Liberating Generations: Continuities and Change in the Radical Queer Western Era

Liberating Generations: Continuities and Change in the Radical Queer Western Era

Ken Plummer

Afterword FROM:
David Paternotte & Manon Tremblay eds
The Ashgate Research Companion to Lesbian and Gay Activism
2015 Ashgate: Farnham Surrey

As I get older, the significance of generations for understanding social life becomes more and more striking. When I was young, I only had a couple of decades of my own life: everything was new and exciting and many of the old ideas given to me by my elders had to be rejected—this was by now the 1968 generation of baby boomers after all. But now I have nearly seven decades to incorporate. And so, whilst I am still very excited by the new, I can also sense clearly just how the very new so soon becomes the very old. And the very old is soon forgotten. When I started my research, I was active in the (rapidly and now very long defunct) Gay Liberation Front; these were probably the pivotal moments of my life. Gagnon and Simon’s Sexual Conduct was published in 1973, and Foucault’s History of Sexuality in 1976. During the research there developed the famous feminist “sex wars”—linked to the Columbia Conference and Carole Vance’s collection Pleasure and Danger (1984). Shortly after my research ended, in 1981, AIDS came to thwart, haunt us, and change sexual meaning forever. Queer theory did not arrive till a full decade later—at roughly the same time as computers became widespread (but long before the Internet). At the same time, in a good number of countries around the world, “homosexuality” became legitimized through marriage, anti-discrimination laws and ultimately even marriage. Same-sex relations became part of a world agenda as the world has changed. All of this is now a generation or three away from me, but it does not die. It lives on in my generation and me in the present moment. We cannot unlive this and, for a short while before we die, we are the carriers of history. And now in 2014 the world I live in is very different indeed from the world of my research. New generations are possibly surprised when they read Jeffrey Weeks’ book The World We Have Won (2007), where he traces the history of gay change and liberation in England over his life (which roughly parallels mine) and sees profoundly positive changes that have transformed sexual possibilities. Indeed, we have both witnessed this change over the short span of 60 years of our lives. The sexual world has indeed change massively over the past half century and each generation brings different understandings to this complicated whole.

This afterword turns to such matters—of change, time and generation: to the memories, transformations and daily workings of radical generations, and asks how activism should be informed by a sense of a long historical struggle. It will help in this to start with a little mind game. Imagine, if you will, a putative “homosexual radical” (whoever that might be) of the late Western nineteenth century world wandering into the reality of early twenty-first century contemporary global world activism. What would this radical find? They would surely be surprised. Here are some suggestions:

  • A hundred years ago, the languages of same-sex relations were private, inchoate and unclear. Now a worldwide contested public terminology (from LGBT to MSM to Queer) has been developed, even as it keeps changing and varying across cultures. There was no homosexual identity as such and it would be a while before a few would be adopting such an identity. People could not “come out”: the very idea had not been born (see chapters by Bernstein and by Weeks in this volume). But now while it remains an issue for some, many just “grow” into their same-sex life and assume new identities of difference.
  • A hundred years ago, politics was almost wholly parochial and nationalist. States were paramount. Now, social movements have arisen in permanent contestation with the state on a global stage. There may have been a few movements in the past (like the early women’s movement); but now most countries in the world have their own movements, and there are worldwide associations like The International Lesbian and Gay Association (ILGA) to help connect them.
  • A hundred years ago, there was little, if any, media through which to learn about same-sex relations. Now it is everywhere public and on line. Making contact by the phone gradually became possible for a very few, but there was certainly no widespread social networking media to facilitate organization. But now same-sex connectivity has become globally ubiquitous (even as some communities ban it).
  • A hundred years ago, nations, states and religions were largely hostile to same-sex relations. Now some states actually facilitate positive laws; there is a transnational language of rights along with institutions (like the United Nations and European Court) that organize them; and religious and multi-faith organizations seek common grounds over sexual conduct.
  • A hundred years ago, the notions of sexual rights and sexual citizenship, gay marriage, lesbian motherhood, assisted reproductive technologies, AIDS, transgender surgery and rights, global queers and the rest were unknown. Now they are all part of the global fabric.

I say all this bluntly to make it very clear that worlds of activism are truly historically based and there are radical differences across activist worlds. The generational life and age cohort of Edward Carpenter or Magnus Hirschfield is surely very different from that of Judith Butler or Jack Halberstam! Significant changes have been taking place, and activism has clearly played its part in this change. But we have to be clear that this is only one strand of a much wider set of processes of change. Some might even argue that these changes have less to do with activism and more to do with even wider social transformations. People all over the world are now busy transforming their sexualities as they are forced to confront the new reproductive technologies, digital sexualities, sex markets and trafficking, widening inequalities, individualism, pandemic disease, family diversification and global mobilities. This, then, is the changing world of sexualities which is the background to the modern activisms discussed in this book. This Afterword aims to put these debates in this wider context of global and generational change.

Time and its Generations

The ideas of generations, time and radical sexual generations help create bridges across different historical periods of activism. My concern is to help advance an understanding of how time (sometimes pompously called “temporalities”) suggests interweaving webs of past, present and futures that play a major role in gay activism. The human world is mobile, fluid, liquid, emergent. It would be nice to think that there is sometimes a kind of progress across generations: that they learn from each other and that each generation builds upon the achievements of another. This is clearly true to some extent: there has been some kind of “progress” over the past hundred years for some “Western” (mainly male) gay lives. But it is equally true that schisms and tensions are created across generations: often generations do not speak to each other, and frequently they even set up counter patterns in opposition to their forbearers (Bourdieu 1993: 95).

