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Pre-Stonewall gay organizing

Impact of early Black civil rights struggle

Published Jun 21, 2005 10:58 PM

All five founders of Mattachine had at least some training in Marxism. Harry Hay, as a long-time teacher of the Marxist analysis of the development of society and the science of change, had the most theoretical experience. So rather than merely organizing to form an activist group, historian John D’Emilio points out, “The founders also brought to their planning meetings a concern for ideology that grew out of their leftist politics.”

And, D’Emilio adds, “the worldview of its adherents rested on an analysis of society that saw injustice as rooted in the social structure. Exploitation and oppression came not from simple prejudice or misinformation, but from deeply embedded structural relationships.” (”Making Trouble”)

D’Emilio explores the attempts by Mattachine founders to bring ideological clarity to the social condition of homosexuals in the 1950s United States. “The founders’ lack of an already developed analysis of the oppression of homosexuals forced them to generate one by scrutinizing the main source of information available to them—their own lives. Throughout the winter of 1951 the five men met frequently to share their personal histories.”

They talked about their isolation, loneliness and fear of being the only one in the world with such feelings; how they’d come out as gay men and found others like them.

D’Emilio explained, “Trying to make some collective sense out of their individual experiences, they posed such questions as: How did one become a homosexual? Were homosexuals sick as the medical profession claimed? Was it possible to overcome the isolation and invisibility of the gay population and organize homosexuals? Were homosexuals, perhaps, a minority group, or merely a conglomeration of individuals sharing nothing but a sexual orientation?”

From these discussions they gleaned their early analysis of the oppression of same-sex love.

Rowland: ‘What is our theory?’

Chuck Rowland, one of the original five founders of Mattachine, recalled, “We had been saying, ‘We’ll just have an organization.’ And I kept saying, ‘What is our theory?’ Having been a Communist, you’ve got to work with a theory. ‘What is our basic principle that we are building on?’

“And Harry said, ‘We are an oppressed cultural minority.’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly it!’ That was the first time I know of that gays were referred to as an oppressed cultural minority.” (“Making History”)

Rowland, with broad strokes, painted the outlines of two different political approaches. “But gay people didn’t want to be an oppressed cultural minority, ‘Why, we’re just like everybody else, except what we do in bed.’ They wanted to be like everybody else. But that isn’t true; we’re not like everybody else. I don’t think or feel like a heterosexual. My life was not like that of a heterosexual. I had emotional experiences that I could not have had as a heterosexual. My whole person, my whole being, my whole character, my whole life differed and differs from heterosexuals, not by what I do in bed. I believe there is a gay sensibility.

”When we tried to explain this to somebody, I would say, ‘There is a gay culture.’ People would say, ‘Gay culture? What do you mean? Do you actually think we’re more cultured than anybody else?’ I would explain that I was using ‘culture’ in the sociological sense, as a body of language, feelings, thinking, and experiences that we share in common. As we speak of a Mexican culture. As we speak of an American Indian culture. We had to say that gay culture was an emergent culture.”

Rowland continued, “The word gay itself is a marvelous example of what I mean by gay culture. You’ll get a lot of arguments about this. But I know that gay was being used back in the thirties, and we didn’t mean ‘merry’ or ‘festive.’ We meant ‘homosexual.’ This does not constitute a language in the sense that English is a language and French is a language, but it’s more comparable to Yiddish culture. A lot of people, Jews and non-Jews, used Yiddish words like schlep and meshuga. These words separate them culturally from my mother, for example, who would never have heard of such words.”

Hay himself tried to clarify what he meant by “gay culture.” He wrote, “The Homophile common psychological make-up manifests itself in a community of culture so phenomenologically remarkable that it transcends the mechanical barriers of formal language by creating an international behavioral language of its own, in addition to sharing the pedestrian language of each parental community. To be sure, the communities of culture differ in detail from one national community to another. But they are enough alike that no one need be a helpless stranger whatever the port of call.” (”Radically Gay”)

An expression of anti-racist solidarity

Today, these attempts by the early Mattachine founders to compare their situation to that of the Dine (Navajo) and Pueblo nations, Mexican culture and language, and the relationship of Japanese-Americans to Japan and of African Americans to Liberia may not seem very sensitive to those struggling for national liberation.

But in the 1950s these white men were anti-racists and anti-imperialists. They dedicated their lives to fighting all forms of oppression. Identifying themselves as a cultural minority was partly an attempt to express solidarity with those battling racism and anti-Semitism, as they stated clearly in their 1951 Missions and Purposes. They called African American, Mexican and Jewish people “our fellow minorities.”

The written prospectus that the Mattachine movement was built on, penned by Hay in 1948 and amended by him in 1950, began: “With full realization that encroaching [North] American Fascism, like unto previous impacts of International Fascism, seeks to bend unorganized and unpopular minorities into isolated fragments of social and emotional instability; ... in order to earn for ourselves any place in the sun, we must with perseverance and self-discipline work collectively ... for the first-class citizenship participation of Minorities everywhere, including ourselves … .” (”Radically Gay”)

Those white gays and lesbians who later argued against this early Mattachine concept of gays as a cultural minority often used the most vile racist language because they did not want to be identified with African American, Mexican and Jewish people.

