Fifty Years of Pride? Try Thousands of Years.
(Editor’s note: this is the first in a new series of LGBTQ history columns, about our pioneers, brought to you by Lambda Literary Award-winning author Ann Aptaker. )
We’ve been cheering, “Fifty years since Stonewall!” for the better part of 2019. Many in our community, particularly our younger members, mark the 1969 Stonewall uprising as the start of our modern LGBTQ rights movement.
These days even five minutes ago is so last year.
The fact is, we’ve been fighting for our rights possibly since ancient times (homosexuality was alternately accepted or criminalized with head-spinning regularity in the classical world), but definitely since the 19th century. Karl Heinrich Ulrichs gave an impassioned speech advocating homosexual rights at the Munich Conference of German Jurists in 1867.
It’s fair to say that though our activist roots reach back in time, the resulting leafy tree of today’s movement is a product of the twentieth century. The post-World War I energy in the cities of Europe and America hosted a colorful, if subterranean, homosexual culture. It was the Roaring ’20s, and no gay culture roared more colorfully than in Weimar Berlin.
Chicago’s Henry Gerber, founder of The Society for Human Rights in 1924, was a homosexual German immigrant serving in the post-WWI American army of occupation in Coblenz.
According to Vern Bulloch’s Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Contexts, Gerber wanted to create in America the political and cultural advocacy of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee, where such luminaries as the writer Christopher Isherwood and actor Conrad Veidt were known to drop by.
But Chicago, despite being a modern American city, wasn’t ready for Weimar-style sophistication and open homosexuality. The old familiar oppression came calling in July 1925 with a raid on the Society. Gerber was arrested, the Society disbanded, its founder financially ruined. But there is ironic justice in Gerber’s ordeal: he lived long enough to see the Stonewall uprising.
Eric Marcus, moderator of the Making Gay History podcast, called Henry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society in 1950, “One tough sissie,” sissie being a term Hay himself embraced. In 1950, a sissie had to be tough.
As Hay mentions in his 1989 interview with Marcus, homosexual acts were relentlessly prosecuted, and homosexual acts meant not only the sex act itself, but how one walked, talked, or dressed. A flick of a man’s wrist or a woman’s firm handshake could land them in prison.
Hay had his first homosexual affair at 14 in 1926, and by 1950 he already had a lifetime of dodging the law. He understood that the law’s term, “deviant,” for gays, lesbians, and people who today identify as trans, meant deviation from society’s single definition of normal: heterosexuality. Under that interpretation, homosexuality had no distinct meaning. Homosexuality was not an is, it was an is not. Since only heterosexuality was legal, homosexuality could only be not legal.
Hay’s idea for the Mattachine Society wasn’t just to advocate for rights, but for gay men to claim their humanity by the radical step of “taking the law into our own hands.”
Hay was one tough sissie.
Speaking of tough, lesbians in the 1950s needed to be tough to handle the double whammy of the general subjugation of women and the victimization of so-called deviant women. If gay men were closeted, lesbians in McCarthy-ite America were positively invisible, even among themselves. In 1955, lesbians in San Francisco did something about it.
Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon are credited as founding the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). I write “credited” because in a 2012 article by Lyon for the Gay & Lesbian Review, she says the idea actually came from (an unnamed) Filipina friend. But it was Martin and Lyon who helmed the organization, steering it through the dangers of the time and other lesbians’ fears of gathering publicly. Social get-togethers were held in members’ homes, out of sight of predatory authorities.
Among the DOB’s many achievements, The Ladder, the first national magazine devoted exclusively to lesbian concerns, is legend. Delaware’s own daughter, Barbara Gittings, served as editor from 1963 to 1966. In addition, Rehoboth’s Anyda Marchant wrote short stories about lesbian women for The Ladder.
Operating on the proverbial shoestring, The Ladder played a significant role in a 1959 California Supreme Court case which challenged a San Francisco lesbian bar’s liquor license for allowing “misconduct” (read: women dancing together and being affectionate). Phooey, said The Ladder and DOB’s amicus brief, and the court agreed. California dykes won and could dance the night way.
In 1969, DOB’s research director, Florence “Conrad” Jaffy, together with two San Francisco doctors, examined attitudes toward homosexuality among mental health professionals. Noted in Jaffy’s papers at the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society of Northern California, Jaffy’s DOB research contributed to the removal of homosexuality as an illness in psychiatry’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. We weren’t “sick” anymore!
So, while it’s been 50 years since Stonewall, it’s been—what? Forever?—that we’ve been raising our fists and our voices. Stonewall? That’s so day before yesterday. ▼
Ann Aptaker is an adjunct professor of art and art history at New York Institute of Technology. Her crime fiction series featuring dapper lesbian art thief and smuggler Cantor Gold has won Lambda Literary and Goldie Awards.