Two-line struggle tore apart 1950s gay movement
Lavender & red, part 50
Published Jan 6, 2006 11:07 PM
The first mass political
gay liberation struggle took a different political turn after the communist
founding organizers of the early Mattachine movement were forced to step down
from leadership after the May 1953 convention.
A bitter internal battle
created the split.
It’s not enough to say, as some progressive
historians do, that the more radical leadership saw gay people as a distinct
group in society and the more conservative forces saw gay people as not so
different from non-gay people. The differences were much deeper, arising from a
battle over which economic class in society to turn to for leadership in order
to create change.
The revolutionary founders of the first phase of
Mattachine believed gay people as a group shared distinct characteristics
arising out of the conditions of their oppression. They were trying to formulate
a political approach to what had been viewed as individual sexual
Founder Harry Hay had stressed that the
exclusion of gays and lesbians from the patriarchal heterosexual nuclear
family—the economic unit under feudalism and capitalism—had led to
their isolation in class societies. And these early leaders built a network of
“consciousness-raising” groups to raise political and historical
understanding about capitalism and earlier class societies.
leaders tried to find language and concepts that could galvanize individuals who
had felt alone and isolated. They sought to fan the embers of self-pride in
those who were surviving the oppression and struggling for a sense of community.
And they hoped to imbue confidence that, collectively, an independent, political
grassroots movement could be built that could fight for change, particularly if
they united with other groups in capitalist society that were facing police
brutality and institutionalized discrimination.
Their approach of taking
the struggle to the workers ignited a movement which, as it grew exponentially,
brought together people from antagonistic economic classes.
fractures in theoretical framework
founders—predominantly white gay males—stressed that they saw gay
people as sharing a distinct group culture.
But there was a limitation to
the concept of a single “group identity.” The population that is
broadly represented under the umbrella of LGBT is not made up of people who
share the same degrees of social and economic oppression.
approach that gay people share a common culture also obscured the realities of
national oppression. And it left little room to address the additional burden
that lesbians face as women in a patriarchal society, or the ferocity of
violence that transgender and transsexual people cannot escape because of their
Although the founders of Mattachine did lean towards this
theoretical concept of gays as one distinct cultural group in society, they were
anti-racist activists in their day-to-day organizing. And they’d had
opposed imperialist war, anti-Semitism and fascism. They did so when the going
was tough. The revolutionary Mattachine founders led the movement against the
headwinds of Cold War gay-bashing and anti-communism.
leadership of the early Mattachine movement reached out to the grassroots with
their campaign against anti-gay firings and red-listing, police raids and
jail-cell rapes, electro-shock and castration for the “crime” of
While they struggled against the daily outrages of the
capitalist system—like police entrapment—they tried to imbue that
movement with an understanding that oppression is part of the machinery of
class-divided society. They understood that a gay liberation movement had to be
part of the struggle to overturn capitalism and replace it with an economic
system that requires planning and cooperation, not cut-throat competition and
However, the labor
movement was under siege at the time. Its most militant, revolutionary leaders
were being driven out and even underground. This further isolated the burgeoning
young gay movement from being able to reach out to the overall working
class—the economic class that benefits most from defeating
And as the Mattachine movement broadened and
deepened its reach, it brought many from the more privileged classes in society
into its ranks—and they wanted to shape the movement in their own class
The concept of shared gay culture hampered the revolutionary
leadership in its fight against the antagonistic political positions that
middle- and upper-class gays were taking within the movement.
internal struggle was not just about whether gays are “different” or
Conciliation, not assimilation
historians characterize the opposition as “assimilationist.” But
that’s not the main problem with those who challenged and eventually
defeated the communist leadership of Mattachine. Their political crime was that
they were conciliatory to the boss class, which was carrying out an offensive
against the working class as well using police entrapment against lesbians and
The opposition tried to appease and curry favor with the Cold War
capitalist rulers by opportunistically carrying out an internal red-baiting
witch hunt within the Mattachine movement.
The opposition figures tried to
mask their reactionary class conciliation with the dishonest claim that they
were just trying to “democratize” Mattachine to help the
organization build a broader movement.
