William Dale Jennings; Pioneering Gay Activist

From a Times Staff Writer

William Dale Jennings, a writer who co-founded the first major gay rights organization in the United States, has died. He was 82.

In the early 1950s, Jennings and a few others started the Mattachine Society, an organization of gay men and lesbians. The organization dissolved a few years later, but it was highly influential. It created the foundation for other gay rights organizations and energized the movement.

The Mattachine Society was created after Jennings was arrested in 1950 and charged with indecent behavior in Griffith Park. A jury acquitted him, which was a rebuke to the police practice of entrapping homosexuals. This was the first acquittal in California history of an openly homosexual person on this type of charge.

After his acquittal, Jennings was known as the Rosa Parks of the gay rights movement.


“The attitude of police and courts was that if you were gay and in the park you were engaging in indecent behavior,” said Todd White, a friend of Jennings. “William elected for a trial by jury and basically said, ‘Yes, I’m gay. Yes, I was in the park. And no, I was not behaving indecently.’

“And the jury acquitted him.”

In a first-person story for the Los Angeles Times in 1991, Jennings wrote: “I was one of the founders of the first homosexual organizations in U.S. history. . . . We worked for no special privileges but for understanding and cooperation. Our basic argument was that changes in sex laws would not benefit us alone but everyone. . . .

“The Mattachine [Society] . . . brought about momentous changes in California sex laws which have been followed by much of the United States. . . . Homosexuals . . . simply want privacy and the freedom from prying into their personal lives, which are no one’s personal business but their own.”


In the early 1950s, Jennings was one of the co-founders of ONE Magazine, the first gay publication in the country. In 1954, the postmaster in Los Angeles began confiscating the magazine, contending it was obscene. This led to another landmark lawsuit, which culminated in a 1958 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that a publication dedicated to equality for homosexuals was not obscene. The decision paved the way for numerous gay and lesbian publications.

Jennings graduated from a Denver high school and moved to Los Angeles in the late 1930s. He wrote, produced and directed plays for community theaters.

After serving in the South Pacific during World War II, he was honorably discharged in 1946. He then attended theater school at USC.

During the next few decades he gained acclaim as a writer. He contributed numerous articles to magazines and published three books: “The Ronin,” “The Sinking of the Sarah Diamond” and “The Cowboys,” which was later made into a movie starring John Wayne.

Jennings died of respiratory failure on May 11.

He is survived by a nephew.