Where seven men once stood, only four remained. They were silver haired, with wrinkles cross-hatching their papery skin. Under a searing California sun they moved slowly, tilting on metal walkers and wooden canes. Half a century prior they’d risked everything—investigation, imprisonment, even death—to gather in dim basements and curtained living rooms, away from prying eyes. They’d formed a circle, joined hands, and recited a pledge in hushed unison: “We are sworn that no boy or girl, approaching the maelstrom of deviation, need make that crossing alone, afraid, and in the dark ever again.” Now, on a bright afternoon in the summer of 1998, they were gathering for one last meeting of the Mattachine Society.
If you know the story of the Mattachines, it’s likely only in brief, as an inconsequential prelude to a revolution. The Stonewall uprising of 1969, that glorious cavalcade of shouting and smoke and shattered glass, has been canonized as the birth of gay activism in America. A national monument stands at the site; in his 2012 inaugural address, President Barack Obama spoke of Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall. Within the LGBTQ community, it might as well be the Big Bang.
Yet the clandestine Mattachine Society, formed in California in 1950, paved the way to Stonewall. Its founders were thinkers and writers, friends and lovers. After a burst of pioneering activism, their work took on a life of its own; in the decades that followed, they drifted apart. Three of its founders died before 1998, when filmmaker Eric Slade convened the survivors in Los Angeles for interviews that would compose his documentary Hope Along the Wind. The men seemed giddy to be together—all but one.
While the others embraced and whispered the compliments of old men (“You haven’t changed!”), Dale Jennings hung back. So tight was his grip on his walker that his knuckles were white. Eighty years old, he wore a utilitarian blue jumpsuit buttoned fast over his rotund figure. His white, wiry hair stood up straight on his head, as if shocked into formation. When Harry Hay, an old comrade draped in luxurious purple fabric, spotted Jennings, he approached and leaned in for a hug. Jennings parried, lifting his hand for a desultory handshake instead. Within the gesture were decades of painful personal history too complex to exhume in the moment.
Later, seated before Slade’s camera, Jennings summoned his story. Dementia was setting in. As he spoke into the microphone pinned to his lapel, he was fuzzy on specific dates and small details. He contradicted himself. He also recollected without nostalgia. The other men described Mattachine meetings as invigorating. To Jennings, they’d been unbearable bores. “We kept repeating ourselves!” he snorted. “I just sat back and went into a coma.”
A contrarian in his youth and a curmudgeon in old age, Jennings had always cut a complicated figure. Being at the vanguard of a movement never suited him, and he’d struggled to shoulder the hero’s mantle, often wishing that he could shrug it off entirely. It had fallen on him heavy and unsolicited in 1952, in the form of a stranger’s menacing stare. Jennings then carried it into a California courtroom, where he declared himself a homosexual at a time when to be gay was to violate the law of the land. The pronouncement was valorous, and its impact was deeply felt, if not seen, in the years that followed. But when Slade asked Jennings if he would do it all again, nearly half a century after the events that shaped his fate, the elderly man shook his head.
“The answer is no,” Jennings replied. “Absolutely not.”
When Jennings was a child, his parents never missed an opportunity to proclaim that he was exceptional. Born in Amarillo, Texas, on October 21, 1917, and raised in Denver, he distinguished himself as a gifted violinist. His parents, a working-class salesman and a housewife, pinched pennies to pay for his weekly music instruction. It was a drain on the family’s finances, but the Jenningses were willing to make sacrifices—to a point. When his elder sister, Elaine, requested lessons of her own, she was told that the family could only afford to educate Dale, the nascent virtuoso. “If he was rude or obnoxious,” Jennings’s nephew Patrick Dale Porter wrote in a letter to a longtime friend of his uncle’s, “he was ‘special,’ and it just had to be forgiven.”
After graduating from high school in 1935, Jennings enrolled at the University of Denver. By then his love of music had transformed into a desire to write stories for the stage and screen. Lured by Los Angeles, he left college, moved to California, and rented a converted stable at the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Alvarado Street. The space doubled as the headquarters of Theater Caravan, a ragtag drama troupe that Jennings founded. He designed sets, composed music, hired actors, directed, and performed. Over two years, Theater Caravan mounted some 60 plays. The troupe never earned a substantial income, but it granted Jennings creative freedom the likes of which he’d never experienced before. In a set of photographs from this era, he appears lissome and joyful, clad only in white shorts, leaping into the air like a seasoned dancer. At some point in these carefree years, Jennings married a woman named Esther Slayton.
Then, like many young men of his day, he set aside his professional pursuits to fight in World War II. On November 13, 1942, Jennings walked through the tall gates of Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California, to spend three months in basic training and then study anti-aircraft technology. He became a technical sergeant and was transferred to Camp Hulen near Palacios, Texas, where he trained in cryptography. In December 1943, he was stationed in the southern Philippines as a member of the 356th Searchlight Battalion. He taught courses on scouting and reconnaissance. In the wake of the historic campaign on Guadalcanal, Jennings was transferred to that island and lived there for a time.
Even in wartime, Jennings couldn’t stop himself from picking up a pen. He volunteered as editor in chief of his battalion’s newspaper. In private moments, according to anthropologist C. Todd White, Jennings kept a diary. He wrote affectionately of his wife, whom he called Tuck. He also described an unnamed man in his battalion with whom he shared a strong, strange connection. “I looked at him today and knew that our friendship is a nighttime thing,” Jennings journaled. “By day, with all his features sharp and clear, I do not know him.”
Away from home, surrounded by men, Jennings began to acknowledge a fundamental truth about his being—and the extent to which the world despised it. “There is a delicate tropic fern … that closes up when touched,” Jennings wrote in his diary one evening. “A design of rich, green living changed in the moment of touching into a withered, brown, dead-seeming wisp of rubble.” Earlier that day, he’d observed two soldiers examining such a fern, poking at the fronds and laughing as the leaves shriveled. One man called it a cannibal plant; the other disagreed. “They’re a homosexual plant,” Jennings recalled the second man saying. “Use their pollen on themselves.”
“Somehow,” Jennings concluded, “I was very angry.”
After two years and 15 days of duty, Jennings returned to Fort MacArthur on Christmas Eve 1945. He was decorated with several medals and a Philippine Liberation Ribbon with one Bronze Star. On January 2, 1946, he was honorably discharged. Six months later, he divorced Slayton. He resolved to rekindle his career in Hollywood and to explore sex with men. But he didn’t brand himself gay. According to White, who studies the history of LGBTQ organizing in California, Jennings once wrote that declaring himself attracted to men “would be like tattooing a target on one’s chest; it would be the equivalent of suicide.”
