When HBO premiered the first episode of its new series Looking in mid-January, the show, as noted by NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour “launched a 1,000 think pieces across the internet.” While Looking remains a compelling, if admittedly “low key” viewing experience, noted one critic, the show’s existence points to a more complicated and nuanced reality regarding 21st century gay identity. How did we get here and how have ideas about homosexuality and identity been formed? The answer, one might argue, hinges on a complex mix of personal and group agency, popular culture and public discourse, and government, local and federal, regulation.
As established by Josh Sides in his excellent 2010 work Erotic City: The Making of Modern San Francisco, while the city had long been a site of sexual experimentation – hetero/homo and everything in between – only in the 1960s and 1970s did it consolidate its place in American minds as a refuge for the nation’s gay men and women. Sure, San Francisco may be seen as a gay Mecca today, but even that status seems threatened as the invasion of tech types. Recent debates about public transportation, Google busses, and class swirl around in ways that obscure issues like the city’s famous relationship to gay culture.
For some observers, the rise of identity politics in the 1960s and 70s, embodied by protest from feminists, Black and Chicano power advocates, and of course, gay rights activists, resulted in the fractured political landscape of the ensuing decades. The famous Stonewall Riot symbolized this assertion of equality from the gay rights movement. However, despite the undeniable value of Stonewall, and later movements like ACT UP (so effectively captured by the recent documentary, How to Survive a Plague), the image of the urban middle class homosexual man became the dominant figure attached to gay identity. As Shakesville’s Kate Forbes pointed out in a January 2013 post, the reality of gay life in the 1960s and 1970s encompassed a much broader demography. While acknowledging its importance, Forbes also noted that the event’s portrayal eliminated numerous other members of the LGBT community. “Stonewall was not merely gay men’s riot,” Forbes argued. “Call us what you want, but queens, trans women, and otherwise gender non-conforming people (and yes, there were butch women) were a major part of the rebellion that many gay men trace back to the Stonewall.”
This disconnect relates, in part, to divisions that emerged between gay men and lesbians. San Francisco provides a clear illustration of the kind of cultural currents that prevented unity. In the early stages of gay liberation, lesbian and gay communities cooperated, notably through the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, but sexism and the influence of cultural feminism operated as political wedges between the two groups. For many lesbians, gay male culture of the period felt too hyper masculine, sexist, and hedonistic. Many lesbians broke away, organizing a more politically oriented movement. However, while cultural feminism encouraged a more political, unified approach that emphasized feminine difference, equality and sisterhood, it sublimated sexuality. Definitions of what was and was not acceptable sexual behavior marginalized individuals. Bisexuals, transgenders, and others found themselves excluded. The proliferation of more overtly sexual lesbianism, Sides argues, in the 1990s related to the inability to do so in this earlier period. One might also add that AIDS probably affected gay men more directly than lesbians, but certainly this is not to say that gay women did not endure hardships from the epidemic. In How to Survive a Plague, women, straight and gay, clearly played a role in protest even if their efforts were a bit muted in the documentary’s depiction.
Even the neighborhoods occupied by lesbian and gay men differed. Initially home to the city’s working class white ethnic populations, the famous Castro community emerged as the city’s center for gay men, while San Francisco’s lesbians took up residence in its Mission district. The human geography of the metropolis impacted each group’s racial views. Fewer in number, lesbians shared the Mission district with a sizable Chicano population. The rising anti-war and Chicano movements encouraged better understanding among lesbians regarding multicultural issues. Unfortunately, living in the more uniformly white and gay Castro led some gay men to fetishize race, a subject depicted, exploded, and put back together again in the second (provocatively titled, “Uncut”) and fourth episodes of Looking. This is not to say white lesbians always understood their Chicano neighbors perfectly. Sides acknowledges that tensions did emerge in the Mission between lesbians and Chicanos, but that such conflicts were at the very least mitigated by a lesbian population more sensitive to issues of race.
