Eastern Conference of Homophile Organizations, 1964
Given the dramatic remapping of marriage equality this past week, it is useful to look back to a very different kind of map of LGBT rights drafted 50 years ago from the archives of the pioneering gay rights group the Mattachine Society of New York, whose records are held in the Library’s Manuscripts & Archives Division. The document details the penalties for “sex offenses” state by state in 1964, with “sodomy” carrying a range of penalties from 3 months in jail in New York to possible life in imprisonment in Nevada (which recently began issuing licenses for same sex marriages). Sodomy laws in the United States were only finally struck down at a national level in 2003 following the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, after decades of political activism by LGBT communities.
This document, which was probably drafted for discussion at the Eastern Conference of Homophile Organizations (ECHO) held in Washington, D.C. in 1964, is amazing not just for the range and severity of penalties it documented, but also for its eloquence in pointing out how those issues affected society as whole. These gay rights pioneers documented not only legal penalties for homosexuality, but also premarital sex, adultery, and cohabitation—issues of privacy and consent that affected everyone. The ECHO confrences brought together Mattachine chapters with other emerging LGBT rights groups, including the Daughters of Bilitis, which was the comparable lesbian organization, and the Janus Society, which was based in Philadelphia. Although Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis era activists are sometimes depicted as socially conservative (if only for their fashion sense…), they questioned laws and social mores paving the way for later activists of gay liberation and lesbian feminism.
To read further on the arc of LGBT civil rights struggles in the U.S. check out:
Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney. Out for Good: the Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America.
David Eisenbach. Gay Power: an American Revolution.
Linda Hirshman. Victory: the Triumphant Gay Revolution.
Or the Library’s 1969: The Year of Gay Liberation exhibition online.