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social sciences

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Gay Left  
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While many sexual radicals, feminists, and gay activists at the time turned to the work of Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, and Herbert Marcuse--the Freudian left--for insights into sexuality, the Freudian left's dependence on a notion of biological instincts (and other forms of essentialism) was politically and intellectually unacceptable to the Gay Left. The "interactionist" tradition of sociology (as articulated in the writings of George Herbert Mead, John Gagnon, William Simon, and Erving Goffman), which stressed the importance of social interactions and the reflexive interpretation of human actions, offered an alternative in which, as Jeffrey Weeks noted, "nothing is intrinsically sexual, or rather that anything can be sexualized."

This position emerged during the 1980s as the "social constructionist" approach to sexuality and identity that combined insights of John Gagnon and William Simon's "interactionist" sociology of sex with the Marxist analysis of large-scale historical processes. Later Jeffrey Weeks noted that this sociological tradition and the school of thought represented by Michel Foucault had in common the recognition that sexuality is shaped by the social environment, human interaction, the varied erotic possibilities of the body, and the different forms of expression that "sex" can represent.

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One of the most significant intellectual contributions of the Gay Left group was a historical account of the emergence of homosexual identity. In his early book on the history of homosexual politics in Britain, Coming Out (1977), Weeks explored the implications of Mary McIntosh's 1968 essay on "the homosexual role" in which McIntosh proposed that a homosexual "role" or "identity" had evolved in various historical periods. Weeks, Kenneth Plummer, and other Gay Left historians identified the specific social and economic conditions that permitted the growth of a homosexual subculture and its psychological-political outgrowth--the modern lesbian and gay male identity. They saw sexual identity as the result of a historical process, not a predetermined "natural" process.

In the late 1970s, centers of Gay Left thinking emerged in North America. Among the most important of these centers were The Body Politic in Toronto (whose writers and editors included James Steakley, John D'Emilio, Michael Lynch, and Tom Waugh); Gay Community News in Boston (whose contributors included Michael Bronski, Urvashi Vaid, Sue Hyde, Amy Hoffman, and Ellen Herman); the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project (whose participants included Amber Hollibaugh, Gayle Rubin, Allan Bérubé, and Jeffrey Escoffier); and a series of study groups on sexuality in New York City (whose participants included John D'Emilio, Jonathan Ned Katz, Lisa Duggan, and Nan Hunter).

Gay Left Political Perspectives

In the United States, the Gay Left perspective has repeatedly addressed certain key issues, such as coalition building and solidarity with other minorities, the role of sexuality, and the goal of economic equality.

Since the founding of the GLF, the Gay Left as a political tendency has maintained that political freedom for homosexual and transgendered people must take place within the context of promoting the rights of women, racial and ethnic minorities, and oppressed people around the world. Differences between this "rainbow" approach and a "single issue" approach have frequently been the subject of major political debates within the movement. In fact, the demise of the GLF was due to a series of divisions within the organization around this question.

The Rainbow Coalition that was formed by Jesse Jackson and played a major role in his 1984 campaign for the Democratic Party's Presidential nomination was the realization of the long-held dream of a gay and lesbian political alliance with progressive forces in other minority communities. Glbtq communities include people from many other minorities and thus include those who have helped to build bridges to other ethnic and social groups that support the "rainbow" as the symbol of community. The Gay Left has stressed the importance of these ties and the political alliances they make possible.

The second central tenet of the Gay Left is sexual freedom, the idea that consenting sexual activity is the basis for the social and political rights of all glbtq people. The early gay and lesbian rights movement emerged in the context of the sexual revolution, and so did the early opposition to the gay rights movement, right-wing fundamentalism. The issue of sexuality has also generated an ongoing series of debates within the glbtq rights movement, about the rights of sexual minorities within the glbtq movement such as the leather community and transgendered people, the issue of promiscuity, the role of pornography, and the prevention of HIV/AIDS.

The social constructionist approach to sexuality played an important role in the political debates on pornography in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The anti-pornography movement and the work of its leading theorists, including Andrea Dworkin, Susan Griffin, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, and Catherine MacKinnon, often drew upon essentialist and naturalist definitions of sexuality and gender. Many the feminist and gay critics of the anti-pornography movement such as Carole Vance, Gayle Rubin, Amber Hollibaugh, Ellen Willis, Joan Nestle, Deirdre English, and Cherríe Moraga had been active on the left and held to the social constructionist understanding of sexuality.

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