Address to Mattachine Society Banquet
Essay by William Dale Jennings
Upon receiving, for ONE magazine, the 1953 Achievement Award
November 13, 1953
I’m going to embarrass you. It has to be done because not all of us are positively sure why we’re here tonight. If we’ve come to kindly congratulate a few strangers with whom we feel no identity, then there has been a mistake and we are merely imposing ceremony upon one another. This is most decidedly not just another meal. Nor are we here to applaud Society at large for loosening a jot more of its infinite prejudice — or the Law for a smattering more of acquittals and dismissals — or Religion for rattling a few less tooth on its bone necklace. No, we applaud no group called “Them” — but we do applaud, frankly, us. We ourselves here tonight! Those on either side of you and you, you yourself sitting there in unsuspected glory. Each of us here tonight is a hero, each has a place in history — if only for being here tonight.
And how much more than that have we done! We are that little band that the Future will celebrate. But in today’s absence of tomorrow’s laurels, let us immodestly crown ourselves. And how realistic, how crystal-clear-eyed we are to do so, for we are most surely making history. We most surely are leaders, historic fighting leaders! Our only mistakes occur when we forget that fact.
What we have gotten, we have earned. Even our smallest victories have not been gifts. We’ve wrenched then from unwilling hands and now hold them only as concessions. We are despised, yet we sit here tonight in courageous defiance of a society given to lynching.
The early Christians never had it so bad: their persecution ended. Ours started long before theirs, and still isn’t over. And more of us have fallen. Then were we to fully realize how well we deserve this immoderate praise, were we to live in the expectation of highest respect, we could never err and we would accomplish our dream with a speed surprising to only ourselves.
Yes, these are the words of an immoderate man. Wholly unrestrained, more than a little vulgar and shockingly belligerent. Standing so labeled, it is quite natural to look around for company — and there’s plenty. The Allies in revolting against a Nazi reign did not say, “We will avenge Beuchenwald moderately.” Lincoln in revolting against established slavery did not say, “This must eventually be destroyed.” The revolting nobles did not gradually educate the King into signing the Magna Charta. Nor was the vulgarian [sic] who revolted against paganism and rudely tossed the money-changers from the temple primarily interested in good taste. All leaders have an immoderate sense of their place in history — they know precisely what they’re doing — and they have the courage that stems from being able to say, Why fear? We do no wrong!
Moderation is a form of fear. When we avoid action by pleading its imprudence, we in our fear forget those most imprudent men at Valley Forge. The hungry, freezing men who revolted against an order no tiny whit more menacing than the order against which we here in this room now revolt. They did not say, “Forward men, but try not to give offense!” Nor were the Ten Commandments written by a hand not wishing to disturb the majority of society. The Jew Moses did not say, “Thou shalt commit less adultery.” Yet the established order against which he revolted was no more primitive than the identical bigotry which we face.
Before smiling away these grand comparisons, think for a moment how gigantic is the oppression under which we live. None has ever equalled it in completeness. We are dictated to in every facet of human behavior. Where we live, whom we shall have for friends, how we shall express that friendship, the color of our friends, their number: we shall not have physical satisfaction of any kind not approved by courts of law, what we wear, how we wear it, how we move, our facial expressions, gestures, vocabularies and what we say with them, our very tones of voice — and even the way we think! We know well the punishments for non-conformity. This is a tyranny beyond any tyranny ever known! Then is it immoderate to say tonight that those who fight this tyranny deserve the highest praise?
And is it rash to say, “Why fear? We do no wrong!” Is it merely rabble-rousing to insist we must be roused? Some say yes. Some are prudent. Some say this very sober, profoundly moral banquet should not be publicly announced until it is over. We might be raided. But what would we be raided for? What have we done? What are we now doing that we would not courageously, proudly do before our very God! What is improper here — what is unnatural and unlawful!
Don’t say that the police need no valid charges to clean up such a gathering. The answer to that must inevitably be, “Then all the more reason for challenging them and fighting then with all our resources, all our strength, and all our great number.” Legions would rise for us. So why fear? We do no wrong! We accept the enemy’s own evaluation of us when we fear. Let them circle the building, let them burst in grandly and arrest us all, and then, by God, let them try us! The reason they haven’t done this yet in all the years of Mattachine is because they know we’re unafraid — they know we’d stick together they know we’ve done no wrong — and they know they’d get the biggest fight they ever ended up running from!
