The debate about whether LGBT people should aim to be seen as "respectable" by mainstream society may seem like a new quarrel between older and younger generations but, according to historians, the fight is decades old.
The strategy of "respectability" has a deep history among Southern lesbians in particular, as they struggled to establish ways to live without interference from mainstream society. Historians tackled the topic at a recent panel at the American Historical Association Conference Jan. 5.
"The politics of respectability reconsidered" panel featured a conversation between historians on how southern lesbians have teetered the line of social acceptance in striving to be respected despite anti-gay bias.
Megan Shockley of Clemson University discussed lesbian motherhood in the South; Janet Allured of McNeese Sate University talked about fashion in feminist movements; and La Shonda Mims of the University of Georgia discussed lesbian bars in Atlanta.
The women in all three areas were often forced to choose between social acceptance and social change, said historians.
The contrast may have been especially sharp for feminists in the 1970s as moderate and radical feminists sparred on whether or not women should dress in traditionally feminine clothing in order to make other gains in society.
"For activists seeking respectability, it mattered immensely," said Allured. Many feminists dressed in traditionally-accepted women's clothing, while more radical feminists often wore pants. The contrast in fashion paralleled conflicting strategies in the push for women's rights.
However, race issues at the time often complicated the choice for lesbians to "be respectable." According to Mims, Atlanta's bar scene followed this trend, with lesbian bars that served racially-diverse crowds being viewed by White straight people as less respectable than mostly-White bars. White lesbians often followed suit, Mims said.
"For white lesbians, a nice place to go often meant a white place to go," Mims said.
In this way, the panel said, the idea of choosing to be "respectable" in order to make gains as a lesbian was often a flawed strategy.
Also, choosing to appear respectable may have had other consequences, said Shockley. When lesbian moms fought to keep their children by distancing themselves from gay-rights struggles, they may have inadvertently positioned gay rights as the opposite of respectable, contributing to anti-gay bias.
However, said Allured, those who chose "respectability" as a tactic often made gains in mainstream society not always achieved by more radical lesbians and feminists.
The bottom line, said speakers, is that the choice for Southern lesbians was never simple. Still, said historian Carolyn Herbst Lewis, the women in each instance shared a desire for respect.
"Whether they showed it or not, these women demanded to be treated as equal citizens," Lewis said.