This had been the case since the earliest days of the republic. The first European settlers in America observed gender nonconformity among indigenous peoples and ruthlessly stamped it out. Colonial legal codes, drawing from the Bible and a 1533 English “buggery law,” regarded homoerotic acts as transgressions on the level of adultery, fornication, and bestiality. The penalty for sodomy could be as severe as death. By the late 19th century, harsh laws remained in effect, but homosexuality nonetheless emerged as an identity cutting across lines of culture and class. Alongside this flowering came backlash, including in liberal Southern California. In 1887, moralists in Los Angeles complained of “sissy boys” who gathered in “trysting places” like Central Park, Pershing Square, and Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park). That year a controversial All Fool’s Night ball drew enormous crowds of cross-dressers—or “drunken prostitutes of both sexes,” in the words of a contemporaneous bit of press, who took part in “vile orgies.” This sort of indignant outcry spurred the Los Angeles City Council to pass an ordinance in 1898 forbidding individuals from “masquerading” as a different gender. In 1915, oral sex between members of the same sex, previously considered a misdemeanor, joined sodomy as a felony under a revised penal code.
Still, the film industry made Los Angeles a bastion of relative freedom. During Prohibition, gay speakeasies were popular; when alcohol became legal again, the establishments multiplied into what historians have referred to as a “pansy craze” of bars catering to gay patrons. Private parties were even more liberated. Hollywood luminaries like George Cukor, director of hits such as The Philadelphia Story and Gaslight, opened their homes to young gay men, lesbians, and “Gillette blades”—early slang for bisexuals, in reference to the double-edged razors. Ben Carter, an African American casting agent, hosted gatherings for black gay men aspiring to careers in show business, providing a space free of both homophobia and racism.
Straight audiences were kept in the dark about the private lives of their favorite stars. Though androgyny enjoyed a cultural moment in the early 20th century, with tuxedoed women like Marlene Dietrich and effeminate men like Rudolph Valentino capturing viewers’ hearts, censors pushed hard for depictions of conventional gender roles. In 1930, Hollywood studios caved to the demands of moralists, unanimously agreeing to the stipulations of the Hays Code, which banned representations of homosexuality in film.
During the postwar period, as part of a widespread cultural embrace of family and tradition, films took a rigid perspective on sexuality. Studios mandated that partners of the opposite sex accompany stars to public appearances. Henry Willson, a prominent talent agent who was privately gay, hired off-duty police officers to watch his closeted clients and keep any jilted lovers quiet. At least once, he used outing as a weapon. When Confidential, a tabloid newspaper, threatened to publish an exposé on Rock Hudson’s homosexuality, Willson bought its silence with a salacious tip about another gay actor, Tab Hunter, who’d been arrested for lewd behavior at a dance party. The Motion Picture Production Association paid the police to keep gay scandals quiet. “Carousing wild men like Errol Flynn and homosexual stars were constantly being picked up by the LAPD,” historian Joe Domanick has written, “but never booked.”
Gay men who weren’t famous were among cops’ favorite targets. If you were a homosexual in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, and you’d never been arrested, you almost certainly knew someone who had. LAPD chief William H. Parker was a hardline reformer bent on rooting corruption out of his force and reducing crime citywide. He was also a bigot. A square-jawed military veteran with an austere crew cut, Parker referred to black people as monkeys and Latinos as the offspring of “wild tribes.” He directed his vice squad to pursue homosexuals by entrapping them and charging them with “lewd vagrancy” and “sexual perversion.” According to historian Lillian Faderman, Paul de River, the LAPD’s head criminal psychiatrist under Parker, wrote that homosexuals were “a grave danger to society” and “seducers of children.” In “sexual orgies,” he added, they were even prone to commit murder.
“Wild Bill” Parker, as he was known in Los Angeles’s gay scene, was an existential threat. In 1948, the Los Angeles Times reported that the LAPD kept records on 10,000 “known sex offenders,” a euphemism for homosexuals. Helen P. Branson, who operated a gay bar in the city, described the cops’ standard playbook in a memoir. “Young and good looking policemen are dressed as ‘gay’ as they know how,” she wrote. “They go into a gay bar, act as they think a gay fellow should act, and wait for someone to talk to them. They offer someone a ride or accept a ride, and that does it. Some of them play fair, inasmuch as they wait for the gay one to make a pass at them, but many others wait only long enough to get in the car before declaring the arrest.”
Across the country, urban law-enforcement agencies were deploying the same predatory tactics. Police in Washington, D.C., arrested more than 1,000 homosexuals per year; in Philadelphia, cops filed an average of 100 misdemeanor charges against gay people every month. But the LAPD had a special advantage: It could recruit undercover operatives from the scads of handsome young men who populated Los Angeles in search of stardom. Rendering the approach all the more insidious, some of the actors recruited by the LAPD were themselves gay. Some vice-squad officers even used entrapment for sexual gratification, sleeping with their marks at night and producing their badges over breakfast. (A macabre joke among gay men of the era was, “It’s been wonderful, but you’re under arrest.”) Black and Latino gay men endured particularly brutal treatment at the hands of the police, while lesbians were subjected to raids on the bars they frequented, along with detentions, beatings, and bogus charges.
Entrapment was only the first act in a long, dramatic nightmare. The maximum sentence for engaging in oral sex was 15 years in prison; anal sex could result in a life sentence. Lesser charges carried strict punishments, too. If a person was found to have violated Section 674a of the California Penal Code (“soliciting or engaging in lewd or dissolute conduct”) or 674d (“loitering in or around a public toilet for the purpose of engaging in lewd or dissolute conduct”), they were required to register as a sex offender until death. Those who plea-bargained usually received two years of probation and an order to refrain from associating with known homosexuals. Many people who ran the gauntlet of the legal system faced further abuse after it spit them out. As a result of their orientations being exposed, their families forced them into asylums, where they often endured castration, hysterectomy, or lobotomy.
Not only did the LAPD terrorize gays, it also rarely deigned to protect them. “We don’t realize the physical danger that the early queers lived in,” Jennings told Slade in 1998. “There were so many that were beaten up and left to die that were never reported…. The police thought, Well, the queer must have made a pass at somebody, so let’s forget it, and that was the end of it.”
In 1950, Jennings married again, to a woman named Jacqueline Carney. “I wasn’t about to be tagged as fag,” he later wrote, “and so leaned over backwards playing it straight.” The couple fought frequently about whether to have children. Carney was aware of her husband’s sexual attraction to men and worried that their offspring would inherit it. “She was afraid it was catchy,” Jennings told Slade. “She didn’t want to bring up a brood of little queers, you know? A silly woman.”
The union was annulled after only a few months. Seeking community and identity, Jennings gravitated toward Los Angeles’s leftist circles, which overlapped with its underground gay scene. He advocated for the civil liberties of Japanese Americans and redress for their internment during World War II. He rubbed elbows with members of the Communist Party, including Bob Hull, a gay music student with sweet, boyish features. It didn’t take long for Jennings to fall in love with Hull. “He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant,” Jennings recalled. “I so admired him.”
