Birth of a Consciousness

Published in: November-December 2012 issue.


Editor’s Note: One of this magazine’s stated missions is to preserve our history, especially the early history of the gay and lesbian movement. In this respect, the following piece has a double significance: first, because here Harry Hay is recounting the early years of the “homophile” movement and how the Mattachine Society got started; and second, because Harry Hay is himself a figure of historical importance, and this essay from one of our movement’s founders has, I think, acquired a significance of its own in the annals of GLBT letters.

    It is worth noting, by the way, that Hay was already highly critical here of “assimilationists”—a word that may not have been used in the 1950’s—for it appears that already the battle lines were being drawn between those who saw the new movement as a radical break from “straight” society and those who sought tolerance for their “sexual preference” while living otherwise conventional lives. This piece originally appeared in the HGLR’s Winter 1995 issue.


THERE ARE, I imagine, a number of people who wonder, not necessarily what woodwork American 20th-century queers materialized out of, but where did the gay movement come from?

Hefling Hay       In the 1930’s and 40’s, there were clusters of homosexuals all over the country impassioned to get a group of some sort going. Two or three brothers would meet for supper and spark up a storm of ideas. By the second meeting, word would get out that such doings were a novel way to cruise, and by the third meeting attendance would double. But when the fourth meeting didn’t produce any more new faces, the fifth would get only the by-now burned-out Sparkers of the first. Fini! There wouldn’t be a sixth meeting. And this pattern would repeat itself over and over, year after year.

What was the social climate in which all this would be occurring? In the 1920’s and 30’s, single men didn’t, as a general rule, earn enough to live in apartments. They lived in boarding houses. The word homosexual, a technical adjective in the penal code characterizing illegal aberrations in heterosexual behavior, did not yet appear in any standard dictionary. “Homosexual,” as a technical adjective, designated heterosexual men who occasionally were apprehended for engaging in perverted or degenerate acts. These monstrous practices, denounced by biblical and traditional common laws alike, were considered not only social but also political crimes against community standards, crimes that had to be obliterated whenever detected. People who had fallen so low as to engage in them must either be cured for their own good, forcibly if necessary, or be put away for the protection of society.

This general attitude, maintained by both Church and State, vigorously expounded on the front pages of the press and periodically denounced by the editorial sections, guaranteed that the established limits of decorum were being observed by the community. Nineteenth-century America, however else it might have perceived itself, was socially divided into two groups, those who kept up with the Joneses and considered themselves respectable—and then there were those others! Borrowing from the French author Alexandre Dumas, those others were the demimondaine, the shadowy half-world people who chose not to show themselves by the full light of day but only in the twilight. Players, opera singers, ballet dancers, vaudeville performers, professional card-sharps, riverboat gamblers, acrobats, jugglers, muscle-men, magicians, clairvoyants, soothsayers—the women you would never bring home to meet your mother, the men you would never let your sister marry.

From the point of view of the people of the demimonde, the twilight world made perfect sense. It was their world, and its traditional and particular multicultural morality suited their lifestyle. Touring circuses, theater companies, or vaudeville acts, straggling from town to town, were never welcome except in designated disreputable hotels and boarding houses, and even here they were permitted to enter only by the servants’ entrance. Such was “the gay world” in the 19th century, and this pattern did not change, even in the U.S., until the demise of vaudeville [in the 1930’s]. The gay twilight world was made for those who slept by day and rose in the afternoon, those who took afternoon coffee and a croissant at kiosks along the street, along riverbanks, or in parks. This gathering of shadows in the waning light was for those who took brisk turns along winding paths as afternoons turned to twilight and lamps began to bloom between trees in early evening. This twilit world was for those who met one another along these walks and shared biscuits and wine before repairing to whatever stage or music hall they might be engaged with.

The downside of the twilight world was that because its milieus were necessarily places of shadow and darkness, where thieves and thugs and blackmailers also abounded, it was a world outside of the law. The people who frequented this world did so at their own risk, and when, as happened quite frequently, there was a police roundup of scoundrels and malefactors in such areas—usually not carried out until after the entertainers had gone off to their several billets—and innocent or unsuspecting bystanders were inadvertently caught up in such a sweep, they stood to lose not only their reputations, but—when the story was published, with pictures, on the front page of the newspaper—their lodgings and livelihoods as well. When the police sweeps related to immoral behavior, the additional social and political ostracism was immediate and total. Homosexual behavior was a despised heterosexual perversion according to law, medicine, and religion. If a person was discovered harboring homosexual inclinations, he was adjudged a heterosexual who had gone bad, who had become degenerate—someone not to be tolerated in decent society.

WHEN I was growing up in the 1920’s, and was grown in the 1930’s, this was what we all heard night and day, day in and day out; it was in the air you breathed. There were those who, like me, didn’t believe it, who knew that what we carried was a shining, golden, pulsating dream, a wonderful alternative window to goodness, for which as yet we had no words—and somehow I knew that I was going to find some words for it. There were those who felt they couldn’t help being what they were, and who formed little cliques when they were lucky enough to find others like themselves. But there were those who never found another of these “twilight men.” And there were those who hated being what they were, those who tried to drown their self-loathing in liquor or drugs, and who cruised dangerously.

