The Daily Agenda for Wednesday, August 20
August 20th, 2014
Pride Celebrations This Weekend: Chico, CA; Columbia, MO; Cornwall, UK; Derry/Londonderry, UK; Erie, PA; Galway, Ireland; Kassel, Germany; Lansing, MI; Manchester, UK; Mocton, NB; Norfolk, VA; Salem, OR; Sligo, Ireland; Stockton, CA; Toledo, OH; Torquay, UK; Ventura, CA; Waterloo, IA.
Other Events This Weekend: Big Bear Adventure Weekend, Big Bear Lake, CA; Michigan March to the Capital, Lansing, MI; Camp Camp, Portland, ME; AIDS Red Ribbon Ride, Rochester, NY; Vancouver Queer Film Festival, Vancouver, BC.
TODAY’S AGENDA is brought to you by:
Rafters, at 739 S.W. Park Avenue in Portland was on the second floor of a larger gay entertainment complex that also included the Embers supper club/lounge downstairs and the adjoining Focal Point tavern on S.W. Ninth Avenue. The location today will soon become an office tower across the street from Nordstrom’s.
THIS MONTH IN HISTORY:
► ONE Magazine Debates “Homosexual Marriage”: 1953. The push for marriage equality has often been measured in years. Some of the more amazingly short-sighted have asserted that “the revolution began” when Prop 8 was challenged in Federal District court in 2009. Others with somewhat longer memories can remember the excitement of Massachusetts becoming the first U.S. state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004 (see May 17), or the Netherlands becoming the first country in the world to offer marriage equality in 2001 (see Apr 1), or Hawaii almost becoming the first jurisdiction to allow same-sex marriages in 1993 (see May 5). Those with longer memories may recall the battle Mike McConnell and Jack Baker waged to get a marriage license in 1970 (see May 18).
Discussions about same-sex marriage had taken place in the gay community long before all of that. But with gay relationships themselves still criminalized throughout much of the U.S. and the mental health professions considering homosexuality a mental illness, marriage was considered a much lesser priority. ONE magazine, the nation’s first nationally-distributed gay publication, had called for a push for “homophile marriage” in 1963 (see Jun 19). In 1959, ONE published “Homosexual Marriage: Fact or Fancy?” Its author had been in a relationship for eleven years which he very much likened to a marriage, and proceeded to offer advice on the ingredients that made for a successful marriage.
But ONE‘s first discussion of gay marriage came in its very first year of existence, in 1953. Written by a ONE reader who signed his name “E.B. Saunders,” the article’s title, “Reformer’s Choice: Marriage License or Just License?”, predicted the tug-of-war between assimilationists and liberationists that would dominate the gay rights movement for the next half century. It also records some of the pre-pill/pre-sexual revolution/pre-women’s liberation-era assumptions about what was considered acceptable behavior. Overall, it’s a fascinating time capsule, left by of a group of people who were still trying to figure out who they were and what they wanted.
The activists in the early homophile movement believed they knew what they wanted. First and foremost, ONE and the Mattachine Society wanted the “reform” of anti-gay laws, which criminalized gay relationships in all fifty states. That word, reform, was carefully chosen so as not to draw the charge that they were encouraging people to adopt what was seen as an immoral lifestyle. To speak boldly of “repeal” during those years of the Lavender Scare would have been, politically, like touching a third rail. The backlash, it was feared, would have been devastating. But the reason ONE and Mattachine wanted those laws “reformed” was obvious: they wanted people to no longer face arrest for having homosexual sex. This made gay people among the earliest proponents of sexual liberation — or sexual “license,” depending on your viewpoint.
ONE and Mattachine also wanted the “acceptance” of gay people, a goal they sought to achieve by educating the broader society of the “homosexual’s problems.” But Saunders wrote that if ONE and Mattachine really wanted society’s acceptance, then their efforts would be doomed unless they adopted an agenda that included the one thing that society found most worthy of acceptance: marriage.
…Then you sit back and try to visualize our society as these well-meaning enthusiasts would have it. And suddenly you realize that their plans are impossible! They have missed one of their most essential points and committed a basic and staggering error.”
…Image that the year were 2053 and homosexuality were accepted to the point of being of no importance. Now, is the deviate allowed to continue his pursuit of physical happiness without restraint as he attempts to do today? Or is he, in this Utopia, subject to marriage laws? It is a pertinent question. For why should he be permitted permiscuity (sic) when those heterosexuals who people the earth must be married to enjoy sexual intercourse? The answer does not lie in the fact that the deviate cannot reproduce: this is irrelevant to the effect upon society of his acceptance as a valuable citizen.
This effect would be one of immense consternation for it would be a legalizing of promiscuity for a special section of the population — which, incidentally, now begs for its rights on the very grounds that it desires the respectability and dignity of all other citizens. It is not likely that either of these would be attained by a lifting of legal sex constraints for this group alone. Actually such a change would loosen heterosexual marriage ties, too, and make even shallower the meaning of marriage as we know it… Heterosexual marriage must be protected. The acceptance of homosexuality without homosexual marriage ties would be an attack upon it.
Let’s pause a minute and let this amazing point sink in. Saunders is saying t — in 1953! — that acceptance of gay people without letting them marry (or, more to the point expecting them to marry; this is, after all, 1953) would be an attack on straight marriages!
