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Curtis Dewees

Curtis Dewees, January 24, 1979, New York

 

Introduction: Curtis Dewees, who was raised and went to school in Louisville, Kentucky, was active in the Mattachine Society in NYC from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s.  In this interview he discusses what Mattachine did in those years, its work with professionals, and its struggles to arouse the interest of gay men in the work of the organization.  At the end, he also provides a bit of comment on gay life in Louisville in the earlier part of the 20th century.

 

Interview: 

SIDE #1A 

Now 47 years old.

Saw ONE Magazine, late '53early '54. In college, University of Louisville—friend had a copy.

Probably spring 54, last year in college. Wrote to ONE and subscribed. 

Moved to New York in May, 1955 to go to grad school (NYU—philosophy). Saw Mattachine Review on a newsstand in New York.

Read ONE for a year—no one else he knew (gays) was interested. “It didn’t register with them. It was an alien idea.”

Wrote to national office [has the letter he received from Don Lucas]. Was told a New York chapter starting. Contacted by Sam Morford—went to January 1956 meeting—the 2nd one.

Morford, Tony Segura, and McCarthy: “the triumvirate.”

NYMS formed by the merger of the League and the Metropolitan Benevolent Association.

McCarthy ran an export business. All three at least ten years older than Dewees was.

Recruiting into NYMS entirely by word of mouth—friends—or referrals of people from national office who were subscribers. Segura impressed by what he had read of Mattachine. Encouraged.

Morford, who was going to APA in San Francisco, visited Mattachine offices. Led to formation.

Segura the spearhead.

Dewees held a variety of offices in Mattachine—both New York and national. Dewees and Al went to Washington to set up Washington Mattachine with Kameny. Went to Boston once a month.

1955-57—a grad student—NYU, philosophy. Dropped out. Then worked for a book importing firm.

Contact with professionals: says he was in large part responsible. Went to NY Academy of Medicine library—poured through indices for recent articles on homosexuality—if in NY, wrote, told them about Mattachine, invited them to speak. High percentageof acceptances, many initially hostile. 

Purpose: “an attempt to form an allegiance, an attempt to achieve a kind of respectability, to prove publicly that it wasn’t some sort of sex orgy organization. That’s what the average gay person thought, that it was a façade for sex orgies.”

Eventually put together a board of advisers: Machover [?], Lee Steiner. Thus, when a letter went out to other professionals, the letterhead would have names of other professionals on it.

“We were afraid. There was always the constant fear that we would be put out of business. We were afraid we’d be snuffed out. Our idea was to achieve some serious kind of identification, some kind of legitimacy outside the gay community in order to just survive.” 

Discussion groups—8-10 at height. Would have meetings for the “captains” of the discussion groups—an attempt to reach out to the grassroots gay community. Hard to coordinate and keep going. Couldn’t build enough chain of command. Also ran orientation meeting for new members, beginning 1957. Not just reaching out to professionals – also to gay community.

“We were trying to reach out to the gay community, but you can’t imagine the resistance, the hostility, the skepticism, the indifference. They were frightened. We might all be arrested and sent to jail. That was always the fear.” 

Conflict in Mattachine centered around Hal Call. “A demagogue, who had to have everything for himself. He saw a chance to make something out of it personally, a business putting money into his pocket. He more than anyone else was the source of friction.”

“A person who brooked no opposition. His decisions had to be the decisions, his answers had to be the answers.”

Boston folds quickly after dissolution of national Mattachine. Philadelphia survived. Dewees also went to Philadelphia monthly. In New York, sad and traumatic, but really made no difference in terms of functioning.

 

SIDE #1B 

President of New York Mattachine, 1962-63. Admired what Wicker was doing, but he was “totally disorganized.” Dewees amazed at what Wicker was doing – couldn’t believe that media, magazines, would be that interested. “I didn’t believe the time was ripe for that.”

E.g., Village Voice originally wouldn’t take ads with word homosexual. Dewees eventually got Voice to accept ad. 

Julian Hodges—from North Carolina. Went to Davidson College. Dewees groomed him for future presidency. Also Paul Speier, who succeeded Dewees.

Public meetings in early 60s were getting 100-300 people. Dewees left Mattachine as soon as his presidency ended in 1963.

Donald Webster Cory—played a “paternalistic role." He was highly respected. Almost revered. Gave a talk that was negatively received—can’t remember when. Maybe 1960 or 61. Became active in NY Mattachine Society in early 60s. Traveled with Dewees to Los Angeles, June 62 for ONE Institute. Dewees called Legg, said he had things to say, wanted to speak. Legg says yes, asks for other speakers, Dewees gets Cory. 

Cory became active in NYMS—on board of advisers, then board of directors. Had a personal disagreement with Cory over Lynn Womack, whom Cory didn’t like but Dewees did like.

Mattachine “gave me personally the first real sense of connection that I had with other people, the first real contact where I felt I could relate to others. It was a deeply moving experience for me… I had lived life in a vacuum.”

Coming out: became aware of gayness by 6th grade. Fully aware by 9th or 10th grade. Several years before he met others. Read encyclopedias. Kraft-Ebbing. “It was horrifying and yet, in a way, comforting.” 

Born and raised in and around Louisville. Began to meet other gays on the street. There were bars but Dewees didn’t go.  Doesn’t think much active police persecution. “I didn’t think the police knew we existed. It wasn’t in the police consciousness.” 

Donald Webster Cory book—doesn’t remember when he read it. “A profound impression—one of those once in a lifetime experiences. It gave me a kind of inner peace, a level of self-acceptance that I hadn’t known before.”

When 18, he met a 55 year old, born c 1895.—when he was 18 in Louisville, introduced through a theater usher to a whole gay society—there was an organized, consciously gay society.