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  • From Subversion to Obscenity:The FBI's Investigations of the Early Homophile Movement in the United States, 1953-1958
  • Douglas M. Charles (bio)

For over twenty years historians who have examined the history of the homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s have focused primarily on the origins, development, and evolution of the Mattachine Society and, to a lesser extent, the group known as ONE, Inc. (hereafter ONE, always written in capital letters), to explain the nature of the broader movement. More specifically, there have appeared two conflicting interpretations about the Mattachine. The first, originating with John D'Emilio in his pioneering and influential book Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities (1983), posited that after Mattachine gained negative publicity at the height of McCarthyism and the introduction to public scrutiny, conservative members of the group seized control in 1953 and forced it to abandon its radical origins and "retreat to respectability." Meanwhile, ONE "strove to keep alive the militant spirit of the society's early years."1 Because D'Emilio's book was the first of its kind, this interpretation largely became the accepted view among most historians. The second interpretation, developed by historian Martin Meeker, has moved away from the radical versus conservative labels to regard Mattachine's change in 1953 not as a retreat but as a "deliberate and ultimately successful strategy to deflect the antagonisms of its many detractors." This strategy thereby permitted the organization to move forward with its homophile efforts.2 [End Page 262]

An examination of the inquiries that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted into the Mattachine Society and ONE not only illustrates the little-explored means and lengths to which FBI agents went in investigating homosexuals but also suggests that both groups, irrespective of their so-called respectable or radical essences, were successful in their advocacy work despite intensive FBI interest.3 Moreover, the FBI's investigation consisted of two separate phases. When FBI agents first learned of Mattachine and ONE in 1953, they investigated the groups to ascertain whether they were Communist led or had been infiltrated by "subversives." FBI agents failed to substantiate the charge despite the fact that Mattachine was, indeed, founded by former Communists—a fact that seemed to have gone unnoticed and one that raises questions about the competence and motivations of FBI personnel. Three years later, FBI agents again targeted both groups—and realized at this point that they were not one and the same—but only after ONE had publicly criticized the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover. This time around, however, FBI agents focused on issues not of subversion but of obscenity to silence both groups, which, by this point, were concurrently publishing homophile magazines.

Interestingly, FBI officials' failure to silence either Mattachine or ONE was twofold. First, Mattachine's philosophical shift clearly did mitigate some FBI concerns. Far more significant and revealing than the public shift to respectability, however, was the secret intercession of multiple FBI informants, most of whom were homosexual and affiliated with Mattachine, which convinced FBI officials that Mattachine was not dangerous. Second, when ONE was confronted with the charge that its magazine was obscene and could not therefore be sent in the U.S. mail, it mounted an ultimately successful legal case between 1954 and 1958. By winning its case before the U.S. Supreme Court, ONE not only paved the way for all subsequent gay and lesbian groups to publish and disseminate information but also undercut (if unwittingly on its part) the FBI's strategy for silencing the homophile movement by prosecuting it as a purveyor of smut. Interestingly, then, we are left with two separate homophile groups that successfully withstood intensive FBI scrutiny, albeit in very different ways. The successes of both groups enabled the later development of the Gay Liberation Movement, even while FBI agents continued their obsessive interest in their activities.

In many ways the Second World War gave rise to the American homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s. The mass mobilization of [End Page 263] millions of young men and women from across the country who then found themselves in intimate, same-sex environments led those who were homosexual to realize they were...


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pp. 262-287
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