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Before Stonewall, we were defined by religion as sinners, by law as criminals, by medicine as sick. It was only with the advent of the gay liberation movement that we came together to define ourselves and to oppose those institutions which oppressed us for centuries.

During the powerful reign of the Christian church, many lesbians and gays took refuge in convents and monasteries, in some cases finding some opportunities to express our love with others of the same sex, at other times continually tortured by authorities and our own fear for the feelings we concealed in shame. As outcasts in an increasingly urban, industrial society, we found some solace hanging out with others shunned by the secular establishment: itinerants, bohemians, gamblers, prostitutes, alcoholics, drug addicts, petty thieves. And when psychiatrists not only labeled us as sick but promised to cure us, we endured agonizing years of psychotherapy, indulging our guilty pleasures from time to time, only to return to our torturers with new determination to change and forsake that part of us that was true to our being.

Yet in a quarter of a century, much of that hurt look has been erased from our faces. While the wariness is not entirely absent, a lot of sadness has been replaced by a new sense of pride. The world did not suddenly change, nor did those who despise and fear us graciously open their arms to welcome us. It is we ourselves who changed, challenged the prejudices of others, and demanded that institutions end their homophobic practices.

Marches, demonstrations, speeches, confrontations, arguments, meetings, books, films, etc have focused attention on our existence and the fairness of our struggle. Our increased visibility encouraged more women and men to come out. It also fueled hate groups to oppose us with greater vigor. But visibility alone does not wipe out the years of self-hatred we inherited from the hostile world we grew up in. The attitudes of our parents and teachers, the remarks of our peers are constantly repeated and reinforced throughout the society in which we live. So how do we escape this negative social conditioning?

Conscious-raising groups were at the heart of Gay Liberation Front. More than any other activity, they provided the foundation which supported the public actions we engaged in. They were instrumental in breaking down the feelings of isolation and alienation we all shared, allowing many of us to see what we had in common and how we were different from one another. Not from an intellectual or abstractly political perspective, but in a very basic, personal, and emotional way.

I was already out in the gay world for a decade when I joined a GLF CR group. There were about a dozen men at our first meeting, a somewhat unwieldy number which made the session unnecessarily long and difficult to concentrate on in an alert and attentive manner. Despite these trying circumstances, it was an incredible experience for me listening to the coming-out stories of all the men there and telling them my own coming-out story. Some had their first homosexual experience much earlier than I did and a couple were just in the process of exploring their sexual feelings.

We were instructed at the start to avoid generalizations, commentary, analysis while taking turns giving testimony. It was not until each of us told our story that we reflected on the meaning of those experiences. The conflict between our feelings and the attitudes of society. What we must do to be true to ourselves as gay men.

The group stabilized within a couple of weeks to eight regular members who met each Tuesday night. Those of us who could each took turns hosting the group in our apartment. Each evening was devoted to a different topic. After talking about our initial homosexual experience, other topics we dealt with included our mothers, our fathers, school, church/temple, job situations. We met faithfully for several months, and when that first group ended I joined another group to repeat the process, encourage others doing it for the first time, and to broaden my own understanding of the internal drives and external forces at play. I participated in half a dozen CR groups over a three-year period.

I believe consciousness-raising groups were the single most valuable aspect of my involvement in Gay Liberation Front. They provided me with a strong emotional grounding for my subsequent work as a gay activist and gave me the strength to affirm my identity as a gay person even now. The reestablishment of CR groups would help women and men today as they did a generation ago. Even though it is easier for young people to identify as gay or lesbian, the journey of self- and group- discovery which such a group provides is invaluable. Visibility alone has not eliminated the internalized homophobia, which I believe is our deadliest enemy.

copyright © 1995 by N. A. Diaman

CR Group Basics

The basic guidelines for forming a lesbian/gay consciousness-raising group are fairly simple. A good size for a group is between five to nine individuals committed to meeting regularly for about threes hour each week. Participants who can take turns hosting the group so that it moves from one person's home to another.

A topic is chosen by the group for each session. Each CR group I was in began with Coming-out. Possibilities for other sessions include: mother, father, brothers/sisters, school, religion, work, cruising, sexual relationships, likes and dislikes about lesbians (if a woman)/gays (if a man), relating to heterosexuals, lover fantasies.

Each person takes a turn giving personal testimony uninterrupted except for clarification. This testimony involves telling about one's personal experience without straying to generalize or intellectualize. How did we feel then and how do we feel now? There is a balance between giving enough details without rambling and being concise enough while avoiding superficiality. Depending on the group size, perhaps 15 or 20 minutes per person would be adequate time.

After testimony is completed by all, the similarities and differences can be compared. Reflections, generalizations, analysis, the exploration of meaning is appropriate at this time. And finally an opportunity to comment on the process itself, what was good or bad about it, and how it might be improved in the future. Some groups like to propose the topic for the following week before breaking up.

copyright © 1995 by N. A. Diaman