Inside Books:  An Interview with Lisa Stulberg on the Politics of U.S. LGBTQ Social Movements

Lisa Stulberg is an associate professor, sociology of education.  Her research focuses on the politics of race and education, affirmative action in higher education, school choice policy and politics, and LGBTQ social change. She is the author of Race, Schools, and Hope: African Americans and School Choice after Brown (Teachers College Press, 2008) and  LGBTQ Social Movements (Polity, 2018).  We spoke to her about her forthcoming  book which charts the course of LGBTQ social change in the United States.

Lisa Stulberg

What prompted you to write this book?

LGBTQ Social Movements is an introductory look at the history and sociology of LGBTQ social movements in the United States since World War II. I’ve been teaching some version of a social movements class since I got to NYU fifteen years ago, and students are always very interested in gender and sexuality and the politics of LGBTQ social change. But students really have not learned about these movements at all — in high school classes or, for the most part, in other college classrooms.

There are a lot of great books and resources out there on the politics of LGBTQ social change. But the books that cover multiple themes and large spans of time are often really long and expansive and aren’t easy to assign in an undergraduate class. And the shorter and more digestible books tend to focus on one issue — like marriage equality politics — and are really useful in class, but do not cover as much material as I would like as a teacher. So, I wanted to write a book that I could use in a class like mine: a short, accessible, thematic look at LGBTQ politics that will give students a broad sense of how and why change has happened since the mid-20th century and that would inspire them to want to learn more.

Also, given the current politics of gender and sexuality in this country under our new president, I think it’s really important for everyone to be armed with a knowledge of history and of social change tactics that have worked for generations of activists. Finally, I hope the book will be accessible and interesting to younger students — like high schoolers — as well. We need to be teaching LGBTQ content in our schools, and I’d love for my book to be a resource in this way, as well.

When telling the story of LGBTQ history, where do you begin?  How does your book open?

This is a great question with no easy answer. There have been discussions and actions around gender and sexual politics and identity for hundreds of years all over the world. But my book takes World War II as a primary starting point. The scholarship on the origins of LGBTQ social movements in the U.S. focuses on this period, when young LGBTQ people from all over the country began to find each other, build communities, and – drawing on other social movements at the time, like the civil rights movement – began to build political identities and political responses to institutionalized homophobia and transphobia.

My book opens with one of my favorite quotes – by Audre Lorde, an incredible African American lesbian activist and writer. This is a quote that I read on the last day of class every semester that I teach my social movements class. It says, in part, “My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” It’s a call to action, a call to speak up even when it’s scary and difficult to do so. It’s a quote that has meant a lot to me since the moment I read it in college, and I want to pass it along to students. In my view, it provides a great point of introduction to the LGBTQ activism in the book – decades of activism that have been about becoming visible and breaking silence.

me something I don’t know about the history of the LGBTQ social movement.

The LGBTQ social movement in the U.S. began well before Stonewall. We are often taught that the Stonewall uprising against police brutality and repression that happened right in our neighborhood, in a West Village bar in the summer of 1969, was the starting point of the LGBTQ movement in the country, and really in the world. Stonewall was a new beginning, and marked a critical point of new development and organizational growth for the movement, but it was also the culmination of more than two decades of organizing before it. Also, the LGBTQ social movement in the U.S. was intersectional from the very beginning. There are politics of privilege and representation that tend to put white, gay, cisgender men front and center in the scholarship and public narrative about LGBTQ social movements. This does a disservice to the diversity of the movement from the very beginning. It also leaves out the fact that LGBTQ social movements learned from and, in many cases, grew out of other social movements of the time – especially movements for racial and gender justice.