Alison Dickman: So When Did the Gay Rights Movement Begin?Roundup: Talking About History
Historians have disagreed over the origin of the modern gay civil-rights movement, debating whether it began in the 1950s or 1960s or even earlier.
This year, the argument was re-ignited with some prodding by Equality Forum organizers who suggest it originated in Philadelphia.
Organizers of Equality Forum, which runs through May 1, have dubbed this year's event the "40th Anniversary of the GLBT Civil Rights Movement," and also referred to Philadelphia as the site of the first gay and lesbian civil rights demonstrations. While the July 4, 1965, protest held by more than 40 gays and lesbians outside Independence Hall was noteworthy because it was repeated every year through 1969, many historians question its significance in the overall movement.
"There's no basis for considering the first annual reminder as a founding, launching or in any way decisive event in the history of the g/l/b/t movement in the U.S.," said John D'Emilio a University of Illinois history, gender and women's studies professor who has written many books on the U.S. gay civil-rights movement.
D'Emilio also noted that the 1965 protest cannot even lay claim to being the first public protest of gays and lesbians in the country.
That distinction is given to a September 1964 event in New York City, where a group of gays and lesbians protested against the anti-gay policies of the U.S. military in front of Manhattan's Whitehall Induction Center.
Gay activist organizations first used picketing as a protest tactic in April 1965 outside the White House, said Mark Meinke, founder of the Rainbow History Project in Washington, D.C.
The Rainbow History Project works to collect, preserve and promote the history, arts and culture of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities in the nation's capital.
It recently documented the history of the April 1965 protest in Washington, D.C., which led to the adoption of picketing as a tactic to disseminate the message of the gay civil rights movement.
Jack Nichols and Washington Mattachine Society founder Frank Kameny organized the demonstration to protest anti-gay discrimination by the U.S. government, as well as the Cuban government. It had been reported at the time that Fidel Castro was forcing gays into concentration-like camps.
Kameny, who was a close observer of the African-American civil rights movement, adopted its use of picketing to publicize the mistreatment of gays and lesbians, Meinke said.
After picketing several more times, Washington members of the Washington Mattachine Society joined with the New York Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis for a joint picket in Philadelphia on July 4, 1965.
"The first place gays and lesbians picketed was the White House, but what is a more potent symbol of the U.S. - how about the place where the Constitution was written?" Meinke explained. "And how about doing it on the most patriotic day of the year? That is bound to get you some coverage, too."
David K. Johnson, author of "The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government," (The University of Chicago Press) said the annual reminder marches were significant because they helped change the discourse about gays and lesbians. "By those protesters coming out publicly, and placing themselves very strategically in front of the building that evoked the Declaration of Independence and the idea that all men are created equal, it suggested it [gay rights] was no longer a moral or national security or psychiatric issue ... it was a civil-rights issues," Johnson explained.
Gays and lesbians were publicly stating for the first time that they weren't immoral or sick or engaging in illegal activities - on the contrary - their civil rights were being abused, Johnson said.
What makes the July 4, 1965 demonstration unique is that it was the first demonstration to be repeated annually, something that did not happen with earlier demonstrations in Washington, D.C.
D'Emilio said this is probably because of the symbolism of Independence Hall and its connection to July 4, which made it a convenient and meaningful day to protest every year.
It took courage as a gay or lesbian to stand up for one's rights at that time, when gays were considered perverted and sick, but that does not mean more significance should be given to this date than is due, D'Emilio explained.
"I think, as a marketing tool for the big festival [Equality Forum] in Philadelphia, promoters are trying to inflate the significance of the annual reminders instead of saying 40 years ago, a very brave group of activists were willing to stand up in front of Independence Hall," he said.
"They are creating exaggerated and not sustainable historic claims."
Anniversaries are important to recognize and celebrate as they are an excuse to remember and honor the past, D'Emilio noted, but Equality Forum organizers did not need to make false claims to celebrate the annual reminders' importance.
"It would also be very hard to prove the claim that the annual reminders built toward Stonewall," D'Emilio said. "There were relatively small numbers of people, and they got little public attention, but they were brave activists."
Johnson noted that the demonstrations in Philadelphia were only one of many factors that contributed to the riots at the Stonewall Inn in June 1969, saying there were many other examples of protests occurring at the time.
Most historians point to the Stonewall uprising as the origin of the gay civil-rights movement because it was large, highly publicized, and it sparked subsequent action by radical gays and lesbians around the nation, D'Emilio said.
It turned what had been a relatively small-scale movement, made up of a limited number of organizations based in major cities into something much more widespread, Johnson said.
Each year, gays and lesbians around the country and throughout the world celebrate the anniversary of Stonewall during June pride events, which helps add legitimacy to its importance in the movement, D'Emilio said.
But that is not to say that, depending on how you define it, many other events could not be identified as the start of the movement.
If you define a social movement by the creation of organizations dedicated to fighting for its aims, such as equal rights, some people would say the beginning of the modern gay civil-rights movement was born in the late 19th century in Germany, Meinke said.
In 1897, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee in Berlin, Germany, which petitioned the government to decriminalize "homosexual acts" among men.
In 1924, Henry Gerber, who emigrated from Germany to the United States, formed the Society for Human Rights, the first gay and lesbian organization in the country, based in Chicago.
Gerber's organization was short-lived, and it wasn't until 1950 that the Mattachine Society, another gay rights organization, formed. Then in 1955, Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization, was established.
The founding of Washington Mattachine Society in 1961 was also significant because it was a radical departure from the existing, "homophile" organizations, including other Mattachine Societies in other cities, which believed in assimilation.
"They [Washington Mattachine Society] weren't looking to be accepted or for understanding, and they certainly didn't believe they were sick," Meinke said. "They said we were right, and demanded equal rights."
But he acknowledged that the gay civil rights movement was built on a series of events, saying, "it probably started with the first person who said, 'I am sick and tired of this and I am not going to take it any more.' "
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