Saunders obviously overstated the constraints marriage placed on people’s behavior, as the Kinsey Reports of 1948 and 1953 had already shown (see Jan 5 and Aug 14). A large number of married people were already findings ways to be promiscuous. Marriage did little to lessen the constraints of sex, legally or otherwise. But marriage did have one important value: society placed a very high value on it. If gay people really wanted to be accepted, then Saunders argued that they should be fighting for the one thing that would open the doors to acceptance:
Yet one would think that in a movement demanding acceptance, legalized marriage would be one of its primary issues. What a logical and convincing means of assuring society that they are sincere in wanting respect and dignity! But nowhere do we see this idea prominently displayed either in Society publications or the magazine ONE. It is dealt with in passing and dismissed as all-right-for-those-who-want-it. But it is not incorporated as a keystone in Society aims — which it must be before such a movement can hope for any success.
Saunders saw some practical problems that would need to be addressed if they were to press for gay marriage. Some of those problems were a reflection of the rigid gender roles that were still prevalent in the early 1950s. “For instance, should the Mr. And Mrs. idea be retained? If so, what legal developments would come of the objection by the ‘Mr.’ that ‘Mrs.’ doesn’t contribute equally?” He wondered how childrearing and adoption would work. Gay people marry would society come to expect them to perform childrearing duties like everyone else? “Would the time come when homosexuals would be forced to care for children as part of their social duties? How many homosexuals would actually want to bring up a child?”
Saunders saw the idea of two men or two women vowing to remain together, monogamously, for the rest of their lives “a dubious proposition.” Here again, he apparently hadn’t absorbed some of the statistics from the Kinsey report that found those expectations a dubious proposition for large numbers of heterosexual couples But he acknowledged that social pressure made for an additional and significant obstacle for gay couples. Those in a visible same-sex relationships risked arrest, eviction and unemployment, factors which tended to dampen the enthusiasm for such arrangements.
That’s why many of the early homophile activists saw sexual liberation as the only viable option. But that would be inimicable to the monogamous expectations of a homosexual marriage. “The concept of homosexual marriage cannot come into being without a companion idea: homosexual adultery,” with all of its societal and legal sanctions. For the sexual outlaws of 1953, would such a price for acceptance be worth it?
[T]his acceptance will cause as great a change in homosexual thinking as in the heterosexual — perhaps greater. No more sexual abandon: imagine! Me, married? Yes, a great change in the deviate himself, yet nothing in the literature of the Mattachine Society and little of ONE is devoted to initiating and exploring this idea of necessary homosexual monogamy. The idea seems stuffy and hide-bound. We simply don’t join movements to limit ourselves! Rebels such as we, demand freedom! But actually we have a greater freedom now (sub rosa as it may be) than do heterosexuals and any change will be to lose some of it in return for respectability. Are we willing to make the trade? From the silence of the Society on the subject, perhaps not.
What a turn! After challenging the homophile movement to embrace gay marriage in order to advance the cause of acceptance, he backtracks somewhat and indirectly questions whether gay people really knew what they wanted.
It is unfortunate that enthusiasm demands more action than thought, and that necessity often makes us run wildly before we’ve decided exactly where we’re running (although we may be quite sure of what we’re running from). Commendable as the Society is, it appears that there is yet to be conceived in its prospectus a concrete plan for the homosexual’s place in society. Until we know exactly where we’re going, and the stuffy and hide-bound — who can help us exceedingly — might not be willing to run along just for the exercise. When one digs, it must be to make a ditch, a well, a trench: something! Otherwise all of this energetic work merely produces a hole. Any bomb can do that.
The homophile movement did somehow manage to converge on a consensus, and that consensus leaned toward “just license” — or “liberation,” in the language of the next decade. Over the next several months, readers responded more or less that way in letters to ONE responding to Saunders. One questioned the either/or proposition between the marriage license and “just license” by pointing to Scandinavia where “sex laws are sane, (heterosexual) marriage still exists, home is sacred, and mother is honored.” Another wondered why Saunders seemed intent on imposing restrictions rather than expanding options. “In the year 2053, he asks, are we to be allowed to continue our pursuit of physical happiness without restraint as we attempt to do today? Well, why the hell not? What is this tendency on the part of some people to seek more and more restrictions?” Another scoffed: “It seems preposterous to me to use a sexual behavior yardstick for present and future generations of homosexuals which does not even meet the needs and actions of most present day heterosexuals, much less their probable future needs. … I would also be for the legalized marriage of homosexuals who desire this. And, I am one who desires this. But, E.B.S.’s naiveté regarding heterosexual chastity before marriage astounds me.”
The homophile movement didn’t adopt Saunders’ call for gay marriage. It also came to realize that its plaintive pleas for “acceptance” and “understanding” of the 1950s would never produce the kins of changes they were looking for. By the time the decade ended, the push was on for license — liberation, in the lingo of the following decade — among gay activists like Frank Kameny who demanded that the rights of gays and lesbians be respected solely because it was their birthright as citizens. By the time Stonewall came around, the lure of liberation made the idea of marriage seem irrelevant (although visionaries like Baker and McConnell saw things differently). But the AIDS tragedy of the 1980s had a way of injecting cold hard reality into the equation. There’s nothing like losing a partner to a terrible disease to focus one’s mind on all that was lost, and on all of the vulnerabilities — legal, financial, and social — that gay people were exposed to when they were denied access to marriage. The revolution may have picked up steam as the twentieth century began to draw to a close, but the seeds of discontent were already sown at least a half a century earlier.
[Sources: E.B. Saunders. “Reformers Choice: Marriage License or Just License?” ONE 1, no. 8 (August 1953): 10-12.
“Letters.” ONE 1, 10 (October 1953): 10-15.
“Letters.” ONE 1, 11 (November 1953): 18-24.]
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And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?