Before Stonewall: Facing Congress with Courage

Today’s post comes from Judith Adkins, an archivist with the Center for Legislative Archives in Washington, DC.

In June 1969, patrons of New York City’s Stonewall Inn and their supporters took to the streets to resist police harassment. National Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month commemorates these events, widely credited with sparking the modern LGBT rights movement.

Well before the heady days of gay liberation, however, an earlier generation of “homophile” activists advanced the cause, step by step.

Chief among these pioneers was astronomer-turned-activist Franklin Kameny. Ousted from his government job in 1957 because of his sexual orientation, Kameny appealed his firing all the way to the Supreme Court. Mere months after losing that appeal in 1961, he co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, the first gay rights organization in the nation’s capital.

This “first” led to another: In defense of Mattachine, Kameny became the first openly gay person to testify before the U.S. Congress.

In 1962 the Mattachine Society of Washington applied for and was granted a city license to fundraise in the District of Columbia. When Congress learned that an organization working on behalf of homosexuals had received such a permit, some members were not pleased. Congress’s jurisdiction over the capital city gave it the means to take concrete action.

Dowdy Proposal, 88, RG233 H Comm on D.C., Legislative Files, Folder 4 of HR 5990 Bill File, 9E2-2-1-4

Dowdy Proposal, 1963. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

On May 1, 1963, Congressman John Dowdy of Texas introduced a bill, H.R. 5990, to amend the existing D.C. Charitable Solicitations Act. Dowdy’s bill stipulated that before granting a fundraising license the D.C. Board of Commissioners had to certify that the grantee would “benefit or assist in promoting the health, welfare, and the morals of the District of Columbia.”

Dowdy’s original bill proposal makes it clear that Mattachine was both the impetus behind the bill and its intended target.

As president of Mattachine, Kameny requested that a representative of the organization be permitted to testify at any hearings held on the bill. In response, the committee invited Kameny himself to speak.

This was a first. While gay people had been spoken about at congressional hearings—most notably in a series of 1950 hearings about homosexual employees in the Federal government—no openly gay person had ever testified before an official body of Congress.

On August 8 and 9, 1963, Kameny appeared before Subcommittee No. 4 of the House Committee on the District of Columbia. In both his prepared statement and his exchanges with committee members, Kameny emphasized that Mattachine was a legitimate civil rights organization, not a social organization or “agency for personal introductions.”

Kameny Statement, RG233 H Comm on DC, Legislative Files, Folder 5 of HR5990 Bill File, Bx 21, 9E2-2-1-5

Kameny Statement, page 1, August 8, 1963. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

Discussion during the hearings ranged across many topics, including the nature-versus-nurture debate, gay marriage, Biblical teachings, criminal statutes, gay people in the federal government, and Mattachine’s structure, goals, and activities.

“Our primary effort, thus far,” Kameny stated, “has been an attempt, by lawful means, to alter present discriminatory policy against the homosexual minority—a minority perhaps almost as large as the Negro minority.”

Quoting Mattachine’s constitution, he summed up the organization’s overarching goal: “To secure for the homosexual the right, as a human being, to develop and achieve his full potential and dignity; and the right, as a citizen, to make his maximum contribution to the society in which he lives.”

Kameny kept his cool throughout the hearings. At one point, Congressman Dowdy contrasted the state of affairs in Washington unfavorably with the way his home state of Texas handled the issue of homosexuality. There, he said, one did not go “bragging” about such things. Kameny’s response: “This is a matter on which one doesn’t brag but one doesn’t have to be ashamed of something for which there is no reason to be ashamed.”

Kameny Hearing, DC-TX Exchange, 88, RG233 H Comm on DC, Legislative Files, folder 1 of bill file HR 5990 Bx 20, 9E2-2-1-4

Pages from Kameny hearing, 1963. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives).

Much discussion during the second day of hearings centered on the use of pseudonyms by some Mattachine members. This practice shielded members from harassment and discrimination, real concerns at a time when gay people were routinely fired if their sexuality became known. But some congressmen suggested that the use of “fictitious names” constituted fraud. 

Kameny Hearing, Names Exchange, 88, RG233 H Comm on DC, Legislative Files, Bx 20, Folder 1 of bill file for HR5990, 9E2-2-1-4

Pages from Kameny hearing, 1963. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

This revelation about the use of pseudonyms prompted the D.C. Board of Commissioners to schedule a hearing to consider revoking Mattachine’s license on account of the “false information” in its application. Before that hearing could took place, however, Mattachine chose to relinquish its permit voluntarily: According to city regulations, any organization that raised no more than $1,500 per year was eligible for a permit exemption, and Mattachine had raised less than that amount.

With this development, the impetus behind H.R. 5990 was gone. Moreover, the D.C. Commissioners themselves objected to the bill, as did a minority of House committee members, who questioned its wisdom, practicality, and constitutionality.

This telegram sent to the House Committee on the District of Columbia summarizes the major objections to the bill.

Telegram in Opposition

Telegram in Opposition to H.R. 5990, July 24, 1964. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

In the end, an amended version of H.R. 5990 passed in the House. The Senate took no action on the bill, and it expired at the end of the term.

Kameny’s testimony before the House committee was hardly his last act of courageous trailblazing. As a leader of Mattachine, Kameny went on to become a chief organizer of the first gay rights demonstrations in the nation’s capital. In 1965, he led protests at the White House, the Pentagon, and the Civil Service Commission.

To remind the country that gay Americans lacked basic civil rights, Kameny and Mattachine joined with other gay rights organizations for “annual reminder” protests at Independence Hall in Philadelphia each Fourth of July from 1965 to 1969.

Two years later, Kameny ran to become D.C.’s delegate to Congress. He lost the election, but his attempt marked the first time an openly gay candidate had run for the U.S. Congress.

Kameny died on National Coming Out Day in 2011. Late in life, he said that he wanted to be remembered for coining the slogan “Gay is Good.” As his 1963 congressional testimony suggests, this phrase is a fitting epitaph. Throughout all his exchanges with sometimes testy congressmen, Kameny advocated self-acceptance and refused shame.

June is Pride Month. Visit out our website to learn more about LGBTQ History at the National Archives. And check out our employee affinity group Stonewall’s Tumlr page: Discovering LGBTQ History.

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