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Mid-1960s gay activists target U.S. gov’t

Lavender & red, part 59

Published Apr 1, 2006 8:57 PM

In 1963, activist Franklin Kameny helped set up the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO). ECHO brought together the Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia branches of Mattachine, the New York branch of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Janus Society of Philadelphia. The coalition, meant to foster cooperation and to debate tactics, was also an attempt to form an activist network to the left of the accommodationist leaders of the homophile movement.

This more left-leaning activist current of primarily white gay men and lesbians was not revolutionary. But they were breaking away from the timid, class-collaborationist political approach of Mattachine and the DOB.

And they denounced the gay-bashing U.S. government when the media here attacked the Cuban Revolution on April 16, 1965, saying it was interning gays in labor camps.

Although some of these activists were imbued with anti-communism themselves, they immediately set up demonstrations in front of the White House and United Nations headquarters. The hypocrisy of the U.S. government criticizing the Cuban Revolution was not lost on these activists. After all, it was the U.S. that had carried out the “Lavender Scare” as a Cold War bludgeon, unleashed state repression against lesbians and gay men, bisexuals and trans people, marginalized LGBT workers from the labor force, and pathologized sexual and gender variation as criminal and sick behavior.

It was a courageous move by these activists, still living in the chill of the Cold War, to face red-baiting for holding protests that turned Washington’s charges against the Cuban Revolution back on the U.S. government.

Author John D’Emilio concluded, “Lest anyone mistake the event as an anti-Castro action, the pickets displayed signs that made their target clear: ‘Fifteen Million U.S. Homosexuals Protest Federal Treat ment,’ one placard read, while another charged that ‘Cuba’s Government Perse cutes Homosexuals—U.S. Govern ment Beat Them to It.’”

(This series will take up the obstacles facing the Cuban Revolution, and its subsequent accomplishments, in more detail in the future.)

In May 1965, left-wing ECHO activists won their proposal to organize a series of picket lines in the spring and summer demanding gay rights. They chose as their targets the White House, Pentagon, State Department, Civil Service Commission and, on the Fourth of July, Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

Although the picket lines were tiny, these activists were brave. Homosexuality was still illegal and actively persecuted.

The boldness of public picketing made the demand for gay and lesbian rights hard to ignore. ABC-TV filmed the protest outside the White House on May 29. Local affiliates in nine states broadcast the foot age. A report on the wire services was print ed in papers in several U.S. cities. On the eve of the demonstration outside the State Department, a press reporter asked Secre tary of State Dean Rusk about his department’s policy towards homosexuality.

The full day of protest outside the Civil Service Commission forced its officials to finally agree to a meeting with gay activists.

Next: Old guard Mattachine and DOB blamed bar crowd for drawing police violence.