J. Todd Ormsbee, Ph.D.
Lecturer, Dept. of Sociology
University of San Francisco

Effective Freedom, Self-Realization, and Democratic Community:  Some Considerations for the Future of Gay and Lesbian Community Building

ABSTRACT:  In light of the dramatic social changes of the past 30 years, the gay and lesbian movement has arrived at a crossroads where it must decide the direction for the coming years.  John Dewey's ethical normative of "self-realization," his conception of the individual's relationship to a community, and his argument for the community's vital function in enabling self-realization together serve as a foundation upon which contemporary gay and lesbian activists should base their discussions about the future of their movement and communities.  Keeping the formation of a democratic community as an end-in-view would provide a context within which gay men and lesbians could achieve a kind of freedom—an effective freedom, as Dewey called it—that they have heretofore been unable to achieve as sexual minorities.

More than 65 years after the organization of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles by a rag tag group of disaffected communists, gay men and women still struggle not only for political recognition and equality, but also for meaning and fulfillment in their lives as sexual minorities in the United States.  Their experiences vary from region to region, and across all the markers of American diversity—race, ethnicity, religion, class, ability, and gender identity.  In today's America, where homosexuals find a quasi-acceptance, the future of their communities, organizations, movements, and individual freedoms and identities remains uncertain.  The difficulty lies in determining what a gay liberation should actually look like and whether it is simply an issue of individual freedom to choose one's sexual partners or if it is something deeper than that.  The difficulty is anchored in the late 1960s, when Gay Libbers emerged out of the "radical" social politics of the times with critiques of what they saw as the conciliatory or assimilationist politics of their political forbears.  Unfortunately, from this political tension emerged an overly stark split between "liberal" and "radical" queer politics, each of which had its own conception of freedom and liberation.  In brief, the "liberal" side was supposed to want mere procedural, civil-rights access to the system as it was, that is, free and equal access to the public sphere as any citizen would have.  On the other hand, the "radical" side was supposed to be about overturning and reorganizing the deep structures of the society that produced inequality and oppression in the first place, namely that social concepts of "gay" and "straight" constrained sexual expression and must be overthrown. 

Of course, careful analyses both of the gay cultures at the time and of their political strategies and practices reveal a myriad of contradictory and often incoherent theories of "freedom" and the meaning of "liberation." What comes out of a study of gay folk's actual experiences and the cultures they created at the around 1969 is not a bifurcated political culture, but a highly nuanced and conflicted political culture, where individuals moved in between and around different meanings, strategies, ends, means, and values as they positioned themselves according to their experiences to maximize their comfort with themselves as gay men and lesbians in a highly conflicted gay community, and in a city, state, and nation that sought to exclude them from American society and to suppress their sexual and cultural practices.  Importantly, the same is true today; gay men and women are experiencing a particular moment in American history, and are producing concomitant theories of Freedom and liberation.  Unfortunately, their discussions seem to be mired in the old, bifurcated model that came out of the 1960s movement.  To take "freedom" and locate it in particular concerns and contexts requires that it be seen as an "end-in-view", in the basic Deweyan sense.  Freedom can never be fastened permanently to either a Civil Right or an overturning of the "heterosexist regime," simply because the cultural, social, and environmental contexts are always shifting.  It is time to look again at what freedom and liberation should mean for gay people living in today's America.  To this end, I will be bouncing back and forth with the late 1960s, to see the context wherein this original bifurcation took place and then bring the idea of sexual freedom into a theoretical space that insists on the openness and contingency of freedom through time for today's gay and lesbian politics. 

In Freedom and Culture [1939], Dewey argued that human nature, whatever it may be, can never serve as an appropriate guide for creating social policy, as in the way many gay libbers posited an essential "bisexuality" as the justification for their politics.  Instead, for Dewey, the consequences of social interaction, the kinds of human behaviors that are enabled or foreclosed within specific contexts, are the appropriate object of our evaluation.[1]  For Dewey, the purpose of democracy is to give a freer play to human nature than any other social system (96), and he transfers our attention to seeing the problems of freedom and democracy as moral problems, as issues of normatives and shoulds.  Dewey argues for what he calls a "humanism," a faith in human potential as a grounding value in evaluating culture and by extension social interaction.  "Find out how all the constituents of our existing culture are operating and then see to it that whenever and wherever needed they be modified in order that their workings may release and fulfill the possibilities of human nature" (98).  For gay men and women, this means a critical evaluation of their experience of American culture and democracy and a consideration of what they need to do to maximize the possibilities of the realization of their "nature" whatever that may be. 