Returning to recent popular productions, these kind of nuanced understandings have sometimes been flattened for simpler, hetero friendly narratives. The Oscar-nominated Dallas Buyers Club, for all its excellence, wades into the issue of AIDS via Matthew McConaughey’s homophobic straight male Ron Woodroof and his smack-addled sidekick Jared Leto, as the tragically ever-diminishing transvestite, Rayon. Accusations that Woodroof himself may have not been the homophobic heterosexual male depicted in the movie but rather a bisexual comfortable from the outset with the homosexual community that eventually embraces him in the film adds an additional level of controversy. As Mark Harris pointed out, “If it’s true, it gives credence to the complaint that the movie takes the early history of AIDS activism — landmark years in which a small, marginalized, and demonized community of gay people rose up to fight for themselves — and falsely renders them hapless by placing an invented ‘relatable’ straight guy at the front of the barricades instead.” Likewise, Orange Is the New Black endured handwringing over the fact that though it features numerous women of color with various sexual orientations and identities, the character around which events swirl remains a white middle class woman. Understandably, such popular depictions trouble many working-class white and homosexuals of color who fail to see themselves or their interests represented or even worse, their efforts obscured.
Even Historians Struggle
Unremarkably, the issue of gender in LGBT history continues to hound writers. Homosexual white men remain the primary subject for drawing upon images of gay culture, and as result, historians and other scholars seem to have ignored lesbians and others. As Margot Canaday argued at the 2013 Organization of American Historians conference, “”LGBT history has a pretty serious gender problem.” Fellow scholar Dan Royles (@danroyles) neatly summarized the field as “[u]napologetically male-centered,” often with little to offer regarding lesbian history. This is not to say all historians have ignored the role of lesbians in LGBT history. Sides devotes attention to their role in San Francisco’s rise as de facto gay capital of the US; Nan Boyd too pays close attention to the broader LGBT world in her work as does Canaday, who notes the critical place that female homosexuals played in the U.S. government’s sexual regulation of citizenship.
Granted, part of the issue, stems from sources. George Chauncey’s seminal work Gay New York depended in large part on the archives of New York’s Committee of Fourteen, a collection of upper middle class social reformers trying to eradicate perversion and degeneracy, terms used to describe homosexuality before the categorization existed as understood today. In Gay New York, Chauncey pushes back against three myths of gay life prior to the emergence of the Gay Rights movement: isolation, invisibility, and internalization. Rather than isolated, invisible, and psychologically damaged homosexuals cowering in proverbial closets, Chauncey found “an immense gay world of overlapping social networks in the city’s streets, private apartments, bathhouses, cafeterias, and saloons, and they celebrated that world’s existence at regularly held communal events such as the massive drag (or transvestite) balls that attracted thousands of participants and spectators in the 1920s.”
While Chauncey masterfully depicted the burgeoning world of homosexuality, paying close attention to issues of race and segregation in his chapters about Harlem, lesbians remain largely absent. In part this is due to his sources; the aforementioned Committee of Fourteen focused on men. As Canaday points out female homosexuality did not worry the state, since women remained second-class citizens and thereby unimportant in the eyes of officials: “Male perverts mattered so much to the state because male citizens did.” While Chauncey’s earlier work noted that medical literature had begun to define homosexuality, it remained “one of several powerful (and competing) sexual ideologies.” In fact, though social reformers used terms like homosexuality interchangeably with pejoratives like “pervert,” “degenerate,” “sodomite,” and “pederast,” sexual acts alone did not define one as gay. Instead, as Canaday argues, the fact that perverts “wanted to be penetrated by like women [author’s italics]” made them gay, not that they were having sex with men. Therefore, gender mattered more than the target of one’s sexual desires.Still as noted, the focus in such cases remained on men. 
