Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2003

Warren Allen Smith

Gossip from Across the Pond

by Warren Allen Smith

A major gay non-believer and composer has died. Lou Harrison (14 May 1917 – 2 February 2003), a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, had survived diabetes, a triple bypass surgical operation and the death of his long-time partner, William Colvig. However, he never recovered consciousness after stumbling out of an automobile on his way to a dinner in Indiana.

Like his mentor Virgil Thomson, another gay non-believer, Harrison in the mid-1940s was a critic at the New York Herald Tribune but never much liked the city. He was happiest in California, where in 1992 he wrote me that he was certain “like my father before me, that ‘when you’re dead you’re dead,’ and simply turned off – all systems down”. He added that he had talked about Epicurus to his local humanist group, liked the writings of Lucretius, was enormously opposed to organized religion, “and feel that the Christians and Muslims are responsible for uncountable human and other beings’ miseries”. His openly gay book, Joys and Perplexities: Selected Poems, was published in 1997, but he will be remembered for his musical works that combined Asian, particularly Javanese, and American styles.

A major work can now be added to the gay canon: Vern L. Bullough’s Before Stonewall, Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context (NY, London, Oxford: Harrington Park Press, 2002).

Before Stonewall is an essential source for understanding one of the most inspiring human rights campaigns of our time. What surprises the reader is that intimate details from five decades in the past have for the first time been collected from seventeen women, seventeen men and Christine Jorgensen about key individuals who fought for gay and lesbian rights. Credit goes to Dr Vern L. Bullough, currently an adjunct professor of nursing at the University of Southern California, who took over the project conceived by Wayne Dynes nearly a decade ago but who withdrew because of other commitments and difficulties with potential contributors.

In an introduction, Bullough surveys the historical context. He underlines the importance of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-95), who argued in Germany that same-sex relationships are no more dangerous to society than procreative sex between married persons. Karoly Maria Benkert (or Kertbeny) (1824-82) is credited for having coined the term “homosexuality”. Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1840-1902) helped bring homosexuality out of the closet. Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935) worked to remove German laws against homosexuality.

Although Emma Goldman (1869-1940) urged Marxists to change laws concerning gays, the Russian Communist Party under Stalin considered homosexuality a product of capitalist degeneration. The Nazis sent thousands to their deaths in concentration camps and destroyed Hirschfeld’s research materials. Bullough concisely details what homosexuals painfully endured in other parts of the world, tells of the “pansy craze” in the 1920s, and mentions the importance of works by Radclyffe Hall, Blair Niles, Robert Scully, even James T. Farrell. He points out the liberating elements of Britain’s Wolfenden Report and the inspiring help supplied to individuals by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The book is divided into four parts: pre-1950; organizational activists; movers and shakers on the national scene; and other voices and their influence.

Henry Gerber is dubbed the grandfather of the American gay movement, his problems with the Establishment vividly described by Jim Kepner and Stephen O. Murray. Other pre-1950 activists include Xavier Mayne, Prescott Townsend, Jeannette Foster, Pearl Hart, Lisa Ben and Berry Berryman. CA. Tripp writes a lucid description of the positive role played by sexologist Alfred C. Kinsey.

Harry Hay, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyon are three of the organizational activists described in detail, along with others of those who formed the Mattachine Society and ONE, Inc. Dale Jennings was one of the first who admitted their homosexuality; he then successfully fought a public charge of lewd behavior. Jim Kepner decried ego-driven antagonisms among organizers, but with Dorr Legg and others created the first gay-studies program – the first after Hirschfeld’s institute was torched by the Nazis 23 years earlier. Franklin Kameny, head of the Mattachine Society in the capital, was among the first to proclaim that homosexuality is neither sick nor immoral, and he came up with the slogan Gay is Good.

In 1955, individuals involved in the Daughters of Bilitis and the publication Ladder are credited. Barbara Gittings, Sten Russell, Helen Sanders, Billye Talmadge and Barbara Grier are some of the many whose efforts are described.

The times, they were a-changing. Magazines, little by little, showed pictures of naked men, the movies became less prudish. The Advocate in 1968 had a section selling sex, classified as well as unclassified. Hugh Heffner’s Playboy similarly began treating sex behavior openly.

The “other voices” in the final part of the book include descriptions of the parts played by Allen Ginsberg, Donald Webster Cory, Christine Jorgensen, Troy Perry and others.

A scorecard is almost needed to keep track of which women slept with other activist women, which men with other activist men, and who else did what to whom. The various brief biographies refreshingly dish the dirt. The book’s negatives are next to nil. The index is commendably thorough.

Today, “Stonewall” to most is a reference to the June 1969 Greenwich Village uprising, in which I was a participant. However, from the historical context, June 1969 was but a minor part of the picture. Today’s various veterans’ groups are, sadly, a fissiparous lot whose members may or may not have played any role in the ugly disturbances that week in June. They uninspiringly fight over which group gets to lead the annual Heritage of Pride Parade, and they disagree about how to raise money and where to spend it. What Before Stonewall points out is that the gay and lesbian rights movement has been a long time coming, from Europe no less, but its pre-1950 activists here and elsewhere are deserving of an updated appreciation for their activism, efforts that have resulted in the gay life that so many of us now enjoy and that countless others are still unable to experience.

Michael Jackson, raised a Jehovah’s Witness, is not happy that another witness – thirteen-year-old J. Chandler – has charged him in a four-page declaration that neither person wishes had been leaked ( That website also contains shocking mugshots of VIPs who wish they had not been included. These are cybernetic times in which, if you let it all hang out, you can end up a hangdog.

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Created : Sunday, 2003-05-11 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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