When we talk about advances in civil and gay rights, we often talk in terms of famous firsts: Los Angeles’ first Black Mayor Tom Bradley or the state’s first openly gay elected official, San Francisco’s Harvey Milk. Yet, the struggles of average folk lay the groundwork for these larger victories and it is their stories that rarely get told. In 1975, one obscure Southern California gay man fought the good fight and in doing so achieved a triumph that would bring new rights and job opportunities for homosexual men and women across the U.S.
Forty years ago, Rancho Palos Verdes resident and computer defense systems analyst Otis Francis Tabler challenged both the federal government’s security clearance system and California state law banning sodomy and “perversion” winning what observers described as an unprecedented victory from the Department of Defense when he became the first openly gay man to receive a secret security clearance from the Industrial Security Clearance Review Office. In a year in which the Supreme Court declared marriage equality the law of the land, Tabler’s story deserves to be told.(1)
The Military and the Mattachine Society
World War II radically reshaped California. First, it led to a boom in population and demand for greater infrastructure in nearly every area of urban life from water systems to road construction. Single women, Blacks and Latinos all flocked to cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco for work in defense factories. Men of all races joined the military as a means to demonstrate their sense of patriotism. Minorities tired of dealing with discrimination and second class citizenship used service as a means to demand equality from a nation demanding that they sacrifice for the war despite existing inequalities.
Women too contributed to the war effort in numerous ways; some by working in the numerous factories that dotted the Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, and San Diego landscapes while others served in the Women’s Army Core (WACS) or Women Accepted for Voluntary Service (WAVS, the women’s branch of the Naval Reserve). Women’s experiences in the war would lay the groundwork for the feminist movement of the 1950s and 1960s
The war also created the space and opportunity for gay men and women to realize their own sexuality and build community. The stress of military training, the common purpose of working toward victory in the war and the crucible of combat encouraged camaraderie and trust. For those attracted to the same sex, working, sleeping and relaxing with one another in military environs proved an imperfect yet opportune chance at romance and community.(2)
Outside the barracks, the sheer numbers of men stationed in Los Angeles and San Francisco enabled for the growth of bar scenes where gay men could pursue relationships and create bonds. Nan Boyd captured this development in San Francisco in her work, “Wide Open Town”. (3) The same would be true of its Southern California counterpart. “Because L.A. has a port and vast numbers of soldiers landed there, far from watchful eyes ‘back home’ and yearning for rest and recreation they enjoyed unprecedented opportunities for gay experiences,” note historians Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons.
Nor could bars contain the burgeoning sexuality of young men roaming the city unsupervised, many for the first time in their lives. As famed female impersonator, homosexual, and author Kenneth Marlowe remembered, Pershing Square in downtown L.A. a traditional cruising spot for gay men, during the war, “was even gayer than its regular scene. And servicemen who couldn’t find an available female date could always find physical satisfaction waiting for them.” (4) The city’s good weather led to the development of other outdoor rendezvous locations for gay men such as Echo Park Lake, Westlake Park, Griffith Park, and North Hollywood Park. (5)
In the years that followed the war, lesbian night spots proliferated as well, though outdoor trysts remained far less common among women. The great numbers of ladies who had arrived in the city during WWII to work in defense factories stayed around afterward as “working class beer-and-pool-table bars” for girls scattered around the city. By the 1950s, more middle class oriented lesbian establishments flourished like the Lakeshore near Westlake Park, the If Club (8th and Vermont), the Cork Room, the Star Room, and the Paradise Club. In East Los Angeles, the Redhead served as home to a uniformly Mexican American gay clientele. (6)
At the same time however, the military cracked down on homosexuality. “The war mobilization laid the groundwork for a national effort to eliminate homosexuals from public life,” writes David Hurewitz in his 2007 work, “Bohemian Los Angeles and the Making of Modern Politics”. Looking to prevent gay men and women from serving, officials questioned recruits about their sex lives as they tried to “weed out” those the military believed to be sexually active labeling them as “mentally unfit.” Though the armed services targeted men mostly, after the war, in the late 1940 and 1950s, women came under scrutiny as well. In the early cold war military, notes historian Margot Canaday, “the state did not ignore, conflate, or subsume lesbianism, but was instead focused upon it.” (7)
Simultaneously, the Los Angeles police also increased their surveillance of homosexual activity. Admittedly, state law had long considered sodomy a felony, but in 1915, California legislators adopted legislation outlawing fellatio. (8) Predictably, authorities used such laws largely to regulate homosexual activity rather than that of heterosexuals. Even worse, gay men especially could not count on city police officers for basic protection. “Gay men could not escape the knowledge that the LAPD regarded them not only as laughable, but as ultimate criminals,” write Faderman and Timmons. Despite a growing gay community of men and women the LAPD viewed lesbians and homosexual men with the utmost hostility. (9)
In the face of such hostility, Harry Hay and others formed the Mattachine Society in 1951 in what was then known as Edendale and today Silver Lake. Emerging from a milieu populated by bohemians, communists and homosexuals who shared ideas, strategies, and beliefs, Hay constructed what would become the homophile movement and the Los Angeles Mattachine emerged as its first real organization. It enabled gay men and women to form a community and present a collective identity to a hostile questioning public. “What Mattachine offered was a different kind of camaraderie: non-sexual family camaraderie … that was well organized and increasingly more defined,” argues Hurewitz. “This was camaraderie about sexual desires that was not constituted by those desires … it was new and transformative; it was how a communal identity – a shared self perception – was constructed.” (10)
Unfortunately, the L.A. Mattachine struggled with internal divisions and Hay would be ousted from leadership within a few years of its establishment. Still, it persisted and inspired the growth of Mattachines across the U.S. and perhaps most importantly the creation of the 1961 Mattachine Society of Washington D.C. (MSW) under the leadership of Frank Kameny. Though later eclipsed by organizations in San Francisco and New York, the MSW would be “the leader in the homosexual rights movement,” argues Daniel K. Johnson. (11) Kameny’s influence would reach California but not before he cut his teeth in battles in the nation’s capital.