A brief exploration of recent gay history illustrates the particular dynamics that today's gay men and women may need to consider in rethinking their liberation.  During the 1960s, homosexuals experienced American culture as domination, as an intrusive and oppressive force outside their immediate control.  The material side of this domination took the obvious, in-your-face forms of police raids and entrapment, exclusion from meaningful social interactions such as family and church, and at its worst, incarceration and institutionalization.  But there was also an internal, affective experience of domination, which arose from the continual stream of official information about homosexuality circulating in the American culture at the time, especially from the medical and psychiatric professions.  Prior to World War II, the official medical, scientific, political, religious, and legal discourses concerning sexual behaviors and desires had worked primarily to make homosexuality intelligible to a heterosexual culture and to thereby render it containable and non-threatening to the heterosexual order; it did little to help gay men and women to understand themselves, their actual experiences of sexual desire and the necessity of managing a stigmatized part of themselves in all social interactions where they could be suspect.

The production of this kind of knowledge about sexuality continued after World War II, growing more intense and restrictive as the culture of the United States tightened at the onset of the Cold War. This flow of information served to produce dominant meanings ascribed to homosexuality, meanings produced from the outside by non-homosexuals with particular effective ends, namely the containment of a "social disease." Starting in the late 1940s, some gay men had begun to leave traces of their first-hand experiences of their own sex and desire and, more importantly, of their struggles against these dominating official discourses.  By the early 1960s, gay men in San Francisco were actively engaged in a cultural battle for the ability to define the meaning of their own sexual desires, behaviors, relationships, and communities.  Their accounts of what it was like to be "gay" during the period reveal no easy—and certainly no causal—relationship between the disciplining medical, sexological, and legal discourses of sexual pathology and their gay lives.  Rather, gay men and women were seeking self-consciously to understand their sexual desires and behaviors, generating new knowledge about their gayness for themselves, making it intelligible to a gay audience in ways commensurate with their own experience of their desires and behaviors.  This new knowledge ran counter to the official discourses of the heterosexual order, so they had to work hard to create a cognitive space that would nurture their own meanings of homosexuality and that would support their emerging gay communities.

During the 1960s, medical discourses and religious discourses, which had long since affirmed the immorality of homosexuality, served to justify and enable the coercive state and interpersonal interventions into gay folk's lives.  The direct violence of both official and unofficial agents of the public sphere added a physical dimension to the domination of the heterosexual order and effected its internalization within gay men and women, who self-surveilled in order to avoid the consequences of their sexual difference.  Thus, gay men and women came to experience the dominant meanings of homosexuality in their bodies, rendering the experience personal, internal, emotional, and cognitive. The dominant meanings of homosexuality had the power to discipline not only gay men's behaviors, but also their feelings and self-perceptions. 

Paradoxically, such lived experiences ultimately gave them the power to resist and refuse those same discourses and to create something else.  As gay men began to see themselves and their sexuality as a moral Good, they had to do so against the weight of dominant cultural meanings.  Thus, gay men and women fought a battle not only for political recognition, but for the power to create their own meanings for their own sexuality as they experienced it.  But this project required a constant vigilance against a symbolic order that sought to wipe them out.  In other words, overcoming the kind of symbolic violence perpetrated by medical, religious, legal, and pop cultural discourses took a lot of work.

From the experiences of gay folks in the 1960s, two things emerge.  First, the experience of domination pushed them toward a struggle for what they called "freedom," neither an abstract nor a purely procedural form of freedom, but a specific freedom that would release them from the imposed control of their bodies, feelings, and perceptions.  And secondly, and most importantly for my argument here, the primary enabling factor was that they were in communication with each other.  To say it differently, the particular forms of gay community that were emerging in the 1960s allowed gay men and women to come together in contexts other than bars and drag shows, where they talked about their experiences and strategized how to express and consummate those desires in a context hostile to their very existence.  I do not mean to imply that there was any sort of consensus; in fact, my research reveals that gay men and women rarely agreed on anything and that their diversity of experiences and their positions in American culture produced varied and often contradictory desires for what they wanted "freedom" to be.  My point here is that they had created a social space, political and communal, which allowed for that very dialogue to take place.  What emerged by 1972, at least in San Francisco, was a community marked by its contested boundaries and multiple and contradictory values, a community that allowed these contests to take place and indeed provided the social background for gay individuals to work out what the meanings of their sexuality would be.  These two conclusions from the past—that gay liberation consists of a particular kind of freedom and that it is effected in community—should be considered in the present, where, for example, the public battle for gay marriage has produced a significant backlash against full citizenship for queers in the United States.

