Social Scientists and Homophiles, 1950s and 1960s

Copyright (c) by Ann Ripberger, 2008. All rights reserved.

The late 1950s and the 1960s are best described as a period of transition leading up to the gay rights movement. It is during this time that the first gay rights organizations were formed. These organizations made up what has been labeled as the homophile movement, which was characterized by gay and lesbian organizations maintaining a low profile and gaining that support of experts such as sociologists and psychologists.[1] The creation and the maintenance of the homophile organizations were not without conflict. The various groups would argue over what issues were most important and how the group should advocate for gay and lesbian rights. Nevertheless, these organizations laid the ground work for the gay and lesbian rights movement of the late 1960s and the 1970s. Also, during this time, various researchers, specifically sociologists, began to challenge the commonly held belief that homosexuals were sick and mentally unstable. The following is a brief description of the homophile movement and the rise of the social scientists.


Harry Hay[2]

The Homophile Movement: The Mattachine Society

The first of the homophile organizations was founded in 1950 in Los Angeles, CA by Harry Hay, a Communist Party Organizer and a cultural worker, and a few students from a music class that Hay was teaching at the time. The name Mattachine originated in medieval France . It was the name given to a group of unmarried townsmen who performed dances and rituals while wearing masks during the Feast of Fools. These dances would occasionally turn into protests against the aristocracy. Hay believed that the homosexuals living in the 1950s were in their own way a masked and anonymous people, and thus chose to name his organization the Mattachine Society. The Society had a secret, hierarchal structure with five levels of membership and its membership was mostly male. The Fifth Order was the highest order and was comprised of the leaders of the organization. It was not uncommon for those in the lower orders to have no idea who the leaders of the organization were. It has been thought that the structure of the organization was so secretive in order to hide the fact that many of its members were communists and excommunists.[3]

In the beginning, the Mattachine Society held discussion groups in the private homes of its members. It also took a more leftist, activist approach to improving that status of homosexuals. The organization grew quickly after the trail of Dale Jennings, one of its founders, was dropped from court. By 1953, Mattachine began to publish a monthly magazine entitled ONE. Though ONE was not officially attached to the Society, all the editors of the magazine were members of Mattachine. The publication allowed Mattachine to extend its reach outside of California and expand its membership all over the country. As the organization grew, members became increasingly curious about who made up the Filth Order of the organization. Opposition to Mattachine, along with charges of communism also began to grow. Eventually, the leadership of the organization was restructured and almost all of the original founders dropped out.[4]


Mattachine Review, 1959[5]

The new leaders took a very different approach in running the organization. They preached the idea that homosexuals were no different than heterosexuals and abandoned activist techniques. The organization focused on educating the public about homosexuality, and they called upon sociologists and various members of the mental health community to aid them in their efforts. This revamped version of the Mattachine is more characteristic of the organizations of the homophile movement. ONE, however, became increasingly independent and retained its stance as a more activist publication. In 1955 Mattachine began publishing Mattachine Review, a magazine that was formally linked to the organization The tension between those who were against Mattachine’s moderate approach and those who pushed for more activist tactics would consistently plague the organization until its downfall in the early 1970s.[6]

The Daughters of Bilitis

Officially the Mattachine Society was established to represent the entire homosexual community, though in actuality the membership of the organizations was primarily male. In fact, throughout the entire life of the organization, the Fifth Order was exclusively male. Mattachine consistently lacked a lesbian presence throughout its 20 year history. Within the organization, the homosexual experience was defined in ways that only gave voice to gay men, thus leaving out lesbians. In order to fully include lesbians in the homophile movement, their dual identity as homosexuals and as women had to be recognized.[7] The Daughters of Bilitis was the organization that recognized this.

The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) was formed in 1955 in San Francisco, CA by four lesbian couples. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon (a couple) are typically credited with the founding the organization since they played the most significant role in launching and maintaining the organization. The impetus for the organization was Martin’s and Lyon ’s desire to socialize with other lesbians. The organization was intended to act as an alternative to the lesbian bar scene. In the beginning, the members argued over the direction the group should take. Martin and Lyon wanted DOB to have broad goals that were similar to the Mattachine Society and the two pushed for goals that focused on educating the public about lesbians. At this point the group split and those members who were blue-collar workers left to form their own social group.[8]


The Ladder, 1957[9]