Opposition leader Hal Call
explained in a later interview, “We wanted to see Mattachine grow and
spread, but we didn’t think that this could be done as long as Mattachine
was a secret organization. But we knew that if we became a public organization,
the FBI and other government agencies would find out about us. That was okay
with us, but before we went public, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t
have a person in our midst who could be revealed as a Communist and disgrace us
all. We wanted to be able to stand up and say who we were and what we were about
and not be accused of these other things.
“Despite the secrecy, we
knew that some of the founders of the Mattachine Society, the inner circle, had
been rumored to have some Communist leanings and maybe connections elsewhere.
They had to go.
“So we sort of took the organization out of the
founders’ hands. We did this at a pair of meetings in the spring of 1953
in Los Angeles. At the second meeting, which was held in May, the founders of
Mattachine gave over the Mattachine idea to those of us who wanted to form a
democratic Mattachine Society with elected officers and with members and
officers we knew.” (Eric Marcus, “Making History”)
weeks after the May convention, opposition figure David Finn wrote to Kenneth
Burns, another opposition leader, that the FBI had gotten in touch with him in
San Francisco. Finn reportedly handed over copies of the Mattachine constitution
to government investigators and outlined the opposition’s actions to
remove any traces of communist influence within the organization.
(D’Emilio, “Sexual Politics, Sexual
Once the opposition had
ousted the left-wing leadership, they dropped the mantle of concern for
“democratic” forms of organization and their real political agenda
became crystal clear.
Hal Call continued, “I didn’t just
disagree with how the original Mattachine was run. I also disagreed with the
philosophy of the Mattachine founders. I felt that they were sort of pie in the
sky, erudite and artistically included. Take Harry Hay, the kingpin of the
original founders. You could never talk to him very long without him going way
back in history to some ancient Egyptian cult or something of that sort. He was
always making Mattachine and the homosexual of today a parallel to some of those
things he found out about in his historical research.
“You see, I
was a journalist and a public relations man and I felt that education and
getting the word out was the best thing we could do, so the whole society could
ultimately say, ‘Homosexuals are human beings in our midst. They’re
only different in certain ways from the rest of us. Leave them
How could this be politically achieved while the
population was being hammered by the anti-gay terror of the Cold War
Hall explained, “We wanted to see
those goals achieved by evolutionary methods, not revolutionary methods. …
So public protests were not part of our program. Not at all. We wanted to see
changes come about by holding conferences and discussions and becoming subjects
for research and telling our story. We wanted to assist people in the academic
and behavioral-science world in getting the truth out to people who had an
influence on law and law enforcement, the courts, justice and so
In order to plead with the rulers of society for social
acceptance, the opposition had to pry up every plank of the demands the
Mattachine organization was built on.
In his chapter “Retreat to
Respectability,” historian John D’Emilio explained, “Their
reliance on professionals as the agents of social change pushed them to abandon
collective, militant action by the Mattachine Society. In sum, accommodation to
social norms replaced the affirmation of a distinctive gay identity, collective
effort gave way to individual action, and confidence in the ability of gay men
and lesbians to interpret their own experience yielded to the wisdom of experts.
Under its new officers, the Mattachine Society shifted its focus from mobilizing
a gay constituency to assisting the work of professionals.” (“Sexual
D’Emilio concluded that the new leaders
“urged homosexuals to adjust to a ‘pattern of behavior that is
acceptable to society in general and compatible with [the] recognized
institutions … of home, church and state.’”
political surrender did not beef up the ranks of Mattachine. Instead, the
network of discussion groups fell apart and overall membership quickly dwindled.
