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City Archives Show Early Surveillance of Gays

Author Perry Brass was a member of the post-Stonewall Gay Liberation Front, which was a frequent target of NYPD surveillance in the 1970s. | NICK BLUMENTHAL/ COURTESY OF CALLEN-LORDE COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | While the NYPD certainly spent more time and effort spying on groups outside of the queer community, its surveillance of LGBTQ organizations began early and lasted for years.

“Mr. Wicker confined his talk primarily to the homosexual’s position and the many disadvantages imposed upon him by society,” Detective Raymond Clarke wrote in a report on Randy Wicker’s appearance at the WBAI Club at City College of New York in October 1963. “Mr. Wicker claimed that federal and state agencies have been conducting ‘witch-hunts’ in seeking and oustering [sic] homosexuals from their jobs.”

At the time, Wicker, an early LGBTQ rights activist, was the public relations director for the Homosexual League of New York. Wicker continued his engagement in community politics for decades. The campus newspaper announced Wicker’s speech, which drew 400 students, writing, “In the short space of time since he began his movement in the spring of 1962, Mr. Wicker has been called everything from ‘an earnest young crusader for the rights of homosexuals’ to an ‘arrogant card-carrying swish.’”

NYPD records dating back to late 1950s document police keeping tabs

Clarke wrote that the PO Box for the League had been opened by Charles Hayden, Wicker’s name before he changed it, in May 1962 and Wicker was added later. Hayden was “listed in CONFIDENTIAL undercover report 58-164,” Clarke wrote. “Postal Inspectors are conducting an investigation on this box,” he added.

But surveillance of Wicker’s group was not the earliest police investigation into organized LGBTQ political efforts. NYPD records show that detectives were attending Mattachine Society of New York meetings as early as 1959.

A hostile American society, the complete lack of legal protections, and a police force that was far more likely to arrest LGBTQ people than help them were not the sole concerns that faced the community in 1963. There were other obstacles that made using basic organizing tools difficult to impossible.

In a police report on a New York contingent traveling to the Annual Reminder Day for gay rights in Philadelphia in 1965, Detective Frank Bianco noted that the Mattachine Society’s New York chapter president Dick Leitsch, who died last month and is seen here in the 2017 LGBTQ Pride Parade, was involved. | ANDY HUMM

“Mr. Wicker stated that his group has been stifled by the refusal of newspaper stands and book stores to carry their writings as well as printing concerns refusing to even print their materials,” Clarke wrote.

The records of the NYPD spying on hundreds of groups are held by the city’s Department of Records and Information Services and can be reviewed at the Municipal Archives on Chambers Street in Manhattan.

The Archives have 750 cubic feet of police records that show the department’s “Italian’s squad,” which was shorthand for anarchists, spying on suspects in 1904 and then many other groups over decades. The squad became the Bureau of Special Services and Investigations and then the Special Services Division, which was the “most prolific” surveillance unit in the NYPD.

The police department’s photo unit contributed 250 cubic feet, with pictures taken from 1897 to 1975. The records on the LGBTQ groups are a small, but significant part of the collection. To date, the Archives have records through the early ‘70s.

Another detective, John Murphy, reported on an August 1966 meeting of the Mattachine Society of New York, one of several chapters in that early LGBTQ group’s history. Murphy reported that 130 people attended, including 30 women. They heard from an attorney who was representing a gay man in a deportation proceeding.

In May 1966, Detective Frank Bianco reported that two buses would be leaving for Philadelphia on July 4 from 26th Street and Broadway for the Annual Reminder Day, a protest held at Independence Hall that had gay men and lesbians dressed in business attire to show they were loyal Americans and employable. It was a reaction to the McCarthy era, which is typically represented as consisting of attacks on suspected Communists and their sympathizers, but mostly featured purges of LGBTQ people from government and private industry.

“The whole element of homosexuality in the ‘60s, it was constantly conflated with subversion, with people who were mentally unbalanced,” said Perry Brass, a member of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), an early radical group.

The NYPD shared its records with other law enforcement agencies.

“The Correspondence Unit is being requested to forward details contained in this report to the Intelligence Unit of the Philadelphia Police Department,” Bianco wrote.

