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#278: Gay Civil Rights: A Turn Away from Feminism

Currently, the gay liberation movement has largely given way to a gay civil rights movement (D’Emilio, 1997, 2000, 2002, 2014; D’Emilio, Turner & Vaid, 2000; Marcus, 1992; Mohr, 1995; Vaid, 1995; Valocchi, 2001; Wolfson, 1993). This has led to important advances, such as the elimination of anti-sodomy laws, the widespread (though still not universal) enactment of anti-discrimination laws for gay men and lesbians (and, to a lesser extent, for transgender persons), election of gay men to public office, the elimination of de jure bars to gay men serving in the military, changes in cultural values, and, increasingly, the right to gay marriage.
But, in the context of the focus of this chapter, here’s the rub: The gay civil rights movement (as it now frames itself) largely turns away from the feminist critique of marriage as an institution (Auchmuty, 2005; Echols, 1989; Josephson, 2005), and feminist thought and the feminist agenda more broadly. An emerging literature critiques what has been lost in the gay movement’s turn away from the politics of liberation toward a narrower, and differently oriented, politics of civil rights (Bersani, 1995; Crimp, 2002; D’Emilio, 1997, 2014; Munoz, 2009; Warner, 1999). Yet much of this critique looks inwardly, toward dynamics and politics within gay communities and movements, and concerns itself less with gay men’s interactions with other communities and social currents. It does not take up the broader problem of the gay movement’s divergence from feminism (Halberstam, 2008; Weed & Schor, 1997), and the implications of this turn at the current juncture.
I first got in touch with this disturbingly pervasive, insidious trend when a colleague convinced me to watch The New Normal (2013), a series that ran on NBC from 2012-2013. Its main protagonists were two white gay men (an obstetrician and a television producer), living privileged lives in an opulent California home. The show intermixed humorous moments, moving flashbacks to the protagonists’ childhood rejection, depictions of their on-going family-of-origin tensions, and narration of the main characters’ class and male privilege. A meandering plot line traced the two gay male protagonists’ decisions to have a child to be carried by a surrogate, and to marry. The protagonists often voiced the happy line, in common parlance among gay men today preparing to become fathers by surrogacy, “We’re pregnant!” But they were not pregnant; their child’s birth-mother-by-surrogacy was. The protagonists’ playful dismissal of the surrogate mother’s role was rooted in misogyny – treated playfully, but unmistakable. Over time, they came to develop some respect and fondness for the woman who was giving birth to the child they intended to raise, but they originally cast and treated her as an inconvenient means to their desired ends, and their dismissive, insensitive, and often hostile attitudes toward women kept breaking through.
That such a product of popular culture could so explicitly mark the turn in gay men’s perspectives away from feminism, and any sense of collective alliance between gay men and women’s rights to reproductive freedom, got me thinking. In the ways of psychoanalysts who see possible clues to broader social phenomena in themes that arise in our clinical work (Craib, 1990; Danto, 2005; Gaztambide, 2012; Layton, Hollander & Gutwill, 2006; Nguyen, 2012; Stake, 1978), I began reflecting on my clinical experiences with gay men, and what they might reveal.

#278: Gay Civil Rights: A Turn Away from Feminism

Ellen Toronto, Ph.D.

Dr. Ellen Toronto is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst in the state of Michigan.

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APA Reference
Toronto, E. (2018). #278: Gay Civil Rights: A Turn Away from Feminism. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 19, 2019, from


Last updated: 8 Mar 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 8 Mar 2018
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