Queer Nation Is Founded

Driven by the success of the radical activist group ACT UP, and frustrated by what was believed to be the liberal, assimilationist focus of the lesbian and gay rights movement, a new queer rights protest group—Queer Nation—was formed by veteran political activists. Queer Nation had a simple, direct mandate: queer visibility.

Summary of Event

Queer Nation (QN) was formed for reasons more pragmatic than idealistic. Foremost among them was that ACT UP/New York, ACT UP;Queer Nation and another queer activist group, had an unwieldy agenda of social issues. QN, in part, was formed to help with this agenda. ACT UP had been drawing several hundreds of individuals to weekly meetings by 1990, its third year in existence. ACT UP’s success in achieving social change had sparked an influx of new members and, accordingly, a broader mandate. [kw]Queer Nation Is Founded (Mar. 20, 1990)
Queer Nation;founding of
Radicalism;Queer Nation
Political activism;Queer Nation
Assimilation;Queer Nation on
[c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 20, 1990: Queer Nation Is Founded[2010]
[c]Civil rights;Mar. 20, 1990: Queer Nation Is Founded[2010]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 20, 1990: Queer Nation Is Founded[2010]
[c]Marches, protests, and riots;Mar. 20, 1990: Queer Nation Is Founded[2010]
Klein, Alan
Soehnlein, Karl
Signorile, Michelangelo
Blewitt, Tom

Originally formed by gays and lesbians, ACT UP had once effortlessly tackled gay and lesbian politics as well as HIV-AIDS concerns. As the epidemic’s demographics changed, however, so did the makeup of ACT UP. New members called for activist muscle to be thrown behind different crises, including HIV in prisons; infection among heterosexual women, blacks, and Latinos; and needle exchange. What became an occasional request from the floor for protests for gay and lesbian rights was facing growing resistance.

Four longtime ACT UP members—Alan Klein, Karl Soehnlein, Michelangelo Signorile, and Tom Blewitt—were concerned about what they considered a deadlock and began meeting privately. They felt that a number of problems germane to gays and lesbians were going unchallenged, including a leap in gay-bashing incidents in New York City and around the United States; a rash of homophobic rap lyrics by hip-hop singers; and a 60 Minutes television commentary by Andy Rooney, who explained without apology how gay people made him feel uneasy. QN’s organizers felt that tackling these issues required direct-action tactics that were of a caliber like that of ACT UP. A new group would have to be formed. On March 20, 1990, sixty people attended a meeting at the New York City Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center, also the birthplace of ACT UP. Many who showed up at this first public meeting were ACT UP veterans who had become “burned out” and no longer attended weekly meetings.

Mindful of the bureaucracy that had been dogging ACT UP, many demanded that the new group be untethered by majority votes or consensus. Some even disdained a name for the new venture. The bid for anarchy was soon forgotten, though, and the group was dubbed Queer Nation. Its simple mandate was a commitment to queer visibility. Drawing from the lessons of ACT UP, from others fighting for civil rights, and from its savvy talent for eyecatching graphics, new group members groomed QN’s look from the start: Members wore black T-shirts with a huge yellow Q and the message “Get used to it!” This was shorthand for the group’s rallying cry, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it!”

By mid-April of 1990, QN had a battery of tactics. “Nights Out” involved “invasions” of straight hangouts throughout Manhattan. The Queer Shopping Network distributed progay and pro-lesbian pamphlets at exurban malls. This edgy mix of politics and camp humor was reminiscent of the early days of ACT UP/New York.

QN’s early main focus was on the rise in gay bashing. Antigay violence;Queer Nation and The group was galvanized in its first month when a pipe bomb exploded at Uncle Charlie’s Downtown, a West Village gay bar in New York City, injuring three people. The next evening, QN mobilized one thousand protesters to demand a full police investigation. (Years later, it was determined that the bar blast had been committed by a faction of the terrorist group al-Qaeda.) QN also marched on politicians who opposed a state antibias bill, which lingered for years because conservatives refused to honor the clause protecting sexual orientation.

