Saturday, August 9, 2008

The Fabulous Fifties

Jack Nichols and Ted Richards in 1955
(Jack appears again 10 years later in the second photo from the bottom of this post)

The 1950s in the United States are remembered as a dark age by gays and lesbians, and rightly so. Cold War witch hunts specifically targeted gays and lesbians as "security risks" in government agencies, and in private businesses. There were other kinds of witch hunts targeting gay men in particular as threats to children. Gay ghettos appeared in major cities because landlords would frequently refuse leases to known (or suspected) homosexuals. In Connecticut, homosexuals were forbidden to have driver's licenses. In New York, it was illegal for bars to knowingly serve drinks to "sexual perverts." Gay bars were frequently raided (especially when they neglected to pay off the cops, and in election years) and in cities like New York, the bars were usually mob owned. It was common for "practicing" homosexuals to have police records in most of the country until well into the 1970s. Gays and lesbians risked their jobs, their homes, and their liberty constantly. The worst that could happen (and did happen more often than people think) was that a family member or a court could commit a gay man or a lesbian to a mental institution against their will. They were forcibly "treated" with drugs, hormone therapy, aversion therapy, shock treatment, and even castration. Atascadero State Hospital in California was the most notorious (known as the "gay Dachau"), but there were many other institutions just as bad if not worse.

But what is really remarkable about the 1950s is that in the face of all that, when gays and lesbians were thoroughly criminalized and pathologized and no politician would have anything to do with them, the push-back started. The first viable American gay political organizations and publications began in the darkest days of the McCarthy witch hunts. Here are some of them.

One, a publication begun by members of the Mattachine Society in 1953

This was the first magazine to tackle head on the issue of the legitimacy of same sex attraction, and to question both the criminalization and the medicalization of gay men. Their editorial stands were not always popular with their readers. The issue above was the most controversial of all.

A Mattachine Society Christmas Party, 1951 or 1952. The founders of the society: left to right; Dale Jennings (profile), Harry Hay, Rudy Gernreich, Stan Witt, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, and Paul Bernard

The Mattachine Society was founded in Los Angeles as an advocacy group for gay men. So much of their work was mutual aid; providing legal help for men caught up in bar raids, for example. But, the society did provide a forum for gay men to talk about their situation for the first time, and led some to question their circumstances very radically. There were independent chapters of the society in many cities where there were large populations of gay men. The vast majority of members wanted nothing more than to be left alone by the law. Many accepted the established diagnosis that they had a mental "illness," and wanted simply to have their condition decriminalized. Others, like Harry Hay in Los Angeles and Frank Kameny in Washington DC, openly and publicly embraced their homosexuality as "normal." Frank Kameny, a scientist working for the Defense Department, was the only government employee fired for "sexual perversion" to challenge his dismissal. Harry Hay, who had been sexually active and unapologetic about it since his teen years in the 1930s, was kicked out of the organization for his (then) radical views, and because of his former Communist Party membership. Ironically, Hay left the Communists because they refused to accept him as an unregenerate gay man.

The Daughters of Bilitis, A birthday party.

The Daughters of Bilitis began in San Francisco as an organization for lesbians. The organization was founded by a couple, Dell Martin and Phyllis Lyon. In many ways, it paralleled the Mattachine Society, though the 2 organizations were unaware of each other's existence for a long time. Like the Mattachine Society, most of the members wanted their status decriminalized, and mentally ill or not, they wanted to be accepted into conventional society. Also like the Mattachine Society, the members frequently appeared in public dressed as conservatively as possible. There was a great desire on the part of the members of both organizations to be seen to be as "normal" as possible in an uptight age that valued the unthreatening and conventional above all else.

The Ladder, magazine of The Daughters of Bilitis

The Ladder was probably the Daughters' greatest and most influential work, reaching hundreds of women out in the rest of the country, and connecting them with others like themselves for the first time. It was the first magazine for lesbians that was not a pulp novel, and encouraged them to think about their situation. The best thing that these magazines, The Ladder and One, did was to let isolated people know that they were not alone and to give them a certain measure of hope and courage.

Jack Nichols, Frank Kameny, and Lilli Vincenz among others picketing the White House in 1965

Four years before Stonewall, these activists began marching. This was an incredibly brave thing to do at the time that carried all kinds of risks. They were just a handful of people representing a very frightened and isolated constituency that still preferred the safety of invisibility. These were the first ones to go fully public and to declare themselves and reject the rotten hand of cards they had been dealt.

The big difference that Stonewall made was to turn this small group of isolated activists into a broadly popular movement. The Stonewall riots were the first spontaneous assertion of a power that these pioneers always knew was there.

I'm going to end this little crash course in gay history here because Stonewall, and so much of what happened after, is very well known and written about by greater minds than mine. I did this to remind people just how far back in time this "innovation" really goes. We started in Berlin in 1896 with Adolph Brand publishing Der Eigene. And now, this movement started by brave (and perhaps slightly crazy) loners is global in scope and affecting the expectations of people, gay and straight, around the world.

Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, 2005


it's margaret said...

Thank you for this. Thank you. Innovation--pah!!

Grandmère Mimi said...

Well, I certainly didn't know any of "those people" in the 50s. It's true. Gays and lesbians were there, of course, but they were deeply closeted where I lived at that time.

Thanks for the history, Counterlight. I go away enlightened.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

I have learned a great deal from your posts on this subject, Counterlight. Thanks!

Leonardo Ricardo said...

Wholeness sets in...isn't it something there is a certain "spirit" that in other circumstances might be considered nationalism or heart was touched by the various REAL life stories of REAL people like me/us.

Thank you, I feel like I attended a family reunion (a family where everyone loved one another)...something like being in the same room with all those I've loved and lost from the early 60's onward.