In September 1976 I headed to California for five months of research for my dissertation on pre-Stonewall LGBT activism, or the “homophile” movement, as these activists labeled their work. As a key part of the research, I conducted between two and three dozen interviews with activists from the 1950s and 1960s. Those oral histories proved essential, both because they provided me with information and perspectives for which written documentation was scarce and because, given the paucity of any existing historical or sociological writing about the movement, the interviews helped me make sense of the documentary sources to which I did gain access.
A bit of orientation and explanation will help make clear what you will be encountering in this exhibit. I embarked on these interviews without any graduate school training in conducting oral histories and no previous experience doing it. As a graduate student, I was living on almost nothing, and my five months in California meant an interruption in the free-lance and part-time gigs I did to support myself through the dissertation research and writing. One thing that meant is that I always had to look for ways to save money and time. I purchased a small hand-sized tape recorder that cost very little, and I also bought the cheapest cassette tapes that I could find. An unfortunate result of these economies is that, when I returned home from the research trip and listened to the tapes, I found that some sides were so faint as to be almost impossible to hear.
I also never fully transcribed any of the interviews. Some, like those with James Kepner and Harry Hay, stretched over several days and consumed many hours. I couldn’t afford to pay a transcriber, and it would have taken me a good part of a semester to transcribe them all. Instead, I listened to them afterward as if I was listening to a classroom lecture and taking notes. When I heard something that seemed especially compelling or revealing, I replayed that segment of the tape so that I could copy a precise quotation. Thus, what you will be reading are my summary notes with selected quotations.
Two other things to note about the interviews I did. There are some for which I cannot find any notes. At this distance in time, I am not sure if that means the information in the interviews was too vague or insignificant to warrant my taking notes (doubtful) or that I have simply lost or misfiled them. But, I know that there were others beyond what I am mounting on to Outhistory because other interviews are cited in the footnotes in Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. Also, the New York Public Library, where the tapes now reside, lists interviews for which I do not seem to have any notes. So much for memory and for the carefulness of a historian!
Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, the book that emerged from the dissertation research, was published in 1983, the same year I moved to Greensboro, North Carolina for a teaching job. With the book published, it didn’t seem necessary for me to hold on to the tapes, so I donated them to a community-based archive in New York. Unable to sustain itself, it in turn donated its collections, including my tapes, to NYPL where they remain. Over the years, at least some of them having been listened to and made use of by other researchers working on topics for which the material in these interviews was relevant.
Most of the interviews were done with activists based in California in the 1950s and 1960s, and most revolve around the work of the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and ONE, Inc. There is a special emphasis on the early Mattachine Society, 1950-53, when it was a secret organization, some of whose founders had had ties to the Communist Party. Partly that is a result of my own fascination with this hidden and unexpected history. But partly it is a result of the thinness of the paper trail so that oral histories were especially important in recapturing this piece of activist history. The preponderance of California interviews also stems from the fact that, in the years I was doing the research, two other researchers were conducting interviews on the East Coast that they generously shared with me: Jonathan Ned Katz, author of Gay American History, and Toby Marotta, author of The Politics of Homosexuality.
For each of the summaries I have written brief introductions that provide a succinct view of what they primarily cover. But, in coming back to these notes after three decades, I also discovered that they contain interesting information that does not appear in the narrative I constructed in Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities since the information was not particularly relevant to the history of the movement I was reconstructing. For instance, several of the interview subjects talk about their coming of age in a variety of places in the United States and of the kind of gay and lesbian life they discovered as they were coming into their identity. There are also tidbits like the mention, in Gerard Brissette’s interview, that Rod McKuen, the poet, songwriter, and performer, attended some of the early Mattachine meetings in the Bay Area. Cumulatively, the interviews can also be used to write about certain themes that recur and that are relevant beyond the particular history of the homophile movement: the sexism that gay men displayed and the ongoing conflicts between men and women; conflicting world views and approaches to change; and the conscious decision on the part of some activists to pursue tactics and strategies that seemed workable to them, even if they were at odds with an individual’s own world view and values.
My hope is that, in making these interview summaries available, the work that I did back in the 1970s will continue to prove useful in the construction and interpretation of an LGBTQ past as well as in our understanding of it.
The interviews in the exhibit could have been arranged in any one of several ways. I could have ordered them alphabetically by name. I could have arranged them in the order in which I conducted them. I could have arranged them by organization or by geography. In the end, I decided on a combination of chronology (when they first became involved in LGBT activism), organization, and geography. Thus, Harry Hay, who had the idea for what became the Mattachine Society, is the first interview in the exhibit, and his interview is followed by others involved in those early California efforts. Then there are a few interviews from the East Coast for late 1950s and early 1960s, and then a shift back to activists in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the 1960s.