Don’t start—or stop—with Stonewall. To understand not just LGBTQ history but all post-war U.S. history, students must see the 1960s in context. In this episode, Amnesty International’s Ian Lekus dives into the minority-rights revolutions of the 1960s.
Resources and Readings
- Teaching Tolerance, Teaching Stonewall
- Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students, Section III: Instruction
- Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students, Appendix B: LGBTQ Historical Figures
- Teaching Tolerance, Bayard Rustin: The Fight for Civil and Gay Rights
- Teaching Tolerance, Nonviolence vs. Jim Crow (Bayard Rustin)
- Teaching Tolerance, Experiment in Fairness (Bayard Rustin)
- Teaching Tolerance, The Role of Gay Men and Lesbians in the Civil Rights Movement
- LGBT Thematic Specialist, Amnesty International USA
- Host, Radio Free Qtopia (podcast)
- Author, Queer and Present Dangers: Sexuality, Masculinity, and the Sixties
John D’Emilio: One afternoon in 1974, while I was still a graduate student, I walked into the office of my faculty advisor and announced with great excitement that I had figured out what my dissertation topic would be. I told him, “I want to write a history of homosexuality in America.” Without skipping a beat, he responded, “John, I think you need to narrow your topic a bit.” At that time I had never read any LGBTQ history and as far as I knew, there wasn’t any. But in New York, where I lived at the time, I had recently met a circle of people who were trying to figure out how research and writing could contribute to the LGBTQ movement of those years, and I was excited about the possibilities.
John D’Emilio: Now, of course, I laugh whenever I think of that moment. The naïve graduate student enthusiastically venturing into new and unexplored territory. The experienced faculty mentor offering wise advice. But it did set me on a productive path of focusing my search for a new kind of history. In the end, I decided that I would write about the LGBT activism that preceded the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the birth of gay liberation. Surely, I thought, there must’ve been something that came before Stonewall. And, in fact, as I searched for documentary evidence and made contact with activists who could tell me their stories from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, it became apparent that there was indeed a movement in those decades. It wasn’t loud and militant in the way that gay liberation and lesbian feminism was in the early 1970s.
John D’Emilio: It didn’t achieve the same visibility and influence that came in later decades. But in the middle of the Lavender Scare of the 1950s, during the years that deserve to be called the worst time to be queer in the United States, small numbers of men and women in a few cities came together, formed organizations, published magazines and held public meetings. They worked with a clear awareness of the real dangers they confronted. For instance, at a time when homosexuals were labeled “degenerates” and “perverts” and “a moral menace,” they used the term “homophile” to describe themselves. The names of their organizations, the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, the Society for Individual Rights, avoided the stigma attached to “lesbian” or “gay” or “homosexual.” If someone found out you were a member of the Mattachine or the Daughters, they wouldn’t automatically know that you were queer.
John D’Emilio: As I read their publications and as I did oral histories, I couldn’t help being deeply moved and impressed by their courage. This was a time when homosexual behavior was criminalized throughout the United States. When groups of gay men or lesbians socializing together could be arrested for disorderly or immoral conduct. When so-called cross-dressing was against the law. And yet, these pioneering activists were willing to take the risk and come together in order to change social attitudes toward sexual identities. In my many years of teaching LGBTQ history, I have found that I am not the only person impressed by their bravery. Through the years, as I taught my students about the Cold War and the Red Scare, as I incorporated into my courses information about the Lavender Scare (which was a part of these decades), my students were touched and affected by the risks these activists were willing to take to create a safer, better and more just world.
John D’Emilio: Queer people became an integrated part of post–World War II U.S. history. They became figures who were worth learning about. Even though they may not have dramatically changed society, they served as a reminder of the courage that ordinary, not famous, people have displayed in history. I’m John D’Emilio and this is Queer America, a special series from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. LGBTQ history has been largely neglected in the classroom, but it’s necessary to give students a fuller history of the United States and to help them understand how that history shaped the society they live in. This podcast provides a detailed look at how to incorporate important cultural touchstones, notable figures and political debates into an inclusive U.S. History curriculum.
