Founding Member of Early Gay Rights Organization Dies
James “John” Finley Gruber, Jr., the last original member of the Mattachine Society, died in his home in Santa Clara February 27, at the age of 82. Born in Des Moines on August 21, 1928, Gruber enjoyed sexual relations with both men and women from an early age. In 1946, Gruber enlisted in the Marines where, as he recalled, he “went bananas in the sex department.” After Gruber was honorably discharged in 1949, he studied English literature at Occidental College and befriended authors Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden and psychologist Evelyn Hooker.
In April of 1951, Gruber and his boyfriend Konrad “Steve” Stevens attended a meeting hosted by a gay advocacy group soon to be known as the Mattachine Society. Soon Gruber and Stevens were invited to join the other founders: Harry Hay, Rudi Gernreich, Chuck Rowland, Bob Hull and Dale Jennings. According to historian John D’Emilio, it was Gruber who suggested the name Mattachine Society for the new group, inspired by Hay’s talk about medieval “mattachines.”
“Gruber and Stevens were the only two of the original seven without strong left-wing ties or sympathies,” wrote the historian John Loughery, “but their physical charm, youth, and eagerness made them highly desirable additions and a speedy and significant difference in attracting new members.” Gruber readily embraced his “newly chosen family,” and brokered a meeting between the Society and Gruber’s famous friends Isherwood and Hooker.
Gruber was also responsible for a famous photo of the early Mattachine Society that now appears in LGBT history books. Taken at Harry Hay’s house on Cove Avenue, the photo preserves for posterity Mattachine members Hay, Gernreich, Rowland, Hull, Jennings, Stan Witt and Paul Bernard. According to historian Daniel Hurewitz, “Hay was so concerned about secrecy that Gruber had to convince him that there was no film in the camera when he took the picture; he revealed the truth only years later.”
By 1953, concern among Society members about their leaders’ Communist ties led to new elections and a change in leadership, Gruber included. Gruber then joined the editorial board of ONE magazine, but soon resigned because of differences with Editor-In-Chief Dale Jennings. Soon after this debacle, according to Jim Van Buskirk, “Gruber worked at KECA radio, created a motorcycle club called the Satyrs…dated both men and women” and taught at various California schools. He called himself “an unmarried alcoholic bisexual teacher,” at least until he joined Alcoholics Anonymous in 1976. On November 12, 1998, the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality in Los Angeles gave Gruber a Public Service Award for his work as a “pioneer and barrier broker.” Gruber lived his last years in Santa Clara, enduring ill health but ably assisted by his good friend Nicholas Pisca. Gruber left behind a manuscript, “The Deviant: an Illustrated Autobiography,” which chronicles his life and times.