What Should You Know About Gay History?

Anyone might be interested in this topic, but gay people in particular should have some basic knowledge of how we got where we are today.

Most people in the LGBT community assume that gay history really begins with the Stonewall riots in New York City in 1969, and it is certainly true that the modern dramatic progress for homosexual civil rights springs from that moment.  But as to that: “B.S.” (as the character Harry Hay says in “The Temperamentals” which I am directing for Evolution Theatre Company here in Columbus, opening July 8th)—“Before Stonewall” there were millennia of gay people struggling to cope with the same urges that in the 21st century are finally allowing millions to troop to the altar.  There is a rich and exciting history out there and in this post I’d like to summarize the basics for you.

Josephine Baker
If you’re a gay man or woman you should be familiar with these tales and able to see how they relate to the current problems of the movement.  Of course, with rare exceptions, our homosexual ancestors couldn’t be “out” and up front about their orientation, so many famous people are only now revealed to have been homosexuals (or at least bisexual).  Here’s an astounding partial list: Alexander the Great, Josephine Baker, Leonard Bernstein, Marlon Brando, Lord Byron, Caligula, Casanova, Hart Crane, Greta Garbo, John Maynard Keynes, Alfred Kinsey, Maurice Sendak, Tiberius, and T. H. White.  Yup—and that list could have gone on for pages.

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What’s important to appreciate in considering the sexuality of famous people, some long dead, is that the presumption of heterosexuality [which I’ve written about before; see “The Presumption of Heterosexuality and the Invisible Homosexual” at http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2011/10/presumption-of-heterosexuality-and.html] is so strong that obvious evidence of homosexuality will nonetheless remain unseen, ignored, hidden, or outright destroyed by the historians and biographers writing supposedly definitive works.  In spite of that, like it or not, ten percent of the people on this globe have always been homosexual [see Related Posts below], even in cultures and periods when the records appear to show no signs homosexuality.  Two examples:

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman, one of the greatest poets of them all, barely put a fig leaf on his homosexuality either in his life or his poems, particularly the “Calamus” poems (part of “Leaves of Grass” in some editions), and while most biographers accept his sexuality, there are still those who bend every homoerotic line to a “safe” meaning and ignore the many episodes in Whitman’s life that are obviously, patently gay.  Helping them out is the fact that the poet himself constantly deflected charges of homosexuality during most of his life (he went silent at the end when asked these questions), replying to an 1890 plea from the English poet John Addington Symonds to come out by saying: "[T]hat the calamus part has even allow’d the possibility of such construction as mention’d is terrible—I am fain to hope the pages themselves are not to be even mention’d for such gratuitous and quite at this time entirely undream’d & unreck’d possibility of morbid inferences—wh’ are disavow’d by me and seem damnable."  Whitman knew his livelihood depended on public perception, and he was not about to be the gay poster child for nineteenth century America.

The famous actor Lawrence Olivier wrote an autobiography in which he was very frank about his homosexuality, only to have it much censored prior to publication by his wife, Vivien Leigh.  Among the parts omitted was a description of his ten year affair with actor Danny Kaye (!), which affair was widely-known at the time, but has since been hushed up.  See Lawrence Olivier: A Biography by Donald Spoto and Olivier by Terry Coleman (who questions the Kaye story but details other gay adventures in Olivier’s life).  Recent biographies of Kaye (two of them, one by his daughter) pooh-pooh the whole idea that Kaye was anything other than 100% straight, even though to watch his actions in any of his movies is to give the horselaugh to that claim.  
Danny Kaye, Vivien Leigh, and Lawrence
Olivier perform the song "Triplets"
A strong case can be made that other very famous people had a homosexual side.  For Abraham Lincoln (gasp!) see The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by C.A. Tripp, and for Adolph Hitler (what?) see The Hidden Hitler by Lothat Machtan.  When I picked up these books my first thought was “There’s no way,” and when I put them down that had changed to “Well, I’ll be damned!”

Gay history starts with the Greeks and the Romans, who dealt with homosexuality typically by allowing relationships between an older man and a younger one, while Sappho (630 circa 630-570 b.c.e.), a poet born on the island of Lesbos, created verse that made her name synonymous with woman-to-woman sexual love.  (Pity the poor people who still live on Lesbos—like it or not they are all lesbians.)

