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Early 1960s: ‘Gay is good’

Lavender & red, part 58

Published Mar 26, 2006 7:51 AM

The dynamism of the lunch counter sit-ins and freedom rides of the African-American civil rights movement gave rise to an East Coast current of white gay and lesbian activists within Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis—the national gay and lesbian organizations. These young gay men and lesbians were more militant and began to reject advice from the homophile movement to try to “fit into” society, to not make waves, and to rely on professionals and establishment figures to bequeath them social rights.

Historian John D’Emilio said of this new, more militant political current of the early 1960s, “Inspired by the example of civil rights activists, it abandoned the accommodationist approach of the 1950s. Militants adopted an ideology based on equal rights for minorities, engaged in direct action techniques of protest, and affirmed the propriety of homosexuals and lesbians leading their own struggle for justice. Their confidence and determination won for the movement and for gay women and men generally a visibility that their predecessors had failed to achieve.” (“Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities”)

For example, Franklin Kameny “argued relentlessly for gay activists to embrace an aggressive direct action strategy modeled on the civil rights movement.”

Kameny coined the phrase “Gay is good” in 1966 after hearing African Americans declare “Black is beautiful!” The 1968 North Amer ican Conference of Homophile Organi zations (NACHO) formally adopted the slogan in 1968.

Kameny had been fired as a government employee in 1957 after his arrest a year earlier on charges of “lewd conduct” was discovered by investigators. Kameny continued to fight the Civil Service Commission decision blocking him from any federal employment until 1961, when it was clear that he had exhausted every avenue of appeal through the commission and the courts. That same year, Kameny co-founded a Mattachine chapter in Washington, D.C.

Kameny rejected the accommodationist homophile movement’s “genteel, debating society approach” that “impelled [it] to present impartially both or all sides” of every political position. “We cannot stand upon an ivory-tower concept of aloof, detached dignity,” Kameny told a New York City Mattachine meeting audience in July 1964. “This is a movement, in many respects, of down-to-earth, grass-roots, sometimes tooth-and-nail politics.” And, he stressed, “[O]ur opponents will do a fully adequate job of presenting their views, and will not return us the favor of presenting ours; we gain nothing in virtue by presenting theirs, and only provide the enemy ... with ammunition to be used against us.”

Kameny scorned the dominant medical model that homosexuality was an “illness.” He publicly stated instead, “I take the stand that not only is homosexuality ... not immoral, but that homosexual acts engaged in by consenting adults are moral, in a positive and real sense, and are right, good and desirable, both for the individual participants and for the society in which they live.”

In April 1962, activist Randy Wicker confronted the WBAI radio station public affairs director in New York City about a broadcast in which psychiatrists had discussed homosexuality as a sickness. Wicker demanded, and won, a program in which gay men were able to speak as experts about their lives.

Wicker took his media campaign about the homosexual rights movement to publications from the Village Voice to Harper’s.

Kameny and Wicker drew the ire of the more politically right-wing leadership of the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis.

Next: Mid-1960s gay activists target U.S. government.