Off the Shelf #7: In the Olden Days: Gay Marriage and the Homophile Movement

Off the Shelf #7 In Olden Days: Gay Marriage and the Homophile Movement

by Rob Ridinger

Now that same- sex marriage has been legalized in the United States, its visibility as an institution will draw more attention from researchers, who may range from academics to newly- partnered couples planning a joining ceremony to the general reading public wishing to get a sense of how this issue has been regarded at various times by the LGBT movement. Looking back some fifty years, its history is one of both legal complexity, social oppression, and the direct demands of the human heart.

The Homophile Era

During the pre-Stonewall period of homosexual activism in North America, each of the three major organizations, the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, and ONE, Inc., dealt with the question of the recognition of same-sex relationships in different ways. A lengthy discussion of homosexual marriage occurred in a group of articles published in ONE Magazine between 1959 and 1963. Two examples will show the range of opinions on what was then referred to as “homophile marriage” and its place (to the extent that it was present at all) within the visions for improving the social and legal conditions of homosexuals in American culture. In December 1959, ONE magazine published an article by Jim Egan entitled “Homophile Marriage: Fact or Fancy?” which presents a clear picture of how long-term couples were regarded by the more publicly visible portion of the homosexual community. Egan, who had been in a relationship for 11 years, emphatically states that such marriages are a fact- in some cases an enduring bond which has lasted for decades. He noted the need for self-acceptance and a willingness to work at the marriage as among the prerequisites for success, and notes that, as regards the awareness of researchers on homosexuality of long-term couples, “their existence is a phenomena rarely suspected and never studied” (Egan, p.9).

ONE magazineFour years later, Randy Lloyd penned an article for the June 1963 issue of ONE Magazine, with the firmly stated title “Let’s Push Homophile Marriage.” After slamming a March 1963 article in the widely-circulated periodical Harper’s on “New York’s Middle-Class Homosexuals,” Lloyd looks at the idea of homophile marriage and how it could be fitted into the tradition of advocating for homosexual rights. Noting nineteenth-century British sexologist Edward Carpenter as the “first to intellectually push homophile marriage” (Lloyd, p.6), he then offered a list of successful tactics to be used by homosexuals who were seriously interested in finding a life partner, with the wry title “How To Succeed In Getting Married By Trying.” In light of subsequent history, his view that “it seems to me that when society finally accepts homophiles as a valid minority with minority rights, it is going first of all to accept that married homosexuals. We are, after all, the closest to their ideals” (Lloyd, p.9) can be seen as logical if wishful thinking, but he ends his piece by stating that it was “high time the modern homophile movement started paying more attention to homophile marriage” (Lloyd, p. 10).

These debates within the movement also sometimes found their way into literature written on homosexuals for the general public. In 1962, psychologist Robert Masters wrote The homosexual revolution; a challenging exposé of the social and political directions of a minority group which he describes in the preface to the 1964 paperback edition as“intended mainly as a journalistic report on the homophile movement and aspects of homosexual life in America” (Masters 1964, p.xi). Among its coverage of the homophile movement and its history (with frequent citations of primary sources such as The Mattachine Review, ONE and The Ladder) and a lengthy analysis of the proposal by ONE, Inc. at its Midwinter Institute in 1961 to draft a “Homosexual Bill of Rights” is a chapter entitled “What Do The Homosexuals Want?” It opens with a set of nine stated “wants” of the homosexual community, two of which (numbers three and six) are of special interest in tracking the idea of same-sex marriage across time. They read as follows:

3.) Marriages between homosexual members of the same sex should be recognized and Masters Homosexual Revolutionprovided for by and should have exactly the same status and confer the same benefits and responsibilities as heterosexual marriages. …

6.) Homosexual love and marriage should be fully recognized by the churches, and the invert should be religiously accepted subject only to the same criteria applied to heterosexuals or anyone else (Masters, p.116-117).

Despite this seemingly encouraging start, Masters’ then moves to look at each of the demands and assess them in light of the culture of America in the early 1960s. His commentary on the idea of legal recognition for marriage between two people of the same gender is both stinging and depressing, and conveys the prevalence of oppression of and prejudice towards homosexuals prevalent in the years immediately before Stonewall:

Probably most inverts recognized that the notion of legalized as well as religiously sanctioned homosexual marriage belongs to the utopian compartment of the homophile movement…The idea is an old one, many times dismissed as impractical and probably undesirable, but it continues to be rediscovered and to find its adherents among both male and female inverts….That invert marriages might make homosexuality more palatable to society generally.. is an idea expressed in other homosexual writings It is just one more example- as if another were needed-of the inability of homophile spokesmen to understand the attitudes of heterosexuals towards homosexuals….the homosexual has an almost constitutional incapacity to comprehend that this notion is more grotesque- and repugnant t I the majority of heterosexuals than is the idea of homosexual promiscuity…that is at least partly the case because homosexual marriages must seem, to the heterosexual, to be cynical travesties on marriage… (Masters 1964, p.129-130)

In 1968, the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, meeting in Chicago, adopted a five-point “Homosexual Bill of Rights,” which is reproduced in full in the Wikipedia entry on the Conference, as follows:

Private consensual sex between persons over the age of consent shall not be an offense.

Solicitation for any sexual acts shall not be an offense except upon the filing of a complaint by the aggrieved party, not a police officer or agent.

A person’s sexual orientation or practice shall not be a factor in the granting or renewing of federal security clearances or visas, or in the granting of citizenship.

Service in and discharge from the Armed Forces and eligibility for veteran’s benefits shall be without reference to homosexuality.

A person’s sexual orientation or practice shall not affect his eligibility for employment with federal, state, or local governments, or private employers.

Centered upon the issues of employment discrimination, veteran’s benefits, and the decriminalization of consensual same-sex relationships, the Bill makes no mention of legal recognition for long-term gay couples. The Bill was opposed by the Daughters of Bilitis, who felt that their issues were not being included. The possible impact of the Bill for the homosexual community as a whole was rendered moot by the Stonewall Riots of June 1969, which shifted activism away from the homophile philosophy of change through education to one of confrontation and public debate on discrimination against homosexuals of both genders.

During the first decade after Stonewall, the idea of gay marriage was retained among the wish lists of the gay liberation movement as it passed through various evolutionary stages and changed its philosophies and theoretical positions on what liberation meant. Much of the early activism was targeted at then-extant specific forms of discrimination in fields as varied as employment, housing, professional licensing, and similar entrenched practices that could be opposed by demonstrations and legal action as required. But the dream of having their relationships legally recognized would survive in the heart and minds of LGBT people for decades to come.


Egan, Jim. “ Homosexual Marriage: Fact or Fancy ? .” ONE Magazine, v.7, n.12, December 1959: 6-9.

Lloyd, Randy.” Let’s Push Homophile Marriage.” ONE Magazine, v.11, n.6, June 1963: 5-10.

Masters , Robert E. The homosexual revolution; a challenging exposé of the social and political directions of a minority group. New York, Julian Press, 1962.

North American Conference of Homophile Organizations

Copyright R. Ridinger 2015


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