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Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970

“It Didn’t Start with Stonewall.” That’s the key message of Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, a history of gay and lesbian activism in the decades before the Stonewall uprising of 1969. John D’Emilio covers the work of little-known organizations like the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and ONE, Inc., in the 1950s and 1960s.

D’Emilio lays the groundwork for the birth of the “homophile” movement [a word coined by the participants] by beginning with developments in the 1940s and 1950s. World War II, he says, was “something of a nationwide coming out experience.” The war took millions of young adults away from their families and hometowns and put them in same-sex environments – for men, primarily the military; for women, a civilian workplace, urban boardinghouses, and a nightlife often stripped of men who were fighting abroad. In this environment, it became easier for men who loved men and women who loved women to find others like themselves, explore their desires, and form social circles. After the war, many decided not to return home. They settled in large cities like New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and helped build a larger public gay world. In many places, the postwar years saw big growth in the number of gay and lesbian bars, a primary place for socializing.

To this was added the impact of the “Kinsey Report.” In 1948, the scientist Alfred Kinsey published Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, at that point the largest study by far of the sexual behavior of American males. It received a huge amount of attention in the press. Its most dramatic finding was that the number of men with homosexual experience was much larger than anyone had claimed before. According to Kinsey, as many as one out of eight men had a significant amount of homosexual experience. Kinsey made homosexuality seem like a normal and natural part of American life.

But the liberalism of the war years and the Kinsey reports provoked a reaction. In the early 1950s, homosexuals came under attack. They were accused of being threats to national security, susceptible to blackmail, and a menace to the nation. The Senate held public hearings about “sex perverts” in government. President Eisenhower issued an order banning all gay men, lesbians, and bisexuals from federal employment. The FBI mounted major surveillance of homosexuals. Across the country, local police raided bars and arrested patrons in large numbers. Newspapers covered these events with lurid headlines that fanned prejudice and hatred toward “deviates” and “perverts.”

In this environment, a few gay men in Los Angeles began meeting in 1950 and formed an organization they called the “Mattachine Society.” Harry Hay, a member of the Communist Party, was the key instigator, but several other founders also had leftist histories. They floated the idea that homosexuals were a persecuted “minority” and formed discussion groups all over Southern California. In 1953, the organization went public. It formed chapters in a few other cities and began publishing a magazine, Mattachine Review.

Two other organizations rounded out the picture of homophile organizations in the 1950s. ONE, Inc., also in Los Angeles, published a monthly magazine called ONE that was hard-hitting and challenged conventional views. In San Francisco in 1955, a social group of lesbians evolved into the Daughters of Bilitis. It, too, began to form chapters and published a magazine, The Ladder. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, its founders, remained important activists for decades.

The 1950s was not an easy time to be openly gay or lesbian and to campaign for rights. Most members used pseudonyms. The organizations remained small. They reached out to friendly lawyers, psychologists, and ministers in an effort to win allies. Their magazines provided a public voice, and had a deep impact on the men and women who came across them. But circulation remained small.

In the 1960s, the picture brightened a bit. The civil rights movement especially provided an inspiring model of militant protest and a demand for equality. On the East Coast, in Washington, Philadelphia, and New York, a small group of activists became more outspoken and militant. In New York, Randy Wicker pushed the press and media to cover homosexuality fairly. Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings began challenging medical professionals who claimed homosexuality was an illness. Building off the methods of the Black Power Movement that used the phrase “black is beautiful,” Kameny coined the slogan “gay is good.” Activists began holding public demonstrations in Washington. They picketed outside government buildings with signs calling for justice for homosexuals.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, an upsurge in bar raids and arrests provoked a more assertive activism. In 1961, Jose Sarria, a cross-dressing performer in one of the city’s bars, decided to run for election as a city supervisor; it was the first openly gay campaign for public office. Though he did not win, his campaign inspired others to resist the police. One activist began publishing a hard-hitting newspaper that exposed police attacks. Bar owners joined together in a Tavern Guild to assert their right to run their business free of harassment. Some social justice ministers joined with homophile activists to form the Council on Religion and the Homosexual. By the end of the 1960s, gay and lesbian activism was becoming very visible in San Francisco.

In the end, D’Emilio concludes that, although this pre-Stonewall activism did “initiate some important changes,” its impact was limited. Homophile activists put the idea of rights for homosexuals out into the public. They helped create some better media coverage. They opened a debate about the classification of homosexuality as an illness. But, they were not able to build a mass movement. It would take the galvanizing impact of the Stonewall uprisings in 1969, and a new generation of LGBT people radicalized by the movements of the 1960s, to achieve that.