John D’Emilio: In each episode we explore a different topic, walking you through historical concepts, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises. Talking with students about sexual and gender identity can be emotional and complex. This podcast is a resource for navigating those challenges so teachers and students can discover the history and comprehend the legacy of queer America. In this episode, we will discuss the decades of homophile activism after World War II, which help set the stage for Stonewall and the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s. Historian Ian Lekus will suggest ways that, as a teacher, you can make use of this history in your classes. Here’s Ian Lekus.
Ian Lekus: I recently heard from an old friend. Her daughter is a 10th-grader and is out as bisexual at her high school in Hawaii and she was working on a paper on the 1969 Stonewall Riots for her U.S. History class. The Stonewall Inn Riots, as you may know, were the uprising in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village neighborhood in late June 1969, when the New York City Police Department conducted what they expected to be just another routine raid of a gay bar. Only on this particular night, the bar’s patrons—most notably the drag queens and the transgender people of color who made up many of the Mafia-owned bar’s regulars—they fought back against the police. This began three nights of riots that inspired the birth of the Gay Liberation Front and are widely understood, if incorrectly understood, as the beginning of the LGBT movement in the United States and around the world.
Ian Lekus: At my old friend’s suggestion, her daughter asked me for advice on how to research Stonewall, so I mentioned resources like the documentary Stonewall Uprising, Martin Duberman’s book on Stonewall, and the outhistory.org website. I got to asking my friend, had her daughter learned anything else in class about LGBT history besides Stonewall? “No. Nothing besides Stonewall,” she told me. It turns out, her daughter had learned about Stonewall from a Levi’s Rainbow Pride T-shirt that her friend’s mom had given her. And when the daughter was assigned a history project with a theme of triumphs and tragedies, she Googled that plus “LGBT community”—and boom. And then she understood the reference on her shirt. Now she just needs to research the rest of her T-shirt. Interestingly, the rest of her T-shirt is a timeline of U.S. LGBT history from the 1924 founding of the Society for Human Rights through 2013’s repeal of The Defense of Marriage Act.
Ian Lekus: And so this means that my friend’s daughter is getting more information about U.S. LGBT history from a corporate-branded pride T-shirt than from her actual high school history class. I’m starting with this story to bring up how high school students are in fact learning LGBT history, but often not in their middle and high school classes. That’s certainly my own experience working with Washington, DC–area students these days. Most of the students I work with attend schools that pay at least lip service to affirming their LGBT students. In talking around with my friends who are parents of middle school- and high school-age kids, most of whom live in self-described progressive communities with schools that prioritize inclusion. And yet LGBT content is rarely trickling down to curricula. One friend who’s a parent in Minneapolis told me, “Neither of my kids have ever had any lesson related to the subject that wasn’t delivered at home.” And this is in a school with a large percentage of kids who identify as LGBTQ.
Ian Lekus: Another friend, who is a parent in Seattle, told me about how her two high school kids’ gay history teacher is “dropping in a few things here and there, but that’s about it.” There is a noteworthy exception to this trend: California, where the 2011 Fair Education Act requires the inclusion of LGBT history in all textbooks and social studies curricula at all grade levels, elementary, middle and high school. And the Act’s website, FairEducationAct.com, includes dozens of lesson plans and other resources for K to 12 teachers. But even in California’s history classes, the progress is pretty much coming mostly in American history, not in world history or European history classes. So in thinking about how to teach LGBT history, indeed as I think about teaching history in the 21st century in general, I’d argue that it’s essential to remember that our students are digital natives. They’re telling their own stories every day, intentionally and not, via platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr and so on.
Ian Lekus: Indeed today’s LGBT students and today’s students of color—for that matter, today’s feminist students and students from other historically under-represented groups—are just the latest members of those groups making history, taking history into their own hands. They’re the latest to ask, “Why doesn’t history look like me?” So their making history and our teaching LGBT history are all part of the ongoing legacy of the minority rights revolution of the ’60s. And that history is much, much larger than Stonewall. And contrary to the popular narrative, it didn’t all begin at Stonewall. I’ll be making that point repeatedly through this episode. But at the same time, it is Stonewall that I keep getting asked for help with again and again and again by my friends and their high school-age kids.
