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Coming Out Against the War: Antimilitarism and the Politicization of Homosexuality in the Era of Vietnam

From: American Quarterly
Volume 53, Number 3, September 2001
pp. 452-488 | 10.1353/aq.2001.0030

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American Quarterly 53.3 (2001) 452-488

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Coming Out Against the War:
Antimilitarism and the Politicization of Homosexuality in the Era of Vietnam

Justin David Suran
University of California, Berkeley

Even as the 1960s recede into America's past, arguments over how to represent "the Sixties" have only just begun to enter the discourse of professional historians. 1 Studies have begun to describe an array of complex interactions between and among the various constitutive elements of the 1960s, movements and constituencies that have often been viewed in isolation from one another. 2 This article enters that field of discourse and seeks to extend its current boundaries by placing one neglected constituency--gay men (and to a limited extent, gay women)--into the broader context of 1960s radicalism. 3 In so doing, it connects two elements of the 1960s commonly seen as unrelated: the Vietnam War/antiwar movement and Gay Liberation. Specifically, this article insists on the centrality of both the Vietnam War experience and the antiwar movement to the emergence of the Gay Liberation movement in the United States. Situating Gay Liberation squarely in the context of the Vietnam years not only helps explain the force with which gay Americans emerged after 1969 as an assertively identity-affirming community and aboveground interest group; it also connects the familiar protest movements of the 1960s to the liberationist initiatives of the relatively unexplored 1970s.

Academic discussions of High Sixties identity politics have tended to obscure the tight historical connections between Gay Liberation and Vietnam-era antimilitarism. (I use the term High Sixties in this article to refer to the years roughly from 1966-1967 to 1971-1972, when [End Page 452] street protests and a confrontational style of radical politics became common in the United States.) Many commentators have seen Gay Liberation and other High Sixties identity-based protest movements simply as extensions of the Civil Rights Movement. However, a far more intimate encounter than has been recognized to date took place between the Vietnam War, the antiwar movement, and Gay Liberation.

Historians of the Vietnam War and the American antiwar movement have missed almost entirely that conflict's unique relevance to homosexual men and the gay rights movement. 4 More surprising, however, is the fact that historians of Gay Liberation have consistently overlooked evidence of the war's considerable impact on the lives of homosexual men and women. 5 Focusing on events in the city of San Francisco, I argue in this article that the emergence of the modern gay rights movement was tightly bound up with the mobilization of people and resources nationwide both in compliance with U.S. policy toward Indochina and in opposition to it. Because the war meant different things to different people and because it affected men and women differently--e.g. women were not drafted--my argument is based primarily on the experiences of gay men in one city and the significance attached to male homosexuality in the context of the war. By foregrounding certain dramatic experiences shared by homosexual men (in particular, experiences with the Vietnam draft and antiwar movement), this article recalls forgotten aspects of both the Vietnam experience and the social origins of Gay Liberation. 6

The narrative begins in the decades after World War II, when the problems of homosexual servicemen became a major focus of newly-formed "homophile" organizations in San Francisco such as the Mattachine Society and, later, the Society for Individual Rights. In the mid- to late 1960s homophile groups were attempting to secure a homosexual's right to serve discreetly in uniform. At the same time, the Vietnam draft was confronting increasing numbers of homosexual men with a peculiar quandary, one that forced men to choose between revealing or concealing their sexual orientation. Soon, militant youth and their allies rebelled against the older homophile groups, who refrained from taking a public stance against the war. In this way, the Vietnam War politicized countless gay men while polarizing homosexual politics. In San Francisco, Gay Liberation made its full-scale debut in...