The shift from an unfixed sexuality in which designations like pervert or degenerate were defined by gender inversion—think “mannish women” or “effeminate men”—to a more rigid binary that limited sexuality to either homosexual or heterosexual occurred in complex ways, having as much to do with Habermasian ideas regarding the public sphere and agency as it did with Foulcaldian theories regarding governmentality and an expanding state that sought to regulate the behavior of its citizens in areas such as immigration, welfare, and military service. In essence, both theorists play a central role in the development of modern gay identity but in different ways.
One of the first steps to some sense of equality required public visibility, or what theorist Judith Butler might call “intelligibility.” Few arenas provide an avenue to public recognition like Habermas’s public sphere. According to the German sociologist, in eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe, a “public sphere” emerged to “connect the state with the needs of the society” while also preventing the expansion of the state into the private sphere. Middle class merchants, “men of letters,” and others created a universally accessible civil society, which could not exclude groups. “A public sphere from which specific groups would be eo ipso excluded,” argued Habermas “was less than merely incomplete; it was not a public sphere at all.” In this way, occupying a visible space in the public sphere proved critical to inclusion in broader society and necessary for securing rights.
Yet clearly, in American life the public sphere, as Habermas imagines it, did exclude groups according to race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and yes, sexuality. Non-whites could not serve on juries; until the reform movements of the 1800s, women had little place in public forums; the hit list of discrimination continues to play. Moreover, as Thomas Holt has suggested, the reality was more nuanced than a single all-encompassing, public sphere. For Holt and others, multiple public spheres existed within the whole, bumping into each other like atoms. “If institutional and material conditions matter,” Holt pointed out, “than we should not speak of the black public sphere but a plurality of public spheres.” Historian Elsa Barkley Brown has labeled these smaller versions “counterpublics.” Counterpublics sought to refute negative labels or associations imposed upon oppressed groups, thereby, one might argue, recasting a negative “intelligibility” or “visibility” into something more positive. While Brown focused on the efforts of black freedmen and women in the Reconstruction south, the idea holds equal saliency for homosexuals in the twentieth century. In this way, public visibility—via public spaces, the courts, media—helped shape identity and broader acceptance.
Take Daniel Hurewitz’s Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics or Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, for example. In each public space proved crucial to intelligibility and broadcasting identity. During the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, the “authentic self” served as a dominant theme in political battles, contributing to the emergence of the identity politics of the 1960s and 1970s. In the case of Bohemian Los Angeles, the Hunter College historian traces the interactions of three distinct groups in what is today hipster central Silver Lake, but back then the Edendale neighborhood of Los Angeles. According to Hurewitz, artists, communists, and homosexuals created Habermaseque “counterpublics” that ultimately contributed to the reshaping of politics: “[A]ll three communities strove to reformulate the relationship between the private self and the polity.” Indeed, as Hurewitz demonstrates, social arenas served as the venues in which individuals and groups debated “fundamental questions about the self and politics.”
For Habermas, these sorts of formations represented the “shrinking of the private sphere into the inner areas of a conjugal family,” thereby creating the façade of a “perfectly private personal sphere.” Moments of leisure like the informal gatherings between Edendale artists emerged as the divining rod for interiority or as Habermas argued: “Leisure behavior supplies the key to the floodlit privacy of the new sphere, to the externalization of what is declared to be the inner self.” Similar to the salons of the nineteenth century, Edendale’s artists crafted ideas about their own interiority and how to broadcast it to the wider public. However, Habermas viewed the public sphere in more monolithic terms. He failed to consider that the disintegration of the dominant public sphere meant smaller, but no less active public spheres from atomized groups.
Not that the German theorist applauded such developments. Habermas feared that consumerism had eroded the public sphere to the extent that it became “transmogrified into a sphere of cultural consumption.” The net effect, he argued, was a deprivatized interiority “hollowed out by the mass media; a pseudo-public sphere of a no longer literary public … patched together to create a sort of superfamilial zone of familiarity.” This meant a collapse of the conjugal family and its ability to influence individuals, which in turn undermined patriarchal authority and led to a situation in which “family members are now socialized by extrafamilial authorities, by society directly.” In his his 2003 work, Urban Tribes: A Generation Redefines Friendship, Family and Commitment, journalist Ethan Watters explored the very terrain, too shallowly argued some critics, that Habermas had envisioned, and apparently lamented, decades earlier.