Ian Lekus: I think about what one friend recently told me. When I took AP U.S. History, there was almost zero mention of gay issues, but I distinctly remember the textbook mentioning gays coming out and mobilizing after Stonewall and how it influenced the APA (the American Psychiatric Association) to drop gay identity as a disorder. Indeed, in regard to LGBT content in U.S. History courses, Stonewall is clearly what’s most likely to come up—if anything does—and it’s certainly what’s most likely to come up on APUSH exam or on a College Board U.S. History subject test. So this episode of Queer America will air in 2019, a few months ahead of the 50th anniversary of those watershed riots from late June 1969 in New York City. And I’ll be talking about those riots more later.
Ian Lekus: But first to begin our discussion of Stonewall and the ’60s I want to offer four important ideas that help teach this period. These concepts are useful whether you’re doing a U.S. survey course, a course on sexuality and gender, a course on multiculturalism, or even a course or unit on social change and protest movements. The first is: Stonewall was not the beginning. Now the Stonewall Riots were a landmark event, but in the arc of U.S. LGBT history, Stonewall comes a full 20 years into queer activism and resistance in this country. It was certainly a watershed, but it was not the beginning. Second, we remember Stonewall because of the ’60s. It is because of the minority-rights revolution, because of the civil rights, women’s and anti-war movements, because of the counterculture, that Stonewall spawns the Gay Liberation Front and lesbian feminism. It is the movements of the ’60s that drive the rapid, dramatic growth of LGBT politics after Stonewall, and it is because of the ’60s movements that Stonewall, not earlier queer protests and uprisings, has taken hold of our collective memory.
Ian Lekus: Third, Stonewall—and LGBT history in the ’50s and ’60s more generally—helps us better integrate post-war American history. It’s easy, really easy, to view the ’60s as some queer aberration between what comes before and what comes after. Instead, this material helps us engage change and continuity much more meaningfully despite superficial breaks emphasized in textbook chapters. This work of contextualizing the queer ’60s helps us integrate the ’60s into teaching American history much more clearly. This leads me to a fourth major theme about the very nature of social change movements over the course of American history, and I’m gonna be talking about this all the way through my conversation. When we’re studying social movements—the LGBT movement, the black freedom struggle, feminism from the first suffragettes to today and many more—it’s easy to focus on some activists and some groups being too radical and others being too moderate or conformist. Whatever those terms mean, which isn’t much.
Ian Lekus: A look at the queer ’60s helps us think about how movements learn from each other and about how activists can be conservative and radical at the very same time. Moreover, the history of the queer ’60s can help students critically analyze the tensions, the necessary and creative tensions and also painful tensions between those rights-based movements demanding access to the full rights of citizenship who want into the system, and those liberation movements organizing to transform existing political institutions and cultural norms who want to change the system. Now clearly that’s a set of questions with major relevance today as well as an urgent matter for historians to study. After the break, I’ll be back to talk about the road to Stonewall, the origins of the LGBT movement and how the pre-Stonewall homophile movement fits into and defies at the same time our understanding of post-war America.
John D’Emilio: You’re listening to Queer America. I’m your host John D’Emilio. Teaching Tolerance has learned a lot about what LGBTQ students need to thrive. How even small policy adjustments and curriculum changes can make a big difference in the lives of queer and non-binary students. We also know that LGBTQ-inclusive schools benefit all students. Our new LGBTQ Best Practices Guide can help educators and school leaders ensure that all students feel safe, seen and capable of success. By creating a curriculum as complete and representative as possible and cultivating a school climate that fosters open and respectful dialogue among all students and staff, you are preparing your students to engage and thrive within our diverse democracy.
John D’Emilio: You can find it at Tolerance.org/podcasts. Again, here is Ian Lekus.
