Generational Divides: Framing the Gay Sexual Revolution of the 1970s

On February 26th, over 80 people crowded into a basement room at the Graduate Center for a
CLAGS panel, “Beyond Shame: Putting (Radical) Sex Back into Homosexuality.” The panel,
organized by CLAGS board member Michael Bronski and co-sponsored by the Center for the Study
of Gender and Sexuality at NYU, developed into an informative, lively, and sometimes heated discussion
about the gay sexual revolution of the 1970s.
Panelists Jeffery Escoffier, Amber Hollibaugh,
Patrick Moore, and Ann Pellegrini, and
moderator Carolyn Dinshaw started off the
discussion with brief remarks about Moore’s
2004 book, Beyond Shame: Reclaiming the
Abandoned History of Radical Gay Sexuality.
Collectively the audience—which included
veterans of the sexual revolution and members
of younger generations—contributed much to
the success of the evening by adding reminiscences,
challenging the panelists’ generational
perspectives, and noting absences from the
conversation.
Moore, who is also the founding director of
the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS, explained
why he wrote Beyond Shame. “For me the purpose of writing this book was to be able to see the 70s in
a new context, as a history that shouldn’t be abandoned. AIDS is a history that’s largely been
abandoned by the gay community. Although they both need to be reclaimed, they also need to be
reclaimed separately.”
Moore said his hope was that this radical gay sexual history could be used by later generations. “I’m
extremely concerned about where we are at the moment in terms of younger gay people and why we’re
seeing HIV skyrocket. There’s been a loss of connection between generations. We don’t have older men
mentoring younger generations.”
“There was a spirit of exploration which I think is really missing in gay life today,” Moore added.
“What do younger gay people have that will be their generational experience of political action around
their sexuality?”
In her remarks, Pellegrini, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Performance Studies at NYU,
suggested that, instead of thinking about getting to a place “beyond shame,” it might be more useful to
think about “what we can do with and through shame, how shame might be transformed and transformative
of social possibility.” Pellegrini also argued that pleasure has to be brought back into the conversation.
“What would it mean to talk about sexual pleasure as a site for the production of social good?
What would it mean to think about these old and brave communities that Patrick has wonderfully
archived in this book as sites for the making of different values, sites from which emerge the horizons of
other possible cultures?”
Jeffrey Escoffier, an independent scholar and the author of Sexual Revolution, situated the history of
radical gay sexuality within the larger framework of the sexual revolution. He also noted that events and
trends of the 1980s tended to erase the historical specificity of the 70s. “We discount the sexual
revolution as something that predated the impact of AIDS and the rise of the new right, the rise of
various culture and sex wars. Most of those are really set in motion by the sexual revolution.”
Escoffier said gay men carried sexual experimentation the furthest, but he linked gay men’s ability to
push those boundaries to the feminist sexual revolution. “The gay male sexuality that Moore talks about
is part of a whole host of sex liberation communities, there was all kinds of sexual experimentation
taking place. Without all that going on at the same time, to some extent the sexuality that took place
among gay men would not have been carried as far.”
Hollibaugh, author of My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home and Director of
Education, Advocacy and Communications at SAGE (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders), focused her
remarks on the radical nature of the era. “Gay liberation and sexuality were framed in a context that
was understood consciously as being about a radical act, and desire was understood as a radical
possibility.” Whether it fulfilled that possibility, Hollibaugh pointed out, and whether everyone had equal
access to the sexual revolution, are different questions.
The panelists’ remarks were followed by a very lively discussion period, with the audience contributing
other perspectives to the conversation.
One audience member
noted (to at least one panelist’s
chagrin) that the panel was
comprised of “older and middle
aged folks.” He contested both the
assumption that today’s generation
of young queers was not as radical
and the implication that “in the
70s, we were men and we were
glorious.”
Audience member Rosamond
King addressed the absence of
queers of color from the discussion.
“If we’re talking about who’s sitting
at the table, the reason that there
are no black or Latino men or
women or trans folks sitting at [the
panelists’] table is not because
they’re all out getting AIDS.” King
also contested the panelists’ framing
of radical queer sexuality. “Whose
sex is on your radar screen? You use
butch and femme in the past tense.
But there are hundreds of women in
Brooklyn every weekend, it’s entirely
a butch-femme scene, it’s entirely
African American, it’s entirely
working class. Is that on anybody’s
radar screen? Are the play parties
women are having all over the city
and over the country on your radar
screen?”
Another audience member
remarked on the absence of trans
voices in the discussion. She
argued that trans bodies should be
included in discussions of shame
because of the way non-trans
people fetishize transgender
sexualities and bodies. She also
argued against the idea that radical
sexual communities were a thing of
the past by pointing to new forms
of transformative sexual
communities—for example, the
trans community’s practice of
surgery fundraisers.
One audience member’s
comments aptly summed up some
of the evening’s discussion. “There’s
a nostalgic yearning to go back to a
time when we believed in the
repressive hypothesis, when we
thought that if we got laid often
enough and well enough that
somehow the world would change.
In some ways it did. Gay and
lesbian identities were consolidated
through the opportunities that
people had to have more sex in free
association, to be able to group
together in bars and other public
spaces without being arrested.
Communities did come together,
but we know now that that isn’t
going to free you…In itself, sexual
desire is not transformative.”