Within weeks after the May 1953 conference in which founding Mattachine leaders
were forced to step down, the San Diego groups imploded. By the fall, the three
East Bay Mattachine discussion groups that had each drawn up to 60 participants
were reduced to two groups that attracted a total of eight
Doing the state’s dirty work
founders Chuck Rowland and Konrad Stevens continued to provide leadership in the
Los Angeles chapter, leading a vote to form a group to be known as the
“Legal Chapter” to continue the struggle against police entrapment
by finding cases “of significance to the whole minority” and
fighting the charges “aggressively.”
opposition’s “Coordinating Council” overruled the
group’s decision. According to opposition leader Kenneth Burns, the new
Mattachine lawyer warned that, “[T]he very existence of a Legal Chapter,
if publicized to society at large, would intimidate and anger heterosexual
society. … It would be detrimental to the [Mattachine] Society to let the
public know of the existence of the Legal Chapter; and it would probably bring
more pressures on the Society if the heterosexual felt that the homosexual, whom
he hates, was trying to change the laws to suit himself.” (CC Minutes,
Aug. 28. 1953, Lucas papers; D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, 82)
the Coordinating Council proposed referring individuals who had been snared by
police entrapment to lawyers.
The new leadership did not want to challenge
the anti-gay laws. The Coordinating Committee made this quite clear in a
pamphlet it published in August 1953. “Any organized pressure on lawmakers
by members of the Mattachine Society as a group would only serve to prejudice
the position of the Society. … It would provide an abundant source of
hysterical propaganda with which to foment an ignorant, fear-inspired,
Such a campaign was underway. It was the
Cold War. It would take an organized political struggle to oppose the frenzy of
“Lavender Scare” propaganda that was being used to step up
enforcement of anti-gay penal codes.
Instead, the CC proposed the
Mattachine adopt a policy of “merely acquainting itself” with
legislation and let members know that the “burden of activity must rest
upon the individual.” (“Sexual Politics”)
reactionary ideology and political opportunism of the new leadership led them to
carry out the state’s Cold War agenda within the Mattachine
Under the direction of the Coordinating Committee, the San
Francisco and Los Angeles Area Councils issued pamphlets in the months after the
May convention declaring that Mattachine was “unalterably opposed to
Communists and Communist activity.”
The Los Angeles pamphlet vowed,
“Homosexuals are not seeking to overthrow or destroy any of
society’s existing institutions, laws or mores, but to be assimilated as
constructive, valuable, and responsible citizens.” (Kepner papers,
The new leadership was at the helm of the
organization-wide convention in Los Angeles in November 1953. Kenneth Burns was
by then the official leader of Mattachine.
He won the vote on a resolution
rejecting “any direct, aggressive action.” The resolution called for
limiting Mattachine’s activities to “working with and through
… persons, institutions, and organizations which command the highest
possible public respect.”
When Mattachine founder Chuck Rowland rose
to speak out against changing the preamble on which the organization had been
formed, David Finn ruled him “out of order.” Finn then declared, to
the outrage of convention participants, that he would turn over to the FBI the
names of everyone there if they did not vote down the “communistic”
values of the old leadership.
Finn’s threat provoked such outrage
that it scuttled the Coordinating Committee’s agenda of getting three
loyalty-oath resolutions passed at the convention.
The first read,
“[T]his Society unconditionally subscribes to the American
The second would mandate that each member sign a statement
that included, “I believe it is my duty to my country to love it; to
support its constitution; to obey its laws; to respect its flag; and to defend
it against all enemies.”
The obvious and bitter irony of asking
members, all of whom were there because they were breaking the law based on
their sexuality, to obey all laws was apparently lost on those who penned the
The third resolution called for the formation of a
“Committee for Investigating Communist Infiltration” that would act
as a little HUAC body within the group, questioning members about
“subversive” activities and booting out anyone who didn’t
provide the right answers.
All three resolutions did come to a vote at the
convention. But in the atmosphere of turmoil and rage over the threat to
“out” the membership to the FBI, all three rotten resolutions were
Despite the claims of the anti-communist leaders that they
were trying to build a movement that was more mainstream, membership continued
to drop dramatically.
The group was still called Mattachine, but the shift
towards accommodation to political reaction derailed the early militant
grassroots character of the movement for years to come.
Rowland later concluded sadly, “We should never, never have given Hal Call
our name, never have let him take our name.”
organizing, “red feminism” and Black liberation.
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