by-no-means leftist coiner of “Gay is Good” (D.C. Mattachine Society leader Franklin Kameny) consciously built on the “Black is Beautiful” slogan at a time when “roots” (ethnic differences) were actively being celebrated in the United States, though not particularly notably by post-Stalinists leftists.

“Women’s liberation” was even further from being a project of the American left, old or new, than was the black civil rights movement. The challenge to ascriptive gender roles and valorizing “freedom of choice” about reproduction was extended to sexual “freedom” and “liberation,” but valorizing such freedoms were not rooted in leftist organizations such as the pre-eminent “New Left” one, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had imploded before there were any Gay Liberation Fronts. (And the organizational legacy of the gay liberation era was groups formed around explicit rejection of the multi-issue leftism of the GLF(s).)

Armstrong writes her reification: “…the gay identity movement privileged the identity logic” (p. 185). Insofar as this is not tautological, it begs the question of demarcating an “identity movement” from “interest group politics” and “the commercialization of sex,” while leaving the free pursuit of happiness in same-sex sexual relations outside commercial establishments invisible.

Bars and clubs targeting men who sought sex and/or love with men made the existence of large numbers of gay men visible and contributed to bolstering gay identity in various ways, though it seems to me that it was a safe space in which to meet masculine males who were potential sex partners that was the primary basis of the appeal. Bars’ profits derived from sale of alcohol, the profits of sex and dance clubs from admission fees, not directly from sex occurring on the premises or between persons meeting in those places and consummating sexual relations elsewhere. Sex in not the commodity directly being sold in the “commercialized sex industry” of bars and clubs (while intimations of sex were used to sell most everything in American society during the last quarter of the twentieth century—and since then). Prostitution, sometimes called “the world’s oldest profession,” did not have a boom during the gay liberation era or in the post-liberationist boom of ever-more-palatial gay discos, bars, and bathhouses. The plenitude of readily available sexual partners almost certainly reduced the demand for commercial sex; it did not eliminate it. The other component of commercialized sex, pornography, increasingly flourished (along with classified ads in gay newspapers) after AIDS, which was first identified more than a decade after the collapse of the New Left.

The proliferation of gay bars and clubs simultaneous with the nonproliferation of lesbian bars (by the end of the period Armstrong writes about, there were none in San Francisco) and nonexistence of commercial lesbian sex clubs should make Armstrong’s notion of a single lesbigay identity politics “field” suspect, though the problem for her model is obscured by her de-emphasis of sex(ual freedom), exclusion from her database of organizations following that nasty “profit logic,” and concentration on political organizations that included at least some lesbians.

Except within a narrow sense of a “gay identity movement,” that is again tautological, and “subordination of interest group and commercial logics to the logic of identity” bears no relationship to the history of gay and/or gay-lesbian San Francisco. Even on the highest “holy day” of the gay calendar, Gay Freedom Day (later within the period of Armstrong’s discourse, Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day, now LGBT Pride Day), commercial “logic” is ubiquitous. Whether identity politics or interest group politics is more dominant in the parade could be argued, but at parade’s end, gay identity politics is dwarfed in comparison to commerce (mostly not sex commerce) and interest group politics in the temporary fairground (in Civic Center) and amplified public addresses. (Would it be churlish to note that more people are dancing than listening to speeches at the end of the parades?)