Our greatest dangers in such outlaw decades were from sneak-raids on public cruising places—always in the three-month stretch just before an election—ABC raids (for Alcoholic Beverage Commission) on those few bars that occasionally would serve you drinks in a dark corner at four times the going price. From 1935 on, blackmailers and the vice squad had nightly quotas of entrapments to carry out. Of all these dangers, the bottom line threatening the twilight world—from the 1830’s through the 1970’s—at all times was public exposure and censure. Arrest in a raid, publication of your name in the paper, automatically guaranteed that you would be seen as guilty even before the trial. The cops would call your boss, so you usually lost your job; they would call your landlord, so you’d lose your lodging. The insurance companies would cancel your policies if you had a car. Entrapment usually guaranteed exposure, unless your lawyer were able to fix it so you could cop to a lesser charge by bribing the arresting detective or softening up the judge. Otherwise, it would be a felony sentence of up to six or ten years in a state prison on a first offense. After you had completed your sentence on a first conviction, you would be required to register with the police every time you moved, for the rest of your life. A second conviction—in any category of a “morals” charge—and you would be sent to Atascadero State Prison to be cured of your depravity. Atascadero gave you a choice of “curing” method: castration or lobotomy. These conditions ruled our lives and loves in the state of California until State Penal Code item #541-C-C was amended by rescinding portions of its subsections in 1975.

It’s an old but still useful cliché among progressives and trade union activists that, socially or politically, the middle class has never produced anything of significance, because middle-class people, regardless of how collectively motivated they may be, always have personal investments to protect—a career they have worked years to develop, a social or political position they have sacrificed so much to attain. Any political movement would have to originate from below. My first Mattachine Society was no exception. It emerged equally from the rough-and-tumble trade-union organizing experiences of one of us, and from the outlaw underground community organizing experiences undertaken in the previous decade by the other three (sometimes four) of us. We all knew how to invoke the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment to protect membership lists or activities from unwelcome scrutiny, if and when the local police or the Feds got nosey. Like experienced left-wing fellow travelers everywhere, we all automatically assumed we would be infiltrated by the FBI. And, as it turned out, we weren’t wrong.

For us queers, the political climate at the state and local levels had been ominous forever: social behavior and morality had always been matters of states’ and municipalities’ concern. But our federal rights, our labor-union rights to organize and develop social programs, had never been questioned. Now suddenly, in 1948, the political climate had turned ominous. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s scurrilous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) witch hunt, the disgracing of Hollywood actors, writers, and directors who were Marxist-oriented activists or sympathizers, had dragged on for months, terrifying decent people into becoming public snitches. All this demoralized the nation’s entire cultural environment. “Loyalty oaths” became everywhere a prerequisite for public or professional employment. America seemed to be moving rapidly toward the type of police state in which public scapegoating had already proven itself to be a highly effective and inexpensive form of control. With President Truman’s rush to recognize the new state of Israel, with his push to integrate Negroes into the armed forces, with the further integration of blacks into organized labor, it was obvious to me, as I wrote in the original Call-to-Organize in 1948, that the political scapegoat victim this time around would be us, the queers! We had to begin finding out who we were, what we might be able to be for: we had to organize!

Meanwhile, even with copies of my Call-to-Organize and a new book, Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 Sexual Behavior and the Human Male (which I carried to give me credibility), it took me two long, lonely, scary years to find my first recruit [Rudi Gern-reich, who was also Hay’s lover]. Forming a society of two, and determined to get a discussion group going, we went to an unmarked section of Santa Monica Beach that we knew was frequented by gay brothers. Because the media were whipping up support for the Korean War and Red Scare hysteria was going full blast, we figured that asking brothers to sign our Stockholm Peace Petition would be so far-out-scary-radical that they’d be more interested in agreeing to come to a “Kinsey Report” discussion group, right? Wrong! By the end of the summer, we had gotten 500 signatures on our petition, and had found not one person who would dare come to our discussion group, so overpowering was the terror of police reprisal or blackmail.

The next three members  [Bob Hull, Dale Jennings, and Chuck Rowland] came out of the 1950 fall historical materialism music classes that I had developed for teaching people’s songs at the Southern California Labor School. We—the first five of the group that we would call the Mattachine Society five months later—all had previously trained in underground struggles for social and political justice. We knew that we brothers were of a different consciousness from the heterosexuals around us. We knew we were not the degraded, degenerate monsters that society’s laws and religious prejudices made us out to be. But we also knew that we didn’t yet have the concepts, let alone the words, to say so.

At our first discussion group, in December 1950, eighteen of us sat for two hours not really knowing what to say to one another but sensing that no one wanted to leave. At the second meeting, to break the ice, the three of us present from the five-member steering committee started the ball rolling by “coming out” to one another. After about two hours of this, it suddenly flashed on us all that just maybe we each had more in common with the others in this room, friends and newcomers alike, than we had ever had with anybody before, in all our lives! For the first time in any of our experience, we were feeling the prickling surge of collective Brotherhood.