Yet, the ascendency of “interiority” into a public sphere meant such inner selves previously situated within the domain of the family could now exist between unrelated individuals. Thus, communities such as the communists or homosexuals of 1930s Los Angeles held a vested interest in increasing their “superfamilial zone of familiarity” to the broader society through use of public spaces and media. Simultaneously, the state attempted to make such groups more familiar but in a negative manner, promoting negative associations for each hoping to reduce their growth and visible presence. Very public raids on gay bars by police, the kind that set off the Stonewall Riot, serve as just one example. The state regulated these public spaces, such as performances of gender play, banned during the 1930s in Los Angeles, and other public displays that cast negative aspersions on homosexuals.
Not that all things were the same everywhere. Boyd’s Wide Open Town differs in many ways from Bohemian Los Angeles. One, Boyd gives lesbians a more prominent role. Secondly, in her study Boyd demonstrates differences in the two cities’ acceptance of homosexuality. For example, the 1930s emerges as the critical decade in Los Angeles, since, for Hurewitz, the decade brought a convergence of forces that refashioned politics and sexuality simultaneously. Ideas about “fairies” and “pansies” changed. If men’s sexuality had seemed unfixed such that prior to the 1930s one could engage in “homosexual acts” while maintaining a more permanent heterosexuality, the 1930s flipped this concept, presenting homosexuality as a “fixed” identity, one associated with deviance. Boyd’s Great Depression San Francisco endured similar transformations regarding sexuality, but the town’s political structure remained “as much of a ‘open town’ during the 1930s as it had been under Prohibition.” By 1937, though, Police Chief Quinn had “declared war” on female impersonators and announced that “lewd entertainers must be stopped!” Boyd credits public venues like Finnochio’s with establishing a sense of community, though as she points out, these were not gay bars per say, but places where patrons could buy drinks from female impersonators. Still, this helped to establish a “public culture” in which homosexuality squarely settled. Activists of the 1970s might have downplayed the importance of more overtly gay bars or more liminal spaces like Finocchio’s but historians like Boyd and John D’Emilio, in his 1984 work Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, credits them for with contributing to the idea of homosexuals as a social and political entity.
Los Angeles authorities also viewed “gender play” as threatening, even if the wider populace remained unconvinced. “Bar patrons may have celebrated the fairies for their gender play, their homosexual desires, or both,” notes Hurewitz, yet “the raids marked a growing state sponsored belief that the ‘panze joints’ represented a serious danger.” The state’s concern did not match that of the general public’s as exemplified by magazines like Variety which demonstrated an ambivalence toward gender play by praising it on one page while noting raids on various establishments on others.
Here, clearly, Hurewitz begins to point to one of the key elements of his argument, that the developing politics of the “emotional interior” threatened state institutions such that regulation both of bodies and concurrently radical political movements (i.e. communists) became priorities. Political and civil officials conflated communism with homosexuality and deviance, as “their assessment of sexual perversion as dangerous was part of a wider cultural fabric that wove together a series of anxieties about sexuality and communism and labeled them as interrelated dangers.” The recall of Mayor Shaw in 1937 and 1938 illustrated this development as “it pulled together a cultural framework that ascribed political significance and a sense of identity to sexual activities and desires.” Following the recall, individuals were often jailed or institutionalized according to their radical political beliefs or “deviant homosexuality.”