Ian Lekus: It’s all too common for American history to be taught as a series of stories that good people have just had enough and stood up to injustice. Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan’s housewives, the abolitionists and the suffragettes and so on. This, of course, does a disservice to the complexity of working for social change. What comes to mind is how Rosa Parks was a seasoned civil rights activist and NAACP leader before that fateful day she refused to give up her seat. And she knew full well the implications of her actions and she had the existing networks that could spring into action in response.
Ian Lekus: This narrative also does a disservice to all those activists whose names may be forgotten; the other, less-respectable and less-connected African Americans who also refused to give up their seats on Jim Crow buses. Or the homophile activists who organized for 20 years before Stonewall. Or the transgender people who actively resisted police harassment in cafeterias and donut shops years before the 1969 raid on the Stonewall Inn bar. But we remember Stonewall, and in his second inaugural address in 2013, Barack Obama both enshrined Stonewall into the pantheon of American resistance and inadvertently reinforced this narrative of Americans who just stand up one day, having had enough. As if there is an automatic, self-correcting quality to the American journey.
Ian Lekus: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths that all of us are created equal, is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma and Stonewall ... It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began,” he continued. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law. For if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” Obama’s soaring oratory charts a journey on the map of American LGBT rights that starts at Stonewall and heads towards marriage equality. Now, his soaring oratory came two years before the 2015 Obergefell ruling at the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land. Though by that point, one could envision that victory beginning to take shape on the far horizon.
Ian Lekus: But when I teach the ’60s, my students are often surprised that neither the drag queens who fought back at Stonewall nor the Gay Liberation Front that emerges after Stonewall had any interest in marriage equality. My students are more prepared to learn that Stonewall isn’t quite the beginning and that they’re studying an origin myth about the riots that have taken hold in the popular imagination. Indeed every key moment comes along on a long journey getting there, which is just as true for the suffragettes at Seneca Falls and the nonviolent demonstrators at Selma as for the queer rioters at Stonewall. And while Stonewall and Obergefell are two critical points on the map of American LGBT activism, the road between them is far from straight. Nor does it begin on a singular fateful night in June 1969.
Ian Lekus: To be sure, the histories of same-sex love and passion and of gender diversity and non-conformity—the precursors to what we now think of as LGBT history— run centuries deep into the American past. And when I’m teaching students I’m often using two key textbooks, absolutely invaluable: Leila Rupp’s A Desired Past and John D’Emilio’s Intimate Matters. Now, when we’re talking about organized gay political activity, the story shortens to the last century, starting in 1924 in Chicago with the Society for Human Rights. And this organization, founded by Henry Gerber, was inspired by the pioneering German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld. And though short-lived, the Society was an important precursor to the homophile movement that emerged after World War II. So jumping forward to World War II, any American history class is going to discuss how World War II transformed the home front.
Ian Lekus: Moreover, any U.S. History class will also cover how the first 15 years or so after the war shaped the country’s politics, economy, pop culture and society in general, whether we’re talking about the birth of the affluent society, the emergence of rock and roll and television, suburban society, the white culture of consensus, the Beat generation and the early years in the civil rights movement or the atomic age, the Cold War superpower rivalry and domestic McCarthyism. Many of these developments and more were instrumental to the emergence of a homophile movement after World War II, the first sustained lesbian and gay political movement in the United States. And indeed, the B and the T weren’t yet political identities, though of course, countless Americans were living bisexual and gender-non-conforming lives.
Ian Lekus: World War II helped to birth modern gay and lesbian urban communities, mobilizing millions of Americans in same-sex segregated units to fight the war. When troops returned from the European and Pacific Fronts, many queer service men and women stayed in the port cities from where they’d shipped out: San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and others. And while all these cities had visible queer communities before the war, these communities all grew dramatically after 1945. And you can learn much more about this queer history of World War II in Susan Freeman’s episode of the Queer America podcast series. This is all context for the birth of the American homophile movement in the 1950 and 20 years of gay and lesbian activism before Stonewall. That movement begins with the Mattachine Society.
