There’s a fear afoot in America. LGBT people have made much progress but are still second-class citizens in many respects. Now, under Donald Trump, there appears to be an intentional effort to virtually render LGBT people invisible.
And while political and legal activists are jumping into the chaotic fray, a group of archival activists is working furiously against the clock to collect and preserve LGBT historical documents and memorabilia before time runs out.
The surprise the archives reveal is a creative resistance underneath the pall of stigma and persistent intimidation, juiced with an irreverent humor that invented “camp” and pop art.
In 1961, Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols established a Mattachine Society chapter in Washington, D.C. With others, including courageous out lesbian pioneers such as Lilli Vincenz and Barbara Gittings, they daringly protested bias, carrying signs reading, “Gay is Good” and “Stop FBI Homophobes.” Federal anti-gay witch hunts were commonplace after President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized anti-gay discrimination in his infamous April 27, 1953 Executive Order 10450. Those signs and other historic LGBT memorabilia are now housed as “American Treasures” in the Smithsonian Institution.
After Kameny died in 2011, gay public relations consultant Charles Francis, Pate Felts and Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance President Rick Rosendall re-launched the Mattachine Society of Washington with the new mission to be archival activists and find original archival documents demonstrating the government’s “malicious persecution,” Francis told the Los Angeles Blade.
Documents show a purge of an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 gay and lesbian federal employees in the 1950s alone. And transcripts of closed-door congressional testimony by Central Intelligence Agency director Roscoe H. Hillenkoetter posit gays as national security risks. “[T]he moral pervert is a security risk of so serious a nature that he must be weeded out of government employment wherever he is found,” Hillenkoetter said. “Failure to do this can only result in placing a weapon in the hands of our enemies and their intelligence service, and the point of that weapon would probably be aimed right at the heart of our national security.”
Gay historian David K. Johnson discredits that myth, pointing to a failed Russian attempt to recruit famed columnist Joseph Alsop. “It’s a strong example of a gay person resisting blackmail, of which there were many examples in the ‘50s. In fact, there are no cases of a gay man or lesbian American citizen succumbing to blackmail by a foreign power – none,” Johnson told the Blade.
Francis and the Mattachine Society, with the pro bono assistance from attorneys at McDermott, Will & Emery, have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to force the Justice Department and FBI to comply with longstanding Freedom of Information requests for documents associated with the Eisenhower executive order.
Francis is featured in a Yahoo News documentary entitled “Uniquely Nasty: The U.S. Government’s War on Gays,” reported by chief investigative correspondent Michael Isikoff. It includes “never-before-seen government memos by legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (read by George Takei) and John Steele, a top lawyer for the U.S. Civil Service Commission (read by Matt Bomer) asserting that gays were ‘not suitable’ for federal employment” because of their sexual perversion.”
The toxic animus “starts out with concerns about gay people being able to be blackmailed, but it grew to revulsion and then morphed into suitability and stretches over seven presidencies from Eisenhower through Reagan and didn’t really end until President Clinton put an end to it with an executive order,” Francis told NPR in 2015.
“Gay and lesbian history is so often deleted, sealed, destroyed. The letters are burned. So our biggest fear is more destruction of documents and trying to put a stop to it now so that historians will have this record of a time of huge upheaval and transition.”
The archival activists are also seeking individual treasures locked away or forgotten in attics or an old uncle or aunt’s storage facility—letters, posters, and cultural curios that illustrate the real lives, struggles and fights of LGBT people in the 1950s and 1960s.
“We need this material so historians and others can use them in our fight for LGBT equality,” says Francis. “These anti-LGBT laws are not based on anything rational. They’re based on bigotry and ignorance—and that’s unconstitutional. You can’t discriminate just because you hate somebody.”
One of their greatest discoveries was uncovered at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley by Francis and Pate Felts. In folders marked “Hospitals” (not “AIDS”), they found documents showing how Nancy Reagan rebuffed her “dear friend” Rock Hudson’s pleas for help after the movie star was admitted to a Paris hospital with AIDS in 1985. Buzzfeed reported the story, complete with the telegram from Hudson’s gay publicist, Dale Olson. The story was an instant corrective to Hillary Clinton’s erroneous comment that Nancy Reagan had been a “very effective, low key” advocate for HIV/AIDS. A fast backlash ensued and Clinton apologized.
