Read an Excerpt from “The Queerness of Home: Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of Domesticity After World War II” by Stephen Vider
In honor of Pride Month, we’re pleased to spotlight Stephen Vider’s recently published The Queerness of Home: Gender, Sexuality, and the Politics of Domesticity After World War II, which author and former Guggenheim fellow George Chauncey called “creatively researched, beautifully written, and unfailingly smart: a first-rate work of revisionist history.” In the following excerpt, Vider sheds light on a story that’s been “largely neglected in most accounts of 1970s gay politics and culture”—the rise of LGBTQ communes.
In the fall of 1975, the Berkeley-based magazine Gay Sunshine ran a classified ad placed by a group of men seeking others to join their urban commune: “Fort Hill Faggots: We are creating a radicalized faggot community in Boston. Interested?” Similar ads appeared frequently in North American gay and counterculture periodicals throughout the 1970s. A 1974 issue of the Canadian magazine Body Politic contained four listings for communes, including one that balanced the practical and political: “Gay male commune seeks seventh person. Cooking and gay liberation politics considered as- sets.” An ad in Kaliflower, a Bay Area commune newsletter, read, “OUR GAY COMMUNE HAS ROOM FOR TWO MORE. CALL AND RAP.” Communal living could even prove a useful real estate pitch: the Empty Closet, a gay liberation newsletter published in Rochester, New York, included this ad in 1973: “HOUSE AVAILABLE FOR GAY COMMUNE: 3BR, kitchen, dining room, large living room.”
Although largely neglected in most accounts of 1970s gay politics and culture, communal living—sharing a house, an apartment, or land—was widely discussed and practiced as a central strategy of gay male liberation. Following several nights of riots at New York’s Stonewall Inn in June 1969, gay liberation groups emerged in cities and on college campuses across the country, encouraging gay men and lesbians to “come out” and come together. Gay communal living was immediately conceived as a vital component of this revolution. In his widely reprinted essay “A Gay Manifesto,” Carl Wittman wrote that the creation of gay liberation communes was an important step toward creating what he called a gay “free territory”—free from the economic exploitation that characterized many straight-owned bars and baths in the “gay ghettos” of New York City and San Francisco. In Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation, an early synthesis of gay liberation theory, Dennis Altman wrote, matter-of-factly, “The ultimate extension of gay community is the gay commune”—“in essence an attempt to create a new form of extended family.” And Life magazine’s 1971 article, “Homosexuals in Revolt,” included a photo of rural “communalists” among gay liberation’s many “experiments with different lifestyles.”
It is impossible to say precisely how many gay male communes—or living collectives, as they were often called—formed in the 1970s. The earliest, and most self-conscious, emerged between 1969 and 1972 out of newly formed gay liberation groups in major cities. But many more, shaped by gay liberation if not always tied to gay liberation groups, would appear in the years that followed, in urban as well as rural areas. These communes varied in their specific goals, their size, their longevity, and their spaces. Many were predominantly populated by white middle-class men, but others were multiracial and cross-class: the homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s had been predominantly white, and the domestic ideal it upheld was based on white middle-class norms. Gay liberation groups were much more widespread in numbers and location, and attracted relatively more people of color and more people of working-class backgrounds—in large part because of a coalitional approach with the Black Power movement. That diversity was reflected in a few of the communes as well, which espoused a broader ideal of a multiracial gay belonging. What all gay communes shared was a belief in communal living as a vital alternative to the reproductive household and a potential pathway toward personal and collective change.
Gay men were hardly alone in seeking to create communes. Between 1960 and 1975, communes in the United States multiplied exponentially— from a few hundred to many thousand—and became a common topic of conversation, study, and media coverage. Back-to-the-land communes, founded by young “hippies” who sought escape from contemporary technology and consumerism, were the most frequently discussed and depicted in popular magazines and newspapers. Within the span of five years, communes had become a central expression and emblem of the burgeoning national counterculture.
More broadly, communes consolidated, and came to stand in for, a larger critique of middle-class domesticity and, with it, the nuclear family household. By the late 1970s, the term “alternative lifestyles” had come to encompass a wide variety of “nontraditional” domestic relations including communes, cohabitation, group marriage, heterosexual singles, single-parent households, “swingers,” and same-sex relationships. The creation of gay male communes most closely paralleled the development of feminist and lesbian communes. As early as 1969, women began forming working and living collectives in cities across the United States as a means of building women’s culture and politics. In Iowa City, for example, most of the editorial board of the feminist newsletter Ain’t I a Woman? lived together and frequently reflected in print on the opportunities and challenges of collectivity. Part of the motivation, one member reflected, was to combine resources: by living as a group, rather than individually or in pairs, they could reduce the burden of everyday tasks like cooking and allow some house members to devote less time to work and more time to political action.
Living collectives like this one quickly took on heightened meaning with evolving ideas about lesbian feminism and women’s separatism. More and more, feminist activists argued that social and sexual separatism from men was essential to combatting patriarchal norms and developing a new women’s culture. For many women, that also meant redefining lesbian identity, desire, and intimacy as key forms of political resistance. In 1971, for example, a group of twelve activists in Washington, DC, broke away from the mainstream women’s movement to form the Furies, a lesbian feminist collective. From 1971 to 1972, the collective lived and worked together producing their own newsletter, centering lesbian desire and relationships as a political strategy. Lesbian feminist communities across the United States also gave rise to living collectives where lesbian mothers shared childcare responsibilities and sought to raise and educate children outside of patriarchal gender norms.
By the mid-1970s, many lesbians also advocated for the creation of “womyn’s lands”—separatist intentional communities in the country. Womyn’s lands were typically larger and more open than earlier urban communes: some women lived on the land long-term, but many welcomed others to visit for shorter periods; some urban communities also had ongoing connections with rural communities. They primarily attracted white, educated, middle-class women, but women of color also moved to womyn’s lands and sometimes worked to create their own. Puerto Rican lesbian activist Juana Maria Paz, for example, moved to a womyn’s land in Arizona in 1977, looking for a place outside of the city to raise her daughter. The middle-class white women who lived there, however, largely avoided and rejected her. Within a few months, she moved to Northern California to join an emerging womyn’s land for lesbians of color called La Luz de la Lucha (Light of the Struggle).
Gay male activists, too, pressed on the boundaries of private and public life—reinventing domestic practices, spaces, and relationships not as a retreat from politics or community but a form of everyday political and social rebellion. Yet while they drew inspiration and momentum from other political, social, and sexual radicals around them, gay male activists also invested communal living with unique meaning, as a primary strategy for reinventing gay social and sexual culture. The gay liberation movement was diverse in its tactics and theories, yet one common theme was that male heterosexual power held oppressed people apart. But where psychiatrists and other social scientists called for gay men to change their social and sexual patterns, gay liberation activists advocated for new forms of queer community—new modes of belonging.
Stephen Vider is assistant professor of history and director of the Public History Initiative at Cornell University.