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A History of Queer Direct Action

A History of Queer Direct Action

A Historical past of Queer Direct Motion

Queer activists within the 1980s and 1990s related the queer liberation wrestle to a broader politics of liberation for all. At the moment’s LGBTQ motion stands to study from revisiting this historical past.

Jesse Vogel ▪ July 5, 2019
Members of LIPS, a lesbian direct motion group, protesting in 1987 (c) 2019 JEB (Joan E. Biren)

Final October, late one afternoon, I stood dealing with the locked iron doorways of the U.S. Supreme Courtroom constructing. I used to be there with tons of of different protesters. We have been screaming. Brett Kavanaugh had simply been confirmed as a Supreme Courtroom justice, regardless of the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford. Individuals locked arms in entrance of the closed doorways. Others pounded the outer partitions. A brief lady round my mom’s age, who had sung “We Shall Overcome” to the gang earlier than we flooded the steps, danced subsequent to me to the beat of a drum.

Cass Gilbert, the architect of the constructing, had meant for individuals to climb the marble steps and enter by means of the heavy doorways at which we screamed that day. To get to the Nice Corridor the place arguments are heard, guests would move the marble sculptures of Woman Justice and the Guardian of Regulation. In 2010, when the Courtroom closed the primary entrance, citing safety considerations, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in his dissent that Gilbert’s design enlisted the customer in a “choreography” that mimics the method of attaining justice: “Every of those parts does its half to encourage contemplation of the Courtroom’s central objective: the administration of justice to all who search it.” It’s a stupendous picture: we progress in the direction of justice, step-by-step. However what if, at prime of the steps, the doorways are locked?

For the previous decade or so, a easy narrative of progress has dominated the favored telling of queer historical past in america: justice for LGBTQ individuals adopted a line from the Stonewall riots via the trial of AIDS and up the steps of the Supreme Courtroom constructing to marriage equality. However at this time, regardless of marriage equality and the broader tradition’s growing acceptance, even cooptation, of the LGBTQ motion, critical threats to queer individuals stay. And President Trump’s rhetoric and insurance policies threaten not solely queer individuals but in addition ladies, immigrants and asylum seekers, individuals of shade, and different traditionally marginalized teams. With a conservative majority bloc on the Courtroom and Trump within the White Home, the doorways to the Nice Corridor are each actually and metaphorically locked.

That provides the LGBTQ motion a selection. We will persist with guarding the rights we’ve gained over the previous decade and which have secured for some (principally those that are white, cisgender, and college-educated) a good, middle-class standing. Or we will decide to a broader and bolder imaginative and prescient that prioritizes collective liberation—for us, and for others—over particular person rights. That may imply, to start out, standing up as queer individuals towards inhuman circumstances on the southern border, placing our our bodies on the road to guard trans ladies vulnerable to violence, engaged on sex-work decriminalization and hurt discount for drug customers, and tackling the persevering with disaster of HIV. It might imply utilizing our lengthy expertise of preventing previous injustices to struggle injustice within the current.

Queer activists have held such broad emancipatory visions earlier than. These visions have been based mostly in a clear-eyed embrace of queer distinction and never an try and assimilate into middle-class establishments. By combining dedication to queer liberation with direct motion, radical queer activists have all through historical past introduced emotional efficiency to the LGBTQ motion to which we owe lots of our political good points at this time. That is the story of 1 such motion: a 1987 civil disobedience on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Courtroom constructing in response to the Courtroom’s choice to uphold statutes criminalizing consensual queer intercourse.


“The group was referred to as LIPS, and no, that does not stand for something,” Mary Farmer informed me, hitting the desk exhausting on “not” together with her palm and searching me straight within the eye. From 1974 to 1993, Farmer owned a beloved lesbian feminist bookstore and group area in DC referred to as Lammas Ladies’s Books & Extra. LIPS was one group that may manage direct motion protests within the ’80s and early ’90s and of which Farmer was a member.

One other unique member of LIPS was Urvashi Vaid, who, at the moment, was additionally Communications Director for the Nationwide Homosexual and Lesbian Activity Pressure, based in 1973 as one of many first nationwide, professionalized homosexual and lesbian rights lobbyist organizations. Vaid later turned well-known for her position as Government Director of the Process Drive and her guide critiquing the assimilationist path of LGBTQ politics within the 1990s, Digital Equality.