The three of us realized that by this process we’d turned a major corner in our perception of gay consciousness. People couldn’t wait for the next meeting to learn more about each other, and so about themselves through the experiences of others, and to bring a friend. The golden dream of Brotherhood was enveloping us all. Twenty years later, in the 1970’s, this process would be known as “consciousness-raising raps.” But in 1951, we had not developed such concepts, let alone the words. We just knew we’d invented the organizing tool we’d been looking for. This contagious fever for brotherhood developed for the First Mattachine a mailing list of about 5,000 people in California alone, in 1952, right in the teeth of Senator McCarthy’s witch hunt!

Of course, our luck didn’t last: our very excitement attracted the first wave of opportunistic, middle-class assimilationists, the negative-imaging homosexuals so unlike the joyous, positive-imaging gay brotherhood of the earlier pioneering wave, opportunists who would insist that we were all exactly the same as heterosexuals except in bed, and that we had nothing in common with one another except our sexual inclinations. My first Mattachine Society set itself the task of functioning by unanimity. Over the next two and half years, 27 Brotherhood Guilds were established. Each guild was responsible for two discussion groups a month. Discussion groups could range from less than fifteen at one meeting to more than 75 at the next. In the course of the first blooming, the Society undertook to publicize and openly defend a vice squad entrapment case against one of its members [Dale Jennings], forcing the city of Los Angeles to withdraw the charges, in the summer of 1952. [The founding of the Mattachine and the Jennings trial are recounted in Jon Maran’s play The Temperamentals, which had a successful Off-Broadway run in 2009.]

This victory brought on that wave of opportunists, expropriating everything in the way of their own assimilationist agenda—thus trampling the bloom of the guild brotherhoods in the process. Still, the sudden burst of marvelous fairy inventiveness involved in publicizing this campaign and raising funds for it was unprecedented. The Lester Horton Dance Theater hosted perhaps the first theater performance benefit for gay concerns in our history, and drew a full house; a weekend dance and beach party at Zuma Beach attracted over 500 paying guests during its sixty hours of revelry; and we papered certain areas of the city, including bus stops, with upwards of 10,000 pieces of literature on three occasions.

Out of the heady swirls of cultural togetherness that these five months of activity engendered, a dozen or so Mattachiners coalesced to start the first ongoing gay magazine in the U.S., One, the Homosexual Viewpoint, which first appeared in January 1953 and continued to appear monthly for nearly twenty years. ONE Inc., which in 1955 had been barred by the U.S. Post Office from distributing sexually-oriented materials through the mails, sued and won a Supreme Court decision in 1958 to the effect that gay-oriented materials may be sent through the mails provided they contained material of artistic and/or educational merit. One, recognizing the clarion call of its masthead, Thomas Carlyle’s lovely phrase, “A mystic bond of brotherhood makes all men one,” launched the first nationwide annual Homophile Cultural Conference in January of 1954.

The second wave of Mattachine Societies—the hetero-imitative “Robert’s Rules of Order” opportunists who had nothing in common with each other but their sexual inclination—were mainly concerned about getting their several states’ laws changed—a quest they soon discovered they had neither the organization nor the experience to accomplish. Business-like, no-nonsense chapters met in L.A. and San Francisco in the fall of 1953 and the spring of 1954. By the fall of 1954, the L.A. chapter had gotten bored and started to decline, but San Francisco had started the Mattachine Review in the summer of 1954, and its success would keep a semblance of a chapter alive for three or four years.

In 1955 two lesbian couples in San Francisco would found the Daughters of Bilitis with its own publication, The Ladder, which would also continue to appear for nearly twenty years. Like the second wave of the Mattachine Society, the DOB would spread several chapters across the country, likewise middle-class, orderly, and respectable, although probably never as hypocritically respectable as was the Denver Mattachine under the leadership, in 1956, of the Rev. Carl Harding, who recommended that all homosexual men marry heterosexually and keep a boy on the side.

In 1957, ’58, and ’59, the Denver, San Francisco, and New York Mattachine chapters mounted a National Mattachine Convention in one of the three cities: it was mostly for show, but the events did develop the outlines of inter-city and inter-state relations. In San Francisco, in 1959, a representative from the mayor’s office was introduced to the Assembly, and his remarks attracted the brief attention of the local press. Fliers were being circulated; word was getting around; homophiles as political entities were beginning to emerge. Homophiles disguised as hetero-imitative assimilationists were noted for being present on occasion, although their opinions were not yet being sought.

But the golden dream of brotherhood, which had bloomed so buoyantly in the first Mattachine Guilds, had been snuffed out, not to appear again until we once more started using a variation of the “coming-out-to-one-another” process at an encounter-type community outreach conference in San Francisco in May 1969. And that had set us back for years! The middle-class assimilationists who inundated us first in the fall of 1952 (the “A” gays, as the [Radical] Faeries call them, who are still with us now in hordes), wasted First Mattachine’s golden dream of brotherhood and totally scotched the notion that we might be a cultural minority. Yet when Stonewall burst onto the scene sixteen years later, the new brothers and sisters assumed everybody had always known we were a cultural minority since Day One!


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