Born and raised near Minneapolis, Hull had attended the University of Minnesota, where he was a chemistry student by day and a communist organizer by night. Like Jennings, Hull had come to Los Angeles hoping to make art. One day after a musicology class, his instructor, Harry Hay, slipped him a pamphlet calling for “androgynes of the world” to unite. Hull hurried home and showed it to Jennings. Curious, Jennings tagged along a few days later when Hull and his roommate, Chuck Rowland, ventured to a meeting of like-minded men at Hay’s house.
Years later, when asked to describe the origins of his relationship with Hay, Jennings blinked, exhaled, then burst into riotous laughter. “Oh dear,” he said. “That’s the beginning of a volume as big as War and Peace.”
The house was tucked behind laurel, oleander, and bottlebrush on a hill in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood. It overlooked the vast, picturesque reservoir from which the area took its name. Residents of the two-story clapboard homes lining Cove Avenue could reach the water by walking down a public set of steep concrete stairs. It was up those steps, Hay later wrote, that his guests approached on November 11, 1950. Rowland was clutching the pamphlet Hay had given to Hull. “We could have written this ourselves!” Rowland exclaimed. “When do we get started?”
The answer was now. Hay kicked off the gathering with a speech about “the heroic objective of liberating one of our largest minorities from social persecution.” He was approaching 40 and handsome, with a chiseled jaw, cleft chin, and furrowed brow. When he spoke about the wholly unprecedented and dangerous undertaking of organizing gay men, Hay’s confidence was contagious. As Jennings later put it, “I’d never met such a persistent, omnipresent man in my life.”
Hay had been born the bluest of blue bloods. His parents, Henry and Margaret, met in Edwardian South Africa, where Henry managed the Witwatersrand gold mine under Cecil Rhodes. Hay never lived up to his father’s expectations, never exhibited the discipline and hard work that Henry deemed fundamental to manhood. After an accident in a copper mine left Henry with one leg, the family relocated to Los Angeles. There, Hay developed interests in music, literature, and theater. Henry began to fear his son was a sissy and tried to beat him into normalcy.
Hay’s deliverance arrived at age 11, when he found a copy of Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex at the library. Carpenter’s book, one of the first to speak positively of “homogenic attachments,” was a revelation to Hay. “As soon as I saw it, I knew,” Hay told his biographer, Stuart Timmons. “I wasn’t the only one of my kind in the whole world after all, and we weren’t necessarily weird or freaks or perverted. There were others. The book said so.…. Maybe, someday, I could cross the sea and meet another one.”
In his early twenties, Hay became active in the Communist Party. He performed in agitprop demonstrations and traveled north to raise his fists in the San Francisco General Strike of 1934. He was bothered, though, by the party’s prohibition of same-sex behavior and the Soviet Union’s persecution of homosexuals. Other gays and lesbians in the party opted to conceal their orientations, but Hay struggled to rectify his identity with his politics. He eventually enlisted the services of a psychiatrist, who suggested that he do what everyone else did: marry, have children, and keep his sexuality a secret. Hay followed those instructions to the letter. In 1938, he married fellow communist Anita Platky and officially joined the party. The couple settled in Silver Lake and adopted two children. For the duration of their marriage, which ended in divorce in 1951, Hay never told Platky about his affairs with men.
He also didn’t discuss his evolving views on homosexual identity. In the late 1940s, Hay drafted a prospectus on the topic, drawing inspiration from Joseph Stalin’s definition of nationhood. “A nation,” Stalin wrote in a 1913 essay, “is a historically evolved, stable community of language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a community of culture.” Lineage and genetics, in other words, were secondary to collective values. Stalin devised this definition to restrict potentially fractious ethnic elements in the Soviet Union, but Hay saw it as applicable to an imagined revolution: homosexuals declaring themselves part of a fledgling nation. “We have a territory in common,” Hay said in an interview with Eric Slade, referring to gay neighborhoods and nightlife. “We have a language in common—because, after all, the language of camp, when you come right down to it, is the way by which we can all reach each other almost simultaneously. And we certainly have a common psychology of make-up, which manifests itself in a community of culture.”
Hay became enamored with the idea of forming an organization of homosexuals. In July 1950, he met Rudi Gernreich, a Jewish fashion designer who’d fled Nazi-occupied Austria. The two became lovers. Hay confided in Gernreich about his idea for a group, and Gernreich responded with unbridled enthusiasm. They spent the rest of the summer discussing how to proceed. To gauge interest, they trawled Los Angeles’s gay haunts with a petition opposing the Korean War. As they collected signatures, they engaged men in conversation about the government purging homosexuals from federal employment, an event now known as the Lavender Scare. Most of the men to whom Hay and Gernreich spoke thought that the firings, which had begun that year at the State Department, were a travesty. They balked, however, at the suggestion of forming a gay collective to do something about it.
Months passed before Hay and Gernreich found an ally in Hull and, by extension, Jennings and Rowland—fellow “sexual outlaws,” as Hay later wrote. After the first gathering in Hay’s house, the men agreed to keep meeting to discuss ways to protect their rights and bring more men into the group. After a few conclaves, they decided that they needed a name. Hay searched for inspiration in history and was delighted to discover medieval France’s sociétés joyeuses. The groups of unmarried young men adopted the dress of court jesters—both male and female—and participated in performances critical of the monarchy and the Catholic Church. Central to these performances were folk dances known as les mattachines, which historians described as relics of Pagan fertility rituals. Hay saw contemporary parallels with gender nonconformity and communist agitprop. He wanted to call the new group the Society of Fools, but Hull suggested the more oblique Mattachine Society. “The need to explain the name to others,” wrote Will Roscoe, a historian and a longtime associate of Hay’s, “would give members of the organization the chance to define themselves in their own terms.”
Jennings didn’t share Hay’s obsession with the past. “I thought, Here we were, here and now,” he told Slade in 1998. “Who cares about the Middle Ages?” Still, he couldn’t deny the thrill of being part of something new and progressive. “I became more of a split personality,” Jennings said. “I was an ordinary person during the day, and evenings I became a wild radical.”
Inspired by the Communist Party’s inner workings, the founders of the Mattachine Society shrouded the group in secrecy. The five men formed a steering committee, dubbed the Fifth Order, and shielded their identities. New members would be organized into cells that remained unknown to one another. The society would keep no membership records. Anonymity was security.
