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1952: Mattachine battles police harassment

Lavender & red, part 43

Published Jul 18, 2005 10:13 PM

By the autumn of 1951, the seven founders of the Mattachine society were organizationally confronted by the growth of their discussion groups. They began to develop more leadership in response. As in the consciousness-raising groups that later sprang up in the women's liberation movement, the goal was not merely to discuss oppression but to take political action to end it.

The first public action the Mattachine leadership took was to weigh in on the side of the Chicano community against racist police repression. "Brutal incidents of police harassment of the Chicano community in Los Angeles had received considerable attention in the press," wrote John D'Emilio, "and mounting pressure for an official investigation of police practices had finally succeeded in forcing the city government to hold public hearings.

"The founders of the Mattachine Society attended the hearings and spoke in favor of disciplinary action against offending policemen. Their rationale for their participation was their conviction that all socially oppressed minorities had something in common." ("Making Trouble")

Laws criminalized same-sex love and gender variant "cross-dressing." This made people who today are referred to as lesbian, gay, bi and trans vulnerable to arrest, beatings and rape in jail, financial extortion by shady lawyers who might be the only ones to handle such cases, and fines and prison sentences.

Just weeks after the hearing on police repression in the Chicano community, Dale Jennings--one of the Mattachine Society founders--was busted in February 1952 by a plainclothes Los Angeles vice squad cop, who charged him with "lewd and dissolute" behavior.

Harry Hay told how Jennings explained "that he had met someone in the can at Westlake Park. The man had his hand on his crotch, but Dale wasn't interested. He said the man insisted on following him home, and almost pushed his way through the door. He asked for coffee, and when Dale went to get it, he saw the man moving to the window blind, as if signaling to someone else. He got scared and started to say something, when there was a sudden pounding on the door, and Dale was arrested." ("The Trouble with Harry Hay")

Jennings described the nightmare that followed. "Then there was the badge and the policeman was snapping the handcuffs on me with the remark, 'Maybe you'll talk better with my partner outside.' I was forced to sit in the rear of a car on a dark street for almost an hour while three officers questioned me. It was a particularly effective type of grilling. They laughed a lot among themselves. Then, in a sudden silence, one would ask, 'How long have you been this way?' I refused to answer. I was scared stiff. …

"At last the driver started the car up. Having expected the usual beating before, now I was positive it was coming--out in the country somewhere. They drove over a mile past the suburb of Lincoln Heights, then slowly doubled back. During this time they repeatedly made jokes about police brutality, and each of the three instructed me to plead guilty and everything would be all right." ("Making Trouble")

Plead guilty--that was the standard advice from police and lawyers to defendants who were arrested on "vag-lewd" charges, even though the vice police enticed the advances, or even participated fully in the sex that resulted, inspiring a bitter joke: "It's been wonderful, but you're under arrest."

Fearing the beatings and rapes that often took place in the back seat of a police cruiser or the cold cement floor of a precinct cell, many did plead guilty and paid fines anywhere from $300 to $3,000. Hay said the terror made "everyone plead guilty, and plea bargaining was a tactic not yet in practice. So to the average ribbon clerk this could mean years of debt."

Another Mattachine founder, Rudi Gernreich, had bravely tried to plead innocent several years earlier when he had been entrapped. He demanded a jury trial and spoke out in court about what had really happened. Gernreich was reportedly stunned by the guilty verdict.

Mattachine fights back!

After Jennings got booked by police and released, he told Hay about the arrest. Hay later said he responded, "Look, we're going to make an issue of this thing. We'll say you are a homosexual but neither lewd nor dissolute. And that cop is lying." ("The Trouble with Harry Hay")

Mattachine leaders immediately convened an emergency meeting at Jennings' apartment in Echo Park that evening.

Hay argued forcefully "on how this is the perfect opportunity to press the issue of oppression." The group agreed.

Hay contacted attorney George Shibley in Long Beach about taking Jenning's case. Shibley was an Arab-American left-wing lawyer who had earned a well-deserved reputation for political courage. He defended embattled labor unions in 1930s and 1940s courtroom battles. In the 1940s, during World War II, he fought legally on behalf of 22 Mexicano youth in the "zoot suit" murder trial--also known as the "Sleepy Lagoon" case--which became infamous as a racist frame-up.