The late Frank Kameny, a Washington activist seen here in the 2010 LGBTQ Pride Parade in that city, was noted as being at a 1971 demonstration outside a New York City jail on Centre Street. | DAVD/ COURTESY OF WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

For the first Annual Reminder Day in 1965, “One bus left from the New York area with thirty persons on board,” the detective wrote adding that 75 people attended that year altogether, with people coming from New York City, Washington, DC, and Philadelphia. Bianco noted that Craig Rodwell was the chair of the Annual Reminder Day Committee and Dick Leitsch was Mattachine New York’s president.

Between 1966 and 1972, the records show police spying on protests mounted by Mattachine, GLF, the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), and many other groups that joined the protests. Just six of the 19 reports were filed by patrol officers, and detectives filed the rest. Detectives often came to know participants and would speak to them on occasion.

At a February 1971 demonstration held at the city’s jail on Centre Street, Detective Francis Murphy wrote, “The following persons were observed: Mike Gimble and Frank Kameny.” Murphy took down the license plates of cars that discharged passengers who then joined the protest.

At all the protests, police diligently gathered flyers about the event or that announced future meetings of the groups involved in the actions. They also subscribed to mailings lists and gathered documents that were distributed at meetings they attended.

The NYPD ultimately collected a significant amount of material created by early LGBTQ rights groups and police shot a lot of film and took pictures of those groups.

“It does not shock me,” Brass said. “We constantly during the GLF period alluded to it, that our phones were being tapped and people were infiltrating… I think the reason the police were looking at GLF is the rhetoric was all about the radical overthrow of the government.”

4 Responses to City Archives Show Early Surveillance of Gays

  1. Michael Bedwell July 19, 2018 at 6:18 pm

    For those unaware, Dan Siminoski's legendary FOIA demand of FBI records documented that (as an arm of their "Sex Deviates" program formally begun in 1950) they had begun spying on gay rights groups as early as 1953 with the Mattachine Society in LA. Among the highly redacted copies of 7000 pages from 1953 to the late 1970s, he found references also to the Daughters of Bilitis, East Coast Homophile Organization (ECHO), Gay Activists Alliance, Gay Liberation Front, National Gay Task Force, ONE, Radical Lesbians, and Society for Individual Rights involving the DC headquarters and field offices in NYC, Albany, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis, Newark, Philadelphia, San Diego, and San Francisco. Some believe that the 1954 confiscation and refusal to deliver "ONE" magazine by the US postal system was the result of pressure from Hoover and his Assistant Director (and eventual heir) Clyde Tolson, outraged that a "ONE" article had suggested Hoover was gay.

    Reply
    • Duncan Osborne July 20, 2018 at 6:41 am

      Thanks for this, Michael. The beauty of the NYPD files is that they are entirely unredacted as opposed to FBI and other federal agencies files that have significant amounts of information removed mostly, I believe, to reduce any embarrassment those agencies might suffer.

      Reply
  2. perrybrass July 19, 2018 at 6:38 pm

    The thing that always amazes me from that period is how much people were willing to buy the attitudes of the times without any genuine thinking of their own. By the time I was 15, growing up in the benighted Deep South, I decided to throw all of that away, and came out a year later. This feeling was later reinforced by my participation in the Gay Liberation Front, where questioning the "accepted values" was highly prized. A play like the recent revival of "The Boys in the Band" really shows you what those "accepted values" were, and also how difficult it was to reject them for your own good, sanity, sense of value, and life. We are going back to the "accepted values" again, through Trump and very much through his toad, Pence. All you have to do is glance through the files Duncan Osbourne looked at, and you will see exactly where these "values" get you

    Reply
  3. Hal Weiner July 20, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Uh, this is news? I am the Founding General Counsel of the Gay Activists Alliance, INC. ( it took 4 years to get that incorporation thanks to John Ghezzi, the director of the Division of Corporations and State Records and his boss, Louis Lefkowitz, Attorney General.) I remember lecturing a group of rare at the time middle class gays with money, a smattering of Mattachine, a dash of Daughters of Bilitis, and several closeted friends of each, about how to avoid family challenges to your will. It was the 1970s and everyone was touchy. So some wag, I actually think it might have been Randy Wicker, my pal and a great chronicler of LGBTQ history, asked me " what do you think of a clause that says " to my life long friend and companion, Clyde Tolson, I leave everything "? What does that TELL you as an attorney? I said to him " I don't really know about what it tells me as an attorney; I have my suspicions that there might be something here that doesn't quite meet the eye …. but let me ask YOU…… what do you think
    of a similar clause, say, like " To my Life Long Companion and Friend Robin, I leave the Batmobile……"?
    I think that covers a lot of gay ground.

    Reply

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