I would not go so far as to claim that there were more libertarians than new leftists among gay-identified San Franciscans in 1965 or 1975, but not being hassled by the state while pursuing happiness of one’s own vision of happiness was part of the draw of San Francisco for gay and lesbian immigrants from other parts of the USA throughout the period of Armstrong’s history (and before and after it). Note the individualistic and libertarian name of the largest gay political organization of the 1960s, the Society for Individual Rights [SIR]. The rationale for abolishing the legal status of sodomy as a crime and for ending police harassment of bars catering to gay men was privacy and individual liberty. Neither liberty (negative liberty—see Berlin’s 1990) nor privacy has been a central goal in leftist thought or mobilization or the ultimate value (see the work on value hierarchies brought together in Rokeach 1968). One might imagine either the libertarian ultimate value of liberty or the leftist ultimate value of equality providing a rationale for repealing laws against sodomy (though in terms of equality, there was a counterargument that the California law applied to heterosexual as well as to homosexual sodomy, in contrast to laws in some other states). San Francisco representatives (future San Francisco mayors George Moscone and Willie Brown) in the California legislature convinced their colleagues from more conservative areas to repeal the law because it criminalized relations, including marital ones, in private, i.e., as impeding the liberty to have sex in forms that consenting adults chose, not because the sporadic actual enforcement of the laws almost exclusively targeted gay men having sex in parks and public toilets.

There were attempts to change attitudes of the general public about homosexuals (more than about homosexuality!). The most famous ones emanating from someone identified with social “revolution,” Black Panther Supreme Commander Huey Newton, in 1970, made the claim for individual freedom: “A person should have freedom to use his body in whatever way he wants to.”

Contrary to Armstrong, the state was (and remains) the major target for the gay (and lesbian/gay) movement. Especially for males and especially in the earlier decades, freedom from state interference was the goal of gay politics, in particular the freedom to have sexual relations with persons of the same sex and to congregate in publicly licensed facilities (bars) and de facto gay spaces (cruising areas without admission charges) with those having similar desires, without the threat of arrest or police harassment.

Following the successful legislative maneuvering to repeal sodomy laws (not spearheaded by gay organizations) the gay/lesbian political focus (during a time of lesbian separatism, the 1970s) was on adding “sexual orientation” to the list of categories for which discrimination was banned and for fighting back the 1978 statewide initiative measure to discriminate against gay/lesbian teachers and “save our children” from any sort of classroom discussion of homosexuality not condemning it. Anti-discrimination ordinances were advanced by liberal advocates of equal opportunity, but the 1978 “child-protection” initiative (Proposition 6) was defeated (as Armstrong notes) with prominent and significant support of former California Governor and leader of the right wing of the American Republican Party, Ronald Reagan and (as she does not note) of then-future very conservative governor George Deukmejian, who was at that time the highest elected Republican official in California, the Attorney General) as unwarranted government intrusion.

The number of gay organizations reached its apex in the late 1970s, which was also the heyday of apolitical gay hedonism, gay petty capitalism, and “free love.” Could anyone believe that “the golden age of promiscuity” was a product of the New Left or that either “free love” or commodification of desire by capitalist entrepreneurs was valued by any left of any age?

Although she does not get around to discussing the chasm between lesbian feminism and gay male hedonism in her chapter on the 1970s, lesbian-feminist policing of political correctness (within a worldview in which “the personal is the political” and those with superior understanding of what people should want prescribed and proscribed much for those of inferiorly developed consciousnesses) was antithetical to the general gay male “Do your own thing” laissez-faire attitude to what others were doing in pursuing their own blisses. Gay male San Franciscans mostly acted in ways consistent with John Stuart Mills’s principle that “all errors which [a man] is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem is good” (quoted by Berlin 1990:199) and Kant’s stance that “no one can compel me to be happy in his[/her] way… [To do so] is the greatest despotism imaginable” (quoted by Berlin 1990:208). Particularly in regard to what they regarded as “errors” of males, but also in the generic sense of humans, such a principle was rejected by lesbian feminists who were convinced that they knew best what people (not just lesbians) should do and even what they should want (instantiating what Berlin called “positive liberty” to do what some authority believing in its superior insight claims is in the benighted individual’s interest or in the interest of future humanity’s).

