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Monochrome advertising poster featuring four faces on right
Poster advertising the 1965 conference of East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO). OV 1, Paul Kuntzler Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

LGBTQ History in New Exhibit: “Join In!”

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In 1964, members of the Mattachine Societies of New York and Washington, D.C., the Janus Society of Philadelphia, and the Daughters of Bilitis gathered in Washington, D.C., for the second annual conference of the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO), which sought to organize lesbian and gay rights activists pursuing new strategies in their campaign for equality.

Just over a year later, several of the participants from the 1964 conference picketed the United Nations Headquarters to protest Cuba’s treatment of gay and lesbian citizens. Demonstrations protesting discriminatory hiring practices in the U.S. government followed at the White House, Civil Service Commission, and Pentagon the same year.

The poster displayed above for ECHO’s 1965 conference, drawn from the Paul Kuntzler Papers in the Manuscript Division, serves as a reminder of this increased engagement by LGBTQ activists during the mid-1960s and is featured as part of the new rotation of the “Join In: Voluntary Associations in America” exhibition now on display at the Library of Congress.

For much of the twentieth century “coming out” carried with it a particular meaning associated with friendship, intimacy, and community. The new “Join In” exhibit explores how Americans have engaged in associational life in order “to achieve goals from simple fellowship to social change.” It also highlights the emergence of the LGBTQ community in the United States during the twentieth century.[1]

As historian George Chauncey writes, “Gay people in the prewar years… did not speak of coming out of what we call the ‘gay closet’ but rather coming out into what they called ‘homosexual society’ or the ‘gay world,’ a world neither so small, nor so isolated, nor, often, so hidden as ‘closet’ implies.”[2] Tracking the meaning of this phrase reveals a great deal about how the LGBTQ community developed and emerged over the course of the twentieth century.

Progressive Era men and women might have concealed their sexuality from the general public but, as Chauncey notes, “being forced to hide from the dominant culture did not keep them hidden from each other.” In New York, for example, gay men took part in a “highly sophisticated system of subcultural codes – codes of dress, speech and style – that enabled them to recognize one another on the streets, at work, and at parties and bars…”[3] Women experienced this subculture somewhat differently, but they too established coded means by which to broadcast subtly their sexuality to others.[4] Nonetheless this coded world, emerging in urban spaces like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, was one of the first steps towards established gay and lesbian communities.

In New York, gay culture brushed shoulders with the bohemians and working-class Italian and Irish communities of Greenwich Village, and with African Americans in Harlem. While neither neighborhood would be considered gay or lesbian at the time, these enclaves enabled the growth and development of gay and lesbian subculture.[5]  This dynamic would be repeated later in the century as gay and lesbian communities often shared space with immigrant populations and countercultural movements.[6]

Throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s, the visibility of gay culture grew, but this heightened cultural presence, even if muted, also drew backlash. Several states passed laws criminalizing homosexuality. Depression-era cities cracked down on gay and lesbian communities. Municipal police forces from Los Angeles to New York raided bathhouses and gay bars, arrested “female impersonators,” and monitored other sites of gay community. Increasingly, sexual desire operated as identity; homosexuality was now viewed as a marker of “sexual deviancy and a disturbed inner essence,” as historian Daniel Hurewitz points out.[7]

Yet the state, through circumstance and its own obsessiveness toward homosexuality, also created conditions under which homosexuality could flourish.[8] During World War II, the military operated as a critical site for same sex relationships. Sex segregated barracks, the camaraderie of training and combat, and the bonds of intimacy created by extended deployments led many enlisted men and women to realize their own sexual orientation. Military culture might have been “theoretically heterosexual,” argues Allen Bérbué, but it crackled with homosexual tension.[9] As one historian noted, “World War II created something of a nationwide coming out experience.”[10]

Following the war and with Soviet-U.S. competition at its peak, the era of McCarthyism ushered in a renewed fear of homosexuality, but now as a communist threat. Senator Joseph McCarthy and others asserted that homosexuality was a psychological illness that drew people to communism. “The Red Scare now had a touch of lavender,” observes historian David K. Johnson. In 1954, President Dwight Eisenhower furthered this belief when he issued Executive Order #10450, declaring homosexuality a marker of duplicity and disqualifying gay men and women from obtaining security clearances, a decision that cascaded throughout the government and into the private sector.[11]

During this period, and despite widespread hostility, the gay and lesbian community made some of its first attempts to organize by creating its own institutions, a means of coming out to larger communities through organization and eventual appeals for LGBTQ rights. Two of the most notable were the aforementioned, Mattachine Society, established in 1950, and the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), established in 1955. Both started in California, the former in Los Angeles and the latter, San Francisco.

As part of what is known as the Homophile Movement, organizations like DOB and Mattachine sought a place for homosexual individuals to gain visibility among one another and then in the public sphere, while initially policing themselves internally to ensure their members conformed to middle-class ideals of respectability.[12] Often, people did not even know the real names of fellow members due to fears of being outed. The two organizations emphasized decorum and propriety, deployed the language of patriotic Americanism, and “engaged directly in a state regulated dialogue about homosexuality,” notes historian Nan Boyd.[13]

For the homophile movement, “coming out” initially symbolized “the private decision to accept one’s homosexual desires and to acknowledge one’s sexual identity to other gay men and women,” writes historian John D’Emilio. Yet as the 1950s and 1960s wore on, homophile activists became more assertive, adopting the rhetoric and tactics of minority rights movements, protesting publicly, expressing their sexuality unapologetically, and celebrating gay and lesbian community.[14]

Like the larger homophile movement, the Mattachine Society, while not completely devoid of persons of color, consisted predominantly of white men and some white women. Though founded by two women of color, DOB also remained largely white. Both organizations spread in decentralized fashion to other cities. Despite drawing from the civil rights movement, many non-white gays and lesbians felt ignored, marginalized or discriminated against by their white counterparts.

