Pre-Gay LA: A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights, by C. Todd White, University of Illinois, 280 pages, paper, $25, cloth $75
If there seems to be one constant in the movement for LGBT rights, it is that we tend to suffer growing pains at regular intervals, evidenced by fights within organizations and between leaders. This has happened throughout Chicago's movement, and also nationally. Even within the modern movement for same-sex marriage rights, there are battles over strategy, money and power.
But if you were a part of the early days of the U.S. movement for homosexual rights, you probably didn't understand how natural these acts of cannibalism are to many groups as they crawl from the primordial soup and begin to walk proud and upright. That probably made those struggles even more emotionally difficult to survive.
The early days of the Los Angeles homosexual movement were no different. Those activists witnessed some of the most brutal battles from within, and at the same time they were facing some of our most difficult enemies from the outside. C. Todd White, in his new book Pre-Gay LA: A Social History of the Movement for Homosexual Rights ( University of Illinois, 280 pages, paper, $25, cloth $75 ) uses a finely tuned microscope to focus in depth on the early years of Los Angeles activism, well before the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, and before "gay" became the moniker of choice.
There are many ways to document a community's history. One is to take a broad stroke look back, as I did with the book I edited and co-wrote last year, Out and Proud in Chicago: An Overview of Chicago's Gay Movement. In that book, we took a written and visual snapshot of hundreds of events and people who shaped the Chicago movement. Almost any one of the articles in that book could have been expanded into its own book, looking intensely at how that topic shaped the community.
Another other way to look at history is to take one group and navigate all of its blemishes and successes from as many angles as the documents and survivors allow for. This is the role of Pre-Gay LA, an exhaustively researched book about the sometimes-painful fits and starts of LA's homosexual/homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
White ably takes us from the founding of Mattachine, the first long-lasting U.S. homosexual rights group ( as opposed to the short-lived one founded in Illinois by Henry Gerber in the 1920s ) , through the launch of ONE magazine, the ONE Institute, the Homosexual Information Center, Tangents, the Institute for the Study of Human Resources, and the convoluted ( and hard to keep track of ) distortions, divisions and mergers behind these LA groups, some which survive to this day.
The saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it is quite useful in reading this book. Anyone part of a current LGBT group would do well to read Pre-Gay LA for valuable lessons learned. While it will not prevent schisms in our movement, it does put them in perspective. The key players fought each other both in the court of public opinion and actual courts for decades, potentially damaging themselves and the movement. It's unclear what lasting damage the battles may have done, and White sees many successes despite the rivalries, but likely many people left the movement in the 1960s because they could not stand the constant fighting. That certainly happens to this day in Chicago: only the strong can survive the pettiness and vindictiveness readily apparent today.
What White gives us is a very valuable lesson indeed. For even after many of these early pioneers battled, they eventually came to some kind of reconciliation. If not fully satisfied, they at least managed some compromise. But many also sacrificed greatly for the movement ( emotionally, physically and financially ) , in some cases for more than 40 years, and are now almost unacknowledged in the 2000s. That is perhaps the most important service White provides with his book: making sure the legacies of these early leaders are not forgotten, for all their strengths and weaknesses.
Even a book as detailed and comprehensive as Pre-Gay LA also opens the door to more questions. I would have loved to have photos to accompany the names and groups, because it was difficult to keep track of everything in such detail, and also because many of them used pseudonyms ( and sometimes more than one ) . Thankfully, there are handy mini-bios of key players and a chart of pseudonyms in the back. Similar to how my book has www.ChicagoGayHistory.org to help complement the limits of any history book, White said many images will be posted on a companion Web site, http://www.outhistory.org/wiki/The_Pre-Gay_Era_in_the_USA.
I also hope researchers are inspired to do in-depth stories about some of the interesting characters White writes about, including female-to-male transsexual Reed Erickson, who helped fund the 1960s movement but who later participated in a lawsuit against the group he funded. Some of the people in the book have been written about in other books, both biographical and autobiographical, but there are probably even more stories to tell. It was a fortunate stroke of timing that White started his connection to this project before some of the primary people died; several did while he was doing his research.
White, an assistant professor of anthropology at James Madison Unversity, has taken a very important closer look at the origins of our U.S. movement. As he describes it, it is part ethnography and part social history, but it is also very accessible to non-academic readers who want to learn more about their own history, one that is mostly still overlooked in our educational system.
My reviewer's copy of Pre-Gay LA has practically every page turned over with an interesting fact or sage advice from our elders. One quote from Joseph Hanson is especially eloquent: "There have been many, many, many events that have taken us to where we are today. I think pebbles more than boulders have built this mountain, on top of which we stand."
C. Todd White will speak about Pre-Gay LA at the annual Chicago Printer's Row Lit Fest, Sat., June 6, noon, at the Books and Media Stage, University Center, Lake Room, 525 S. State Street. Joining him will be Karen Graves, and they will be in conversation with Brian Bouldrey.