The resurgent culture wars of the 2020s have caught the LGBT movement by surprise. After what appeared to be a rapid and near-total victory in the preceding decade, the post-pandemic years have seen a series of controversies converging into a furor, as battles reminiscent of the 1990s erupt around school boards and libraries, and bills circulate through state legislatures that aim to restrict drag performances in the presence of minors. To interpret all this as a mere resurgence of old bigotries, as mainstream commentary often does, fails to account for why these issues have resurfaced in this form and at this time, rather than continuing to fade into irrelevance.

The answer has to do with the crucial metaphorical role that homosexual liberation has played throughout the ongoing sexual revolution, for supporters and foes alike. Over the past half-century, the West has placed sexual freedom at the core of personal, social, and civic self-realization. In this context, homosexuals have embodied the ideal liberated subject—the authentic self waiting to “come out” from under the repressive impositions of social mores. But as faith in this ideal has begun to waver, gays and lesbians have found themselves in the crossfire of proxy wars over the broader legacy of sexual emancipation. To make sense of—and perhaps escape—this predicament requires a rethinking of the history and purpose of the gay-rights movement, which has been plagued from the outset by unexamined contradictions.

An open, organized gay and lesbian movement first emerged in the United States in the wake of World War II, partly as a result of contacts and relationships formed in military service. The military’s policies of punishing, medicalizing, or discharging homosexuals from the service forced servicemembers to band together in mutual defense, bringing out into the open what had previously been an underground subculture and giving veterans a sense of shared identity and predicament. This new self-awareness began to translate into concerted organization in 1950, with the formation in Los Angeles of the first men’s “homophile” group, the Mattachine Society, whose founders included several war veterans; this was followed five years later by the founding of the Daughters of Bilitis, the first civil-rights organization for lesbians.