The Fifth Order’s first priority was to create a safe gateway for recruits. It settled on a series of public discussions on popular sexual subjects like the Kinsey Report, which in 1948 had proclaimed that some 10 percent of American men were “more or less exclusively homosexual.” The Mattachines hoped the events would attract gay men and women without requiring that they out themselves. On December 11, 1950, 18 people gathered for the first of these discussions. They used clinical, academic language to tiptoe around the topic of homosexuality. The founders scanned the sparse crowd, taking note of any individuals who seemed particularly interested in the conversation. They planned to take those people aside later and invite them, discreetly, to become Mattachines.
By April 1951, the society had added only a handful of people to its ranks, including Konrad Stevens and Jim Gruber, who joined the Fifth Order, bringing the founding membership to seven, and Ruth Bernhard, the first female Mattachine. Hay insisted on pomp and circumstance when inducting members, including the recitation of a pledge. “To many a homosexual, who may have lived out years of loneliness or bitterness, believing that his lot in society was a miserable one and without hope,” Jennings later wrote, “the sense of group fellowship, the joining of hands in solemn oath, bespoke something so new, and of such dazzling implication, as to be well-nigh unbelievable.” Hay conveyed to the newcomers with blistering pride that the Mattachines were building an empowered entity—a nation, really—that would march toward social emancipation.
That conviction drove a wedge between Hay and Jennings. “I didn’t believe we were a minority—and by the way, I still don’t,” Jennings said in 1998. Rather than promote a collective identity, distinct from the cultural mainstream, Jennings was concerned with the more practical goal of ensuring freedom of choice in sexual behavior. Whether homosexuals wanted to be part of a glorious community was immaterial to the protection of their well-being. In meeting after meeting, Jennings held firm to his stance, sowing discord with Hay and other Mattachines. “We would argue all the same old points, and I found, to my alarm, that the people who opposed me were not any more willing to give in than I was,” Jennings later said.
By 1952, the internecine rift had widened into a gulf. Bob Hull broke up with Jennings to be with Paul Benard, a bisexual actor and new society member. “The first act of the Paul-Bob alliance,” Hay later recalled, “was a concerted effort to kick Dale out of the top Mattachine echelon.” Jennings grew distressed and despondent. It seemed like his days with the society were numbered.
On the night of Friday, March 21, 1952, Jennings set out from his apartment in central Los Angeles to see a movie. His breakup with Hull still smarted. Settling into the anonymous darkness of a theater for a couple of hours, he hoped, would be a balm. His only obstacles on this quest were his own standards; Jennings passed one theater, then another, stewing about the lowbrow tastes of the moviegoing public.
A little before 9 p.m., he headed toward a third theater, hoping for a better selection. Along the way he took a detour through Westlake Park in search of a public restroom. “This, too, was a mistake,” Jennings would later write in a detailed account of the evening. “Respectable people don’t use these civic conveniences under any circumstances.”
When Jennings entered the restroom, it was empty. He relieved himself, turned around, and stepped to a sink to wash his hands. When he looked into the mirror, he saw a man standing over his shoulder, leering. The “big, rough-looking character,” Jennings recalled, had somehow entered the bathroom without making a sound. Jennings’s heart began to hammer against his ribs. He said nothing, pushed past the man, and left as quickly as his legs would carry him.
The stranger followed.
As Jennings walked toward the movie theater, the man trailed him, trying to strike up a conversation. Jennings alternated between asking the man to leave him be and not answering at all. If the stranger was soliciting sex, Jennings wasn’t interested.
At the theater, Jennings groaned when he saw on the marquee that the only movie showing was one he’d already seen. Frustrated, and more than a little flustered by the man from the bathroom, he decided to go home. The stranger continued to shuffle along a few feet behind Jennings as he made his way toward his apartment. Surely, Jennings thought, the man would give up eventually. When Jennings reached his door, he put the key in the lock and looked over his shoulder. Firmly, he told the man goodbye. But the stranger shoved him aside, twisted the knob, and strode into the living room.
Stunned, Jennings stood in the doorway. Was the man planning to rob him? Assault him? Worse? Years later, in an allegorical short story, Jennings would imagine the man as a ravenous dog. The protagonist, a stand-in for Jennings, tries to placate the dog: “He spoke reassuringly, then squatted with one hand held out. The big dog merely stood looking straight at him, not panting, not moving as it watched. Reflected light made flat, cold discs of its eyes.” When the protagonist attempts to sidestep the dog, the animal lets out a low, cruel snarl.
The stranger slumped onto Jennings’s sofa, legs sprawled wide, and reached down the front of his pants. He lifted his chin and shot Jennings an ugly, suggestive look. So this was a solicitation, albeit an aggressive one. Jennings shut the door. A jumble of thoughts rushed through his head. He was afraid of the man and certainly didn’t want to sleep with him, but he didn’t know how to get rid of him. Calling the police was risky. No matter what he said, the officer on the line might assume that he’d invited the stranger in and then had a change of heart. If that happened, the cops might arrest him for lewd behavior.
The man called out to Jennings, propositioning him, and Jennings responded by begging the intruder to leave. Instead, the man rose from the couch and sauntered into the bedroom. He dropped his jacket on the floor. His fingers went to his collar, and he began to unbutton his shirt, grinning at Jennings all the while.
“Come in here!” he said. “Let down your hair!”
The man sat on the bed, leaned back, and slapped the mattress, motioning for Jennings to sit.
“You have the wrong guy,” Jennings said.
Finally, the stranger lost his patience. He lunged forward, grabbed one of Jennings’s wrists, and forced the fingers of the trapped hand beneath his waistline, past his belt buckle. Jennings leaped away, clutching his hand to his chest as if he’d burned it on a stove. He “almost felt raped,” he would later tell a friend, and feared he might actually be. With every muscle in his body tense, he waited for the stranger to react.
The man reached into a pocket. Out came a badge. With his other hand he retrieved cuffs.
“Maybe,” the undercover cop said to Jennings, “you’d talk better with my partner outside.”
Jennings emerged from his front door in handcuffs. There wasn’t anyone outside. The cop’s partner was back in Westlake Park, waiting with a third officer in a squad car near the restroom where Jennings had been targeted for entrapment. Jennings was forced to walk over a mile back to where the mortifying saga had begun, the cop prodding his back the whole way. When they arrived, the officer greeted his colleagues by complaining that it had been a slow week for the vice squad. “It’s all I can do,” he said, “to keep up the old quota.”
Jennings was shoved into the back of the car, where the trio of officers launched into an interrogation. “It was a peculiarly effective type of grilling,” Jennings later remembered. “They laughed among themselves. One would ask, ‘How long you been this way?’” Too scared to speak, Jennings sat on his hands and thought only of the possible consequences of his precarious situation. Annoyed by Jennings’s lack of cooperation, one of the officers turned the key in the car’s ignition and maneuvered the vehicle into the street. At a painfully slow pace, less than ten miles per hour, the car wound through the streets, venturing farther and farther away from the park, into neighborhoods Jennings barely knew. He was sure he was going to be beaten, perhaps in some remote spot outside the city limits. The cops “repeatedly made jokes about police brutality,” Jennings wrote. “Each of the three instructed me to plead guilty and everything would be all right.”
