Pioneer Sexologist and Historian
Profile by C. Todd White
Vern L. Bullough was one of Southern California’s most notorious scholars of human sexuality and one of our most dedicated activists on behalf of lesbian and gay rights.
Bullough obtained his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago in 1954. In 1959, he was appointed as Assistant Professor of History at California State University, Northridge, where he became a full Professor in 1965. He worked as an Adjunct Professor at UCLA in the School of Public Health through the 1970s, and during this time he and his wife Bonnie were very active in theLos Angeles-based movement for homosexual rights.
The Bulloughs had become interested in homosexual issues and sexual history in the 1940s, when Bonnie’s mother came out as a lesbian, but it was not until moving to Los Angeles in 1959 that they became involved with an organized movement. Vern became head of the Valley Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union soon after arriving in Los Angeles. He approached Dr. Eason Monroe, Executive Director for the ACLU, and suggested that the ACLU should go to bat on behalf of homosexuals. Dr. Monroe considered Bullough’s suggestion, and they decided to meet with Dorr Legg and Don Slater, the publishers of ONE magazine who also taught courses in homophile studies from ONE’s corporate office on Venice Blvd. Bullough was subsequently appointed chair of a committee to formulate the policy, which passed with only one dissenting vote.
The question then became: How would they defend homosexuals? This had never been attempted before.
For a while, the Bullough home became headquarters for the cause, their telephone serving as a hotline for homosexuals who might need a sympathetic ear or have a case for the ACLU to defend. There were many possibilities, but they felt none could be successfully defended until they learned of the arrest of a schoolteacher who had been compelled to resign by a local school board after having been arrested for a homosexual act. They persevered in court, setting a legal precedent for undue influence that is effective yet today.
Soon after the San Fernando Valley Chapter formalized its policy to defend homosexuals, ACLU chapters in Washington, D.C., and Florida followed with comparable measures. By 1967, the national organization adopted a policy similar to the one Bullough had originally devised. Thus the ACLU became the first national civil rights organization to recognize and defend the rights of homosexuals.
With this victory, the Bonnie and Vern Bullough became celebrities within the Los Angeles movement. When they showed up on Saturday, May 21, 1966, to participate in the motorcade in protest of the exclusion of homosexuals in the military, they were ushered into the first of twelve cars and paraded twenty miles through Los Angeles, bedecked with signs and banners of protest. “People just stared as we went through the city,” Bullough recalled, “but we carried it out and congratulated ourselves when it was over.”
The motorcade had been coordinated by the Los Angeles Committee to Fight Exclusion of Homosexuals from the Armed Forces, lead by Don Slater and Harry Hay. Bullough said that it was a strange day for him because while he was there saying that homosexuals should be drafted and be allowed to serve, he was fundamentally against the war. Still, he went to support his cohorts in the movement for sexual rights.
Bullough told me that “coming out” has been the most important and successful aspect of the gay rights movement to date. This was possible on a large scale relatively early in Los Angeles — in the 1950s and ’60s — because there was an economy there for homosexuals: It was relatively easy to earn a living. The LAPD was excessively harsh, to say the least, but that began to change in 1952 when Dale Jennings, who had been one of five founding members of the original Mattachine, was arrested for homosexual misconduct but successfully plead his innocence. Jennings had been publicly outed through the ordeal, his dream career in filmmaking ended. But many of his fellow “Mattachinos” stood with him, putting their own careers and reputations on the line. By laying claim to the victory, Mattachine basically “outed” itself, and its founders determined it should become a legitimate corporation.
Soon after this famous court victory, in January of 1953, Jennings and a small crew of associates from both within and without Mattachine launched a little magazine called ONE, which became the first successful publication in the nation dedicated to homosexual issues. ONE and the organization behind it drew many to the local movement who wanted to participate and find others like themselves but were not comfortable hanging out in bars.
By the time Bullough contacted Slater and Legg on behalf of the ACLU, ONE, Inc., had been active in the homosexual rights movement for nearly a decade — longer than any other organization in the country. When ONE ultimately divided during a rancorous dispute in 1965, Bullough remained amicable with both surviving organizations, Legg’s ONE and Slater’s HIC — and he was one of a very few activists or scholars to be able to do so. Bullough’s ability to get along with different personalities and factions greatly facilitated the publication of Before Stonewall: Activists for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Historic Context, published by Harrington Park Press in 2002, one of the most comprehensive volumes produced on pre-Stonewall pioneers, many of whom he had known personally.
At the time of my last formal interview with Vern, on September 24, 2004, he stated that the most important battle yet to be fought for lesbian and gay rights pertained to marriage. As he saw it, “If domestic partnership laws become national like the State of California’s, it doesn’t really matter about marriage — you can always get married in a church.” Nevertheless, since gays were prohibited from getting married, Bullough and his long-term partner, Gwen Brewer, decided that they too would register as domestic partners. “Since others are getting screwed, we might as well get screwed with them,” he quipped.
Such is the empathy of the activist!
A version of this profile was first published in the Orange County & Long Beach Blade in October 2004 in the column “Legends.” Photo Credit: C. Todd White. Vern Bullough, Sept. 24, 2004.
- The Vern and Bonnie Collection on Sex and Gender, Oviatt Library, CSUN
- The Vern L. Bullough website
- Interview by Raj Ayyar Gay Today archives (Vol. VIII Issue 167)
- Vern Bullough: An Appreciation, by Martha Cornog (Council for Secular Humanism
- [Interview by C. Todd White], on Sept. 24, 2004 (pending)