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The Mattachine Society

The Mattachine Society

In this inaugural episode of the Mattachine podcast, we’ll be exploring the podcast’s namesake origin: the Mattachine Society.  We’ll explore the rise, social acceptance, and eventual downfall of the society.  

So sit back, relax, and learn about just one of the myriad stories that our LGBT community has been through.  

The Mattachine Society was founded in 1950 as one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the United States.  Technically, the Society for Human Rights—based in Chicago in 1924--was the first, but we’ll be reviewing that group, and how it differed from the Mattachine Society, at a later time.

The Mattachine Society was begun by Harry Hay, and a group of his Los Angeles peers, who formed the group to protect and improve the rights of all gay men.  The ambitious group was originally structured to be a cell organization, which consists of small groups of people within the cell, each of whom required greater levels of involvement and commitment, and each of whom only knowing the identities of the people in their own unique cell; as such, if a cell member is apprehended and interrogated, he or she will not know the identities of the higher-ranking individuals in the organization, thereby preserving the integrity of the overall larger group structure.

Mattachine was originally modeled after the structure of another rather well known cell organization--the Communist Party.  The founding members constituted the so-called "Fifth Order" and from the outset remained anonymous.  Mattachine's membership grew slowly at first but received a major boost in February of 1952 when founder Dale Jennings was arrested in a Los Angeles park and charged with lewd behavior.  Often, men in Jennings' situation would simply plead guilty to the charge and hope to quietly rebuild their lives, returning to anonymity.  However, Jennings and the rest of the Fifth Order saw the charges as a means to address the issue of police entrapment of homosexual men, which had up to then been happening quite a bit.  The group began publicizing the case (under the name "Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment") and the publicity it generated had a two-fold effect: it brought in both financial support and it also brought in additional volunteers.  Jennings admitted during his trial to being a homosexual but insisted he was not guilty of the specific charge with which they were pressing him--soliciting a police officer in public.  Ultimately, the jury deadlocked and Mattachine effectively declared victory, which in turn also increased its volunteers.  It was a small, but not insignificant victory for the fledgling organization.

Following the Jennings trial, and definitely due to the visibility produced by that trial, the group expanded rapidly, with founders estimating membership in California by May 1953 at over 2,000 with as many as 100 people joining a typical discussion group. Membership diversified, with more women and people from a broader political spectrum ultimately becoming involved.  With that growth came concern about the radical left slant of the organization—again, harkening back to the structural similarities with the Communist Party.  In particular, Hal Call and others out of the San Francisco group, along with Ken Burns from Los Angeles—no relation, of course to the documentary filmmaker--wanted Mattachine to amend its constitution to clarify its opposition to so-called "subversive elements" and to affirm that members were loyal to the United States and its laws (which, ironically declared homosexuality illegal…).  

In an effort to preserve their vision of the organization, the Fifth Order members revealed their identities and resigned their leadership positions at Mattachine's May 1953 convention. With the founders gone, Call, Burns and other like-minded individuals stepped into the leadership void, and with that, Mattachine officially adopted non-confrontation as an organizational policy.  Some historians argue that these changes reduced the effectiveness of this newly organized Mattachine and led to a precipitous drop in membership and participation.  One gets the impression that membership grew due to the “fight-back” nature of the organization—and particularly, as this wasn’t typically done in the conformist 50s, one also gets the impression that a move toward “conformity” effectively caused the group to lose its appeal to the general homosexual masses...  

Due to these organizational changes, the grabbing of power by various members, and also due to the increasing vehemence toward the Communist party in general in the 50s, Hay and the Society’s other leaders ultimately opted to change the structure of the organization toward a more traditional civil rights structure.  By 1961, and partially due to the expansion of the group with other branches opened in other cities, the Society splintered into independently organized regional groups.  

