It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside

January 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

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The first durable gay organization, the Mattachine Society, arose in 1951. It was the brainchild of Harry Hay, a cross-dressing Southern Californian who went to high school with John Cage and taught music classes at the People’s Educational Center, in Los Angeles. Hirshman, in “Victory,” delights in the fact that Hay took inspiration from the writings of the virulently homophobic Stalin, and in particular from Stalin’s definition of nationhood as a “community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.” Hay decided on these grounds that there should also be a gay nation; he took the name Mattachine from Renaissance bands of dancers dressed as fools. Hay’s radicalism soon caused internal discord, and the Mattachines moved in a less confrontational direction. In public appearances, they made a point of looking respectable, wearing coats and ties. Members of the Daughters of Bilitis, a like-minded lesbian organization, were urged to abandon mannish clothes.

The way the gay-rights story is usually told, things got moving only in 1969, when a fed-up phalanx of bull dykes, drag queens, and street youths rioted at the Stonewall Inn, in the West Village. One advantage of Hirshman’s book—breezily written, but kinetic in its storytelling—is that it honors the activism of the pre-Stonewall era, when any public exposure required considerable courage. Political and legal advances, such as a 1958 Supreme Court decision ruling that the gay magazine ONE was not obscene material, were modest but hard won. Hirshman also highlights the work of Glide Memorial Church, a liberal Methodist congregation in San Francisco. When police intimidated attendees at a gay ball on New Year’s Eve, in 1964, ministers denounced the incident as “the most lavish display of police harassment known in recent times.”

The leader of the Mattachines in Washington, D.C., was Frank Kameny, an astronomer and an Army veteran who had lost his government job during the gay purges of the fifties. In the early sixties, he began sending the Mattachine newsletter to the office of J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As F.B.I. files reveal, an agent informed Kameny that Hoover wished to be removed from the mailing list. Kameny replied that he would put the matter to his board, and his associate added that the director was welcome to attend the next Mattachine convention. The mailings continued, and the Mattachines’ veiled taunt of the most feared man in Washington went unanswered.  read more

ART: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot

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