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social sciences

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Homophile Movement, U. S.  
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The phrase " movement" refers to organizations and political strategies employed by homosexuals prior to the era of confrontational activism of the late 1960s. The term broadly encompasses the period from the end of World War II to 1970 and denotes, in particular, those who endeavored to advance the cause of equal rights through conformance with the heterosexual norms prevalent at the time.

However, there is much overlap between the two phases; some activists in homophile associations were advocating assertive social change tactics well before the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and the term homophile continued in use well into the 1970s during the era of the Gay Rights Movement.

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The homophile movement's philosophical seeds germinated toward the end of the nineteenth century in Europe, particularly through the writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany and Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis in England, whose arguments for the decriminalization of homosexuality anticipated later thinking.

Hirschfeld founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, the world's first organization devoted to the promotion of homosexual rights, in 1897. His Institute for Sexual Science, a repository for gay-positive research that he founded in 1919, was destroyed by the Nazis prior to World War II.

In 1924, a postal clerk named Henry Gerber founded the Society for Human Rights in Chicago, the first American homophile organization. Gerber had encountered Hirschfeld's ideas during his military duty in Germany. Back home he attempted to promote them through a newsletter, "Friendship and Freedom." This effort was short-lived. In 1925 Gerber and his associates were arrested, his materials seized, and his postal career terminated.

Early European homophile organizations such as COC (Netherlands) and Forbundet (Denmark) resurfaced soon after the end of World War II. By the 1950s, demographic, cultural, and political developments had converged in a way that enabled the first effective steps toward community organizing among homosexuals in the United States.

The war had relocated thousands of young adult men and women to urban debarkation and industrial centers, where many of them stayed after the war. In these areas, they enjoyed a new-found personal freedom, and those who were gay or lesbian discovered enclaves of kindred spirits.

Alfred Kinsey's studies, published in 1948 and 1953, documented the profound liberalization in sexual mores underway, both driving and driven by publishers' and filmmakers' eagerness to satisfy consumer demand. Kinsey's estimate of 20 million men and women in the U.S. who had extensive same-sex sexual experience revealed that homosexuality was much more common than previously assumed.

Finally, the African-American civil rights movement and, later, the anti-war and women's liberation movements, by celebrating difference as a positive attribute, broke the stigma of nonconformance and inspired emulation by other disenfranchised groups.

The Kinsey reports exposed a great difference between the actual sexual practices of Americans and their professed beliefs about sexuality. This discrepancy was highlighted by the growth of political extremism in the United States that cast homosexuals as the chief scapegoats of the Cold War.

For gay men and lesbians, the 1950s was a time of police harassment, witch hunts, suspicions of disloyalty, and dismissals from jobs, especially in the public sector. In the United States and Great Britain, throughout the 1950s, thousands of individuals were arrested and imprisoned on homosexual charges.

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Top: Barbara Gittings marching in the Independence Day picket in Philadelphia in 1969. Photograph by Nancy Tucker, courtesy Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Above: Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay attending a Radical Faeries Campout in Southern California's Anza Borrego Desert in 1996.
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