Today In History, 1952: Dale Jennings Cleared of Morals Charges

Jim Burroway

June 23rd, 2016

Dale Jennings

The nightmare began as many such nightmares did for gay men in Los Angeles in the 1950s. In February of 1952, Dale Jennings (Oct 21) was in a public men’s room at Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park) when a man walked up to him with his hand on his crotch. Jennings wasn’t interested. “Having done nothing that the city architect didn’t have in mind when he designed the place, I left,” Jennings later explained. The man, however, insisted on striking up a conversation and following Jennings home. When they arrived at Jennings’s house, Jennings said good-bye and went inside, but the man decided to invite himself inside. The stranger continued to make sexual advance to Jennings — in Jennings’s own home — but Jennings refused. “At last he grabbed my hand and tried to force it down the front of his trousers. I jumped up and away. Then there was the badge and he was snapping the handcuffs on with the remark, ‘Maybe you’ll talk better with my partner outside’.”

As Jennings continued the story:

I was forced to sit in the rear of a car on a dark street for almost an hour while three officers questioned me. It was a particularly effective type of grilling. They laughed a lot among themselves. Then, in a sudden silence, one would ask, ‘How long have you been this way?’ I sat on my hands and wondered what would happen each time I refused to answer. Yes, I was scared stiff. … At last the driver started the car up. Having expected the usual beating before, now I was positive it was coming–out in the country somewhere. They drove over a mile past the suburb of Lincoln Heights, then slowly doubled back. During this time they repeatedly made jokes about police brutality, and each of the three instructed me to plead guilty and everything would be all right.

Jennings was formally arrested and charged with “lewd and lascivious conduct.” He remained in jail until the following morning when Harry Hay (Apr 7) paid the $50 bail ($450 in today’s dollars). The two of them, along with several others, had founded the Mattachine Foundation two years earlier (Nov 11), and Jennings’s troubles would soon become the fledgling organization’s first gay rights victory. During the 1950s, gay men absolutely never fought this kind of a trial. Instead, they’d post bail, and forfeited it later rather than show up at court for the misdemeanor charge. But Hay convinced a reluctant Jennings that he had no choice but to fight the charges. As Jennings wrote in an unpublished manuscript:

(Hay was) the only tall person I ever met who used it with the imperial self-confidence of the chosen. … From his great height, he laid hear hands on my shoulders, stared intensely down at me in his best S.AG. (Screen Actors Guild) style, and made his great and solemn pitch… The Great Man pointed out that I, in my miserable way, would be somewhat Chosen, too, if I stood up to the Establishment. I had nothing to lose by my chains. After all, working in a family business, I couldn’t get fired. Being recently divorced, it would not hurt my wife and I could continue at USC as something of a hero if the straight on campus didn’t go to work on me as they did all the fries. He himself would be honored to do such a thing, but of course, he had too many familial responsibilities. Oh, I was lucky.

Hay called an emergency meeting of the Mattachine Foundation at Jennings house for that evening to devise the strategy: Jennings would “make a big thing out of this” by admit he was gay, but he would refuse to plead guilty and forcefully defend himself against the lewd conduct charges.

The Mattachine Foundation, which had established itself as a secret society, decided against opening itself to outside scrutiny while championing Dale’s defense. Instead, they decided to support Jennings’s legal fight under the guise of the Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment. The committee raised money for Jennings’s defense and printed leaflets to distribute to gay bars, public restrooms and the beaches. They also hired George Shibley, an Arab-American lawyer who was well known for taking on controversial civil rights and union causes in the 1930s and ’40s. As Jennings wrote in ONE:

The attorney, engaged by the Mattachine Foundation, made a brilliant opening statement to the jury in which he pointed out that homosexuality and lasciviousness are not identical after stating that his client was admittedly homosexual, that no fine line separates the variations of sexual inclinations and the only true pervert in the courtroom was the arresting officer. …

…The Jury deliberated for forty hours and asked to be dismissed when one of their number said he’d hold out for guilty till hell froze over. The rest voted straight acquittal. Later the city moved for dismissal of the case and it was granted.

Jennings was stunned. As he later wrote in his unpublished memoirs:

Walking out of the courtroom free was a liberation that I’d never anticipated. It didn’t happen in our society. You went to jail for that sort of thing. And so I was numb for some time, and it began to dawn on me that we did  have a victory.

Even though the newspapers ignored the story, news spread all over gay Los Angeles virtually overnight. Everyone wants to know who was behind this unprecedented victory. Until then, it was inconceivable that eleven jurors would take the word of a gay man over the sworn testimony of a police officer. Mattachine capitalized on the news with a “victory” flyer: “You didn’t see it in the papers, but it could — and did — happen in L.A.: In a unique victory, Dale Gennings defended himself against entrapment by the L.A. Police and won.” The flyer urged readers to “give now to help eliminate gangster methods by the police. A contribution now may save you thousands if you become the next target of entrapment.” Through flyers like these and word of mouth, Mattachine membership suddenly exploded, with overflowing meetings and new groups sprouting all over the Los Angeles area. By early 1953, groups had formed as far away as Long Beach, Laguna Beach, San Diego, Fresno, the Bay area, and Chicago.

Feeling its oats, Mattachine began polling those running for the Los Angeles City Council, mayor, and Board of Supervisors to ascertain their positions on police harassment of gay people. That publicity backfired, at least among the newer, more frightened members of the group. In the end, that massive growth of new members, ironically, resulted in the collapse of the Mattachine Foundation and the birth of the much more timid Mattachine Society less than a year later (Apr 11). By then, Jennings had already left to become the first managing editor of ONE magazine, the first nationally distributed publication for a gay audience (Oct 15). His account of his arrest and trial appeared in the magazine’s first issue, which helped to spread the news further. The case didn’t bring an end to official harassment of gay men by the Los Angeles police. That would continue for more than two more decades. But it did signal to the nation’s fearful gay community that false charges could be fought and defeated. Sixty-some years ago, that was big news indeed.

[Sources: Douglas M. Charles. “From Subversion to Obscenity: The FBI’s Investigations of the Early Homophile Movement in the United States, 1953-1958.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 19, no. 2 (May 2010): 262-287.

Dale Jennings. “To be accused is to be guilty.” ONE 1, no. 1 (January 1953): 10-13.

John Loughery. The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth Century History (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1998): 223.

James T. Sears. Behind the Mask of the Mattachine: The Hall Call Chronicles and the Early Movement for Homosexual Emancipation (Binghamton, NY: Harrington Park Press, 2006): 162-164.

C. Todd White. Pre-Gay LA: A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights (Urbana, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2009): 23-27.]

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