A few brief remarks on “time and generations” will help as a background. Time is a messy area of thinking, with a long contested history-although recently rediscovered by a new generation. It has indeed become a fashionable topic of late, but it is in truth a topic with a timeless history: time has everywhere been discussed and it is never simple. It may be seen as historical (documenting the past), as chronological (charting the stages, phases and cycles of our sexual lives and worlds), as generational (mapping the age clusters and historical moments of lives, as simultaneous (whereby “moments” bring together the contingencies and ghosts of sexual pasts, presents and futures) or even transcendent (when we move into sublime/transgressed/spaces which seems to be beyond time). The philosophy and poetics of time is a very well-trodden literary and philosophy sphere (Zerubavel 2003; Hoy 2009; Freeman 2010). At its most general, we can distinguish between phenomenological, personal or subjective time and objective time (times arrow); between directions of time (linear, cyclical, looping, contingent, etc.); and between time as given and time as flux. How we think of time will shape the way we approach radical sexual generations.

The key idea for this chapter (see also Plummer 2010) contrasts between developmental (or diachronic) time and simultaneous (or synchronic) time. Diachronic or chronological sexualities are exemplified in Karl Mannheim’s classic work on generations and sees generations as always in movements organized through age cohorts. I depict these through escalator imagery: people come and go clustered together on different starting steps, even as differing groups follow on new steps behind. It leads us to ask about how different “sexual radical generations” and their life stages, developmental stages, life histories and age cohorts emerge. It is usually a linear model—but can be a cyclical or even regressive one. It often flags “progress” (linear- progressive time). Synchronic sexualities, by contrast, harbor much more complex and challenging ideas of time: it leads us to problems of “simultaneous time” to examine “radical moments,” “radical memories and memorializing,” “radical ghosts,” “imagined utopias and dystopias,” “hope” and “futures.” It is exemplified by Avery Gordon’s claim that “to study social life one must confront the ghostly aspects of it” (Gordon 1997/2008: 7) as well as the recent queer theory approaches of Muñoz (2009) and Freeman (2010). It is best illustrated with the helix/matrix metaphors of flux, multiplicity, flowing chaos and the rhizomes of life. Here we have the messy sexual narratives, memories, embodiments, identities, silences and conflicts of different generations living simultaneously together. Ultimately, we have to ask how different pasts, presents and futures dwell in the fragile ever-changing moment?

Making Time Chronological: Western Same-sex Generational Cohorts

With this in mind, I now focus mainly on the idea of the diachronic and chronology. It helps us glimpse, albeit too simply, some gay and lesbian generational cohorts in the Western World over the past century and discussed throughout the book. There are many problems with this understanding; but it does give some useful background materials to critique and develop. Activist lives (and sexual lives) are part of age cohorts—groups who move through the world connected by similar age experiences. A most apparent group here might be the “western liberation women of second wave feminism”—a very specific cohort of women born roughly between 1945 and 1955; who lived through the 1968 conflicts; who fought for a change around their sexual oppression in the 1970s, who set up rape crisis centers, developed ideas of sexual harassment, attacked porn and had the sex wars—all this and more. These are women who are now in their sixties and seventies still reflect on such issues (they changed their lives) and whose ideas still bubble around in the culture (Segal 2007). But even within this, there are major splits.

There have already been a number of cohort studies of the worlds of gay and lesbian life (e.g Stein 1997; Hammick and Cohler 2009). Cohler’s work (2007) provides an analysis of a range of USA autobiographies of gay men over six decades (born in the 1930s through to born in 1980s), taking a generation as a decade (an easier and less complex division). He really does find some very striking differences simply decade by decade. From these we can start to tentatively identify, at the simplest level, the development during the twentieth century of a number of “Western” gay and lesbian cohorts forming which mirror the previous chapters of this book. In a sense all function at any moment now in the twenty-first century as memory traces linger from each generation. They are synchronic. But to sort out the different traces, we do first need a sense of this chronology. What follows below speaks primarily to a limited site of Western generations over the past hundred years. As much of my own life mirrors this, straddling several of these generations, I also make brief personal remarks where appropriate. We might provisionally sketch possible “Western” moments a bit like this:

The Inchoate, Shamed Generations: Proto-activist Mobilizations (nineteenth, early twentieth centuries)

There is a long history of sexual dissidence (Dollimore 1991); but a defining Western moment for “the making of the modern homosexual” generations (Weeks 1977; Plummer 1975, 1981, 1992) emerged between the late nineteenth century and the early mid-twentieth century. Born between 1875 and 1930, we see different generations criminalized, closeted, and “sick,” moving through the “Victorian Era,” the First World War, and the Depression and its aftermath. All these generations, as the books put it, lived “in the shadows.” They all lived with stigma, and usually problems with the law. This is the time of Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, Magnus Hirschfield and the rest. It is also the time of anarchism (Kissack 2008). In England, most symbolically the scandals of Oscar Wilde left homosexuality deeply marked and underground. For movement activists these were the hardest and most challenging of times: it is important for modern activists to take note of this. As Gert Hekma suggests in his essay, such activities made courageous headway, but had few concrete successes when it came to legal reforms. What these trailblazers did was create a new and very different imagery of homosexuality including a great variety of terminologies. Modern activist generations can probably be grounded in the founding of the Scientific—Humanitarian Committee in Berlin in 1897 through the path-breaking work of Magnus Hirschfield.

