Downs (History/Connecticut Coll.; Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, 2012, etc.) aims to dispel the misconception that gay liberation in the 1970s was primarily focused on sexual freedom.
In this slim though well-documented history, the author provides vivid accounts of noteworthy movements and issues that surfaced during this decade, each playing a vital role in advancing meaningful change within the gay community. He examines how the rise of gay churches and gay bookstores helped to foster a sense of community; how the establishment and expanding influence of gay newspapers (with particular attention devoted to the Toronto-based publication The Body Politic) heightened awareness; and how certain reforms alleviated the abuse and sexual mistreatment of gay prisoners. The author also explores how the emergence of the “macho clone” redefined gay male culture and identity, in many ways disrupting the progress. “The popularity of this image erased women and people of color from the gay community,” writes the author. While Downs successfully asserts a grounded claim that gay life in the 1970s was by no means only about sex, it can be argued that for many it was also about sex, in profoundly more complex and defining ways than he allows here. “There is little question that sex shaped, informed, and mattered to gay people throughout this decade, but it was not defining, as the received narrative has it,” he writes. In his earnest endeavor to sustain his argument, the author gives negligible attention to this facet of the history, leaving his overall conclusion unbalanced. The book would have also benefited from a more expansive perspective, relating how these various efforts specifically helped to shape progress leading up to the present. By applying such a narrow lens to just the ’70s, the broader impact of this decade within the history of the movement feels underserved.
An intelligent and thought-provoking though somewhat limited addition to the historical record of the gay liberation movement.