The Importance of Being Ernestine Eckstein, Pioneer in the Early Gay Rights Movement

Eckstein was a pivotal figure in the homophile movement that preceded the Stonewall Rebellion.

Before Stonewall, the mantle of gay liberation, known then as the homophile movement, was taken up by organizations such as the Mattachine Society, One, Inc., and the Daughters of Billitis. The leadership of these organizations was almost exclusively white, and with the exception of the Daughters of Billitis, almost exclusively male. But history, as has been proven time and time again, is rarely that simple.

Ernestine Eckstein made quite the splash in the mid-60s homophile movement after appearing in an iconic photo protesting homosexual discrimination in front of the White House in October 1965, and then becoming the first black woman on the cover of The Ladder, the magazine published by the DoB, the following year.

Homosexuality was considered a mental disorder until the American Psychological Association declassified it as such in 1973. Therefore, when Eckstein moved to New York after graduating from Indiana University with a major in magazine journalism and a double minor in government and Russian, being openly gay wasn’t an option. And the homophile movement reflected that caution. Members of Mattachine, et al. were supposed to be as straight-laced and demonstrably “normal” as possible to lessen society’s fear/hatred of them and their struggle for equality.

However, Eckstein brought with her the on-campus expertise she had gleaned from the more established African-American Civil Rights Movement. Finding Indiana University’s NAACP too conservative, she sought out more radical organizations like the inclusive Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), whose mission was “to bring about equality for all people regardless of race, creed, sex, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion, or ethnic background.”

“Most les­bians that I know endorse homophile picketing, but will not picket themselves. I will get in a picket line, but in a different city,” Eckstein told The Ladder’s Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen, referencing her White House protest. “Picketing I regard as almost a conservative activity now. The homosexual has to call attention to the fact that he’s been unjustly acted upon. This is what the Negro did.”

Kay Tobin Lahusen
The Ladder

Though she did not regard herself as radical, being black, gay, and a woman, Eckstein existed at the nexus of three struggles for liberation and equality that were happening concurrently. Eckstein’s vision for the homophile movement was thus more, as we’d call it today, intersectional.

“I would like to see in the homophile movement more people who can think,” she told The Ladder. “And I don t believe we ought to look at their titles or at their sexual orientation. Movements should be intended, I feel, to erase labels, whether ’black’ or ’white’ or ’homosexual’ or ’heterosexual.'”

Eckstein was ahead of her time in a lot of ways, but inevitably she was also a product of her time. For instance, on the one hand, Eckstein advocated for the “transvestite” community to be included in the homophile movement, as she details in the unedited recording of her interview with Gittings and Lahausen referenced in an episode of the podcast, Making Gay History:

“I feel the homophile movement is only part of a much larger movement of the erasure of labels. I think the right of a person to dress as he chooses must necessarily follow when we expand our own philosophy of bringing about change for the homosexual. … I’m not saying it’s exclusively a homosexual problem, but I am saying it’s a problem of sexual identity. So far as society is concerned the two are lumped together and therefore once we solve ours, I see no reason why we cannot begin to expand into other areas. And this one is so closely aligned with our own.”

Yet Eckstein also stressed the importance of having officers who are “ordinary-looking men and women”—a tidbit that made the final print interview.

“I feel very strongly that a woman who’s very masculine, or a man who’s very effeminate, should not be an officer in the homo­phile movement,” Eckstein said. “This is my personal opinion. Our officers shouldn’t be the stereotypes, for God’s sake! We’re trying to counteract the notion that all homosexuals are like that.”

If these ideas seem diametrically opposed, one must remember that Eckstein was freshly out of college and had sought out the homophile movement not even aware that there was one. She just assumed there must be one and found out about local goings-on through ads for the Mattachine Society in The Village Voice. Eckstein, much like the nascent movement she joined, was still trying to find her voice and her perspective. She did, however, have some very definite opinions about the direction she and the movement should be going.

“One thing that disturbs me a lot is that there seems to be some sort of premium placed on psychologists and therapists by the homophile movement. I personally don’t understand why that should be,” Eckstein said. “So far as I’m concerned, homosexuality per se is not a sickness. When our groups seek out the therapists and psychologists, to me this is admitting we are ill by the very nature of our preference. And this disturbs me very much.”

Eckstein continued, “I think the best therapy for a homosexual is reinforcement of his way of life, by associating with people who are like him. I think the whole anxiety business comes in when he is constantly pitted against a different way of life—you know, where he’s the odd-ball. I believe homosexuals need this sort of reinforcement that comes from being with their own kind. And if they don’t have it, then they have to be awfully strong to create their own image. Most people are not that strong.”

Kay Tobin / NYPL
Ernestine Eckstein and unknown gentleman in picket line. 1965.

Eckstein asserted that courtrooms were the necessary battlegrounds; there, she believed, “our grievances can be brought out into the open. I can’t envision President Johnson at this point coming out in favor of a bill for homosexual rights to work in government. I can’t even envision any kind of bill comparable to the 1954 education bill,” Eckstein said, referencing the landmark case which brought an end to segregation, Brown v. Board of Education.

For all her then-radical thinking, Eckstein may have grown disillusioned with the homophile movement—some members of the Daughters of Billitis claimed she “had gotten tired of all the political wrangling and disagreements within DOB over strategies and tactics”—and desiring “more political organization” left New York. She settled in Northern California in the early 1970s where she joined Black Women Organized for Action. Not much is known about this phase of her life, and she died in 1992, but her brief period in the early homophile movement proved invaluable.

“She’s pivotal,” says LGBT historian Marcia Gallo. “She is that person who encapsulates the discussions, debates that are happening about visibility and about even calling it a movement as opposed to organizations who were helping people to adjust to their status in the world, which was sort of the homophile attitude, I think. She comes along and says, ’Look, we’ve gotta learn from what black folks did. We have to look at the Civil Rights Movement and we have to get out there, make our demands, know what we’re all about, and be very visible in public about it.'”

According to Gallo, Eckstein may have been the first, or at the very least among the first, to use the phrase “come out.” When asked in The Ladder whether she thinks “homosexuals should declare themselves,” Eckstein responds, “Any movement needs a certain number of courageous people, there’s no getting around it. They have to come out on behalf of the cause and accept whatever consequences come.”

It’s appropriate, then, that the lasting image of Ernestine Eckstein is her on a picket line—her shades defiantly cool but also a means to protect her identity—the sole black woman in a crowd of white men, all braving exposure and all that would entail to advocate for equal rights. Eckstein’s sign reads, “Denial of Equality of Opportunity is Immoral.”

Even today, that seems radical as hell.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is a roaming writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat