Category Archives: Political

Gay History: The Raid On The Rainbow Lounge – Fort Worth, Texas, 28th June 2009

The Rainbow Lounge raid occurred in the early morning hours of June 28, 2009, at the Rainbow Lounge, a newly opened gay bar in Fort Worth, Texas.[1] The raid was carried out by members of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) and the Fort Worth Police Department.[2] Several customers were arrested for public intoxication and one customer, Chad Gibson, received a severe head and brain injury while in custody. The police also claimed the customers made sexual advances and contact with them. Other customers were detained and later released without arrest.[3]

In response to this incident, several of the witnesses in the bar that evening, including Todd Camp, the artistic director of the local gay and lesbian film festival, began a grassroots awareness campaign with the launch of the informational Facebook page “Rainbow Lounge Raid.” Over the next several weeks, the page’s membership grew to nearly 15,000. Several local organizers planned a protest on the steps of the Tarrant County Courthouse the next afternoon. The Dallas-based LGBT rights group Queer Liberaction organized a candlelight vigil for the victim, a Milk Box event, and a later more formal protest.

It has been of particular interest to the media that the raid took place on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a notable raid of a gay bar which prompted the modern gay rights movement.[2] The address of the club, 651 South Jennings Avenue, is a classic location of gay bars in Fort Worth.[4]

Todd Camp, Journalist & Patron of the Rainbow Lounge the Night it Was Raided on June

At the City of Fort Worth’s first council meeting since the Rainbow Lounge Raid, and after an attendee of the meeting called out for an apology, the Mayor apologized for the events at the Rainbow Lounge.[5] The next day after the apology was reported nationally and internationally, the Mayor said the apology was taken out of context and that he was referring to the injury not the actual raid.[6]

The Rainbow Lounge in Ft. Worth, Texas

As a result of the raid, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission fired 3 individuals and disciplined two others.[7][8] The agency also completed some previously scheduled changes including increased cultural diversity training.[9]

A separate “Use of Force” investigation determined that two charges: (a) “that the Rainbow Lounge was targeted for being a gay bar”, and (b) that TABC officers “used force beyond what was necessary and reasonable”, were both unfounded.[10] However, TABC Administrator Alan Steen announced that “TABC’s five regional Educational Liaisons are being re-named Community Liaisons, and will be tasked with reaching out to diverse community groups including GLBT organizations as well as associations representing racial, ethnic and religious minorities.”[10] Steen also appointed TABC’s Director of Communications and Governmental Relations as the agency’s liaison to the GLBT community “in an effort to improve communication around the state.”[10]

Raid at a Club in Texas Leaves a Man in the Hospital and Gay Advocates Angry

The Rev. Carol West and Brian Nesbitt at a candlelight vigil on Wednesday outside the Rainbow Lounge in Fort Worth. Credit John F. Rhodes/Dallas Morning News

FORT WORTH — The grand opening sign still hangs above the door of the Rainbow Lounge, but the recently opened dance club has already become a rallying point for gay men and lesbians here, after a raid by law enforcement last week left one man hospitalized with a head injury and prompted complaints of brutality.

The raid in the early hours of June 28 by Fort Worth police officers and agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has set off a political uproar and galvanized gay advocates in Fort Worth, who have traditionally been less vocal than in Dallas and Houston. After years of keeping a low profile, gay men and lesbians in Fort Worth say they are furious, and their complaints have spread on the Internet, attracting support from gay rights groups across the country.

They have organized protests and formed a new organization, Fairness Fort Worth, to keep track of various investigations into the incident that have begun or been requested. They also have taken up collections and organized a benefit concert to help the injured.

“It has brought this community together so tight — it’s almost impermeable now,” said Randy Norman, the manager of the lounge.

The incident has drawn even more attention because of its timing; it came on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riot in New York City, widely considered to be the start of the gay rights movement.

Law enforcement officials have begun an investigation into the accusations of brutality, and internal affairs officers from the state liquor authority were interviewing employees of the club on Friday afternoon, sifting through conflicting accounts of what had happened.

Fort Worth’s police chief, Jeffrey W. Halstead, initially stood behind his officers, saying Monday that patrons had provoked the scuffle by making sexual gestures toward officers.

But as the week went on, Chief Halstead backed away from that stance. By Thursday, he had ordered an inquiry, suspended operations with the state beverage commission and promised to give police officers “multicultural training.” He declined a request for an interview.

“Make no mistake, if our officers acted in error, this department will address the problem,” Chief Halstead said in an open letter to the community posted on the city’s Web site on Thursday. Chief Halstead said the state agents, not his officers, had been the ones who had taken the hospitalized man into custody.

Alan Steen, the administrator of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, has put two officers involved in the raid on desk duty and said an inquiry would be conducted.

Several witnesses said six police officers and two liquor control agents used excessive force as they arrested people during the raid.

Chad Gibson, a 26-year-old computer technician from Euless, about 15 miles northeast of Fort Worth, suffered a concussion, a hairline fracture to his skull and internal bleeding after officers slammed his head into a wall and then into the floor, witnesses and family members said. Mr. Gibson was still hospitalized on Friday evening as doctors monitored a blood clot in his brain, his mother, Karen Carter, said.

Another patron suffered broken ribs, and a third had a broken thumb, said Todd Camp, the founder and artistic director of Q. Cinema, a gay film festival in Fort Worth. Mr. Camp, a former journalist, said he was celebrating his 43rd birthday in the bar when the police arrived at 1:05 a.m.

The officers entered the bar without announcing themselves, witnesses said. Earlier in the night, they had visited two other bars looking for violations of alcohol compliance laws. Those bars do not cater to gay patrons, and the officers had made nine arrests at those establishments on public intoxication charges, officials said.

“They were hyped up,” Mr. Camp said of the officers in the Rainbow Lounge raid. “They came in charged and ready for a fight. They were just telling people they were drunk or asking them if they were drunk, and, if they mouthed off, arresting them.”

More than 20 people were taken out of the bar for questioning, handcuffed with plastic ties and, in some cases, were forced to lie face down in the parking lot, witnesses said. Five were eventually booked on charges of public drunkenness, the police said.

In a statement released Sunday, the police said that two of those arrested had made “sexually explicit movements” toward the officers. Another was arrested after he grabbed a state agent’s groin, the statement said.

Several witnesses dispute that account, saying they had not seen anyone harass the officers. So many questions have been raised about the police account that on Friday afternoon, Mayor Mike Moncrief asked the United States attorney for the Northern District of Texas, James T. Jacks, to review the Police Department’s investigation.

Tom Anable, a 55-year-old accountant who said he was in the bar during the raid, said that for more than a half-hour the officers entered the bar repeatedly in groups of three and escorted people out. Then around 1:40 a.m., he said, the officers started to get rougher, throwing one young man down hard on a pool table.

Minutes later, one of the state agents approached Mr. Gibson, who was standing on steps to a lounge at the back of the bar with a bottle of water in his hands, and tapped him on the shoulder, Mr. Anable said. Mr. Gibson turned and said, “Why?”

Then the officer, who has not been identified, twisted Mr. Gibson’s right arm behind his back, grabbed his neck, swung him off the steps and slammed his head into the wall of a hallway leading to the restrooms, Mr. Anable said. The agent then forced Mr. Gibson to the floor, Mr. Anable said.

“Gibson didn’t touch the officer,” Mr. Anable said. “He didn’t grope him.”

Two police officers and a second state agent arrived and helped subdue Mr. Gibson, kneeling on his back. A lounge employee, Lindsey Thompson, 23, said she saw an officer slam Mr. Gibson’s head into the floor while he was prone with his hands cuffed behind him.

The raid prompted swift action. Hours later, more than 100 people were protesting on the steps of the Tarrant County Courthouse. As the week went on, calls for an independent investigation grew, with a state senator, a group of local business leaders and two churches joining the chorus.

Yet some gay residents said the outcry had been loud in part because what happened at Rainbow Lounge was uncharacteristic for this city of 750,000 people. “This has been unnerving, I know, to a lot of people in Fort Worth because it’s not the Fort Worth we know,” said Joel Burns, a gay member of the City Council. “There is a lot of scratching of people’s heads.”

Kathleen Hicks, a council member who represents the neighborhood where the bar is located, said the accusations of police brutality have rattled the city government and warrant an independent investigation. She added that she had heard no complaints about the bar before the raid.

“It has caused a lot of soul searching within City Hall and beyond,” Ms. Hicks said. “Fort Worth has been able to move quietly along and avoid all the tension and strife that you have seen in other cities, but sometimes you need to have tension and strife. I hope that this will be a wake-up call.”


1 Huffstutter, P.J. (2009-07-06). “Police raid at gay club in Texas stirs ugly memories”. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2009-07-06.

2 ^ a b McKinley, James (July 4, 2009). “Raid at Club in Texas Leaves Man in Hospital and Gay Advocates Angry”. New York Times. Retrieved 2009-07-04.

3 ^ “Man injured during Rainbow Lounge raid in Fort Worth speaks out”. Dallas Morning News. 2009-07-06. Retrieved 2009-07-06.

4 ^ “Erect-a-Set”. Fort Worth Weekly. May 4, 2005. Retrieved 2009-07-15.

5 ^ Associated Press via the Los Angeles Times: Fort Worth mayor apologizes for gay bar raid

6 ^ Associated Press: Fort Worth mayor says apology for injury, not raid; Accessed: 18 July 2009;

7 ^ First Rainbow Lounge Investigation Report Complete Press release of August 6, 2009, TABC Website. Accessed 1 June 2010.

8 ^ TABC Chief Moreno Takes Action Following Rainbow Lounge Investigation Press release of August 28, 2009, TABC Website. Accessed 1 June 2010.

9 ^ Brown, Angela K., Texas liquor board fires 3 over gay bar raid, Houston Chronicle/Associated Press, 2009-04-28

10 ^ a b c Rainbow Lounge Use of Force Report Complete – Agency Announces Further Operational Changes Press release of November 5, 2009, TABC Website. Retrieved 1 June 2010.

11 ^ [1] Raid of the Rainbow Lounge, IMDB. Accessed May 11, 2012.

12 ^ First Rainbow Lounge Police Raid On Fort Worth’S Rainbow Lounge the Subject of New Documentary Article released February 29, 2012, TowleRoad Website. Accessed March 1, 2012.

13 ^ Raid of the Rainbow Lounge: Official Trailer Trailer posted February 21, 2012. Accessed March 1, 2012.


Gay History: The Gay Bars and Vice Squads of 1950’s Los Angeles

A gathering of gay men in Los Angeles in 1951. This group founded the Mattachine Society

In the wake of World War II a conformist impulse reasserted itself in American society. At the same time thousands of gay men found themselves in California after World War II, and they were presented with the problem of living a life in the midst of social disapproval and police repression.

In Los Angeles throughout the 1950s, the culture of gay men functioned very much below the radar. Under constant harassment by the police, homosexuals risked social ostracism and loss of employment if outed.

Homosexuality as a disease

The dominant perception of homosexuality in the 1950s was that it was a disease. The psychiatric community was nearly unanimous in this assessment and others took their cue from this stance. Most employers and government agencies barred homosexuals with morality clauses and they were widely considered to be security risks. In daily language they were often defined as “deviants”, “perverts”, or “inverts”, when they were not being painted as pedophiles.

Psychiatric opinions

In 1952 the American Psychiatric Association published the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for the first time. It included homosexuality as a mental disease.

This was a predominant view in the mental health profession for the entire decade (an important exception was Evelyn Hooker). It was widely conjectured that homosexuality resulted from emotional traumas in childhood, as is the case with other mental illnesses, and that genetics played little to no role. On this basis the practice of conversion therapy took hold, with widespread attempts to change people from homosexual to heterosexual (here are just a few examples from students at Oberlin College in Ohio).

Employment restrictions

It was common practice for employers to prohibit homosexuality. Homosexuals had long been barred from employment in federal jobs, a policy that was reinforced in 1953 by Dwight Eisenhower’s Executive Order 10450. Private employers varied on this issue, but most would fire any employee who was discovered to be gay. Thus at a very basic level, to identify oneself as a homosexual in public was to invite a lifetime of poverty.

Social mores

The disapprobation of psychiatrists and employers reflected the overt hostility of the mainstream American mindset. An unfortunate tendency was for many people to conflate homosexuals with pedophiles and serial killers. Public safety videos of the time made this connection explicit and helped to spread much fear and misinformation.

A survey conducted as late as 1967 for a CBS documentary (see the full program or a shorter version) determined that two thirds of Americans viewed homosexuals with “disgust, discomfort, or fear” while a majority favored laws against all homosexual acts.

Sodomy was illegal in every state until Illinois decriminalized it in 1961, and the laws on this were well enforced in the 1950s. Campaigns in Sioux City, Iowa and Boise, Idaho resulted in multiple arrests and involuntary confinements. There were very few voices that dissented from this policy.

The rise of the gay bar in L.A.

Due to an important court case in 1951, California became the first state where gay bars could legally operate. Although the patrons were frequent targets of police harassment, Los Angeles had a decent number of such establishments by the mid-1950s. This corresponded with the first, halting steps towards creating advocacy organizations for gay rights.

Stoumen v. Reilly

In 1951 the California Supreme Court ruled that a bar could not lose its liquor license because it catered to gay clientele. The case was Stoumen v. Reilly.

While this did little to advance the public acceptance of homosexuality, it did allow gay bars to operate in much of California. While a number of these bars were established in Los Angeles by the 1930s, a new wave joined the fray in the wake of this decision (It should be noted that many were closed in spite of this court ruling in a mid-1950s wave of enforcement).

The Los Angeles gay bars

Some of the well-known gay bars of this time were the House of Ivy and the Windup in Hollywood, and the Crown Jewel, Harold’s, the Waldorf, and Maxwell’s in downtown Los Angeles.

Many of the gay bars in Los Angeles were located near Pershing Square, which was a cruising ground in

The character of these places varied widely, reflecting divisions within the gay community. The Crown Jewel was known as a rather straight-laced bar, with a dress code and many patrons who wished to remain discreet. Maxwell’s operated on a different end of the spectrum, with a much more flamboyant crowd.

The more conservative group of the gay community took pains to distance themselves from the “obvious” crowd, believing that they perpetuated negative stereotypes and drew unwanted attention. Helen Branson, who operated the Windup, wrote:

“I have not touched on the problem of the obvious homosexual. He is in the minority. I think he brings the censure of the public not only on himself, but is the main cause of all averse judgment against the group as a whole…. I do not welcome this type in the bar. I am rude to them, watch them closely for any infraction of my arbitrary rules, and they soon leave.”

Other recreation: bathhouses, parks, and parties

Bars were not the only place where gay men congregated in this time period. There were bathhouses and parks that were known to be more homosexual, and small groups held house parties and private engagements. None of these places were particularly more safe than the others in regards to police harassment. Even a private home party could be the target of a sting operation and as such, invitations to them were very few. It was thus quite difficult for individual gay men to coalesce into a broader community.

The homophile movement and the Mattachine Society

The creation of the first gay bars in L.A. corresponded with the rise of a group called the Mattachine Society.

The Mattachine Society was an organization founded in 1950 to advocate for the cause of gay rights. For at least a few years it was the only group of its kind in the United States. The initial founders were radical Communists, but the organization was taken over after a couple of years by more mainstream activists. It was in this time that the term “homophile” was coined — explicitly to take the word “sexual” out of homosexual.

ONE Magazine was founded by members of the Mattachine Society

This terminology placed the Mattachines at the more accommodating end of the gay spectrum, vis a vis the “obvious” homosexual. Divisions within the community would eventually come to a head in the late 1960s, and the homophile label fell by the wayside as the gay community asserted itself more forcefully.

The LAPD Vice Squad

The Los Angeles Police combatted the homosexual scourge with a notoriously vigorous Vice Squad. Using a large number of undercover officers who posed as gay man for purposes of entrapment, the Vice Squad harassed the gay community in L.A. for decades.

The entrapment process

It is said that the LAPD recruited heavily from that set of men who had failed to obtain acting roles in Hollywood. Often young and athletic, these men were trained to impersonate the gay mannerisms and language of the time, and were sent around to different bars. Often they had quotas for the number of “perverts” they were expected to bring in for a given week or month.

Helen Branson described it as such:

“They offer someone a ride or accept a ride and that does it. Some of them play fair, inasmuch as they wait for the gay one to make a pass at them, but many others wait only long enough to get in the car before declaring the arrest. The officer’s word, of course, will be taken as true, and they always count on the victim not wanting publicity. They know he will pay the fine and be quiet. The fines for this charge amount to a considerable sum in a year’s time.”

The results of entrapment

One the first successful defenses against this tactic came in 1952, when Dale Jennings of the Mattachine Society took his case to court. Jennings declared himself to be a homosexual, but asserted that the charges against him were manufactured. The charges were dropped after the jury deadlocked.

Most gay men did not realistically have the option of going to court if they could avoid it. Defending the charges in these stings would have nearly always led to loss of employment, and potentially other scandals. The most common outcome was to make a plea bargain for a lesser charge in the hopes of paying a fine. In this manner, the Vice Squad harassment became a recurring shakedown of the gay community, and it continued until well after the 1950s.

Many of those who were convicted of crimes became registered sex offenders. Many lost their jobs or otherwise had their lives ruined. Such was the price of being a gay man in the 1950s.


Gay History: The “Lavender Scare”.

Interrogations of one’s sexuality became commonplace in the 1950s and 1960s’ federal workplace. Questions like “Do you identify as a homosexual or have you ever had same-sex sexual relations?” were commonplace as employers attempted to root out LGBT employees. This period of time is often known as the Lavender Scare—the interrogation and firing of LGBT-identifying civil servants.

Before the Lavender Scare and post-World War II, LGBT individuals from rural towns began congregating to cities where they could keep anonymity. This newfound peace and community, however, was disturbed in 1947 when the United States Park Police created a Sex Perversion Elimination Act. Primarily targeting these communities in parks, at least five hundred people were arrested and 76 were charged.

As a part of the broader Red Scare that targeted communists, the Lavender Scare’s development was in large fault due to Senator McCarthy, who brought to the Senate his famous list which gave the names of two hundred and five federal employees, two of which were homosexual individuals. While federal agents began to investigate Senator McCarthy’s federal employment list, much of the Red Scare rhetoric also invoked the ideas of morality connected with queer and homosexual people to those of communists. At the time, homosexuals were viewed as sinful and perverted and the public perception of homosexuality shared many similarities with the public view of communists, who were similarly viewed lacking in both moral and mental strength. For the federal government, LGBT employees began to pose a security risk: if they were living double lives, then they may not be loyal nor mentally stable enough to keep government secrets.

Eventually, Senators Wherry and Hill, who were supported by McCarty, interrogated the two LGBT individuals on McCarty’s list, leading to their discharge. In March 1952, the federal government announced its removal of 162 civil servants suspecting of being homosexual. And about a year later on April 27, 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, expanding on Truman’s federal employment regulations with a statement to exclude federal employees of “sexual perversion.” Because of this Executive Order, it is estimated that at least ten thousand civil servants lost their jobs.

The Lavender Scare made being publicly LGBT difficult. Although homosexuals were largely closeted before the Lavender Scare, being publicly LGBT during the 1950s was largely challenging and near impossible without staggeringly high consequences. Not only were LGBT federal employees fired, but many others were also simply fired for “guilt of association” in knowing someone who was LGBT. Because of the resulting stigma within federal government as well as in larger public culture, many of the federal investigations and resulting firings lead to dismissed employees’ suicides — most of which were later covered up by the federal interrogators.

Several LGBT people later stepped up to challenge federal government’s “sexual perversion” components, including civil servant Frank Kameny who took his case to the Supreme Court. Although Kameny lost, a few federal courts began ruling in his favor by 1969. More gay rights organizations also developed such as the Mattachine Society (1950) as well as the Daughters of Bilitis (1955). The Lavender Scare’s effects, however, were still lasting.

The Lavender Scare not only broke up and quieted the cities’ queer communities who were afraid of federal employment discrimination and potential hate crime, but it also resulted in a largely conservative, homogenous culture within the government. While most federal organizations overturned their policies on LGBT discrimination, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and National Security Alliance (NSA)’s bans on homosexuals lasted into the 1990s, until they were officially overturned by President Bill Clinton in 1995. Later, as recent as 2015, Secretary of State John Kerry apologized to the LGBT community on behalf of the federal government’s Lavender Scare interrogations, stating: “I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community.”

Homosexuals at the State Department

In the 1950s and 60s, security within the U.S. government, including the State Department, was on high alert for internal risks, particularly Communists and what were considered to be sexual deviants—homosexuals and promiscuous individuals. Investigating homosexuality became a core function of the Department’s Office of Security, which ferreted out more people for homosexuality than for being a Communist.

In 1950, a subcommittee chaired by Maryland Senator Millard Tydings convened to investigate Joseph McCarthy’s notorious list of “205 known communists.” Tydings worked to discredit McCarthy’s claim, but, in the process, the subcommittee concluded that the State Department was overrun with “sexual perverts,” part of the so-called “Lavender Scare.” 

During the hearings, Nebraska Senator Kenneth Wherry memorably claimed that as many as 3,000 homosexuals were employed at State. By the end of 1950, 600 people had been dismissed from positions at the State Department on morals charges. In 1973 a federal judge ruled that a person’s sexual orientation alone could not be the sole reason for termination from federal employment; two years later, the Civil Service Commission announced that it would consider applications by gays and lesbians on a case-by-case basis.

The following excerpts give a glimpse behind the curtain as individuals in the Security and Personnel offices discuss how they interrogated suspected homosexuals, who were then forced to leave the Service. Norman V. Shute served as the Administrative Officer of the Near East Asian Affairs (NEA) Bureau at the State Department from 1958-1961. His memoir was given to ADST in July 1995. Robert J. Ryan, Sr. served as the Assistant Chief for Foreign Service Personnel from 1953-1955. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning November 1991. Robert Woodward served as the Chief of Foreign Service Personnel from 1952-1953 and was interviewed by Kennedy beginning May 1987.

Joseph C. Walsh served as the Director of the Security Office from 1953-1957. He was interviewed by G. Lewis Schmidt beginning April 1989. Charles Anthony Gillespie Jr. served as the Regional Security Officer (RSO) in Manila, Philippines and Jakarta, Indonesia from 1965-1966. He was interviewed by Kennedy beginning September 1995. Edward L. Lee II served as an Agent in the Field Office of the Security Office in the State Department from 1971-1972. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning June 1999.

“Homosexuality in the Service has always been a problem”

Norman V. Schute, NEA Administrative Officer, 1958-1961

SCHUTE:  Homosexuality in the Service has always been a problem. I voice no personal opinion on this. Basically, officially it is believed that homosexuality can lead to the compromise of U.S. Government security.

Both German and Soviet intelligence use homosexuals to establish a close relationship with homosexuals in other countries’ services including our own. Those who cohabited on the outside were developed into informants by their lovers.

Others were or were likely to become targets for blackmail and thence informants. “Traitor” is another term used for it. Back in 1946 as I recall, [someone] had to inform Secretary of State Cordell Hull that a very senior officer had been arrested for pederasty [homosexual relationship between an adult male and a minor male] in Lafayette Park [near the White House].

In Rome, two of my colleagues after interviews confessed and were released from the Service. Three members of the original Foreign Service Security group were reported to be deviants and on interview were promptly released.

And in 1947…, Foreign Service Chief Inspector Merle Cochran, later an Ambassador, sent home seven communications personnel, a veritable “daisy and chain” as it is known. And that’s the way it is, or at least was, in my day.

“’How many homosexuals has the Department fired this year?’”

Robert J. Ryan, Sr., Assistant Chief for Foreign Service Personnel, 1953-1955

RYAN: When I was in Departmental Personnel, we had an individual who had been arrested and then the Security Office ran an investigation on him and found that he was an active homosexual. I remember Arch Gean, who was then the Chief of Departmental Personnel, telling me about going up with Jack Peurifoy, who was the Assistant Secretary for Administration, to see General [and Secretary of State George C.] Marshall and going over the file with him.

When they finished their discussion, as it was reported to me, General Marshall said, “Fire the bastard.” And that was where the policy was inaugurated of terminating people with homosexual backgrounds….

On the issue of the homosexuals, of course, one of the unfortunate incidents that occurred following that is that each year at the time the State Department went up for its hearing before the Appropriations Committee, one of the questions from Congressman [John J.] Rooney [D-NY,  pictured], who was Chairman of the State Department Committee, always was “How many homosexuals has the Department fired this year?”

That was a usual question, so it was a matter of public knowledge each year of how many people left the State Department because of allegations of homosexual activities. The Security Office actually had one guy, John Finletter, who spend his full time following up allegations of homosexuality among the employees of the Department.

Robert Woodward, Chief of Foreign Service Personnel, 1952-1953

WOODWARD: The Security Division was caused to set up standards which were very specific and arbitrary. For example, I had gone to great effort to get a deputy Chief of Mission for Saigon….

Ed Gullion was a very able fellow, and I was hunting for a replacement for him. I found a very, very able guy and this was one of the duties of the Chief of Foreign Service personnel, was to try to get very able people for very important assignments. I went to quite a lot of effort to get this man, and I wanted to persuade him — he’d never been in the Far East — I wanted to persuade him of the importance of the assignment. This was, as I recall, just before Dien Bien Phu. It was a very critical time for the French….

Anyhow, the man was going to take up his duties that I considered important, and I think that he’d been persuaded were important. He was about to depart from the United States. I think he was in New York, when I was suddenly informed through Bob Ryan (see above), who was in constant liaison with the security division, that the man had resigned.

Well, I couldn’t understand it, because I had had several talks with him just a few days before, and everything was going according to plan. I discovered that the security division had brought him in and had a very tough interrogation with him.

They had a criterion that if any person in the Foreign Service were found to have had any kind of a homosexual relationship after a date six months after his 21st birthday, that he must be discharged from the Foreign Service. This man that was going to Saigon was 45- 46 years of age, happily married, had children. There was no question of his homosexuality whatever.

But in the course of the interrogation he admitted some kind of a homosexual incident within that narrow margin just after the cut-off date, six months after his 21st birthday. And he was out of the Foreign Service. Of course, there was nothing I could do about it, and I had to find somebody else to go to Saigon.

Joseph C. Walsh, Director of the Security Office, 1953-1957

WALSH: There were multiple problems. When Congress created USIA [U.S. Information Agency] they directed that everyone then in the Agency be cleared for top secret information. Thus, all were subjected to “full-field” investigations by the FBI to determine whether or not their employment was to be continued.

Also, all applicants for employment with the Agency were subject to the same regulation. This investigational processing consumed long 3 periods of time — as much as four months in some cases — which created untenable problems in the hiring procedures.

As a result of these long delays, the Agency lost many especially suitable applicants for employment. The great bulk of the job didn’t set well with the FBI and, with Congressional approval, transferred the full-field investigations to the Civil Service Commission with the stipulation that should an investigation reveal affiliation with Communism or its organizations, such would be returned to the FBI for their more extensive handling.

This measure reduced considerably the waiting time before the required clearance could be made for an individual’s appointment. The clearance process, of course, fell upon the Office of Security. The staff received the FBI and/or Civil Service reports, studied them carefully and, with no obstacles extant, stamped them with full clearance.

The standard of measurement, our bible, was Executive Order 10450 issued by President Eisenhower shortly before our Agency was formed in 1953. The essence of this Order related to Federal employees as affecting the country’s National Security — denial of such employment was spelled out to include anyone associated with communism, homosexuals, drunks and other social aberrants who might be considered threats to the security of the USA.

All this, I’m sure you remember, happened within the days of the broiling McCarthy investigations so thoroughly exposed under TV lights and avidly consumed by a national audience intrigued and scared by the Wisconsin Senator’s accusations.

As to the denials of the security clearances: It seems to be — now, thirty-plus years later — there were, within our Agency, extremely few individuals (employees or applicants) who were denied security clearance due to their association with communism, or its organizations. By far, the major shares of the total number were those admitted homosexuals.

It was a nasty business, seeking out and identifying people suspected of homosexuality. Disquieting features to me — there were several awfully decent and intelligent people who worked within the Agency whom I got to know well and enjoyed working within the Agency programs who, suddenly and peremptorily, dropped out of the picture — disappeared! Under investigation, they had admitted their homosexuality and had resigned.

“The whole idea was to develop information so that you could confront the individual. Then he would resign.”

Charles Anthony Gillespie Jr., RSO, Manila and Jakarta, 1965-1966

GILLESPIE: I learned when I came into security affairs that there were two sorts of secret or highly sensitive, investigative units – or maybe it was one unit with two parts in the State Department security system. One of these units had to do with real, honest to God, counterintelligence….

Either a separate unit or a part of the same unit dealt with nothing but homosexuality. I remember the first time that when I went into that unit and talked to two or three of the people assigned, I felt almost intimidated myself. They were briefing me on the unit’s activities. There were special code words for the special kinds of investigations. These were formal investigations.

We use a code word system today on the distribution of sensitive policy messages. We have “NODIS,” which means “no distribution outside the State Department.” These security units also used “NODIS CHEROKEE,” “NODIS GREEN,” and so forth, which meant that the message dealt with a particular subject. It could involve China, and so forth. In any event, in the security investigative area, communications were labeled. I don’t remember quite what the label was, but a certain label meant that it concerned a homosexuality case.

The whole idea was to develop enough information so that you could confront the individual and get him to agree that he was a homosexual, if that was what you believed. Then he would resign from the Foreign Service. If he didn’t resign, you would pull his security clearance.

I was never directly involved with one of these cases. I don’t know what it was really like to handle one. However, that confrontation technique as described to me was to face these people, get them to admit what they were, and then they would leave the Foreign Service. That was the whole idea.

It was a little more precise than [looking for somebody who was unmarried or talked with a lisp], although those factors were never far away, because I think that people believed in those days, as they probably have for some time, that in terms of our ethic in the United States, you could probably identify people like that. They were visible if you just looked hard enough.

What I was told when I was briefed in this unit was that I should try to find out whether there were any homosexual hangouts, e.g., nightclubs at my post.

If I heard of anybody from our mission who hung out at these places, I should immediately take the following steps:  find out what they were doing at one of these hangouts. Was the allegation really true? If it was true, they told me, notify us, and we’ll open a case on the person concerned. So that was it, and this unit would undertake follow-up action.

When you did a background investigation on someone or you were updating an investigation on a Foreign Service Officer — let’s say, age 43 or 44 — who had never been married, you were enjoined to make sure that you asked all the right questions which would cover what we today would call sexual orientation. The question might be asked, “Why isn’t he married?” “Does he go out with women?” Really subtle, penetrating questions like that — just as we used to ask questions about drinking.

When I first started in as a Security Officer, questions on drug use were practically never asked. I left the security area in the late 1960s when questions about drugs became very important. Investigations of homosexuality were very important matters. They were big deals.

I don’t think that the homosexuality issue would ever have loomed large in most people’s minds. However, for many of them it was a distasteful area…

The idea was that if an individual engages in any behavior which is prohibited by his social or cultural group, and does it surreptitiously, knows that it’s wrong, by that very fact he or she is now susceptible to pressure. That was the whole theory of it.

Now, I will be very blunt and say that I detected, as a human being talking to other human beings — and this is an intuitive kind of judgment — that there were some people who were firmly and solidly convinced that certain kinds of behavior were not only wrong but abominable.

They considered that this kind of behavior should be ferreted out and eradicated. Some of the people holding those views were certainly in the State Department security system at this time. I think that they gravitated to charges of this kind.

“If a person said they were homosexual, that usually meant terminating the interview”

Edward L. Lee II, Field Agent, Security Office, 1971-1972

LEE: There was a law that is still in place called Executive Order 10450. That goes back to the ‘60s. It authorized federal agencies to investigate people that were coming to work for the U.S. government.

There were certain criteria that you would look at. We did not want at that time people that were involved in activity of moral turpitude. We did not want people that were not loyal Americans. What a loyal American is or is not was never quite well defined.

But we were hoping that people would hold up their hand and say they would be loyal to the Constitution and the system of government, they would not attempt to overthrow it, and what have you. Even in the early ‘70s, the Cold War was well underway. There was a threat of communist aggression worldwide. There was a threat of nuclear superiority. So, there were a lot of things we did not want. We did not want spies or homosexuals.

The belief at that time was that if your sexual orientation was other than heterosexual, you could be co-opted, recruited, blackmailed. Thereby, a very senior person in the Department of State could be forced, co-opted, coerced to turn over documents, violate their loyalty to the United State and what have you. We’ve learned a lot since then.

But we did not want people with bad credit, criminal records, homosexuals, drunks… These were all risks that we were not prepared to accept. Unfortunately, during the early periods that I was in the Foreign Service, people didn’t have that many rights. If the Department chose to turn you down for a position, the ability to get equal treatment under the law was not guaranteed…

The period of free love, the period of Haight Ashbury and Woodstock and free expression sort of helped us become who we later were. There was a lot of jaundiced eye looks at people even if their academic background was good and they scored well on the Foreign Service exam and did well on the orals and what have you.

When they got to the point of getting the clearance, that became a very unpleasant experience. There were no real guarantees of what could and could not be asked. If you were asked, “How would you describe your sexual orientation,” quite often people that were raised in the ‘50s or ‘60s would not lie, they would simply tell the truth.

We’d always been told that if you tell the truth, how can you be wrong? Well, in telling the truth, you end up not being hired. So, people really looked at the security organization, SY, the Office of Security, as this potential group of thugs that could deprive you of being employed. During the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, we grappled with those things….

If a person said they were homosexual, that usually meant terminating the interview, documenting what had been said, and that would be reviewed by a higher authority. Usually, a woman that was living with someone was viewed very negatively. A woman who was divorced was almost looked at as a prostitute in some circles within the old SY organization. It was a very black-and-white environment


Gay History: The Daughters of Bilitis

The scene was 1950’s America where laws prohibited the congregating of “sex perverts”, a term in which homosexuals, crossdressers and transgender folk were routinely lumped in. Any bar or club which permitted this activity would have its liquor license revoked and even face permanent closure. Raids on suspected habitats were rampant and violent as America engulfed itself in the Lavender Scare. Unbeknownst to most citizens, this was a government created fear run by the CIA and the FBI with J. Edgar Hoover at the helm. Decades later the stories would break of the illegal spying and blatant fabrications the government had formed and perpetuated on peaceful institutions. Especially targeting any institute of a minority that could threaten the White, straight, middle-class Utopia some leaders were trying to desperately cling to. Yet despite the obstacles, the fear, and the propaganda two women found each other and would fall into a 55-year romance.

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon met in Seattle in 1950, two journalists who were both editors of separate Labor Journals. Lyon says that her first impression of Martin stuck in her mind because “She was the first woman I’d ever seen carrying a briefcase!.” The two struck up a friendship with Lyon maintaining that she was straight for the first two years, but eventually giving in and revealing her feelings to Del. The two shared an intimate night but made no commitments. Lyon left soon to return to San Francisco and continue her career; however, her thoughts remained on Martin. The two didn’t stay away from each other long and on Valentine’s Day in 1953 they made their commitment to one another official. The first year was hard, as it is with so many new couples, Lyon often jokes that they only stayed together because they couldn’t decide who would get the cat!

One of the biggest problems Phyllis and Del experienced was loneliness and isolation. While they had a few male gay friends, and some family close by, they were constantly frustrated at their lack of a lesbian circle. With raids and pressure mounting against queer hangouts it became even harder for the couple to meet others like them. This is when a new friend suggested the two come to a secret meeting which would discuss starting a private lesbian club. Phyllis says in her friend asked if she and Del would like to join a society of 6 lesbians and they both exclaimed “YES” because that would mean they’d each know 5 more lesbians. To their delight, the club formed with 8 lesbians, 4 couples and the group began to discuss locations as well as a name. No one is sure who suggested it but the name Bilitis came up. Bilitis was a fictional character from the poem “Songs of Bilitis” written by 19th-century poet Pierre Louys. In his poem, Bilitis falls in love with and seduces the notorious Sappho, who was a real lesbian in early Greece and an icon in lesbian history. In fact, before the term Lesbian, women attracted to other women were referred to as Sapphists. The club knew that any true Saphhist would know the name Bilitis was a subtle reference to the lesbian community. Yet it was certainly obscure enough to throw off the scent of any authorities or anti-gay hounds. For your enjoyment, here is an excerpt from the Songs of Bilitis:

Phyllis Lyon & Del Martín

Love me, not with smiles and flutes or plaited flowers, but with your heart and tears, as I adore you with my bosom and my sobs.

When your breasts alternate with mine, when I feel your very life touching my own when your knees rise up behind me, my panting mouth no longer even knows the way to yours.

Clasp me as I clasp you! See, the lamp has just gone out, we toss about in the night, but I press your moving body and I hear your ceaseless plaint. . .

Moan! moan! moan! oh, woman! Eros drags us now in heavy pain. You’ll suffer less upon this bed in bringing forth a child than you’ll agonize in bringing forth your love.

Panting, I took her hand and pressed it tightly beneath the humid skin of my left breast. My head tossed here and there and I moved my lips, but not a word escaped.

My maddened heart, sudden and hard, beat and beat upon my breast, as a captive satyr would beat about, tied in a goat-skin vessel. She said to me: “Your heart is troubling you..”

“Oh, Mnasidika!” I answered her, “a woman’s heart is not seated there. This is but a little bird, a dove which stirs its feeble wings. The heart of a woman is more terrible.

“It burns like a myrtle-berry, with a bright red flame, and beneath the abundant foam. ‘Tis there that I feel bitten by voracious Aphrodite.”

We are resting, our eyes closed; the quietude is great about our bed. Ineffable summer nights! But she, thinking that I sleep, puts her warm hand on my arm.

She murmurs: “Bilitis, are you asleep?” My heart pounds, but without answering I breathe as calmly as a sleeping woman in her dreams. Then she begins to speak:

“Since you cannot hear me,” she says, “Ah! how I love you!” And she repeats my name: “Bilitis . . . Bilitis . . . ” And she strokes me with the tips of trembling fingers:

Woodsworth quote and poster image from Liz Millward’s book “Making a Scene: Lesbians Community Across Canada 1964-84.”

“This mouth is mine! and mine alone! Is there another in the world as lovely? Ah! my happiness, my happiness! These naked arms are mine, this neck, this hair. . .

On October 19, 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis hosted their first meeting in the home of on the couples. We are going to read off the name of guests but it is important to know that many of these women went under pseudonyms even long after the LGBTQ movement took off. The list of newcomers was “Bobbie, Toni, Gwen, Elizabeth, Noni, Mary and Del, and Phyl.” In this meeting, they agreed to write their two gay affiliates the Mattachine Society and ONE Incorporated. These were of course two male groups and some mistook the DOB (Daughters of Bilitis) as being a direct branch of one of these institutions. But to the surprise of many, including the FBI who were already spying on the group, the women were perfectly capable of creating their own organization without the help of a man.

As instrumental as the DOB was it is important to remember this was still the 1950’s and they were not perfect, often being brainwashed or forced to assimilate to their societal standards. While it is easy to cast judgment on some of their rules and stances, the truth is their progress in such an oppressive time is what should be remembered the most. However, we will discuss some of the issues that caused problems in the beginning. One of the first issues to arise was the dress code. Most of the members believed that masculine clothing could paint the group in a bad light. In fact, a rule was established just a month later that “If slacks are worn they must be women’s slacks”. This was in response to three butch visitors attending a weekly meeting and striking fear into the hearts of some members. Of course, this mirrored the narrative at the time. The editor of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote in 1957 “When ladies young and old wear sloppy slacks or tight pants on Market St. I wish I had a water pistol and could give each one of them a good squirt. Ladies, please be ladies.” We couldn’t find if the editor was a male or a female at this time, however, the stigma still applies.

Another issue the DOB faced was whether they wanted to be a social club or politically active. The women’s rights movement was taking off and the Homophile movement was starting to gain traction with more individuals coming out in public. A side note, the term Homophile was originally preferred as the root word “phile” is derived from the Greek word for love and early activists thought it would be better if people related gays with love rather than sex. But back to the DOB, the group was slowly growing and while some women wanted to further advance the fight for inclusivity, others simply wanted a place to meet where they could enjoy each other’s company without fear of being raided or targeted for violence. This issue would continue to divide members for the next 2 decades until the group would formally disband.