But prior to the rapid growth of the group in the 50s, Harry Hay’s original conception of the idea of a gay activist group occurred in 1948.  In that year, Hay had attended a party after having just signed a petition for the Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry Wallace.  Hay spoke with several of his friends there about forming their own party, to support Wallace, but Hay suggested calling the group “Bachelors for Wallace.”  Encouraged by the response he received (and possibly emboldened by a few too many at said party), Hay wrote the organizing principles that night, a document which he called “The Call.”  Over the next two years, Hay refined his idea, finally conceiving of an international, fraternal order, to serve “as a service and welfare organization devoted to the protection and improvement of Society's Androgynous Minority."

In those early two years, he planned to call this organization “Bachelors Anonymous” and envisioned it serving a similar function and purpose as another group with somewhat of a similar structure: Alcoholics Anonymous.  Finally, in July of 1950, Hay met Rudi Gernreich, who was an Austrian-born gay Jewish American fashion designer well on his way to becoming one of the most innovative and dynamic fashion designers of the 1960s.  Things progressed between the two, and they eventually became lovers.  While dating, Hay showed Gernreich “The Call”, with Gernreich responding to it that he thought it was “the most dangerous thing he had ever read.”  Ultimately, Gernreich became an enthusiastic and substantial financial supporter of the venture, though he kept his name out of it, preferring to support it anonymously simply as “R”.  Later that year in November, Hay, along with Gernreich and friends Dale Jennings, and lovers Bob Hull and Chuck Rowland, held the first meeting of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, under the pseudonym: Society of Fools.  Two other members, James Gruber and Konrad Stevens, joined the society, and at that point, Gruber suggested that the group change its name to the Mattachine Society, which they did.  

So why the name the Mattachine Society?  The Society was actually named by Harry Hay at the suggestion of James Gruber.  In a 1976 interview with Jonathan Ned Katz, Hay was asked the origin of the name, whereupon he described the medieval-Renaissance "Société Mattachine."  He described these societies as lifelong secret fraternities of unmarried townsmen who never performed in public without a mask, and who were dedicated to going out into the countryside and conducting dances and rituals during the Feast of Fools, at each Vernal Equinox.  Sometimes these dance rituals, otherwise known as “masques,” were peasant protests against oppression, with the masked men receiving the brunt of a territory’s lord’s vicious retaliation.  Gruber edified Hay’s recollection, by stating that they took the name Mattachine because they had felt that the 1950s gays were also a masked people, unknown and anonymous, who might become engaged in morale building and helping themselves as well others, through struggle, moving toward total and very tangible change.

Most of the Mattachine founders were in fact communists.  As the Red Scare progressed throughout the 50s, the association with communism deeply concerned some members as well as supporters.  Hay, too, was also growing concerned.  He had actually previously been a dedicated member of the Communist Party of the United States of America--or the CPUSA--for 15 years.  Ultimately, his experience with the CPUSA had been a negative one, and when Hay started seeing a progression of similarities with the Red Scare party within his own group, he stepped down as the Society's leader.  Due to the destabilization of power, and the ensuing power grab, when Hay exited, others around that time in the tumultuous organization were flat-out ousted, and the new leadership structure slowly became influenced less by communism, and more toward a more moderate ideology similar to that which was espoused by other liberal reformist civil rights organizations such as the civil rights battle being fought by African Americans.  

In the beginning, the Mattachine Society existed as a single national organization headquartered first in Los Angeles and then, beginning around 1956, in San Francisco.  Outside of Los Angeles and San Francisco, chapters were established in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and a few other locations.  Over the course of years, and due to several internal disagreements, the national organization officially disbanded in 1961.  The San Francisco national chapter retained the name "Mattachine Society", while the New York chapter became "Mattachine Society of New York, Inc."  Other independent groups using the name Mattachine were formed in Washington, D.C., which became the Mattachine Society of Washington.  Chicago’s version of the group became Mattachine Midwest.  Strangely, Buffalo’s group became the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier.   The disparity and disunity of the group’s nomenclature from chapter to chapter was definitely representative of the overall infighting of the national entity.  

