Theses Doctoral

Gay Liberation and the Politics of the Self in Postwar America

Serby, Benjamin

This dissertation broadens the scope of our understanding of the gay liberation movement in the United States by situating it in the wider intellectual, cultural, and political currents of the three decades following the Second World War. By examining the personal papers of key gay and lesbian activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as well as the print media that disseminated their ideas to a nationwide public, it demonstrates the profound influence of the social thought of the 1940s and 1950s on the movement, and traces that reception by way of social movements: in particular, the new left, radical feminism, and the youth counterculture. It shows that midcentury theorists in a range of disciplines offered a distinct way of understanding the relationship between society and the self that inverted established hierarchies, thus enabling gay liberation activists and writers to anchor their vision of social transformation in the reconstruction of sexuality, gender, and the psyche.

This dissertation focuses not only on the content, but also the context, of the gay liberation print culture, and in so doing reveals the scale and depth of the movement’s public sphere, thus contributing to scholarly knowledge of the nascent networks and solidarities that the underground press made possible, including among gays, lesbians, and transgendered people in prisons, rural areas, and in the military. It shows that as the cultural values and social upheavals that nurtured gay liberation receded in the course of the early 1970s, the utopian aspirations with which the movement began gave way to an interest-group pluralism and a depoliticized preoccupation with private life. This dissertation therefore clarifies the extent to which gay liberation was both a brief and exceptional moment in the longer trajectory of gay and lesbian politics in the United States and an expression of longings and anxieties that were widely shared by many Americans in the postwar era.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Blake, Casey N.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 14, 2020