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When Did the Gay Rights Movement Begin?

On May 1 the Equality Forum plans to commemorate the 40th anniversary of a gay march held in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Some contend that this 1965 event marked the beginning of the gay rights movement. Frank Kameny, 79, who took part in the march, recently said,"We created the mind-set for the expression of dissent." MSNBC reports that the"The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has approved a state historical marker near Independence Hall declaring the area the site of the first public demonstration for gay and lesbian rights."

Clubs and informal groupings of gays and lesbian have a long history. Even organized groups out in the public agitating for change appeared in the late nineteenth century in Europe as did journals and magazines aimed at gays and lesbians. In the United States, however, gays and lesbians had difficulty going public and agitating for a change. Most large cities had gay balls, and there are occasional references in newspapers reporting on these, and certainly the police knew about bars and restaurants catering to gays and kept a watchful eye on them. When I was a newspaper reporter working at the press room in the Salt Lake City Police Department in the ‘forties the police had a list of such bars and organizations and bathhouses. In fact, one of the more popular hangouts was across the street from the police station. There were periodic arrests usually for lewd vagrancy or similar charges but mostly the police adopted a live and let live attitude, and the press mostly ignored them. A few individuals with power and influence were sometimes willing to be more open, such as the Boston Bohemian blue blood, Prescott Townsend, who as early as the 1920's agitated against the Massachusetts antisodomy laws and was a moving force in the theater movement in Provincetown. He was even arrested for engaging in sodomy, a fact which he reported in his Harvard class report for that year. He supposedly told the judge when asked to speak for himself, that there was nothing wrong “with a little cock sucking on the Hill.”

The first real attempt at organizing for political purposes was Henry Gerber who arrived in the U.S. from Germany in 1913. In 1917 he was briefly institutionalized in a mental hospital for homosexuality (the common fate of many gays) but nevertheless served in the U.S. Army during World War I, mostly in the army of occupation in Germany. He became well acquainted with the German movement agitating for a change in German laws on homosexuality and after his return to Chicago he founded a Society for Human Rights (SHR) in 1924 to promote and protect the interests of “people who by reasons of mental and physical abnormalities are abused and hindered” by police and others. SHR was chartered by the state of Illinois. In spite of this, he had little success in recruiting members and he and a few of his followers were arrested for distributing prurient material through the mails. Though he was acquitted, he was dismissed from his job, and SHR society disappeared. Though he is now recalled as the grandfather of the American gay movement, he was embittered. He later made unsuccessful attempts in New York and elsewhere to organize gays.

It was not until the 1940's that successful movements began. An early pioneer was Lisa Ben (a pseudonym) who began publish a newsletter in Los Angeles which was posted at gay and lesbian bars and was apparently widely read. She stopped publishing after twelve issues when she had to change jobs and did not have time for it. It was in Los Angeles that the first organized gay movements appeared. Los Angeles was in a sense a more fluid environment for such organizations than some of the older established metropolitan areas of East, Midwest, and Miami. The organization which began it all, the Mattachine Society, at first was a secretive organization run on the principles of the communist party (all of the five founding members at one time had been communist and in fact several of them had been expelled for their homosexuality) . It began with a Bachelor’s for Wallace group to support Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party in the 1948 presidential election. Harry Hay, the Johnny Appleseed of the gay and lesbian movement, who later went on to form other organizations, led the group. Encouraged by his success in organizing the Wallace campaign, he began to agitate for for homosexual rights. His ideas came to fruition in November 1950 when Robert Hull, Charles Dennison Rowland, Dale Jennings, Rudi Gernreich, and Harry Hay formed the Mattachine. Though the organization spread slowly at first, breaking into cells of small groups where only one member knew the next level and so on, the membership swelled rapidly when Dale Jennings was sand trapped by the police and arrested for “lewd and dissolute conduct.” Rather than coping a plea, Jennings decided to fight it and a committee was organized to help defend him. In court, Jennings stated he was a homosexual, but he was innocent of the charge; the police were lying. The jury deadlocked after the police had been caught in a lie and the case was dismissed. The success was attributed to the Mattachine Society and there was an immediate jump in membership not only in Los Angeles but throughout California. Estimates of numbers range between for this period range from 2,000 to 5,000.

Although the Mattachine remained secret, it was quickly recognized there was a need for a more public dissemination of information and this led to the formation of a public gay magazine, ONE, and a separate organization. Since the term homosexual could not then be listed in the telephone book or even mentioned very publicly, the title, One, was picked. It soon appeared on select newsstands and homosexuality was out in the open. In spite of the Mattachine efforts to keep its organization secret, news of it reached the press and one in Los Angeles stated that homosexuals ( the first time an L.A. paper had used the term) had a voting block of 100,000 to 150,000 people in California and were a force to be recognized. The movement soon grew beyond its original leadership who more or less resigned in 1953 in part because of members' fears that it would be called a communist organization. The result was the appearance of sanitized organizations, which became public and spread throughout the country over the next two decades. The new Mattachine moved its headquarters from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

The struggle for gay rights went nationwide. ONE itself,which had established a public office in Los Angeles, became a national publication. The activists in ONE, Dorr Legg, Don Slater, Jim Kepner, and others were determined to push the gay movement hard. The first great victory was a court decision resulting from a challenge by the postmaster of Los Angeles declaring ONE unmailable because of its subject matter. It was not until 1958 the Supreme Court ruled in ONE’s favor, and this victory marks the opening wedge for the distribution of much more sexually explicit material about homosexuality and heterosexuality.

At least one other person should be mentioned in this saga of the beginnings of the gay movement, that is Reed Erickson, a lesbian, who early on underwent a surgical change from female to male, as well as a multi millionaire who beginning in the early 1960's helped bankroll ONE and much of the early gay and transsexual movement. Not to be neglected in any brief account is founding of the Daughters of Bilitis by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in San Francisco in 1955, and which soon became a national organization. It published a magazine, the Ladder.

Though there are dozens of other individuals who could be mentioned who were influential, the gay movement became even more public with a demonstration in Los Angeles in the early 1960's protesting the U.S. military policy against gays and lesbians, the first public gay demonstration and a forerunner of the gay and lesbian parades.

By 1969 gay and lesbian organizations existed all over the country. They were becoming more public in Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington D.C., Boston, New York City, Miami, and even in smaller population centers such as Seattle, Denver, Buffalo, and in fact almost everywhere. The press, however, had not yet really discovered the power of the gay and lesbian movement in spite of some occasional inflammatory story about ONE or the Mattachine. This is what in my opinion Stonewall is all about. It was the discovery and publicizing by the media of the existence of a widespread movement they had previously ignored. The foundation had been set for this by the early pioneers all over the country. Stonewall then is a symbol. It is not the beginning of a movement, but the recognition of one. Gays and Lesbian were out in public and proud of it.