Although the statement applies better to the 1970s and earlier than to the era for which she makes it, when safe(r) sex norms were popularized by gay man, Armstrong is right that “most gay men had no interest in reconstructing their sexuality. They simply wanted freedom of sexual expression” (p. 143). The laissez-faire attitude to others pursuing their inalienable right to purse happiness as they saw fit extended to comfort with and even admiration for capitalism (gay and other), though there were also explicit criticism of commodification of gay desire and identity by some gay male intellectuals, particularly during the 1969–71 period of gay utopianism, before hypermasculine objectification (“clone” hegemony) and gay capitalism took off. The “growing vitality of the sexual subculture brought home the reality many gays were not politically radical” (p. 89), but even during the 1969–71 period, the loosely used “radical” politics was primarily opposition to the U.S. military adventure in Vietnam and diffuse anti-establishment sentiments, not commitment to engineering socialism in America or structural changes to the distribution of wealth and power in the USA or elsewhere. Admiration by some young self-styled “radicals” for the Viet Cong did not translate into any with to emulate the discipline of communist cadres in Vietnam or even that of the Black Panthers across the bay in Oakland. “Radical” was also applied by and to the general (not-gay-identified) counterculture participants seeking the freedom to use drugs, (for males) grow long hair and beards, to listen to loud music, and not be tied down into “establishment” jobs and suburban family-raising.

I am less certain than Armstrong that gay owners of gay bars and clubs garnered “economic power that translated into political influence” during the 1970s (p. 122). Real economic power in San Francisco was downtown—in the Bank of America, Wells Fargo Bank, Levi Strauss, The Gap Inc., Charles Schwab, Chevron, Pacific Bell, Bechtel, etc.—not with gay entrepreneurs who were petty capitalists in comparison. The major political goal of the owners of gay bars and clubs was to avoid harassment by police or being singled out for special scrutiny by building inspectors, the state liquor franchise inspectors, and fire marshals. Making political contributions to sympathetic politicians, they largely succeeded in having their enterprises treated as ordinary businesses, but Armstrong offers no detail or documentation of any larger political agenda, nor does she bother to explain the different bases or political goals of the various weekly gay newspapers or the three gay Democratic and one Republican gay clubs, even though gay politics in San Francisco since the 1970s has largely involved conflicts of the two largest Democratic ones, those named after Harvey Milk and Alice B. Toklas. With her assignment of paternity of gay identity to the new left, Armstrong does not even mention the Log Cabin Republican Club, though it would seem to be of interest for discussing unity of gay identity across diversities, one of her major analytic priorities.

Grassroots gay volunteer organizations to serve persons with AIDS mushroomed during the early 1980s. As these became better funded, the organizations were taken over by professionals—by female professionals to an extent wildly disproportionate to the San Francisco PWA population (cf. the peculiar and uninstantiated statement on p. 175 about greater male power that Armstrong makes). Concerns about the exclusion of any priority other than funding of AIDS service organizations were little expressed in the gay press, though, as she notes, in San Francisco, in contrast to places with tiny or no gay/lesbian organizations before AIDS, AIDS organizations competed with rather than stimulated the growth of gay/lesbian organizations. Advocacy of funding for services to PWAs crossed party and left/right lines and identity differences. One consequence of challenging the stigma of AIDS as a “gay disease” was that those infected with HIV had no control over the mobilizations purportedly in their behalf: those uninfected took the jobs that were created and made decisions for the HIV+ (who in San Francisco more than in any other US city have, overwhelmingly, been males having sex with males). Even on the advisory boards of nonprofit AIDS service organizations, there was at most token representation of those to be served with contributions, grants, and government contracts after administrators and fund-raisers devoured increasingly large portions.

Armstrong uncritically accepts that there was an empirical basis for closing gay bathhouses in San Francisco. She does not cite any empirical evidence and does not accurately portray how bathhouse closure was brought about under the pressure of Mayor Dianne Feinstein, whose concern about seeking higher office without being accused of coddling sodomitical excesses dovetailed with her repugnance for gay promiscuity. Government banning of the commercial gay institutions was advocated by some leaders of the leftist gay political club, the one named for and once headed by Harvey Milk, by a former leader of SIR, and by a campaign of deliberate misinformation by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts, but was ordered by an official serving at the pleasure of mayor (Dr. Mervyn Silverman). Armstrong also fails to distinguish opposition to any change in bathhouse modus operandi from opposition to state closure of bathhouses. [cf. Murray 1996:110–25].

