Gay Rights in America: A Legacy of Exclusion
In 1950, communist and labor organizer Harry Hay, along with a small group of friends, formed one of the first gay rights organizations in the United States. This organization, which would come to be known as the Mattachine Society (a reference to a group of medieval French maskers), grew to become a national network and earn its permanent place in gay rights history. The Society, based in Los Angeles, would spawn a newspaper, a sister organization to advocate for lesbian rights (the Daughters of Bilitis), as well as chapters around the US in San Francisco, New York, Washington D.C, and Chicago.
In its short but influential lifespan, the Mattachine Society would begin to challenge the police raids then common in the gay community, building up several successful legal strategies as well as a grass roots community organization. These strategies and networks would bear fruit years later at the Stonewall Riots. And yet, this organization conceived by communists in 1950s America and dedicated to the then-radical notion that gay people could be part of society, would come to be completely eclipsed by the movement it helped spawn. The Society ended its life being scorned as too respectable and an impediment to gay rights.
The Birth of a Movement
It may come as a surprise to discover the history of the gay rights movement in America begins before the Stonewall Riots in 1969. But while that riot, now well known to many Americans, did mark a turning point, its success at sparking a movement did not come out of nowhere.
In 1940s and ’50s America, the gay and lesbian community lived in a police state: subjected to constant surveillance, raids, and random police harassment, with little to no protections or rights in general. LGBTQIA+ identified people could be fired, have children taken away, leases voided, or have any number of rights revoked without much need for justification from a society which viewed them as deviant. In addition, they had almost no safe spaces to congregate without fear of raids. The medical community still classified homosexuality as a mental illness.
It was into this hostile environment that Harry Hay’s movement was born. First conceived of in 1948, the idea was refined over the next two years with Hay ultimately listing its three goals as
1. TO UNIFY — To provide a common place and culture for homosexuals
2. TO EDUCATE — To gather information on homosexuality for the group and the wider world
3. TO LEAD — To provide leadership to homosexual culture and to push for a change in the laws of the United States
Hay’s grand vision was to create a “highly ethical homosexual culture…paralleling the emerging cultures of our fellow minorities… the Negro, Mexican and Jewish Peoples”
Laying the Groundwork
At the time, the gay rights movement was known as the “homophile” movement and was composed of various loosely-knit groups. The Mattachine Society was one of the first — and certainly the longest lasting — of these groups. The name was a reference to the “Société Mattachine,” a group of masked French medieval performers who used their anonymity to present truth to power. Hays chose this name because he saw that “gays were a masked people, unknown and anonymous.” In 1952, the group had its first legal challenge when one of its members, Dale Jennings, was stalked and arrested by a police officer in a public park for “lewd behavior.” The typical response from the arrested person in cases such as this was to plead guilty in the hope of keeping the matter as quiet as possible. He would almost certainly lose his job, and possibly his family. In this case, the Society fought back. Jennings admitted in court to being a homosexual, but denied the specific accusation. In addition, the Society publicized the case and generated donations and interest. Ultimately, the jury deadlocked and from almost any perspective, the increase in awareness and financial donations amounted to a huge success for the Mattachine Society.
The Society grew and morphed, spreading across the United States, and began to form the network of activists, lawyers, professionals, and artists which would make up the backbone of the homophile movement. With the help of like-minded organizations, the Mattachine Society supported the formation of the Daughters of Bilitis, a society for lesbian rights. The Daughters had their own publication, The Ladder, and held meetings with similar goals to the Mattachine Society.
As its influence grew, the homophile movement in the United States went through inevitable growing pains, with factions rising and colliding. Hays and other founders dropped out of the Society as its focus moved more toward education and assimilation. Still, the homophile movement continued to achieve a level of success unthinkable in earlier decades. In 1965 the Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis, and other groups held an annual fundraising ball at the upscale California Hotel on Polk Street in San Francisco. Police attempted to shame partygoers as they entered by shining bright spotlights on them and taking photographs. When Society lawyers attempted to stop this obvious harassment, they were arrested. However, at trial, 25 of the city’s most prominent lawyers came to their defense, and the judge instructed the jury to throw out the case before the defense even had a chance to present their side. The homophile movement had achieved its crowning victory. To modern senses, this may not seem like a huge success, but this was the kind of victory Harry Hay outlined in his mission 15 years prior. Homosexuals had now achieved the very bare right to exist and congregate. Although the right was restricted to the mostly white, mostly upper-class professionals who could afford to attend a swanky fundraiser, it was a right nonetheless.
However, it is the limits of this victory — mainly for white, middle class, respectable members of society — which sealed the ultimate downfall of groups like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. As they pushed for Hay’s “highly ethical homosexual culture,” they excluded those who were unwilling or unable to meet this extremely narrow definition. There is no more apt example of this than the “Annual Reminder” picket, one of America’s first gay pride events held, as the name would suggest, annually on July 4 at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall beginning in 1965.
In stark contrast to many modern Pride parades, the Annual Reminder was a series of silent pickets. Men were required to wear suits and ties, women dresses and heels. The idea was to showcase the homosexual as “presentable and employable.” The name itself — Annual Reminder — was meant to politely “remind” heterosexual society that gay people exist and deserve rights. The pickets are at once radical in that nothing like them existed in America at that time, and deeply conservatively, heteronormative. There were only four Annual Reminders, with the final one occurring in 1969, less than a week after the Stonewall Riots which began on June 28 of that year. Many, particularly the younger activists, sensed the time for silent picketing was over.
Unfortunately, respectability politics was not destroyed by the first brick thrown at Stonewall. In a cruel irony, many of those who led that riot ended up being pushed out of the larger group. As the homophile movement of the 1950s and ’60s has grown to encompass ever more identities under the somewhat unwieldy LGBTQIA+ umbrella, there have always been those on the outside. Status and inclusion have tended to follow the typical American divisions of class and racial lines.
Legacy of the Mattachine
The Mattachine Society left behind a complex history of promise and contradiction. Sociologists Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Suzanna M. Crage note that Stonewall would not have become a national event without the work of the Mattachine Society and others like it. At once accepting and exclusionary, the Society laid the groundwork for the success of Stonewall at the same time it worked to keep out those it deemed not worthy. LGBTQIA+ rights would not be where they are today without its influence, for better or worse.
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