Carl Wittmann’s Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto, written in 1969 and published in 1970, represents a milestone in the history of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Movement (LGBT). The document stemmed from a particular social and cultural background where aspirations toward equality and justice were constantly clashing with discrimination, marginalization, and harassment. This paper focuses on the historical context, through analyzing the coeval American society, highlighting the leading role played by the city of San Francisco and commenting on some of the key events that marked that epoch.
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Traditionally, San Francisco has always been at the forefront in contrasting the culturally approved norms of gender and sexuality. Episodes of cross-dressing, for example, were common already in the nineteenth century (Sears, 2015). In the 1950s, the West Coast became one of the pulsing centers of the counterculture, heralded in San Francisco by exponents of the Beat generation, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, the latter openly gay. During these years, gays began to develop social awareness and started to view themselves as a minority (Alwood, 2015). In 1950, the Mattachine Society was founded to promote the advancement of gay and lesbian people. At the turn of the decade, the whole country was undergoing a profound social change. The Civil Rights Movement led to the enactment of laws aimed at promoting equal rights among whites, blacks, and other minorities.
However, tolerance at a social level was not that evident and queer people lacked civil rights (McGraw, 2019). They could hardly find a job and could be fired at any time; they had no access to health care, could not marry or adopt children. The mainstream looked at them suspiciously; the law enforcement targets them with timely intolerance. It does not surprise those gays, lesbians, and transgender found themselves trapped within an endemic loop of poverty, incarceration, and victimization (Brady, 2015). Within this scenario, even San Francisco did not represent a safe harbor for the gay community. It was a sort of refugee camp for homosexuals because the outer was worst (Wittmann, 1970). In 1966, the community reacted to the umpteenth abuse by the police at Compton’s Cafeteria in the Tenderloin neighborhood. The riot started the season of gay activism in San Francisco, and the ideas of gay liberation thrived (Pasulka, 2015). Wittmann’s Manifesto mirrors this climate of tension and the aspirations of the gay community.
Wittmann offers a sharp criticism of the patriarchal and intrinsically intolerant society. He describes the oppression and the condition in the ghetto where they live, where mafia and corrupted law enforcement exploit gays and lesbians (Wittmann, 1970). The author discloses concepts about homosexuality, analyses the conditions of women, and opens new perspectives on how to live sexuality. Perhaps, the most significant contribution to the history of the LGBT movement is the invitation to come out and stop pretending to be straight sexually and socially (Wittmann, 1970). The call to come out was a big challenge, considering that sex between couples of the same sex was punishable and that homosexuality was still considered a mental illness (McGraw, 2019). From this perspective, the manifesto should be placed among the other movements that raised their voices against social injustice during the 1960s and 1970s, including Black Liberation, Indigenous Freedom Fighters, and Feminists among others.
Wittmann’s Manifesto is an iconic text within the movement for LGBT liberation. The document, published in the heyday of the gay activism of the 1960s and 1970s, offers a 360° perspective on the homosexual world. The author tried to make clarity on sexual orientation, roles, sex, and relationships among gays, lesbians, and transgenders with other liberation movements as well as with the mainstream society. Following the coeval libertarian esprit, the manifesto called the gay community for living their diversity openly and taking actions to improve the conditions of the LGBT community in the country.
- Alwood, E. (2015). The role of public relations in the Gay Rights Movement, 1950–1969, Journalism History, (41)1, 11-20. doi: 10.1080/00947679.2015.12059117
- Brady, J. (2015). Anti-transgender discrimination and oppression in New York City and San Francisco during the Gay Liberation Movement, 1965-1975. Senior Honors Projects, 2010-current, 73.
- McGraw, S. H. K. (2019). The gay liberation movement: Before and after Stonewall. New York, NY: The Rosen Publishing Group.
- Pasulka, N. (2015) Ladies in the streets: Before stonewall, transgender uprising changed lives. National Public Radio.
- Sears, C. (2015). Arresting dress: Cross-dressing, law, and fascination in nineteenth-century San Francisco. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.
- Wittmann, C. (1970). Refugees from Amerika: A gay manifesto. Web.