“Are you able to inform me about LIPS?” I requested once I caught her on the telephone. “That was my direct motion group!” she stated. “Reagan had been reelected and everyone was depressed. It was ’84, and a few pals have been like, what are we going to do?”

Their reply was protest that confronted the injustices of a conservative administration from an explicitly lesbian viewpoint. Vaid gave an instance. “Reagan had stated one thing silly about Central America and the way we had by no means invaded anyone. LIPS made a flier. Eight-and-a-half by fourteen, with teeny-tiny print of each invasion that the U.S. dedicated overseas. You recognize, CIA interventions, covert actions. And we took that flier, with a Reagan quote on it and a few cartoons, and leafleted people who have been on the Air and Area Museum on a Saturday morning.”

She laughed. “We made a banner that stated, ‘Lesbians Protesting Injustice.’ And we did plenty of participation in several marches, non-gay marches, too, so we might do lesbian visibility, queer visibility. And we all the time had leaflets. Our motto was, ‘We consider in getting the phrase out.’”

They received the phrase out about greater than a slender set of queer points. LIPS protested U.S. militarism and imperialism, opponents of reproductive justice, in addition to the occasional right-wing chief talking in Washington, all whereas centering their lesbian id. LIPS reworked the duty of “getting the phrase out” about particular person id (“popping out of the closet”) into “getting the phrase out” about injustice right here and overseas.

“It was the ’80s,” Vaid defined, “and we have been very a lot on the surface.” AIDS was killing queer individuals. The Reagan administration, with its inaction, was letting individuals die. Conservatism in all varieties was rising. Homophobia was merciless and rampant. In response, virtually as if understanding that any try to slot in was self-defeating, Vaid and her LIPS compatriots went in the other way and took to the streets. Then the federal government tightened the screws. In its 1986 choice Bowers v. Hardwick, the Supreme Courtroom upheld a Georgia statute that banned “sexual act[s] involving the intercourse organs of 1 individual and the mouth or anus of one other”—successfully criminalizing types of queer intercourse.

Sue Hyde was a colleague of Urvashi’s who had been employed to run the Activity Drive’s Privateness Challenge in late 1986 after the choice, a job through which she organized individuals to oppose state anti-sodomy statutes. She would go on to co-found and run till 2018 the annual Creating Change convention for LGBTQ activists. “When the Hardwick determination got here out,” Hyde informed me, “it was type of a thunderclap for lots of people.” Sodomy legal guidelines have been not often enforced, and few individuals had beforehand thought a lot of them. “’Oh, what? It’s a felony for me to be having intercourse with my boyfriend or my girlfriend? What the heck is occurring right here?’ Individuals didn’t know they have been unconvicted felons.”

The choice had different however no much less grave penalties for queers throughout the nation, Hyde defined. With sodomy outlawed in twenty-five states and the District of Columbia, federal lawmakers had one other excuse to oppose funding for intercourse schooling and LGBTQ group and campus organizations. Following the federal government’s merciless refusal to deal with the AIDS disaster, the Courtroom’s determination was a lethal blow, one which nationwide LGBTQ leaders understood required a response.


One response was provided by organizers of the Second March on Washington for Lesbian and Homosexual Rights, who deliberate a civil disobedience motion on the Supreme Courtroom for October 13, 1987 to protest the Courtroom’s sodomy determination, two days after over 200,000 LGBTQ individuals and allies marched for LGBTQ rights and AIDS funding. The planning started in earnest eleven months earlier at a gathering the place activists from teams throughout the nation started to formulate specific calls for from a broad set of proposed themes. The calls for would ultimately embrace a nationwide homosexual and lesbian rights invoice, an finish to discrimination towards individuals with AIDS, the repeal of anti-sodomy legal guidelines, an finish to discrimination towards gays and lesbians in federal employment, authorized recognition of similar intercourse relationships, an enormous improve of funding for AIDS schooling, analysis, and care (to be taken out of the protection price range), in addition to an finish to sexism and racism and a safeguarded “proper to follow sexuality freely.”

