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Different fight, 'same goal': How the Black freedom movement inspired early gay activists

The civil rights and early “homophile” movements shared leaders, ideas and, ultimately, the same goal, according to historians.
Black lesbian activist Ernestine Eckstein participating in a gay rights protest outside the White House in 1965.
Black lesbian activist Ernestine Eckstein participating in a gay rights protest outside the White House in 1965.Kay Tobin / NYPL

On April 25, 1965, three teenagers refused to leave Dewey’s Restaurant in Philadelphia after employees repeatedly denied service to “homosexuals and persons wearing nonconformist clothing,” according to Drum magazine, which was created by the Janus Society, an early gay rights group.

The teens were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, and Janus Society members protested outside of the restaurant for the next five days, according to Marc Stein, a history professor at San Francisco State University.

"Every single element of what we know of as Pride and gay rights and, especially, the pre-Stonewall homophile movement, was borrowed from the Black Freedom Movement."

Eric Cervini, LGBTQ Historian

“Unlike so many other episodes, it kind of combined issues of homosexuality and trans issues,” Stein, author of “Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement,” told NBC News.

On May 2, three more people staged a second sit-in at Dewey’s. Though the restaurant called the police, the protesters weren’t arrested, and after a few hours they left voluntarily, according to a Janus Society newsletter. The Society wrote that the protests and sit-ins were successful in preventing future denials of service and arrests.

The sit-in at Dewey’s is among a long list of examples that show a “direct line” to the Black civil rights movement, according to Stein. Specifically, sit-ins organized by gay activists in the ‘60s appear to be directly inspired by protests held in 1960 by Black college students at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, against racial segregation.

Image: Lunch counter Woolworth protest
Black students wait in vain for food service at this F.W. Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina, on April 20, 1960.Greensboro News & Record, AP file

Early LGBTQ activists (though they didn’t use that acronym at the time) adopted many of the civil rights movement’s strategies, Stein said, and they relied on much of the foundation laid by Black civil rights activists.

But the two movements weren’t necessarily separate — they often overlapped — and so influence happened in a few ways, Stein said.

“Influence can be the influence of ideas, and specifically, ideologies, influence of strategies,” he said. “Influence can also come in the form of people who move between movements, or who are engaged in multiple movements, and we do have examples of that in the early LGBT movement.”

The influence — or ‘plagiarism’ — of ideas

Queer activists were building a movement long before the 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York City, which is widely referred to as a turning point in the LGBTQ rights movement. Though Stonewall was a pivotal moment, activists like Frank Kameny were organizing for gay rights well before.

Kameny co-founded the Mattachine Society in Washington, D.C., one of the first homophile groups ("homophile" being the adjective of choice at the time), and he drew strategies directly from the Black civil rights movement, according to Eric Cervini, a historian and author of “The Deviant’s War,” which focuses on Kameny and the early gay rights movement.

“Every single element of what we know of as Pride and gay rights and, especially, the pre-Stonewall homophile movement, was borrowed from the Black Freedom Movement,” Cervini said. “Frank Kameny’s primary role, what made him so brilliant but also complex of a historical figure, was that he served primarily as a Xerox machine copying different elements of the Black Freedom Movement and applying that to a previously nonmilitant, nonprotesting movement.”

For example, Cervini said Kameny and a delegation of eight Mattachine Society of Washington members attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. The march was organized by Bayard Rustin, who had been arrested in 1953 for having sex with another man. In 1963, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., a segregationist, called Rustin a “sexual pervert” on the Senate floor in an effort to discredit the march, according to Out History.

Kameny and the delegates saw that, even though Rustin had been exposed, 200,000 Americans still attended the march, and it became a historic moment, according to Cervini.

“So these white gay activists, who previously had been refusing to take to the streets, looked around and said, ‘Maybe it's time, maybe not right now, but maybe in the near future,’” Cervini said. (In fact, in 1979, activists would organize a National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, which drew an estimated 200,000 protesters, according to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce).

Image: Crowd W/Signs At White House;Lesbian/Gay
People hold signs as they participate in the National March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights in Washington, DC, on Oct. 14, 1979.Bettmann Archive/Getty Images file

Within a year of the 1963 march, gay rights activist Randy Wicker began picketing the U.S. Army Induction Center in New York City, and a few months after that, Kameny began picketing the White House and Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. Cervini also noted that Kameny modeled his phrase “Gay Is Good,” which was used on protest signs and buttons, on the Black Power movement’s “Black Is Beautiful.”

A few years later, in 1966, Wicker and three activists with the Mattachine Society’s New York City chapter organized a “sip-in” at Julius’ Bar to challenge a New York State Liquor Authority rule that said bars couldn’t serve “disorderly” customers. In practice, bars would refuse to serve LGBTQ people out of fear that they’d lose their liquor license. The sip-in, like the sit-in at Dewey’s, used the same tactics as the college students at Woolworth’s lunch counter, according to Stein.