These “shamed generations” were “unformed,” “nascent,” “putative.” In effect they were invisible without any individual language to speak—let alone a collective one; they had to struggle to invent one. There were few political arguments to draw upon—they turned mainly to the growing medicalization of the times. There was no movement of established tactics and strategies to mobilize. Presumably, they could see trade unions and the neophyte women’s movement at work; but there was no gay movement in this period. It was indeed the earliest days of modern social movements (Tilly 2004). Everything was “in the making” and activists were working covertly with risk of criminalization, shame and exclusion. Of course, today this is still true in many parts of the world; but for this generation there were hardly any global visions of other possibilities. Hostility was ubiquitous: there seemed no other path. It was all invisible and unformed. A hint of this world can be partially found in the accounts of lives in that period found in works like George Chauncey’s (1995) Gay New York, Laura Doan’s (2001) Fashioning Sapphism, or Matt Houlbrook’s (2005) Queer London. When, in 1933, Hirschfield’s Institute went up in flames and the Second World War approached, there could have been little ground for hope …

The Homophile Generations: Emergent Communities of Activism?

But there was. For out of the works of these first generations, new horizons of possibility were created for those born between, say, 1920 and 1946. Visions became enhanced. Gradually a generation with a new language, arguments and communities started to be created and edge its way into a limited visibility. Julian Jackson’s essay published in 2009 shows how the very idea of homophile was generated (and has since fallen into “desuetude”) originating in 1924, adopted in 1946 in the Netherlands by Cultuur-en Ontspannings Centrum [Cultural and Recreational Center] known as COC, and becoming popular in Arcadie. In the 1950s we see the development of the United States Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis and others: yet all became more or less superseded by the 1970s. In the wake of the 1948 the United Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), an international language of rights started to form on the global stages; and there was even an attempt to establish some kind of transnational structure when the COC set up in 1951 an International Committee for Sexual Equality (ICSE). Much of this period was well documented in the now classic studies of John D’Emilo (1983) in the US, and Jeffrey Weeks (1977) in the UK.

In the main this generation was apologetic: it extended ideas of homosexuality as a condition, a type of person, a personage—and often even troubled, sad, even sick: it was the time of “all the sad young men.” At the same time, there was also a distinctive left, critical, radical strand that became important for the development of a more radical movement to come. The life of Harry Hay may be taken as emblematic of this more radical stance (Timmons 1990). And it is also to be found in the writings of Gide and Genet in France and Tom of Finland in the US (Waugh 2002). These were the earliest “Coming Out Generations’” starting in the late 1940s and developing early reform movements and homophile groupings. The life style background to this generation can be glimpsed from the documentations in the US of Donald Webster Cory, The Homosexual and his Society (1953) and in the UK from Gordon Westwood Society and the Homosexual (1952). (It was a sign of the times that both used pseudonyms: their real names were Edward Sagarin and Michael Schofield, and both later became engaged with an early gay politics—but in very different ways.) In more celebratory mode, recently it is the culture described by David Halperin (2012). Between the late 1950s and 1970s, this emerging gay culture and it nascent homophile movements were slowly gathering some strength and there were the beginnings of visibility. With intense stigma, homosexuality was inching open the closet door.

Critical to this period were the events leading up to, and the issues raised by the Wolfenden Report in the UK. The “panic” cases of Peter Wildeblood and Lord Montagu led to this report in which homosexuality becomes viewed less as a crime and more of a condition (Wildeblood 1955; HMSO 1957). The proposals became central for several generations. At its heart, it advocated freedom in privacy, control in public: an accepted private homosexuality and an unaccepted public homosexuality. It starts to mark out a very clear boundary between the public and private sexuality and one that has infused many gay lives since. In turn, to secure the Wolfenden recommendations, several key organizations appeared that lobbied for homosexual law reform, and ultimately legal changes 10 years later, in 1967, in the UK. The Homosexual Law Reform Society and the linked Albany Trust was utterly respectable in lobbying parliament and its members were largely closeted. Anthony Grey, its most significant reformer, worked under a pseudonym. This was not the time of the radical social movements but of the “pressure group politics” generation. On a personal note, I was a very young man at this time struggling with coming out and some of my very first involvements were with the Homosexual Law Reform Society.

The Gay Liberation Generations: Building a Politics of Identity

The wider movement of cultural politics, new left politics, feminist politics and student politics of the late 1960s and the 1970s shapes this generation (the so-called “baby boomers”). What we see here is the formation of a politics of identity, where identities are used as the basis for political activity. This new generation heralds gay men and lesbian activists starting to come out publicly in growing numbers, claiming a homosexual identity, being both proud and political about it. A new language-”Gay is good,” “gay pride,” “gay power”-has arrived. Jeffrey Weeks in his essay in this volume makes all this very clear: the politics of identity is under way. There is a “new mood of self-assertion and realization. Gay liberation was first and foremost an assertion of a new collective consciousness, focused on a radical new subjectivity and sense of identity.” This explicit and public politicization of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender peoples certainly worked to transform the experience of “downcast gays” into a more positive and much more visible one. It is the time of our political coming out and the start of our visibility (Plummer 1995: 82–7).

For me, this was the organizing bedrock of my adult life; “my generation.” The symbolic time and place was (the now much contested) Stonewall 1969, and in the UK, it was initiated by two London School of Economics (LSE) students (Aubrey Waters and Bob Mellors) who called the first meeting there in November 1970. The founding of the ILGA in 1978 suggests that the movement was starting to make a global impact: it anticipates a generation to come with more and more an awareness of a global homosexuality. By 1985, the first ILGA Pink Report was published (ILGA 1985).