Barbara Gittings picketing Independence Hall as part of an Annual Reminder on July 4, 1966; photo by Kay Lahusen.

Finally, the biggest issue facing the country at this time did not escape the Daughters and its members. Despite the original 8 founders varying in their ethnicities, Racism still played a large factor as the organization expanded. While the first chapter had few issues with People of Color attending their meetings, as the DOB grew and more chapters were established around the country racial prejudice crept into the ranks and discouraged many fellow lesbians from attending the desperately sought meetings. It is sad to remember that simply because one minority group experiences oppression does not exclude them from being just as culpable in delivering that same oppression to another minority group. Throughout LGBTQ history we see exclusions in varying forms from the exclusion of POC, to the exclusion of trans individuals, to those who are too butch or too femme, or simply non-conforming to one standard or one side.

Regardless of these obstacles, the DOB was just getting started and their most influential contribution was yet to come. In 1956 the Daughters of Bilitis decided to go public with their group by officially affiliating themselves with the first and largest gay publication in America, One Incorporated. The magazine announced the Daughters of Bilitis in an issue along with the DOB’s stated purpose. While we won’t take time to read the Purpose on this podcast, you can find it posted on our social media pages. To give a quick rundown though, the organization make 4 statements which covered 1. Educating the Variant (a term used for homosexuals) 2. Educating the Public, 3. Participating in Research, and 4. Investigating the Penal Code (fighting to de-criminalize homosexuality). The plug from One brought a surge of interest to the Daughters. That summer Barbara Gittings attended her first DOB meeting in San Francisco. She says of the meeting “There were about a dozen women in the room and I thought – wow! All these lesbians together in one place! I had never seen anything like it.” This shows how isolated the gay community, and particularly the lesbian community, really were from each other. By the way, Barbara would later go on to become very influential in the party and eventual editor of The Ladder.

In October of 1956, one year after the group’s formation, the DOB published their first edition of The Ladder. The magazine was the first nationally distributed publication of its kind. However, it wasn’t the first lesbian newsletter. In 1947 Vice Versa was written and published by “Lisa Ben” with the subtitle “America’s Gayest Magazine”, distributed only in Los Angeles and often by hand rather than mail. Lisa Ben was a pseudonym of course and an acronym for Lesbian, there are varying reports on what her actual name was. What we did find is that she preferred to remain anonymous so we will keep it that way. Vice Versa was a fun little newsletter that instantly became a hit. However, the constant pressure of being outed took its toll on Ben and rumor has it she lost her job and became increasingly paranoid of certain arrest and imprisonment. After just a few short months she closed down her publication. Nevertheless, it left a lasting impression on the people L.A. and a hunger in the lesbian community for something of their own. When the Daughters of Bilitis released their magazine almost 10 years later the suffering Sapphists were relieved.

While the DOB put plenty of energy in researching a name for their organization, the name for their newsletter The Ladder actually derived from the artwork of the first issue. Simple line drawings that showed figures moving towards a ladder in the distance. Phyllis Lyon did a lot of the writing for the magazine, originally under a pseudonym, but eventually coming out in order to encourage other lesbians to do the same. Right by her side as always was Del as editor of the publication. By 1957 the newsletter had 400 subscribers across the country. Letters of support poured in and one prominent recipient, in particular, wrote to the magazine:

“I’m glad as heck that you exist. You are obviously serious people and I feel that women, without wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero, indeed have a need for their own publications and organizations.”

The writer was Lorraine Hansberry, who would later become the first African- American woman and one of the youngest playwrights in history to have a produced on Broadway. She would go on to produce the award-winning “A Raisin in the Sun”.

As the magazine grew so did the DOB and the lesbian movement as a whole. In 1960 the first National Lesbian Convention was held in San Francisco with 200 female attendees. Another visitor was the San Francisco police always putting the taxpayers’ money hard at work as they looked for women in men’s clothing. And of course, public outcry increased as politicians and pastors warned of the “new evil” of lesbians. “You parents of daughters” one politician screamed into a mic “— do not sit back complacently feeling that because you have no boys in your family everything is all right…To enlighten you as to the existence of a Lesbian organization composed of homosexual women, make yourself acquainted with the name Daughters of Bilitis.” However the more the agitators spoke out against the DOB the more attention they drew to the group and the more their numbers swelled. In cities all around the country, in even the most unlikely places, chapters were springing up.

Unfortunately, the old arguments of how much the group should get politically involved sprang up, again and again, causing deeper rifts. By the 1960’s the civil rights and feminist movements were in full swing and the younger lesbians weren’t interested in outdated dress codes, and racial exclusion, or lack of political involvement. In 1963 Barbara Gittings took over The Ladder and brought a new political charge to the magazine. For the first time the cover was replaced with pictures of real lesbian models and eventually, the models even gave consent to be named. Queer women were no longer willing to sit silently to the side and assimilated to societies outdated and sexist requirements. It was also during this time that the DOB would begin to receive an anonymous $3,000 monthly donation from a contributor known only as “Pennsylvania” who would write a check to a different daughter each time. The total sum donated was estimated at $100,000.

Despite their best efforts, the members of the DOB could not come to an agreement on whether to be involved in politics or even which organizations to endorse. As tension in the organization continued to intensify the Daughters of Bilitis finally disbanded in 1970. The president at the time, Rita LaPorte took The Ladder’s mailing list without knowledge or approval and continued to publish the magazine for another 2 years. However, without the monthly donation from “Pennsylvania” Rita and her co-conspirator Barbara Grier soon ran out of money and the magazine officially folded.

Regardless of its flaws and dramatic demise, the Daughters of Bilitis and their infamous publication The Ladder were game changers for the Lesbian Movement and set a precedent for many LGBTQ organizations to follow. And back to that love story about Phyllis and Del, on June 16, 2008, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin became the first same-sex couple to be legally married in San Francisco. They had been together 55 years. A few months later, Del passed away at age 87 with Phyllis right by her side as always.

Marcia M. Gallo, the historian and author of Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement, the resource for most of this podcast, wrote about The Ladder:

“For women who came across a copy in the early days, The Ladder was a lifeline. It was a means of expressing and sharing otherwise private thoughts and feelings, of connecting across miles and disparate daily lives, of breaking through isolation and fear.”


Gay History:The Mattachine Society

McCarthy and the Mattachine Society

One of the earliest American gay movement organizations, the Mattachine Society began in Los Angeles in 1950-51. It received its name from the pioneer activist Hany Hay in commemoration of the French medieval and Renaissance Societe Mattachine, a somewhat shadowy musical masque group of which he had learned while preparing a course on the history of popular music for a workers’ education project. The name was meant to symbol- ize the fact that “gays were a masked people, unknown and anonymous,” and the word itself, also spelled matachin or matachine, has been derived from the Arabic of Moorish Spain, in which mutawajjihin, is the masculine plural of the active participle of tawajjaha, “to mask oneself.” Another, less probable, derivation is from Italian matto, “crazy.” What historical reality lay behind Hays’ choice of name remains uncertain, just as the members of the group never quite agreed on how the opaque name Mattachine should be pronounced. Such gnomic self- designations were typical of the homophile phase of the movement in which open proclamation of the purposes of the group through a revealing name was regarded as imprudent.

Political Setting.

The political situation that gave rise to the Mattachine Society was the era of McCarthyism, which began with a speech by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin at a Lincoln’s Birthday dinner of a Republican League in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950. In it McCarthy accused the Truman Administration of harboring “loyalty and security risks” in government service. And the security risks, he told Congressional investigators, were in no small part “sex perverts.” A subcommittee of the Senate was duly formed to investigate his charges, which amounted to little more than a list of government employees who had run afoul of the Washington vice squad, but such was the mentality of the time that all seven members of the subcommittee endorsed McCarthyls accusations and called for more stringent measures to “ferret out” homosexuals in government.

The May 1959 issue of the Mattachine Review, an American LGBT magazine

Formation and Structure.

The organization founded by Hay and his associates was in fact modeled in part on the Communist Party, in which secrecy, hierarchical structures, and “democratic centralism “were the order of the day”. Following also the example of freemasonry, the founders created a pyramid of five “orders” of membership, with increasing levels of responsibility as one ascended the structure, and with each order having one or two representatives from a higher order of the organization. As the membership of the Mattachine Society grew, the orders were expected to subdivide into separate cells so that each layer of the pyramid could expand horizontally. Thus members of the same order but different cells would remain unknown to one another. A single fifth order consisting of the founders would provide the centralized leadership whose decisions would radiate downward through the lower orders.

The discussions that led to the formation of the Mattachine Society began in the fall of 1950, and in July 1951 it adopted its official designation. As Marxists the founders of the group believed that the injustice and oppression which they suffered stemmed from relationships deeply embedded in the structure of American society. These relationships they sought to analyze in terms of the status of homosexuals as an oppressed cultural minority that accepted a “mechanically …superimposed heterosexual ethic” on their own situation. The result was an existence fraught with “self-deceit, hypocrisy, and charlatanism” and a “dis- turbed, inadequate, and undesirable . . .sense of value.” Homosexuals collectively were thus a “social minority” unaware of its own status, a minority that needed to develop a group consciousness that would give it pride in it’s own identity. By promoting such a positive self-image the founders hoped to forge a unified national movement of homosexuals ready and able to fight against oppression. Given the position of the Mattachine Society in an America where the organized left was shrinking by the day, the leaders had to frame their ideas in language accessible to non-Marxists. In April 1951 they produced a one-page document settingout their goals and some of their thinking about homosexuals as a minority. By the summer of 1951 the initial crisis of the organization was surmounted as its semipublic meet- ings suddenly became popular and the number of groups proliferated. Hay himself had to sever his ties with the Communist Party so as not to burden it with the onus of his leadership of a group of homosexuals, though by that time the interest of the Communist movement in sexual reform had practically vanished.

Early Struggles and Accomplish- ments.

In February 1952 the Mattachine Society confronted its first issue: police harassment in the Los Angeles area. One of the group’s original members, Dale Jennings, was entrapped by a plain clothesman, and after being released on bail, he called his associates who hastily sum- moned a Mattachine meeting of the fifth order. As the Society was still secret, the fifth order created a front group called Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment to publicize the case. Ignored by the media, they responded by distributing leaflets in areas with a high density of homosexual residents. When the trial began on June 23, Jennings forthrightly admitted that he was a homosexual but denied the charges against him. The jury, after thirty- six hours of deliberation, came out deadlocked. The district attorney’s office decided to drop the charges. The contrast with the usual timidity and hypocrisy in such cases was such that the Citizens Committee justifiably called the outcome a “great victory.”

With this victory Mattachine began to spread, and a network of groups soon extended throughout Southern California, and by May 1953 the fifth order estimated total participation in the society at more than 2,000. Groups formed in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, and the membership became more diverse as individual groups appealed t o different segments of gay society.

Emboldened by the positive response to the Citizens Committee, Hay and his associates decided to incorporate in California as a not-for-profit educational organization. The Mattachine Foundation would be an acceptable front for interacting with the larger society, especially with professionals and public officials. It could conduct research on homosexuality whose results could be incorporated in an educational campaign for homosexual rights. And the very existence of the Foundation would convince prospective members that there was nothing illegal about participation in an organization of this kind. The fifth order had modest success in obtaining professional support for the Foundation. Evelyn Hooker, a research psychologist from UCLA, declined to join the board of directors, but by keeping in close touch with Mattachine she obtained a large pool of gay men for her pioneering study on homosexual personality.

Dick Leitsch, president of Mattachine Society of New York, at its offices, December 30, 1965. Photo by Louis Liotta/New York Post. Source: NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images.


The political background of Hay and the other founders, while it gave them the skills needed to build a movement in the midst of an intensely hostile society, also compromised them in the eyes of other Americans. An attack on the Mattachine Society by a Los Angeles newspaper writer named Paul Coates in March 1953 linked “sexual deviates” with “security risks” who were banding together to wield “tremendous political power.” To quiet the furor, the fifth order called a two-day convention in Los Angeles in April 1953 in order to restructure the Mattachine Society as an above-ground organizaion. The founders pleaded with the Mat- tachine members to defend everyone’s First Amendment rights, regardless of political affiliations, since they might easily find themselves under questioning by the dreaded House Un-American Activities Committee. Kenneth Burns, Marilyn Rieger, and Hal Call formed an alliance against the leftist leadership that was successful at a second session held in May to complete work on the society’s constitution. The results of the meeting were paradoxical in that the views of the founders prevailed on every issue, yet the anti-Communist mood of the country had so peaked that the fifth-order members agreed among themselves not to seek of- fice in the newly structured organization, and their opponents were elected instead. The convention approved a simple membership organization headed by an elected Coordinating Council with authority to establish working committees. Regional branches, called “area councils,” would elect their own officers and be represented on the main council. The unit for membership participation became the task-oriented chapter. Harry Hay emerged from the fracas crushed and despondent, and never again played a central role in the gay movement.

Mattachine Restructured.

