The Rise of Gay Activism

It is thought that many LGBT people who had yet to “come out” (publicly identify themselves as homosexual) became workers in the black civil rights campaign that began in the 1950s. By the following decade, the influence of the civil rights movement was making itself felt within the homophile movement. The “accommodationist” establishment of people such as Burns increasingly came under attack from a fresh generation of militant activists.

Eventually, in both the Mattachine Society and a similarly conservative lesbian group called the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the leadership chose to dissolve the national structure rather than see the organization fall into the hands of radicals. Individual MS and DOB branches then continued on a free-standing basis. In these and other city-based groups, militant leaders managed to win majorities, often after colossal battles.

Within this process, an influential figure was astronomer Frank Kameny, who had been fired from a government job in the anti-gay purges. After unsuccessfully fighting victimization in the courts, he concluded that the U.S. government “had declared war on” him and decided to become a full-time gay rights activist. Kameny was scathing about the old leadership of the homophile movement in their craven deference towards the medical establishment: “The prejudiced mind is not penetrated by information, and is not educable.” The real experts on homosexuality were homosexuals, he said.

Referring to the organizations of the black civil rights movement, Frank Kameny noted: “I do not see the NAACP and CORE worrying about which chromosome and gene produced a black skin, or about the possibility of bleaching the Negro.” As the struggles of U.S. blacks produced slogans such as “Black is Beautiful,” Kameny coined the slogan “Gay is Good” and eventually persuaded the homophile movement to adopt this in the run-up to Stonewall.

The militant homophile campaigners started public picketing with placards and other direct actions, and mounted an offensive against the police and government over criminal entrapment, the employment ban, and a range of other issues.

Twenty years after Harry Hay had first conceived the idea of the Mattachine Society, U.S. society had undergone a transformation. The rise of a women’s movement (with lesbians prominent among the organizers), the shift among black people from a civil rights to a black power movement (parts of which embraced socialist ideas), a revolt against the U.S. war in Vietnam on American campuses influenced by the May 1968 events in France, plus the side effects of other developments such as a rebellion against establishment values in dress and personal relationships among groups such as the hippies, all contributed to gay and lesbian rights campaigns moving into a more militant phase.

One of the strands within the Gay Liberation Front argued that a revolutionary struggle against capitalism to build a socialist society was needed to finally end the oppression of gay people.

Craig Rodwell concludes: “There was a very volatile active political feeling, especially among young people … when the night of the Stonewall Riots came along, just everything came together at that one moment. People often ask what was special about that night … There was no one thing special about it. It was just everything coming together, one of those moments in history that if you were there, you knew, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”