When the Mattachine leaders--the Fifth Order--approached Shibley, the firebrand attorney agreed to defend Jennings. "He explained to the group that he knew almost nothing about homosexuality, however, and needed to be educated about it," wrote Hay's biographer, Stuart Timmons.

The group met with Shibley for weeks, pooling and relaying their experiences to him. "Harry recalled that at these intense meetings, the Fifth Order probably learned as much about homosexuality as did the lawyer," Timmons added.

'Innocence or guilt is irrelevant'

In his book "Making Trouble," D'Emilio detailed how the Mattachine leadership mobilized discussion groups during the spring of 1952 around the topic of the upcoming trial.

The activists leading the groups were initially disheartened to discover that many participants in the discussions had qualms about the case.

If Jennings had been arrested by police, he must have done something wrong, many seemed to assume. Jennings later gave sarcastic voice to this stance: "Innocent people don't get into such a situation. Nice people just don't get arrested!"

D'Emilio provides a record of the political far-sightedness of the leading activists that is important, even today, for anyone fighting state repression: "The Mattachine leadership, however, took the position that innocence or guilt was irrelevant to the question of support. The law itself was unjust, they argued, and needed to the questioned, and the abusive police practices toward homosexuals must be stopped."

This progressive argument held sway, which eventually rallied the whole Mattachine Society behind Jennings' case.

'An Anonymous Call to Arms!'

Rather than leave the internal Mattachine Society members open to harassment and arrest, the group used the external and more public Mattachine Foundation to establish an ad hoc "Citizens Committee to Outlaw Police Entrapment."

Committee organizers sent news releases to newspapers and broadcast media about the group's determination to fight Jennings' charges. The media ignored the case.

Committee activists opened up a mass campaign, as well. They addressed a series of leaflets to "the community of Los Angeles," vowing to take the struggle to the Supreme Court if necessary.

One was headlined "Now is the Time to Fight!" Another flier was titled "An Anonymous Call to Arms!" These may have been the first in the United States to publicly articulate demands by this oppressed segment of the population.

The "Call to Arms" leaflet explained the dangers of "guilt by association," a political line of reasoning that was part of Hay's original prospectus for homosexual organizing. ("Sexual Politics")

The leaflet text argued in part, "We the CITIZENS COMMITTEE AGAINST ENTRAPMENT, an anonymous body of angry voters in full sympathy with the spirit of rebellion in our community concerning police brutality against Minorities in general, ARE CONVINCED THAT NOW, ALSO, IS THE TIME TO REVEAL IN THE CLEAREST POSSIBLE MANNER THE FULL THREAT TO THE ENTIRE COMMUNITY OF THE SPECIAL POLICE BRUTALITY AGAINST THE HOMOSEXUAL MINORITY."

Mattachine members distributed the leaflets at Santa Monica beaches and Los Angeles bars, in parks and at bus stops in areas frequented by LGBT people, and in public bathrooms where gay men were known to gather.

Hay recalled that "Mattachine even had a couple of supermarket clerks in the Hollywood area who surreptitiously dropped fliers into the packages of their gay customers." ("Sexual Politics")

The power of mobilization

The bold public campaign act electrified those who lived under the threat of police entrapment. The Citizen's Committee began receiving mail offering help and donations to defray legal costs.

Shibley only needed $750 to represent Jennings. But Mattachine leaders wanted to raise another $3,000 to cover the cost of sending trial transcripts to at least 40 other attorneys across the U.S. who might take up similar court challenges.

One fund-raising event--a dance and raffle at a private home north of Los Angeles--drew close to 500 people and netted more than $1,000.

Lester Horton offered an evening's box office earnings from his dance troupe to the committee; one of the Horton dancers had also been entrapped that year.

The unofficial Mattachine benefit was a virtually sold-out success that raised $1,500--enough to pay for the lawyer's fee and 10 copies of the trial transcript.

Next: 'A great victory!'