By Evelyn Bailey
Stonewall did not just happen. The dramatic political awakening by the gay community in New York City in 1969 was preceded by more than a decade of intensive political work by a small cadre of devoted activists in the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis.
The Mattachine Society, founded in 1950, was one of the earliest LGBT (gay rights) organizations in the United States, probably second only to Chicago’s Society for Human Rights. The Mattachine Society, Inc. of New York (MSNY) was founded in New York City in 1955 (incorporated in 1961) as a non-profit organization for educating the public in open forums in all aspects of homosexuality, for assisting the individual gay in coping with problems related to his homosexuality through creation of protective, supportive social networks, for effecting changes in social attitudes towards gays, for securing the repeal of laws discriminating against gays in housing, employment and assembly, and providing a clearinghouse for legal, medical, and personal advice for homosexuals in jeopardy.
During the same period, the Daughters of Bilitis, founded by Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon in San Francisco in 1955, provided similar support, community, and political conversation for lesbians. The DOB educated lesbians about their rights, and about gay history. The historian Lillian Faderman declared, “Its very establishment in the midst of witch-hunts and police harassment was an act of courage, since members always had to fear that they were under attack, not because of what they did, but merely because of who they were.” The New York chapter was started in 1958 by Barbara Gittings, who went on to edit and radicalize the organization’s national journal, The Ladder, with her partner, the photographer Kay Tobin Lahusen.
By the early 1960s, a new generation of East Coast activists had become dissatisfied with these strategies, which they saw as politically ineffective and overly respectful of medical and legal authorities. In 1965 the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., under the leadership of Frank Kameny, boldly inaugurated a series of pickets of the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department to protest the exclusion of homosexuals from military service and federal employment. These pickets led to annual Fourth of July pickets of Independence Hall in Philadelphia each year until 1970, when they were superseded by the annual Gay Pride marches we know today.
The New York chapters of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society were radicalized by close contact with Washington’s Mattachine through collaboration at such conferences as the annual East Coast Homophile Organization (ECHO) meeting, which in 1965 was held in New York City. Under the innovative leadership of Dick Leitsch, the Mattachine Society of New York challenged the State Liquor Authority’s ban on serving homosexual patrons and worked to stop police entrapment of homosexuals. New York Mattachine also worked closely behind the scenes with sympathetic political officials, such as Mayor John V. Lindsay, to reduce the oppression of homosexuals. Although they were only a handful of people, these activists made a real impact on the lives of gays and lesbians and laid the ground for future political work.
On October 3, 1970 guest speakers from Cornell University, Ithaca’s chapter of the national Gay Liberation Front, and the Buffalo chapter of the national Mattachine Society came to the University of Rochester to speak to a group of approximately 100 students who formed the University of Rochester Gay Liberation Front. In 1973, this group would become the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley, today the Out Alliance.
Shoulders To Stand On recognizes with pride the courage, tenacity and perseverance with which the Rochester LGBTQ community has demonstrated its RESISTANCE to the current ongoing discrimination and oppression our LGBTQ community is confronted with. As J. Peters wrote and Pete Seeger sang:
“ DEEP IN MY HEART, I DO BELIEVE, WE SHALL OVERCOME SOME DAY”