After the destruction of the European homosexual rights movement by the Nazis and Stalinists, compounded by the social, economic and political disruption of Europe during and after World War II, international gay political activity dwindled until it picked up steam in the U.S. in the late forties.
But even before this rebirth, U.S. gays had a profound influence on popular culture-theatre, movies, dance, art and design, poetry and drama-and many gays became activists in movements, parties and organizations that did not address gay rights.
Gay bars and bath houses, private clubs, and other meeting places flourished, but the gay community was virtually invisible to outsiders.
Gay protest was difficult to organize in the U.S., a land that had institutionalized oppression of women, sexual puritanism and sex-role stereotyping. Only rare, short-lived attempts at organizing were made before the second half of the 20th century, and only a few stellar individuals displayed the courage to defend sexual freedom.
These pioneers who brought the ideas of the early European gay liberationists to the U.S. were the ancestors of the modern gay movement, but little was known about them until 1976, when Jonathan Katz’ Gay American History revealed the rich panoply of early gay resistance in the U.S.
Emma Goldman, perennial pioneer
The first known American to publicly champion civil rights for gays was the great Russian-born anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman.
When asked in 1900 how she could “dare come out in public for Oscar Wilde in puritan America,” she replied, “Nonsense! No daring is required to protest great injustice.”
She had to fight to defend her gay liberation views against her anarchist comrades, who feared that open support of homosexuality would harm their cause. This only made her more determined to speak out.
In 1923, Goldman wrote a major article for the German Yearbook for Sexual Intermediate Types about French anarchist and poet Louise Michel, alleged to be a lesbian. Wrote Goldman,
It is a tragedy … that people of a different sexual type are caught in a world which shows so little understanding for homosexuals, is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations of gender and their great significance in life … The entire sentencing of Wilde struck me as an act of cruel injustice and repulsive hypocrisy …”
While excoriating society for its persecution of gays, Goldman also denounced the sexism of those who assumed a woman to be a lesbian simply because she did not fit men’s “shopworn requirements of womanhood. “
The next documented defense of homosexuality was a 1923 paper, “Studies in Feminine Inversion,” by F.W. Stella Browne, published in the Journal of Sexology and Psychology in New York.
She blamed society for “the tragedy of the repressed invert” and said that “the homo-sexual impulse … has a fully equal right to existence and expression; it is no worse, no lower; but no better.”
The first homosexual rights organization in the U.S. was apparently the Society for Individual Rights, chartered in Chicago in 1924. It published two issues of a newspaper, Friendship and Freedom.
The seven members of the Society planned to recruit other gays, and, through a process of education, change the sexual conduct laws.
But in less than a year, the wife of one member discovered the existence of the group and told a social worker, who called the police. Four members were arrested without warrant and jailed.
The organization disbanded, and ten years elapsed before another gay political organization appeared in the homophobic U.S. of A .
5. U.S. 1900-1920s