If you are unaware, The Mattachine Society were one of the earliest gay rights organisations in the United States that worked to support one another during the strict regime of their pre-gay rights era.
Founded in Los Angeles, 1950, they were the second known homophile group in the US following Chicago’s Society for Human Rights.
Former Communist Harry Hay created the society following a number of failed attempts at forming a group with similar intentions years prior. On November 11th, he held a meeting at his home with his lover, Rudi Gernreich, an Austrian refugee, couple Chuck Rowland and Bob Hull, and friend Dale Jennings. Together they established the first meeting of the Society of Fools, which was later to become The Mattachine Society.
The name, as suggested by James Gruber, refers to the Société Mattachine, a French medieval masque group that allegedly traveled from village to village, using ballads and dramas to point out social injustice. The name was meant to symbolise the fact that “gays were a masked people, unknown and anonymous.”
The masked aspect was due to the timing of the groups formation; McCarthy was president, and his witch hunts were in full swing for both homosexuals, and communists. Crimes of homosexuality at the time were punishable in California by 20 years in prison, and “curing” treatments at state hospitals.
To protect themselves, and their careers as well as keeping themselves physically safe, secrecy was of utmost importance; the group rarely met in the same place twice, and would aliases and code words to identify one another.
The Mattachine’s Goals:
1. Unify homosexuals isolated from their own kind
2. Educate homosexuals and heterosexuals toward an ethical homosexual culture paralleling cultures of the Negro, Mexican and Jewish peoples.
3. Lead the more socially conscious homosexual to provide leadership to the whole mass of social deviates
4. Assist gays who are victimized daily as a result of oppression
Once the organisation had become officially set up, the group members worked on recruitment, getting word out and holding regular meetings with up to 200 members. As word spread new chapters began to crop up around southern California, as well as larger areas such as New York, Chicago, and Washington. Unfortunately, due to the covert nature of members – the total number of membership remains unknown.
The groups would hold open discussion where members could share their own personal experiences as gay men, and analyse homosexuality in terms of oppression and cultural minority. From here they would hold informational seminars, protest outside of government buildings, sponsor social events, fundraisers, newsletters, and publications as well as liaising with other organisations to spread their cause.
A shift came in the society during the Spring of 1952 when one of the members, Dale Jennings, was arrested for solicitation in a public park, by an undercover police officer. To contest the charges in court, the Mattachine came to Jenning’s aid and fought publicly for his innocence.
They enlisted George Sibley, who was affiliated with the Citizens’ Council to Outlaw Entrapment, to defend Jennings in court. At this time it was unheard of for a gay man to detest these allegations for fear of public shaming, and harsher punishments. Jennings admitted before a judge to being a homosexual, but did not plead guilty to the accused charge. After a lengthy battle, Jennings finally won, when the trial resulted in a deadlocked jury, and the case was dismissed. It was a groundbreaking legal moment as it was the first time a gay man had stood up to police entrapment in court and won.
Although the media failed to report any of this, the court trial attracted membership to The Mattachine Society as the group became more open about their existence and travelled around the US to declare their victory to members of the community.
From 1953 until its eventual cease of print in 1972, a subset of the group; ONE, Incorporate. produced their own monthly periodical ONE Magazine for the LGBT community which in its peak circulated 5000 copies. Dale Jennings was its first editor, and many on the board were Mattachine members.
The magazine was seized by LA postal workers who refused to mail copies on the grounds that the media was “obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy.” Another lengthy court battle ensued and another groundbreaking milestone was achieved in 1958 when the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the mere discussion of homosexuality was not obscene. The magazine continued.
From 1955 to 1965, a second magazine in relation to the society arose from out of San Francisco. The Mattachine Review was a more scholarly, and less confrontational journal that saw a wider reach of people with the ability to make the groups message known nationally.
Cracks began forming in the group in 1953. Following a large influx of new members, a subversive range of opinions split the society. Some of Mattachine’s more radical political actions, as well as the Communist leanings of its founders, put the organisation under considerable pressure and public scrutiny during the country’s anti-Communist era. Members of the society were unhappy with being labeled a “strange new pressure group” of “sexual deviants” and “security risks”, which caused a panic among members.
For the good of the group, and in an effort to preserve their original intentions, the initial founding fathers stood down and allowed the more popular desire for a non-confrontational committee to reign.
While the larger picture of public opinion, and visibility grew; membership began to decline under the new order, especially following the momentous Stonewall Riots of 1969.
Subsequent to this in the late 60’s, and early 70’s everything changed, and a new generations of activist arose believing that they needed a larger and more radical form of activism to succeed with the gay rights movement. Several affiliates jumped ship and by 1980 the group officially disbanded.
Though they eventually came to an end, their message of acceptance, and community continued to grow, and the work they had accomplished proved to create large strides for the gay community which provided a basis for all who followed. They are one of the leading movements in gay rights activism since its very inception, and remain a crucial part of LGBT history.