Part One of the InterstateQ.com Pride Series.
The time before the Stonewall Riots in June 1969 are usually referred to as “Pre-Stonewall,” a time when being “out” as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person was not only rare, but dangerous for many. An openly LGBT person was hardly ever seen and the sight of one brave enough to openly, publicly challenge our society was few and far between.
Early Organizational Activism: Mattachines and Bilitis
Perhaps one of the first LGBT rights and activist organizations to form Pre-Stonewall was the Mattachine Society. The organization was founded in 1950 by Hay and a small group of friends. According to an article at Wikipedia (src), the organization “first met in Los Angeles, on November 11, 1950, with Harry, Rudi Gernreich, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, and Dale Jennings in attendance, but was not incorporated until 1954 when a different group assumed leadership positions.”
Soon after affiliate groups were started in several major American cities, including San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Denver, the District of Columbia, and Philadelphia. According to Wikipedia, “the primary goal of the society was to engender public acceptance of homosexuality — they wrote in their manifesto that homosexuals’ ‘physiological and psychological handicaps need be no deterrent in integrating 10 percent of the world’s population towards the constructive social progress of mankind.’”
In a 1976 interview with Jonathan Ned Katz, Hay was asked the origin of the name Mattachine. He mentioned the medieval-Renaissance French SociÃ©tÃ©s Joyeux:
“One masque group was known as the ‘SociÃ©tÃ© Mattachine.’ These societies, lifelong secret fraternities of unmarried townsmen who never performed in public unmasked, were dedicated to going out into the countryside and conducting dances and rituals during the Feast of Fools, at the Vernal Equinox. Sometimes these dance rituals, or masques, were peasant protests against oppression — with the maskers, in the people’s name, receiving the brunt of a given lord’s vicious retaliation. So we took the name Mattachine because we felt that we 1950s Gays were also a masked people, unknown and anonymous, who might become engaged in morale building and helping ourselves and others, through struggle, to move toward total redress and change.”
The Daughters of Bilitis, another early group, was the Mattachine Society’s counterpart specifically for lesbians. The group was formed in San Francisco in 1955. Like the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis published a magazine geared toward the particular community for which the organization was formed.
By the 1960s and 1970s, however, both groups would fade away. Affilated groups would split off and form their own independent organizations. The Mattachine Society became a target of claims that they were too traditional and not willing to go far enough to advance LGBT rights. The Daughters of Bilitis was accused of “siding with” the Mattachine Society instead of allying themselves with separatist feminist organizations formed in the 1970s.
Seeing an LGBT person openly and publicly challenge social institutions, organizations or local, state and national governments is nothing new to many people in 21st century America. In many locales across the nation, people know of local LGBT activists as well as national LGBT movements. Most, if not all, Americans have had at least some exposure to LGBT activism and advocacy and, at the very least, have heard of our movement for marriage equality.
In 1957, however, this was not the case. At least it wasn’t until Frank Kameny appeared on the scene. Kameny was born in 1925 to a middle-class, Jewish family in New York. He entered college at the age of 15, but did not finish his education until 1956 due to his service in World War II.
Kameny went to work in civil service for the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 and soon thereafter was arrested in a local cruising area for gay men in Washington, D.C. He was arrested on “moral charges,” although he was released and nothing ever came of it. Problems arose, however, when the incident was reported to an investigator in the Civil Service Commission. Kameny was fired from his job and in 1958 learned that he was barred from any and all future employment with the federal government.
According to PlanetOut’s Queer History section (src):
Kameny’s experience spurred him to militant activism. “My dismissal amounted to a declaration of war against me by the government,” Kameny later said. “And I tend not to lose my wars.”
Kameny went through a lengthy process of suing the government to get his job back, but all of his efforts and appeals failed, including an attempt to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. In March 1961, however, the high court rejected Kameny’s petition. “That ended the formal case,” he explained, “but not the battle. The time had come to fight collectively.”
Kameny and a friend established the Washington, D.C. branch of the Mattachine Society, a homophile group that had started 10 years earlier in Los Angeles. The first meeting of the D.C. chapter, held on November 15, 1961, drew about 12 men and women, who elected Kameny as the new group’s president.
Unlike many other gay leaders of the time, Kameny embraced direct action along the lines of the black civil rights movement. “The [gay] movement of those days was very unassertive, apologetic, and defensive,” Kameny noted. But he believed that gay people should fight a “down-to-earth, grass-roots, sometimes tooth-and-nail” battle.
Under Kameny’s leadership, the group charged to the forefront of the nascent gay rights movement. The D.C. chapter focused on trying to reform the government’s exclusionary policies toward homosexuals in federal employment and successfully lobbied the ACLU to take up the cause. They also organized the first gay demonstration of the White House in April 1965, in which a handful of gay men in suits and lesbians in dresses carried placards reading “First Class Treatment for Homosexuals” and “Civil Service Commission is Un-American.”
A few months later, the U.S Court of Appeals for the first time decided that the rejection of an application for federal employment on the grounds of “homosexual conduct” was “too vague.” The Civil Service Commission, the court ruled, failed to state “why that conduct related to occupational competence or fitness.” Dogged by a long line of similar court cases, the Civil Service Commission formally amended its anti-gay policy in 1975. After 18 years, Kameny was vindicated.
In 2006, Kameny was honored by the Human Rights Campaign at the National Dinner in Washington, DC. He received the National Capital Area Leadership Award:
LGBT History, Pre-1950s
The history of the LGBT community before 1950 is quite varied. Although there exists less activism and public challenges to a prejudiced and discriminatory society, LGBT people still made their through life, leaving their indelible mark on society and history.
Here are a few links for more reading:
- Lesbian Blues Singers, PlanetOut Queer History
- Marine Cooks & Stewards Union, PlanetOut Queer History
- Gay culture flourished in pre-Nazi Germany
This post is a part of InterstateQ.com Pride Series, exploring the history of the pre-Stonewall and modern LGBT Rights Movement and celebrating Pride Month in June 2007.