John D’Emilio: I’m John D’Emilio and you’re listening to Queer America from Teaching Tolerance. We want to know more about you and how you’re using this podcast. What are we doing that’s useful? And how can we do a better job to help you in the classroom? So do me a favor: please take a very short listener survey at Tolerance.org/podcasts. Here is Ian Lekus.
Ian Lekus: In the late 1940s, Harry Hay, a Los Angeles labor activist and member of the Communist party, came up with the idea of a gay activist organization. In 1950, he brought together his partner and several friends to launch the Mattachine Society. The Society took the name from a medieval French society whose members, all unmarried men, always wore masks while performing in public, sometimes protesting the oppression of peasants by the medieval elites. As a devoted member of the Communist party, Harry Hay developed his vision for gay political activism from his experiences in the party. In particular, he took the party’s vision of African Americans, Mexican Americans and Jewish Americans as oppressed minorities effectively as oppressed nationalities and he applied it to gay Americans.
Ian Lekus: The Mattachine Society declared a few goals for the liberation of gay and lesbian Americans. The original goal is included, to “unify homosexuals isolated from their own kind. To educate homosexuals and heterosexuals towards an ethical homosexual culture paralleling the culture of the Negro, Mexican and Jewish peoples,” to use the language of that day. To, “lead the more socially conscious homosexual to provide leadership to the whole mass of social variants,” and to “assist gays who are victimized daily as a result of oppression,” and here Harry Hay was thinking about the police entrapment of gay men in particular. Within a few years, the Mattachine Society formed chapters in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, D.C. and elsewhere. It grew rapidly, drawing in thousands of members, especially in California. As a group, it drew in previously and otherwise apolitical gay men who, in the atmosphere of the McCarthy era, wanted no association with the Communist party or with anything radical.
Ian Lekus: Harry Hay and the other leftist founders were pushed out of the Mattachine Society in 1953 as the population of the group moved and the Society moved to the center. Ironically, this came not long after Harry Hay himself was expelled from the Communist party for his homosexuality, who called him a security risk. The Communist party had a long-standing ban on LGBT members. Indeed, in no small irony, just as the American Lavender Scare conflated fear of Communists and homosexuals, the Soviet Union and Communist parties around the world continued to conflate homosexuality and capitalism. Homosexuality and alleged bourgeois decadence leading to grave human rights abuses against queer people in the Soviet bloc. Over the course of the 1950s, the homophile movement grew with the launch in 1952 of ONE, Inc. which started with ONE Magazine, the first national LGBT publication in the United States.
Ian Lekus: In the mid-50s, a San Francisco lesbian couple, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, launched the Daughters of Bilitis, the nation’s first public lesbian organization. Martin and Lyon sought to create a social alternative to San Francisco’s lesbian bars, which were subject to police raids and harassment. The Daughters of Bilitis soon launched their own magazine, The Ladder, and DOB chapters were organized in New York, L.A., Chicago and again elsewhere. Very similar to the goals of the predominantly male Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis worked hard to break the isolation that lesbians experienced and to create social opportunities for women. Both the Daughters and Mattachine challenged police entrapment and harassment and worked with various authorities, with law enforcement, with clergy and with psychologists to declare that homosexuality was just as normal as heterosexuality and to educate the broader public.
Ian Lekus: This was, after all, the post-war era. The age of experts in the hard sciences, but also in psychology and social science. It was the age of Alfred Kinsey, whose landmark volumes on the sexual behavior of the human male and the human female shocked the nation. In particular, many Americans were shocked by Kinsey’s data on how widespread same-sex behavior was in the United States and (more broadly), that below the veneer of conformity and propriety American sexual lives were much more adventurous and less bound by public norms and marital obligations than was widely presumed. The Mattachine Society promoted the researcher Evelyn Hooker, the pioneering UCLA psychologist whose research in the late ’50s and early ’60s debunked the correlation between homosexuality and mental illness. Hooker’s research set the stage for the Gay Liberation Front to convince the American Psychiatric Association, the APA, to remove homosexuality from its catalog of mental disorders in 1973.
