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The Documents of History: Mattachine Society of New York’s Archival Papers of 1951-1976 at the New York Public Library

As Village Preservation prepares to unveil a plaque commemorating the “Sip-In” at Julius’ Bar on April 21, 1966, one might wonder about the Mattachine Society of New York, which organized this historic event as part of their broader participation in the 1945-1969 Homophile Movement in New York City and beyond. We know the leaders of the Sip-In’s names: Dick Leitsch, Craig Rodwell, John Timmons, and Randy Wicker. We know that the Sip-In was inspired by the sit-ins and civil disobedience measures practiced by the black Civil Rights movement in the Southeast United States. How do we learn more about the organization that led this fight and helped kickstart a movement that has gone global?

A modern picture of Julius’ Bar next to the historic photo of the 1966 “Sip-In” taken by Fred W. McDarrah, used by permission of the Estate of Fred W. McDarrah.

It is not surprising that a resource that offers great insight is the New York Public Library. Village Preservation staffer Hew Evans (they, them) shared that as part of the NYPL’s extensive Gay and Lesbian Collections, the Mattachine Society of New York’s papers from 1951-1976 have been archived and are readily available for public research.

Many of these papers are digitized and give the casual researcher insight into the organization, which along with its lesbian counterpart, the Daughters of Bilitis, is credited by many with starting the 1945-1969 Homophile Movement in New York City. Let’s learn a little bit more through some of these digitized photos.

The Fight for Human and Civil Rights

Archival Photo that includes the statement: ” We believe they (homosexuals) have the right to be. We believe that the civil rights and human dignity of homosexuals as presious as those of any other citizen…”

With this archival photo, one can see how the Mattachine Society of New York made the case for the human and civil rights of gay citizens. As part of their organizational values, its members used protests and information campaigns to promote social acceptability within the United States’ legislative, punitive, medical, and judicial systems. Comparing their efforts to the current LGBTQIA+ Rights Movement, it is eerie how similar the language is to arguments that are still being made in state houses and federal legislative offices across the country in 2022 in order to protect these rights.

One can also see a clear call to action from this and many of the photos archived by the New York Public Library. Reviewing these collections gives us insight into some of the ways social perspectives on gender and sexuality have evolved and some of the ways they have remained the same in the fight for human rights.

Education on Rights and Legal Penalties: Then and Now

An important part of the Mattachine Society of New York’s mission was to educate gay individuals about their rights and, as of 1964, the discriminatory legal penalties used to restrict same-sex relationships, like legal prohibitions on “sodomy, fornication, adultery, and cohabitation.” The archives share photos of resources created by the Mattachine Society of New York that document this organization’s work around this cause.

We can see the parallels to the work current LGBTQIA+ organizations are doing to advise people of discriminatory laws that are on the books by state. Organizations like Out Equal and the Transgender Law Center provide resources (like the maps below) to inform individuals of states that use punitive laws to threaten LGBTQIA+ identities and people.

In 2017, Out Equal published a workplace equality fact sheet (including the social media friendly photo below) sharing where there were still laws on the books that allowed employers to fire employees for identifying as transgender, lesbian, bisexual, or gay. These laws were overturned by a Supreme Court Decision in 2020. This victory came, in part, by the work of organizations like Out Equal, Lambda Legal, Out Leadership, the Human Rights Campaign, and Freedom for All Americans calling for amicus briefs from employers in preparation for that landmark Supreme Court Case.

The fight continues with real time trackers (like the one seen below from the Transgender Law Center) that helps people navigate political policies that negatively and positivity affect the LGBTQIA+ community.

We also know that Mattachine Society helped prepare community members for arrest, be it as a part of civil disobedience or for violating one of the laws on the books that criminlized life as a LGBTQIA+ person in New York.

Anyone who has participated in a protest over the past few years might have downloaded a similar booklet from the ACLU to prepare for the very real repercussions of participating in civil disobedience as the fight for eqaulity continues. Interesting to note that the Mattachine Society of New York brought a representative from the ACLU (itself founded in Greenwich Village) with them to the Sip-In at Julius’ Bar back in 1966.

As the fight for civil and human rights continues, we have the opportunity to delve into the past with carefully preserved archival materials, like the archives from the NYPL. There we can find inspiration, connections, and strategies used by those who started the movement at Julius’ Bar and beyond, like the work of the Mattachine Society of New York. The history of Greenwich Village is steeped in this movement’s work and continues to echo throughout the neighborhood today.

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