‘They Fired the Wrong Guy’
During the Red Scare of the 1950s, communism and homosexuality became intertwined as threats to national security. A major congressional inquiry in 1950 explored the “Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts” in government “Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the term ‘security risk’ in fact functioned largely as a euphemism for homosexual,” notes Johnson. President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued executive order 10450, which banned homosexuals from government employment and labeled them a threat to national security. In the government’s civil service commission and elsewhere, gay men and women who refused to resign were drummed out on charges of “immoral conduct,” a clause that dated back to the 1800s but most often found usage as a means to target homosexuals. Thousands of employees lost their jobs due to their sexual orientation. (12)
Few understood the effects to the policy better than WWII veteran, Frank Kameny, who in 1957 was fired from his job in the Army Map Service for homosexuality. “They fired the wrong guy,” Charles Francis says star of the new Michael Isikoff Yahoo documentary “Uniquely Nasty” which documents the government’s discrimination toward homosexuals during this period. Kameny wore his homosexuality as “a badge of pride” noted Francis who helped bring the activist’s papers to the Library of Congress in 2008 and has written a screenplay based on Kameny’s life. (13)
Indeed, by 1961, Kameny had established the MSW and used it as a platform to achieve equality in government hiring for homosexuals. “He prided himself on bringing a new militancy to the gay and lesbian movement, until Frank there were giant fissures in the movement about how confrontational to be,” Francis pointed out in a recent interview. From 1961 through the 1970s, Kameny criticized the government’s “war on gays and lesbians” at every opportunity even picketing the White House, and Civil Service Commission Headquarters among other Washington institutions over their policies in 1965. Kameny and his fellow MSW protesters demanded that the government “cease noting that they are homosexuals and ignoring that they are also American citizens. (14)
The Ten Percent
After World War II, due to its room for expansion, diverse geography, and great weather, California drew increased military largesse. Los Angeles and Orange County drew new installations and defense industries, the latter particularly in aerospace. By the early 1960s, 43 percent of manufacturing employment in the two counties was tied to government aerospace contracts. This process persisted into the 1970s by which time L.A and the “surrounding region had come to rely to an extraordinary degree upon the related industries of defense aircraft space and electronics,” notes historian Roger Lotchin. Even today, the presence of the military and the defense industries contributes significantly to Orange County’s ranking as the nation’s largest suburban employment center. Simultaneously, the city’s gay population expanded to grow an estimated 140,000 gay men and women in metropolitan L.A.; a number that would only expand over the ensuing decades. (15)
Otis Francis Tabler, a computer scientist, studied missile defense systems at Logicorp in San Pedro, California. According to his coworkers and supervisors, Tabler demonstrated considerable skill in carrying out his responsibilities, but due to his inability to secure the necessary security clearance, his talents were not being adequately utilized. His former supervisor Captain (USAF) Larry Wayne Kern believed Tabler to be honest, trustworthy, and reliable; Tabler had “a specific and unique contribution to make in the field,” he testified. (16)
By the 1970s, the gay liberation movement had become a dominant force in pushing for an end to discrimination to due to sexual orientation. During the 1960s, anti-Vietnam war militancy exhibited by hippies, Chicanos, feminists, and Black Power advocates inspired gay activists as well. On May 10, 1966, L.A. residents witnessed their first gay parade in history as protesters demanded an end the military’s ban on homosexuals with signs that announced, “Ten Percent of all GI’s are Homosexual.” (17)
New more aggressive gay organizations and activists began to dominate the movement as PRIDE and the Gay Liberation Front Los Angeles (GLFLA) formed to push for a place in the public sphere for gays. (18) “As you may know, Gay Liberation Front Los Angeles has become the center of military resistance for the gay community,” GLFLA leader Mark Lareau wrote Kameny in 1971. (19) The GLFLA viewed Kameny as uniquely skilled in battling discrimination against homosexuals in the military and government, sending him dozens of letters from G.I.’s trying to escape service due to homophobia in the armed services. The intersection of the Vietnam War and the city’s vibrant gay liberation movement made Los Angeles a hotbed of activism.
