Frederick Douglass became the face of the black abolitionist movement.
A century later, Martin Luther King Jr. played that role in the civil rights movement. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem became the spokeswomen for the modern women’s movement.
Yet the gay rights movement, which is about to enter its fifth decade, has never had a such a leader despite making remarkable strides in a relatively short period of time.
Gay people have no national standard-bearer, no go-to sound-byte machine for the media. So when President Obama last week extended benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, there was no alpha gay leader to respond with the movement’s official voice, though some activists criticized the president for not going far enough.
Until 1973, homosexuality was classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Today, same-sex couples can marry in six states. How did a group that has been so successful over the last generation in countering cultural prejudice and winning civil rights make it so far without an obvious leader?
One explanation is that gay and lesbian activists learned early on that they could get along just fine without one. Even in the movement’s earliest days following the violent uprising at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village 40 years ago this week, no singular leader emerged. Some historians believe this is in part because it was — and still is — difficult for the average American to empathize with the struggles of gay people.
“The gay movement has always had a problem of achieving a dignity or a moral imperative that the black civil rights movement had, or the women’s rights movement claimed,” said Dudley Clendinen, who co-wrote the book “Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America” and now teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. “Because this movement is fundamentally about the right to be sexual, it’s hard for the larger public to see that as a moral issue,” he said.
By contrast, the moral authority that leaders like Dr. King, Ms. Friedan and Ms. Steinem could claim — and the fact that Americans did not look at them and imagine their sex lives — made it easier to build respectability with the public.
Another reason for the absence of a nationally prominent gay leader is the highly local nature of the movement. Unlike the civil rights and the feminist movements, the gay movement lacked a galvanizing national issue.
In the 1950s and 1960s, black activists pushed for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and asserted their rights in the courts in cases like Brown v. Board of Education. Feminists campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s.
“Betty and her group wanted to do it from a more top-down approach,” said Daniel Horowitz, a professor of American studies at Smith College who wrote a biography of Ms. Friedan. “You go to Washington and you lobby members of Congress. In fact, she talked explicitly about the N.A.A.C.P. as her model, and the N.A.A.C.P. had achieved its goals primarily through Supreme Court cases.”
Many gay activists pursued a different approach, focusing on issues pertinent to their local communities. Though he has achieved celebrity status of late, Harvey Milk was a mere San Francisco city supervisor, without much in the way of a national profile, when he was assassinated in 1978.
City councils and state legislatures are where domestic partnership laws and legislation extending anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians originated. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. And of the six states that now allow same-sex marriage, three — Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont — legalized the practice through a vote by the state legislature, without prodding by a court.
“The issues of gay rights are mainly state issues, so the focus for activism is going to be on the local level,” said David Eisenbach, a lecturer in history at Columbia University and the author of “Gay Power: An American Revolution.”
The shifting legal and political environment that has confronted the movement over the years has also made it difficult for a singular leader to emerge.
After the Stonewall uprising 40 years ago, the goal was to persuade society to stop treating gays and lesbians like social deviants.
That movement for equality was later overshadowed by efforts to combat AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s. And AIDS itself is a reason leaders were hard to come by. “AIDS wiped out a whole generation,” Mr. Eisenbach said. “What you have is a vacuum. And that still has not been filled.”
As the AIDS crisis was contained, gay activists shifted their focus in the late 1990s and early 2000s to laws about discrimination, hate crimes and domestic partnerships. Successes on those issues were due in large part to gay rights groups that rose up at the local level and learned to work with local lawmakers.
Until 2003, few even contemplated that gay couples would be able to marry. Then Massachusetts’ highest court ruled that gay couples had that right under the state’s Constitution, ushering in a whole new phase of the movement. Activists on the state and local levels were already well in place and found themselves positioned to wage the campaigns for same-sex marriage — as the recent successes in the Northeast have shown.“They see dispersal as a great thing, that it’s better not to have a concentration or too much attention overinvested in one individual,” said David J. Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has written about the civil rights and women’s rights movements.“The speed and breadth of change has been just breathtaking,” he added. “But it’s happened without a Martin Luther King.”