In June of 1990, QN held a march in Manhattan against antiqueer violence, which drew fifteen hundred people. Marching from the West Village to the East Village, the group demanded local police and state government action to stop the increase in bias-motivated attacks. QN’s greatest contribution to the war on gay bashing occurred later that summer. After a Latino man from Queens was beaten to death in a Jackson Heights schoolyard, police wanted to write it off as a drug deal gone wrong, but QN, working with the New York City Lesbian & Gay Anti-Violence Project, brought the murder of Julio Rivera to national prominence, forcing an investigation that resulted in convictions for three men who lured Rivera to his death with the promise of sex.

QN commanded extensive media attention from the start, especially from reporters who had initially ignored ACT UP and then scrambled when the group rose to prominence. Several members of the group appeared on the cover of the Village Voice, a weekly alternative newspaper, and became the focus of a feature story by Guy Trebay that chronicled the group’s urban exploits. Much was made of the group’s name, a co-opting of an old epithet that rankled both queers and straight people. By summer, QN chapters were thriving in Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Montreal.

By the middle of 1991, the energy of QN had inexplicably faltered. Weekly meetings, which once drew two hundred people, were attracting just one-tenth that number. The four founders had backed off from the group around this time, pleading exhaustion. QN groups in other cities also reported “battlefatigue.” By 1993, the founding organization had morphed into a weekly encounter group for cross-dressers and transsexuals, before it disbanded.


Queer Nation’s shock troops popularized the postmodern queer aesthetic that began with ACT UP. Masculine gay boys, femme lesbians, and punkish, tattooed hybrids of each—wearing protest T-shirts, decals, and buttons—became the new standard for the queer “look.” Within five years, straight suburban kids would co-opt the earrings and tattoos of QN.

While it had a relatively short existence, QN thrived at a time when queer cultural tropes became a part of the mainstream; more queer-themed books, films, and TV shows had found their way to the nonqueer world. QN energized mainstream queer rights groups, such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which became more aggressive in the wake of QN. QN also inspired queer student activism on college and university campuses around the country. Furthermore, the founding chapter of QN spun off two contingents: the Lesbian Avengers and The Pink Panthers. The Pink Panthers patrolled queer neighborhoods nightly to discourage bias attacks.

How will QN be remembered? The answer came to light in 2003 at a New York University seminar. Academics explained how the establishment of the group fit into a continuum of sexual identity politics. However, QN cofounder Alan Klein was on the panel, and he offered the nuts-and-bolts reason for its creation. Queer Nation;founding of
Radicalism;Queer Nation
Political activism;Queer Nation
Assimilation;Queer Nation on

Further Reading

  • Berlant, Lauren, and Elizabeth Freeman. “Queer Nationality.” boundary 2 19, no. 1 (Spring, 1992): 149-180.
  • Bérubé, Allan, and Jeffrey Escoffier. “Queer/Nation.” OutLook (Winter, 1991): 12-23.
  • Cunningham, Michael. “If You’re Queer and You’re Not Angry in 1992, You’re Not Paying Attention.” Mother Jones (May/June, 1992): 60-68.
  • Duggan, Lisa. “Making It Perfectly Queer.” In Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture, edited by Lisa Duggan and Nan Hunter. New York: Routledge, 1995.
  • Signorile, Michelangelo. Queer in America: Sex, the Media, and the Closets of Power. New York: Random House, 1993.
  • Trebay, Guy. “In Your Face.” Village Voice, August 14, 1990.
  • Warner, Michael, ed. Fear of a Queer Planet: Queer Politics and Social Theory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

July 31, 1969: Gay Liberation Front Is Formed

May 1, 1970: Radicalesbians Issues “The Woman Identified Woman” Manifesto

June 28, 1970: First Lesbian and Gay Pride March in the United States

March 5, 1974: Antigay and Antilesbian Organizations Begin to Form

October 12-15, 1979: First March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights

March, 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded

1989: Act Up Paris Is Founded

December 10, 1989: ACT UP Protests at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

September 29, 1991: California Governor Wilson Vetoes Antidiscrimination Bill

1992: Transgender Nation Holds Its First Protest

April 24, 1993: First Dyke March Is Held in Washington, D.C.