Many cultures raising their voices

The idea that lesbians and gays are one “culture” or comparable to oppressed nations obscured the fact that the vast population these movement founders were trying to organize was made up of many cultures and nationalities.

In 1950, for example, Merton Bird, a Black gay man, and Dorr Legg, a white gay man, formed the “Knights of the Clock” group in Los Angeles. The organization brought together inter-racial gay and lesbian couples and their families. This support network was necessary to provide a safe space to discuss social problems.

The Black gays and lesbians in the group not only faced the additional burden of racism, they were also part of an oppressed nationality with its own culture(s). Some of the racism directed at them also spilled over as discrimination and violence against their white loved ones—something not experienced by whites who partnered with whites.

Altogether, that’s what made the formation of the Knights of the Clock necessary.

The underground LGBT bar crowds, largely blue-collar, were also made up of different nationalities. While the Mattachine founders were struggling in 1951 to find a political identity for homosexuals as a shared culture, Langston Hughes was publishing “Montage of a Dream Deferred,” which included “Café 3 a.m.” That poem, about a police raid on a gay bar, began “Detectives from the vice squad/with weary sadistic eyes/spotting fairies.”

Hughes was part of the Harlem Renaissance, an exquisite artistic expression of a culture demanding its own liberation. Gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans artists and writers were among the visible, central figures who articulated that just demand.

‘The Nightingale of Montgomery Street’

The formulation of a single culture was too narrow to fit the boldly ground-breaking 1951 San Francisco battle led by Jose Julio Sarria—a transgender [email protected]—which demonstrated that bar life had its own “cultures.” These included drag culture, which in reality was various cultures based on nationality, region and economic class.

Sarria, child of a Colombian mother and a Nicaraguan father, worked as a waiter and greeter at the Black Cat bar on Montgomery Street in San Francisco after World War II. Sarria drew audiences of hundreds when ze began singing arias on the job. Sarria gained local fame for leading patrons every night in singing “God Save Us Nelly Queens,” which became a defiant gay anthem.

Sarria infused performances with the demand for gay rights and coined early gay pride slogans such as “There is nothing wrong with being gay—the crime is getting caught” and “United we stand, divided they catch us one by one.”

Sarria showed courage in the face of police repression. When undercover cops infiltrated the bar, Sarria would point them out to the crowd by asking for a round of applause for the individual. And Sarria interjected warnings in song lyrics if there was a tip-off that police were about to raid. The “Nightingale of Montgomery Street” also led bar crowds and other transgender performers to the nearby jail to stand outside and serenade the LGBT prisoners. (www.sfpride.org)

When the state’s vice and alcohol control agencies tried to shut down the Black Cat, in part because of the popularity and activism of Sarria, the owners and patrons sued and won a landmark decision. The California Supreme Court ruled that no state law allowed a bar to be closed solely on the basis of the clientele it drew. (www.qx.net)

Struggles were emerging from many cultures, particularly oppressed cultures, to demand LGBT rights and freedom.

Impact of Black civil rights struggle

The momentous organizing for African American civil rights, long overdue after the overturning of slavery and the crushing of Black Reconstruction, lifted the aspirations of all who were discriminated against, downtrodden and disenfranchised.

A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, had begun organizing a mass mobilization in 1941—the original March on Washington. Randolph, like the Mattachine founders, had been influenced by the struggle for socialism in his early years. He said that his discovery of socialism as a young man was “like finally running into an idea which gives you your whole outlook on life.”

Harry Hay in particular must have been aware that the demands of the 1941 March on Washington challenged discrimination by some of the same capitalist class enemies—the military, armament industries and federal government—that homosexuals were up against during the Cold War.

And Hay must have been inspired to see Roosevelt surrender to the demands of the March on Washington, which led to the cancellation of the demonstration, and the president publicly issuing the first executive order protecting the rights of Black people since the Emancipation Proclamation.

Two decades later, Randolph would turn to Bayard Rustin—a dynamic gay Black activist—to coordinate the 1963 March on Washington at which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

Hay and other early gay rights activists were influenced by the Black civil rights movement in a broader sense, too. The rising tide of African American organizing raised all boats, and the hopes of all whose dreams had been deferred.

Edward Sagarin published “The Homosexual in America” in 1951 under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory. Sagarin, who was a white member of the NAACP in his progressive years, had grasped the argument that there was no “race problem”—the problem was racism.

That led him to formulate his ground-breaking argument in “The Homosexual in America” that there is “no homosexual problem except that created by the heterosexual society.” He may have been the first U.S. writer to describe homosexuals as a persecuted minority. And he urged homosexuals to rise up and demand their rights.

What set the Mattachine Society founders apart from others who were raising their voices for gay and lesbian rights, however, was that they were revolutionaries.

D’Emilio concluded, “As believers in a theory of social change that stressed action by masses of people on their own behalf, the founders kept the society focused on mobilizing a large gay constituency and wielding it into a cohesive force capable of militancy.” (”Sexual Politics”)

Next: Busted!