The new leadership changed the ideology of the Mattachine Society. Rejecting the notion of a “homosexual minority,” they took the opposite view that “the sex variant is no different from anyone else except in the object of his sexual expression.” They were equally opposed to the idea of a homosexual culture and a homosexual ethic. Their program was, in effect, assimi- lationist. Instead of militant, collective action, they wanted only collaboration with the professionals – “established and recognized scientists, clinics, research, organizations and institutions – the sources of authority in American society. The discussion groups were allowed to wither and die,while the homosexual cause was to be defended by proxy, since an organization of “upstart gays . . . would have been shattered and ridiculed.” At an organization-wide convention held in Los Angeles in November 1953, the conflict between the two factions erupted in a bitter struggle in which the opponents of the original perspective failed to put through motions aimed at driving out the Communist members, but the radical, militant impulse was gone, and many of the members resigned, leaving skeleton committees that could no longer function. Over the next year and a half, the Mattachine Society continued its decline. At the annual convention in May 1954,only forty- two members were in attendance, and the presence of women fell to token representation.

An important aspect of Mattachine was the issuing of two monthly periodicals. ONE Magazine, the product of a Los Angeles/ discussion group, began in January 1953, eventually achieving a circulation of 5000 copies. Not formally part of Mattachine, in time the magazine gave rise to a completely separate organization, ONE, Inc., which still flourishes, though the periodical ceased regular publication in 1968. In January 1955 the San Francisco branch began a somewhat more scholarly journal, Mattachine Review, which lasted for ten years.

Helped by these periodicals, which reached many previously isolated individuals, Mattachine became better known nationally. Chapters functioned in a number of American cities through the 1960s, when they were also able to derive some strength from the halo effect of the civil rights movement. As service organizations they could counsel individuals who were in legal difficulties, needed psychotherapy, or asked for confidential referral to professionals in appropriate fields. However, they failed to adapt to the militant radicalismof the post-Stonewall years after 1969, and they gradually went under. The organization retains, together with its lesbian counterpart, the Daughters of Bilitis, its historical renown as the legendary symbol of the “homophile” phase of the American gay movement.

BIBLIOGUPHY. John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making o f a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1 970, Chicago: Chicago University Press,1983.


Gay History: History Of The Ex-Gay Ministries and; The Abominable Legacy of Gay-Conversion Therapy

For most of the twentieth century, homosexuals were considered mentally ill by the psychiatric profession. This diagnosis was due entirely to prejudice and was not backed by legitimate science. Studies on homosexuality were poorly conceived, culturally biased and often used institutionalized mental patients as study subjects.

After reviewing the evidence, in 1973 the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), which is its list of mental disorders. There was simply no logical or coherent reason to stigmatize gay and lesbian Americans. Not long after, every respected mainstream medical and mental heath association followed the APA’ lead.

Only four years before this monumental decision, the Stonewall riots in New York City’ Greenwich Village ushered in the dawn of the modern gay liberation movement. For the first time, GLBT people began to receive media visibility and coming out finally seemed like a viable option.

As more people chose to live honestly and openly, and gay communities began to flourish in areas such as New York and San Francisco, this presented a challenge to conservative churches, which had long believed that homosexuality was sinful behavior. Many conservative gay Christians were deeply conflicted between their beliefs and their sexual orientation. Their answer to this heart-wrenching dilemma was starting ex-gay ministries. Influenced by the miracle-seeking Jesus Movement, the ex-gay ministries adopted name and claim theology. Essentially, this meant if you kept repeating you had “changed” — even if you had not — God would eventually grant you the miracle of heterosexuality as a reward for your faith.

Love In Action was the first contemporary ex-gay ministry and was founded in 1973 in San Raphael, CA, by three men: John Evans, Rev. Kent Philpott, and Frank Worthen.

Evans ultimately denounced Love In Action after his best friend Jack McIntyre committed suicide in despair over not being able to “change.” Today, Evans assists people in healing from the psychological damage incurred by the ex-gay industry. Frank Worthen still remains with the ex-gay ministries.

Philpott, who is straight, wrote “The Third Sex? ” which featured six people who supposedly converted to heterosexuality through prayer.

Eventually, it was revealed no one in his book actually had changed, but the people reading it had no idea about the unsuccessful outcomes. As far as they knew, there was a magical place in California that had figured out the secret for making gays into straights.

As a result of Philpott’ book, within three years more than a dozen “ex-gay” ministries spontaneously sprung up across America. Two leading “ex-gay” counselors at Melodyland Christian Center in Anaheim, California – Gary Cooper and Michael Bussee – decided to organize a conference where members of the budding ex-gay movement could meet each other and network.

In September 1976, Cooper and Bussee’ vision came to fruition as sixty-two “ex-gays” journeyed to Melodyland for the world’ first “ex-gay” conference. The outcome of the retreat was the formation of Exodus International, an umbrella organization for “ex-gay” groups worldwide.

The group was rocked to its core a few years later when Bussee and Cooper acknowledged that they had not changed and were in love with each other. They soon divorced their wives, moved in together and held a commitment ceremony. In June 2007, Bussee issued an apology at an Ex-Gay Survivors Conference to all of the people he helped get involved in ex-gay ministries.

The Expansion of the Ex-Gay Industry

In 1979, Seventh Day Adventist minister Colin Cook founded Homosexuals Anonymous (HA). But Cook’ “ex-gay” empire crumbled a few years later after he was scandalized for having phone sex and giving nude massages to those he was supposedly helping become heterosexual.

As acceptance for homosexuality grew in the late 1970′, the “ex-gay” ministries had trouble attracting new recruits and growth of these programs stagnated. With the advent of AIDS, however, the ex-gay ministries found fertile growth potential from gay men who were terrified of contracting the virus.

Nonetheless, even as the epidemic spurred new growth, the “ex-gay” ministries remained relatively obscure in mainstream society. This dramatically changed in 1998 when the politically motivated Religious Right embraced the “ex-gay” ministries. Fifteen anti-gay organizations launched the “Truth In Love” newspaper and television ad campaign, with an estimated one million dollar price tag.

But the ad campaign soon backfired after University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard was murdered because of his sexual orientation. Americans began to see the Truth In Love campaign as discriminatory and debated whether it had contributed to a climate of intolerance where hate could flourish. Due to withering criticism in the media, the anti-gay coalition ended its campaign prematurely.

Additionally, “ex-gay” poster boy John Paulk, who the ad campaign sponsors placed on the cover of Newsweek under the large headline, “Gay for Life?,” was photographed in a Washington, DC gay bar in 2000. In 2003, Michael Johnston, the star of the Truth In Love television campaign, stepped down after allegedly having sex with men he met on the Internet. He has since moved to a residential sex addiction facility in Kentucky.

Today, the main financier and facilitator of ex-gay ministries is Focus on the Family, which hosts a quarterly symposium called Love Won Out. Exodus International has also grown to more than 100 ministries and has a Washington lobbyist. Recently, the Southern Baptist Convention has entered the fray by hiring a staff member to oversee ex-gay programs.

Sadly, as long as people are made to feel ashamed for who they are, these groups will exist. The best way to counter their negative influence is showing an honest and accurate portrayal of GLBT life. When people learn that they can live rich and fulfilling lives out of the closet, the appeal of these dangerous and ineffective groups invariably wanes.

The Abominable Legacy of Gay-Conversion Therapy

Joseph Nicolosi, one of the pioneers of the practice, died last week. But his contribution to the field of psychology lives on.

“I don’t believe anyone is really gay,” Joseph Nicolosi told the New York Times in 2012. “I believe that all people are heterosexual, but that some have a homosexual problem.” Nicolosi, a psychologist, had by then written four books, with titles like Healing Homosexuality and A Parents’ Guide to Preventing Homosexuality. In 1992, he founded the National Organization for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, or NARTH, an organization of psychologists that aims to help gay people “realize their heterosexual potential” through a practice that is alternately known as “conversion therapy,” “reparative therapy,” and “reorientation therapy.” Nicolosi died on Thursday, March 8, at age 70; NARTH’s announcement said that the cause of death was the flu.

Before NARTH’s founding, there was a small but violent history of gay conversion attempts by doctors and psychologists. In the early 20th century, Freud made attempts using hypnosis. In the 1950s, Edmund Berger advocated a “confrontational therapy” approach to gay patients, which consisted of having practitioners yell at them that they were liars and worthless. Other attempts to convert LGBT people to heterosexuality throughout history have included methods like lobotomy, electroshock to the hands, head, and genitals, testicle transplants from dead straight men “bladder washing,” castration, female circumcision, nausea-inducing drugs, and beatings. But it was Nicolosi who brought gay conversion therapy into the mainstream, popularizing it among religious communities and the American right, and turning what was once a scattered practice of abuse into a multi-million-dollar worldwide industry.

Nicolosi grew up in New York; he received a master’s degree from the New School and spoke in a thick Long Island accent. But he spent his career in Los Angeles. He received a PhD in clinical psychology from an obscure school there, and opened his own clinic in Encino in 1980. He seems to have focused his practice entirely on gay conversion attempts. The time was ripe. The social movements of the 1960s and the gay rights activism that flourished after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 ignited profound fear on the American right. Nicolosi found an eager audience for his claim that heterosexuality and traditional gender conformity were not only superior, but that deviations from them were pathological.

What Nicolosi offered was a way for homophobic parents, patients, and psychologists to validate their anti-gay feelings as being legitimated by nature, science, and psychological evidence.

The field of psychology had never been particularly welcoming to queers, but by the time Nicolosi began practicing, attempts to convert gays had already been relegated to quackery. Freud wrote that the prognosis for heterosexual feeling in homosexual patients was grim (though he did believe that gay impulses could be reduced under some circumstances). In 1932, Helene Deutsch published her study “On Female Homosexuality,” which recounted Deutsch’s attempts to instill heterosexuality in a lesbian, only to find that her patient had begun a relationship with another woman while the study was ongoing. In her conclusion, Deutsch noted that a straight relationship would have been her preferred outcome, but also seemed to acknowledge her patient’s lesbian partnership as psychologically healthy.

In 1948, just a year after Nicolosi was born, Alfred Kinsey published his groundbreaking report Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, which found that homosexual tendencies were much, much more common than had previously been assumed. In 1978, the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of clinical disorders in its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. Anti-gay stigma and bigotry were still rampant, both within the culture and within the field, but establishment psychologists had given up conversion attempts as a lost cause.

What Nicolosi offered was a way for homophobic parents, patients, and psychologists to validate their anti-gay feelings as being legitimated by nature, science, and psychological evidence. He established NARTH in 1992 alongside Benjamin Kaufman and Charles Socarides, two other obsessively anti-gay psychologists, explicitly in reaction to the removal of homosexuality from the DSM. They spoke in appealingly professional jargon, using phrases like “trauma” and “bad attachment.”

The organization became a network for homophobic psychologists, as well as a link between the industry and the growing number of ex-gay ministries and “pray away the gay” programs on the Christian right. Nominally secular, NARTH and Nicolosi frequently embraced religious rhetoric and prayer tactics, and were listed as ministry partners by a number of homophobic Christian organizations. The Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic, where NARTH is headquartered, is named after a Catholic saint. “We, as citizens, need to articulate God’s intent for human sexuality,” Nicolosi told Anderson Cooper in 2007. That same year, he told an ex-gay conference, “When we live our God-given integrity and our human dignity, there is no space for sex with a guy.”

Nicolosi’s treatments often involved multiple one-on-one sessions per week. According to accounts given by former patients, he seems to have used a mix of Berger’s “confrontational therapy” methods of emotional abuse with what’s known as aversion therapy. Aversion therapy applies pain or discomfort to patients in conjunction with homosexual impulses or behaviors: Everything from snapping a rubber band around a patient’s wrist to giving them electric shocks to making them vomit. He believed that gay people had bad relationships with their parents in absolutely all cases, and spent a great deal of therapeutic time probing patients for incidents of humiliation, neglect, or contempt in their childhoods.

In his books, he instructed parents to monitor their children for supposed early signs of queerness, including shyness or “artistic” tendencies in boys.

For unclear reasons, he also believed that viewing pornography could cure homosexuality, an idea he repeatedly defended to professional gatherings. Programs associated with NARTH have been found to administer beatings to their patients. The majority of Nicolosi’s patients, like the majority of conversion therapy victims generally, were children and adolescents, forced into his care by parents who were bigoted, sadistic, or merely scared. Nicolosi encouraged these impulses; he claimed to be able to identify and reverse homosexuality in children as young as three. In his books, he instructed parents to monitor their children for supposed early signs of queerness, including shyness or “artistic” tendencies in boys.

But even before Nicolosi died, NARTH was facing a host of challenges. It lost its nonprofit status in 2012, and an important accreditation from the California Board of Behavioral Sciences was revoked in 2011. Prominent members of the group have been embroiled in controversy, including George Rekers, a conversion therapy psychologist who was discovered to have hired a 20-year-old male sex worker in 2010. California outlawed the practice for minors in 2012, cutting deeply into NARTH’s L.A.-based operations; New Jersey, Illinois, New York, Vermont, and Oregon have since passed their own bans. But the group and its imitators continue to harm both children and adults.

Discovering that you are gay, or that your child is gay, is frightening. It means confronting a future that will not look like the one that you expected, and it means realizing that you and people you love will be subjected to stigma, discrimination, harassment, and the punitive whims of the state. It means staring down a life with fewer certainties and more vulnerabilities than a straight person’s. Scared and misguided people went to Nicolosi for help, and he exploited their fear to perpetuate hate, inflicting horrible pain and incalculable psychological damage on his victims in the process. It is unfortunate that his legacy won’t die with him.


Gay History: 6 Sites Recognised By Britain For Significence To Gay History.

Originally published in the New York Times

LONDON >> The former homes of the writer Oscar Wilde and the composer Benjamin Britten are among six sites that were recognized on Friday by an arm of the British government for their significance in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history.