From its beginning, DOB bore close resemblance to the Mattachine Society. Like Mattachine, DOB viewed educating the public as the means by which the lives of lesbian and gay individuals could be improved. DOB’s express purpose was also very similar to that of Mattachine’s in that both called for homosexuals to fit into larger society and to participate in professional research endeavors. Both organizations also called for laws that targeted homosexuals to be revised. Despite all this similarity, the DOB maintained qualities that distinguished it from Mattachine. While DOB had larger concerns of changing the attitudes of society as a whole, the organization primarily acted to address the needs of lesbians and to provide such women with an environment that was safe. It helped lesbians get their lives together and begin participating in larger society. Also, since DOB was an organization that served gay women, they were concerned with issues such as motherhood and the problems faced by married lesbians.[10]

In 1956 DOB began publishing its own magazine called The Ladder. The magazine was not a political publication; rather it provided lesbians with advice and gave them a place to tell about their experiences. Poetry, fictional stories, histories, and biographies were often published in the Ladder. The Ladder also gave attention to the situation of married lesbians and offered advice on how to best raise children in a lesbian family. Employment advice and financial guidance were also provided by the magazine.[11] Due to declining membership and fractions within the organization, the Daughters of Bilitis disbanded in the early 1970s.[12]

Mattachine and DOB Clash

The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis often worked together throughout the two organizations’ existence. Together they sponsored forums, discussion groups, and other events. Eventually, however, the two organizations began to clash. DOB became increasing frustrated with the promiscuity of gay males and the police harassment associated with this behavior. DOB members were also frustrated by the chauvinism expressed by Mattachine and the patronizing attitude it had towards DOB. DOB refused to be viewed as the ladies auxiliary of the Mattachine Society. In response to all this, DOB wrote in their constitution that its members were not allowed to join other homophile organizations.[13]

DOB and Its Relationship with the Lesbian Community

The membership of the DOB consistently remained small throughout the organization’s existence. Lesbians from the professional community were never attracted to the group. This was partially due to the fact that those in the professional world did not feel safe joining a gay organization for fear that they would lose their jobs. The self-help nature of DOB also prevented the organization from attracting many lesbians from the professions since such women had already achieved security and did not need many of the services offered by DOB.[14]

Prejudice towards the butch-fem bar culture of the working class lesbians also stunted the growth of the organization. The members of DOB looked down on the bar culture and butch lesbians. They did not see such behavior as respectable and did not like the image that such behavior portrayed to society. For many lesbians, however, the bars provided them with an important sense of community that DOB could not account for. It was a larger, more stable community that was more personable.

A Different Option: The Bar Culture

The bar culture of the 1950s continued to proliferate the working class lesbian community in the 1960s and 1970s. The bar served as a social gathering place where lesbians could meet one another and form relationships. Bars were consistently threatened by raids from law enforcement and/or closure. When one bar would close, another would open to take its place. The location of the bar often determined the clientele, as well as the bartender and the owner. Bartenders would often have a following of people who would simply go to a bar because their favorite bartender worked there. When a bar would close, a bartender’s following would often follow him/her to a new bar. For more information about the bar culture, please see the 1950s section of the website or read “The Development of the Homosexual Bar as an Institution” by Nancy Achilles.

The Social Scientists

Along with the homophile organizations various professionals within the social sciences began to challenge the notion that homosexuals were sick and mentally ill. The study of homosexuals had previously been dominated by psychologists and psychiatrists who believed that homosexuality was a pathology. In 1952 the American Psychiatric Association published the first edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, Mental Disorders (DSM-I). This first edition listed homosexuality among the socio-pathic personality disorders. When the DSM-II (the first revision of the manual) was published, homosexuality had been moved to the category of “non-psychotic disorders,” which included fetishism, transvestism, exhibitionism, voyeurism, sadism, masochism, and pedophilia.[15]


Evelyn Hooker[16]

The first psychologist to challenge the “gay is sick” mentality was Evelyn Hooker, a professor at UCLA. When teaching in the UCLA extension division in 1943-1944 Hooker met a gay male student, Sam From, in one of her classes. Later on the two became friends. Through From, Hooker met many other homosexuals who became her friends. From then began to encourage Hooker to study homosexuals. He said to her:

"Evelyn, we have let you see us as we are. We have hidden nothing from you. You probably know more about people like us…than any psychologist in this country. Now it is your scientific duty to study us."[17]