AIDS Generations: Public Professionalization, Renewed Activisms and the Global State

The AIDS generation, starting around 1981, straddles existing generations but is also a distinctive one in itself. HIV became the central feature of gay life re-organizing all in its wake (Plummer 1988). Dwelling in a culture of ubiquitous death and dying, grief and mourning, it also regenerated the by-then fading activisms of the 1970s (see Broqua in this volume). As the activists started to become highly professionalized (through new organizations and AIDS work as well as academic work), they ironically worked in closer and closer relationships with governments and the state. International links became more and more prominent as International Conferences were held and the United Nations became engaged through the auspices of UNAIDS. There were of course major diverging responses from the state (e.g. slow in USA, UK, Canada; really efficient in the Netherlands or Switzerland). But once again, some activisms took an assimilationist path (as many radical men now put on their suits to work with governments) whilst others, like Larry Kramer (1989), were drenched in rage and took more radical paths. This is the generation of Act Up, and radical cultural writings, such as that of art critic Donald Crimp, who argued that AIDS “requires a critical rethinking of all culture: of language and representation, of science and medicine, of health and illness, of death and sex.” (Crimp 1988: 15, 2002: 41)

AIDS shook me. Well established in my own gay life by now, personally and academically, it changed the way I moved about in the gay world and it generated grief as friends died. I suppose I am also part of the AIDS generation. So by now my life is rolling over three generational moments, not simply one. I look back with shock and almost anger at the ways in which such a major historical moment of gay history has now largely been obliterated (within a quarter of a century). Not only did that time bring dying, disease and pain on a massive scale, along with enormous energetic activism, it also brought the fear that this might indeed be the very end of the homosexual. Many thought this would be the end of gays. And yet, not only did gay people bounce back, they constructed a past history that works to obliterate this very past. As Castiglia and Reed remark in their recent study of queer memory, “The years following the onset of the AIDS epidemic witnessed a discursive operation that instigates a cultural forgetting of the 1960s and 1970s, installing instead a cleaned—up memory that reconstitutes sanctioned identity out of historical violence” (2012: 40).

Rights Activism, Queer Activism: A Plurality of Pathways

By the 1990s, previous “Western” generations had done a lot of groundwork. The claims for rights, once just utopian, now started to come into institutionalized practices as most Western countries decriminalized homosexuality (see Kane in this collection), created positive legislation for rights and against discriminations, and even legislated for same-sex unions. Protection from discrimination in employment, education, and housing; criminal law reform and health care reform were now seeing real pay offs. And the battles for marriage and family rights were being squarely put on the agenda. Ideas of intimate and sexual citizenship now became an issue (Plummer 2001, 2003).

Likewise, the claims for radicalism, once threatening, now became institutionalized in publishing and the academy. The radical wing of this generation become linked to “Queer,” a strategy that started to arrive in the late 1980s and aimed to deconstruct any stable sense of gender or sexual category (see Brown in this collection). No longer criminal, or sick, or even a clear category, “gayness” itself became “troubled” and queered. Some of this was academic (queer theory)—identified with Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Michael Warner and David Halperin amongst others; while some was activist—identified with organizations like Outrage and ACT UP. Queer articulated a radical questioning of norms and celebrated whatever was at odds with the normal and the dominant. Hetero-normativity arrives as an idea (with Warner Queer Planet) in 1993 and becomes its central organizing enemy (more recently homo-normativity has become an issue, see Duggan 2002). It was debated through much publishing, international academic conferences, and flourishing new centers (and careers). It was all a very long way from the earlier inchoate shamed generations of the past. The fruits of earlier struggles were bursting forth. And an even wider Critical Sexualities Studies was being born (Plummer 2012). It seems that “liberating” had become at least a partial success story of Western social movement activism.

Millennium Generations: Cyber Queers, Global Queers

At the time of the millennium, yet another generation was in the making. For this generation, it seems there has been a major increase in Western gay visibility (Walters 2001), a declining significance of homophobia (McCormack 2012), less and less difficulty in coming out or, indeed, even the need to come out (Seidman 2002) along with the rise of lesbian motherhood (Ryan-Flood 2009, see also Eggert and Engeli in this book) and gay marriage (Bernstein and Taylor 2013; Kollman 2013; see also Kollman in this collection). This generation continues to be shaped by four continuing, emergent broad trends: postmodernism, neo-liberalism, globalization and digitalization. The rise of postmodernism opens a culture of wider possibilities while weakening any politics of firm identity. Neo-liberalism expands an individualist ideology while increasing opportunities of market development in gay communities (the pink economy, see Richardson chapter in this volume). Both globalization and digitalization radically work to reorganize the times and the spaces of same-sex life. Thus, when Gaydar arrives in 1999 as a “world wide gay dating site” and Grindr, in 2009, as “the most popular all-male location-based social network” (each claiming some 4–6 million members across the world) we start to find digitalization creating a new infrastructure for a new generation of so-called “LGBTIQ etc” life: for meeting, for sex, and for social and other activities. More than this, it brought a new kind of digital global radicalism. Since the late 1990s, the Internet has become a key place not just for meeting people and having sex, but also for organizing politically (Ayoub and Brzezińska this volume; Mowlabocus 2010; Castells 2012; Gerbaudo 2012).

And this political organization is also a part of a more global trend. For this new Western generation starts to go global: getting more in more in touch with the emergent southern and global queer and with emerging ideas of gay diaspora. A global sex along with world human sexual rights starts to take shape. And a new cosmopolitan, global “gay” movement start to become more prominent as part of a worldwide growth of global social movements (Castells [1997] 2009, Tremblay, Paternotte and Johnson 2011, Paternotte and Seckinelgin in this collection). This generation is now a very long way indeed from the Western “Victorian” pre homophile of the late nineteenth century: in language, in dress, in culture, in community, in arguments. We have moved from the gradual “Making of the Modern Homosexual” to something like the “Global Post Modern Hybrid Cyber Queer!”