Mattachine Society 'Sip-In,' 1966
After pouring their drinks, a bartender in Julius' Bar in New York City refuses to serve Mattachine Society members John Timmins, Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell and Randy Wicker on April 21, 1966.Fred W. McDarrah / Getty Images file

Stein said Black civil rights movement strategies also affected how early LGBTQ activists conducted peaceful demonstrations. A coalition of gay and lesbian organizations held a yearly peaceful protest at Independence Hall called the Annual Reminder from 1965 to 1969, which Stein said were influenced by the early civil rights demonstrations in which demonstrators were instructed to dress respectably, with women in dresses and men in suits.

Cervini said civil rights demonstrators dressed up as a “reclamation of morality that was so effective when you look at the images of Montgomery or Birmingham or Greensboro.” He said Time magazine even drew attention to the fact that young civil rights activists looked like they were going to church, and, as a result, “How can you possibly claim that those Southern whites are the ones protecting morality?” he said. “So the early gay activists tried to emulate that same tactic, by using respectability as a political tool.”

Barbara Gittings and other gay rights activists picket outside the White house in 1965.
Barbara Gittings and other gay rights activists picket outside the White house in 1965.Kay Tobin Lahusen / NYPL

On the other hand, gay and trans activists were also affected by the Black Power movement and urban uprisings, according to Stein. He said LGBTQ rebellions like the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco and the Stonewall uprising a few years later were likely influenced by events like the 1965 Watts Rebellion in Los Angeles, where six days of riots erupted between police and the predominantly Black community.

“I would argue that the Black Power movement was just as influential as the civil rights movement,” Stein said. “Black Power ideologies and strategies came to influence the movement very much so in the second half of the ‘60s and then into the ‘70s, so there were both of those influences — peaceful, respectable demonstrations on the one hand, and a more aggressive militant action sometimes including riots on the other.”

Stonewall Inn nightclub raid. Crowd attempts to impede polic
Crowd attempts to impede police arrests outside the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York's Greenwich Village in 1969.New York Daily News via Getty Images

Cervini said FBI reports explicitly connect the Black Freedom Movement and the early homophile movement.

“We can connect those two movements — Bayard Rustin, Frank Kameny and Randy Wicker — through FBI surveillance, and from informants within these organizations,” Cervini said. “They were the ones informing the FBI that the gays, the homosexuals were learning from and discussing copying the Black Freedom Movement.”

“This idea of a coalition between these two organizations — that the Black Freedom Movement might be inspiring this other group of American citizens who are also marginalized, and the fact that they may both be taking to the streets, perhaps in coordination — that is what scared them the most,” Cervini said of the FBI and Southern racist segregationists.

Image: Frank Kameny and Mattachine Society of Washington members marching in New York, June 1970
Frank Kameny and Mattachine Society of Washington members marching in New York, June 1970.Kay Tobin Lahusen / NYPL

However, the homophile movement, at least in New York and Washington, never made that coalition a reality, Cervini added.

He said he uses the word “plagiarism” to describe how Kameny used civil rights tactics without working with or crediting the activists whose tactics he used.

“You are using and borrowing tactics from another movement, but not giving proper credit and not making space for people at the intersection of those two movements,” Cervini said. “I think it raises the question of the moral acceptability of that.”

Influence by intersection

In some cities, there was more of a coalition and less borrowing. The idea of one movement having an “influence” over the other could give the false notion that the fight for Black civil rights was comprised entirely of Black activists and the fight for LGBTQ rights was solely made up of whites, cautioned Steven Fullwood, co-founder of the Nomadic Archivists Project, which documents and preserves Black history.

“There's Black people in parts of both of those movements,” Fullwood said, noting that there were Black people involved in both the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights group.

Image: Marsha P. Johnson
Marsha P. Johnson.Netflix

Fullwood also mentioned Marsha P. Johnson, who is credited as being a central figure in the Stonewall uprising, and Cervini cited Ernestine Eckstein (also known as Ernestine Eppenger), who was active in the Black Freedom Movement and the Daughters of Bilitis in the ‘60s.

Stein also gave the example of Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a Japanese-American, anti-war activist who participated in the Annual Reminders at Independence Hall and had previously gone South and participated in civil rights marches. Kuromiya co-founded the Gay Liberation Front’s Philadelphia chapter and became a spokesperson for a homosexual workshop at the Black Panther’s Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention in September 1970, according to Stein.

He gave a presentation “to the huge audience of the convention to applause,” Stein said of Kuromiya, citing this as one of many examples showing that the movements weren’t fragmented or divided at the time in some cities.

“They were uniting against police violence, state repression, capitalist exploitation and, after all, the Stonewall rebellion was at least in part about a business exploiting its gay, trans customers,” Stein said. “So it kind of illustrates the way those issues came together at those particular episodes.”

