Wednesday, May 31st, 2023

Memories of the founding of SGC and ARGOH

MurrayPiecesMemories of the Founding of SGC and ARGOH

by Stephen O. Murray

Gay/Lesbian Organizations within the American Sociological Association and the American Anthropological Association 

Excerpt from Pieces for a History of Gay Studies

The Sociologists’ Gay Caucus

The 1974 American Sociological Association meeting in Montreal was my first, following my first year of graduate work.

Having found plenary addresses by Talcott Parsons, Harold Garfinkel, Tom Bottomore and Seymour Martin Lipset entirely vacuous (and not understood Peter Blau’s presidential address delivered in his strong German accent), I was questioning whether I really wanted to become a sociologist. As reported in the previous chapter, I went to a session that consisted of two papers on gay (male) identity solicited (contrary to the rules of the association) by organizer H. Laurence Ross from Barry Dank and Edward Sagarin. Ross had invited those who had submitted papers for the session to serve as discussants. These included Laud Humphreys, Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz, and Michel Laferriere.

I discussed Sagarin’s 1973 bitchy survey review in Contemporary Sociology and the session above, but will reiterate that the ethics of the gay liberation era (the 1970s) included a strong taboo against revealing the homosexuality of anyone but oneself, so Laud made a deliberate seeming slip of “Cory — I mean Sagarin” that was lost on those (like me) not in-the-know but understood by those (like Barry Adam) who were. (Dropping someone else’s beads with plausible deniability — a venerable tactic.)

Outrage at Sagarin’s presentation, and at how the session was organized (very much by invitation only, contrary to the open submission policy of the association), led to the formation of the Sociologists’ Gay Caucus. Barry recalls:

The idea for the caucus] came about when Ron Lawson and I expressed our disgust with the Sagarin panel to each other at the end of the session. (We were total strangers at the time.) We then together undertook to make posters and put them up with the intention of founding a caucus. At the time, I was aware of precedents occurring in other professional associations.

The time from conception to birth was short. Ron’s hotel room was packed (20–25 people according to my journal). Some people drifted in and out, and, since it was my first ASA meeting, I knew no one. Those whom I remember being there in addition to Ron and Laud include Barry Adam, Phil Blumstein, Michel Laferriere, Pepper Schwartz, and Wagner Thielens. Stuart Michaels has told me that he (then an undergraduate) was there, and quite a few more people were also there. There was a very long discussion about a name for the incipient organization that would not exclude straight sympathizers from joining. That is, grappling with inclusivity in labels was already occurring at the birth time and place.

We demanded a substantive paper session for the next year’s meeting and the involvement of gay/lesbian people in planning it (which we got) and an investigation of the 1974 session’s violation of the program rules (a demand which was ignored).

Peter Nardi, Barry Adam, Stephen O. Murray, and Michael Gorman, in 2004.
Peter Nardi, Barry Adam, Stephen O. Murray, and Michael Gorman, in 2004.

That I became a member of the steering committee (with Ron, Wag, Barry, Jim Knoop, Philip Dean Parker) surprised me, but I did. I can remember very well a breakfast steering committee meeting the next year (in Laud’s suite in the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco) to which Jessie Bernard came as a liaison for SWS, saying that only a grandmother would dare to come. (Around this time she labeled herself a “lesbian,” but was soon dissuaded, according to Robert Bannister’s biography of her.) Psychiatrist Martin Hoffman (author of The Gay World) also dropped by.

Almost as retrospectively surprising as my being on the steering committee was that in 1975-76, I was an advocate for SGC members who were not doing gay/lesbian studies. Although my dissertation research was far afield, by 1977 I was presenting reports at sociology meetings of my own research on gay male speech, the quasi-ethnicity and institutional elaboration of the Toronto gay community, and comparing Mesoamerican and Anglo North American conceptions/organizations of homosexuality.

