The Homosexual Revolution

For most historians the Gay Rights Movement started on June 28, 1969 with the Stonewall Riots. Although the Stonewall Riots are remembered as the catalyst for a national movement, there were a large number of gay and lesbian organizations formed prior to June 28, 1969 to achieve equality for the homosexual community. Homosexuality and the fight by political and social groups for equality despite sexual preference gained global attention in Victorian England with the Oscar Wilde Trial.

The most notable challenge to mainstream societal norms during the Victorian Era was the Oscar Wilde Trial, which brought public attention to homosexuality and the effect it had on society. Acceptance of homosexuality increased slightly after World War I, but it was not until after World War II and the Homophile Movement that gays and lesbians organized to demand a change in laws and to be granted rights in heterosexual-dominated society. The Homophile Movement is generally defined as the period at from the end of World War II until 1970 (Pettis 1). Two examples of organizations in the Homophile Movement are the Mattachine Society, who tried to advance gay right through militant means, but changed to trying to assimilate to main stream society, and the Daughters of Blitis, who focused mainly on helping lesbian women gain rights in the male dominated gay liberation moment. Both groups provided the foundation for the later Gay and Lesbian Freedom Movement.

Oscar Wilde Trial

Image Unavailable
Oscar Wilde

The most documented case of homosexual persecution in the nineteenth century involved Oscar Wilde. Wilde was part of the Aesthetic Movement. Aesthetic authors often had subliminal homosexual desires in their writing. The “dandy gentlemen” can be interpreted as gay benefactors with desires to support younger artists or poets for some form of satisfaction. An example of Wilde’s work that includes this theme is the famous Picture of Dorian Gray.

Wilde was charged with sodomy and gross indecency because he was involved in a sexual relationship with another man (a Duke's son). Wilde fought the charges, and saw injustice in the fact that love was limited only to heterosexual couples. He wasn't successful in fighting the charges, and was punished to the full extent of the law; he received two years hard labor in a British worker’s prison. This public trial and the attention it brought to homosexuality caused other “dandy gentlemen” of the time to stay “in the closet.”

Institute for Sexual Science

Prior to World War II, Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld of Germany saw the need to decriminalize homosexuality. Hirschfield organized and founded the world’s first organization to promote homosexual rights (Pettis 1). In 1919, he established the Institute for Sexual Science, an organization that specialized in understanding and promoting homosexuality in males. The institute was only in operation for a short time, until Hitler started a campaign to eradicate homosexuality from Germany and eventually Europe. Under Nazi rule, many homosexuals were detained and sent to concentration or death camps under Hitler’s mission to cleanse Europe of impurities. This caused more fears in homosexuals and restrained them from organizing or trying to gain political rights in Europe and the United States.

After World War II, there was mass urbanization in U.S. cities, which created new outlets for artistic expression, employment, socialization, and political discourse. Cities also offered homosexuals an opportunity to meet and form relationships with other individuals. Greenwich Village in New York City and San Francisco in California were two areas where there was a larger population of openly gay and lesbian individuals. A small number of bars and clubs opened to allow gays and lesbians an open place where they did not need to worry if someone else was straight or gay. Outside of these isolated populations in larger cities, many individuals believed the number of homosexuals living in the U.S. to be a small, very spread-out population that was not significant enough to influence changes to heterosexual society.

Alfred Kinsey

This belief changed when Alfred Kinsey published two studies, one in 1948 and the other in 1953, that estimated that there were roughly twenty million homosexual men and women living in the United States (Pettis 1). These studies revealed that same sex experiences were popular and prevalent in mainstream society. Kinsey also showed that homosexuality was not isolated or sparse, and that homosexuals could be seen as a significant minority group.

Image Unavailable
The Project Staff at the Institute for Sex Research

Kinsey's revelation that homosexuals were a significant minority group started a mass fear that gays were able to recruit and change individuals to also be gay. This fear led to more laws banning homosexual lifestyles and also led to an increase in hate crimes against gays and lesbians. At this point in time homosexuality was seen as a mental illness. Since it was believed to be caused in the first three years of a child's life, it could be cured. According to Martha Shelley in "Stonewall Uprising," "In those days, what they would do, these psychiatrists, is they would try to talk you into being heterosexual. If that didn't work, they would do things like aversive conditioning, you know, show you pornography and then give you an electric shock." Electric shock was only one treatment, according to William Eskridge, in "Stonewall Uprising," "

This fear and subsequent changes in laws both motivated and demonstrated the need for the formation of gay and lesbian groups. The understanding that gay men and women were not as alone as they once thought was a powerful motivator to organize and gain political and social rights. This ideology spurred the development of the Homophile Movement.