Ian Lekus: Meanwhile, in the mid-60s, Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin joined with progressive Protestant clergy in San Francisco to launch the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, the first organization in the U.S. dedicated to building ties between LGBT people and faith communities, and to promoting faith leaders as advocates for LGBT people. In the mid-60s the homophile movement organized the first LGBT protests in the United States. These included the April 1965 pickets at the White House and at the United Nations in Manhattan protesting the news that under Fidel Castro’s rule, the Cuban government was imprisoning gay men in forced labor camps. These protests brought together key ’60s leaders of the homophile movement, including Franklin Kameny of the Mattachine Society in D.C. and Barbara Gittings, editor of The Ladder, along with iconic Beat poet Allen Ginsberg.
Ian Lekus: The early gay rights demonstrations also included the Annual Reminders, pickets held in Philadelphia at Independence Hall every July 4th from 1965 through 1969. Franklin Kameny, one of the organizers of the Annual Reminders, demanded that participants stick to a strict dress code: jackets and ties for men and dresses for women. In the late ’50s, Kameny had been fired from his government job as an astronomer for the U.S. Army’s map service on account of his homosexuality. Kameny lost his job in part of the Cold War scare and this launched him into more than 50 years of gay rights activism. Now, at the Annual Reminder, Kameny wanted participants to represent themselves as presentable and employable as possible. The Annual Reminders make a terrific example for teaching the history of the homophile movement, especially in the context of post-war America. We look at photos of the properly dressed, middle class–looking men and women in professional jackets and ties, in dresses, in the stifling heat of early July, carrying signs that read, “Homosexual bill of rights” and “15 million homosexual Americans ask for equality, opportunity and dignity.”
Ian Lekus: And we can compare those images to those of non-violent civil rights protestors at sit-ins also dressed to maximize the appearance of respectability. Also carrying signs that demand the full rights of citizenship for African Americans. Likewise, we compare the strategies and tactics of the homophiles and more generally the everyday concerns of LGBT people in the ’50s and ’60s as covered in The Ladder and ONE magazine to those covered by the black press, whether in local newspapers or in national magazines such as Jet and Ebony. Additionally, when I’m teaching I point out how the Annual Reminders took place on July 4th, an obvious appeal to patriotism from ’65 to ’69.
Ian Lekus: So, one, that means the last Annual Reminder took place just one week after the Stonewall Riots, which—two, in talking about the juxtaposition of drag queens and transgender people of color resisting police harassment, opens up a much larger conversation. A conversation about how some homophile leaders such as Frank Kameny were urging a politics of respectability and access to the existing institutions of American society during the second half of the 1960s. And they were doing so right when many other movements—the Black Panthers, the antiwar and student movements, women’s liberation, the counterculture and so on and soon enough gay liberationists and lesbian feminists—when all of these movements were making profound critiques on American politics and culture and were demanding fundamental, even revolutionary, change.
Ian Lekus: In teaching the history of the ’60s and of post-war America more broadly, it can be a challenge to go beyond clichés: the ’50s were all about tranquility and conformity, the ’60s were all about turmoil, and so on. Clearly, as teachers, we push against this. Central to the ’50s were the civil rights movement and McCarthy witch hunts, fear of nuclear obliteration, racialized battles of rock and roll, panics about everything from fluoride to juvenile delinquency to comic books. The ’60s may be best remembered for the protest movements, but they also included the War on Poverty and the Great Society. The Berlin Wall crisis and the Cuban missile crisis and the race to the moon. The development of the birth control pill and the artificial heart and the birth of cultural touchstones from Star Trek to the Super Bowl.
Ian Lekus: When my students fall back on clichés about the ’50s and ’60s, I remind them again and again it’s more complicated than that. And in teaching LGBT history and the history of the ’60s, there are some particularly compelling ways to get past overly simplistic generalizations and periodization. One way is in tackling the seeds of dissent, the voices of protest during the supposed conformity of the ’50s. Most survey classes at least touch on the white backlash to conformity, at least often enough that I see it on the AP and U.S. History subject tests somewhat regularly. Most classes also note the Beat generation writers and if there’s a literature component to a class, perhaps the teachers even teach Jack Kerouac’s iconic Beat novel On the Road.