The first serious attempts to define homosexuals as a distinct class worthy of protection and not scorn occurred in the nineteenth century.  In 1860s Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a German, wrote a series of pamphlets about “uranians,” a “third sex” with a “female psyche in a male body,” and this made the term “uranian” the buzz word of the day.  It led Victorian reformers like Edward Carpenter  and Symonds (Whitman’s correspondent) to champion the idea that uranians were “enlightened” people who would reform democracy, a conclusion that delighted England’s bad boy, Oscar Wilde.  But Wilde’s private life with lower class rent boys brought an abrupt end to his literary and social career in 1895 when his homosexuality was revealed.  This promptly led to three famous trials (Wilde was the plaintiff in the first one and the defendant in the latter two), his comic masterpiece “The Importance of Being Ernest” posting closing notices after a short run, and Wilde himself being sentenced to two years hard labor for “gross indecency.”  This harsh punishment killed him at age 45, depriving the world of a tremendous talent just beginning to flower.  I cannot tell you how much this angers me.

Oscar Wilde

Magnus Hirschfield
The next wave advancing the proposition that homosexuals should be treated with dignity was launched in the early 1900s by Magnus Hirschfield, the “Einstein of Sex,” who led a major movement to repeal Paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code (making sodomy a crime), and then created a series of organizations to advance and study homosexuality, most prominently the Institute for Sexual Research (1919).  Hirschfield exploded on the international stage, lecturing all over the world and gaining thousands of followers, but—(deep sigh)—things collapsed when the Nazis came to power.  We all know that the Nazis burned books, but what you may not know is that the first books they burned (1933) were those Hirschfield had carefully collected to study homosexuality and had so proudly housed at his Institute for Sexual Research.  Great treasures went up in flames to the cheering of the crowd.  Hirschfield’s promising movement to create civil rights for homosexuals died with that book-burning.  He himself, on a trip abroad when it happened, never returned to Germany.  Paragraph 175 wasn’t repealed until 1994.

Harry Hay
Gay rights languished until the 1950s when the redoubtable Harry Hay, a communist, became furious that he lived in a world where men living in L.A. could be arrested for merely holding hands in public.  He created a manifesto declaring that “temperamentals” (the euphemism for gays at that time) should be given civil rights and not classified as criminals, a daring idea.  Initially he had much trouble convincing gays themselves to join, but with the help of Rudi Gernreich (a refugee from Vienna, who later became a famous fashion designer) and three other men the Mattachine Society came into being.  It was named after a medieval group that could tell the truth to kings as long as they did so in costumes and jest. 

Mattachine Xmas Party (Hay at upper left)
In 1990 The Trouble With Harry Hay by Stuart Timmons was published and I bought a copy (it was updated in 2012, and I’ve also read the electronic version of that edition).  It’s the biography of Hay (1912-2002), and also the story of the Mattachine Society (the subject of the play I’m directing: “The Temperamentals” by Jon Marans).  In both the play and real life Hay and his brave compatriots risk everything to form an organization that went from meeting in an L.A. diner and  from that spread to other cities, finally holding a convention that Hay later described like this:

Now, mind you, this was 1953, and five hundred people showed up in one place, as representatives of Gay organizations each delegate presumably representing up to ten people.  Can you imagine what that was like?  This is the first time it’s ever happened in the history of the United States.  There we were, and you looked up and all of a sudden the room became vast—well, you know, was there anybody in Los Angeles who wasn’t Gay?  We’d never seen so many people.  And in each other’s presence you can’t shut ‘em up.  This isn’t the period when you hugged much yet—but nevertheless there was an awful lot of hugging going on during those two days.

The organization tried new tactics to protect homosexuals.  One of these, shown to great dramatic effect in the play, occurs when a Mattachine member is falsely accused of public indecency in a men’s room where he’s entrapped by a police officer.  Hay convinced this man, Dale Jennings, not to do the usual thing—plead guilty—but instead to bravely go to trial and tell the world he was innocent of immoral activity even though he was a homosexual!  This was an amazing thing to state in public in the 1950s, but it worked and Jennings was set free when the jury could not reach a verdict after 40 hours of deliberation (eleven wanted to vote innocent but one man said he’d hold out for guilty till hell froze over).  Jennings, who went on to write a column for ONE Magazine (a premier gay publication started about this same time) later explained that the trial nonetheless ruined his life because public identification as a homosexual was a stain that could not be washed off.