And the Law/must be faced squarely, too. He who denies that our present laws against “unnatural acts” are not an abomination — he who denies these laws are not themselves unnatural perversions of justice, is himself a fool — or a hypocrite — or an enemy. To attack the immoderate bestiality of such lave with moderation is to prove that we are as mild as prejudice claims us, as meekly effeminate as tradition brands us and as silly as even our well-wishers must at times concede. These primitive laws must go and there a no one to erase them but us. No one else is quite this interested. Foolish hets [heterosexuals] think it doesn’t concern them — until they get that phone call from Lincoln Heights.
But while moderation is a form of fear, fear takes the form of many immoderate acts. Of these we are all guilty. I have purposely been using the awful word revolt, summoned up the idea of revolution and — knowing very well what I was saying — advocated overthrowing certain violent laws. At any other time in our lives this would be recognized as reform and my right to speak out such ideas also recognized.
But not today. Not even tonight for there has been wincing. We, in our great category, are deathly afraid of categories. We are afraid in precisely the way our enemies wish us to be afraid. For in 1953, it is quite fashionable to call all opposition by a certain name pre-filled with odium. Not only are proven spies this awful thing but school-teachers, too, ministers, most movie actors and writers and whomever opposes us at the polls. It’s used when anyone — I say anyone — suggests a change including babies in diapers. This Readers’ Digest version of a four letter word is thrown about like rice at a wedding. Take a handful and let go; you’re sure to hit someone.
Today, in 1953, no longer must the accusers prove their charges.The burden of proof has been, pardon the expression, changed. Today, in 1953, the accused himself — and this will seem incredible in future times — the accused must prove himself innocent. Anyone can with impunity stand up and say, “I think that man is one of those.”
It is not not really for any specific act, not on any concrete charge mind you, that one might be accused but merely on the principle of state-of-being. This is in spite of the fact that state-of-being in normal times does not constitute a valid charge! No one can be legally found guilty of being a criminal or a homosexual. She or he must be accused of a specific act of criminality or homosexuality, and that act must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt before the accused can be found guilty.
But this is not so with the suspected homosexual or his shockingly close kin, the alleged subversive. They are both so vile and low that we deny them the due process of law automatically given rapists and kidnap-murderers.
Now it may be that I am merely brazenly avoiding the very question that is supposed to be the essence of the whole matter. Am I or have I ever been a Communist? In normal times this would deserve no answer whatsoever. Today it is different and I will give four answers, none of which will satisfy any but my constituents.
- No man, woman or mixture has to answer that question constitutionally.
- Those who do ask it are convinced of what the answer should be before they hear it and intend only slander.
- If you think I am, prove it, prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. Confronted by the overpowering evidence that should legally accompany such a charge, it won’t matter whether I “hide” behind the 5th Amendment or not, will it?
- Before you start the whispering, remember that if you don’t prove my guilt beyond a reasonable doubt — if you don’t successfully slander all of my work—you’ve proven yourself the real subversive, proven that you don’t belong in this organization or in this country.
But we do, nevertheless. We accuse without proof, make claims without sources, hold trials in the absence of the accused and destroy ourselves more efficiently than any thuggish fairy-hater. In this we are not moderate. In this we show vulgar zest, a tasteless zeal, a thoroughly ungentlemanly belligerence as we think, talk, and act against ourselves.
We immoderately create factions in which everyone mould rather be right than present at a meeting. The good rich life attained lies in proving someone out of order or tabling his motion. We couple mightily with protocol for endless hours and give birth to only minutes — piles of them!
We wrestle in admirable earnestness with the problem of nature and nurture totally unaware that it’s not of overwhelming consequence whether you were born or made that way when you look at the world through bars. (You don’t cling to them incidentally, as in movies. They’re too cold. Anyway, you feel there’s nothing left in a jellied world to cling to.)
We are exuberantly immoderate in our pastimes as we forget how infinitely safer it is here or at a chapter meeting or discussion group than in a known bar or on a beach, in a bed, under a bush. Yet we do haunt these places and take the Society’s name and work right along with us to jail. Danger and risk mean nothing to the sexually excited — but a great deal to those with another darned meeting to attend.
Yes, there is a certain amount of confusion here. It comes of humility. We’re too damned modest. We do actually great things and still blush like maidens. Incredible! How can we be so humble as to bicker, accuse, cross dangerous wires, aspire to little and be contented with anything less than the tremendous! How can we forget that we here tonight need not fear! We do no wrong! Smile an embarrassed smile if you will at the thought of tomorrow respecting you as heroes. But you are. We here in this ordinary room are history’s darlings!
Content ©1996, 2016 by The Tangent Group. All rights reserved.