The antecedents to today’s U.S. LGBT movement go back even further than the Stonewall Riots. In 1893, James Mills Peirce, brother of philosopher and pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce, proposed …
The antecedents to today’s U.S. LGBT movement go back even further than the Stonewall Riots. In 1893, James Mills Peirce, brother of philosopher and pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce, proposed in a letter to John Addison Symonds the radical idea that homosexuality is something “natural, pure and sound”: “We ought to think and speak of homosexual love, not as ‘inverted’ or ‘abnormal’... but as being in itself a natural, pure and sound passion,” he wrote.
The earliest gay organization in the U.S., the short-lived Society for Human Rights, was founded in Chicago in the 1920s by Henry Gerber, with an African-American clergyman, John T. Graves, as its president. It also published the first periodical for gay people, Friendship and Freedom.
World War II accelerated the growth of a gay community, turning a curious subculture into a movement. The war took millions of young people from farms and small towns across the country and sent them off to war. The vast majority were away from their families for the first time, fighting an existential struggle for the survival of democracy and themselves, surrounded by massive loss.
That palpable mortality, combined with great distance (geographical, cultural and psychological) from their homes and families, made those with a latent homosexual inclination more likely to explore it. When these soldiers returned after the war, many did not go back to the farms and small towns from where they were born. They were too changed by wartime experiences and not interested in the restrictive provincialism of their hometowns. Instead, they settled in the cities where they disembarked, mixing with artists, bohemians and the racy nightlife found in those port cities, creating some of the first “gayborhoods” in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.
When Gore Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar” was published in 1948, it was the first frankly homosexual literary novel, written by a promising up-and-coming writer from a prominent family. The NY Times condemned it—Gore was bitter to the end about this—but the novel, and its reception/rejection, created a conversation amongst the intellectual and cultural elite that was previously absent.
The first half of “The Kinsey Report” was also published in 1948, which made study of sexuality a more mainstream topic and shocked the world with its findings, particularly the extent to which humans engaged in homosexual and other “deviant” behaviors.
If those two books sparked a discussion amongst the literary, intellectual and scientific elite, Harry Hay’s organizing of “Bachelors for Wallace” initiated the grassroots organizing that has propelled the LGBT movement in recent decades. Henry Wallace, of Iowa, was FDR’s former Vice President (1940-44) and a leftist, who ran a third-party candidacy for President in 1948 advocating racial and gender equality, school desegregation, national health insurance and other then-radical ideas. Hay was a labor organizer and member of the Communist party who organized the gay support organization “Bachelors for Wallace,” including walking the gay beaches to gather signatures to get a sexual privacy plank in the Progressive Party platform.
That effort ultimately grew into Hay’s founding of the Mattachine Society and the magazine ONE in 1950 which, along with the founding of the Daughters of Bilitis in 1955, comprised the beginning of the contemporary organizational infrastructure that laid the groundwork for the history described in the article “The Stonewall Riots Didn’t Start the Gay Rights Movement” (www.bit.ly/TRRstonewall).
While the progress in LGBT rights has accelerated dramatically in the last few years, in the scope of history it has been but a blink of an eye. It is also fragile, with significant setbacks in a world where so many countries routinely execute, torture and imprison people solely for their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.
In the U.S., employment, housing and other rights are routinely denied to many LGBT people, including in Pennsylvania, where I live. Anti-LGBT violence is at an all-time high, particularly against transgender, non-binary and gender non-conforming people, especially women of color who live in the south. At least 26 transgender women were murdered in the U.S. in 2018 and about another dozen so far this year.
It is joyous to take “pride” in what we have accomplished, but it is a foolish pride if we do not also realize how easily our gains can be reversed. It is vital to remain vigilant in our fight for human rights and for us to work in concert with the broader battle for gender, racial and economic justice.
Sean Strub is a longtime LGBT and HIV activist, and the author of “Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS & Survival” (Scribner 2014). He owns the Hotel Fauchere/Relais & Chateaux in Milford, PA where he also serves as Mayor and lives with his husband, Javier Morales.