History of LGBT: Homophile Movement

Martin Meeker. Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America. Editor: Marc Stein. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2004. 

The homophile movement flourished in the United States between 1951 and 1970. This organizationally-based social movement used a variety of tactics in its quest to challenge and change patterns of discrimination against homosexuals within the institutions of the media, law, religion, psychology, and medicine. The participants in the movement came from a variety of backgrounds and across the political spectrum, but the majority of leaders were white gay men and lesbians who were middle class, or at least were college educated and held professional jobs. Homophile organizations were located in cities throughout the United States, with San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia hosting the most active and longest lasting of the groups. Arguably, the most significant homophile organizations were the Mattachine Society, ONE Incorporated, and the Daughters of Bilitis.

Although the movement was led by homosexuals who hoped to better the position of homosexuals in general, the favored term used by the leaders to describe themselves as well as their movement was “homophile,” meaning “loving the same.” Though derived from Greek, homophile is a modern term. It was first used in Germany in the 1920s, but not until the 1940s did it appear with any regularity. At that time, the burgeoning postwar homosexual civil rights movement in continental Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Switzerland, adopted the term. Whether or not it was directly imported to the United States in the early 1950s is not known for sure. But shortly before the term was employed and distributed by the Amsterdam-based International Committee for Sexual Equality in the 1950s, it already was being used by U.S. homophile organizations. Homosexual activists in the United States chose this term because it shifted the emphasis away from sex. The decision to use this specific descriptive term caught the attention of subsequent activists and scholars. Many activists and scholars influenced by the gay liberation movement of the 1970s argued that the use of “homophile” demonstrates that the 1950s activists were conservative and that they felt a degree of shame about the sex lives of homosexuals. Beginning in the late 1990s, however, scholars have seen the use of “homophile” as part of a deliberate strategy used by the organizations to assert the common humanity of homosexuals, to remove homosexuality from a medical context, and to provide a word that might replace “pervert” or “deviate” and thus serve as a benign euphemism for homosexuality.

The accepted starting point for the homophile movement in the United States is 1951 with the establishment of the Mattachine Foundation in Los Angeles under the leadership of Harry Hay, Chuck Rowland, Dale Jennings, and others. The short-lived Chicago-based Society for Human Rights, founded in 1924, borrowed ideas from the Weimer-era German homosexual civil rights movement and thus can be described as a predecessor to the movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Several founders of the Mattachine Foundation, including Harry Hay, had been members of the Communist Party USA. Although he had his party membership revoked once it was learned he was homosexual, Hay nevertheless remained influenced by both the structure and ideology of the party. Borrowing from Marxist ideology, Hay and the other founders argued that homosexuals must develop a group consciousness as an oppressed class as a prerequesite to ending their oppression. This political perspective has led some historians, John D’Emilio among them, to label the Mattachine Foundation “radical.” The founders also borrowed the cell-based organizational structure used by the Communist Party to shield the leadership from public notoriety, though it actually had the effect of making the organization undemocratic and opaque to the rank-and-file members. For the founders, the first step in building a minority consciousness and social movement was to initiate small “discussion groups” in which male and female homosexuals could gather to talk about issues both personal and political.

From its home in Los Angeles, the movement spread along friendship networks throughout urban California. The Mattachine Foundation, however, lasted little more than a year. In early 1953 the leaders of the organization found themselves at the center of a controversy that they were unable to quell because of their secretive structure and because of the deliberate divide between the leaders and members. As a result, in March 1953 a new cadre of leaders, including Hal Call and Ken Burns, was elected and the Mattachine Society was formed. Over the next four years, the organization expanded greatly as new chapters were established in New York, Chicago, and Denver, and as it began publishing a monthly magazine, the Mattachine Review, which lasted from 1954 to 1966. Individual chapters, particularly the headquarters in San Francisco, focused on building relationships with local lawyers, ministers, doctors, psychologists, and journalists who were sympathetic to the cause of homosexual civil rights; the chapters also spent an ever-increasing amount of time serving homosexuals who needed help finding a fair lawyer, a good job, an understanding psychologist, and a welcoming place to live.