"Any movement that does not take into account the intersectional approach is never going to achieve true liberation."

Steven Fullwood, Nomadic Archivists Project

Some of the major LGBTQ demonstrations, including the 1965 sit-in at Dewey’s Restaurant, took place in racially diverse communities, according to Susan Stryker, a scholar of queer and trans history.

She said the sit-in is an example of tactics developed in the Black civil rights struggle “becoming useful in situations that are not organized specifically around race, but are organized around questions of sexuality and gender expression and gender presentation.”

“So, is that a borrowing of civil rights tactics?” Stryker asked. “Or is it people who are perhaps familiar with this in different contexts of their own lives saying … ‘We need to do the same thing on this issue’?”

Stryker said there was also a huge overlap between people who were organizing for racial and economic justice and queer and trans rights in the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot, which she described as “one of the first instances that we know about of militant trans resistance to police-based oppression.”

The legal blueprint

Many major legal gains for LGBTQ people are also in part due to arguments developed by civil rights lawyers.

“The legal strategy challenging racial segregation, which was pioneered by the NAACP in the 1940s, was really the wellspring from which the LGBTQ equality movement grew,” said Alphonso David, a civil rights lawyer and the first Black president of the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest LGBTQ rights group.

Image: Thurgood Marshall
Thurgood Marshall, attorney for the NAACP, arrives at the Supreme Court in Washington, August 22, 1958. The Associated Press

In the 1940s and ‘50s, Thurgood Marshall, who led the NAACP, spent a decade challenging segregation on public transportation, in restaurants and in public schools, David said. Marshall argued a number of cases related to segregation, and then in the mid-’50s he argued Brown v. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court, which ruled that U.S. state laws segregating schools were unconstitutional.

“It took more than a decade of litigation and argument testing combined with really a lot of sweat equity and strategic partnerships with grassroots organizers to successfully challenge racial segregation in the U.S. Supreme Court,” David said.

Marshall’s legal strategy, which involved using the due process and equal protection clauses of the 14th Amendment, served as a model that the LGBTQ movement used to challenge the criminalization of homosexuality and the denial of marriage rights.

“We are indebted to the civil rights leaders of the past, because they were really instrumental in outlining the essential objective, which was the guarantee of equal protection and how that should apply to all of us,” David said.

Plaintiff Jim Obergefell, bottom center, speaks to the media outside the Supreme Court after the Obergefell vs. Hodges gay marriage ruling on Friday, June 26, 2015.
Plaintiff Jim Obergefell, bottom center, speaks to the media outside the Supreme Court after the Obergefell vs. Hodges gay marriage ruling on Friday, June 26, 2015. Andrew Harrer / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Gay rights lawyers also built on major Black civil rights decisions to achieve same-sex marriage, according to David. In 1967, the Supreme Court held in Loving v. Virginia that laws banning interracial marriage violate the due process and equal protection clauses. “In that case, the Supreme Court held that, yes, there is a fundamental right to marry,” he said.

This same argument was successfully used nearly half a century later in Obergefell v. Hodges, David said, where it was argued that “denying same-sex couples the right to marry violates both the due process and the equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution — and we won.”

“So that is one perfect example where you see the arguments that were advanced during the civil rights struggle to at least recognize equality for racial minorities being used and applied in the context of LGBTQ people,” he added.

‘The same goal’

There has been significant overlap between the civil rights and LGBTQ equality movements, Fullwood said, and that’s a key takeaway.

“What we have to appreciate is that the arguments that were used in the civil rights movement in the 1960s involved LGBTQ people,” Fullwood added, citing a speech given by Black Panther Party founder Huey Newton in 1970.

Outlining the group’s position on the two emerging movements, Newton wrote: “Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion.”

Image: The sister of Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman who died in Rikers Island Jail last year, speaks to a crowd gathered outside the Brooklyn Museum for a rally and march for Black transgender lives on June 14, 2020.
The sister of Layleen Polanco, a trans woman who died in Rikers Island Jail in 2019, speaks to a crowd gathered outside the Brooklyn Museum for a rally and march for Black transgender lives on June 14, 2020.Sekiya Dorsett

Today’s activists, Fullwood said, have to think about the LGBTQ equality movement as involving Black people and the racial justice movement as involving LGBTQ people.

“Any movement that does not take into account the intersectional approach is never going to achieve true liberation,” he said. “The Black and the LGBTQ movements have the same goal.”

Fullwood said he’s pleased with the kinds of activists who are engaging multi-issue platforms that “call for different, insightful ways to resist oppression,” but that he’s occasionally run into the phrase, “This isn’t your grandmother’s movement.”

“If that's the sentiment, I say this: You better hope it's your grandmother's movement, because she and thousands like her made it possible for you to have the language, perspective and insights that you enjoy today,” he said. “This is not new. Read. Research. Build. You exist in a river of resistance. Know and embrace that history. It's waiting.”

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