Reconstructing Continuities and Conflicts in Generational Moments

While an opening task for a generational approach to radical sexual politics can usefully map out a relatively simple sense of a historical chronology of age cohorts for different countries, this only gets us a little way. For the complex question really is about how pasts, presents and futures, in both people and their memories as well as their social structures and their moments, can live together? What matters is how our different generations in our pluralized pasts, pregnant presents and imaginative futures connect to each other? How might the ghosts of the past leak into the present? How do the activists of the present day reassemble the past? How do we all assemble imaginary stories of hope to guide us into the future? And how at any one moment do the five or six generations of any specified culture get called into play to create new dynamics and tensions? In doing this, we move into what I have called a synchronic (or simultaneous) analysis. The philosopher George Herbert Mead gives us a sense of this problem and so he is worth quoting:

We find that each generation has a different history, that it is a part of the apparatus of each generation to reconstruct its history. A different Caesar crosses the Rubicon not only with each author but with each generation. That is, as we look back over the past, it is a different past. The experience is something like that of a person climbing a mountain. As he looks back over the terrain he has covered, it presents a continually different picture. So the past is continually changing as we look at it from the point of view of different authors, different generations. It is not simply the future [and present] which is novel, then; the past is also novel. (Mead 1936: 116–7)

So new pasts are always moving in the present. But more, here is Dewey:

We always live at the time we live and not at some other time, and only by extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience are we prepared for doing the same thing in the future. This is the only preparation which in the long run amounts to anything. (Dewey 1973: xix)

“Extracting at each present time the full meaning of each present experience” suggests a major challenge to engage simultaneously with several moving and disparate generations. Thus the activism of any historical moment—like the present moment as I am writing in 2014–is actually composed of a full array of diverse generations themselves reconstructing a range of historical experiences. At any moment minimally three or four generations will be actively alive (and the “ghosts” of many more may also be present). There is a convergence of many past histories (and future visions) in the current moment. It is layered, compounded and shifting all the time: so there can never be one straightforward linear generational account. Understanding histories of same-sex radical activism can, then, never be easy.

More: almost everything we know about the social and sexual life has generational forms. Here are multiple research projects for future activism around such things as generational histories, generational archives, generational cultures, generational languages, generational embodiments, generational traumas, generational schisms, generational stories, generational memories, generational nostalgia, generational enemies, generational symbols and rituals, generational habitus, generational technologies, generational selves and subjectivities, generational ideologies, generational spaces, generational politics, conflicts, movements, generational silences … and much, much more. Let me just sample a few:

Generational languages. Language is always on the move and each generation speaks in its own tongue. In the UK alone, we have seen the move from “mollies” to “inverts to “homosexuals” to “homophile” to “gay” to “queer” to “msm” to “LGBTQI etc” to “cyberqueer”; and on and on. Equally the language of “transgender” display complex terminological changes across generations. And, as cultural research has so dramatically shown us, the languages and terminologies vary a great deal across different societies. Each generation may being its own language to the current moment. And sometimes the same word-”queer” for example—means very different, even opposing, things to different generations. At any moment, sexual radicals have to ask: what different generational languages are at work, what baggage do they come with, how do they generate conflicts and how might this be resolved?

Generational Schisms. All generations have their own internal conflicts, yet many of them suggest a continual divide: to be repeated over and over again in new forms by each generation as a recurrent and perpetual schism. The most basic divide is between the assimilationists who want “same sex relations” to be simply accepted and brought into the mainstream of society; and the radicals who want the radical restructuring of society—families, gender relations, indeed the very idea of homosexuality and heterosexuality themselves—are all to be transformed. Of course these can be further divided—radicals come in many guises, some revolutionary, some anarchists, some libertarian. The contents of these splits vary across generations, and it is possible one generation’s radical may well became the next generation’s assimilationist.

The early homophile movement is often seen to be only assimilationist and very closeted too; but it actually brought forth more than its fair share of communists, radical faeries, and quite outspoken critics (Timmons 1990). Likewise, the divides and conflicts between groups on the “sexual fringe” of the 1970s have been very thoroughly documented (Marotta 1981; Rubin 2011; Plummer 1999). Soon there were the well-known splits between queer and normal: for instance in the Warner v Sullivan debate (Warner 1999). Over and over again, with complexity, it is the same old story. And it can be found between men and women, on race, on transgender, on pedophilia, on SM and the like (on divides and conflicts, see chapters by Duyvendak and Boston on race and colour, McLean on bisexual activism, Motmans and van der Ros on transgender activism, Rubin and Mesli on sadomasochism, and Podmore and Tremblay on lesbian feminism). It lives on in all generations at any one moment, yet is often confronted, as if it is “new.” At any moment, sexual radicals have to ask: what different generational schisms are at work, how do they repeat schisms of the past, and how might they be accommodated?

Generational Embodiment. The body itself takes on different styles, modes, mobilities and sensitivities under changing historical circumstances. Different bodies glide into action from different generations; radical lesbian and gay bodies take on different auras. We can capture this idea by simply suggesting a few activist body styles: “Victorian reformer bodies,” “world war bodies,” “shamed bodies,” “depression bodies,” “closeted secretive bodies,” “out and proud bodies,” “erotic bodies,” “Stonewall Queens,” “Bodies dying with HIV,” “professionalized gay bodies,” “1970s lesbian dykes,” “queer bodies,” “liberator bodies,” “cybersex queer bodies.” At any moment, sexual radicals have to ask: what different embodiments are at work, how do the bodies of different generations speak to each other and what tensions does this generate?