Organizations like the Mattachine Society, founded by Harry Hay in Los Angeles around 1950, attempted to push back against state persecution. Though initially organized along the secret cell communist model, it later adopted a more transparent structure. Hay articulated a new means of gay identity, one based on relational identity, meaning that homosexuals like African Americas, Mexicans/Mexican Americans, Japanese/Japanese Americans, and others had been subject to oppression. According to Hay, gays organized around the idea that internal sexual desire defined their identity much as race/ethnicity provided the same for minority groups. State discrimination highlighted these identities. In other words, Hay argued that just as race/racism explained the persecution of minorities, the oppression of gays hinged on sexual preference, therefore, homosexuals could claim to be a “social minority” much as blacks, Latinos, and Japanese Americans.
Unfortunately, broader civil society discourse, itself shaped by state policy, placed limits on this new identity. Hay promised those belonging to the Mattachine Society would adopt more traditional public behaviors that would not transgress social taboos of the day, which might have normalized homosexuals in the eyes of some, but also marginalized its own membership. Moreover, the dominant image of gay identity to emerge from the society was one of a white middle class male, again ignoring lesbians, minorities, and others.
Clearly, personal and group agency played critical roles in burgeoning gay identity, but so too did the federal government. Few theorists have influenced ideas regarding identity like Foucault. When it comes to the construction of modern gay identity, the tension between a Habermasian public sphere in which groups and individuals assert agency and Foucualt’s more systematic beliefs about discourse— namely, that we remain limited by the boundaries of conversations around us, or, as Edmund White paraphrased the famous thinker, people remain “constricted as to what we can think by prevailing discourses of our period . . . ‘We cannot think no matter what no matter when…’” Under such a structure, “no one was immune to the subduing power of discourse.” In fact, White pointed out, Foucault rejected identity politics and especially the idea of “‘the culture of avowal’ by which he meant a culture that thought every individual had a secret, that that secret was sexual, and that by confessing it one had come to terms with one’s essence.”
Such beliefs place Foucault somewhat at odds with Hurewitz’s more Habermasian approach, though undoubtedly, the latter dutifully explores the role the state played in the establishment of homophile associations like the Mattachine Society or The Daughters of Bilitis. One could also suggest that public sphere discourse consists of its own boundaries defined by civil society and the government, so the two thinkers are not necessarily in dire opposition to one another, but in many ways, Habermas’s theories—and those that have built upon them—allow for greater agency. Moreover, as has been famously asserted regarding the French philosopher, his arguments sometimes depict humanity as little more than individual vessels to be filled with the discourse of the state. With that said, it seems obvious that one cannot disentangle the two theorists; individual and group agency occurs under the auspices of the state.
Due in part to her focus on the role of the government, Margot Canaday’s The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America directly engages the power of discourse and the state’s place in creating them. By focusing on the expansion of the state from WWI to the 1950s, through welfare, immigration, and military service, Canaday demonstrates how the state sought to regulate those who entered the U.S., which citizens could claim welfare assistance, and the soldiers, men and women, who would serve in the nation’s armed services.
Not until the 1950s, when women entered the military in greater numbers, did the government and others really begin to express real worries about female homosexuality. With that said, the military’s regulation of female sexuality greatly contributed to the formation of the very binary that continues to largely define individuals as strictly homo or heterosexual. Still, even in this moment, military leaders remained confused over just what constituted lesbianism. Simply entering military service suggested that women had chosen the armed services over marriage, a dubious proposition in mid-century America; therefore, a certain ambivalence regarding female enlistment persisted. A 1957 Crittenden Board investigation by the Navy argued that homosexuality among women had become a “special problem” but at the same time admitted that detecting lesbianism proved difficult, noting that it was “impossible to provide a fixed and concise overall definition to all that constitutes homosexual activity in the female.” Yet such ambiguity worked in the state’s favor as it could “be harnessed in the production of the of a precise category that might enhance rather than hamstring state power…”
Officials believed women to be more private in their sexual relationships and instead focused on individuals with “homosexual tendencies.” How did one make such determinations? Gender inversion and sexual acts provided one plank, but to this military officials added “the architecture of relationships, culture and community.” The policing of female sexuality, part of a larger effort to reassert gender hierarchy within the services now that women had crossed this barrier, limited advancement with the services but also resulted in the modern “configuration of homosexuality” we know today. The military combined all the above “markers of homosexuality” into an assemblage that came to define what we considered gay.
