Protest poetry can be defined as a topical verse that aims to criticize and shed light on social and political events. Within the LGBTQIA+ community, poetry has long been a conduit to voice the struggles the queer community faces with the government, society, and with itself. As the former United States Poet Laureate W.S. Merwin asserted about protest poetry, “where injustice prevails (and where does it not?) a poet endowed with a form of conscience…has no choice but to name the wrong as truthfully as [they] can” (1963, p. 94). In that, poets within the LGBTQIA+ community have used their art to “name the wrong” and assert the queer community’s right not only to exist but also to be celebrated and live fully.
This 101 series will examine the protest movements of the LGBTQIA+ community in the United States, decade by decade, through the poets who, via their poetry, sought to give voice to their community and save lives. This series is divided into seven chapters:
Introduction to LGBTQIA+ protest poetry
1960’s More Than the Stonewall Uprising
1970’s Worthy of Exaltation and Celebration
1980’s AIDS and Targeting the Queer Community
1990’s Queer Studies and Theory
2000’s Limiting Rights and Hate Crimes
2010’s One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
Introduction to LGBTQIA+ protest poetry
The term 'queer,' when it still maintained the definitions of 'odd,' 'strange,' or 'weird,' and, at one point even 'sick' or 'unwell' (Merriam-Webster, n.d), was used to describe homosexuality as a slur. Since the 1980s, the LGBTQIA+ community has reclaimed 'queer' as an umbrella term for sexuality outside the heteronormative, and eventually gender outside of the cisgendered with a term like 'genderqueer' (McCann & Monaghan, 2020). In the decade following the community’s reclamation of the term 'queer,' scholars established queer studies and queer theory. Many critics make a distinction between 'queer poetry' and 'gay' or 'lesbian poetry,' though the greatest distinction between these forms of poetry is that “queer texts challenge and deconstruct the identity-based logic of fixed social categorization…” (Greene et al., 2012, p.1139), whereas gay and lesbian poetry is focused on identity or categorization. These differentiations would indicate that poetry by queer artists could be separated into the categories of gay, lesbian, or queer, and that 'queer poetry' is the only form of the three that challenges identity or social constructs such as gender or sexuality. Yet 'queer' is a type of identifier as well, just not one that is fixed, and poetry that communicates the experience of gayness or lesbianess is poetry that disputes social constructs such as heteronormativity and cisgenderedness. If anything, gay and lesbian poetry are subgenres of queer poetry.
Anti-gay laws in the U.S. date back as far as 1830, which was less than sixty years after the country’s founding. During these times, simply being an openly queer or trans artist producing works voicing any experience with queerness or transness was considered a radical act. Richard Meyer, an art historian and the co-author of Art & Queer Culture, observes that “making art about queer sexuality is itself a kind of protest - pushing the boundaries of what can be seen and imagined in the public sphere” (Smith, 2019, para. 4). When the very act of 'being' is illegal and policed, creating art that sheds light on what it is to be queer or trans reaches audiences both within the LGBTQIA+ community and outside it. Artistic representation creates a sense of belonging for queer and trans people while showing straight cis audiences that queer and trans people are people. Among the many queer poets the United States can count within their literary history; some of the earliest are Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, Elsa Gidlow, Angelina Weld Grimké, and H.D. Many of these poets wrote about their experiences, their loves, and what they found beautiful without questioning the social morality of it. In these early queer poems, such as Grimké’s “El Beso” (1909), gender is often excluded. Grimké writes:
Snare of the shine of your teeth,
Your provocative laughter,
The gloom of your hair;
Lure of you, eye and lip;
And madness, madness,
Tremulous, breathless, flaming,
The space of a sigh;
Pain, regret—your sobbing;
And again, quiet—the stars,
In the above poem of address, a poem that speaks directly to the subject, the speaker never addresses the gender of the subject. Yet, given that Grimké’s sexuality is known, in reading about the longing of the speaker and the exaltation of the subject’s body and features, the queerness of this poem can be inferred. The “madness,” the “regret,” and “pain” at the end of this encounter speak to the social and religious morality imposed on queerness. What begins with laughter ends in tears as the subject of this poem and the speaker surrender beneath the twilight. This sense of yearning, of thwarted ecstasy, is indicative of queer poems. Additionally, one could argue that the title of the poem "El Beso" ("The Kiss" in Spanish), gives the author a sense of hiding, speaking the truth in a language not widely spoken in the U.S. at the time.