In the end, they didn’t beat him. Terrifying him had been sufficiently fun. Around 11:30 p.m., they returned to their station and booked Jennings on a charge of lewd and dissolute conduct. They put him into a jail cell, and his bail was set at $50 (the equivalent of about $470 today). At 3 a.m., when he was permitted to place a phone call, an exhausted Jennings dialed Harry Hay, the only person he knew who had a checkbook.
By 6:30 a.m., Hay had swept in to rescue Jennings, posting bail and ferrying his fellow Mattachine to the Brown Derby for sustenance. The popular diner, with its iconic building designed to look like a giant hat, was one of Hay’s favorites. The pair slid into a half-moon-shaped leather booth beneath walls cluttered with cartoon sketches of the Derby’s most famous patrons: actors, producers, and the like. Hay knew that his first task was to cheer Jennings up. After they ordered breakfast, though, he revealed his ulterior motive.
“Dale, the whole society that we have going is going to support this,” Hay said. “And we’re going to fight it.”
Jennings looked up from his coffee, bewildered. “We’re going to fight it?”
“Yes,” Hay continued. “You’re innocent, and we’ll prove it. This is what we want.”
“Good God,” Jennings said. “Where do you get this we stuff?”
Hay laid his hands on Jennings’s shoulders, staring at him with his trademark solemnity and “imperial self-confidence of the chosen,” Jennings later wrote. Entrapment, Hay explained, was destroying lives. But unlike most victims, Jennings was well positioned to mount a legal challenge. He was currently employed as an advertiser for his sister’s sewing business, so he stood no risk of losing his job. Divorced and childless, he wouldn’t embroil any family in scandal. “The Great Man pointed out that I, in my miserable way, would be somewhat Chosen, too, if I stood up to the Establishment,” Jennings wrote. “I had nothing to lose but my chains.”
Hay’s appeal to blaze a trail, Jennings later said, was “not a very comfortable thought to someone whose world has just ended.” If the case went to court, the publicity might ruin his professional prospects. And he couldn’t shake the feeling that Hay was more concerned with what the affair represented than with how it might affect Jennings personally. He asked Hay if he would plead innocent under the same circumstances. “He himself would be honored to do such a thing,” Jennings recalled. “But, of course, he had too many familial responsibilities.”
Hay managed to convince Jennings to at least convene an emergency meeting of the Fifth Order a few days later, on the evening of March 28. Together, Hay said, they would decide what to do next. So the Mattachines piled into Jennings’s living room. Hay, true to form, opened with an impassioned address about elevating the plight of homosexuals into mainstream political discourse. The moment, he argued, was a golden opportunity to argue that homosexuals deserved the full protection of the law. Furthermore, the Mattachine Society might put a nail in the coffin of entrapment, a practice that threatened not only gay men, but any second-class citizens who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time with cops who had to hit arrest quotas.
In blocky handwriting, Rudi Gernreich dutifully recorded the meeting’s minutes in a notebook, including discussion of Jennings’s constitutional right to due process:
Entrapment case. Decision to fight on basis of 5th Amendment—politically, not morally. Test case—willing to fight from lowest courts to highest. Try to get support from ACLU and other civic groups.… Every minority in danger on entrapment basis.
Several years prior, Gernreich himself had been in Jennings’s shoes. Entrapped by police, he took his case to court, proclaimed his innocence, and demanded a jury trial. At times during the proceedings, he felt that he was making headway. One woman on the jury was pleasant enough, looking at him from her perch with what he thought was sympathy. Yet the jury found him guilty. Devastated, he made a point of staring down each juror, one by one, as the verdict was read. When he landed on the kind-seeming woman, she turned her face to the wall, refusing to look him in the eye. Now Gernreich was hungry for justice—to fight, win, and repudiate the woman who had been unable to meet his gaze.
As the conversation unfolded, Jennings realized that his comrades were in unanimous agreement with Hay. “We seized on it as a rallying point,” recalled Jim Gruber. “There wasn’t much arm twisting at all. Inasmuch as I was often a dissenter, I was aware that any of the dissenters would have spoken up at that point.” Especially emphatic was Chuck Rowland, who rose to his feet, eyes flinty with righteous indignation, and gestured at Jennings. “The hinger of fistory points!” he shouted.
The group fell silent at Rowland’s blunder. They stared at each other for several seconds. Then Gernreich began laughing. The rest of the men followed suit, some of them falling over sideways. In that moment, Jennings felt his resistance melting. “One of my prevailing thoughts,” he later said, “was, I’m not alone.”
In 1950s Los Angeles, only a few attorneys deigned to represent homosexuals in court, and they were more interested in financial gain than civil rights. Harry Weiss, a lawyer who owned a popular gay nightclub called the Crown Jewel, was rumored to cooperate with the vice squad. Weiss, dubbed “the faggot lawyer” by judges, purportedly gave the police tips regarding the identities of his gay patrons. The vice squad then passed Weiss’s business card to any men they arrested, and Weiss paid the police half of any legal fees he earned from the resulting cases. Another attorney, a flamboyant woman named Gladys Towles Root, a.k.a. “the defender of the damned,” appeared in court in elaborate, colorful outfits that rivaled the nighttime getups of the drag queens she represented. “She had all sorts of connections in the city government, so she’d get you off,” Jennings once said. “Her charge? Very often it was everything you had.” Records from the period indicate that Root and Weiss charged clients on a sliding scale from $2,800 to $28,000 in current dollars; the wealthier the client, the more he paid.
Regardless of a case’s specifics, Root and Weiss generally required defendants to plead guilty to misdemeanors and pay whatever fines the city demanded. The only benefit for the defendants was that they avoided felony convictions. “You were run through the mill,” Jennings recounted, “and swore to God you’d never go into another park.”
After Jennings agreed to plead innocent, Hay suggested that he retain Long Beach lawyer George Shibley, an old leftist acquaintance. “George has always said that I taught him more about Marxism than anybody else,” Hay once claimed. A Lebanese American attorney with a long, narrow visage, wide brown eyes, and thick brows, Shibley had developed a reputation in the 1930s and 1940s as a defender of labor unions. In one case against the Ford Motor Company, he’d proved himself so potent an adversary that Ford had attempted to hire him as in-house counsel; Shibley declined the offer. He won public renown during the sensational 1942 Sleepy Lagoon trial, in which he defended several Latino youth charged with murder. The judge in that case, Charles Fricke, was known for handing down harsh sentences. “It was said that when you went to trial in Fricke’s court, you had two prosecutors there,” Shibley’s son Jonathan told me in a recent interview, “one from the DA’s office, and Fricke.” Shibley made so many objections over the course of the trial that Fricke mocked him; in one hearing, according to Jonathan, the judge said, “I’d be disappointed if you didn’t make at least one per session.” The defendants were convicted, but Shibley filed an appeal, accusing Fricke of prejudice. The court ruled in favor of the defendants, and their sentences were overturned.
