Gay Rights in America: A Legacy of Exclusion

Are You Too Queer for this Club?

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Photo by Nathana Rebouças on Unsplash

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.

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The Mattachine Society 4th Annual Convention Program

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.

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The Ladder, publication of Daughters of Bilitis

Respectability Politics

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.

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Annual Reminder Parade Philadelphia, July 4, 1965

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.


Transgender data scientist and parent to two children.

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