But not all discoveries are explosive, vile or vindictive. Recently, the Mattachine team worked with ONE Institute and the UCLA Film Archives to uncover stories that might otherwise remain buried. Stories such as the 1961 22-minute film “A Roman Springs on Mrs. Stone,” directed by Connie B. DeMille, aka Ray Harrison of the Los Angeles-based Gay Girls Riding Club (GGRC)—a film preserved by filmmaker Pat Rocco.
With help from Michael Oliviera at ONE Institute, Francis also discovered the GGRC “Aware” newsletters. GGRC was Harrison’s “brainchild,” starting out as a bunch of guys, sometimes a gal or two, who loved to go horseback riding on top of Beachwood Drive in Hollywood or at Griffith Park. But Harrison got the idea to produce gay drag satires of famous movies to be screened in Hollywood gay bars. “Made on $2 budgets, everyone pitched in and helped, and got drunk, and made love, and were very ‘gay.’ DOZENS of handsome young gay men made themselves ‘available’ to be in the films, but it was Warren Fremming (“Frieda”) who ‘starred’ in most of the films. His Bette Davis in ‘What REALLY Happened to By (sic, Baby) Jane’ is nothing short of miraculous high camp at its most outrageous,” reads one document.
“A Roman Springs on Mrs. Stone” premiered on June 6, 1961 at the Grand Prix, 8204 Beverly Boulevard (at N. La Jolla Ave). In addition to the film, the evening featured a buffet dinner and a live show “direct from the Black Cat in San Francisco – starring Jose!” Jose was famous entertainer Jose Sarria who sang “No Camping” (on Velvet Records) – “America’s newest party-fun record.” Though not noted, at the time Sarria was collecting 6,000 signatures to run for a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the first openly gay candidate for U.S. public office.
“A Roman Springs on Mrs. Stone” screened at The Apache and elsewhere, drawing up to 400 people. And though spoofs, Francis says, “you can see these films had movie-makers who understood film. They understood the vocabulary of silent character development. It makes you wonder what studio they worked for back in the day.”
Indeed. Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning cinematographer James Crabe, who died of AIDS in 1989, was a GGRC member.
There were hints of the harsh every day reality outside the campgrounds. The largest advertiser in GGRC’s “Aware” newsletter was a 24-hour bail bondsman. “It was a hard life in many ways because they were all criminal – considered criminal by the law – considered insane, mentally ill and damned,” says Francis in commentary on a Mattachine-produced video. “So they were creating their own island of self-worth up there in the Hollywood Hills. And we should not forget about it.”
GGRC parties were like a giant boa-and-glitter-on-foam middle finger to the cruelty outside the gay bar or private residence. Hollywood insiders knew about the “beefcake” closet-open Hollywood pool parties thrown by actors such as Randolph Scott and Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and Liberace with guests such as “Perry Mason” actor Raymond Burr, Tab Hunter and Troy Donohue – and everyone’s best gal pal, Natalie Wood.
But the subculture of the GGRC parties were camp and “low class” by design, on the cusp of the 60s counter-cultural movement. Actors in “A Roman Springs on Mrs. Stone” did the “Twist” before Chubby Checker appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” to popularize the dance craze.
These are the gays about whom intellectual Susan Sontag, a quasi-closeted bisexual, wrote in her famous essay “Notes on Camp” in 1964. “Not all homosexuals have Camp Taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard – and the most articulate audience – of Camp,” she wrote. “Homosexuals have pinned their integration into society on promoting the aesthetic sense. Camp is a solvent of morality. It neutralizes moral indignation, sponsors playfulness.”
“Camp provided this marginalized population with a mocking weapon against the defining hierarchies of hegemonic straight culture. It was a subversive code understood by its adherents and practitioners,” wrote Joe A. Thomas in his essay “Pop Art and the Forgotten Codes of Camp.” “Thus, many critics and views ‘in the know,’ both straight and gay, were able to discern Pop Art’s camp subtext.”
This is just a smidgen of what the archival activists are trying to find and preserve.
“The history of lesbians and gays is very important in that it’s been invisible in the past,” says V. L. Cox, a lesbian artist and activist in the Mattachine video. “They want to take us back, to control us, to put us back in the closet, put us back in the shadows again. And it’s very important the people know about the history of gays and lesbians to where that does not happen again. We cannot allow that to happen.”
“We need to insist on our own history. We need to discover our history,” says Francis. “No history – no equality.”
— For more information, visit the Mattachine Society of Washington D.C.