Shibley had never defended gay clients, but that didn’t matter. “He said he didn’t give a damn what the charge was,” Jennings remembered. “He was for civil rights, and he sounded like Christ on a white horse. God, he was everything.” His sympathy for oppressed minorities came from experience. Although he wasn’t Jewish, his appearance made him a frequent target of anti-Semites, as did the fact that his wife was white. “When he first moved to the neighborhood,” Jonathan told me, “we heard rumors that some of the neighbors were saying, ‘Let’s get that Jew for being with that white woman.’”
Shibley’s only hesitation in accepting Jennings’s case was his lack of knowledge about homosexuality, so he asked the Mattachine Society to educate him. The Fifth Order carpooled to Shibley’s office on a weekly basis in the months leading up to Jennings’s trial, which was set for June 1952. “We went down every Friday night after work, all about seven or eight of us,” Hay later said. “We told our coming-out stories to him. We educated him on what it was like to come out as a homosexual in a straight world, and what we ran into, and what our problems were.” Shibley came away angry that the men were treated so badly and eager to defend Jennings. “He [felt] that what they were doing to this man was, in the vernacular, just plain chickenshit,” Jonathan Shibley said, referring to the LAPD’s actions. “So what if he’s a homosexual? He’s minding his own business. Why was Mr. Cop trying to harass him?”
This was likely the first time in American history that an attorney had agreed to defend homosexual rights. It was certainly the first time that a group of gay activists banded together to legally defend one of their own. The Mattachines’ first concern was fundraising. Shibley’s services would cost $7,000 (in current dollars), and the group hoped to raise an additional $28,000 to print and distribute copies of the trial transcript to lawyers across the country. If Jennings won, the Mattachines wanted other progressive legal minds to know how to defend gay clients in similar entrapment trials.
To support Jennings without exposing their secretive group, Shibley suggested that the Mattachines form an ad hoc Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment. Coordinated by the Fifth Order, the CCOE raised money for Jennings’s defense and tried to publicize his trial in the media. The press, though, had no interest in covering it. “I let all of these various news services know about the trial every step of the way,” Hay said once. “Not one single magazine or newspaper or radio station or TV station ever printed or published or spoke one word about this entire trial. We had a total conspiracy of silence.”
Without coverage, the CCOE had to rely on informal networks within Los Angeles’s gay community. They distributed flyers throughout the city: on beaches, in bars, and around popular cruising spots. Members of the Fifth Order met with gay small-business owners, encouraging them to surreptitiously drop flyers into customers’ bags at check-out. The flyers laid out Hay’s vision of homosexuals as a minority and the CCOE’s mission to fight police brutality. Jennings’s trial would “expose to all eyes an injudicial and unconstitutional police conspiracy which, under the cloak of protecting public morals, threatens not only all Minorities but civil rights and privileges generally.” The Mattachines hoped that other people in Jennings’s circumstances would follow his lead. “If 1 percent of the people who had been entrapped had stood up, things would have changed drastically,” Jennings said in 1998. “Here was one person standing up. That just upset the apple cart completely.”
Donors began to mail donations to the CCOE’s post office box. Encouraged, the Fifth Order scheduled a number of fundraising events. The first was a showcase by Lester Horton’s dance troupe, one of whose members had been entrapped by police in early 1952. Jennings was also sent on a kind of lecture tour, appearing at public discussion groups and private gatherings to talk about his case. “I was called upon just about every night of the week,” he later said. “These gay guys [would] sidle up and say, ‘I feel for you. I think you’re just wonderful.’”
“I gave out autographs,” he added. “It was ridiculous.”
As his trial approached, Jennings’s misgivings about the whole endeavor returned in force. His newfound status as a civil rights leader made him more anxious than proud; it felt thrust upon him rather than chosen or earned. “I certainly didn’t feel heroic at all, in any way,” he recalled. “I felt sucked in by a system that was absolutely voracious. It ate me alive and picked the bones over.”
Jennings was afraid that he would be found guilty, and he hated feeling subsumed in the excitement about what the case meant. Also distressing was that many of his peers didn’t believe his story. They thought he’d invited the cop to his apartment and maybe even had sex with him before the badge came out. The truth about what transpired before the arrest didn’t matter to his supporters, so eager were they to have a champion of their rights. But Jennings wanted people to believe him; he couldn’t stand to be regarded as a liar. “To be innocent, and yet not be able to convince even your firm constituents,” he wrote in a 1953 essay, “carries a peculiar agony.”
The trial began on June 23, 1952. Settling into his seat, sweating through his Sunday best, Jennings feared that the judge and jury were already allied with his adversaries. The prosecution’s case had been argued successfully many times before, against many innocent gay men. A city attorney would pit the police’s false claim that Jennings had behaved lewdly against his description of entrapment. The attorney would then tar Jennings as a pervert, a degenerate, a sexual psychopath who had conspired to seduce an upstanding officer of the law. The members of the Mattachine Society who’d accompanied him provided little comfort; they could only observe in silence from the courtroom’s gallery.
When Shibley rose to make his opening argument, though, Jennings was reassured that the trial would follow a new script. The lawyer made no effort to deny Jennings’s homosexuality, no attempt to curry favor with the court by portraying him as a heterosexual family man. Instead, Shibley argued that “homosexuality and lasciviousness are not identical” and that “no fine line separates the variations of sexual inclinations.”
“The only true pervert in the courtroom,” Shibley declared, was the arresting officer.
With that pronouncement, Shibley shifted the court’s focus away from Jennings and toward the officers who’d detained him: partners James L. Martin and T.N. Porter. The two cops had recently been charged with assaulting a different prisoner; the following day, in fact, they would appear in another courtroom as defendants. According to the Los Angeles Times, Martin and Porter were alleged to have beaten a man named Ramón Castellanos, striking him “several times with fists and elbows, as well as a ‘dark object.’” Castellanos had sustained lacerations to his head and scalp, a black eye, a broken nose, and numerous bruises. Pressed to explain Castellanos’s injuries, Martin and Porter said he’d tripped over a large flower pot. The LAPD’s internal affairs division was unconvinced by the explanation and suspended the officers pending trial. The Castellanos case didn’t prove Jennings’s innocence, but the charges against Martin and Porter, and the specter of their suspension from the police force, worked in Shibley’s favor. In entrapment trials, police testimony was considered unimpeachable; Shibley shook that assumption on day one.
