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.