As I’ve written in a previous post, traditional pre-Stonewall homophile organizations worked hard to present gays as respectable citizens and plead, politely, for acceptance into mainstream America. Tactics included writing letters, dialoguing with clergy and politicians, and the annual July 4th picket at Independence Hall, where women were ordered to wear skirts and men jackets and ties.
This seems like tame activism from a contemporary perspective, but back in the McCarthy era (late 1940s through 1950s) it was truly dangerous to be gay. We were arrested, imprisoned, and beaten, fired from our jobs, subjected to electroshock therapy, and hunted out of federal employment and military service. During this period, more gays were drummed out of the government than suspected Communists. And this persecution of gays didn’t stop with the demise of McCarthyism but continued through the 1960s.
Only a handful of gay men and lesbians were willing to be out during the 50s and 60s. Those brave individuals founded the Mattachine Society in 1950 and the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) in 1955.
From 1959 to 1969 the homophile organizations demonstrated against police harassment, against firing gay employees and, in 1966, against a New York State law banning known homosexuals from being served liquor. Some of these activities were successful, in a limited way. The New York State Liquor Authority didn’t change its rules, but the City’s human rights commission did come out against the discrimination.
By the mid-1960s, the nation was going through a series of seismic shifts—the civil rights movement, the rebirth of feminism, a loosening of sexual mores, antiwar activities, and a cultural revolution that expressed itself in art, music, apparel, and psychedelic drugs. The traditional homophile groups were careful to avoid any identification with those movements, except that in the DOB, there were nods to feminism. Otherwise the groups were still begging for inclusion into the existing social order. Hoping not to offend any of the mainstream constituencies whose approval they sought, they distanced themselves from other social justice issues.
Perhaps their most militant display took place on May 21, 1966—a 15-car motorcade in Los Angeles demanding admission of gays into the armed forces. At the same time, small contingents marched and picketed for that cause in D.C., Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In recent years, some have dubbed the motorcade “the first gay pride parade.”
This action came at a time when President Johnson was escalating the Vietnam War—and when tens of thousands of Americans, including me, were in the streets demonstrating against it. I understand that the point of the motorcade was to protest our exclusion from military service and the persecution of those who had signed up and were later discovered to be gay. But that the largest public action the existing gay organizations ever put on consisted of pleading for our right to enlist in a genocidal war—a war that killed over 2 million Indochinese people who had never done anything to the U.S.—made me sick to my stomach. And still does.
Even so, I have to give them credit. In the long run, despite their limitations, the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis were the womb that birthed the Gay Liberation Front.