Saturday, November 11, 2017

Today in 1950: First Meeting of the Gay Rights Organization, the Mattachine Society

The Mattachine Society held its first official meeting today, November 11, in 1950. It was one of the earliest gay rights organizations in the United States, probably second only to Chicago's Society for Human Rights. 

The Mattachine Steps in Silver Lake Los Angeles. The sign reads, "Harry
Hay founded the Mattachine Society on this hillside on November 11, 1950.

Harry Hay conceived of the idea of a gay activist group in 1948. After signing a petition for Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace, Hay spoke with other gay men at a party about forming a gay support organization for him called "Bachelors for Wallace." Encouraged by the response he received, Hay wrote the organizing principles that night, a document he referred to as "The Call." 

However, the men who had been interested at the party were less than enthusiastic the following morning. Over the next 2 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." He planned to call this organization "Bachelors Anonymous" and envisioned it serving a similar function and purpose as Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Hay met Rudi Gernreich in July 1950. The two became partners, and Hay showed Gernreich The Call. Gernreich, declaring the document "the most dangerous thing [he had] ever read," became an enthusiastic financial supporter of the venture, although he did not lend his name to it (going instead by the initial "R"). 

Finally on November 11, 1950, Hay, along with Gernreich and friends Dale Jennings and partners Bob Hull and Chuck Rowland, held the first meeting of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, under the name Society of Fools. James Gruber and Konrad Stevens joined the Society in April 1951 and they are generally considered to be original members. Also that month the group changed its name to Mattachine Society, a name suggested by Gruber and chosen by Hay, after Medieval French secret societies of masked men who, through their anonymity, were empowered to criticize ruling monarchs with impunity.
Members of the Mattachine Society in a rare photo. Harry Hay (upper left), (left to right) Konrad Stevens, Kale Jennings, Rudi Gernreich, Stan Witt, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland (in glasses), and Paul Bernard. 
Photo by James Gruber.

Most of the Mattachine founders were communists. As the Red Scare progressed in the 1950s, the association with communism concerned some members as well as supporters. Hay, a dedicated member of the party for 15 years, stepped down as the Society's leader. Others were similarly ousted. 

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 other locales. Due to internal disagreements, the national organization 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.," and was commonly known by its acronym MSNY. 

Other independent groups using the name Mattachine were formed in Washington, D.C. (Mattachine Society of Washington, 1961), in Chicago (Mattachine Midwest, 1965). and in Buffalo (Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, 1970).

A largely amicable split within the national Society in 1952 resulted in a new organization called ONE, Inc. ONE admitted women and, together with Mattachine, provided vital help to the Daughters of Bilitis in the launching of that group's magazine, The Ladder, in 1956. The Daughters of Bilitis were the counterpart lesbian organization to the Mattachine Society, and the two organizations worked together on some campaigns, although their approaches to visibility in the mass media differed considerably. Under a different leadership, however, the Daughters of Bilitis came under attack in the early 1970s for "siding" with Mattachine groups rather than with the new separatist feminist organizations.

The primary goals of the society were to:
  • "Unify homosexuals isolated from their own kind";
  • "Educate homosexuals and heterosexuals toward an ethical homosexual culture paralleling the cultures of the Negro, Mexican and Jewish peoples";
  • "Lead the more socially conscious homosexual to provide leadership to the whole mass of social variants"; and
  • "Assist gays who are victimized daily as a result of oppression".
In the early 1950s, the group expanded rapidly, with founders estimating membership in California by May 1953 at more than 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 becoming involved. With that growth came concern about the radical left slant of the organization. In particular, Hal Call and others out of San Francisco along with Ken Burns from Los Angeles 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 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 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. Other historians contend that the Mattachine Society between 1953 and 1966 was enormously effective as it published a magazine, developed relationships with allies in the fight for homosexual equality, and influenced public opinion on the topic too.

During the 1960s, the various unaffiliated Mattachine Societies, especially the Mattachine Society in San Francisco and MSNY, were among the foremost gay rights groups in the United States, but beginning in the middle 1960s and, especially, following the Stonewall riots of 1969, they began increasingly to be seen as too traditional, and not willing enough to be confrontational. Like the divide that occurred within the Civil Rights Movement, the late 1960s and the 1970s 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, 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.

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