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Queering the borders: Lorraine Hansberrys 1957 Letters to The Ladder
Unformatted Document Text:  Queering the Borders: Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder, 15 homophile movement before DOB was born. In its early years (1951-1954) the Mattachine Society challenged mainstream views of homosexuality “as an individual problem, as evidence of moral weakness, criminality, or pathology” with the view that homosexuals were an oppressed minority group, akin to other oppressed minorities. 45 This perspective reflected the views of the group’s founder, Harry Hay, who like Hansberry, was a communist. But tensions produced in large part by anti-communist persecution lead to a change of Mattachine’s leadership in 1954, resulting in the organization’s more assimilationist ethos. This new perspective was shared by the DOB leadership and was elaborated in a message from the president, D. Griffen, in the November 1956 issue of the Ladder, where she writes: “Let me again state that this is a homosexual and heterosexual organization that wishes to enlighten the public about the Lesbian and to teach them that we aren’t the monsters that they depict us to be.” 46 The president then quotes a letter from a so-called “lass” who writes: “but the kids in fly-front pants and with the butch haircuts and the mannish manner are the worst publicity we can get.” “Very true,” the president writes. “Our organization has already touched on that matter and has converted a few to remembering that they are women first and a butch or fem secondly, so their attire should be that which society will accept.” 47 But while the lesbian community’s anti-assimilationist perspective was not reflected in DOB, it did in fact exist. In fact, according to lesbian historians such as Davis and Kennedy, Faderman, and Nestle, the “Butch” persona emerged largely in response to sex, class, and gender oppression. “In the fifties, with the increased visibility of the established gay community, the concomitant postwar rigidification of sex roles, and the political repression of the McCarthy era, the street dyke emerged. She was a full-time “queer,” who frequented the bars even on week nights and was ready at any time to fight for her space and dignity.” 48 However, as Faderman discusses, the lesbian sub-cultures of the fifties were as class stratified as the rest of society: “Class mixing was extremely rare. Working-class lesbians tended to socialize only with other working-class lesbians. While some wealthy lesbians would occasionally 45 D’Emilio, 9. 46 Del Griffin, “President’s Message,” The Ladder, November 1956, 2. 47 Ibid., 3.

Authors: Lipari, Lisbeth.
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Queering the Borders: Hansberry’s Letters to The Ladder, 15
homophile movement before DOB was born. In its early years (1951-1954) the Mattachine Society
challenged mainstream views of homosexuality “as an individual problem, as evidence of moral
weakness, criminality, or pathology” with the view that homosexuals were an oppressed minority group,
akin to other oppressed minorities.
45
This perspective reflected the views of the group’s founder, Harry
Hay, who like Hansberry, was a communist. But tensions produced in large part by anti-communist
persecution lead to a change of Mattachine’s leadership in 1954, resulting in the organization’s more
assimilationist ethos. This new perspective was shared by the DOB leadership and was elaborated in a
message from the president, D. Griffen, in the November 1956 issue of the Ladder, where she writes:
“Let me again state that this is a homosexual and heterosexual organization that wishes to enlighten the
public about the Lesbian and to teach them that we aren’t the monsters that they depict us to be.”
46
The
president then quotes a letter from a so-called “lass” who writes: “but the kids in fly-front pants and with
the butch haircuts and the mannish manner are the worst publicity we can get.” “Very true,” the president
writes. “Our organization has already touched on that matter and has converted a few to remembering
that they are women first and a butch or fem secondly, so their attire should be that which society will
accept.”
47
But while the lesbian community’s anti-assimilationist perspective was not reflected in DOB, it
did in fact exist. In fact, according to lesbian historians such as Davis and Kennedy, Faderman, and
Nestle, the “Butch” persona emerged largely in response to sex, class, and gender oppression. “In the
fifties, with the increased visibility of the established gay community, the concomitant postwar
rigidification of sex roles, and the political repression of the McCarthy era, the street dyke emerged. She
was a full-time “queer,” who frequented the bars even on week nights and was ready at any time to fight
for her space and dignity.”
48
However, as Faderman discusses, the lesbian sub-cultures of the fifties were
as class stratified as the rest of society: “Class mixing was extremely rare. Working-class lesbians tended
to socialize only with other working-class lesbians. While some wealthy lesbians would occasionally
45
D’Emilio, 9.
46
Del Griffin, “President’s Message,” The Ladder, November 1956, 2.
47
Ibid., 3.


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