Understanding events leading up to and following the Stonewall riots in 1969 is critical for appraising gay culture and gay identity in the U.S. today. I was uniquely positioned to witness what was going on, both before and after, coming to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1966 as a liberal seminarian and journalist with a keen eye to discern the social forces at play.
I am, of course, also gay, and the process of my coming out in that era was also instrumental for my observations.
Much was muddled at the time. It was hard to tell who was who in the midst of events, and much has been clarified only with time. It is, perhaps, a bit simplistic to characterize “hippie free love” as set against “the gay movement,” since it all seemed indistinguishable then, but it reflects what was really going on.
There were two distinct social currents that became deliberately entangled. One was the civil rights movement, including the “War on Poverty,” outgrowths of the humanitarian, progressive currents that emerged from World War II with a new optimism about the advance of human rights, democracy and progress globally.
The other was the opposite, cynical machinations of what President Eisenhower called the “military and industrial complex,” those industrial-financier interests who backed fascism before the war and redoubled their efforts after it.
That latter current was responsible for McCarthyism in the U.S. in the early 1950s and at the same time used its influences in new U.S. domestic intelligence agencies to blunt and reverse progressive impulses in the population.
This covert CIA operation was documented beyond a doubt in U.S. Congressional hearings in the mid-1970s, and included the specific case of the “Merry Pranksters” of Ken Kesey, on the payroll of the CIA when he crisscrossed the U.S. in the 1960s dispensing LSD and anarco-hedonistic philosophy.
These operations utilized unemployed beat poets, Warhol soup can and mad Basquiat graffiti “art,” and more, to diffuse the moral groundings of the progressive movement, advocating radical individualism, amorality, excessive drug use and the mantra to “tune in, turn on and drop out.” Right-wingers at the CIA didn’t create these currents but did push them, and drugs, onto society’s center stage.
Beatniks, hippies and yippies were promoted by some of the most powerful institutions of the time. It was startling to see long-haired hippie group sex and songs praising sodomy and fellatio in the 1968 Broadway hit, “Hair.”
Suddenly this new hippie movement was taking over student protests, and violent clashes occurred between pro-socialist and pro-anarchist student groups in Berkeley and elsewhere, spouting rival slogans at anti-war rallies. It was reminiscent of the “Red and Black” number in the “Les Miserables” musical. I drove to seminary daily along roads lined by armed National Guard troops in those days.
The “Blacks” – referring to shirt and flag colors, not race – were the right-wing anarco-hedonists, perpetrators among other things of nihilistic, radical “sexual freedom” ideology and practice. They exploded with remarkable force and energy onto the national scene during the Kesey-organized “Summer of Love” when enormous hordes of teenagers descended on San Francisco in 1967, accompanied by tons of drugs.
As a seminarian and youth counselor that summer, I encountered this as a license to crude, foul-mouthed and contemptible behavior. There were no principles except the expectation of a nebulous notion of “love” that usually meant an entitlement to get everything, and everyone, for free. Dropping out of jobs and school, signing up for welfare and promoting sexual excess were normative. Suggestions of restraint were denounced as counter-revolutionary. I knew these people very well, and saw how they operated.
Living as street people in big-city urban subcultures was elevated to an ideal. Kesey wrote “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to provide a pretext for then-Governor Ronald Reagan of California to shut down state mental health facilities, driving countless thousands of emotionally-vulnerable people, including young gays, into joblessness and homelessness. The same went for veterans returning from Vietnam.
These trends were boosted by CIA influences in Hollywood, with such films as “Skidoo,” a 1968 pro-hippie film featuring a cache of famous stars. Then in 1969, the year of Stonewall, the first-ever mass media portrayal of an actual homosexual act was embedded into a film that won the Oscar for Best Picture.
“Midnight Cowboy” romanticized down-and-out New York urban street culture, including the depiction of a young man “going down” on a street hustler in a tawdry Times Square movie theater, and throwing up in the men’s room after. I recall how shocking that scene was. Everyone in the theater groaned and gasped.
Some way to introduce gay love to mainstream culture! But it was an integral part of how cynical right wing elements sought to steer the gay movement in the direction of radical, urban hedonism, away from high-minded aspirations for creative, wider social reform.
To be continued.