Generational Cultures. David Halperin (2012) has recently claimed that gay culture can be described and located as a distinctly US form of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s born of a distinct oppression. It is indeed distinctive. But in my terms this simply describes only one very distinctive “gay” cultural form—one located in a multiplicity of ever-changing, emergent and diverse generations. And, of course, it lives on in the multigenerational moments of today, often creating tensions—which is exactly what Halperin’s book is really about (the rejection of a younger generation of its past). Another generational gay culture was surely the drug and sexualized culture of the 1970s as a precursor of AIDS; or the current barebacking “bug chasing” culture of the post AIDS generation (Dean 2009). At any moment, sexual radicals have to ask: what different same-sex cultures have been lived through, how do these contrasting cultures of different generations speak to each other? And how indeed may they be in conflict?

Generational Memories: Central to all radical work ought to be a sense of history, and a memory that works to create a sense of past struggles in the present. All social life gets organized through memory work—it a golden thread that holds us together. But memory is never just a psychological feature, but also connects us to shared collective social forms. This collective memory is linked to popular memory. We recall the best stories we tell with our own age cohort through the highlights of its popular culture: in the modern world, this means our tales of the sexual and the radical are shaped by our memories of music, film, television, popular novels, and celebrity figures of the different generational times. We move from the radical sex worlds of Mae West to Eartha Kitt to Madonna to Lady Gaga as different radical reference points. All of this means, we must take seriously sexual life stories and memory sites where such recollections are constructed.

There are already many cultural artifacts that have started this work, like Vito Russo’s wonderful film (and book) The Celluloid Closet (1987) that implicitly shows a century’s revolutionary shifting world of gay imagery in film, and imagines their multiple critical audiences. Films can provide memory books for different generations. For me, Basil Dearden’s film Victim (1962) was pioneering and life changing and was used by campaigners to change the UK law; but it now looks extraordinarily dated. Documentaries of Stonewall made at different times often capture the same current moment of struggles in different generational ways for different audiences (in 1985, the PBS Before Stonewall; in 1995, Martin Duberman’s play/film Stonewall, and in 2011 David Helibroner’s film Stonewall Uprising) Likewise, the stories of the AIDS Quilt which, while existing in a contemporary moment, comes to symbolize the patchwork of life and death of thousands of lives across different generations of the past (Morris 2011). For radical analysis, there is now an almost inexhaustible supply of archival materials produced by different generations that can assist in the assembly of new generational memories and always requiring critical rethinking by each generation.

Generational Nostalgia. Every generation has to build up a different and shifting evaluation of its past. In a telling interchange between the young Matt Houlbrook and the older Jeffrey Weeks, Chris Waters recounts how their different positions in the world radically shape their interpretations. Houlbrook was only two when Weeks published his classic work, and now Houlbrook writes from a different stance. Houlbrook describes the homosexual past in “elegiac terms” arguing that in “exploring the history of queer London in the first half of the twentieth century, we should lament possibilities long lost as much as we celebrate opportunities newly acquired” (Waters 2008: 140). It is precisely this nostalgia for lost possibilities that does not sit well with Weeks. Pressed on his attitude toward the past at the end of their BBC discussion, Houlbrook says, “I think I’m going to have to admit being very nostalgic for this lost world,” to which Weeks quickly responds, “I think you can only be nostalgic if you didn’t live it … Those of us who had the misfortune to live that life until the 1970s don’t feel nostalgic about it” (Waters 2008: 140). This interchange signifies a much wider social process which goes on with every generation and its reading of history. At any moment, sexual radicals have to ask: what different evaluations are placed on the different versions of the past assembled by different generations?

Generational Ideologies and Enemies. Just how and what is being debated, their language, claims, rhetoric and enemies are themselves all shifting across generations, gliding between languages of sin, sickness, sadness; crime and rights; of citizenship or queer. Each arrives and continues with differing contexts and generations. As just one example: the word “homophobia” did not exist at the start of the Gay Liberation Front. Ideas of prejudice of course had a prior history (Allport [1954] 1979). The first book I read on it was Weinberg in 1973. (It could not even figure in my first book—which was published in 1975. In my own work in the 1960s, I was struggling to find the right word—an I came up with “homo-hate” for the psychological version and the “homosexual taboo” for the social version; but they did not catch on; Plummer 1975). Nowadays, “we” take this term for granted even as other new terminologies—heterosexism, hetero-normativity, homo-normativity (Duggan 2002)–come into play. At any moment, sexual radicals have to be aware of the contrasting genealogies of generational politics: the struggle to establish the word homophobia for one generation which now becomes blasé and routine for another.

Generational Communications: Much of the change across radical generations is also a change in communications: different generations communicate in different ways and, in turn, radical organizations and tactics take on different forms (Meeker 2006). Thus, for example, a new world of both sexualities and politics has been in the making for some years through the transforming power of the new media, electronic technologies and social media across the world. When I campaigned with the Homosexual Law Reform Society in the 1960s, the spirit duplicator was used; when I organized a European Lesbian and Gay Conference in 1991, the fax machine was the key tool; now global activism makes the Internet, mobile phone and twitter central to organizing. How do the material technologies of the time shape activism? How so we move from parliamentary procedure and legislative tactics to blogging, networking, arts festivals and outreach programs? How do riots, marches, community activism, leaflets, slogans, manifestos, symbols, badges, flags, etc., come to take on different shapes with different generations?