Shortly before the Mattachine Foundation became the Mattachine Society in January 1953, a multiethnic group of homosexual men, many of whom like Dale Jennings participated in the foundation, started ONE magazine. Although the Review and ONE both fit well within the scope of homophile activism, ONE is now and was then generally regarded as more political and more interested in reaching a gay audience than the Review. As the main activities of the Mattachine Society migrated to San Francisco between 1953 and 1957, the publishers of ONE in Los Angeles started doing work very similar to the work of the Mattachine Society chapters. Included among these activities were educational programs in “homophile studies.” The educational program of ONE, sponsored in part by female-to-male transsexual Reed Erickson after 1964, expanded throughout the 1950s and 1960s and resulted in the publication of the ONE Institute Quarterly of Homophile Studies from 1968 to 1973 and the establishment of a graduate program in homophile studies, which won approval to grant Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from the California State Department of Education in 1981.

Although lesbians—or, as many preferred to be called at the time, “gay women”—participated in both the Mattachine Society and ONE, in 1955 a small group of women in San Francisco founded the first homophile organization exclusively for lesbians. Initially not a civil rights or publications-oriented organization like the male-dominated Mattachine and ONE, the Daughters of Bilitis began as a social alternative to the lesbian bar scene. Shortly after its founding, however, two members of the group, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, took it in a more public direction, arguing that if they were going to help end the isolation of others like themselves, they would need to reach out beyond their immediate friendship circles. Interestingly enough, even though they were located in San Francisco, the founders of the Daughters of Bilitis made their initial moves toward activism and publicity without ever having heard of the Mattachine Society. However, by the end of 1956, the Daughters of Bilitis had established itself within the increasing circle of homophile organizations and had begun publishing a well-respected and widely read magazine, the Ladder . Emulating the pattern established by the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis established branch chapters in several locations throughout the country. Still, individuals rather than chapters would make the most sustained contribution to the organization. Along with Lyon and Martin, Barbara Gittings in Philadelphia and Gene Damon (Barbara Grier) in Kansas City played key roles in producing the Ladder and in spreading the word about the organization.

Research is beginning to shed light on the role sex differences played in the homophile movement. Apparently, the issue was handled in different ways across a range of locales. For example, according to Marc Stein’s research, mixed-sex organizations thrived for some time in Philadelphia, where activists believed that such arrangements would counter the perceived disreputability of mostly single-sex homosexual gatherings. In San Francisco, however, home to the national headquarters of both the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, organizations were sex segregated and leaders focused on activism particular to the needs of either male or female homosexuals, but generally not both. What the different locations and organizations appear to have had in common, though, was a primary focus on immediate struggles like arrests and lost jobs and only a secondary concern about philosophical questions such as differences between the sexes. This situation changed in the mid-1960s when lesbian activists, including Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, started to participate in Second Wave feminism and began to critique the sexism of the male-dominated homophile movement.

Beginning around 1960, what can be characterized as a second-wave of homophile activism emerged. This period, which lasted through the early years of gay liberation, was marked by more aggressive activism but also by activism that still fit within the standard of a liberal civil rights ideology and not a foundation-altering critique and revolutionary practice. The second phase also was more national in scope than the first and it gained more notice from homosexuals and heterosexuals around the globe. The second phase is best evidenced by the appearance of new or reoriented organizations. In San Francisco, for instance, several new organizations were founded between 1960 and 1966 that expanded the work of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Included in this group were the Tavern Guild, a mutual-aid organization made up of gay bar employees and owners, and the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, a coalition-building organization that educated the clergy about homosexuality and allowed the clergy to lend their moral authority to the cause of homosexual civil rights. Alongside the new organizations, new and aggressive publications began to appear. In Philadelphia in 1963, Clark Polak took over the leadership of the mixed-sex Janus Society and soon pushed the organization further in the direction of sexual liberation than any other homophile organization had gone. Polak accomplished this largely through the publication of Drum magazine from 1964 to 1969. Drum , featuring sexological articles by Albert Ellis and fiction by James Barr, in many ways resembled the Mattachine Review and ONE; however, alongside the standard homophile fare of news, reviews, and reports, Drum included articles on sex, provocative gay cartoons, and male physique photography. Within the context of publications like Drum and the many that followed, the homophile movement pioneered the joining together of activism, sex, and commerce in the early 1960s.

