Frank Kameny holds one of his many protest signs from the 1950s and 1960s. Much of his personal collection is now housed by the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
The time before the Stonewall Riots in June 1969 are usually referred to as “Pre-Stonewall,” a time when being “out” as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person was not only rare, but dangerous for many.
Early organizational activism
Perhaps one of the first LGBT rights and activist organizations to form Pre-Stonewall was the Mattachine Society. The organization was founded in 1950 by Harry Hay and a small group of friends.
The group first met in November 1950. In attendance was Hay and four friends. Finally incorporated in 1954, the group went on to challenge discriminatory laws and practices.
Soon after the group’s official founding, small affiliate groups and chapters were started in several major American cities, including San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Denver, the District of Columbia and Philadelphia. The group’s primary goal was to create a public acceptance of LGBT people and to integrate LGBT people into the “social progress of mankind.”
The name “Mattachine” came from one of the many medieval Renaissance French societies. In 1976, Hay explained to a reporter, “One masque group was known as the ‘Société Mattachine.’ These societies, lifelong secret fraternities of unmarried townsmen who never performed in public unmasked, were dedicated to going out into the countryside and conducting dances and rituals during the Feast of Fools, at the Vernal Equinox. Sometimes these dance rituals, or masques, were peasant protests against oppression — with the maskers, in the people’s name, receiving the brunt of a given lord’s vicious retaliation. So we took the name Mattachine because we felt that we 1950s Gays were also a masked people, unknown and anonymous, who might become engaged in morale building and helping ourselves and others, through struggle, to move toward total redress and change.”
The Daughters of Bilitis, another early group, was the Mattachine Society’s counterpart specifically for lesbians. The group was formed in San Francisco in 1955. Like the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis published a magazine geared toward the particular community for which the organization was formed.
By the 1960s and 1970s, however, both groups would fade away. Affilated groups would split off and form their own independent organizations. The Mattachine Society became a target of claims that they were too traditional and not willing to go far enough to advance LGBT rights. The Daughters of Bilitis was accused of “siding with” the Mattachine Society instead of allying themselves with separatist feminist organizations formed in the 1970s.
An early hero
Seeing openly LGBT people publicly challenge social institutions, organizations or local, state and national governments is nothing new to many people today. In many locales across the nation, people know of local LGBT activists and some know of our national LGBT organization. If anything, many folks have at least seen the Human Rights Campaign’s equality logo bumper sticker.
In 1957, however, this was not the case. At least it wasn’t until Frank Kameny appeared on the scene. Kameny was born in 1925 to a middle-class, Jewish family in New York. He entered college at the age of 15, but did not finish his education until 1956 due to his service in World War II.
Kameny went to work in civil service for the U.S. Army Map Service in 1957 and soon thereafter was arrested on “morals charges” in a local cruising area for gay men in Washington, D.C., although he was released and nothing ever came of it. Problems arose, however, when the incident was reported to an investigator in the Civil Service Commission. Kameny was fired from his job and in 1958 learned that he was barred from any and all future employment with the federal government.
Kameny quickly turned to activism and attempted to get his job back.
“My dismissal amounted to a declaration of war against me by the government,” Kameny said. “And I tend not to lose my wars.”
Kameny held street protests and contacted members of Congress after founding the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1961. Kameny and his group’s use of direct action protests, borrowed from the African-American Civil Rights Movement thrust him into the media spotlight as he continually challenged the federal status quo. Kameny was eventually able to convince the American Civil Liberties Union to take up his cause.
The legal battle would lead to a U.S. Cout of Appeals ruling that the rejection of employment for “homosexual conduct” was “too vague.” In 1975, the Civil Service Commission finally amended its anti-gay employment policies.
Kameny also coined the phrase, “Gay is Good.”
In 2006, Kameny was honored by the Human Rights Campaign at the National Dinner in Washington, DC. He received the National Capital Area Leadership Award.
— This article adapted from Part One of InterstateQ.com’s Pride 2007 Series.