Friday, January 19th, 2018

Joseph Hansen: interview by C. Todd White

Joseph HansenInterview with

Joseph Hansen

by C. Todd White

Recorded at Hansen’s home in
Laguna Beach, California

September 2 2004

How did you get involved with the homosexual rights movement?

Let me begin with Martin Block.

He did not draw me into the movement, but he was in it from the start. He and I had met at my twenty-second birthday party, [laughs] in 1945. So we knew each other for a long, long time.

And although Martin, a few years later, became very active and became the first editor of ONE magazine, he didn’t draw me in. It was Wayne Placek who took me down to Hill Street, and that would have been sometime between 1955 and 1958, I don’t remember the exact year.

And it was through my association with ONE magazine that I began to be active in the movement — but you know there really hadn’t been much of a movement up until then.

As far as the homosexual rights movement goes, what do you think are its most important accomplishments?

Probably a sense of awareness, bringing to homosexuals of those far-off times a sense that they were not alone, that there were others who shared their predicament.

What were the main limitations to the movement?

Oh God, there were a thousand limitations to the movement. The main thing was that people who might have financed the magazines and people who might have had more business sense and been cannier publishers, people with a sense of public relations and publicity and all kinds of things like that, didn’t step into the movement.

It was hard to ask anybody to take part in something that would get you stigmatized and make earning a living tough for you, not to say create friction with your family and so on. It was hard for people to step out and say “I am homosexual” in those times, which is what they would have done were they to associate themselves with the movement by pitching in and working for it, because you had to start swimming against the current, and a very cold current it was — and very swift.

So people didn’t want to destroy themselves, and they didn’t.

And so only a very few brave hearts, not always the brightest or the sharpest knives in the drawer, stepped forward and did the best they could to bring about change and to make known how bad the situation was — the social situation, the legal situation, the employment situation, and so on — for homosexuals. And if there had been more courage on the part of more people whom luck had favored with money or prestige, we would have moved far faster, far more successfully. But that did not happen.

And another thing that would have helped would have been if we would have been, if we’d had Don Slater and Dorr Legg and Dale Jennings and some of the other motivators and so on would have been on the east coast, in New York instead of Los Angeles.

Why did the movement start here?

Because Don Slater was here, and the rest of these guys, Harry Hay, and other, let us say eccentric people were here and were willing to bet their all on an impossible long shot.

Many of the shortcomings of the first movement have been attributed to personality conflicts. Do you agree with that?

Joseph Hansen in London
Joseph Hansen in London.
Promotional photo for A Smile in His Lifetime, by Roger Baker


I just think that the people involved had as much talent and brains as they had, and they went as far as they could go, swimming as I say against the current. Trying to make over an entire society, trying to get people to act decently toward each other, is a big job.

The 14th amendment went into effect in 1868, but it wasn’t until 1964 that blacks really finally got their rights. They were supposed to get their rights from the 13th amendment, but that didn’t work. The 14th amendment saw to it that all persons in the United States were entitled to equal protection of the laws. But oh boy, did it take any number of people a hundred years to bring about true liberation for blacks in this country.

What has been the greatest achievement of the homosexual rights movement so far?

The removal of the sodomy laws. That really was the biggest achievement. Because while many states had already done that, there were many that had not. And once the Federal Government said NO to such laws, that was the coup de grâce — that was the principle thing so far as I’m concerned. That’s what we were asking for: to be decriminalized.

What do you think about the current movement for gay or homosexual marriage?

I think marriage is a civil contract. I don’t know what they’re raving about. We should all have the right to marry whomever we wish, whether it be male or female. That’s what the 14th amendment provides: equal protection of the law.

Would you have a special event or occasion from your participation within the movement that you’d like to describe?

Well, I thought about that.

First of all, I think that there have been many, many, many events that have taken us to where we are today. I think pebbles more than boulders have built this mountain, on top of which we stand. But there have been some … I don’t really think I want to pick out anything, except I do want to talk for a minute about the first gay parade, the first Christopher Street West parade, that took place on Hollywood Boulevard [in June of 1970] and went through Los Angeles.

It wasn’t a ghettoized parade as it is today. You know?

And I remember it — well, I was part of the planning committee. Morris Kight was the chairman.

I remember the first meeting of that committee, out in an abandoned Victorian mansion that was the first location of the Gay Community Services Center in Los Angeles, which Morris helped to found. And I remember all the talk and the back and forth. People wanted it to be serious and people wanted it to be funny and I did my best to mediate, and so we got a good mix — or we got a mix — of funny, and serious, and in between.

But the effect of that parade was electrifying. It really was. It startled people, but I think the most amazing thing about it was its effect on homosexuals.

I happened to be walking along beside the parade, on Hollywood Blvd. just across from the Pickwick Bookshop, an enormous bookshop in Hollywood in those days. I had worked there when I was very young, and one of the people I had worked with was still there, a gay man called Lloyd.

When the parade began, Lloyd came out of the bookstore and was standing on the sidewalk. And when he saw me he called out in a very loud voice: “Joe! Isn’t this wonderful! Isn’t this a marvelous day! Can you imagine this ever happening?”

And it seemed to me that the fact of the parade — the fact that nobody threw eggs or rotten tomatoes at it, and nobody jeered — people stood and smiled as it went by — was a huge shock and a very pleasant one to people like Lloyd Hartung, and there were thousands of them in Los Angeles at that time.

I think it just showed homosexuals that being bold, being brave, coming out, you know, was not going to have the awful results that everybody always feared. That those days were passed, they were behind us.

And that was a thrilling day; that was a thrilling day.

The parade was super silly, and very ragtag, and nobody had any money for the floats or anything but somehow or other, they threw on a few sequins and a bit of tulle, and some paint, and got out there and did it as best they could.

And the spirit of the thing just was astonishing. Nobody knew whether we were going to have mobs dragging us down off the floats or what was going to happen. And of course it didn’t happen that way at all — every body just smiled and waved, if they paid any attention at all.

Did you march in the parade?

No, no…

What about HIC? Did HIC participate in the parade?

Well I was the representative of HIC, and I don’t remember whether they did or not. Billy Glover may remember; you might ask him. I can’t remember whether there was a float or what we did, whether some of us marched or not. I would have though that if there had been anybody marching I would have been part of that.

What was Don Slater’s opinion of the parade? Did he enjoy it like you did?

Don probably grumped and huffed and puffed and didn’t think it was a good idea. Don was an integrationist, as I am. He didn’t really think that anybody ought to make a spectacle of himself, you know. Don was really all for … Don was buttoned up, let’s put it that way. He was perfectly frank about being gay, about being a homosexual. But as for making a big deal of it, as for being a bird of bright plumage, no. No, that was not for him.

So he sent me as HIC’s representative to the planning committee. No way was he gong to go. But he did think that we ought to have a presence there, so he asked me to go.


TommyBWThis page was created by C. Todd White from information gathered while researching his doctoral dissertation, Out of Many… A Social History of the Homosexual Rights Movement. Dr. G. Alexander Moore was director of White’s dissertation committee, in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Southern California.

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