In a curious side-note to how the group devolved from a national organization to several regional groups, in 1952, a splinter organization called ONE, Inc. divested itself from Mattachine.  The split was amicable, as they had seemingly different goals for success.  ONE Inc. admitted women and, together in partnership with Mattachine, it provided vital help to the Daughters of Bilitis—the first lesbian based civil rights group in the United States that we’ll be investigating in a later podcast.  One Inc., the Daughters of Bilitis (or DOB), and Mattachine were instrumental in the launching of the first gay rights magazine, The Ladder, in 1956. The Daughters of Bilitis evolved to be the counterpart lesbian organization to the Mattachine Society, and the two organizations worked together on some regional and national campaigns, although their approaches to visibility in the mass media differed considerably.  But as I said, we’ll be exploring the Daughters of Bilitis on another episode later in the year.  

Getting back to the Mattachine Society--when Hay and his peers set out to establish the organization’s goals, they formulated the following:

  • First, to "Unify homosexuals isolated from their own kind";
  • Secondly, to "Educate homosexuals and heterosexuals toward an ethical homosexual culture paralleling the cultures of the Negro, Mexican and Jewish peoples";
  • Third, to "Lead the more socially conscious homosexual to provide leadership to the whole mass of social variants"; and
  • Lastly, to "Assist gays who are victimized daily as a result of oppression".

The charter was simple, yet touched on some very large challenges that the typical homosexual had in society—ones that seemingly paralleled the struggles of other civil rights groups. 

History has a way of seeing evolution very clearly.  Looking back, historians contend that the Mattachine Society, particularly between the years 1953 and 1966, was enormously effective in attaining their intended goals.  After all, it had published a magazine, developed relationships with allies in the fight for homosexual equality, and influenced public opinion on the topic too, by raising overall awareness of their struggles and civic disparities.  Further, when one looks back, it is undeniable that the group’s socio-economic visibility paved the way for the gay rights movement and general gay liberation of the late 60s/early 70s.

But by the 1960s, as the group was seemingly winding down, the various unaffiliated Mattachine Societies--especially the Mattachine Societies of San Francisco and New York--were among the foremost gay rights groups in the United States—definitely with the highest social visibility.  Society at large was changing, and it had never been more visible as it was with the proliferation of the mass media, fueled by initiatives such as the publication of The Ladder.  However, following the dramatic and contentious Stonewall riots of 1969, the group began increasingly to be seen as too traditional, too conformist, and generally, not confrontational enough.  Ultimately, the group lost its social “bite”. 

Like the divide that occurred within the Civil Rights Movement, the late-60s and the 70s brought a new generation of activists, many of whom felt that the gay rights movement needed to endorse a larger and more radical agenda to address other forms of oppression, such as the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution.  Several unaffiliated entities that went under the name Mattachine eventually lost support or fell prey to internal division, as a result.  Slowly, and over the course of many years, the group just fell apart.  However, as historians, it’s important that we recognize this group as being at the forefront of social justice change for gay and lesbian Americans--particularly when you consider the “conformist” pulse of McCarthyist, 50s, “Red Scare” America.

[Music Out]

Thank you for listening to the Mattachine Podcast.  This episode was researched, written, narrated, and produced by Brad Dunshee—yours truly.  Our logo was designed by Matt Smith. 

If you want to support this podcast, including costs associated with producing it, please visit patreon.com/mattachine.  Any amount is extremely appreciated, to keep this thing going.

In an ongoing effort to bring you fresh LGBT stories week after week, please email us at mattachinepod@gmail.com with episode suggestions.  We’ll do our best to get these into the editorial calendar.  If you like the show, please tell your friends, and please subscribe to us in your favorite podcast app.  We love reviews, so please feel free to leave one of those, as well—it really helps get the word out.  We’ll be back next week with another episode about our LGBT history, so until then, please be good to one another.

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Compton's Cafeteria Riot

Compton's Cafeteria Riot