Considering that Armstrong largely ignores gay culture to dwell on gay politics, it is remarkable that she fails to notice the major effort after some normalization of AIDS service funding. There is no entry in her detailed index for “domestic partnerships.” However, in 1990, the city/county of San Francisco established a registry of domestic partnerships, provided some benefits to city/county employees’ domestic partners. (Mayor Feinstein vetoed Harry Britt’s domestic partnership legislation, passed by the board of supervisors back in 1982.) A San Francisco representative in the state Assembly, Carole Migden, pressed (with eventual success) for a state registry of domestic partnerships and for providing many of the same benefits afforded to married persons for domestic partners. San Francisco supervisor (later Assembleyman and State Senator) Mark Leno (with the support of Mayor Willie Brown) pushed through a provision requiring companies that contracted with the city/county to provide domestic partner benefits matching benefits for married employees that hastened/increased the number of American corporations with domestic partner benefits. I am not sure why Armstrong ignores this: because it was successful? because “gay marriage” is an agenda associated with the gay right (the existence of which she carefully ignores)? because no genealogy to this campaign from the New Left could be made plausible?

Armstrong’s naiveté (or ideologically induced inability to understand positions alien to her ideology) can be illustrated by her peculiar interpretation of reaction against the renaming of “Gay Freedom Day” to “Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day.” The reason she adduces is the novelty of the slash, although it is obvious in the complaint she quotes (p. 146) that the issue was the subordination of gay to lesbian. It is not “lesbian/gay” one year and “gay/lesbian” the next, and the parade is led every year by a lesbian contingent, but Armstrong is among those who cannot imagine that any gay men mind find the lack of parity (not to mention under-representation) unsettling or even objectionable. Through most of the book, Armstrong avoids considering tensions between those promoting gay identity and those promoting lesbian identity, not mentioning lesbian separatism at all in the chapter covering the period of greatest lesbian separatism (cf. Wolf 1979). Although Armstrong later gets around to mentioning it, understanding of what was going on during the 1970s is impeded by papering over the phenomenon.

As usual, I wonder to whom or what Armstrong refers in writing that “the gay identity movement defined the defense of public sex as a general gay rights issue” (p. 138). There were libertarians making such defenses, but what gay rights organizations did? She counterpoises this to issues of child custody being peripheralized as a “women’s issue.” Sodomy laws were used to justify denying custody to lesbian and gay parents, but, after the repeal of California’s sodomy laws, this was irrelevant in San Francisco, and there were no cases of denial of custody to lesbians because of their sinfulness/criminality in San Francisco to protest. It’s not that this was peripheralized as a “women’s issue” but that within her study site, San Francisco, it was a non-issue. Moreover, Armstrong cites no cases of San Francisco women denied custody because of their homosexuality even before the 1975 repeal of the California sodomy law.

Armstrong avoids considering the ideological deployment of “inclusivity” by the mostly white male “Queer Nation” (a flash in the pan already overly attended to by sociologists) or by various entrepreneurs of double- or triple-minority statuses. She suggests that at the end of the period she dips into (the mid-1990s), local gay/lesbian organizing and organizations were being eclipsed by top-down Washington D.C.-based national organizations, though neither in her book nor outside it do I see any evidence of subordination of San Francisco organizations to marching orders issued from the D.C. organizations that focus on lobbying the federal government or pressing test cases on behalf of lesbian/gay rights.

The book is filled with anachronisms (e.g., “pride parade” in reference to the 1971–73 period, p. 109), botched chronology (e.g., the founding of the Toklas Club follows earlier reference to its mobilizing to collect signatures for a presidential candidate, the suppression of discussion of lesbian separatism from the decade of its prominence), blatant misreadings (e.g., the “slash” interpretation, the existence of evidence that bathhouse attendance was a risk factor) and the seemingly fashionable erasure of sex and a distinction of “sex” and “gender”). Especially in regard to lesbian relationships that have often valorized heterogender couplings (butch/femme), “same-gender” is confusing and discards the useful distinction between homogender homosexuality and heterogender homosexuality for no reason except a seeming discomfort with sex (even the word) within the dominant discourse of “gender.”

