May 14, 2014 at 5:11 pm EST | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
New Mattachine Society of D.C. uncovers LGBT history
Charles Francis, Mattachine Society, gay news, Washington Blade

The new Mattachine Society focuses almost exclusively on what Charles Francis calls ‘archive activism.’ (Photo courtesy of Charles Francis)

When gay rights pioneers Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols co-founded the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. in 1961 as the first gay independent advocacy organization in the nation’s capital, conditions were so hostile toward gay people that Kameny initially was the only one to use his real name on the group’s membership list.

More than 50 years later, gay public affairs consultant Charles Francis and Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance President Rick Rosendall reinstated the lapsed corporate charter for the Mattachine Society of Washington shortly after Kameny’s death in October 2011.

Francis and Rosendall along with a new board of directors have since reshaped the group’s mission to conduct archival research to uncover long forgotten government documents that show in chilling detail how federal policies were put into place to ban gays from the federal workforce.

“We believe the importance of these documents is the enormous evidentiary and educational value that they have,” Francis told the Blade.

“The evidentiary and educational value of the original archival documents show the persecution of gay people without regard to any valid government purpose,” he said. “Just malicious persecution over and over, and we see that beginning in 1953.”

Francis was referring to what Kameny and other veteran gay leaders called the infamous Executive Order 10450 issued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1953 – possibly at the request of then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The order, among other things, barred from the federal workforce individuals found to be involved with “any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, or sexual perversion.”

Although the order didn’t specifically mention homosexuality or homosexuals, it was interpreted by the U.S. Civil Service Commission to mean homosexuals were barred and should be summarily dismissed from any federal government job.

The order for the first time “equated gays and lesbians with disloyalty,” Francis said. “And that was a catastrophe for gay and lesbian Americans” that “much too little has been written about and much too little is actually known about it,” Francis said.

One expert who does know about it, gay rights advocate and University of South Florida professor David K. Johnson, author of the book “The Lavender Scare,” is scheduled to be one of two featured speakers at a Mattachine Society of Washington forum scheduled for May 21.

Joining Johnson as a speaker at the event, to be held at the offices of the D.C. law firm McDermott Will & Emery, will be David S. Ferriero, who serves as Archivist of the United States and director of the National Archives and Records Administration.

A write-up on the Mattachine Society of Washington’s website says its sources of information have and will continue to be archival records found at the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, visits to presidential archives and libraries, and family foundations and university libraries.

Francis said he doesn’t believe the “repurposed” Mattachine Society of D.C. will conflict with or duplicate the work of the Rainbow History Project, a longstanding D.C.-based group that keeps records of and reports on the history of the D.C. LGBT community, individual LGBT people and LGBT institutions such as gay bars.

Instead, the new group focuses almost exclusively on what Francis called “archive activism,” an aggressive search for archival documents that tell the story of how gays were targeted for discrimination and persecution through government policies and laws.

With pro bono help last year from the McDermott Will & Emery law firm, Mattachine found at the National Archives a memorandum written in 1962 by a high-level Civil Service Commission official that appeared to summarize the views of many government officials on gays and lesbians, Francis said.

The official was John W. Steele, chief of the Civil Service Commission’s Program Systems and Instructions Division.

“[W]e set homosexuality apart from other forms of immoral conduct and take a much more severe attitude toward it,” Steele wrote. “Our tendency to ‘lean over backwards’ to rule against a homosexual is simply a manifestation of the revulsion which homosexuality inspires in the normal person.”

Steele added, “What it boils down to is that most men look upon homosexuality as something uniquely nasty, not just as a form of immorality.”

In another recent project, Francis said Mattachine Society of Washington discovered documents showing that J. Edgar Hoover and his then top FBI assistant Clyde Tolson played a role in pressuring the U.S. Postal Service into refusing to allow one of the nation’s first gay publications, One magazine, from being distributed through the mail.

In the early 1950s, at the time it banned One from being mailed, the Postal Service described the publication as “obscene, lewd, licentious and filthy,” according to documents obtained by Mattachine.

A short time later, Francis points out, One successfully challenged the mail ban on First Amendment grounds and won its case before the U.S. Supreme Court in a landmark ruling that opened the way in 1958 for gay publications to be distributed through the mail.

Mattachine Society of Washington recently honored California attorney Eric Julber, now 90 years old, who represented One magazine before the Supreme Court on a pro bono basis.

On its website, the Mattachine Society of Washington says it recently received approval by the IRS as a 501(C)(3) charitable and educational organization and obtained full legal status as a non-profit corporation in D.C.

The original Mattachine Society of Washington founded by Kameny and Nichols was a political and advocacy organization, among other things, organized the first-ever gay rights protests outside the White House, Pentagon and the Civil Service Commission.

Mattachine Society, gay news, Washington Blade

The Mattachine Society of Washington celebrated its 25th anniversary on Nov. 15, 1986. (Washington Blade archive photo by Doug Hinckle)

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • Michael Bedwell

    CORRECTIONS: My admiration and appreciation for the revitalization of MSW by Charles Francis and Rick Rosendall is immeasurable. However, with similar appreciation for the author, the article is incorrect in that MSW’s original incarnation was not “the first gay advocacy organization in the nation’s capital.” As David Johnson documents in his magnificent “The Lavender Scare,” the first one was founded five years before, some time in 1956, by a clerk-typist for the federal government named Buell Dwight Huggins. Unlike the rampant misconception about MSW which (over Frank’s objections) simply employed “Mattachine” in their name because of its prior recognition in the gay community, Huggins’ group was an official chapter of the national federation. Sometimes the chapters were called “area councils,” and his group chose the subtitle “the Council for the Repeal of Unjust Laws.” By August of that year they had 13 members, and published a monthly “Washington Newsletter.”

    Unfortunately, the head cheeses at national were still not ready to try to change any laws as Huggins, et al., wanted, and instructed them to limit their activities to “research and education” or risk losing their charter. The group agreed, removing the subtitle from their newsletter masthead, and sponsored appearances by people such as a local psychiatrist critical of the government purges and an attorney who had defended victims of the DC vice squad. By 1958, they’d grown to some 40 members—remarkable given the conclusion by historians that there were only about 350 members in ALL “homophile” groups nationwide by 1960—and held meetings in the parish hall of St. James Episcopal Church on Capital Hill. But apparently after some concern about attention from the local police and FBI, they began meeting in private homes again, and the newsletter became more “social” than political. The group was dormant by the end of the decade, hurt most of all by Huggins’ return to Illinois for some kind of family issue.

    Also, there’s a typo regarding the Supreme Court’s upholding the right of publications such as “ONE” magazine to use the US postal service. Their reversal of the lower court’s ruling was in 1958 not 1954.

    Here’s to further success of “MSW 2.0,” so to speak, in their admirable mission!

  • It might be worthwhile to point out to all archivists that one of the best sources for early glbt history is the ONE Magazine that ONE founders and Eric Julber gave to the movement and community, and that there are at least a dozen lgbt archives/libraries across the nation that collect and save our history and deserve the support of the community media and need funding as much as other work in the cause.

  • pimp

    there is no farking such thing as gay culture. It is a societal construct, created by stereotypical gays, drag queens, and trannies, and does not represent the majority of non-heterosexual males/females who are simply just attracted to the same sex, and not into pink, lavendar, rainbows, into the word “gay”, etc. Gawd…

  • Marc Adams

    Beef up your social psychology pimp. All cultures are a social construct.

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