Consider for instance the issue of marches and lobbying. The early law reform movement was largely linked to formal (and closeted) governmental lobbying methods; today activism feeds through twitter. In between we have seen the generations of civil rights activists inspired by Martin Luther King marching “peacefully”; the GLF generation shouting and chanting their “in your face outness”; and the activists of AIDS simultaneously becoming highly professionalized in their suits, and “Acting up” in confrontational ways. (see Johnston and Waitt in this collection).

Generational Symbols and Rituals: Likewise, symbols are linked to generations. What is the history of the pink triangle, the rainbow flag, the lambda symbol? And how do new symbols enter the global world? The Greek letter Lambda was initially selected at a Gay Activist Alliance’s meeting in to suggest energy and dynamism (Marotta 1981: 145); the Pink Triangle was adopted in the 1970s and inspired the Homomonument [Gay Monument] in Amsterdam, the Gay and Lesbian Holocaust Memorial in Sydney and the Pink Triangle Park in San Francisco. And drag queen Gilbert Baker designed the Rainbow flag in San Francisco in 1978 (inspired by “Judy,” given momentum by the assassination of “Harvey Milk” and now flying all over the world!). Slogans too have generational histories: Frank Kameny highlighted the “Homosexuality is Good” slogan to parallel Stokely Carmichael’s “Black is Beautiful” (Marotta 1981: 64). Borrowing ideas from the black civil rights movement led to awareness to create an enhanced self-esteem. (In the UK, this was also to be found in the “With the Downcast Gays’ Group”.)

Today, all these older generational forms comingle with a newer generational repertoire of activism taking place through electronic communications. The old barriers collapse and new ways of gathering together and getting things done emerge: a new “fluid” emotional “choreography” of horizontal, leaderless, “swarms” now mobilize on key issues. There is an emphasis too on performance and emotions. In the world of sexual politics, the women’s movement, the gay, queer, transgender movements have got mobilized: most countries now have their own “feminist” and “queer” Internet connections. Russia, Singapore, India and South America get connected.

Creating Global Cosmopolitan Generations

I want to conclude my brief review of generational activism with a critical and major caution. For my sketch of generations above only makes sense of some pockets of Western (mainly male) “gay” life in the twentieth century (it is a simple ideal type of a “diachronic linear analysis”). Hence, it cannot hold for lots of specific instances, and it certainly does not travel well. It raises local problems: being largely a description of white, male and middle class generations, it ignores other trajectories based on wider stratifications like class, gender, ethnicity, disability, and religion. But more: it is nation based and misses entirely international and global dimensions (Plummer 2005). The generations found in China or Indonesia or India cannot be the same. It ignores the wide range of different cultural events and traumas (from the Russian Revolution to South African Apartheid) that provide major markers for generations and age cohorts in differing countries. It can only be useful as a starting point. There are surely radical sexual generations in most countries of the world, but they will all be very different. Radical age cohorts and generations move through differing historical flows of nation states with their varying cultural traumas, political opportunity structures, civic cultures, cultural bricolages (including religions), shifting subjectivities, and wider interconnections of class, race and gender. These days these also move through wider global and cosmopolitan flows—through generations linked to international and transnational movements, through NGOs and INGOs and organizations like ILGA and the United Nations, as well as the global Internet (Plummer 2015). The histories, cultures and critical issues found in different societies make sure that radical sexual generations found in Thailand, China, Russia, Nigeria, Indonesia or Brazil and so on will all emerge with differing subjectivities, practices, and outcomes. And all this is all starting to be documented as we learn more and more of these emergent movements: Naisargi N. Dave (2012) in India, Marc Epprecht (2013) in Africa, Corrine Lennox and Matthew Waites (2013) in the Commonwealth, Travis Kong (2011) in China and many others.

In Eastern Europe, for instance, Robert Kulpa and Joanna Mizielińska (2011) have produced a timeline of “Western and Eastern Geo-Temporal Modalities” arguing that although the Western Gay History can now be put into a fairly standard and well-rehearsed linear sequence (as I have done above), it can be challenged for its global relevance. It is seemingly linear and in fact it is not at all. The East Europe model has not simply followed this Western generation trajectory: it has rather “jumped around” with a full spectrum of earlier ideas: so that after 1989, the Eastern Europe countries “knot” and “loop” into these earlier traditions, becoming homophile/LGBT and queer all at once! On the evidence here, there are very good examples for rejecting any universal models of gay progress. There is mounting opposition to any universalizing tendencies—and especially any push that might lead into Anglo-American dominance.

So in conclusion, what this leads me to suggest is a major historical comparative research project based on the simple premise that different cultures produce different patterns of generational cohorts. More specifically: different cultures shape different patterns of same-sex relations that also structure both different same-sex generations and radical generations. We will find both unique and idiosyncratic features as well as more general common processes across the world. In the light of this, my Western schema above might not just outline generations but could also suggest as series of problems and cognitive structures that have to get recast in different ways across different cultures and settings. Might all cultures face the problems of (a) the inchoate shamed experience, (b) early mobilizing, (c) the politics of identity, (d) the global impact of AIDS, (e) institutionalizing rights and radicalism, and (f) of the emerging new global cyber queer? Are these not common problems across cultures? But might not these issues each be handled very differently at different historical moments across different cultures?