In 1975, the steering committee became all New Yorkers: Marty Levine joined chair Ron Lawson and Wag Thielens, who put out the first newsletter in September. Seemingly every year Barry Adam arrived at the meetings with a crisp and persuasive motion (or set of motions) to take to the business meeting. Black, radical, and gay caucus members were mobilized to show up at business meetings and supported each other’s motions. I cannot recall any resolution SGC/SLGC sponsored being defeated, and most were subsequently ratified by ASA Council.

The business meeting I remember the best was addressing a boycott of (meeting in) states with sodomy laws. I remember criticizing ASA former President Lewis Coser’s statement in opposition to the motion, and I remember that it sounded to me that the provision to move an already-scheduled meeting was defeated in a voice vote. President Matilda White Riley heard (or at least ruled!) differently. A hand count bore her out, but I continue to think that the opposition on the voice vote had been louder.

SGLC is, perhaps, an example of obliteration by incorporation (acceptance of its demands), though Robert K. Merton suggested this for ideas rather than for organizations or activist agendas.

Anthropology Research Group on Homosexuality

The foundation meeting at AAA in Los Angeles in 1978 was chaired by University of Washington professor (and Melanesianist) Kenneth Read. My memory of it was that most of those in attendance were female. Deborah Wolf told me about the meeting, and I remember that I sat between her and Denyse Lockhard, with more women next to each of them; the only male there whom I then knew was Mike Gorman, then a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Read’s mandarin manner turned off a lot of people—especially (but not only) the women there. 1 It is easier now to recognize that it took some courage for him to use his status to front for the organization, but the organization was (and has remained through two subsequent name changes) very timid about challenging AAA.

What is the opposite of “activist”? Quietist. Even a decade later, by which time it had become the Society of Lesbian and Gay Anthropologists (SOLGA), 2 it was heavily constrained by the dominance of its chief bankroller, Wayne State professor (Americanist and Australianist) Arnold Pilling. He kept membership information to himself. Lesbigay caucuses of other professional societies had distributed membership lists to their members for years, but he refused to permit that. Similarly, he opposed making any demands on AAA or taking any remotely political gay-rights positions.

Because of the timidity of ARGOH/SOLGA leadership, AAA was years behind other professional associations in refusing to meet in states with sodomy laws, and after the SOLGA membership approved a demand that the association not meet in states that criminalized sodomy, the leadership of SOLGA almost immediately neutered this (to accept meeting in cities with sexual-orientation nondiscrimination laws within states with sodomy laws, removing the pressure on the urbane parts of states pressing to repeal sodomy laws).

For a time, partly I’m sure in reaction to the paternalism of elders like Read and Pilling, lesbian separatism turned ARGOH into a mostly male organization. With the decimation (-plus) of gay men by HIV, along with the increasing predominance of women among anthropology graduate students and the eclipse of consideration of “nasty” phenomena such as sex within the “master discourse” that was gender, SOLGA was increasingly dominated by a clique of lesbians, many in women’s studies departments, often organized by Ellen Lewin, who openly dismissed discrimination against gay men and sought to eclipse work touching on sex for a mix of foci on transgender performativity and marriage/childrearing. The more recent jettisoning of “lesbian and gay” for “queer” has further marginalized homosexuality as a focus for interpretation (let alone research…).

I’m not sure there was any activist agenda to be obliterated in the quietist history of ARGOH/SOLGA/AQA, but the organization continues as one of the multiple ones associating within AAA, granted a session or two in the annual meeting and a column in the monthly Anthropology News, so the organization is (and always has been) toothless and unwilling to make any waves within the association, rather than obliterated by its successes.

Printed with permission. ©Reserved by Stephen O. Murray


  1. I was unimpressed with the “homosexual tavern” ethnography Read produced, Other Voices (1980; see Murray 1987b).
  2. About a third of the members were not also members of the American Anthropological Association and some were not gay- or lesbian-identified supporters and/or researchers. I guess that extirpating nonanthropologists was a sort of “professionalization” though most of the non-AAA members were credentialed in anthropology or some other social science. And most were male.

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.