To put it another way, as the state expanded its regulatory structure regarding immigration, decided who deserved benefits extended from the growing welfare state, and determined which citizens should be fit to serve in the armed services, it regulated citizenship but also constituted identities to guide officials in their determinations. The military’s obsession with lesbianism formalized the efforts of the Bureau of Immigration and the welfare state and “more than any other state power identified the attributes of lesbianism and brought that assemblage into homosexuality.” Though Hurewitz and Chauncey largely ignored lesbians in their story of burgeoning homosexual identity, Canaday pinpoints how the state, particularly through the military, imposed a gender hierarchy through citizenship— and in order to do so, it needed to constitute lesbianism. Indeed, it punished women more harshly than men. “The incredibly broad way it did so meant that so many women were touched during the course of any given investigation that it was not individual women that were policed but women in the service as a class.” Men endured no small amount of persecution for homosexuality, but the state cast its net in a more targeted manner. 
The military may have performed much of the work to consolidate homosexual identity, but by the late 1970s, federal officials, particularly those working in the U.S. Public Health Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and various federal courts set this new identity into permanent legal construct. Taking “nearly a century of federal regulation,” the state eradicated the complexities of earlier eras. “[G]one not only was an older conception of perverts and normals, but also men with feminism, cross-dressers, weak sisters, punk boys, muff divers, female perverts, vicious wolves, and mannish social workers,” points out Canaday. Instead, Congress, the judicial system, and policymakers replaced these distinctions, however problematic in their origin, with a simple binary, but one that lacked symmetry. Under this structure, homosexual sex made you gay, but heterosexual sex did not make you heterosexual.
“Are we one of those couples now?” Looking’s Frank (O.T. Fagbenle) asked his boyfriend after a spontaneous threesome. “We can be what we want to be,” responded Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez). Today, that might be truer than ever, but the ability to do so has been forged by agency, from gay men and women alike. Yet, even with this acknowledgement, how we think about the division between heterosexuality and homosexuality—the false binary itself and very real gray area in between—remains mitigated not only by our own actions and thoughts, but by the long reach of the state. Let’s all hope shows like Looking and Orange Is the New Black, among others, and historians, like Boyd, Hurewitz, and Candaday, can better get at this complexity in the very near future.
 Josh Sides, Erotic City: Sexual Revolutions and the Making of Modern San Francisco (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).
 George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890 – 1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994) pg. 3.
 Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), pg. 13.
 Ibid, pg. 27.
 Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) pg. 11.
 Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998)
 Thomas Holt, “Afterword: Mapping the Black Public Sphere”, in The Black Public Sphere, Ed. The Black Public Sphere Collective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), pgs. 325 – 329.
 Elsa Barkley Brown, “Negotiating and Transforming the Public Sphere: African American Political Life in the Transition from Slavery to Freedom”, in The Black Public Sphere, Ed. The Black Public Sphere Collective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) pgs. 111 – 150.
 Daniel Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008); Nan Boyd, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005)
 Daniel Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008)
 Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society, trans. Thomas Burger and Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998)
 Boyd, Nan, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (University of California: Berkeley), 2003, pg. 53.
 Boyd, Nan, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (University of California: Berkeley), 2003.
 Edmund White, City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ‘70s, (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2010) pg 149.
 Ibid, pg 186.
 Ibid, pg. 178. “Because they were seen as choosing the military (as opposed to marriage) for a career,” notes the Princeton historian, “these soldiers were automatically suspect, considered overly ambitious and unlikely to be satisfied with the things that ‘normal’ women wanted.”
 Ibid, pg. 184.
 Ibid, pg. 213.
 Ibid, pg. 213.
 Ibid, pg. 213.
 Ibid, pg. 216.