In 1953, Hooker was awarded a grant by the NIMH to study homosexuals. The project compared a group of 30 heterosexual men to a group of 30 non-clinical gay men. The use of non-clinical participants was crucial since all research up to this point had been done on homosexuals living in clinical settings or in jails. After using a variety of assessment tools, it was found that no significant differences existed between the two groups in terms of mental well-being and psychological adjustment. What’s more, the psychologists and psychiatrists who administered the tests were blinded to the sexual orientation of the men and they were not able to correctly identify which men were gay and which were heterosexual. The findings were presented at the 1956 meeting of the APA and were published in 1957 in the Journal of Projective Techniques. Hooker conducted several other studies about homosexuality after this, though the findings from her first study are the most often cited.[18]

Hooker’s work played a large role in the declassification of homosexuality as a mental illness in the DSM. First, in 1973 the idea that homosexuality in and of itself was a mental disorder was removed from the DSM, however the new category of “Sexual Orientation Disturbance” was created. This classification was developed for those individuals who were attracted to members of the same sex and were disturbed by or wished to change it. It was not until 1986 when the APA published the DSM-IIIR that all references to homosexuality were removed from the DSM.[19]

Professionals in the field of sociology also began to challenge the view that homosexuals were mentally ill. In 1967 William Simon and John H. Gagnon published an article entitled “Homosexuality: The Formulation of a Sociological Perspective” in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviors. In this article, the authors critiqued previous research on homosexuals, stating that it treated the group as homogenous and that it was only interested the cause of homosexuality rather than understanding homosexuals and the world they exist in. The authors called for researchers to rethink the study of homosexuals in order to consider “the complexity of the life cycle of the homosexual, the roles of that mark the various stages of this cycle, and the kinds of forces, both sexual and nonsexual that impinge on this individual actor."[20] This change in approach was an important step towards debunking the “gay is sick” mentality. Unfortunately, this article focuses primarily on gay males.

In 1968 Mary McIntosh published an article entitled “The Homosexual Role” in the journal Social Problems. Using role theory, McIntosh challenged the notion that homosexuality was a condition. She discussed how labeling someone as a homosexual acts as a form of social control. From the perspective of role theory, it becomes clear that homosexuality is more than a sexual behavior pattern. Thus, McIntosh’s article seeks to expand society’s understanding of what it means to be a homosexual. Like the Simon and Gagnon’s 1967 article, McIntosh’s article focuses on gay males. Later, in 1977 Fredrick a Whitam publish a piece entitled “The Homosexual Role: A Reconsideration” which refuted that notion that the concept of role could apply to an interpretation of homosexuality. He stated that using the concept of role to understand homosexuals violates the sociological definition of role and that the definition does not fit the characteristics of the homosexuality. He commented that homosexuality was simply a sexual orientation.

In 1973 Gagnon and Simon published a book called Sexual Conduct in which they examined sexuality from a non-biological, social psychological standpoint. Included in this book is a chapter entitled “A Conformity Greater Then Deviance: The Lesbian” which is entirely devoted to lesbians. This chapter begins with a critique of past research on the lesbian community, stating that such research was focused on sexual behavior. It is proposed that in order to fully understand lesbians, we must understand how they interact with society. To shed light on this, the authors interviewed 20 lesbians about various aspects of their lives. Topics discussed in the piece include becoming a lesbian, the lesbian community, lesbians’ experiences in the workplace, lesbians’ relationships with family and friends, lesbians’ search for love, and how lesbians achieve self-acceptance. Overall, the work is revolutionary in that it is an in depth account of the lesbian experience and for the first time researchers were interested in what it really meant to be a lesbian.

  1. Neil Miller,Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. (New York: Vintage, 1995).
  3. Miller,Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present, p.333-334.
  4. Miller,Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present, p.335-336.
  6. Miller,Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present.
  7. John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983) p.92-93.
  8. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, p.102-103.
  10. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, p.103-104.
  11. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities p. 104.
  12. Miller, Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present, p.352.
  13. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities.
  14. D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, p. 106.
  15. Miller, Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present, p.249.
  17. Andrew M. Boxer and Joseph M. Carrier, "Evelyn Hooker: A Life Remembered", Journal of Homosexuality 36(1): pp. 1-17, p.7.
  18. Boxer and Carrier, "Evelyn Hooker: A Life Remembered".
  19. Miller, Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present, p. 256-257.
  20. John H. Gagnon, and William Simon,Sexual Conduct, (Edison, Aldine Transaction, 1967) p.57.