By the time he took the witness stand, Jennings felt emboldened by Shibley’s defense. Under oath he declared himself to be a homosexual. Before he could continue, the judge interrupted him. “We don’t use that word here,” he said, casting a withering glance at the defendant.
In a sense, the judge was correct. Men went to great lengths, often pleading guilty to lesser charges, to avoid the humiliation of their homosexuality being made public during a trial. On the few occasions when defendants pleaded innocent, they built cases on the assertion that they weren’t homosexuals and therefore couldn’t possibly have done what they were accused of. Not Jennings. “What you’re doing is silencing me,” he replied to the judge. “I’m here because I am an avowed homosexual, and I’m not ashamed of it.”
It was unprecedented for a gay man to speak so boldly before a court, in California or anywhere else in the United States. Shibley didn’t dwell on the symbolism of Jennings’s statement, however. He drilled down on inconsistencies in the police officers’ stories. According to LAPD policy, two cops had to be present at an arrest. Jennings had been detained by just one officer before being perp-walked to the squad car in Westlake Park. T.N. Porter, however, claimed otherwise when he took the stand. Shibley paused for dramatic effect before replying, “Well, that’s very interesting. Because in your deposition, you say exactly the opposite.”
Over the course of ten days, Shibley continued to punch holes in the cops’ credibility. That the officers were juggling the Jennings proceedings with the Castellanos trial made his job easier. It also made his pioneering defense of Jennings all the more profound. Shibley vouched repeatedly for the decency and innocence of his client, in contrast to the violent behavior of the police, and argued that Jennings’s sexual habits should have no bearing on his constitutional rights.
Shibley delivered the final blow in his closing statement, when he turned inward for inspiration. He invoked his experiences with prejudice: the neighbors who’d sneered at his interracial marriage, the people who’d called him a “Jew bastard.” Shibley knew what it was to experience oppression, alienation, and loneliness. Didn’t everyone, in some way? And didn’t everyone deserve respect? Certainly no one should be subjected to state-sponsored cruelty. When Shibley finished his emotional address to the jury, Hay saw “wet eyes in the courtroom.” As he later explained, “We had never heard a kind, good word said about us in public before in our lives.”
During their first round of deliberations, 11 jurors voted to acquit Jennings. Only one member, the foreman, called for a conviction. So the group deliberated for 40 hours, most of it spent laboring to convince the foreman of Jennings’s essential humanity and of the cops’ clear deceit. Finally, the jury returned to the courtroom without a verdict. The foreman hadn’t budged. The group was hung. “They asked to be dismissed,” Jennings later wrote, “when one of their number said he’d hold out for guilty ’til hell froze over.”
The prosecution could remount the case “in an orderly and a decent fashion,” the judge instructed, but the district attorney wasn’t interested. Though Martin and Porter were simultaneously acquitted in the Castellanos trial, a hearing of the LAPD’s internal Board of Rights found them guilty “of using undue force in making an arrest and making false reports to a superior officer.” Martin was suspended without pay for a month, and Porter for three months. They were public liabilities to the LAPD, and trotting them out for a second prosecution of Jennings might ignite a political scandal. “And so it was dropped,” Jennings said in 1998. “The cops copped out.”
Three months after his arrest, Jennings had won. So had the Mattachines. “Walking out of the courtroom free was a liberation that I’d never anticipated,” Jennings recalled. “I never thought this would happen.”
The media didn’t report Jennings’s acquittal, much less the Mattachine Society’s hand in it. Once again, the CCOE spread the word via flyers. “A great victory for the homosexual minority,” they proclaimed. Word quickly spread through gay communities beyond Southern California. The CCOE was bombarded with letters of support, some from homosexuals wondering how they could establish advocacy groups like the one that had supported Jennings.
And so chapters of the Mattachine Society began to appear in other cities. They spread south to San Diego and north to San Francisco, then east to Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. Gerry Brissette, a lab technician at the University of California at Berkeley, was inspired enough by the Jennings verdict to launch a Mattachine chapter. “They flock to us in hordes,” Brissette wrote in a letter to Chuck Rowland, “hungry, anxious, eager to do something, say something, get started.” As the group’s expanding membership infused it with professional and political expertise, the scope of the organization ballooned and branched. In Long Beach, factory workers established a group; in Laguna Beach, according to Rowland, membership comprised mostly “Junior Chamber of Commerce types.” Some clusters of Mattachines preferred to debate intellectual topics—the sociology of homosexuality, gay themes in literary fiction—while others set their sights on police entrapment in their own cities and towns. They compiled newspaper clippings on vice-squad arrests, gathered testimonials from victims, and labored to raise awareness of police tactics.
Within a year of the Jennings trial, historian John D’Emilio believes, the Mattachine Society counted close to 100 chapters, with about 2,000 participants total. Those numbers may be underestimated, given the group’s resistance to official rolls. Most of the new members didn’t share the communist ideology of the Fifth Order, but Hay was “delighted,” he later said, “with the fact that people were all practically pounding down our doors, wanting to get in.” Rowland echoed the sentiment: “We moved into a broad, sunlit upland filled with whole legions of eager gays.”
Jennings, however, was characteristically suspicious. He found that the shine of his legal triumph quickly faded. He was proud that so many people wanted to support the Mattachine Society, and that he’d played a key part in securing their attention. But he was also unsettled. “All of a sudden, we had houses overflowing with strange people that came uninvited,” he recalled. “I didn’t like it.” In retrospect, his skepticism may have been well founded.
In early 1953, the Los Angeles Daily Mirror published a story on the Mattachine Society, written by a reporter named Paul Coates. It was the first article in the evening paper’s history to use the term homosexual. It wasn’t a glowing profile of the organization’s expansion, however—it was an alleged exposé on the dangerous political power of gay men and women.
Coates fretted that homosexuals in Los Angeles made up a voting bloc of nearly 200,000 people. If empowered by lax policies and cultural tolerance, they might overthrow the very foundation of decent society. Coates’s sources for these claims were spurious, as were his accusations that members of the Mattachine Society were subversives. “If I belonged to that club,” Coates wrote, “I’d worry.”
The article’s fearmongering was an echo of what was happening nearly 3,000 miles east of Los Angeles on Capitol Hill. In January 1953, senator Joseph McCarthy began his second term in office. Deploying his investigative powers as the newly installed chairman of the Government Operations Committee, McCarthy was intent on rooting Communists out of U.S. government. If there was anything he disliked as much as a leftist, it was a homosexual, so he went after them, too. Anti-communism swept the country, reaching even the liberal enclave of Hollywood. As more and more people fell prey to accusations of ideological treason, homosexuals increasingly feared for their jobs, their reputations, and their lives.