Ian Lekus: But Allen Ginsberg’s poetry is a great way to queer the ’60s and to fuse together challenges to America’s racial, sexual and cultural order. Depending on what and where you teach, you may or may not be able to teach Ginsberg’s ecstatic, exuberant celebrations of gay sex, screaming with joy in “Howl,” his most famous poem, though you can teach the 1957 obscenity trial centered on the publication and sale of “Howl” and other poems. More generally, Ginsberg in his poetry helps us move beyond the conventional focus on straight white male seeds of dissent in the ’50s and the assumption that all queer Americans were living their lives in shadows, in some form of the closet. Another way to take this to get beyond simplistic generalizations and periodization is to look at two of the most important African-American writers of this era, indeed of American literary history period, to help us further conceptualize our understanding of the era.
Ian Lekus: There’s James Baldwin, the openly gay African-American novelist and critic whose searing indictments of American racism in his letters, in his nonfiction such as The Fire Next Time and Notes of a Native Son and in novels such as Another Country and [Go]Tell it on the Mountain burn just as hot two decades into the 21st century as they did when originally written in the ’50s and early ’60s. Moreover, Baldwin refused to live in any closet. He moved to France in the late ’40s to distance himself from American racial and sexual politics. He regularly wrote of homosexuality and bisexuality in his novels, most explicitly in his 1956 novel Giovanni’s Room about an American expatriate living in Paris and navigating that city’s queer spaces.
Ian Lekus: Complementing Baldwin’s story is that of his friend, playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Now Hansberry is most famous for her play, A Raisin in the Sun, on the experiences of African Americans living in segregated Chicago. But Hansberry also wrote letters to the Daughters of Bilitis’ magazine, The Ladder. Now Hansberry was married to a man although she also separated from her husband around when she started writing to The Ladder. In those letters, signed with her initials LN to obscure her name, Hansberry identified herself as a heterosexually married lesbian. She wrote to Ladder readers about intersexuality more than 30 years before the term was introduced, discussing how black women were twice oppressed and would become twice as militant. Hansberry’s language in effect extended this to the experience of being three times as oppressed as a black lesbian.
Ian Lekus: In her letters to The Ladder, students can also read Hansberry’s challenge to the politics of respectability in both the civil rights movement and in the Daughters of Bilitis. “As one raised in a cultural experience (I am a Negro) where those within were and are forever lecturing to their fellows about how to appear acceptable to the dominant social group. I know something about the shallowness of such a view as an end to itself.” Hansberry challenged The Ladder for its commitment to, in her words, advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society that the Daughters of Bilitis thought would facilitate lesbians’ integration into the mainstream.
John D’Emilio: This is Queer America and I’m your host, John D’Emilio. You can learn even more about LGBT activism in the ’50s and ’60s in a valuable collection of essays called Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History. This podcast is produced in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press, publishers of this anthology, which was edited by Susan K. Freeman and my co-host, Leila Rupp. It is the first book designed for high school and university teachers who want to integrate queer history into their standard curriculum.
John D’Emilio: You’ll find a link to purchase the book at Tolerance.org/podcasts. Again, Ian Lekus.
Ian Lekus: Finally, the story of Bayard Rustin provides an obvious entry point for bridging the ’50s and ’60s and for introducing LGBT people into the history of the ’60s. I should note that I was reading early parts of what became John D’Emilio’s biography of Bayard Rustin, Lost Prophet, that led me to research queer people in the movements in the ’60s and how gay liberation and lesbian feminism emerged from the New Left. The African-American peace and civil rights activist is best known as the chief organizer of the August 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A Quaker and a pacifist, Rustin was imprisoned during the Second World War for draft resistance.