In the meantime, a brand new direct motion group, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Energy (ACT UP), shaped in March 1987 in New York Metropolis. It will turn into recognized for its daring, confrontational protests that offered an outlet for queer anger and compelled the difficulty of AIDS into the general public agenda. The group’s organizing was electrical to many queers radicalized by the AIDS epidemic’s mounting deaths. As Deborah Gould writes in Shifting Politics, ACT UP broke from earlier AIDS teams that primarily cared for the sick and educated the group about safer intercourse. “Get indignant and struggle again,” the author Larry Kramer stated on the first assembly. Or else, he emphasised, two-thirds of the queer inhabitants can be lifeless in 5 years.

ACT UP later turned well-known, however it was constructed inside a group that consisted of many teams that have been mobilizing the group’s anger on the rising disaster. Members of a consciousness-raising collective referred to as Silence = Dying had in December 1986 designed and wheat pasted all through the town a black poster marked by a fuchsia triangle, meant to evoke the patch Nazis required homosexual males to put on in the course of the Holocaust. “Flip anger, worry, grief into motion,” the poster implored. And in February 1987, the Lavender Hill Mob dedicated a “zap,” leafleting and interrupting a Middle for Illness Management assembly that included main homosexual and lesbian teams (together with the Process Pressure) that convened to debate obligatory HIV testing. “Check medicine, not individuals,” their leaflets demanded. That type of protest was a cousin of these Marty Robinson had been pulling off because the mid-1980s underneath the banner of the “Swift and Horrible Retribution Committee” of the Homosexual and Lesbian Alliance Towards Defamation. This swirl of righteous anger and power was the backdrop towards which LGBTQ leaders organized the 1987 March on Washington.

Although direct motion had a historical past within the LGBTQ group, the March on Washington leaders sought to mobilize individuals by declaring it a brand new technique for a brand new, horrible second. “That is the start of a brand new period of AIDS activism and a rise in direct actions for the lesbian and homosexual rights motion,” a flier distributed by the Nationwide March on Washington committee declared within the spring of 1987. The organizing committee urged supporters to attend the ACT UP and Lavender Hill Mob co-sponsored demonstration of the Worldwide Convention on AIDS held on the Washington Hilton on June 1 to demand authorities officers improve AIDS analysis funding. That direct motion was a style of what was to return if supporters got here out en masse in October, the poster promised: “Be a part of us for these actions and on … October 13 for enormous nonviolent civil disobedience on the Supreme Courtroom.”

John Maddux, a longtime activist whose first civil disobedience motion was a blockade of nuclear weapons elements in Washington state within the seventies, was ending his dissertation on the College of Cincinnati on homosexual and lesbian discrimination in public faculties in 1987, when he heard concerning the march.

“I used to be concerned in homosexual activism right here in Cincinnati, and naturally, everybody was going to the March on Washington,” Maddux advised me. He was already on the board of an area group that was working to deliver individuals to the march itself, making bus reservations and lodge lodging. However when phrase got here from organizers that there can be a direct motion protest after the march and that they might danger arrest, he felt he needed to be concerned.

When the day got here, turnout was large. “I keep in mind on Friday the ninth, I needed to go right down to Dupont Circle for one thing,” Urvashi Vaid recalled, referring to DC’s traditionally LGBTQ pleasant neighborhood, “and I simply thought, oh my god: there are all these individuals right here!” She instantly returned to the workplace to pitch media retailers: “That is huge—that is actually huge.”

And although “500,000 individuals weren’t going to take part in a civil disobedience on the Supreme Courtroom,” Sue Hyde advised me, “5,000 individuals did! And 840 individuals received arrested.” On the time, it was the most important mass arrest on the Courtroom ever, and the most important in Washington D.C. because the Vietnam Struggle.

Organizing that day constructed on extra than simply previous homosexual rights protests. The March Committee’s civil disobedience coordinator was Michelle Crone, who had been concerned within the anti-nuke motion, spending time on the Seneca Ladies’s Peace Encampment opposing militarism at a base in upstate New York. Hyde defined that organizers borrowed from the anti-nuclear motion the affinity group mannequin—organizing and coaching small teams of protestors to offer help to at least one one other earlier than, throughout, and after arrest.

“Everyone who participated was purported to be a part of an affinity group, and the affinity teams have been supposed to arrange themselves earlier than they arrived in DC,” Hyde stated. The affinity teams would occupy the Courtroom’s marble plaza in “waves,” every sitting down, elevating clasped arms, singing and chanting, till the police got here to take them away. At a mass assembly at All Souls Unitarian Church within the Columbia Heights neighborhood of DC, protestors and organizers gathered the night time earlier than to coach.

