“If you are arrested… ‘The Pocket Lawyer’” pamphlet
Actor: “IF YOU ARE ARRESTED… This booklet gives information which is vital for your protection!”
Anna Deavere Smith: With these stark words, the pamphlet before you announces its purpose.
In the mid-1960s, this pamphlet was widely distributed by the Mattachine Society of New York. Named for a medieval troupe of masked performers, the Mattachine Society was one of the first gay advocacy groups in the US—founded nearly two decades before the Stonewall Riots galvanized the gay liberation movement in 1969.
The offense referred to in this pamphlet was the crime of being gay. Homosexuality was actually illegal in New York State until 1980—punishable by up to three months in prison. Bars were officially forbidden to serve openly gay clientele, and police regularly engaged in the practice of entrapment—going undercover in gay hangouts and arresting men who flirted with them. This pamphlet, called “The Pocket Lawyer,” gave gay men step-by-step instructions about what to do if arrested, to minimize potential damage to their lives and reputations.
Today, it’s part of the library’s vast archival holdings documenting American lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer histories, as well as the ongoing struggle for LGBTQ rights.
The work of the Mattachine Society—including acts of civil disobedience inspired by the Civil Rights Movement—helped end the practice of entrapment in New York in 1966. Still, homosexuality remained illegal throughout most of the country. It wasn’t until 2003 that the US Supreme Court ruled that state laws banning homosexuality were unconstitutional.
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