Getty Images

Before Stonewall

The first major LGBTQ civil rights fight in America was led by a group that said, for the very first time: Gay is good

Four years before the seminal Stonewall riots that unofficially launched the LGBTQ rights movement, another protest for the rights of sexual minorities took place. But these protesters weren't at a bar. They were at the White House, dressed in business attire and carrying signs reading "homosexuals are American citizens, too" and "homosexual citizens want equal treatment as human beings." On April 17, 1965, members of the Mattachine Societies of New York and Washington, two of the first gay rights groups ever formed in the United States, stood on the grounds of the Capitol and gave millions of Americans their first glimpse of openly gay people — something they may have never seen before.

The Mattachine Society, named for a group of unmarried French men in medieval times who wore masks and criticized the ruling elite, offered gay men (and some women) living in the 1950s and 1960s a community for the first time. It gave members a means of ending the overwhelming isolation that many gays and lesbians felt at a time when "coming out" wasn't a viable option. According to Martin D. Meeker, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Contacts Desired: Gay and Lesbian Communications and Community, 1940s–1970s, the society functioned as a kind of social services agency, helping lesbians and gays find jobs where their sexual orientations couldn't get them fired and attorneys and doctors who could help them keep their lives intact.

The society also offered its members political visibility. Their goals were small by today's standards: to bring an end to the mass firings of LGBTQ people from federal jobs, halt police raids on places frequented by gay people, and stop America's medical establishment from attempting to "cure" gays and lesbians through aversion therapy and drugs (homosexuality was listed as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973). Widespread acceptance of LGBTQ people in popular culture (or anywhere else) was almost unthinkable at the time.

And yet members of the society encountered some of the same questions that LGBTQ Americans are still pondering today. Is being gay an inherently political identity? Is the goal of LGBTQ liberation to normalize or celebrate? And what does it mean to be a gay American in the first place?

Getty Images

The Mattachine Society encountered those questions almost immediately upon its founding in 1950. Originally formed by Harry Hay, a noted figure in California Communist politics, and other former Communists living in Los Angeles, the group worked to give lesbians and gay men spaces to converse about their experiences in "discussion groups" held across the state. The group produced a magazine, ONE, the first pro-gay publication ever published in America. The U.S. Postal Service refused to deliver copies, calling it obscene, but the Mattachine Society went to court and won, in the very first Supreme Court ruling that made it clear that the First Amendment applies to gay people too.

The group also had a political agenda, sending questionnaires to candidates running for office asking them about their views on homosexual rights. Unfortunately, it did so during a time of rampant anti-Communist sentiment known as the Red Scare, and was immediately under threat from the federal government because of its "subversive" views and associations with Hay's Marxist beliefs. The attention the society received for its efforts, therefore, wasn't necessarily welcome. In March 1953, a newspaper columnist published an article naming the group's attorney as an "unfriendly witness" when he appeared before the anti-Communist House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Los Angeles. The report called the Mattachine Society a "strange new pressure group," and linked gay and lesbian Americans with Communism. Members were understandably terrified. In the eyes of the federal government, being gay was already grounds for being fired, because homosexuals could be easily blackmailed by spies to cover up their "perversion." Overtly linking them with Communism put everyone involved in even more danger.

Yet despite this perception, many members of the society weren't Communists, or even particularly political. They simply wanted the freedom to be themselves, and viewed being gay as just another personal characteristic like height or hair color. As Meeker told MTV News, many members "[looked] forward to a time in which homosexuality would be viewed as a natural variation in human sexuality, nothing more, nothing less." Those members were therefore largely disinterested in making political statements that might make them even more of a target.

This divide ultimately splintered the Mattachine Society, and the more conservative members won control as new branches formed in New York City and Washington, D.C. While the organization's founders viewed homosexuality as an almost separate (and perhaps superior) means of being that could influence and improve society, later leaders of the society emphasized that gay men and lesbians were everyday Americans just like everyone else — teachers, lawyers, and bankers. In the early 1960s they worked with politicians, attorneys, and journalists to change opinions about homosexuality by introducing them to the then-radical concept that gay men and lesbians could be happy and productive members of society.

But the society's goal of normalizing its culture meant that people who couldn't "fit in" — or simply didn't want to — weren't always included in the group's goals. People outside the gender binary, like masculine women and feminine men — not to mention transgender people — were largely left to their own devices. This break is still evident in the LGBTQ community today, as members of the community continue to contend with issues of identity and belonging. "It’s an ongoing struggle within the movement,” David Johnson, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, told MTV News, “a fight between those who, for example, feel that queer people are different and should be able to construct their own sorts of relationships and those more assimilationist folks who just want equal access to straight institutions, like marriage."

At a time when homosexuality was categorized as a medical problem and gay people were forced into silence by their families, communities, and even the federal government, the groundbreaking Mattachine Society and its offshoots stood up and spoke out on behalf of millions of lesbians and gay men. "They provided many activists with their first taste of non-homophobic information about homosexuality," Meeker said, "[and] they introduced people to a world in which homosexuality need not be seen as a defect but just yet another natural element of humanity." While a series of limiting decisions ultimately ended the group, other, often far more radical and separatist groups were launched in the 1970s whose work is still relevant today. And even in 2017, LGBTQ Americans are still debating about what the ultimate goal of full liberation should be: to change American society as a whole, or to be treated just like everyone else. The Mattachine Society launched a conversation — and we're all still having it.