Past & Present: Gay Liberation Began Before Stonewall

Jun 25, 2019


This month, we recognize the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. For many Americans, Stonewall is the beginning of the gay liberation and civil rights movements. But like many movements, the visible moments often rest on a foundation of small, but significant, social, political, and legal challenges.

One of the first successful challenges came in the 1958 One Inc. v. Olesen U.S. Supreme Court decision. One was a magazine of the Mattachine Society, one of the first homosexual societies in the United States. Publishing One was important because it made it easier for the Los Angeles-based society to reach gay men and help found branches throughout the country. However, the FBI and Post Office Department declared a 1954 issue of One, “obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy” and unfit to be sent through the mail. The federal government objected to a short story, a poem, and an advertisement for featuring positive portrayals of gay men and lesbians. The suit failed to convince the judges at the district and appellate court levels that “homosexuals should be recognized as a segment of our people.” Without even hearing oral arguments, the US Supreme Court delivered a single-sentence bench statement that reversed these decisions and established new precedent upholding constitutional protections for pro-homosexual writing. It also recognized, for the first time, that gay people as gay people had civil rights.

With this decision, the Court provided invaluable space for gay men and women to find each other and to discuss and circulate positive ideas on homosexuality. Along with the vibrant social scenes developing at bars and dance halls, this case quietly, but profoundly, served as part of the foundation of the 1969 Stonewall Riots.