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Leaders Passing Into History

08/28/2008
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I received an email early this morning announcing the passing of one of the earliest leaders of lesbian rights in the nation.

“The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force mourns the death of Del Martin, 87, who died today (August 27th, 2008) in San Francisco, California. Martin married Phyliis Lyon, her partner of 55 years, on June 16, 2008. In 1955, the couple joined six other lesbians in founding the Daughters of Bilitis in San Francisco, the first lesbian rights organization in the nation.”

I might add that it was in 1998 and 2004 that the NGLTF honored both Martin and Lyon for their decades of community service.

In reading this morning’s email, I got thinking about those early “Gay” leaders and activist, their struggle, obstacles and accomplishments in the face of physical and personal danger. Those early leaders easily get lost in the past and are forgotten when the “Stonewall Riots” are mentioned and forgotten in the course of time as conditions become more acceptable for the younger LGBT member.

In December of 2007, the “Gay” community lost 81 year old Kennith Burns, an early leader of the Mattachine Society, one of the country’s first gay rights organization.

Burns was a founding member of the “Society” which was founded in Los Angeles in 1950 by Harry Hay and others but when in 1953 and McCarthyism was strengthening its grip on the nation, Hay and other Mattachine leaders were ousted and Burns assumed a prominent role.

In the early 1960s when New York was controlled by the Wagner administration, and was beset with harassment against the “Gay” community, several voices were heard.

Frank Kameny, founder of the Mattachine Washington in 1961 advocated militant action reminiscent of the black civil rights campaign and in 1965 Dick Leitsch, president of the New York Mattachine Society, advocated direct action, and the group staged the first public homosexual demonstrations with picket lines in the 1960s.

By late 1967, a New York group called the Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN), founded by Craig Rodwell (d1993), was already espousing the slogans “Gay Power” and “Gay is Good” in its publication HYMNAL.

Other names that figured prominently in the early “Gay” movement before June 1969 and Stonewall were, Leo Laurence, the editor of the Vector, magazine of the United States’ largest homophile organization, the Society for Individual Rights; Gale Whittington; Carl Wittman, writer of Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto; GLF activist Martha Shelley; Robert Amsel and Mark Segal, “dean of American gay journalism.”

These are just a few of the early leaders that are known and were “out front” trying to “make a difference” for those who would follow. Sometimes the events of history over shadow those who were the driving force of the historical moment in time.

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