The Birth of Gay Rights

It was against this hostile background that the gay rights movement in the U.S. came into existence. In 1948, Harry Hay, a gay man and long-standing member of the U.S. Communist Party (CP), decided to set up a homosexual rights group. This was the first chapter in what gay people at the time described as the “homophile” movement.

Like all Communist Parties around the world, the U.S. party claimed to uphold the tradition of the October Revolution in Russia. One of the early measures of the Bolsheviks had been to end the criminalization of gay people. But by the 1930s, the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy had resulted in the resumption of anti-gay policies both in the Soviet Union and world Communist Parties.

In this situation, determined to pursue his project, Hay asked to be expelled from the CP. In view of his long service, the party declined his request. Together with a small group of collaborators including other former CP members, Hay launched the Mattachine Society (MS) in 1950. This took its name from a mysterious group of anti-establishment musicians in the Middle Ages, who only appeared in public in masks, and were possibly homosexual.

D’Emilio describes the program of the Mattachine Society as unifying isolated homosexuals, educating homosexuals to see themselves as an oppressed minority, and leading them in a struggle for their own emancipation. The MS organized local discussion groups to promote “an ethical homosexual culture.” These argued that “emotional stress and mental confusion” among gay men and lesbians was “socially conditioned.”

Notwithstanding the Stalinist degeneration of the CP in which Hay had received two decades of training, the MS founders clearly applied Marxist methods to understand the position of gay people and chart a way forward. For the structure of Mattachine, Hay utilized the methods of secrecy which the CP had employed in the face of attacks by the authorities, but which also developed against the background of the undemocratic methods of Stalinism in the workers’ movement.

To combat the persecution facing gay people, the Mattachine Society was based on a network of cells arranged in five tiers, or “orders.” Hay and the other leaders comprised the fifth order, but would be unknown to members at first and second “order” levels. For three years, the MS steadily expanded its network of discussion groups. Growth accelerated in 1952 after MS won a famous victory over the police when charges against a Mattachine member in Los Angeles were dropped, following a campaign of fliers by a front organization called the “Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment.”

However, the following year, after a witch-hunting article by a McCarthyite journalist in Los Angeles, the fifth order decided to organize a “democratic convention.” When this took place, the Hay group was criticized from the floor by conservative and anti-Communist elements who demanded that the MS introduce loyalty oaths, which was a standard McCarthyite tactic. The radical leadership managed to defeat all the opposition resolutions, and the demand for a loyalty oath never gained a majority in Mattachine.

Nevertheless, Hay and his comrades decided not to stand for positions in the organization they had established and built. This effectively handed the group over to the conservatives. Many who had supported the original aims left in disgust, and it took two years for the membership to be built up again. If the Hay group had stayed active, it could have offered a pole of attraction for militant LGBT people. As it was, the movement was thrown back and a decade was lost.

Whereas the Mattachine founders had advocated an early version of “gay pride,” the new leadership reflected the social prejudice prevalent against homosexuals. The new MS president, Kenneth Burns, wrote in the Society journal, “We must blame ourselves for our own plight … When will the homosexual ever realize that social reform, to be effective, must be preceded by personal reform?”

The position of the new leadership was that gay people could not fight for changes in U.S. society but had to look to “respectable” doctors, psychiatrists, etc. through whom to ingratiate themselves with the authorities in the hope of more favorable treatment. But the problem was that the vast majority of such figures advocated the idea that homosexuality was a sickness.

Towards the end of this period, when a professional named Albert Ellis told a homophile conference that “the exclusive homosexual is a psychopath,” someone in the audience shouted: “Any homosexual who would come to you for treatment, Dr. Ellis, would have to be a psychopath!”