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1952 court victory against anti-gay charges

Lavender & red, part 44

Published Aug 8, 2005 10:26 PM

The decision by Dale Jennings, a Mattachine founder, to fight catch-all "lewd-vagrancy" charges, stemming from an attempt by police to sexually entrap him, was not the first time a gay man in the U.S. had pleaded not guilty.

But the way Mattachine organizers fought the charges was a landmark. They took the struggle public, issuing leaflets explaining, "The issue is civil rights."

The leaflet argued that when the police are allowed to use extortion, intimidation, shakedowns for money, entrapment, search and seizure without warrant, and imprisonment without charge against people based on their sexuality, then these terror techniques can be wielded against others, as well.

The moment subcategories of the overall population are denied rights, the rights of all are threatened.

The committee invited the public to the courtroom and sent out a lengthy press release. Harry Hay noted that not one media representative showed up. ("Gay American History")

'One true pervert in the courtroom'

The trial began on June 23, 1952. Jennings described what happened in an article he wrote later in "One" magazine.

Arab-American attorney George Shibley opened up with a bodacious courtroom argument. "The attorney, engaged by the Mattachine Foundation," Jennings explained, "made a brilliant opening statement to the jury in which he pointed out that homosexuality and lasciviousness are not identical after stating that his client was admittedly homosexual, that no fine line separates the variations of sexual inclinations and the only true pervert in the courtroom was the arresting officer."

Under questioning from Shibley, Jennings explained that he was indeed a homosexual, but that he was not guilty of the charges against him

This political defense was a bombshell approach. Rather than just deny the police account of the attempted entrapment, this Mattachine leader was affirming his sexuality--a sexuality that was illegal in every state.

Jennings later explained, "Even if I had done all the things which the prosecution claimed … I would have been guilty of no unusual act, only an illegal one in this society."

At the trial's close, Shibley delivered what Hay called "a military exposition of what it is like to be a homosexual in today's sociopolitical climate." ("Making Trouble")

The jurors deliberated for close to 40 hours. One lone juror said he would vote for a guilty verdict until hell froze over. But the 11 other jurors held out for acquittal. The jury was deadlocked.

The judge called for a retrial, but within a few days the district attorney's office dropped the charges.


Mattachine sent word about the win against the state to the media. "We informed every paper in Southern California, every journal, radio and television station, on every hearing date and on the date of the judge's decision not to renew--to no avail.

"This was a deliberate conspiracy of silence," Hay concluded.

So Mattachine activists took the news to the streets the same way they had built this case--with widely distributed leaflets hailing the decision in a one-word headline: "Victory!"

The July 1952 leaflet read in part: "You didn't see it in the papers, but it … did happen in L.A." For the "first time in California history an admitted homosexual was freed on a vag-lewd charge." This win was "the result of organized work" and contributions of funds, work and time by "people who believe in justice for … the homosexual."

Mattachine member Jim Kepner said he'd heard of other cases that were reportedly won around the same time. But Dale Jennings' defense against the criminal charge, and the committee that took his case public, fought and won the case on a political basis.

In his ground-breaking book "Gay American History" (1976), Jonathan Katz provides further elaboration by Dale Jennings about the struggle that rose up to support him.

"Actually I have had very little to do with this victory," Jennings wrote. "Yes, I gave my name and publicly declared myself to be a homosexual, but the moment I was arrested my name was no longer 'good' and this incident will stand on record for all to see for the rest of my life. In a situation where to be accused is to be guilty, a person's good name is worthless and meaningless.

"Further, without the interest of the Citizens' Committee to Outlaw Entrapment and their support which gathered funds from all over the country, I would have been forced to resort to the mild enthusiasm of the Public Defender. Chances are I'd have been found guilty and now be either still gathering funds to pay the fine or writing this in jail.

"Yet I am not abjectly grateful."

Jennings explained that he understood that the hundreds of people "who helped me push this case to a successful conclusion" were not doing so out of personal support for him. They were being "intelligently practical and helping establish a precedent that will perhaps helps themselves if the time comes."

In this sense, the bond of solidarity is not mere blanket "generosity," Jennings noted. "It is unification for self-protection."

He concluded, "Were all homosexuals and bisexuals to unite militantly, unjust laws and corruption would crumble in short order … Were heterosexuals to realize that these violations of our rights threaten them equally, a vast reform might even come within our lifetime.

"This is no more a dream than trying to win a case after admitting homosexuality."

Sources for this article: "Gay American History," "The Trouble with Harry Hay" and "Making Trouble."

Next: Victory launches Mattachine like a rocket.