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Forgotten Forerunners of Gay Liberation

by Gert Hekma in History & Politics , 07 mei 2003

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

Stonewall is generally considered to be the starting point for the gay and lesbian movement in the United States. On the evening of June 27, 1969, the New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street, as they regularly did. But this time something had changed. The drag queens, male hustlers and working-class dykes resisted the police and a major fight ensued. Clashes and demonstrations continued the next days. The gay boys who had always accepted police violence against their kind, stopped being obedient and came out of their closets into the streets. Martin Duberman has given a very readable account of these events in his Stonewall (1993).

Mattachine Society

Bullough's Before Stonewall is a history of gay and lesbian activists whose efforts preceded Stonewall. It is the personal equivalent of John D'Emilio's social history Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (1983).
While in Europe the homosexual rights movement started in Berlin in 1897, and spread to other European countries early in the twentieth century, the North-American movement started in 1950, after some failed attempts, with the foundation of the Mattachine Society (the name refers to a medieval French secret male society). This group initiated in 1953 the monthly One that grew into the One Institute that was a center of documentation and "homophile studies". The lesbian movement began in 1955 in the USA with the Daughters of Bilitis (DoB, this name refers to a lesbian novel of French author Pierre Louys) that produced The Ladder.

The gay men who started the Mattachine Society were mainly communists who were likely victims of senator Joseph McCarthy's Un-American Activities Committee that persecuted reds and perverts during the early years of the Cold War. Soon, the communists were replaced by more mainstream gay men. Their struggle could be better called homophile emancipation than gay activism. Stonewall made the movement again more radical, public and visible. The various groups of the fifties and sixties that paved the way for gay liberation in the seventies, formed a complicated network of different political and cultural interests that mostly worked on a local level. California was more active than the East Coast. The Mattachine started in Los Angeles, the DoB in San Francisco. Both later spread to other parts of the USA.

Uneven entries

The 49 short biographies in Bullough's collection are quite uneven. Some articles are small jewels but others are badly researched and written. In some cases, the authors are friends or lovers of the discussed person which, queerly, not always leads to good entries. So, the two founders of DoB Del Martin (*1921) and Phyllis Lyon (*1924) who are also lovers write about each other. In other articles, information is wanting because precise dates of events are not given.

While many of the figures belonged to the same group, some details are repeated over and again.

Sometimes pseudonyms are used, and in other cases the real names. Clarence Tripp who writes about Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956), mainly discusses his sex research and mentions his homosexual interests only in passing in an afterword that is a fierce indictment of James Jones' biography of Kinsey. As with the entry on poet Alan Ginsberg (1926-1997), the subject's specific importance for gay activism remains hidden in a flood of other more well-known facts on these persons.

In his introduction, Bullough gives a short overview of homosexual emancipation that is not flawless. So does he state that the Code Napoleon of the early nineteenth century, the first liberal sex law, was only concerned with issues of age and consent, while the main point of the law was neither of those, but privacy. Feminists would also add patriarchy. Bullough mentions a Dutch lesbian journal Lesbos of the 1950's that is unknown in Holland. The important role of gay and lesbian movements in Scandinavia in that same era is overlooked.
The collection may have some flaws, but most little essays give abundant interesting information.

They show the many faces of the movement, from the well-known like Harry Hay (1912-2002), Dorr Legg (1904-1994), Jim Kepner (1923-1997), Frank Kameny (*1925) or Donald Webster Cory, the pseudonym of sociologist Edward Sagarin (1913-1986) to the forgotten ones. They include the eccentric Walter Breen (1928-1993) who wrote under his pseudonym J.Z.Eglinton the historical study Greek Love (1964) that defends boy love, drag queen José Sarria (*1923) who ran in 1961 for political office in San Francisco, the first famous US-transsexual Christine Jorgensen (1926-1989) and also the bores who secured the financial administration. Troy Perry (*1940), the founder of the world-wide largest gay organization the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), represents the religious turn gay emancipation has taken.

Strange creatures

An amazing revelation is that several early gay leaders were Republicans. They combined libertarianism with a strong distrust of the state and its sexual policies which explains their political stance. Some biographies are on persons who were not active in the gay and lesbian movement, but helped in its struggles as Kinsey and Ginsberg did. One main fight among the leaders of the movement was on visibility and radicalism that the radicals often lost because becoming visible was still too dangerous. The control of the means of the movement (archives, buildings, finances, journals) could lead to other unpleasant struggles and divisions. It should have been nice when the book had included an historical overview of all movements, chapters, splits and leaders. Now the reader is often lost in a mass of minor details. Fortunately, the book has an index.

The collection is best read as book of reference. It is nice to digest the small treasures on utterly unknown queer people while the lack of broader views or concrete data is sometimes frustrating. But the main value of the book lies in digging up the biographies of a series of forgotten forerunners of gay and lesbian liberation. Most people nowadays have no idea what dangers these early activists faced. They were attacked ferociously by the press, most relations with family and friends were severed once they came out as gay, and several saw prison from the inside as all 50 states of the USA had laws against homosexuality and gay propaganda in the 1950's.

Eglinton even died in jail being sentenced for very minor "child abuse" indictments. Stephen Donaldson alias Scot Tucker whose real name was Robert A. Martin (1946-1996) got for sexual reasons addicted to prison life, indicating once more the strange peregrinations of desire. Such stories that even his biographer finds difficult to digest, enrich this amazing collection. In the end, the reader wants to know more about all these strange creatures that made the gay and lesbian movement in the USA. The book holds a promise for a sequel.

Vern Bullough (ed), Before Stonewall. Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context, New York, Harrington Park Press, 2002, 424 pp., $ 27,95.



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