Swept up in this fervor, Tabler too became politically active, at one point joining forces with GLFLA leader and L.A.’s “Gay godfather”, Morris Kight, to challenge the state’s anti-sodomy and fellatio legislation. Tabler along with five others formed the “Felons Six” a group that “confessed” to engaging in “oral copulation of each other.” When authorities refused to prosecute them, Kight made a citizen’s arrest in front of the L.A. Press Club and brought them to law enforcement officials who continued to refuse prosecution thereby demonstrating California laws governing the private sexual activity of adults to be baseless. (20)
With a growing political awareness and having been denied a security clearance earlier in 1973, which resulted in job loss, Tabler appealed the decision and forced an open hearing with the Western Division Field Office of the Department of Defense. The hearing held over four days in late July and early August of 1974 at the Federal Building on Wilshire Boulevard revealed a clearance process, at least in relation to homosexuality, beset with contradictions, but that reflected broader societal biases of the day.
Nonetheless, the federal government focused on Tabler’s violation of California sodomy and perversion laws as reasons to deny him clearance. Two heterosexual witnesses for Tabler, both of which held security clearances admitted to engaging in similar activities but had never been questioned about them. Even a government investigator testified that officials only inquired about an individual’s sexual history when they were a suspected or an admitted homosexual. He himself acknowledged “50 percent” of his straight friends engaged in the same activities. (22) “In my opinion, the sodomy laws are merely words written on statue books,” Tabler told officials. “I believe that they do not exist.” (22)
Nor could the government say Tabler represented a blackmail risk. He was an open homosexual. His mother knew of his sexuality as did all his coworkers. Kamney and Tabler submitted dozens of affidavits from neighbors and acquaintances testifying to his homosexuality. He made no secret of it.
Though not a lawyer, Kameny represented Tabler and employed an unorthodox and unconventional approach. His opening statement lasted over ninety minutes. He called the security clearance program bigoted, politically corrupt, and vile. He accused the DOD and federal government of conducting a war on gays that both waged “relentlessly, remorselessly and mercilessly.” The homosexual community did not want to fight, but “if they want a war they will get it,” he told the government examiner. (23)
Tabler’s mother also testified making an impassioned plea telling the government her son was a loyal American and that as the widow of a disabled U.S. Air Force veteran, she loved her country. “But I’m horrified to find out that the Defense Department does not honor the Constitution of the United States,” she said, then breaking down in tears. (24)
The case drew welcome publicity. One of the most difficult aspects of the early gay liberation movement related to the mainstream media’s tendency to ignore protests, particularly those of the GLFLA. (25) Tabler and Kameny went out of their way to force the case into the public sphere despite attempts by the DOD to avoid an open hearing. The two men succeeded in securing coverage from print media like Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Newsweek, and The Palos Verdes Peninsula News. Radio and television also covered the hearing including Radio-News West, KNBC, and KTTV.
Change in SoCal and Nationally
During the same period, organizations like the Gay Community Alliance (GCA) formed to encourage Los Angeles homosexuals to “register, vote, and think of themselves as a political force.” GCA drafted voter slates and campaigned for gay friendly candidates. In 1973, Burt Pines won election to city attorney in great part due to his courting of the gay vote. He immediately pushed through reforms that more or less ended city prosecution of gay bars and promised that the LAPD would hire qualified homosexual officers. (26) Two years later in 1975, Assemblyman Willie Brown wrote the Consenting Adults bill, which would repeal “all laws against homosexual acts.” (27) While the LAPD remained hostile under the leadership of Chief Ed Davis, even continuing to conduct the occasional raid, open hostility to the city’s homosexual population had begun to recede. Granted, obstacles remained, like 1978’s anti-gay Proposition 6, but much had improved.
