Dissertation Title: Lesbian and Gay DC: Identity, Emotion, and Experience
in Washington, DC’s Social and Activist Communities (1961-1986)
Washington, DC’s lesbian and gay activists and organizations have received relatively little attention in the mainstream, historical narrative on queer activism. This dissertation seeks to remedy this oversight, with the founding of Mattachine Society of Washington in 1961 through AIDS activism in the mid-1980s. Lesbian and gay individuals in DC accomplished a great deal at both local and national levels during this timeframe. Activists organized radical and mainstream groups, utilized groundbreaking and routinized rhetoric, and facilitated or discarded identity politics. In a Southern city with a history of slavery, race riots, and segregation, race became a central identity in the organizing efforts of these activists. Activists organized along lines of gender and class, but for the most part, Washington, DC’s lesbians and gays socialized and organized politically in racially separate worlds throughout the 25-year span of this study.
Using purposive sampling, the writer interviewed 27 lesbian and gay men (12 women and 15 men) who participated in social and political activism in Washington, DC between 1961 and 1986. All interviewees were African American or white (including white Jews), reflecting the racial population in Washington, DC during the time of this study. The writer also collected and analyzed archival data from the era. Theories on identity/inequality and affect/citizenship were used to highlight the experiences of these individuals at the interactional level and in the context of social movement theory on emotions.
At the beginning of this research, the writer hoped to accomplish three goals: 1) situate a historical narrative of Washington, DC’s lesbian and gay activist groups into the national context, 2) connect DC gay activist groups with various national movements, and 3) privilege the experiences of individual activists over larger-scale social movements. In terms of the first goal, the writer situated DC lesbian and gay activism alongside mainstream literature that focused on activism in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City—three cities that are prominently represented in the larger narrative on queer history in the United States. Regarding the second goal, the writer described DC lesbian and gay activism in connection to several larger-scale movements that existed during the 25-year timeframe; chiefly, the homophile, civil rights, new left, women’s, and gay liberation movements. The third goal allowed the writer to understand how interviewees’ race, class, and gender identities influenced their social and political organizing. Subsequently, the centrality of emotionality in collective action rose to the surface in this research, as did the importance of identity at the affective level. As the research unfolded, a fourth goal became imminent: situate Washington DC’s lesbian and gay activist groups in the context of the racist histories of both Washington, DC’s and the U.S. The genesis of this fourth, and final, goal included an additional chapter that described a history of black-white relations in DC from the founding of the city in the late 1700s through the (legal) end of segregation in DC during the 1950s.
Future research considerations include: 1) a cultural history of lesbian and gay communities in Washington, DC from the city’s inception, 2) a history that additionally focuses on the experiences of bisexual and trans individuals, as well as activists from racial groups other than white or African American, 3) exploring the AIDS crisis in DC beyond 1986, and 4) a more in-depth focus on the impact of AIDS in the larger black community in Washington, DC.