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1969: The Year of Gay Liberation

The Right to Be
The Right to Be

Mattachine Society of New York. "Homosexuals Are Different . . ." Poster, 1960s. NYPL, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Mattachine Society of New York Records.
The year 1969 marked a major turning point in the politics of sexuality in America. Same-sex relationships were discreetly tolerated in 19th-century America in the form of romantic friendships, but the 20th century brought increasing legal and medical regulation of homosexuality, which was considered a dangerous illness. This change in attitude was accompanied by pockets of resistance, spaces that gays and lesbians carved out for their erotic self-expression. Sometimes these spaces were hidden, like the gay bars in Greenwich Village and Harlem that were frequented only by those in the know. Sometimes they were in plain sight, like the homoerotic subtexts and in-jokes of Hollywood movies. The repression of homosexuality reached its peak in the 1950s with the McCarthy era. During the paranoia of the Cold War, gays, lesbians, and transgender people were seen as a corrupt, lurking menace, easily used as pawns by communists.

Gays and lesbians began to organize during the 1950s with the Homophile movement, but were hampered by the lack of a political language with which to express their experience, as they were neither a class nor an ethnicity but, instead, were considered victims of a moral and medical defect. As gays and lesbians struggled to organize and represent themselves, the United States was torn by a succession of political struggles — the African American civil rights movement, the women's movement, the protests against the Vietnam War, and the emergence of the hippie youth subculture — that transformed the possibilities of political organizing in the United States. Then, in 1969, the small flames of resistance that activists around the country had been tending and fanning for decades finally erupted into a mass political movement sparked by the Stonewall Riots. Inspired by the tumultuous changes in American culture, gays and lesbians emerged with a slogan — "Gay Power!"

Clearly understanding that they were making history, these activists also recognized the need to recover the hidden history of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Among the many activist groups that worked to archive this history was the International Gay Information Center (IGIC), which grew out of the History Committee of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). The IGIC archives operated as a community-based repository until 1988, when the organization's directors gave the collection to The New York Public Library. The IGIC archives, along with other archives and collections subsequently donated to the Library, comprehensively document the gay and lesbian civil rights struggles in New York since the 1950s and have made NYPL one of the most important archives of LGBT history in this country. All the materials in this exhibition were drawn from these historic collections in the Library's Manuscripts and Archives Division.

Jason Baumann
Coordinator of Collection Assessment & LGBT Collections

Initial funding for The New York Public Library's LGBT initiative was provided by Time Warner

Support for The New York Public Library's Exhibitions Program has been provided by Celeste Bartos, Mahnaz Ispahani and Adam Bartos, Jonathan Altman, and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III.

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