Ian Lekus: After the war, he became perhaps the leading advocate for Gandhian nonviolence in the United States. Rustin introduced Gandhian principles and strategies to the black freedom struggle during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, during which he became a mentor to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rustin was also an openly gay man during the intense homophobia of the early Cold War and of the Lavender Scare. In 1953 he was arrested in Pasadena, California, on a morals charge, which led to Rustin losing his position with the leading Christian pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He was soon hired, though, by the War Resisters League and remained a leading figure in the radical pacifist movement of the ’60s. The video documentary Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin offers one teaching resource covering both the accomplishments of this pioneering activist and the political homophobia that he encountered from would-be allies and adversaries alike.
Ian Lekus: In 1960, Rustin and Martin Luther King planned civil rights demonstrations outside of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who viewed Martin Luther King’s rising prominence as a threat to his own place in the black political establishment, told the press of, quote, an immoral element, unquote, in the civil rights movement’s leadership. Powell privately phoned King and threatened to expose him and Bayard Rustin as lovers if King did not cancel the demonstrations. King acquiesced and publicly disassociated himself from Bayard Rustin. Three years later, when A. Philip Randolph chose him to organize the 1963 March on Washington, Rustin came under fire once again. Strom Thurmond, the prominent segregationist senator from South Carolina, tried to discredit the event by publicizing Rustin’s brief membership in the Communist party. But by 1963, McCarthyite tactics of red-baiting had lost their efficacy.
Ian Lekus: So Thurmond instead read the reports of Rustin’s arrest in Pasadena into the Senate record. But A. Philip Randolph stood firmly by Rustin, who successfully organized the march, which drew more than a quarter million people to Washington and climaxed with King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech. Because of the stigma associated with Rustin’s sexual identity at the time, his work in organizing the largest demonstration in American history to that point in just seven weeks went unacknowledged by King and other civil rights leaders who spoke on that famous day. Rustin’s work that summer and his nearly half-century of peace and civil rights activism as an openly gay African-American man was long overlooked. But biographies such as Lost Prophet by John D’Emilio, documentaries such as Brother Outsider and the publication of Rustin’s own writings in Time on Two Crosses have all brought Rustin at least some of the recognition he earned and make him an obvious choice to teach when queering the ’50s and ’60s.
Ian Lekus: Rustin’s history and that of Baldwin and Hansberry, indeed the history of the homophile movement and the LGBT communities that emerged after World War II, are all essential for understanding the history of Stonewall and the ’60s that’s to come. And we’ll continue that conversation in the next episode.
John D’Emilio: Ian Lekus is a writer, researcher and advocate. He is an LGBT specialist for Amnesty International USA, the host and producer of the Radio Free Qtopia podcast and is currently finishing his book Queer and Present Dangers: Sexuality, Masculinity, and the Sixties from University of North Carolina Press. In our next episode, Dr. Lekus will continue this discussion, taking us through the ’60s, the Stonewall Riots and the gay liberation movement. So be sure to listen. Queer America is a podcast from Teaching Tolerance in partnership with the University of Wisconsin Press. They’re the publisher of the award-winning anthology, Understanding and Teaching U.S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender History.
John D’Emilio: In each episode, we’re featuring a different scholar to talk about material from a chapter in that collection. You can purchase the book at Tolerance.org/podcasts. You’ll also find additional tools, including resources we’ve mentioned, episode transcripts and an LGBTQ Best Practices Guide to help your school create an inclusive curriculum and an open and respectful climate for dialogue among students and staff. Teaching Tolerance is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, providing free resources to educators who work with children from kindergarten through high school. You can also find those online at tolerance.org. Thanks to Dr. Lekus for sharing his insights with us.
John D’Emilio: This podcast was produced by Shea Shackleford, with production assistance from Russell Gragg. Kate Shuster is our project manager. Music in this episode is by Chris Zabriskie. So what do you think? Let us know on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Review us in iTunes, and please tell your friends and colleagues about this podcast. I’m Dr. John D’Emilio, professor emeritus of History and of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and your host for Queer America.