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Headwaters of first mass political gay movement rise

Lavender & red, part 45

Published Aug 23, 2005 10:11 PM

Mattachine´s successful defense of one of its founders, Dale Jennings, against criminal charges of sexual solicitation of a Los Angeles vice cop in 1952 opened up a floodgate. The headwaters of the first mass political movement for homosexual emancipation in the United States quickly flowed through it.

“During the waning summer of 1952, word of the victory spread like wildfire,’ wrote Stuart Timmons. “In circles of friends, among ‘ribbon clerk´ professionals like costumers and clerks, in the gay crowds at bars like the Golden Carp on Melrose Avenue and the Pink Poodle on Pico Boulevard, people talked of little else.’

Dorr Legg, who later was a founder of ONE magazine, heard the buzz in the office where he worked as a city planner. “A guy asked me, ‘Have you heard about the guy here who has fought the police and won?´ I said no. ‘Well he has, and there´s an organization about it.´’

Mattachine discussion groups that had been drawing 15 or 20 members suddenly doubled in size. Groups subdivided and then subdivided again, only weeks later, as the influx of new members continued.

By early 1953 the matrix of discussion groups had spread across Southern California—from the northern beach communities around Santa Monica to San Diego in the south and inland to San Bernardino.

Dorr Legg recalled, “Before long, hundreds of men and women were joining in excited discussion and arguments in a veritable flood of social protest and calls for action throughout Southern California.’

The small core of Mattachine founders scrambled to develop new leadership for the multiplying number of discussion groups.

By May 1953, the Mattachine Foundation surmised that more than 2,000 were taking part in the movement. But Stuart Timmons notes that Harry Hay believed the number, based on the geographical spread, was closer to 5,000. Both were estimates, however, since there was no centralized membership list.

Movement spreads north

The Mattachine movement inspired organizing beyond its base in southern California. Gerry Brissette, a young lab technician at the University of California at Berkeley, wrote to the Mattachine Society in February 1953.

Brissette was more politically conservative than the communist founders of Mattachine. He was a pacifist, active in the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He wrote to Mattachine about his “dream of freedom’ for homosexuals. He stressed “<I>my<I> responsibility to work for the kind of world I believe in, to help create in the hearts of people like me a belief in themselves, a dignity, and a capacity for loving.’ His letter concluded, “If Mattachine means this, then I am with you all the way.’

The Mattachine founders invited him to Los Angeles in March to hold discussions about organizing in the northern part of the state. Plans were laid out to send other organizers up the coast to support Brissette. Soon, discussion groups took root—first in Oakland, then Berkeley and the Bay Area of San Francisco. These meetings immediately began drawing 60 or more participants.

Other groups were popping up like mushrooms: Bakersfield, Capistrano, Fresno, Laguna, Monterey, San Diego and Whittier.

The groups each had a different character. Chuck Rowland described the Laguna group as “Junior Chamber of Commerce’ types, the Long Beach unit as “swishy’ feminine homosexuals. Another drew a contingent of factory workers, while faculty from UCLA formed yet another.

The growth in the movement gave rise to a division of labor. Established discussion groups took on different tasks.

“The group composed mostly of UCLA faculty members embarked upon studying the literature of the natural and social sciences in an attempt to make sense of the current theories about homosexuality,’ explained historian John D´Emilio.

“Another group surveyed creative literature with homosexual and lesbian themes. Others compiled clipping files on vice squad actions and morals arrests, and most of them gathered affidavits from participants who had suffered from abusive police behavior.’

Birth of ONE Magazine

The idea for a magazine, written by and for male and female homosexuals, was born out of a West Hollywood discussion group in late 1952.

Martin Block was chairing the meeting. Block was a writer from New York who came out of an anarchist current and, long before joining Mattachine in California, had heard about the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement from older East Coast refugees. Block recalled, “You always heard that there should be a gay organization.’

The idea to publish a magazine struck a chord. The bitter experience of media silence about Mattachine organizing to defend Dale Jennings was still fresh in everyone´s mind.

And a magazine could connect and inform the organizing that was reaching from southern to northern California.

Block recalls that the discussion about a homophile magazine grew so excited that Block scolded the group for diverging from the meeting´s agenda. He told anyone who wanted to talk about the magazine to please go to the kitchen to do so.

“Then I turned over the chair of the discussion group and joined them,’ Block said, “because I was just as excited about it as everybody else.’

In October 1952 a multinational group of men gathered in Block´s bookstore on Hollywood Boulevard to found and incorporate the first mass-distributed homosexual publication in the United States.

Martin Block was voted president; Dale Jennings was elected vice president.

Other signatories included Merton Bird and W. Dorr Legg. Bird, a Black activist and Legg, a white activist, had been founders of the Knights of the Clocks—a social support organization for inter-racial gay and lesbian couples in Los Angeles. Dorr later described the organization as the establishment of “the earliest of the ‘Gay Community Centers´ which are now found all across the country.’

Antonio Reyes and Bailey Whitaker were the other two founders of the magazine. Reyes was a Latino dancer and ceramics designer from El Paso. Whitaker was a young Black student.

It was Whitaker —whose nom de guerre was Guy Rousseau —who came up with “ONE’ as the name and the masthead of the magazine. Whitaker drew this idea from a quote by Victorian essayist Thomas Carlyle: “A mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one.’

Both Carlyle and the 1950s homosexual activists were living in historical epochs in which the word “mankind’ was thought to embrace women as well —an assumption the women's movement later rejected. However, lesbians did play an important role in the development and distribution of this publication.

‘ONE´ magazine read across U.S.

Three months later, in January 1953, the first issue of ONE magazine—not a leaflet, not a pamphlet, but a magazine—was published.

The monthly magazine was established as a separate entity from Mattachine. But Mattachine supplied the first mailing list—some 3,000 names.

The magazine included articles about the Mattachine Society, and about entrapment arrests and police harassment of bars.

Within months, sales of ONE magazine were topping 2,000 copies. But the readership base was considerably larger, as the magazine passed from hand to hand. D´Emilio wrote, “Since, as letters to the editor revealed, the magazine was circulating throughout the country, it also helped spread word that a homosexual emancipation organization had formed.’

Chuck Rowland, a Mattachine founder, summed up the entire political period after the 1952 court triumph: “Mattachine really took off. … We moved into a broad sunlit upland filled with whole legions of eager gays. Mattachine was suddenly IN! No combination of people in our limited leadership could handle them.’

But storm clouds of anti-communism were gathering.

Next: Victory sparks internal debate over reorganization of Mattachine.