Post submitted by Beth Sherouse, former ACLS Public Fellow, HRC Senior Content Manager

By the time LGBT bar patrons fought back against a police raid of the Stonewall Inn on a hot summer night in 1969 – the moment that most people would call the beginning of the modern LGBT rights movement – LGBT people had been making themselves visible and organizing politically for nearly two decades.

When early gay and lesbian rights organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis began in the early 1950s, the country was in the midst of one of the most conservative periods in the twentieth century. This was the era of McCarthyism, when much of American politics and culture was focused on containing the spread of communism. 

But it was also the time of the “Lavender Scare,” when federal and state governments investigated and fired thousands of employees who were suspected of being gay or lesbian, claiming that they were “security risks” who were vulnerable to Soviet blackmail. As historian David Johnson explained, “many politicians, journalists, and citizens thought that [lesbians and gay men] posed more of a threat to national security than Communists.” Ironically, this government persecution of gay men and lesbians brought more visibility to LGBT people, which led them to seek each other out and form communities and political consciousness.

While the term “transgender” was not yet in use during the fifties, the idea of someone assigned one gender at birth and then medically transitioning to the “opposite” gender drew unprecedented national attention in 1952 when Christine Jorgensen made headlines across the country – arguably because of postwar Americans’ focus on gender and sexual conformity. As historian Genny Beemyn in explained in Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, “Jorgensen became a sensation, in part, because she had been a US serviceman, the epitome of masculinity in post-World War II America…and had been reborn into a ‘blonde bombshell,’ the symbol of 1950s white feminine sexuality.”

In this context, where any challenge to the norm was simultaneously a subject of fascination and suspicion, several gay men – many of whom were seasoned labor activists and Marxists – launched a radical vision for gay liberation by founding what they called a “homophile” organization in 1951. Membership in Mattachine grew dramatically in the first couple of years, and bending to Cold War pressure, the organization denounced its radical Marxist roots and declared its allegiance to the United States.

The movement remained relatively white, middle-class, and politically moderate (despite its radical roots), encouraging its members to wear gender-conforming attire and avoid overt displays of sexuality and non-gender-conforming mannerisms, attitudes that put them on the more conservative end of the political spectrum by the mid-1960s.

Following the Stonewall riots in 1969, LGBT activists embraced more radical politics, joining groups like the Gay Liberation Front. As pioneering LGBT historian John D’Emilio has argued, the generation of gay men and lesbians who came of age during the late 60s and 70s were captivated by the era’s “new culture of protest.” And while organizations like the Mattachine Society continued working toward reform, the “unresponsiveness of homophile activists guaranteed that when the decade’s radicalism did reach homosexual men and women, it would spawn a movement that would rapidly overwhelm its predecessor.” Nonetheless, it is important to realize that LGBT politics did not spontaneously emerge from the Stonewall riots, but saw its origins during one of the most repressive periods in our history, which is in itself a strong testament to the resilience of the LGBT community.

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