August 24th, 2016
(d. 1990) His tiny hometown of Gary, South Dakota, straddling the state line with Minnesota, may have been off the beaten path, but the town’s only newsstand was located in his father’s drugstore, providing young Chuck with a window to a much larger world. He vividly remembered that day when he snatched a copy of Sexology magazine, a small quasi-scientific magazine about the size of a Reader’s Digest, and read “that if one was homosexual, he shouldn’t feel strange or odd, that there were millions of us, that there was nothing wrong with it.” Rowland knew from the time he was ten years old that he was gay, when he fell in love with another boy. “As soon as I read that there were millions of us, I said to myself, well, it’s perfectly obvious that what we have to do is organize, and why don’t we identify with other minorities, such as the blacks and the Jews? I had never known a black, but I did know one Jew in our town. Obviously, it had to be an organization that worked with other minorities, so we would wield tremendous strength.” Organizing would become Rowland’s greatest contribution to the early gay rights movement.
In the late 1930s, Rowland went to the University of Minnesota where he met Bob Hull (May 31), and the two became lovers, briefly, and then lifelong friends. Rowland was drafted into the Army, but thanks to a severe injury he stayed stateside and, “frankly, I had a ball.” After his discharge in 1946, he became an organizer for the New York-based American Veterans Committee, a liberal veterans group. Rowland also became friends with a young man whose parents had been Communists. Rowland decided to join the Communist Party and became head of a youth group called the American Youth for Democracy in the Dakotas and Minnesota. He left in 1948, “not because I disagreed with anything, but because I just wanted out. Joining the Communist Party is very much like joining a monastery or becoming a priest. It is total dedication, twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year.”
That year, Rowland moved to Los Angeles to start a new life. Hull soon followed and the two of them met Harry Hay (Apr 7), who was already kicking around with the idea of starting an organization for homosexuals. Rowland and Hull, along with Dale Jennings (Oct 21), met with Hay and Hay’s lover, Rudi Gernreich (Aug 8), and in November of 1950 they formed what would become the Mattachine Foundation (Nov 11). Rowland’s organizational skills to be an important asset to the fledgling group. Given the fearful political climate of the McCarthy era, Mattachine meetings were held in secret, with members using aliases and the leadership known only as “The Fifth Order.” Taking a cue from the Communist party, each discussion group or chapter was operated autonomously with loose coordination, so that if police were to raid and arrest the members of one chapter, it wouldn’t endanger the others.
That worked for a while. But by 1953, Mattachine had grown to over 2,000 members, thanks in part to the publicity over Dale Jennings’s acquittal of trumped up charges for soliciting a police officer (Jun 23). Mattachine raised its profile during the trial: raising money, hiring a lawyer, and generating quite a bit of publicity along the way. But the flood of new members brought pressure to change the Foundation. In particular, they demanded the secrecy surrounding the leadership’s identities be abandoned and the organization cleared of Communists. Many of them also demanded that the Foundation become less “activist,” an ironic stance given that Mattachine’s activism in the Jennings case was what made the newer members aware of the organization in the first place.
The group also split over a far more fundamental disagreement: over the nature of homosexuality itself. Were they a distinct cultural minority seeking recognition, or were they exactly like heterosexuals in every way except one? The latter “integrationist” model was sought by many (though certainly not all) of the more “conservative” members, who also demanded transparency, the ejection of former Communists, and a non-confrontational approach to public activism. A Constitutional Convention was called to try to reconcile the many emerging fault lines and come up with a new organizational structure that everyone could agree on (Apr 11). Rowland gave a speech which blasted through the wall of secrecy of the group’s leadership. “You will want to know something about the beginnings of the Mattachine Society, how the Fifth Order happened to be. … I think it is reasonable that you should ask this and important that you understand it,” he said. He then introduced the leadership to the rank-and-file. That satisfied one of the conservatives’ demands. But he also declared his unwavering belief that homosexuals were a unique, valuable segment of society, and if they could only see themselves as such, and with pride, only then could they effect change in society. “The time will come when we will march arm in arm, ten abreast down Hollywood Boulevard proclaiming our pride in our homosexuality.” The newer members found that idea far too radical and confrontational — and downright “communistic.”
Rowland proposed a new constitution, organizing the Mattachine Foundation as a group of autonomous clubs governed by a committee and an annual convention. His draft constitution was rejected and the convention decided to suspend its meeting due to a lack of consensus. During a second meeting called for May, Rowland, Hull and Hay resigned their leadership positions, the remaining members declared the Mattachine Foundation disbanded, and announced the formation of the newly reconstituted Mattachine Society with a centralized organizational structure and a disavowal of activism.
Rowland tried to remain active in the new Society, in a chapter that was intended to take on legal cases. But an attorney for the new Society charged that “the very existence of a Legal Chapter, if publicized to society at large, would intimidate and anger heterosexual society.” At the next convention in November, Rowland’s chapter was shut down, Rowland himself was branded a Communist, his credentials were revoked and he was out of the group.
Meanwhile, a group of disaffected Mattachine members had founded ONE, Inc. (Oct 15), which was originally formed solely to publish ONE magazine, but which found itself fielding questions and requests for help from gay men and women who were showing up at its tiny Los Angeles office. Rowland became director of ONE’s social services division, providing job placement and counseling services for nearly 100 people in 1955 alone. The following year, Rowland decided to found a church, the Church of One Brotherhood, using the name he lifted from ONE. The church launched a burst of activity in social work, activism and advocacy before flaming out in 1958.
Soon after, Rowland began suffering from alcoholism, had a nervous breakdown, saw a business partnership go belly-up, went into debt, and was evicted from his home. When Hull committed suicide in 1962, Rowland decided it was time to start over. He moved to Iowa where he somehow managed to become a high school teacher. He then earned his master’s degree in theater in 1968 and chaired a theater arts department at a Minnesota college. On retiring in 1982, Rowland returned to Los Angeles to form Celebration Theatre, “the only theatre in Los Angeles dedicated exclusively to productions of gay and lesbian plays.”
In March of 1990, Rowland was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer. He moved to Duluth, into an apartment donated by a former student, and spent the remainder of his days among students and relatives. He died on December 20, 1990.
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Prologue: Why I Went To “Love Won Out”
Part 1: What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Part 2: Parents Struggle With “No Exceptions”
Part 3: A Whole New Dialect
Part 4: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word "Change" Changes
Part 5: A Candid Explanation For "Change"
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