A starting point for understanding these issues might be with a mapping of the success of global same-sex change and activism in the modern world; and then to chart the different global dynamics and pathways that have led into this. This first task is being accomplished already by the work of organizations like the International Lesbian and Gay Organization (ILGA) and their annual report on State Sponsored Homophobia (ILGA 2013) which originating in 1988 (ILGA 1988), has recorded the legal situation of most countries across the globe on a range of “LGBT” issues, documenting, for example, the 114 countries where homosexual acts are legal and the 76 where they are still illegal; and on the countries where gay marriage has been legislated (16 as I write). This mapping usually suggests three clear blocks and creates an opening imagery of rights positive, rights negative, and rights ambivalent societies. But the question then becomes: how did they get like this and what is the chance for future generational change?

This book has clearly documented the push towards global change in discussions of sexuality: through cosmopolitan politics, through debates and practices around HIV and AIDS, through global, queer digitalization. More generally, and in a very preliminary way, I will close by suggesting some six dynamics of contemporary political opportunity structures of different nation states that might help shape activists and sexual generations and their futures. We have to understand these better in the future. Many countries can be roughly placed across several of these categories, but here I am just trying to capture a sense of a process that changes the shape of activist generations in same-sex issues. These are:

  1. Democratization. These are the generations shaped by a sense of freedom and rights. There are wide ranging differences across world democracies and democratic processes; and clearly until recently Western democracies have often made same-sex relations the subjects of legislation and prejudice, etc. So democracy, in itself, never guarantees a positive climate. Still, recent “progress” can now be found amongst a new generation often castigated as neo-liberal: and this not only poses considerable irony, it has also generated an internal backlash (in the work for instance of Jasbir Puar (2008) on homonationalism). Whatever stance is taken on this, there is little doubt that the most “advance” on legal and political issues on same-sex relations to date has been taking place in Western democracies. It is the strongest case, perhaps most starkly revealed in the “same sex revolution in western democracies” (Kollman, 2013; see also chapters by Mezey and Smith in this collection). And indeed as the claims for a widening argument for democracy are made in less democratic countries (e.g. Egypt), so activists frequently find it easier to make additional wider claims for women’s and gay rights.
  2. Colonization. These are the generations shaped by histories of subordination and repression by a former dominant state. In the long historical span, there are very few countries this does not exclude! And here different generations have to confront the traumas left by former dominating, colonizing nations. Indeed, just as post-colonial nationalisms are often defined in response to their former colonization, so colonized generations are shaped, often traumatically, by these invasions of culture. There are different patterns for different colonizing nations. But always sexualities imposed by a ruling group leave their mark. Britain is a central example: for the countries colonized by Britain inherited their legislation against homosexuality. These states have since become the Commonwealth; over 40 of them still have anti-gay laws’ and they constitute half of the world’s negative countries to homosexuality. They have to deal with the “alien legacies” of UK imperialism, and especially the notorious Section 377, which criminalized homosexuality (see Lennox and Waites 2013 for a detailed empirical overview of the issues).
  3. Breakdown. These are multiple generations who experience the chronic breakdown of their society. Through genocide, civil war and strife, tribalism, extreme poverty and famine or natural disasters these generations are struck by extreme situations and become marked by trauma and damage. People often are forced to live with a deep sense of loss and wasted life, in fear and pain. These are usually countries engaged in major conflicts (e.g. Syria, Colombia, Afghanistan); those that are frequently named “failed states” (e.g. Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and those who have suffered recent major “natural disasters” (e.g. Haiti and now the Philippines). It includes large numbers of people who become refugees and dislocated (Spijkerboer 2013). Such damage may be short-term or long-term; but it is clear that such countries currently provide little opportunity structure or context for the advance on gay rights. For such generations, issues of gay activism and rights are usually pushed into the background.
  4. Rupturing and Revolution: These are generations who have confronted a former authoritarian state and who subsequently come to face an anomic upheaval with a search for a new order: a generational cohort that has experienced major disruption with visions of a better future. The strong case of this has been South Africa, where the breakdown of the discriminatory and anti-apartheid situation has led to the replacement with a new progressive agenda of human rights, which included gay rights. Likewise the fall of Franco in Spain, Galtieri in Argentina and others elsewhere created opportunities for new more democratic generations. This has not, however, always been positive: the situation of new generations in the Soviet Union has led to some of the key global activist issues of recent times.
  5. Fundamentalism: These are generations where absolutist religious affiliations have taken hold and shape the stages of a life. In countries where fundamentalisms thrive—whether Muslim, Christian or whatever—crusades against both women’s rights and gay rights are usually to be found. A map of the world shows these parts quite clearly: some are often highlighted as MENA (Middle Eastern and North African Region; ILGA 2013: 12–20); as well as much of Central Africa where often evangelicals from the USA are at work. These are regions where political opportunities for gay activism are restricted and the struggles hard and risky (see Hunt in this collection).
  6. Recognition of importance of AIDS: These are generations who, having recognized the profound impact of HIV and AIDS, turn sexuality into a public project. Good examples are to be found in much of Latin America, Asia and Africa, where the issue of AIDS has created a space for speaking about and developing projects around a wider range of sex issues (Epprecht 2013, Parker et al. 2010). AIDS activist generations often open political opportunities for wider gender and sexual debates.


In thinking about the future of activisms, it helps to think of generations past, present and future—to think globally, act locally, and remain critical. We need to think of activist radical sexual generations moving historically and chronologically as well as synchronically and simultaneously. This epilogue looks at some of the issues for age cohorts of Western gay radicalism; but the future is global. So I have closed with the most provisional mapping of suggestions for future comparative research that would examine global issues around activism, suggesting some key different patterns. Awareness of these multiple global routes becomes a key issue for the future of liberating gender and sexual troubles worldwide.


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