These early queer poems were a form of protest as they illustrated queer love and released it into the public sphere. Poems like “El Beso” created an opportunity for other queer works to push even further against social and political mores, such as with Elsa Gidlow’s poetry collection On a Grey Thread, published just over a decade later. This work is often credited as being the first openly lesbian poetry collection in the U.S. (Poets.org, n.d.).
The goal of early queer poetry was simple: As such love was against the law, it was regarded as rebellious. Such poetry was exposure; this form of literature gave the queer community a place to recite their love as well as an audience to bear witness to it. Queer love poems are, in essence, expressing what two LGBTQIA+ protest slogans have been saying: ‘be gay, do crime’ and ‘We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it.’ Like these protest slogans, the aforementioned queer love poems are open and explicit about their love, and as the love in these poems goes against social norms, they are a form of protest. They challenge social constructs and, in doing so, challenge their readers.
Queer poetry of each successive decade has had different aims depending on the social and political sphere, with the root always being about voicing queer experiences. Yet, as the 20th century wore on and social and religious morality gained stronger footing in government, the LGBTQIA+ community was pushed and policed so far as being forced to push back in retaliation to protect their human rights. Consequently, the queer community evolved their protest poetry to go past merely exposing the reader to the basic concept of queer love; The poems would then also share the community´s experiences with queer pain, shame, and then eventually joy. This evolution of queer poetry is seen with Allen Ginsberg's famous poetry collection, Howl (1956) where Ginsberg draws on the queerness and style of 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman and situates it into his own era. From there, queer protest poetry further grew with the conflicts of the 1960's. In the 1960s, the tension that came just from existing as a queer or trans person came to a head with events such as the Reminder Day in Philadelphia, Compton’s Cafeteria Riots in San Francisco, and the Stonewall Riots in New York City.
Greene, R., Cushman, S., Cavanagh, C., Ramazani, J., Rouzer, P., Feinsod, H., Marno, D., & Slessarev, A. (Eds.). (2012). The Princeton encyclopedia of poetry and poetics: Fourth edition (STU-Student edition). Princeton University Press.
Grimké, A. W. (1909). El beso. Poets.org. Retrieved 03 June 2022, https://poets.org/poem/el-beso
McCann, H. & Monaghan, W. (2020). Queer theory now: From foundations to futures. Red Globe Press.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Queer. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved 03 June 2022, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/queer
Merwin, W. S. (1963). A checklist of the writings of William Stanley Merwin. The Princeton University Library Chronicle, 25(1), 94–104. https://doi.org/10.2307/26409626
Poets.org (n.d.). Elsa Gidlow: 1898-1986. Retrieved 03 June 2022,https://poets.org/poet/elsa-gidlow
Smith, M. (2019). 'A kind of protest': Richard Meyer on art & queer culture. Artspace.com, https://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/qa/a-kind-of-protest-richard-meyer-on-art-queer-culture-56034
Fig. 1: Campos, S. (2021). L.A. A Queer History. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://www.lamag.com/culturefiles/la-a-queer-history/
Fig. 2: Davies, D. (1968). Martha P. Johnson picketing Bellevue. [Photography]. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/17/nyregion/lgbtq-statues-new-york.html
Fig. 3: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division (1923). Angelina W. Grimké [Portrait]. Retrieved from: https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-1ecf-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Cover: McGrady, R. (2016). Stonewall Inn Pride Weekend 2016. [Photography]. Wikipedia. Retrieved from: