Since World War II, the United States has witnessed major changes in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) politics. Indeed, because the history of LGBTQ activism is almost entirely concentrated in the postwar years, the LGBTQ movement is typically said to have achieved rapid change in a short period of time. But if popular accounts characterize LGBTQ history as a straightforward narrative of progress, the reality is more complex. Postwar LGBTQ politics has been both diverse and divided, marked by differences of identity and ideology. At the same time, LGBTQ politics has been embedded in the contexts of state-building and the Cold War, the New Left and the New Right, the growth of neoliberalism, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. As the field of LGBTQ history has grown, scholars have increasingly been able to place analyses of state regulation into conversation with community-based histories. Moving between such outside and inside perspectives helps to reveal how multiple modes of LGBTQ politics have shaped one another and how they have been interwoven with broader social change. Looking from the outside, it is apparent that LGBTQ politics has been catalyzed by exclusions from citizenship; from the inside, we can see that activists have responded to such exclusions in different ways, including both by seeking social inclusion and by rejecting assimilationist terms. Court rulings and the administration of law have run alongside the debates inside activist communities. Competing visions for LGBTQ politics have centered around both leftist and liberal agendas, as well as viewpoints shaped by race, gender, gender expression, and class.
Emily K. Hobson
The decade of the 1980s represented a turning point in American history—a crucial era, marked by political conservatism and an individualistic ethos. The 1980s also witnessed a dramatic series of developments in U.S. foreign relations, first an intensification of the Cold War with the Soviet Union and then a sudden relaxation of tensions and the effective end of the Cold War with an American victory. All of these developments were advanced and symbolized in the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan (1981–1989), a polarizing figure but a highly successful political leader. Reagan dominates our memories of the 1980s like few other American leaders do other eras. Reagan and the political movement he led—Reaganism—are central to the history of the 1980s. Both their successes and their failures, which became widely acknowledged in the later years of the decade, should be noted. Reaganite conservatives won political victories by rolling back state power in many realms, most of all in terms of taxation and regulation. They also succeeded in putting America at the unquestioned pinnacle of the world order through a victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, although this was unforeseen by America’s Cold Warriors when the 1980s began. The failures of Reaganite conservatism include its handling of rising poverty levels, the HIV/AIDS crisis, and worsening racial tensions, all problems that either Reaganites did little to stem or to which they positively contributed. In foreign affairs, Reaganites pursued a “war on terror” of questionable success, and their approach to Third World arenas of conflict, including Central America, exacted a terrible human toll.
Regional variation, race, gender presentation, and class differences mean that there are many “Gay Souths.” Same-sex desire has been a feature of the human experience since the beginning, but the meanings, expressions, and ability to organize one’s life around desire have shifted profoundly since the invention of sexuality in the mid-19th century. World War II represented a key transition in gay history, as it gave many people a language for their desires. During the Cold War, government officials elided sex, race, and gender transgression with subversion and punished accordingly by state committees. These forces profoundly shaped gay social life, and rather than a straight line from closet to liberation, gays in the South have meandered. Movement rather than stasis, circulation rather than congregation, and the local rather than the stranger as well as creative uses of space and place mean that the gay South is distinctive, though not wholly unique, from the rest of the country.