In the 1950s Senator Joe McCarthy began “red-baiting” and finding communists in the State Department and elsewhere in government, and he conflated communism with homosexuality.  Blacklisting of suspected communists began, and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee [HUAC] destroyed many reputations at its vicious hearings.  Harry Hay was called to testify, and he was publically exposed as a former communist (he had left the party when he formed the Mattachine Society because the party discriminated against homosexuals).  Many of the original founders were also communists, which caused an uproar at that 1953 convention.  “Do you actually think a radical organization is born from moderate people?” one of the founders asks those attending the convention in the play.  As a consequence Hay and the other original founders all resigned their posts at the convention, and the Mattachine Society was safe from further attack from HUAC. 

But the loss of these pivotal people meant that the political fire driving the Mattachine Society died out, and it became merely a social organization, fading into insignificance.  When we began rehearsals I asked my cast if the Mattachine Society therefore ultimately meant nothing because it only lasted a short time and has now largely been forgotten.  The answer we reached was that the society had, for the first time, made gays aware of a new idea: that they were a minority with civil rights.  This was revolutionary, and once it was said on a national level it could not be unsaid.  It was still in the air as a concept, awaiting a new opportunity to be reasserted.

Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon
There were lesbian organizations founded shortly after the Mattachine Society (which itself had many lesbian members), and inspired by it.  One of these, The Daughters of Bilitis was formed by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in 1955 and lasted for fourteen years, helping gay women all over the world and advancing the cause of feminism.  It had chapters in many states and some other countries, and, most successfully, it published the first lesbian magazine in the world, “The Ladder.”  The Daughters of Bilitis eventually folded due to internal dissent and lack of funding, but as that was happening a big gay historical moment erupted in Greenwich Village in 1969.

This came in the form of famous riots at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City.  Judy Garland had just died and the drag queens were in no mood for the usual police raid that occurred at the bar on the night of June 28, 1969.  It’s unclear whether a drag queen or a lesbian threw the first punch at an arresting officer, but for the first time in history gays didn’t passively submit.  Police cars were set on fire, and at one point the police were themselves trapped in the bar, which was burning.  Crowds gathered, and the riots continued for three days, sparking excitement for the idea that gays were no longer beanbags.  The sixties had seen the rise of a youth movement to grant civil rights to all, with hippies leading the way, and it was time for gay men and lesbians to have their turn at being treated with respect.  Almost overnight many gay groups sprang up all over the country and the LGBT surge that just last month produced gay marriage uniformity in the USA had begun.  There are two fascinating re-creations of the events of the 1969 riots, both called Stonewall, one by Martin Duberman and the other by David Carter, and I recommend them both to you.

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There is much more, of course, to the history of the LGBT movement before and after Stonewall, but this post is long enough.  For a wonderful summary of events up through the early 1990s see the classic Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. by Jonathan Ned Katz (revised edition 1992).  In it you will find the gay community creating new organizations such as ACT UP and political and social groups by the score, as well as the horror of the HIV/AIDS crisis that is still with us, and battles at all levels to tear down criminal statutes and massive forms of discrimination.  From the beginning the movement has achieved major successes both in the United States and internationally, and, while there are major hurdles yet to be leaped, what has already been accomplished should indeed fill us with pride, coupled with gratitude for those who started it all.

Revisiting historical LGBT events is exciting and empowering.  As we’ve been putting together the play “The Temperamentals” we’ve marveled at the bravery these men showed when they pitted themselves against a world in which doctors said homosexuals were sick, the church said they were sinners, and the law said they were criminals.  The play is both moving and very funny, and in my “Director’s Note” in the program I have this to say:

In 2015 it’s hard to appreciate how far we’ve come. As you watch Jon Marans’ terrific play ask yourself this question: if you were a gay man in 1952 (a time when men could be arrested for holding hands) and Harry Hay had approached you on a gay beach and asked you to come to a meeting exploring whether homosexuals should band together for protection, would you have risked all you had to attend?  Those who went formed the Mattachine Society and by doing so defined the meaning of the word “brave.”  This is their story.

How would you respond to that question?

Tickets can be purchased at the door, by calling 800 838-3006 or online at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/1387401

Related Posts:

“How Many Homosexuals Are There in the World?” November 8, 2010;

“Are Gays Really Just 1.6% of the U.S. Population?” July 22, 2014’ http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2014/07/are-gays-really-just-16-of-us-population.html

“The History of Gay Rights in Columbus, Ohio,” June 4, 2012;

“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013; http://douglaswhaley.blogspot.com/2013/04/a-guide-to-best-of-my-blog.html


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