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In late 1971, two years after the Stonewall riots in New York sparked the modern gay rights movement in America, and twelve months before LIFE ceased publishing as a weekly, the magazine featured an article on “gay liberation” that, encountered more than 40 years later, feels sensational, measured and somehow endearingly, deeply square all at the same time.
Titled “Homosexuals in Revolt” and touted as “a major essay on America’s newest militants,” the piece elicited strong reactions from readers—many of whom, of course, were less than happy that their beloved LIFE would devote a dozen pages to people whom one letter writer characterized as “psychic cripples.” Largely predictable responses from peeved readers that appeared in the Jan. 28, 1972, issue of LIFE included:
But there were also letters from readers praising LIFE’s “accuracy, fairness and dignified tone,” and one from a woman in New Jersey, Jule Lee, who was (in her words) “one of the oldest lesbian activists—both in age and years of participation in the movement.” She was outraged, she wrote, not only because the “Homosexuals in Revolt” article focused on what she called “LIFE-made ‘leaders’ [who] do not represent me and my age group,” but also because “out of ten picture pages . . . lesbians are mentioned on two. If this isn’t a new high in male chauvinism, I don’t know what is!”
For its part, LIFE introduced its 1971 feature in language that certainly feels more “Us vs. Them” than what we might see in a similar article today, but it’s also language that, all these years later, has about it a sense of an older world trying—really trying—to get a handle on the new:
LIFE.com remembers the early days of a movement that, incredibly, in the second decade of the 21st century, still occasionally has cause to take to the streets.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.