The second-wave homophile organizations also added public protest to their repertoire of activism. For instance, in 1964 a handful of homophile activists, including Craig Rodwell and Randy Wicker, staged at Whitehall Induction Center in Manhattan what is recognized as the first public protest on behalf of homosexuals, in this case contesting the military’s exclusion of homosexuals. Although some activists criticized public protest as brazen, such events became a more common and widely accepted tactic among homophiles through the latter half of the 1960s. The figure most closely associated with the second wave of homophile activism is Franklin Kameny, an astronomer with a Harvard Ph.D. who was fired in 1957 from his job at the U.S. Army map service when it was learned that he had been arrested for lewd conduct in 1956. Kameny actively challenged his dismissal by contesting the Civil Service ban on homosexual employees that was instituted by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953. Unable to regain his job, Kameny focused on changing the discriminatory policies and, eventually, on challenging the American Psychological Association’s designation of homosexuality as an illness. Although people like Franklin Kameny and Randy Wicker played key roles in ushering in a new phase of homophile activism, many leaders from the 1950s also continued to push boundaries in the 1960s. In 1967 the Mattachine Society’s Hal Call opened the nation’s first gay bookstore, and in 1973 Del Martin of the Daughters of Bilitis was the first lesbian elected to the National Board of the National Organization for Women.

Another feature of the second wave of homophile activism was the move toward creating a regional and even a national homophile movement, in contrast to the early homophile organizations, where there was no such attempt. With the founding of two coalition groups, the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) in 1963 and the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO) in 1966, some homophile activists expressed a desire to make a joint effort toward creating a uniform, national agenda while remaining active in their local organizations. However, the successes of these efforts were compromised by the local nature of many of the most pressing battles of the 1960s: police harassment, bar raids, employment and housing discrimination, and bad press in local newspapers.

The period of homophile activism had mostly ended by 1970, following the rise of gay liberation and lesbian feminism and the 1969 Stonewall Riot. Both larger cultural trends, such as the emergence of the counterculture and the New Left, and more specific changes, such as an aging first generation of activists, contributed to the shift in activist generations as well as in activist ideologies and tactics. Since the 1990s, however, scholarship has demonstrated that the divide between homophiles and later activist generations (including, but not limited to, gay liberation) has been somewhat overemphasized and that the continuities within twentieth-century homosexual movements are as pronounced as are the differences. Furthermore, vestiges of homophile activism persisted well into the 1970s with organizations, like San Francisco’s Society for Individual Rights, and activists, like Washington, D.C.’s Franklin Kameny, bridging the divide between the eras in a manner that defies easy periodization.

The homophile movement has received a good deal of attention by historians, especially since John D’Emilio wrote about it in his groundbreaking 1983 book, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities. However, many historical discussions of the homophile movement have downplayed the significance and successes of homophile organizations. These accounts have also claimed that the homophiles were assimilationist, accomodationist, conservative, and generally ineffective. Historical research based on newly opened archives and interviews with individuals influenced by the organizations has shown quite clearly that the terms traditionally used to characterize the movement are generally inadequate to account for the complexity of the historical context. It is important to recognize that the first generation of scholars to examine the homophile movement in historical perspective did so from the vantage point of the gay liberation movement. Consequently, many early histories of the homophile movement reveal as much about gay liberationists’ need to validate their perspectives in their historical moment, to offer an explanation and justification for their arrival onto the political scene, as they do about the homophile movement itself. While these historical accounts enrich the record as they recover forgotten personalities, organizations, and events, they should also be read as primary documents of the gay liberation movement and movement-influenced scholarship.

So, then, how might scholars begin a new phase of researching and writing about the homophile movement? Along with comparing the movement to the latter gay liberation struggles, many have compared the homophile movement to the contemporaneous black civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Historians, activists, and other commentators have pointed not only to a common era but also to similar battles with police, psychologists, and a hostile public as well as struggles over the definition of self and group identity. The comparisons between the black civil rights movement and the homophile movement, however, strike some as unfair, not only to black activists but to the homophiles as well. After all, urban homosexual communities in the 1950s are hardly comparable to black communities in urban or rural areas during the same period. If historians must draw comparisons, it might be worthwhile to borrow terms and concepts used to describe the black urban movements of the 1910s and 1920s, such as mutual-aid and self-help activism and strategies of respectability and integration. These and other concepts might better describe the homophile’s context and be more appropriate to use when evaluating the relative successes and failures of the homophile movement on its own terms. Such an approach should allow for a more complex picture than that which the rhetorical polarities of “conservative” versus “radical” or “assimilationist” versus “separatist” permit. Moreover, more historically anchored concepts might demonstrate that certain kinds of activism are suited to certain stages of community development and, in fact, are necessary for communities experiencing various forms of discrimination and even oppression to continue to develop. Not only would such perspective provide a better understanding of the homophile movement itself, but it also would provide insight into the relationship between the process of community building and evolving forms of community-based social and political movements.