Oscar Wilde’s house, 34 Tite St, Chelsea

Historic England, a body that designates places worthy of legal protection, announced the decision, the latest in an effort to showcase “queer history.” Last September, Historic England gave the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, a well-known gay pub, a Grade II listing, meaning that it cannot be demolished, extended or altered without special permission.

Similar efforts to recognize gay history are underway in the United States. In June, President Barack Obama designated the Stonewall Inn, the location of a 1969 police raid and subsequent protest that galvanized the gay rights movement, and surrounding sites a national monument.

Duncan Wilson, the chief executive of Historic England, said in a telephone interview that the decision was “part of a deliberate policy of looking at what we protect and commemorate by a listing, to see that it is more representative of society as a whole.”

Through a research project called Pride of Place, people have been invited to submit places of importance to gay history, many of them forgotten or obscure. More than 1,600 submissions have come in. The project will in part serve to commemorate the 50th anniversary next year of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales (1967).

Britten House, Lowestoft. Home of the Suffolk born composer, Benjamin Britten.

There are about 500,000 listed buildings in England, of which 2.5 percent are in Grade I, reserved for buildings of “exceptional interest,” like Stonehenge and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and 5.5 percent are in Grade II*, which covers “particularly important buildings of more than special interest.” The rest are in Grade II.

Of the six sites announced Friday, one is a new Grade II listing: the grave of Amelia Edwards — a writer, musician and founder of Egyptology in St. Mary’s Churchyard, in Bristol. She and her partner, Ellen Braysher, lived in the nearby town of Weston-super-Mare, where Edwards died of pneumonia in 1892, a few months after Braysher’s death.

(The New York Times, which covered a lecture she delivered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1889 on the hidden cities of ancient Egypt, said that an 1875 trip to that country was the “turning point” in her life.)

The Burdett-Coutts Memorial at St. Pancras Gardens in London, was given a higher listing, Grade II*. The memorial commemorates, among others, the Chevalier d’Eon, who was a French spy and diplomat in the 18th century.

A minor aristocrat from Burgundy, the chevalier was sent to Russia as a spy, fought in the Seven Years’ War and helped negotiate the treaty that ended war between Britain and France. The chevalier lived the first part of his life as a man, and the last few decades as a woman; the remarkable story has inspired art, plays and studies.

The Royal Vauxhall Tavern

The memorial is made of limestone, granite and marble, includes a sundial and is built in the High Victorian style.

The other four properties were given updated descriptions in the National Heritage List for England, the searchable online database that Historic England maintains, to better reflect their significance to gay history.

Two are well-known to arts lovers. One is the house at 34 Tite Street, in the Chelsea neighborhood of London, where Oscar Wilde lived with his wife, Constance Lloyd, and their two children from 1884 until his trial for “gross indecency” in 1895. Convicted of having sex with men, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor. The law under which he was convicted was not repealed until 2003. (The house, which has a blue plaque outside, is still a private residence.)

After catching influenza, Edwards died on 15 April 1892 at Weston-super-Mare, having lived at Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol since 1864. She was buried in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Henbury, Bristol, where her grave is marked by an obelisk, with a stone ankh at the foot.

The other is theRed House, in Aldeburgh, a town on the east coast of England. Benjamin Britten and his partner, the tenor Peter Pears, lived together there from 1957 until Britten’s death in 1976. (The house, run by the Britten-Pears Foundation, is open to the public.)

The remaining two sites were used by people who had to shield parts of their lives. n West Yorkshire, was the home of Anne Lister, a landowner who kept diaries, part of them in code, about her relationships with women. She lived in the house for several years with her partner, Ann Walker.

Shibden Hall, Halifax

In Chertsey, a suburban town in Surrey, is St. Ann’s Court, which Historic England cited as an example of “queer architecture.” The concrete house, built between 1936 and 1937, was the home of Gerald Schlesinger and Christopher Tunnard, a gay couple who designed their home in response to laws that made homosexual sex a crime, even in the privacy of one’s home.

Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial

The house’s master bedroom could be separated into two, promoting an image to visitors that the two men slept separately. Phil Manzanera, a guitarist with the rock band Roxy Music, later lived in the house.

St. Anne’s Court, Chertsey, Surrey


Gay History: The Berlin Story.

How the Germans invented gay rights—more than a century ago.

Magnus Hirschfeld and two cross-dressers, outside the Institute for Sexual Science.Courtesy Photo Hirschfeld / Voilà / Gallimard

On August 29, 1867, a forty-two-year-old lawyer named Karl Heinrich Ulrichs went before the Sixth Congress of German Jurists, in Munich, to urge the repeal of laws forbidding sex between men. He faced an audience of more than five hundred distinguished legal figures, and as he walked to the lectern he felt a pang of fear. “There is still time to keep silent,” he later remembered telling himself. “Then there will be an end to all your heart-pounding.” But Ulrichs, who had earlier disclosed his same-sex desires in letters to relatives, did not stop. He told the assembly that people with a “sexual nature opposed to common custom” were being persecuted for impulses that “nature, mysteriously governing and creating, had implanted in them.” Pandemonium erupted, and Ulrichs was forced to cut short his remarks. Still, he had an effect: a few liberal-minded colleagues accepted his notion of an innate gay identity, and a Bavarian official privately confessed to similar yearnings. In a pamphlet titled “Gladius furens,” or “Raging Sword,” Ulrichs wrote, “I am proud that I found the strength to thrust the first lance into the flank of the hydra of public contempt.”

The first chapter of Robert Beachy’s “Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity” (Knopf) begins with an account of Ulrichs’s audacious act. The title of the chapter, “The German Invention of Homosexuality,” telegraphs a principal argument of the book: although same-sex love is as old as love itself, the public discourse around it, and the political movement to win rights for it, arose in Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This message may surprise those who believe that gay identity came of age in London and New York, sometime between the Oscar Wilde trials and the Stonewall riots. The brutal repression of gay people during the Nazi period largely erased German gay history from international consciousness, and even from German memory. Beachy, a historian who teaches at Yonsei University, in Seoul, ends his book by noting that Germans hold gay-pride celebrations each June on what is known as Christopher Street Day, in honor of the street where the Stonewall protest unfolded. Gayness is cast as an American import.

Ulrichs, essentially the first gay activist, encountered censorship and ended up going into exile, but his ideas very gradually took hold. In 1869, an Austrian littérateur named Karl Maria Kertbeny, who was also opposed to sodomy laws, coined the term “homosexuality.” In the eighteen-eighties, a Berlin police commissioner gave up prosecuting gay bars and instead instituted a policy of bemused tolerance, going so far as to lead tours of a growing demimonde. In 1896, Der Eigene (“The Self-Owning”), the first gay magazine, began publication. The next year, the physician Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the first gay-rights organization. By the beginning of the twentieth century, a canon of gay literature had emerged (one early advocate used the phrase “Staying silent is death,” nearly a century before aids activists coined the slogan “Silence = Death”); activists were bemoaning negative depictions of homosexuality (Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” was one target); there were debates over the ethics of outing; and a schism opened between an inclusive, mainstream faction and a more riotous, anarchistic wing. In the nineteen-twenties, with gay films and pop songs in circulation, a mass movement seemed at hand. In 1929, the Reichstag moved toward the decriminalization of homosexuality, although the chaos caused by that fall’s stock-market crash prevented a final vote.

Why did all this happen in Germany? And why is the story not better known? Beachy, focussing on Berlin’s social fabric, doesn’t delve too deeply into larger philosophical questions, but the answers are hardly elusive. The inclination to read German history as an extended prelude to Nazism—the “heading for Hitler” narrative—has tended to exclude countervailing progressive forces, especially those of the Wilhelmine period, from 1871 to 1918. The towering legacy of German idealism and Romanticism, which helps to explain why the gay-rights movement took root in Germany, has itself become somewhat obscure, especially outside the German school system. And so we are surprised by the almost inevitable. Nowhere else could a figure like Ulrichs have made his speech, and nowhere else would cries of “Stop!” have been answered by shouts of “No, no! Continue, continue!”

In Leontine Sagan’s 1931 film “Mädchen in Uniform,” the first sympathetic portrayal of lesbians onscreen, a boarding-school pupil named Manuela plays the title role in a school production of Friedrich Schiller’s 1787 play “Don Carlos,” an emblematic Romantic tale of forbidden love and resistance to tyranny. “A moment passed in paradise is not too dearly bought with death,” Manuela declaims onstage, conveying Don Carlos’s love for his stepmother. Afterward, fortified by punch, Manuela announces her love for one of her teachers, precipitating a scandal. The episode suggests the degree to which the German cultural and intellectual tradition, particularly in the Romantic age, which stretched from Goethe and Schiller to Schopenhauer and Wagner, emboldened those who came to identify themselves as gay and lesbian. (“Schiller sometimes writes very freely,” an elderly woman worriedly observes in Sagan’s film.

Close to the heart of the Romantic ethos was the idea that heroic individuals could attain the freedom to make their own laws, in defiance of society. Literary figures pursued a cult of friendship that bordered on the homoerotic, although most of the time the fervid talk of embraces and kisses remained just talk. But the poet August von Platen’s paeans to soldiers and gondoliers had a more specific import: “Youth, come! Walk with me, and arm in arm / Lay your dark cheek on your / Bosom friend’s blond head!” Platen’s leanings attracted an unwelcome spotlight in 1829, when the acidly silver-tongued poet Heinrich Heine, insulted by anti-Semitic remarks that Platen had lobbed at him, satirized his rival as a womanly man, a lover of “passive, Pythagorean character,” referring to the freed slave Pythagoras, one of Nero’s male favorites. Heine’s tone is merrily vicious, but he inserts one note of compassion: had Platen lived in Roman times, “it may be that he would have expressed these feelings more openly, and perhaps have passed for a true poet.” In other words, repression had stifled Platen’s sexuality and, thus, his creativity.

Gay urges welled up across Europe during the Romantic era; France, in particular, became a haven, since statutes forbidding sodomy had disappeared from its books during the Revolutionary period, reflecting a distaste for law based on religious belief. The Germans, though, were singularly ready to utter the unspeakable. Schopenhauer took a special interest in the complexities of sexuality; in a commentary added in 1859 to the third edition of “The World as Will and Representation,” he offered a notably mellow view of what he called “pederasty,” saying that it was present in every culture. “It arises in some way from human nature itself,” he said, and there was no point in opposing it. (He cited Horace: “Expel nature with a pitchfork, she still comes back.”) Schopenhauer proceeded to expound the dubious theory that nature promoted homosexuality in older men as a way of discouraging them from continuing to procreate.

Not surprisingly, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs seized on Schopenhauer’s curious piece of advocacy when he began his campaign; he quoted the philosopher in one of his coming-out letters to his relatives. Ulrichs might also have mentioned Wagner, who, in “Die Walküre” and “Tristan und Isolde,” depicted illicit passions that many late-nineteenth-century homosexuals saw as allegories for their own experience. Magnus Hirschfeld, in his 1914 book “The Homosexuality of Men and Women,” noted that the Wagner festival in Bayreuth had become a “favorite meeting place” for homosexuals, and quoted a classified ad, from 1894, in which a young man had sought a handsome companion for a Tyrolean bicycling expedition; it was signed “Numa 77, general delivery, Bayreuth.” Ulrichs had published his early pamphlets under the pseudonym Numa Numantius.

Encouraging signals from cultural giants were one thing, legal protections another. The most revelatory chapter of Beachy’s book concerns Leopold von Meerscheidt-Hüllessem, a Berlin police commissioner in the Wilhelmine period, who, perhaps more than any other figure, enabled “gay Berlin” to blossom. Meerscheidt-Hüllessem’s motivations remain unclear. He was of a “scheming nature,” a colleague noted, and liked nothing better than to gather masses of data on the citizenry, like a less malignant J. Edgar Hoover. His Department of Homosexuals, founded in 1885, maintained a carefully annotated catalogue of Berliners who conformed to the type. He evidently was not gay, although his superior, Bernhard von Richthofen, the police department’s president, is said to have had a taste for young soldiers. Meerscheidt-Hüllessem might have reasoned that it was better to domesticate this new movement than to let it become politically radicalized or overtaken by criminal elements.

For whatever reason, Meerscheidt-Hüllessem took a fairly benevolent attitude toward Berlin’s same-sex bars and dance halls, at least in the better-heeled parts of the city. He was on cordial terms with many regulars, as none other than August Strindberg attested in his autobiographical novel “The Cloister” (1898), which evokes a same-sex costume ball at the Café National: “The Police Inspector and his guests had seated themselves at a table in the centre of one end of the room, close to which all the couples had to pass. . . . The Inspector called them by their Christian names and summoned some of the most interesting among them to his table.” Meerscheidt-Hüllessem and his associates also showed solicitude for gay victims of blackmail, and went so far as to offer counselling. In 1900, the commissioner wrote to Hirschfeld expressing pride that he had saved people from “shame and death”: blackmail and suicide. A week later, in a grim irony, this enigmatic protector killed himself—not on account of his homosexual associations but because he was exposed as having taken bribes from a millionaire banker accused of statutory rape.

Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee probably could not have existed without Meerscheidt-Hüllessem’s tacit approval. (The commissioner was invited to the organization’s first meeting, although he probably did not attend.) Hirschfeld, who was born in 1868, a year after Ulrichs’s speech in Munich, began his radical activities in 1896, publishing a pamphlet titled “Sappho and Socrates,” which told of the suicide of a gay man who felt coerced into marriage. The next year, Hirschfeld launched the Committee, and soon afterward reprinted Ulrichs’s writings. Building on Ulrichs’s insight that same-sex desire was a congenital trait, Hirschfeld developed a minutely variegated conception of human sexuality, with a spectrum of “sexual intermediaries” appearing between the poles of the purely male and the purely female. He felt certain that if homosexuality were understood as a biological inevitability then the prejudice against it would disappear. “Through Science to Justice” was his group’s motto.