That’s the place Maddux discovered an affinity group of about eight, all fellow Midwesterners. However the subsequent morning, “as we acquired nearer and nearer, the opposite six individuals pale away and determined to not do it,” Maddux recalled. He was undaunted, so he and a good friend joined with a gaggle of strangers and stepped as much as cross the barricade between the sidewalk and the Supreme Courtroom’s plaza. “Marching was one factor, however committing civil disobedience with the complete world watching? It was completely liberating,” he stated.

What wouldn’t it have been wish to be there? The civil disobedience was the end result of an extended weekend in Washington throughout which these gathered there had been surrounded by extra queer individuals than some had ever seen in a single place.

“It was not solely an act for the development of homosexual and lesbian rights, however on a private degree, it was simply extraordinarily liberating once we crossed these limitations the police had erected,” Maddux stated.

I requested him why. “You’re not fearing arrest anymore. And also you’re not fearing the discrimination that I had skilled all my life, the disgust and hatred from different individuals,” he continued. He stated he felt the facility of taking over worry collectively, with others, in public.

Afterwards, even after they have been bused away for processing, strangers cheered each other on. “Individuals have been chanting and cheering and buoying one another with, yeah, good for you, you probably did this!” Maddux remembered. “Most everyone was type of in the identical place as I used to be, like, Man I can’t consider I did this! As a result of I used to be actually scared to dying earlier than.”

These on the Courtroom that day have been clear-eyed about the truth that many within the federal authorities didn’t care whether or not they lived or died. By committing civil disobedience, they claimed and embodied by means of the ordeal of arrest their criminalized standing, which had been reaffirmed in Bowers v Hardwick. As Pat Norman, one of many organizers, put it to the Washington Submit that day, “This isn’t the primary time gays have achieved civil disobedience. Day by day we commit an act of civil disobedience by loving one another.”

The worry Maddux described, the liberation he felt in dealing with it, and the enjoyment of group cheering him on was a part of an emotional transformation felt on a private degree that mirrored the transformation occurring within the LGBTQ motion extra broadly. The Courtroom motion was totally different than a lot of the earlier organizing that prioritized group duty for AIDS schooling and care. It was a confrontation. You assume we’re criminals? Arrest us! That was highly effective. Individuals left DC and commenced organizing furiously on their residence turf.

“Individuals went residence and received very busy,” Hyde informed me. They began native direct motion teams, together with ACT UP chapters, in addition to anti-violence tasks, efforts to fight anti-sodomy legal guidelines and enact employment and housing protections and construct new LGBT group facilities. And like LIPS, the post-1987 wave of queer activism wasn’t bounded narrowly to “LGBT”; within the 1990s, teams established to struggle AIDS deepened their organizing into arenas like housing, poverty, hurt discount for drug-users, and healthcare.

The emotional transformation of LGBTQ organizing within the late 1980s gave rise to a extra expansive political imaginative and prescient and understanding of queer politics. The handbook distributed prematurely of the Supreme Courtroom motion supplies an instance. “We’re highschool college students and grandmothers, rabbis and bikers, prisoners and activists, drag-queens and secretaries, softball gamers and church-goers,” it learn. “We’re out and outraged. We aren’t going again.”

If in 1987 we have been “prisoners and activists,” who can we think about ourselves to be right now? Studying the literature distributed by probably the most well-funded LGBTQ political organizations, the reply is perhaps, “married couples,” “householders,” or one thing else resembling Pete and Chasten Buttigieg on the duvet of Time. These are pictures created and propagated by the assimilationist wing of our motion that believes progress is gained by “profitable hearts and minds” fairly than constructing energy.

However solely a slim portion of the LGBTQ motion’s imaginative and prescient—for queer liberation, and for the liberation of all individuals—was realized on the prime of the Supreme Courtroom steps. As in 1987, at present we include multitudes. Many people stay on the surface. Affirming that reality of our personal distinction and holding it as central will take us removed from the straightforward story of LGBTQ progress that has turn out to be typical knowledge over the previous decade. It is going to additionally assist us think about a broader and bolder politics of collective liberation essential for our victory in these to return.

Jesse Vogel is a author and organizer from Columbus, Ohio. He’s an incoming Moritz Benefit Scholar at The Ohio State College’s Moritz School of Regulation.

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