In the 1960s, when homosexuals experienced American life as a pronounced lack of freedom, that lack is felt acutely in social terms.  They had been fighting harassment, intimidation, and repression, both official and unofficial, for years, and had come to realize that intimidation and social exclusion—causing another human being to fear the repercussions of expressing and consummating their desires—was the primary means whereby their freedom was denied at the deepest and most personal level.  Intimidation hits "at the core of a person's being.  It robs him of his freedom; the state of feeling free.  Intimidation is rooted in fear and executed in emasculation.  Freedom takes a little guts," wrote one man in 1970 (Vector Feb. 1970, 24).[2]  They concluded that this intimidation and their fear was deeply ingrained, going far beyond the harassment of the police.  Another man argued, "Homosexuals are in an especially vulnerable position, having been taught from childhood that they are without rights," so they had to actively assert that they had any rights to begin with.  "[H]omosexuality does not bear a direct relationship to an individual's human worth nor logically disqualify him from human rights" (Vanguard Feb. 1967). 

For a gay person in the 1960s, an assertion of rights was a claim to his or her own humanity.  By the early 1970s, "freedom" for a gay person had come to mean significantly more than freedom of the press or freedom of speech or the right to vote or go to church.  As with many oppressed groups, freedom was experienced as a personal, cultural, and social need.  Through their experiences, gay men learned that freedom meant most basically everyday things, like "jobs, homes, friends, social lives, safety, and security.  Here is our challenge to San Francisco:  Face reality—Face homosexuality" (Vector Sept. 1966, 2).  These statements of personal freedom grow stronger and stronger through the period, and went deeper into the psychological well-being of gays.  "We [homosexuals] all want to be truly free, ...free from our own guilt and fears. ...free to live as we will, and yet be able to live peacefully with those around us" (VR Aug. 1970, 27).  And by the time of the first Gay Pride celebration in San Francisco in 1972, freedom and rights had been inextricably linked to the right to be:  "[T]he homosexual has a moral right to be a homosexual and being a homosexual has a moral right not only to live his or her homosexuality fully, freely, openly, and with pride, but also has a right to do so free of arrogant and insolent pressures to convert to the prevailing heterosexuality" (VR June 1972).  Thus, the gay politics of recognition reworked the notion of freedom:  to be recognized by the public sphere had to be more than civil rights; it meant to live free of fear and intimidation, to be who one was freely without intervention or threat of intervention by the state or one's neighbors.  The key, here, is that these conclusions were drawn in community with other gay people; they did not emerge out of one person's musings, but out of a communal experience of activism and community building, planning, sharing, talking, performing, protesting, and even fucking.

So if, from their experience of being gay in the public sphere, those gay men who sought a gay publicity realized that their homosexuality could not, indeed must not, be separated from their humanity and thereby their rights, and if they also knew that the dominant culture both denied them basic humanity and rights, then freedom and rights came to be seen as things that must be achieved, fought for.  "Freedom must also be won, for ourselves, not granted by politicians" (Gay Sunshine may 1972, 7). The argument became that the individual and group had to decide to claim freedom in the face of intimidation by the dominant culture.  "Only we can change society. ... Demand and Get equal rights with heterosexuals" (Vector June 1967, 17). 

There began to be frequent insistence that gay men claim their freedom, regardless of the law and government.  "And in spite of all the fences and all the difficulties we will continue to love, to make love, to need whomever and whatever we must" (VG Feb. 1967).  Rather than hoping to transform the public sphere, many gay men began to think that claiming their rights meant acting as if they already had those rights, and doing so loudly and publicly.  "Our approach to social action shall be to act out our rights as legally as possible and letting society adjust to us" (VR Sept. 1966, 2).  Something in the experience of being a gay man and a citizen belied the flaws in the social constitution of citizenship.  The gay experience of citizenship in America gave rise to a homosexual demand for a new kind of citizenship, particular to their needs and lives, with rights connected to personal expression and fulfillment, what I will refer to here as freedom of personhood.

