Gay Rights Before Stonewall

Members of the Mattachine Society, including Harry Hay (upper left)

With all the attention gay rights is receiving, you would think smart journalists for major newspapers would be able to provide an accurate account of how this now potent movement got going. Alas, you would be wrong.

Last week, both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran pieces that assumed the genesis of the gay freedom campaign can be traced to a single dramatic event with a singularly memorable name: Stonewall. In the Times, John Harwood contrasted the black and feminist movements whose history goes back long before the Civil War with “the modern fight for gay rights” which he believes is “less than a half-century old, dating from the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York.” In the Post, Greg Sargent agreed and added a personal note: “I grew up about a half a mile away from the birthplace of the gay rights movement—the site of the Stonewall uprising, in Greenwich Village.”

Now, that battle in June 1969 between gay men and the police who had raided the Stonewall Inn did give the cause a big jolt of visibility—at a time when militant protest had become common on streets and college campuses. It was certainly the only riot of the era to include a Rockettes-style chorus line of drag queens who kicked their heels in the air and sang, “We are the Stonewall girls/We wear our hair in curls/We wear no underwear/We show our pubic hair.”

But nearly two decades of patient, determined public activism had set the stage for that flamboyant, now famous event. In 1951, Harry Hay, Jr., a Los Angeles actor who was then a member of the Communist Party, founded the Mattachine Society, a gay men’s group that took its name from a group of masked fools in medieval France. Four years later, Phyllis Martin and Phyllis Lyon launched the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian rights organization named after a fictional poet who lived alongside Sappho in ancient Greece. The purposely obscure titles of these groups didn’t prevent them from publishing monthly magazines, spawning local chapters, hosting lectures, and urging politicians to repeal laws that made it easy to dismiss homosexuals as “security risks.”

At the same time, a courageous scientist named Frank Kameny was becoming the Rosa Parks of the burgeoning “homophile” movement. In 1957, Kameny, a Second World War veteran and Harvard PhD, lost his job as an astronomer at the Army Map Service in Washington after police arrested him for cruising in Lafayette Park, right across from the White House. Unlike countless other gay men and lesbians who got fired after their orientation was revealed, Kameny decided to fight back. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which, in 1961, declined to hear it. Then Kameny led his fellow D.C. members of the Mattachine Society to confront psychiatrists who insisted on labeling homosexuality as an illness. In 1965, they picketed the White House, where Lyndon Johnson was celebrating passage of the Voting Rights Act, with hand-lettered signs that read, “Full Citizenship for Homosexuals.”

Historians of gay life—such as George Chauncey, Allen Berube, and Lillian Faderman—argue that the movement for equal rights sprouted from a culture increasingly open to sexual frankness and adventure. In the 1920s, openly gay characters appeared in numerous Broadway plays; in the early ’30s, drag balls attracted thousands to such venues as Madison Square Garden. During the Second World War, homosexuals stationed far from home, often for years at a time, felt freer to fulfill their desires, even as the military sought to punish them for doing so.

At one point, General Dwight Eisenhower demanded that the Women’s Army Corps (the WACs) ferret out lesbians from its ranks. One WAC sergeant responded, “If the General pleases I will be happy to do this investigation…But, sir, it would be unfair of me not to tell you, my name is going to head the list…You should also be aware that you’re going to have to replace all the file clerks, the section heads, most of the commanders, and the motor pool.”* One can only understand the advances the gay movement has achieved—like those won earlier by its black, feminist, and labor counterparts—if one appreciates the social environment that produced it.

Perhaps it is unfair to expect reporters on deadline to pay attention to such long-term historical changes. But they and their editors do know how to use a search engine. On Wikipedia, they could quickly learn that Frank Kameny sat in the front row as Barack Obama signed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And, just off Dupont Circle, barely a mile from the headquarters of the Post and the Washington bureau of the Times sits a block that, in 2010, the D.C. government proudly renamed Frank Kameny Way.

Cross-posted from the New Republic.


Michael Kazin is the co-editor of Dissent.

*This exchange is quoted in Lillian Faderman’s Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America (New York, 1991), 118.



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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

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