Beachy is candid about Hirschfeld’s limitations. His scientific work blended research and advocacy to an uncomfortable degree, and some of his confederates employed suspect methodologies. (One associate’s study of male prostitution in Berlin involved sleeping with at least one hustler.) But Hirschfeld’s knowledge of sexuality was vast, and Beachy has several incisive pages comparing him favorably to Sigmund Freud, whose influence was, of course, far greater. Freud rejected the congenital hypothesis, believing homosexuality to be a mutation of childhood development. Although Freud professed sympathy for gay people, American psychoanalysts later fostered the destructive notion that homosexuality could be cured through therapy. Freud was grandly systematic in his thinking; Hirschfeld was messily empirical. The latter got closer to the intricate reality of human sexuality.

Hirschfeld had enemies in Berlin’s gay scene. His interest in effeminacy among homosexual men, his attention to lesbianism, and his fascination with cross-dressing among both gay and straight populations (he coined the word “transvestism”) offended men who believed that their lust for fellow-males, especially for younger ones, made them more virile than the rest of the population. Being married to a woman was not seen as incompatible with such proclivities. In 1903, the malcontents, led by the writers Adolf Brand and Benedict Friedlaender, formed a group called Gemeinschaft der Eigenen, or Society of Self-Owners, the name referencing a concept from the anarchist philosophy of Max Stirner. Der Eigene, Brand’s magazine, became their mouthpiece, mixing literary-philosophical musings with mildly pornographic photographs of boys throwing javelins. In the same camp was the writer Hans Blüher, who argued that eroticism was a bonding force in male communities; Blüher made a particular study of the Wandervogel movement, a band of nature-hiking youth. Nationalism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism were rampant in these masculinity-obsessed circles, and Hirschfeld’s Jewishness became a point of contention. He was deemed too worldly, too womanly, insufficiently devoted to the glistening Aryan male.

Beachy celebrates the inclusivity of Hirschfeld, who welcomed feminists into his coalition. Unfortunately, women are largely absent from “Gay Berlin.” There is no mention, for example, of the theatre and music critic Theo Anna Sprüngli, who, in 1904, spoke to the Scientific-Humanitarian Committee on the subject of “Homosexuality and the Women’s Movement,” helping to inaugurate a parallel movement of lesbian activism. Sex between women was never explicitly outlawed in imperial Germany—Paragraph 175, the anti-sodomy law, applied only to men—but lesbians found it no easier to live an open life. Employing the alias Anna Rüling, Sprüngli proposed that the gay-rights and feminist movements “aid each other reciprocally”; the principles at stake in both struggles, she wrote, were freedom, equality, and “self-determination.” References to George Sand and Clara Schumann in her speech betray an essentially Romantic vision.

This story has a melancholy epilogue, as the historian Christiane Leidinger has discovered. After Sprüngli gave her historic speech—one that may have exacerbated the split between the “masculinist” and the “sexological” factions of the gay movement, as Beachy calls them—she said nothing more about lesbianism. Instead, she fell into a conventional, even conservative, journalistic career, adopting a jingoistic tone during the First World War and concealing her radical past in the Nazi era. Perhaps she remained as openly lesbian as circumstances permitted; almost nothing is known of her later life. Yet her sudden silence suggests how quickly gains can slip away.

During the golden years of the Weimar Republic, which occupy the last chapters of “Gay Berlin,” gays and lesbians achieved an almost dizzying degree of visibility in popular culture. They could see themselves onscreen in films like “Mädchen in Uniform” and “Different from the Others”—a tale of a gay violinist driven to suicide, with Hirschfeld featured in the supporting role of a wise sexologist. Disdainful representations of gay life were not only lamented but also protested; Beachy points out that when a 1927 Komische Oper revue called “Strictly Forbidden” mocked gay men as effeminate, a demonstration at the theatre prompted the Komische Oper to remove the offending skit. The openness of Berlin’s gay scene attracted visitors from more benighted lands; Christopher Isherwood lived in the city from 1929 to 1933, enjoying the easy availability of hustlers, who, in Beachy’s book, have a somewhat exhausting chapter to themselves.

Within the gay community, the masculinist-sexological split persisted. Hirschfeld was now at the helm of the Institute for Sexual Science: a museum, clinic, and research center, housed in a handsome villa in the Tiergarten district. Widening his sphere of interests, Hirschfeld offered sex advice to straight couples, advocated more liberal divorce laws and birth control, collaborated on the first primitive sex-change operations, and generally acquired a reputation as the “Einstein of sex,” as he was called on an American lecture tour. To the masculinists, Hirschfeld appeared to be running a sexual freak show. Adolf Brand published crude anti-Semitic attacks on Hirschfeld in the pages of Der Eigene. Some of Brand’s associates were flirting with Nazism, and not just in a metaphorical sense; one of them later became the lover of Ernst Röhm, the head of the Brown Shirts.

After the First World War, a new figure entered the fray: Friedrich Radszuweit, an entrepreneur who established a network of gay publications, including the first lesbian magazine, Die Freundin. Radszuweit hoped to heal divisions and establish a true mass movement—one from which he stood to make a great deal of money. In 1923, he took the lead in forming the Human Rights League, a consortium of gay groups. Distancing himself both from Hirschfeld’s emphasis on gender ambiguity and from Brand’s predatory focus on boys, Radszuweit purveyed a vision of “homosexual bourgeois respectability,” in Beachy’s words. Fearful of displaying political bias, Radszuweit attempted to placate the Nazis, believing that they, too, would see the light.

In fact, the driving force behind the Brown Shirts was a member of the Human Rights League, as Radszuweit must have known. Röhm never made a secret of his homosexuality, and Hitler chose to overlook it; although the Nazi leader had denounced Hirschfeld and the gay movement as early as 1920, he was too dependent on Röhm’s army of thugs to reject him. In the early thirties, German leftists tried to tarnish the Nazis by publicizing Röhm’s affiliations and affairs. Brand, having finally grasped the ruthlessness of Hitler’s methods, joined the assault. “The most dangerous enemies of our fight are often homosexuals themselves,” he sagely observed. Hirschfeld, though, disliked the campaign against Röhm, and the conflation of homosexuality and Fascism that it implied. The practice of outing political figures had surfaced before—notably, during a prewar scandal surrounding Kaiser Wilhelm II’s adviser Prince Philipp zu Eulenburg-Hertefeld—and Hirschfeld had criticized the tactic, which was known as the “path over corpses.”

Nazism brought Berlin’s gay idyll to a swift, savage end. Hirschfeld had left Germany in 1930, to undertake a worldwide lecture tour; wisely, he never returned. In May, 1933, a little more than three months after Hitler became Reich Chancellor, the Institute for Sexual Science was ransacked, and much of its library went up in flames during Joseph Goebbels’s infamous book-burning in the Opernplatz. Röhm, who became less indispensable once Hitler took power, was slaughtered in 1934, during the Night of the Long Knives, the first great orgy of Nazi bloodlust. Hirschfeld, who had watched the destruction of his life’s work on a newsreel in Paris, died the next year. Brand somehow survived until 1945, when he fell victim to Allied bombs. Vestiges of Paragraph 175 lingered in the German legal code until 1994.

In the decades after the Second World War, German historiography fell under the sway of the Sonderweg, or “special path,” school, which held that the country was all but doomed to Nazism, because of the perennial weakness of its bourgeois liberal factions. Since then, many historians have turned against that deterministic way of thinking, and “Gay Berlin” follows suit: Germany here emerges as a chaotic laboratory of liberal experiment. Beachy’s cultivation of the “other” Germany, heterogeneous and progressive, is especially welcome, because the Anglophone literary marketplace fetishizes all things Nazi. Appearing in the same month as “Gay Berlin,” last fall, were “Artists Under Hitler,” “Hitler’s Europe Ablaze,” “Atatürk in the Nazi Imagination,” “The Jew Who Defeated Hitler,” “Islam and Nazi Germany’s War,” “Nazi Germany and the Arab World,” and—an Amazon Kindle special—“The Adolf Hitler Cookbook.”

At the same time, Beachy enlarges our understanding of how the international gay-rights movement eventually prospered, despite the catastrophic setbacks that it experienced not only in Nazi Germany but also in mid-century America. Significantly, it was a German immigrant, Henry Gerber, who first brought the fight for gay rights to America, in the nineteen-twenties; Gerber’s short-lived Society for Human Rights, in Chicago, took inspiration from Hirschfeld and perhaps lifted its name from Radszuweit’s group. The Human Rights Campaign, a powerhouse of contemporary gay politics, which was first formed as a political action committee, in 1980, also echoes the German nomenclature, intentionally or not. Furthermore, Radszuweit’s determination to project a well-behaved, middle-class image anticipated the strategy that has allowed the H.R.C. and other organizations to achieve startling victories in recent years. German homosexuals—especially well-to-do men—began to win acceptance when they demanded equal treatment and otherwise conformed to prevailing mores. In this respect, Germany in the period from 1867 to 1933 bears a striking, perhaps unsettling, resemblance to twenty-first-century America.

I closed “Gay Berlin” with a deepened fondness for Hirschfeld, that prolix and imprecise thinker who liked to pose in a white lab coat and acquired the nickname Aunt Magnesia. The good doctor had a vision that went far beyond the victory of gay rights, narrowly defined; he preached the gorgeousness of difference, of deviations from the norm. From the beginning, he insisted on the idiosyncrasy of sexual identity, resisting any attempt to press men and women into fixed categories. To Hirschfeld, gender was an unstable, fluctuating entity; the male and the female were “abstractions, invented extremes.” He once calculated that there were 43,046,721 possible combinations of sexual characteristics, then indicated that the number was probably too small. He remains ahead of his time. ♦

This article appears in the print edition of the January 26, 2015, issue.


Gay History: Lex Watson: Leading Gay Rights Activist and Trailblazer.

LEX WATSON, 1943-2014

For many of his generation and beyond, Lex Watson was the face of gay activism in Sydney.

For many of his generation and beyond, Lex Watson was the face of gay activism in Sydney. He was a foundation member of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP), the organiser of the first gay rights demonstration in Australia, a longtime passionate advocate of homosexual law reform and of anti-discrimination legislation, a pioneer AIDS activist, and in later years, a keen advocate for the preservation of gay community history.

Lex Watson addressing gay rights activists setting up their ‘Gay Embassy’ opposite former NSW premier Neville Wran’s home in Woollahra to protest against Club 80 arrests in 1983.


Alexander Watson was born in Perth on January 29, 1943, the son of Alec Watson, a medical practitioner in Geraldton, and his wife, Margaret (nee Newnham), a nurse. Lex started his education in Geraldton, then the family settled in Perth, where Alec became a well-known surgeon.

Despite his parents’ wish to place him at Geelong Grammar, or the King’s School in Parramatta, Lex was determined to go to Perth Modern. There he developed a lifelong love of languages, particularly German, and music, again particularly German, from Beethoven to the present day. At school he acted in Gilbert & Sullivan productions, directed by a teacher who remarked that he was ‘‘rather self-confident and arrogant’’, an observation often to be made of him throughout his life.

Lex Watson (left) and Robert French signing statutory declarations in 1983.

At puberty, Watson’s parents gave him a booklet on sex that contained a small non-judgmental paragraph on homosexuality. ‘‘So that’s what it is called,’’ he thought. He then looked up homosexuality in the school library, but all the texts he consulted talked of disease and perversion. Watson’s response was, ‘‘Why, they’ve got it wrong!’’ but it was a defining moment in his life.

Watson won a scholarship to the University of Western Australia, where he started in 1960. He did an arts degree and studied history and philosophy He read John Stuart Mill, whose classic liberalism became the touchstone of his life and later activism. He later became a supporter of the Council of Civil Liberties.

For his honours year, Watson transferred to the government department at the University of Sydney. It was there that he worked for the remainder of his academic life, teaching Australian politics to hundreds of students, many of whom became academics and political activists themselves.

The homosexual law reforms in Britain in 1967 sparked Watson’s interest and he became involved with reform in Australia because ‘‘it was needed and therefore you did it’’. He was in Canberra in 1970 on the weekend of the formation of the ACT Homosexual Law Reform Society and joined up. He then attended a public meeting in Sydney, organised by the Humanist Society, which formed a HLR sub-committee, which he became a member of.

Lex Watson as the Empress of Sydney in 1982.

These moves, however, were ‘‘wiped off the table’’ by the announcement by John Ware and Christabel Poll in September 1970 of the formation of the Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP), the first openly homosexual group in Australia. Watson became a foundation member, and in early 1972, along with Sue Wills, became a co-president.

Ware credited Watson with making the organisation political, and it was Watson who organised the first gay demonstration, outside the Liberal Party headquarters in Ash Street, Sydney in October 1971.

Watson, as an academic, had contacts in the Liberal Party and got to hear of the challenge that conservative Jim Cameron was to bring against the federal pre-selection of Tom Hughes, after Hughes as federal attorney-general had raised the issue of homosexual law reform.

One of the major achievements of CAMP under Watson and Wills was highlighting the dangers of aversion therapy and psycho-surgery as then practised against women and homosexuals. That homosexual people then began to cease consulting practitioners for a ‘‘cure’’ for their sexual orientation was a triumph for CAMP.