The Daily Mirror article sent the Mattachine Society’s membership into a state of panic. Many new recruits demanded that the Fifth Order abandon its policy of secrecy, expunge Communist sympathizers, and reinvent itself as a more dignified organization. Members of the Laguna Beach branch even proposed that all Mattachines swear fealty to the United States. Rowland responded to the idea by writing in a letter that “come hell or high water, we will oppose all idea of a non-Communist statement by any group using the name Mattachine.” Concerns kept pouring in. “Many members of the meetings … feel that Mr. Coates asked legitimate questions,” wrote Marilyn Rieger, a participant in another Mattachine chapter. “Explanations are definitely in order…. [We need] complete faith in the people who set forth policies, principles, aims, and purposes.”
Hoping to soothe everyone’s worries, the founders invited more than 100 Mattachines to a weekend-long “democratic convention” in April 1953. The stated aim was a restructuring of the society; those gathered would draft a constitution, establish by-laws, and elect officers. In reality, the Fifth Order expected nothing less than two days of heated debate about communism, and that’s what it got. Participants left the weekend having resolved little, so a second gathering was scheduled for May. By that time, opposition to the Fifth Order was better organized and far more vocal. “We know we are the same, no different than anyone else,” Marilyn Rieger said in an address. “Our only difference is an unimportant one to the heterosexual society, unless we make it important.… [Our] homosexuality is irrelevant to our ideals, our principles, our hopes and aspirations.”
Rieger’s statements emphasizing sameness stood in diametric opposition to Hay’s vision of homosexuals as a distinct cultural minority. Indeed, they were more in line with Jennings’s views on sexual orientation. But Jennings, long an avowed leftist, couldn’t abide Rieger’s hard-line anti-communism. He feared it spelled the undoing of the Mattachine Society. “If the opposition had wanted to ruin us, that was the perfect way to do it,” Jennings said in 1998.
The members of the Fifth Order were outnumbered. Rieger’s words had struck a chord with Mattachines who wanted to reduce antagonism in their lives, to be welcomed into the fold of mainstream society rather than stake a claim on their own frontier. Though the founders and their supporters were able to narrowly defeat resolutions denouncing “subversive elements” and “infiltrat[ion] by communists,” they saw plainly that their time was up. “We all felt, especially Harry, that the organization and its growth was more important than any of the founding fathers,” said Jim Gruber. “We had to turn it over to other people.”
At the conclusion of the May convention, the Fifth Order announced that it would step down from leadership. “This,” Hay later said, “was not the golden brotherhood that I had looked forward to.” Another meeting in November 1953 marked the formal changing of the guard. Some founding members would remain with the society in informal capacities; others opted to end their involvement altogether.
For Jennings, the decision to depart wasn’t easy. On the one hand, he felt relief. He’d never liked Hay’s theatrics, as much as Hay had never liked his reluctance. “Like a Judas,” wrote Hay’s biographer, Stuart Timmons, “Jennings was continually in vocal opposition to anything that Hay favored.” The dissolution of the Fifth Order represented an opportunity for Jennings to continue activism on his own terms, which meant working as editor in chief of One magazine, a new gay-interest publication and one of the first of its kind in America. In 1953 and 1954, Jennings wrote the majority of the magazine’s content, often under pseudonyms. He did so to camouflage the small size of the staff; perhaps, too, he wanted to keep his name out of the limelight in a way that the Mattachines had made all but impossible.
Yet Jennings also found himself looking back on the society through rose-colored glasses. In a few short years, and despite internal turmoil, it had put homosexual organizing on the political map. At the November 1953 gathering, where Jennings accepted an award for his contributions to the Mattachine Society, he gave a lengthy speech that doubled as a farewell. “This is most decidedly not just another meal,” he said. “Nor are we here to applaud society at large for loosening a jot more of its infinite prejudice. Or the law for a smattering more of acquittals and dismissals. Or religion for rattling a few less teeth on its bone necklace.
“In today’s absence of tomorrow’s laurels, let us immodestly crown ourselves,” Jennings continued. “And how realistic—how crystal clear-eyed we are to do so. For we are most surely making history.… Our only mistakes occur when we forget that fact.”
Before ending the speech, Jennings breathed deeply and looked at the sea of faces before him. “Let’s applaud ourselves,” he said. And the room did, everyone rising to their feet in a standing ovation. Those gathered behooved Jennings to join them—to clap, for just a moment, for himself.
The Mattachine Society existed for several years after its founders walked away, but in a state of steady decline. Its revolutionary verve dwindled, and so did its membership. When the Stonewall riots happened in 1969, the last vestiges of the group, including its concern for tradition and assimilation, were swept off the agenda in favor of a more radical LGBTQ-rights movement—one in line with what the Mattachines had had in mind when they first gathered in Hay’s Silver Lake home.
The members of the Fifth Order lived to see gains (anti-discrimination legislation) and tragedies (the HIV/AIDS epidemic) befall gay Americans. Their own lives took dramatic turns. Hay was summoned to Capitol Hill in 1955 and asked, “Are you a communist?” He was no longer formally involved with the party, so he was able to say no, saving himself from further poking, prodding, and humiliation by McCarthyites. Hay went on to found a spiritual movement called the Radical Faeries, which urged gays and lesbians to resist “hetero-imitation” and develop distinct identities. He developed a reputation as an elder statesman of the gay rights movement, lending his name to various causes and providing invaluable perspective on the plight of homosexuals in the postwar period. Hay passed away in 2002 at the age of 90.
Jennings’s life recentered on his first love: writing. He left One magazine after a few years and began focusing again on film and fiction. He published a novel in 1968 and sold a movie treatment to Warner Brothers in 1970, which ultimately became The Cowboys, starring John Wayne. In the 1980s, Jennings lost much of his money in a lawsuit filed by a former lover. To make ends meet, he came aboard as a staff member at the Homosexual Information Center, a nonprofit research and archival outfit dedicated to compiling and sharing information about LGBTQ history. As Jennings’s health suffered under the weight of dementia and alcoholism, he bequeathed his papers to the HIC. He didn’t grant any interviews until Eric Slade approached him for the documentary about the Mattachines. “For a bunch of faggots,” Jennings told Slade, “we were very courageous to start at that particular time, when a false word or gesture, or some character thinking you were queer, could get you beaten up.”
Jennings died in 2000; he was 82. His New York Times obituary described him as “a novelist, playwright, and pioneer of the American gay rights movement.” It didn’t mention his ambivalence about his heroics. Perhaps that’s what the deeply private Jennings would have wanted. Slade, though, had pressed him on the matter, questioning his assertion that he wouldn’t relive his experience in court.
“Why did you decide to do it?” Slade asked.
“I didn’t have a choice,” Jennings replied.
“Well, you could have pled guilty,” Slade pointed out.
Jennings sat quietly for a moment, slumping away from the camera, deep in thought. “Oh, I suppose…,” he ruminated. Then he straightened up and shook his head vigorously.
“No,” he said. “I couldn’t.”