Tuesday ushered in a “rainbow wave,” a radical shift that celebrates the intersection of politics and gay identity.
Jared Polis became the first openly gay man to be elected governor in the United States. Sharice Davids, a mixed-martial-arts fighter, became the first Native American and lesbian to be elected to represent Kansas in the U.S. House. Malcolm Kenyatta, a grandson of civil rights leader Muhammad Kenyatta, became the first black gay elected state lawmaker in Pennsylvania, which also reelected Brian Sims, a gay activist, to the state House. Meanwhile, Kate Brown, the first openly bisexual governor of Oregon, won reelection, as did Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, who in 2013 became the first openly gay woman elected to the Senate. According to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, over 400 LGBTQ candidates ran for positions ranging from judgeships to board of education seats just this year.
This uptick in LGBTQ politicians results from a profound shift in gay political orientation, one in which gay people are no longer looking for support from politicians. They are also running for political office. But while representation matters, it misses out on the radical politics of gay liberation that have fueled the movement for half a century.
These newly elected LGBTQ officials are building on the modern gay liberation movement that launched almost 50 years ago with the 1969 Stonewall uprising. At that time, the LGBTQ community was divided. The homophile movement, which included largely clandestine political groups that campaigned for political equality, ranked as the leading gay group before 1969. Members worried about becoming overtly demonstrative in their activism and kept a low profile.
The Stonewall uprising took gay politics out of the closet and dragged them onto the streets. The Gay Liberationist Front and Radicalesbians called for a more militant response to homophobia. Even within this more radical movement, there was significant infighting. Cisgender gay people were hostile to and dismissive of trans people. Racism splintered whites from blacks, and sexism divided the men from the women.
These groups were also divided when it came to politics. Craig Rodwell, for example, served as the vice president of the Mattachine Society, a homophile group in New York, but broke away from the organization in 1967 to create a bookstore that would provide a public face for gay politics. He believed a storefront could both reach more queer people and educate straight people about gay culture. The Mattachine Society viewed this political strategy as dangerous, because of rampant homophobic assaults on openly gay people in public. But as a gay liberationist, Rodwell imagined a cultural revolution to counter homophobia that extended beyond traditional politics.
In the 1970s, gay radicals viewed politicians, conservative or liberal, as innately corrupt. Like their contemporaries in the black power movement, they wanted to imagine a new political structure that guaranteed true freedom. Part of a generation who came of age during the antiwar movement, they were suspicious of authority and did not value elections. They found value instead in creating new ideas that criticized capitalism and theorized about socialism, establishing communes, collectives and even gay churches, They expressed their political ideas in gay newspapers, in plays for gay audiences and in novels for readers across the world, not through voting and political organizing.
Of course, some did pursue this traditional route, including Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected member of a city council in California. But many others preferred to work toward liberation from a society that oppressed them in ways that could not be solved by a midterm election.
While their vision might be dismissed as romantic, they also deeply engaged with politics. Any single issue of a gay newspaper from the 1970s, for example, covered a diverse panoply of political ideas: mass incarceration, sexual mores, queer parenting, how to throw a party for your gay neighbors. The gay press captured the diversity of political opinions within the community, which is to say nothing of the polemical debates that erupted on the editorial pages of newspapers from Boston to San Francisco.
Today, this alternative vision has faded, and LGBTQ people have turned to the vote to achieve gay equality. But it has come at the cost of potentially restricting the range of possible political change. The dream of gay liberation from the 1970s was radical and bountiful. It dared to rethink the structures of democracy, questioning rather than embracing the efficacy of legislative power. LGBTQ people found more hope in community and solidarity, creating shared spaces such as bookstores and bars where people could solve problems together, not be ruled by one of their own.
By embracing electoral politics, however, queer politics has become shoehorned into existing political frameworks, and LGBTQ politicians win based on their positions on these traditional issues. Gay liberationists and Radicalesbians sought an escape from this system, because they recognized how their experiences got lost in mainstream politics. They then used the gay press, novels and spaces within their communities to create a new political discourse to describe their politics, their health, their gender identity, their concerns and their struggles.
The election of LGBTQ people is historic and profound, and it will benefit queer people all over the nation. But it is only part of a solution in a larger struggle, a way to secure representation and safeguard rights while the fight for a politics rooted in community, art and revolutionary thought continues.