The Mattachine Society

The increased publicity of homosexuality in American culture forced a clash between the need for acceptance and the stronghold for maintaining American Christian values. The growth of homosexual populations and businesses also saw an increase in police harassment, dismissal from jobs, and prejudice. Homosexuals were arrested for sodomy, buggery, and other “crimes against humanity.” In "Stonewall Uprising" John O'Brian states, " If a gay man is caught by the police and is identified as being involved in what they called lewd, immoral behavior, they would have their person's name, their age and many times their home address listed in the major newspapers. You were alone." The life for a gay man would be ruined if he was caught. Police would often raid bars and clubs and arrest large groups of people. this again led many individuals to fear coming out and many stayed hidden behind masks that hid their true sexual preferences for fear of retribution. The increases in social and political injustices were the main focus of several homophile organizations. The Mattachine Society and others formed outlets that helped stop police entrapment, police brutality, and campaigned for the reversal of several state and federal laws that made homosexual acts, like sodomy, illegal.


The Mattachine Society was one of the first homophile organizations and was founded by Harry Hay (pictured at left), Chuck Rowland, and Robert Hull (Katz). These gentlemen had experience with forming activist groups because of their involvement with the Communist Party. The name Mattachine Society comes from the French tradition of Medieval and Renaissance masque groups that would travel and perform in the French countryside. The performers were always male and would wear masks to hide their true identities. The performers would be criticized and shunned by the upper class for their unchristian behavior. While the upper class saw these performances as unnecessary, the performers would be joined by the town-folks as a way to protest the disparities between the rich and the poor. Harry Hay, in an interview with Jonathan Katz, stated, “We felt that we 1950s gays were also a masked people, unknown and anonymous who might become engaged in morale building and helping ourselves and others through struggle, to move toward total redress and change.”

The organization was structured to help protect the founding individuals from any backlash from mainstream society. The three founders were protected because, with no publicly known leader, the organization limited the opportunity for the police or the F.B.I to out information about specific individuals and start investigations into members. Eric Marcus in "Stonewall Uprising" states, " The Mattachine Society was the first gay rights organization, and they literally met in a space with the blinds drawn. They were afraid that the FBI was following them."

The Mattachine Society originally formed as a militant organization, but with the political climate already tense because of communist suspicions, and especially since Hay, Rowland, and Hull were affiliated with the Communist Party, the group changed direction to focus on political reforms. The organization worked hard to try and convince other homosexual males to conform to heterosexual society’s norms. An example of this can be seen in an interview with Richard Inman, who was the president of the Mattachine Society of Florida:

The society started making statements as an attempt to palpitate heterosexual fears. The organization focused on reaching out to psychiatric experts who classified homosexuality a mental illness. The Mattachine Society restructured to allow more members to join, but quickly realized that trying to assimilate into mainstream society was not a way to gain equality or freedom. Martha Shelley confirms this by saying, "They wanted to fit into American society the way it was. And I had become very radicalized in that time. There was the Hippie movement, there was the Summer of Love, Martin Luther King, and all of these affected me terribly. All of the rules that I had grown up with, and that I had hated in my guts, other people were fighting against, and saying "No, it doesn't have to be this way." The Mattachine Society was an important factor in advancing homosexual rights, but were only successful in large cities.

Daughters of Bilitis


While the Mattachine Society focused mostly on homosexual males, Daughters of Bilitis was the primary group for lesbians in California. Initially, the Daughters of Bilitis formed to create public spaces for lesbians to socialize, like at dances, away from the inquisitive eyes of the police, tourists, and family members. Similar to the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis encouraged conformity with mainstream heterosexual culture, primarily reflected through the early suppression of butch culture in the organization.

Originally founded in 1955, the Daughters of Bilitis had chapters in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Rhode Island by 1959. Additionally, the newsletter of the Daughters of Bilitis, Ladder, quickly grew to be a major international magazine. The Ladder reached out to women who did not have access to the support networks that the Daughters of Bilitis had built in San Francisco and other urban centers throughout the U.S. The magazine reached women who did not know where else they could turn, and "slowly lifted the veil of secrecy that surrounded lesbian's daily lives in mid-twentieth century America" (Gallo xxi).

These two groups helped gain momentum for the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Movement. The organizations worked together to help broadcast the need for greater social and political changes for homosexuals. The organizations faced many obstacles, and were both disbanded prior to the Stonewall Riots. The Riots built on the groundwork that the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis had established and forced national attention to a long oppressed group of individuals. The Riots began because of intolerance and the fight for equality and acceptance is still fought today. According to Martin Boyce in "Stonewall Uprising," "It was another great step forward in the story of human rights, that's what it was. And it was those loudest people, the most vulnerable, the most likely to be arrested, were the ones that were doing the real fighting. They were the storm troopers." It has been a swift change and the Gay and Lesbian Freedom Movement is still strong and still gaining attention for rights to marry, to adopt, for equal access to healthcare, and for citizenship. These issues still need to be resolved, but looking at the past shows how far gays and lesbians have come.

Works Cited

Gallo, Marcia M. Different Daughters: A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Rights Movement. Emoryville: Seal Press, 2007.

Heilbroner, David. "Stonewall Uprising." Stonewall Uprising. PBS. New York, New PBS. Web. 1 Oct. 2011.

Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History. Crowell Publishers; 1974

Pettis, Ruth M. "Glbtq Social Sciences Homophile Movement, U. S." Glbtq: the World's Largest Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.

Add a New Comment
Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License