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Why 1960s gay rebellions had to erupt ‘from below’

Lavender & red, part 60

Published Apr 21, 2006 11:33 PM

The 1960s rebellions that erupted in response to police raids on gay/trans bars, culminating in the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, were not led or supported by the national gay and lesbian organizations. The politics of these primarily white, middle-class organizations—Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis—had kept them from uniting with the most oppressed.

Leaders from both Mattachine and DOB, in their appeal to the establishment for rights, had stressed the need to adhere to manners of dress and gender behavior. The dress code enforced by both organizations excluded gender-variant lesbians and gay men, drawing to their ranks instead those who could “fit in.”

Those whose gender expression could not conform were drawn to the social strength of community found in the gay/lesbian bars. As a result, the bars were often difficult to categorize as gay/lesbian as distinct from drag (transgender, in today’s language) bars, since those who were gender-variant as well as same-sex-loving forged social alliances there. In an era of overall racist segregation, the bars were often integrated—Black, Latin@, Native and white—in some cities, as well.

The leaderships of both Mattachine and DOB blamed the dress and behavior and social visibility of cross-dressing butch lesbians and drag queens in the working-class bar crowd for drawing violent police raids.

The same political approach that kept Mattachine and DOB from defending the most oppressed ended up dividing them from each other as well. Some of the Mattachine men blamed the lesbians for being “splitters” by forming their own organization. This argument ignored the additional burden that lesbians face as women. It also let the men off their own hook for struggling against sexism.

On the other hand, rather than uniting with the men to confront police brutality head on, some of the DOB leadership blamed the gay men in Mattachine for getting arrested while having sex outside their homes.

Ken Burns, who rose to president of Mattachine on a wave of anti-communism, argued that “we must blame ourselves for much of our plight. When will the homosexual ever realize that social reform, to be effective, must be preceded by personal reform?”

Editorials in the Ladder—the widely circulated DOB newsletter—denounced lesbians who wore pants and short haircuts, advising them to do “a little ‘policing’ on their own.”

Class struggle

Lesbian library worker Barbara Gittings, who founded the first East Coast DOB chapter in Manhattan in 1958 and who edited the Ladder for three years, talked to historian Jonathan Katz in a 1974 interview about the DOB drive to “fit in.” Gittings represented a left current in DOB and she later headed the Task Force on Gay Liberation of the American Library Association.

Gittings recalled, “Appearance and behavior were very important. We needed the acceptance of society, we thought, so we geared ourselves to getting it. There was an incident at an early Daughters of Bilitis national convention (in Los Angeles, I think), where a woman who had been living pretty much as a transvestite most of her life was persuaded, for the purposes of attending that convention, to don female garb, to deck herself out in as ‘feminine’ a manner as she could, given that female clothes were totally alien to her.

“Everybody rejoiced over this as though some great victory had been accomplished—the ‘feminizing’ of this woman. Today we would be horrified at anyone who thought this kind of evangelism had a legitimate purpose. Yet at the time, I remember, I joined in the rejoicing. At the same time there was some kind of mental reservation in me; I felt there was something grotesque about this women’s trying to look ‘normal’ for the purposes of appearances at this convention.”

Both Mattachine and DOB argued that the dress code created safe space for gay men and lesbians since cross-dressing was against the law. Of course, so was same-sex love. Trying to distance themselves from gender-variance did not protect the organization from the state. Lillian Faderman noted in her book “Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers” that police informants had infiltrated DOB during the Cold War and were channeling the names of the group’s membership to the FBI and CIA.

In reality, the demand to adhere to gender conformity was just one expression of a class struggle within what was to become the modern lesbian, gay, bi and trans (LGBT) movement. The dress code itself revealed the distance between the needs and demands of the working class and most oppressed sectors of the LGBT population and those of the middle class. Historian John D’Emilio noted, “DOB took special pains to dissociate most lesbians from patrons of the bars. Gay women ‘aren’t bar hoppers,’ one officer declared, ‘but people with steady jobs, most of them good positions.’ ”

In addition, this call to “fit in” laid bare that the leadership of DOB and Mattachine looked to the rulers of society to lead them to their well-deserved rights, not to the ruled.

However, letters to the editor of the Ladder revealed that not everyone agreed with the political approach of scapegoating those who fell outside the organization’s dress code.

For example, African-American playwright Lorraine Hansberry—author of “Raisin in the Sun”—wrote several letters to the Ladder. She called for an end to the “lecturing … about how to appear acceptable to the dominant social group. … One is oppressed or discriminated against because one is different, not ‘wrong’ or ‘bad.’ ”

Next: Mexico City 1968—lesbian and gay youth voice own demands while helping lead militant student struggle.

lfeinberg@workers.org