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  • “The most profoundly revolutionary act a homosexual can engage in”: Drag and the Politics of Gender Presentation in the San Francisco Gay Liberation Movement, 1964–1972
  • Betty Luther Hillman (bio)

In June 1968 The Queen was released in major cities across the United States. A behind-the-scenes documentary of a drag queen beauty contest in New York City, the film was hailed by the New York Times as “an extraordinary” depiction of the art of female impersonation that also managed to humanize the men behind the performance. “One grows fond of all of them,” the reviewer remarked.1 On the West Coast, however, a member of the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), which was quickly becoming the largest gay organization in the nation, took a different stand. “This film does more harm than good in furthering an understanding between the straight and gay world,” argued the reviewer in Vector, the monthly magazine published by SIR. “The fact that these are not actors playing roles, but rather people playing themselves only helps perpetuate the myth that all homosexuals are nelly drag queens.” The wide distribution of the film particularly worried the reviewer, who feared that uneducated viewers would learn unfair stereotypes of homosexuality from the film; “it isn’t all feathers and wigs in the gay life,” he protested.2

The social and cultural events publicized in the pages of Vector, however, might have suggested otherwise. Six months earlier the magazine had [End Page 153] displayed photographs from the fifth annual Beaux Arts Halloween Ball, sponsored by the Tavern Guild of San Francisco, in which SIR members appeared in full drag.3 Nor were the photos from the 1967 ball an isolated incident—every year SIR reported on its drag theater productions and drag balls, which served as key social functions and important fund-raising events. Enthusiastic participants were prominently featured in the magazine’s photo spreads (see Figure 1).4 While the reviewer for SIR’s magazine might have protested The Queen’s portrayal of homosexuals in drag to the public, drag played a major role in the organization’s social and cultural events as well as in the broader culture of the San Francisco homosexual community.

Drag’s presence has been both ubiquitous and contested in gay history.5 The San Francisco Bay Area’s gay cultural scene, which has flourished since at least the 1930s, has prominently featured drag shows and female impersonation.6 As historians have noted, drag queens and “street queens” participated actively in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City, and drag queens have played a headlining role in gay pride parades that began in the 1970s to commemorate the rebellion and continue to take place in cities worldwide.7 In the 1960s and 1970s, however, as the homophile movement [End Page 154]

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Figure 1.

Photos from the 1968 Beaux Arts Halloween Ball displayed in Vector magazine.

transitioned into a larger, louder, and more militant gay liberation movement, drag and drag queens—defined in what follows as biologically male individuals presenting as feminine or female to the outside world—became a source of contestation among gay activists. This article traces the debates about drag that emerged in gay organizations in the San Francisco Bay [End Page 155] Area in the 1960s and 1970s, illustrating how contrasting conceptions of the role of gender presentation in gay activism, as well as implicit class and racial divisions in gay organizations, fostered vastly different interpretations of drag and gender transgression as cultural statements.

Historically, homosexuality and gender deviance have long been intertwined in both medical and cultural discourse. As the category of “homosexual” appeared in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, early sexologists such as Richard von Krafft-Ebing defined homosexuality as a form of “gender inversion,” denoting that a person of the opposite sex was trapped in the wrong body.8 Gay cultural figures in the twentieth century, such as the effeminate “fairy” in turn-of-the-century New York and butch-femme lesbians in the 1950s, solidified images of gender transgression as a key component of homosexual identity.9 However, as homosexuals first began to form organizations...