Who Leads the LGBT Movement?

Who leads the LGBT movement? The answer to that question, predictably, says a lot about the movement overall. I calculated the top covered LGBT SMO for each year from 1960 (the first year an organization appears in the newspapers) through 2010. This includes coverage from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Wall Street Journal.  The results are in the table at the end of this post.

From 1960 to 1968, the Mattachine Society was the top, and sometimes the only, covered organization. The Mattachine Society was one of the first gay organizations in the country, founded by Harry Hay and friends around 1950 in Los Angeles. It quickly spread up to San Francisco and over to New York and D.C. These early activists characterize the Homophile Movement, a nascent gay rights movement that was primarily concerned with social support and fairly conservative in their activism.

From 1969 to 1971, the Gay Liberation Front is the most covered organization. The GLF grew out of the Stonewall Riots, a series of riots over three nights in late June of 1969 precipitated by a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. The Stonewall Riots inspired much more radical activism than had previously existed, and the GLF embodied this activism. Drawing inspiration from the activism of the 1960s, GLF was organized as a radical democracy and advocated the dismantling of sex and gender categories. GLF also saw the struggle for gay rights as embedded in a larger struggle for human rights, peace, and justice, and so attempted to form coalitions with a number of other social movements. This form of activism quickly died out, as people became disillusioned with the endless meetings and the frequent homophobia expressed by other movements.

This led to the rise of the Gay Activists Alliance, which was the top covered organization from 1972 to 1974. The Gay Activists Alliance was a more mainstream organization than the Gay Liberation Front. Adopting a more traditional organizational structure, the GAA focused almost exclusively on gay rights, foregoing attempts at coalition building with other movements. Instead the GAA focused its efforts on passing ordinances and laws to combat discrimination. While the GAA did at times make national claims, it was still a fairly local organization in scope, organizing primarily in New York City.

The truly national gay and lesbian movement arose in the mid-1970s, and the National Gay Task Force (now the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, or sometimes just The Task Force) was its leader. The Task Force was one of the first organizations with an explicitly national scope. It led coverage from 1975 through 1984 (with a one year break, when the Gay Rights National Lobby, the precursor to the Human Rights Campaign, got one more mention than the Task Force in 1982). During this time, Harvey Milk gained national prominence as one of the first openly gay men to be elected to public office, before being assassinated by a fellow city council member. At the same time, Anita Bryant led a successful campaign to overturn an anti-discrimination ordinance in Dade County, Florida, marking the beginning of a conservative Christian anti-gay countermovement.

What would become known as AIDS was first identified in 1981, but the Federal government was slow to respond. In its place, the gay and lesbian community created numerous organizations to care for and advocate on behalf of people with AIDS. One of the largest of these organizations was the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), operating in New York City. City and State health officials found it difficult to do anything without the support of GMHC. GMHC was the most covered organization from 1985 to 1988, except for 1986, when the Bowers v. Hardwick Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of sodomy laws briefly overtook the AIDS crisis as the primary focus in the news.

However, as the Federal government continued to ignore the AIDS epidemic, a new, more militant form of AIDS activism took shape, coalescing in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP). ACT-UP used dramatic, disruptive protests to force national attention on the AIDS epidemic, and led coverage of the LGBT movement from 1989 to 1992.

The mid-1990s was a turbulent time for the LGBT movement. President Clinton was unable to fulfill his promise of ending the ban on gays in the military, and instead signed into law Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act in response to the possibility of Hawaii becoming the first state to issue same-sex marriage licenses (Hawaii was able to amend their constitution in time to prevent same-sex marriage). Numerous states passed anti-discrimination laws during this time as well. This was also a time of reorganization of the movement. Emerging from the AIDS crisis, the movement found itself with a much larger organizational capacity than it had in the late 1970s. Who would lead the movement was uncertain, and the top covered spot bounced between three different organizations between 1993 and 1997.

A clear winner emerged in the late 1990s. The Human Rights Campaign (HRC) is the top covered organization from 1998 through 2010 except for two years (more on that later). The HRC has come to represent a white, cisgender, middle-class gay and lesbian agenda, largely ignoring people on the fringes of the LGBT community, and administered from the top down. This has been reflected in the political goals the movement has been pushing the most lately. The Millennium March on Washington, the fourth national march on Washington for LGBT rights, was organized primarily by the HRC, which made a majority of the decisions with leadership from a couple other organizations. This in contrast to the more democratic organizing of the previous three marches, including numerous state and local organizations and activists in the process. Advocacy for same-sex marriage has stressed how similar gay and straight couples are, ignoring the rich history of creativity in defining relationships and family within the gay and lesbian community. The HRC supported removing gender-identity and expression from the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in 2007 to make the law more palatable to conservative representatives.

While not surprising that newspapers will focus their attention on the organizational leaders of a social movement, it is interesting how much who those leaders are can tell us about the historical trajectory of a movement.

1960 Mattachine Society
1963 Mattachine Society
1964 Mattachine Society
1965 Mattachine Society
1966 Mattachine Society
1967 Mattachine Society
1968 Mattachine Society
1969 Gay Liberation Front
1970 Gay Liberation Front
1971 Gay Liberation Front
1972 Gay Activists Alliance
1973 Gay Activists Alliance
1974 Gay Activists Alliance
1975 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1976 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1977 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1978 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1979 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1980 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1981 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1982 Gay Rights National Lobby
1983 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1984 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1985 Gay Men’s Health Crisis
1986 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1987 Gay Men’s Health Crisis
1988 Gay Men’s Health Crisis
1989 AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power
1990 AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power
1991 AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power
1992 AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power
1993 National Gay and Lesbian Task Force
1994 Gay Men’s Health Crisis
1995 Human Rights Campaign
1996 Gay Men’s Health Crisis
1997 Gay Men’s Health Crisis
1998 Human Rights Campaign
1999 Human Rights Campaign
2000 Human Rights Campaign
2001 Human Rights Campaign
2002 Human Rights Campaign
2003 Human Rights Campaign
2004 Human Rights Campaign
2005 Lambda Legal Defense Fund
2006 Lambda Legal Defense Fund
2007 Human Rights Campaign
2008 Human Rights Campaign
2009 Human Rights Campaign
2010 Human Rights Campaign