Watson and Wills resigned from CAMP in October 1974 as the organisation concentrated more on its phone-counselling services.

Watson continued his activism and advocacy through newspaper articles in the gay press. In 1976 he, memorably and courageously, appeared on the ABC’s Monday Conference program in Mt Isa. Some of the audience were hostile, one member even pouring a bottle of sewage over his head. Watson maintained his composure throughout and won over the audience.

With the assistance of fellow academic and activist Craig Johnston in 1980, Watson approached Barrie Unsworth of the NSW Trades & Labor Council after the University of Sydney staff union had passed an anti-discrimination motion in relation to gays and lesbians. Unsworth was receptive and had a similar motion passed in the council. The move was the beginning of Gay Rights Lobby (GRL) and a new push for homosexual law reform in NSW, as well as support for a bill to incorporate homosexuality under the terms of the Anti-Discrimination Act.

Watson, in a dispute over tactics and his administrative style, fell out with GRL but that did not stop him and his fellow activists continuing to work together. After the police raid on Club 80 in 1983, it was Watson who suggested that the activists sign statutory declarations admitting to having committed buggery and to present them to the vice squad, seeking arrest. Watson was one of the first to present but the police had been forewarned and refused to make arrests.

He was a member of a delegation to premier Neville Wran in May 1984 on the morning of the introduction of his Private Members Bill to repeal the ‘‘buggery’’ provisions of the NSW Crimes Act. Watson attempted to persuade the premier to introduce an equal age of consent clause and when Wran refused, he argued for the inclusion of protections for persons between the ages of 16 and 18 years, which Wran enthusiastically agreed to. A new clause had been typed onto the bill when it reached the floor of the Legislative Assembly that day.

In 1982, the Chameleons social group had crowned Watson ‘‘Empress of Sydney’’, the first time for someone from outside the ‘‘drag’’ industry. He was proud of his only appearance in ‘‘drag’’, sporting a black velvet strapless gown. He wore the gown to the ‘‘Gay Embassy’’, a caravan that had been set up in front of the premier’s house in late 1983 as another move to push the law reform agenda. The embassy had been Watson’s idea.

Watson became aware of the problem of HIV/AIDS in 1982. He later became involved in the disputes with the Blood Bank, pointing out that the only solution to the implementation of sound public health policy relating to HIV was for the medical profession to engage in a dialogue with the gay community. He, and others, set up the AIDS Action Committee which, following federal government funding, morphed into the AIDS Council of NSW, of which Watson became the first president.

Watson later stepped down as president although he stayed on the committee. Truth to tell, he was not the greatest of administrators. He operated best as an individual activist, always sharp and on-message.

For many years Watson was also a block captain of marshals at Mardi Gras parades. In 2010, ACON awarded Watson and Wills their GLBTI Community Hero Award marking the 40th anniversary of the formal foundation of CAMP, and they were thrilled to ride up front in the 2011 Sydney parade.

After retirement from the University of Sydney, Watson became involved in the Pride History Group, Sydney’s gay and lesbian history group. He was president at the time that he died, assisting in the organisation of a history conference, set for November, on homosexual law reforms, his major life’s work. The conference will be dedicated to his memory.

Lex Watson is survived by his sister Wendy, brother-in-law Richard and nephews Nicholas and Ben and their families.


Gay History: I Saw The Sign: LGBT Symbols Then And Now: From A Lesbian Perspective.

You’re sitting in your day parlor, sipping a cup of tea and needlepointing a screen with your female relatives. Then, a maid enters the parlor and informs you that you have a visitor waiting for you in the drawing room. You excuse yourself and enter the drawing room where you find Elizabeth Bennett, holding a bouquet of violets that she picked just for you.


JUNE 21, 2012

Welcome to my fantasy. For years I’ve daydreamed about what gift Elizabeth Bennett might bring me to express her true intentions (which ranged from a beautifully-written letter sealed in wax to a corgi puppy in basket), but now I know she would bring me violets. Violets are beautiful and adorable flowers in general, but they’re also one of the more famous symbols of female homosexuality, possibly dating back to a poem in which Sappho describes herself and her lover wearing garlands of violets:

If you forget me, think

of our gifts to Aphrodite

and all the loveliness that we shared

all the violet tiaras

braided rosebuds, dill and

crocus twined around your young neck


In the early 20th century, women used to give each other violets as a way of telling each other, “Hey, I LIKE like you,” in times when it wasn’t easy or accepted to say so in a more overt manner. And, though the historic origins of the violet as a symbol of women liking women may have faded, the color purple is still often associated with homosexuality, particularly in the naming of the Lavender Menace and in the use of the term “lavender lads” to describe gay men during the “Lavender Scare” in the 1950s in the U.S.

Sadly, as we all know, it’s only recently that open displays of homosexuality have begun to be accepted by society, and obviously there are still many places in the world where they are still met with disapproval, violence, and/or legal and social persecution. But! The good thing is that even in unfriendly societies, us homos have always managed to find our way to each other (call it the silver lining in the lavender cloud, if you will). We’ve done so in a variety of ways, though visual symbols are often among the most recognizable. Some of these symbols may be familiar to you, but even if they aren’t, perhaps they’ll give you an idea of how to decorate your messenger bag or expand your tattoo sleeve.

The Greek Symbol “Lambda”

Lambda was selected as a symbol by the Gay Activists Alliance of New York in the 1950s and was declared the international symbol for gay and lesbian rights by the International Gay Rights Congress in 1974. It’s unclear how exactly lambda was adopted by the LGBT community or what it actually means but some popular theories include: the charged energy of the gay and lesbian rights movement (since lambda symbolizes “energy” in chemistry and physics), the Roman interpretation meaning “the light of knowledge shining into the darkness of ignorance,” or “the notion of being on different wavelengths when it comes to sex and sexuality.” There’s also this idea kicking around that lambda appeared on the shields of Spartan and/or Theban warriors in ancient Greece. The Thebes version is more popular because, as legend has it, the city-state organized the Theban Army from groups of idealized lovers, which made them exceptionally fierce and dedicated soldiers–though eventually the army was completely decimated by King Philip II, the father of Alexander the Great. Lending credence to this theory is the fact that the 1962 version of “300” depicted soldiers with lambdas on their shields. I never saw the 2006 version so someone else will have to confirm or deny the perpetuity of lambda in that whole situation.

The Rainbow Flag(s)

Gilbert Baker

In the 1970s, San Francisco artist Gilbert Baker recognized the need for a gay symbol that could be used during the Pride Parade each year. Baker drew inspiration for the first version of the iconic rainbow flag from a variety of sources and came up with a flag with eight color stripes, each representing a different aspect of gay and lesbian life: hot pink for sexuality, red for life, orange for healing, yellow for the sun, green for nature, blue for art, indigo for harmony, and violet for spirit. Baker and 30 volunteers hand-dyed and stitched the original flag, but had to remove the pink stripe for mass production due to a lack of commercially-available pink dye. When Harvey Milk was assassinated later that year, the 1979 Pride Parade Committee selected Baker’s flag as the symbol for the gay community to unite in honor of Milk’s memory.

The Original Rainbow Flag

In the 1979 San Francisco Pride Parade, the color indigo was also removed so the colors could be evenly-distributed along the parade route, leaving us with the flag we know today, with stripes of red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. Today, there are many, many varieties of the rainbow flag–you can stick a lambda on it, a colored triangle, a star of David, whatever you want! People seem particularly fond of the rainbow flag/rainbows in general because they are all-encompassing: a rainbow flag endorses gay rights without making a statement about the person displaying it. And this, to me, is the most rockin’ thing about rainbow flags. If you chose not to, you don’t have to say anything about yourself, your sexytime partners, your experiences, thoughts or feelings–you’re just rocking a rainbow, and under the rainbow we’re all family. Rainbow flags and stickers are often used to denote gay-friendly businesses, gay-friendly health facilities and really, who doesn’t want to paint their face in rainbow colors and go to a parade filled with like-minded rainbow-philes? No one, that’s who. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a member of the LGBT community or simply a supporter of gay rights, rainbows mean love for everyone and are therefore wonderful.

Black Triangles

One of the oldest symbols associated with the LGBT community is the triangle, which originated as one of the symbols used in Hitler’s Nazi concentration camps as a way to label prisoners: male homosexual prisoners were made to wear a pink triangle, while women imprisoned for “arbeitsscheu” (“antisocial behavior”, including feminism, lesbianism and prostitution) were made to wear black triangles. Though there isn’t definitive evidence to prove that the black triangles were worn by lesbians in the same way that pink triangles were worn by gay male prisoners, over time the black triangle has evolved into one of the more prominent symbols of lesbianism, contemporaneously symbolizing defiance against repression and discrimination.


I know you all totally know what a labrys is already, but juuuust in case you don’t: a labrys is a double-headed axe. The labrys was first associated with the Greek goddesses Artemis (goddess of the hunt) and Demeter (goddess of the harvest) and used in battle by Scythian Amazon warriors. The Amazons ruled with a dual-queen system and were known for being ferocious in battle. Though the labrys originally stood for independence/strength/chopping prowess, it has also been appropriated as a symbol of lesbianism.

Note from commenter Nancy: The labrys is actually even older than Artemis as goddess of the hunt, it goes all the way back to the Minoan civilization on crete around the 15th century BCE, although we are not really sure what it meant then because it is sooo long ago! And while there were definitely women warriors in Scythia and nearby regions, it’s super speculative that they had the whole two-queen system and everything…that comes out of some quasi-history written by guys like Herodotus.

Double Venus

The double Venus symbol takes the scientific symbol for “female” (or “Venus”) and doubles it–two females = girl and girl; Bette and Tina; Ellen and Portia, etc.

Bisexuality Symbols

In 1998, the official Bisexuality Flag was designed by Michael Page to represent the bisexual community. The magenta stripe represents same-sex attraction and the blue stripe at the bottom represents opposite-sex attraction, while the smaller deep lavender (lavender!) stripe in the middle represents attraction to both genders. Overlapping pink and blue triangle are also used to symbolize bisexuality.

Transgender Symbols

In 2000, Monica Helms designed the first Transgender Pride flag, which debuted at the Phoenix Pride Parade in Arizona. Helms planned the flag to represent the spectrum of trans* experience. “The light blue is the traditional color for baby boys, pink is for girls, and the white in the middle is for those who are transitioning, those who feel they have a neutral gender or no gender, and those who are intersex. The pattern is such that no matter which way you fly it, it will always be correct. This symbolizes us trying to find correctness in our own lives.” Another popular symbol used to identify members of the the transgender community comes from the same roots as the double Venus: a circle with an arrow projecting from the top-right, as per the male symbol, and a cross projecting from the bottom, as per the female symbol, with an additional striked arrow (combining the female cross and male arrow) projecting from the top-left.

The Other Stuff

Purple Rhinoceros: In the 1970s gay activists in Boston chose the rhinoceros as their symbol because, like the gay rights movement, while the rhino is often misunderstood it is actually a docile and intelligent animal until it is attacked–at which point it’s probably going to steamroll your car. And guess what? It’s purple. Bam. Purple rhino.

Hare, Hyena and Weasel: These three animals were mentioned in an apocryphal text of the Bible, Barnabus, in which God warns against eating the flesh of the hare (associating it with anal sex), the hyena, which was at the time was believed to change gender once a year, and the weasel, which was associated with lesbian sex. Why? Who knows. Look how cute, though!

Thumb Rings: Popular culture seems to believe that if a woman wears a silver thumb ring, she’s telling the world she’s a big ole lesbian–though there seems to be some confusion over whether to wear it on the left or right thumb and what that signifies.

Purple String: In some places, wearing a piece of purple string or hemp around your wrist is a sign of liking other girls: wear it on your left wrist if you are single, right if you are in a relationship. But then sometimes girls from the UK say that this is reversed in Europe, adding to the dilemma of what to do when you go to London on vacay.

Sign Language for “Lesbian”: On one forum I read, a girl said that she and her friends signal “lesbian” by the American Sign Language sign,” which involves making your thumb and forefinger into an ‘L’ and sticking your chin between the two. I find this amusing and wonderful and will use it all the time.

Nautical Star Tattoo: In the 1940s, many lesbians got a nautical star tattooed on their inner wrist to advertise their sexuality. But then so did sailors and punk rockers. Not that the groups are mutually exclusive by any means (if you are lesbian sailor punk rocker, I want to meet you). What does seem to be a defining feature of tattoos indicating lesbianism is that they were often on the inner wrist, so ladies could cover them up with a watch during the day and expose them at night when they were out.

Also, dolphins: In almost every online discussion I read, some sad-sounding girl would chime in to ask, “I thought dolphins were symbols of lesbianism. What about dolphins?” Um, PREACH. Lack of historic precedent be damned, I say if we want dolphins, we can have dolphins. DOLPHINS!

LGBT symbols are ever-evolving as time, culture and civil rights allow. While it’s crucial to give a nod to the historic significance of using LGBT symbols during times and in places where one had to be covert, the use of symbols, raised some interesting questions that maybe you have thoughts about. How effective is an LGBT symbol if members of the community may not recognize what it means? At what point do “symbols” merge into the larger topic of gaydar?

It really depends on what you want, whether it be acknowledging the struggle of the past, your personal feelings about your own present, or pride in and of itself. In the end symbolism and the use of symbols is just that–it’s the user of the symbol who gives it meaning and significance. Ultimately it’s a pretty wonderful thing that in many places, we don’t have to use symbols to say what we mean and feel. But I’m just sayin’–if I see a girl with an Autostraddle ‘A’ sticker on her laptop, I’m going over to say hi.