"THE SINGLE MOST important thing you can do politically for gay rights is to come out," declared Barney Frank, who in 1987 was the first member of Congress to exit the closet voluntarily. "Not to write a letter to your congressman, but to come out."
How did public support for the legality of same-sex relations double from the 1980s to today? How did support for both gay marriage and gay adoption grow by more than 20 percent in just two decades? Jeremiah Garretson tackles these questions in The Path to Gay Rights, a scholarly analysis of the LGBT movement's success. The book's narrative is hopeful--it's a story of how countless personal interactions and individual changes of heart, not elite opinion or legal mandates, drove one of the most remarkable attitudinal shifts in modern history.
GARRETSON TRACES THE history of the gay liberation movement from the aftermath of World War II until the present. His book covers the struggles of the Mattachine Society, one of the first modern "homophile" organizations, in opposing the "lavender scare" of the early Cold War years--a moral panic that culminated in the government barring homosexuals from federal employment on the grounds that they posed a special security risk due to blackmail concerns. It shows how gay and lesbian enclaves stabilized in certain urban centers, such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, in the wake of the Stonewall riots. It looks at the social conservative backlash led by the singer Anita Bryant and other evangelical activists, and it documents how the LGBT community forged a sense of common identity in opposition to the persecution. (In the 1970s, for instance, gay bars boycotted Florida oranges and took the orange juice-based screwdriver off their menus because Bryant was a brand ambassador for the state's Citrus Commission.)
Building a community helped gays and lesbians win support from the politicians who represented their enclaves, albeit at a still mostly local level. An important early victory came in 1978, with the defeat of Proposition 6, the "Briggs Initiative," which would have barred gays and lesbians from teaching in California public schools. Meanwhile, nonpolitical gay- and lesbian-themed organizations--from swim clubs to dental referral services--helped integrate more people into the community.
All this was the starting point for the LGBT movement. But Garretson argues that the tipping point was, paradoxically, the community's darkest period: the AIDS...