For Tabler, good news followed, though again not without a fight. On December 17, 1974, government Examiner Richard S. Farr, who had supervised the hearing, ruled in his favor judging him worthy of a security clearance. The Department of Defense however, appealed the decision and even attempted to disqualify Kameny as his counsel. Still, almost exactly a year to the day, the DOD reversed course and dropped its appeal notifying both Kameny and Tabler that it had changed its policies regarding homosexuals. (28)
Tabler became the first openly homosexual person to gain a security clearance, though as Kameny noted in a Mattachine newsletter much work was left to be done, since now it needed to be determined that such policies would be followed. Also, while ISCRO did handle a majority of clearances other branches of the government like the F.B.I. and C.I.A. conducted their own investigations and continued to discriminate against homosexuals. (29) Nonetheless by the 1990s, homosexuals would be welcomed into the latter as noted by none other than former C.I.A. Director and Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates who in response to correspondence from the William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alumni argued the C.I.A. did not discriminate and in fact “has homosexuals in its workforce.” (30) Undoubtedly, Otis Francis Tabler’s fight contributed to such developments.
Often the military and its related industries are seen as inherently conservative. (31) Historians like Lisa McGirr have documented how the growth of the defense industry in Orange County contributed directly to the establishment of the New Right and modern conservatism. Yet, as demonstrated, for all its moral ambiguities, the military industrial complex has also provided a space for resistance and the assertion of rights and community for gay men and women across the U.S. but especially in California. The story of Los Angeles, Frank Kameny, and Otis Francis Tabler illustrate this reality and the unpredictable way human drama unfolds.
(1) Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., “Homosexual wins final award of security clearance,” Press Release, August 4, 1975, Frank Kameny Papers Box 158, Folder 9, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
(2) John D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983); Alan Berube, Coming Out under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II, (New York: Free Press, 2000).
(3) Nan Alamilla Boyd, Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, (Berkley: University of California Press, 2003).
(4) Lillian Faderaman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 71-72.
(5) Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 83.
(6) Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 89.
(7) Margot Canaday, The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth-Century America, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 175.
(8) Lillian Faderaman and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics, and Lipstick Lesbians, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006), 30.
(9) Faderaman and Timmons, Gay L.A, 84.
(10) Hurewitz, Bohemian L.A., 254.
(11) David K. Johnson, “‘Homosexual Citizens’: Washington’s gay Community Confronts the Civil Service,” Washington History 6.2 (Fall/Winter 1994/1995): 62.
(12) Johnson, “‘Homosexual Citizens'”, 47-48.
(13) Charles Francis, Interview with author, November 11, 2015
(14) Charles Francis, Interview with author, November 11, 2015.
(15) Roger W. Lotchin, Fortress California, 1910-1961: From Warfare to Welfare, (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 65.
(16) Thomas Hill, “The Securitization of Security: Reorganization of Land, Military, and State in the Pentagon’s Backyard,” Journal of Urban History 41.1 (January, 2015): 76.
Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 145.
(17) Larry Wayne Kern, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v OSD 73-86, July 30, 1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Box 35, Folder 1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
(18) Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 153, 170 -172.
(19) Mark W. Lareau, letter to Frank Kameny, March 11, 1971, Frank Kameny Papers, Box 92, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
(20) Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 180; Morris Kight, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v OSD 73-86, July 30, 1974, Frank Kameny Papers, Box 35, Folder 1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
(21) Kathy Burke, “Homosexual in Fight to Regain Clearance,” Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1974; Michael Roussel Dupre, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v OSD 73-86, July 31, 1974, Frank Kameny papers, Box 149, Folder 4, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Helga Angela Kuczora, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v OSD 73-86, July 31, 1974, 198-199, Frank Kameny Papers, Box 35, Folder 1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Christine Julia Robinson, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v OSD 73-86, July 31, 1974, 360, Frank Kameny Papers, Box 35, Folder 1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
(22) Otis Francis Tabler, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v OSD 73-86, July 30, 1974, 476, Frank Kameny Papers, Box 35, Folder 1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
(23) Frank Kameny, opening statement, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v OSD 73-86, July 30, 1974, 46-50, Frank Kameny Papers, Box 35, Folder 1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress,
(24) Mary Aull Tabler, testimony, Otis Francis Tabler Jr. v OSD 73-86, July 30, 1974, 46-50, Frank Kameny Papers, Box 35, Folder 1, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, 166-167.
(25) Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 177.
(26) Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 215.
(27) Faderman and Timmons, Gay L.A., 180.
(28) Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., “Homosexual wins final award of security clearance,” Press Release, August 4, 1975, Frank Kameny Papers Box 158, Folder 9, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
(29) Mattachine Society of Washington D.C., “Homosexual wins final award of security clearance,” Press Release, August 4, 1975, Frank Kameny Papers Box 158, Folder 9, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
(30) Robert M. Gates, Letter to William and Mary Gay and Lesbian Alliance, March 6, 1992, Frank Kameny Papers, Box 42, Folder 3, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
(31) Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New Right, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002).