The experiences of gay men and women less than forty years ago point to something vitally important for consideration today.  Our experiences of freedom and liberation are intimately linked to our ability to work them out in community.  It is necessary to do so, indeed vital for contemporary queers to engage in these kinds of communal dialogues, for our context while similar, has greatly shifted.  Even as our society has taken a few steps back on the issue of recognizing same-sex relationships, the State of California has just made de facto gay marriages the law.  Murders of queer people are taken to court, younger people deal with their sexuality far earlier than could have been the norm 50 years ago, queers can congregate for the most part with little fear of disturbance, etc.  So what does "freedom" mean now?  What freedom might mean for an individual gay person in contemporary America could range from the freedom to marry to the freedom from marriage; the freedom to defy conventional gender or to embrace it; the freedom to live in a gay neighborhood or the freedom to avoid other gay people altogether.  But what of gay people as a group?  What might freedom look like?  I would like to suggest here that considering the dual lessons learned from the 1960s, gay freedom can only be continued through the continuation of gay communities, in some form or another. In Freedom and Culture, Dewey argued that "Individuals can find the security and protection that are prerequisites for freedom only in association with others.... The predicament is that individuality demands association to develop and sustain it and association requires arrangement and coordination of its elements...." (127).

A healthy, functioning community would need to serve the needs of its constituents now, in today's context.  For John Dewey, the ethic of self-realization—the ideal value for a democratic community—serves as one possible principle whereby a community could be morally evaluated.[3]  The ethic of self-realization, for Dewey, requires the realization of a community within which the individual can him- or herself be realized.  When gay men and women began to push outwards from their conceptions of a gay public in the early 1960s, they simultaneously expanded their expectations for gay community.  They soon found that a community which limited itself to political functions failed to satisfy most of their needs and desires, all that was lacking them as abject members of the larger American society.  Ethically, for Dewey, the individual finds self-realization as he or she strives for the realization of community.  If Dewey is right, "gay liberation" must consist of access to such a community or to the resources necessary to create and sustain such a community. 

Among gay men and lesbians, however, the notion of community was and continues to be hotly contested.  Some queers experience gay community as being as oppressive as the dominant culture; others find that a full experience of freedom only occurs within gay community; and still others, perhaps the majority, experience both of these at the same time.  The fact that gay men and women come from other more stable cultural communities, anchored in religion or ethnicity, deepens the sense that gay community is in some way inauthentic or made up.  Indeed, because gay communities are necessarily comprised of men and women who have other, perhaps more primary community affiliations, they are acutely aware of the socially constructed nature of community relations.  In the 1960s, I found that this produced in gay men and women an ambivalence about the value of creating and participating in a community of people based purely on their sexual and relational desires.  This ambivalence, interestingly, was often expressed simultaneously with a longing for communal belonging and acceptance from other gay folks. 

For Dewey, freedom must be an adjective, not a metaphysical quality; it must be an apt description of an actual circumstance and experience, never an abstracted ideal.  Freedom for gay men and lesbians would then become effective, or in other words, capable of creation and cause, within a particular social environment.  "'Since actual, that is, effective rights and demands are products of interactions, and are not found in the original and isolated constitutions of human nature, whether moral or psychological, mere elimination of obstructions is not enough.'"[4]  Thus, an effective freedom necessarily means a transformation of the social arrangements that would allow for gay men to act upon their individual matrix of desire for self-realization, or what Dewey called individuality. 

The social context within which individuation or self-realization might be possible for gay men and women would require access to the social goods necessary for such realization, and if Dewey is correct, access on some level to a community that would foster their individuation.  Thus, for Dewey, equality must be qualitative, not quantitative:  the value of a homosexual's individuality to the public sphere should be considered immeasurable and cannot be reduced to a structural equality.  A democratic community for Dewey would be a community of individuals striving to express their individuality to the best of their ability.  So equality must be an equality of access to the social and cultural tools and milieus necessary for the realization of the individual.[5]  In Ethics, Dewey argued that "Effective freedom also required as the condition of its exercise 'positive control of the resources necessary to carry purposes into effect, possession of the means to satisfy desires; and mental equipment with the trained powers of initiative and reflection required for free preference and for circumspect and far-seeing desires.'"[6]  Gay liberation, then, must mean more than simply being free from the obstacles that prevented gay men and women from meeting, having sex, or forming organizations.  Structural freedom maintains the possibility of a vast inequality of power. For Dewey, a true freedom would require access to the tools of "deliberation and invention" necessarily to consciously consider and choose appropriate means and ends to the satisfaction of personal desires within a communal context.

Gayness is inherently social, not just in its discursive content (although that may also be the case), but in its acting out, in its performance.  The meanings of gayness only arise socially in the actions of gay individuals with others, gay or otherwise.  Gay liberation must mean, then, access to a social environment in which associations with other individuals nurture sexual difference, where the social function of the individual is as a member of a community.  Effective freedom exists only in a social environment, a community affiliation, where individual difference can grow.  Paradoxically, individuality can only exist in a community context; and a community depends on the individuality of its members to flourish.  For Dewey, this was "associated living," and it was a social good, in the moral sense.  "Habits, customs, and social institutions were to be judged according to the degree to which they contributed to the 'development of a qualitative enhancement of associated living"[7]  For Dewey, then, a social practice was to be judged a moral good when it "'contributes positively to free intercourse, to unhampered exchange of ideas, to mutual respect and friendship and love—in short to those modes of behaving which make life richer and more worth living for everybody concerned; and conversely any custom or institution which impedes progress toward these goals is to be judged bad.'"  For gay liberation, this most obvious answer is the continued struggle to maintain a community wherein this "associate living" for gay men and women could continue.

In the United State today, it is unclear if a gay community will survive a banalization of sexual difference, as the American drive for conformity is still a powerful thread in American culture; perhaps emerging social forms will negate the need for a Gay Community, once and for all eliminating the "troubles" which brought gay men to a consciousness of their gayness and oppression in the first place, evoking their desires for something more for themselves.  But it is worth considering that the maintenance of a democratic gay community might be a worthwhile end-in-view in its function of providing the context wherein same-sex attracted men can debate and create meanings of their experiences in their difference.  It is unclear whether an environment without a gay community would be capable of providing the social milieu necessary for gay men to achieve a self-realization or individuation, in the Deweyan sense.  If history is an indicator, the answer is probably not; scholars are watching the social interaction with gayness in highly tolerant societies such as the Netherlands for answers. 

For Dewey, a community cannot meet its deepest potential unless it remains a face-to-face community with a physical location for interaction to occur.[8]  The depth and breadth of debate fostered by the gay community since World War II and the multitude of possible desires that arose out of gay men's and lesbian's interactions with each other are testament to the power of a community to proliferate the possible iterations of gayness and enable the expression and consummation of desires.  Considering the Deweyan conceptions of democracy, freedom, and community, this paper argues that the work of future gay community activists should lie in reformulating a community to answer the needs of gay men in a significantly less hostile environment, but one in which their sexual difference is still salient and central to their conceptions of self and fulfillment as individuals.  The gay community today should adopt as its end-in-view its own reformulation to more closely resembles the ideal of "democratic community" as Dewey saw it, where evaluations would be more carefully and appropriately directed and where diversity of individual realization could be accepted within a context of qualitative equality and effective freedom.  Such an end-in-view will allow the gay community to both adapt and change over time as contexts change and to meet the needs of gay people interacting with the larger, dominant culture and society as it waxes and wanes between more and less oppressive stances towards gay individuals and groups.

Works Cited and Consulted

John Dewey.  How We Think [1910].  New York: Dover Publications, 1997.

-----.  Human Nature and Conduct [1922].  New York: Dover Publications, 2002.

-----.  The Later Works, 1925-1953, Vols 2, 5, 13, and 11.  Edited by Jo Ann Boydston.  Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

James T. Kloppenberg.  Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Cornell West.  The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism.  Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

Robert B. Westbrook.  John Dewey and American Democracy.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

[1] John Dewey, Freedom and Culture [1939] (Prometheus Books: New York, 1989), 87-88.

[2] In quoting from gay periodicals, I will use a parnethetical quotation style.  All the magazines quoted here are from the San Francisco Bay Area, between 1961 and 1972, the period of my research.

[3] See Dewey, Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics.

[4] From "Philosophies of Freedom" quoted in Westbrook, 363.

[5] See Westbrook, 365 for a discussion of Dewey's notion of equality.

[6] Quoted in Westbrook, 165.

[7] Westbrook, 247.

[8] See Westbrook, 314, for a description of Dewey's notion of the role of community in the formation of new publics.