I do not mean to imply that Armstrong gets everything wrong or that the book is devoid of insights. That gay institutional elaboration was most complete before the first cluster of AIDS cases were noticed is one instance, the draining rather than stimulation of gay (identity) organizations in response to AIDS (in contrast to places with no significant gay organizations preceding the epidemic) is another, that the shift from homophile discretion to gay “coming out” was too rapid to be explained by any changes in the actual risks of public revelation of sexual orientation is a third (even if “the identity political logic persuaded masses of people to ‘come out’” begs all the basic questions of how and why). Although slighting the importance of Jim Foster, Pat Norman, Harry Britt, and Carole Migden, in very visible positions, and many others leaders, Armstrong (pp. 63-65) supplements Vern Bullough’s (2002) pantheon of pre-Stonewall gay/lesbian pioneers by showing the catalytic role played by Leo Laurence in the homophile-to-liberation transition in the Bay Area (predating Stonewall). This is a rare instance of individual agency within Armstrong’s book in which she more often attributes agency to “the field” (of gay identity movements), rarely even to a specific organization within the “field.”

Alas, overall, the book is more obfuscatory than illuminating of the history of gay etc. organizations. I continue to believe that good sociology cannot be made out of bad history. Although also overemphasizing the importance of the derivation of homophile and gay liberation movements from quickly repudiated roots in the left, Epstein (1999) and Valocchi (2001) provide more nuanced analyses of the relationships between individual and collective identity than Armstrong does, and supply consideration of the changing environments for marginalized groups to exert political leverage that is missing in Armstrong’s “analysis.” A “cultural institutional” analysis that so miserably fails to consider—let alone understand—cultural aspects as Armstrong’s narrative does, provides an exemplar of how not to do historical sociology.

References Cited

Berlin, Isaiah. 1998 [1958]. “Two concepts of liberty.” In The Proper Study of Mankind, pp. 191-242. New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux.
Bram, Christopher. Eminent Outlaws.
Bullough, Vern L. 2002. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. Binghamton, NY: Haworth.
Epstein, Steven G. 1999. “Gay and lesbian movements in the United States.” Pp. 30-90 in The Global Emergence of Gay and Lesbian Politics: National Imprints of a Worldwide Movement. ed. by Barry Adam et al. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
McKay, Claude. 2017 [1941]. Amiable with Big Teeth. New York: Penguin.
Murray, Stephen O. 1996. American Gay. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Naison, Mark. 1983. Communists in Harlem during the Great Depression. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Newton, Huey P. 1970. “Letter from Huey to the revolutionary brothers and sisters about the women’s liberation and gay liberation movements.” Black Panther 5,8 (21 Aug.):5. (reprinted in multiple places)
Rokeach, Milton. 1968. Beliefs, Attitudes, and Values: A Theory of Organization and Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Valocchi, Steve. 2001. “Individual identities, collective identities, and organizational structures: the relationship of the political let and gay liberation in the United States.” Sociological Perspectives 44:445-67.
Wolf, Deborah Goleman. 1979. Lesbian Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.

published by epinions, 1 May 2003
©2003, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

I received a review copy of this book from the journal Sexualities. The review was rejected without any explanation being offered, the only occasion that I had a review commissioned by an academic journal blocked.


  1. Armstrong’s book provides an anthithesis to the literary creationism of Christopher Bram’s view that some novels produced a revolution of gay consciousness (when, in fact, they mostly maintained the “triste homosexual” stereotype and maintained the stricture that “the homosexual must die.” See my review of it here.) For a more social history, focused like Armstrong’s on San Francisco, albeit with a longer time-frame, see Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town, reviewed here. For an experience-near account of forging gay consciousness and getting involved in San Francisco gay politics, see Cleve Jones’s memoir, When We Rise, reviewed here.

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.