Pebbles on the Mountain

For a very long time, the history of gay and lesbian activism was

written as if New York City’s Stonewall Riots of July 1969 were the

originating moment of the movement for gay and lesbian equality. For

many, there had been, before that moment, nothing. For others, dimly

aware that there was something before, those years had been a kind of

dark ages, marked at best by timidity and at worst by a craven,

apologetic assimilationism.

In 1983, John D’Emilio challenged these perceptions with his book

_Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual

Minority in the United States, 1940-1970_, which revealed and

explored an activism that dated back to the founding of the

Mattachine Society in Los Angeles to 1951. In the years that

followed, a steady stream of histories–of organizations,

individuals, cities, countries, and regions–has been published. A

rich history of the pre-gay period is now well mapped out.

C. Todd White adds to this corpus with his examination of a complex

of Los Angeles-based organizations (Mattachine and ONE, and its

offshoot groups, the Institute for the Study of Human Resources and

the Homosexual Information Center) over a twenty-year period from

1950 to 1970. At the most obvious level, this is a history of the

origins, rise, and fall of these organizations, as well as of their

ideas, activities, and activists. This is work that, as White states,

has been done by a number of scholars.

What White brings to this project, though, is new sources and a deep

immersion in them. He has new archival records, extended life-history

interviews with many of those involved, and the insights of a

participant-observer. White was drawn into his research through his

involvement with one of the successor organizations, a chance

encounter with one of the founders, and his assistance in helping to

manage the papers of another. While he comes to think of the

activists as “kindred,” he sees this, rightly, as a strength rather

than a flaw in his work. Struck at one point by how much what he was

doing resembled his father’s work as a field archaeologist, he writes

a story that is part social history and part ethnography.

The role of individuals is central to White’s understanding of the

history of these organizations, and the movement that they

represented. As he argues early on, social and political conditions

were clearly conducive to the formation of a homosexual rights

organization. Large cities provided a critical mass of people in

which outsiders and dissidents might find each other. The political

climate in the United States was lively, with both the Left and the

Right organizing around strongly contested rights agendas. If

Mattachine had not been founded in Los Angeles, something similar

would almost certainly have appeared around the same time in New York

City or San Francisco. One informant suggested to White that in Los

Angeles it was simply a matter of the right people at the right time.

But it was the organization that made the difference. When Dale

Jennings, a founding member of Mattachine, was arrested for lewd

behavior in 1952, he decided to contest the charge in court, not by

denying that he was a homosexual, but by arguing that his sexuality

was irrelevant to the question of what he had or had not done. The

group swung into action, forming a committee, raising funds, and

circulating leaflets and flyers. When the jury failed to convict,

Mattachine claimed a great victory–and new branches sprung up in Los

Angeles, in other parts of California, and as far away as Chicago.

Drawing on his sources, examining the tangible remains of the groups’

real-world activities, and asking the kinds of questions that

activists are likely to want answered, White generates a rich history

of these twenty years. He is especially good on the way in which

these groups are part of a movement composed almost entirely of small

activities (“pebbles on the mountain,” as he puts it). While the

Stonewall Riots loom large in any history of gay rights and were

undoubtedly important, White reveals just how significant were two

decades of publishing magazines, newsletters, and a journal; setting

up a library and an institute; and organizing an annual conference

and regular seminars. Alongside these day-to-day activities, threats

were seized as opportunities. Jennings’s trial is a case in point. So

is the successful legal challenge to the postmaster general’s ban on

the transmission through the mail of the September 1953 edition of

the magazine _ONE _on the grounds of obscenity (it was the issue that

canvassed the idea of same-sex marriage).

White understands the importance of small facts as well as big events

to the telling of the story. For example, the magazine _ONE _was a

vital cog in the machine that generated and circulated the ideas of

homosexual rights. White’s detailed discussion of content tells us

what those ideas were. The circulation figures–which rose from 100

in mid-1953 to 500, and then to 6,000 (including 1,800 subscribers)

two years later–reveal a rising tide of interest. The reference to

the role of newsstand sales and subscriptions provide a sense of how

the ideas actually got out there.

For many readers the level of detail in this book will be too much.

The golden age gave way to differences of opinion, personal

squabbles, and the inevitable (this being the United States) legal

battles that in White’s words droned on, seemingly forever. This

material is invaluable, but despite the rousing language (mutiny,

retaliation, heroes, and knaves) that he uses, White cannot really

make it interesting. This perhaps is the downside of the

participant-observer methodology–sometimes the insider’s fascination

with the minutiae blinds them to the outsider’s need for brevity.

But this is one of the very few criticisms of this book. It is an

important story, told from a fresh angle. Its methodologies are

likely to be valuable to anyone doing community history where living

memory is available and the possibilities offered by ethnography seem

fruitful indeed.