Historians continue to debate how political these early homophile organizations were. Though Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay and others intended for the organization to engage with politics directly, Hay was ousted by membership within his first few years of leadership. Too many members found Hay’s political stance too left wing and too militant. Some wanted to work on creating a homosexual culture rather than push for greater civil rights. Others wanted to integrate gays and lesbians into mainstream society and avoid the creation of a separate subculture. Whatever one’s conclusion, these organizations established a structure for men and women to discuss their sexual lives, and by extension to construct both personal and political identities that later served the homophile movement politically in its fight for civil rights during the 1960s.[15]

Indeed, as time passed, rights increasingly took a more central place in the movement. The DOB publication The Ladder, first published in 1956, became the first nationally distributed newsletter aimed at addressing the lesbian community and helped to broadcast the need for increased gay and lesbian rights by its existence alone and later in its advocacy.

Monochrome photograph of similar woman against sky background
Cover of The Ladder magazine, January 1966. Box 17, Lilli Vincenz Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

As Mattachine Society and DOB branches emerged in cities across the nation, their tactics, goals, and levels of militancy varied. However, behind the leadership of Washington, D.C., activist Frank Kameny and fellow members such as Paul Kuntzler and Lilli Vincenz, by the 1960s the Mattachine Society of Washington had become one of the most militant of the branches fighting for gay and lesbian rights, notably in employment.

The papers of all three activists can be found in the Manuscript Division and provide further insight into the dynamics of the movement and period. Researchers interested in additional collections pertaining to LGBTQ history can consult the Manuscript Division’s research guide on the subject as well as ones produced by staff in the Serial and Government Publications Division and the Science, Technology and Business Division.

Drawing on examples from the civil rights and feminist movements, Kameny and Vincenz often worked with DOB leaders Barbara Gittings, Kay Tobin, and others in organizing protests, publishing The Ladder, and collaborating to correct America’s homophobic attitudes, including lobbying the American Psychological Association to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness. It did so in 1973.

From the late 1960s into the early 1970s, the number of homophile groups expanded rapidly from about 50 in 1969 to 800 by the early 1970s.[16] As organizations proliferated, leaders in the homophile movement sought to gather in one place to discuss issues, debate methods, and establish a dialogue across the community. This desire led to the formation of the ECHO. Though only lasting from 1962 to 1966, ECHO served as a forerunner of the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO), a subsidiary of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO). Both ECHO and ERCHO furthered the fight for LGBTQ rights.

By the mid- to late 1960s, newer and younger leaders began pushing for more aggressive and militant action. The Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 served as the spark that ignited a new militancy and drew increasing numbers of women and persons of color into the movement. Transgender individuals, though part of the rising movement also felt marginalized by it and formed their own organizations, such the Queens Liberation Front in New York.

The new movement, as represented by the Gay Liberation Front or Movement (GLF), drew upon contemporaneous social movements for influence, just as homophile leaders before them had done. Basing their actions and rhetoric upon the confrontational tactics and language of the antiwar, feminist, New Left, Chicano, and Black Power movements, gay liberationists provided “its newest participants an audacious daring that made the dangers of a public avowal of their sexuality seem insignificant,” notes D’Emilio.[17] Declaring one’s sexual orientation, “coming out,” fused “the personal and the political that the radicalism of the late 1960s exalted.”[18] Though liberationists carried the movement to a new phase, and despite drawing on influences from other social movements, Queer Black, Latino/a, and Asian Americans often felt ignored or excluded. Thus, old issues lingered unsolved.

The GLF was incandescent and though effective, it burned away quickly. Yet its influence and that that of the early homophiles, as demonstrated by the Library’s “Join In” exhibit, persisted. Once forced to hide behind pseudonyms, gays and lesbians began to declare their sexuality proudly. While this progress remains uneven and incomplete, one can view its mid-century accomplishments in the newly opened exhibit. Indeed, “come out” to “join in.”

Many of the collection items discussed above can be seen in person at the Library’s “Join In” exhibit after June 20, 2023. For more on the Library of Congress LGBTQIA+ collections see LGBTQIA+ Studies: A Resource Guide. Also, for collections in the Manuscript Division, see: LGBTQ+ Resources in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

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[1] Wendi Maloney, “Major New Library Exhibition to Open Next Week,” The Library of Congress Gazette, December 9, 2022.

[2] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 7.

[3] Chauncey, Gay New York, 4.

[4] Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009), 22, 23; Nan Alamilla Boyd, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 189-190.

[5] Chauncey, Gay New York, 228, 235.

[6] Josh Sides, Erotic City: Sexual Revolution and the Making of Modern San Francisco (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[7] Daniel Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007), 17.

[8] Allen Bérbué, Coming out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1990); Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).

[9] Bérbué, Coming out Under Fire, 36-37.

[10] John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 24.

[11] David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 16, 123-124.

[12] Boyd, Wide Open Town, 170.

[13] Boyd, Wide Open Town, 186.

[14] Simon Hall, “The American Gay Rights Movement and Patriotic Protest,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 19, no. 3 (September 2010): 540.

[15] Hurewitz, Bohemian Los Angeles, 276-277.

[16] D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, 238.

[17] D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, 233.

[18] D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, 235.

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