'Equal' docuseries on HBO: Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, what happened to first gay rights groups?
Every year, as the history of the LGBTQ+ movement is remembered, the Stonewall Riots are often at the top of the lists -- the 1969 demonstrations saw different queer groups in America come together for the first time to fight against oppression and for equal rights for their communities. Often, the movements and groups that came before those riots are not remembered, but HBO Max's latest docuseries, 'Equal', brings to the forefront the stories of the forgotten heroes of the LGBTQ+ movement in the United States.
In the first episode, we learn about the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Besides the fact that they had cool names in common, the groups were two of the first queer rights groups in the country, with the former being for gay rights and the latter for lesbian rights. At a time when being queer was seen as being sick or perversion, these groups advocated for gay men and lesbians to be seen as other human beings and to be proud of their own sexualities.
The Mattachine Society was found by Harry Hay in 1950 and the group coined the term, “homophile,” which was considered less clinical and focused on sexual activity than “homosexual.” The Mattachine Society sought to improve the lives of gay men through discussion groups and related activities and expanded after founding member Dale Jennings was arrested in 1952 for solicitation and then later set free due to a deadlocked jury.
The original founders of the Mattachine Society were ousted at the November 1953 convention, when the new leadership presented a later-tabled resolution to form a "committee for investigating of communist infiltration." After the Stonewall Riots, they began increasingly to be seen as too traditional, and not willing enough to be confrontational. A new generation of activists felt that the gay rights movement needed to endorse a larger and more radical agenda to address other forms of oppression, the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution. Several unaffiliated entities that went under the name Mattachine eventually lost support or fell prey to internal division.
Around 1957, the National Mattachine Society moved their headquarters from Los Angeles to San Francisco. By 1961 Mattachine affiliates became fully independent as the National Organization disbanded. The now unaffiliated San Francisco Mattachine chapter went on until 1967.
In 1955, four lesbian couples in San Francisco founded an organization called the Daughters of Bilitis, which soon began publishing a newsletter called The Ladder, the first lesbian publication of any kind. Most of the founders' names remain confidential, but it is known that the founding group was quite diverse: the couples included a Chicana and a Filipina and included four blue-collar and four white-collar women. The name comes from 'Songs of Bilitis', a lesbian love poem published in 1894.
The Daughters of Bilitis faced enormous odds, and they were subject to not just the surveillance of local police, but also the CIA and FBI. Despite their best efforts, the members of the Daughters of Bilitis could not come to an agreement on whether to be involved in politics or even which organizations to endorse. As tension in the organization continued to intensify the Daughters of Bilitis finally disbanded in 1970.
'Equal' is available to stream on HBO Max from October 22.