The Mattachine Society was an early homophile (person with same-sex orientation) activist organization whose members promoted equal rights under the law for homosexual people. The Society portrayed homophiles as heteronormal (just like normal Straight people) in every way except romantic attraction, and members were expected to follow the unwritten rules for gender conformity in behavior and dress.
In the history of Gay folklife, the Mattachine Society was an important LGBTQ folk activist movement that was midway between activism that apologized for homosexuality and gender variance, and activism that openly proclaimed that Gay in all its manifestations is good. In general, the Mattachine Society was accomodationalist (homophiles should not cause trouble), anthropocentric (tailored to men’s concerns more than women’s concerns), and assimilationist (homophiles should strive to fit in). On the other hand, the Society rejected the view that homosexuality was sinful, criminal, or a physiological-psychological defect.
Precedence: Henry Gerber and SHR
The Mattachine Society was preceded by the Society for Human Rights, founded in Chicago by German American Henry Gerber in 1924. Gerber had been influenced by the German Gay rights movement when serving in the US Army during the occupation of Germany after World War I, and modeled the SHR after Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific Humanitarian Society.
Gerber had difficulty finding enough people willing to put their names on a petition to the State of Illinois for a legally recognized charter of the SHR. With four active members, the SHR succeeded in getting a charter, and proceeded to print Friendship and Freedom, an early publication advocating for the rights of homosexuals. The SHR was shut down after three of the four active members were arrested a few months after it started. Although charges were dropped for lack of evidence, the arrest caused Gerber to lose his job in the Postal Service. He rejoined the US Army, and retired with honors after World War II. The Gerber/Hart Library, an LGBTQ archive in Chicago, is named after him.
Early History: Rejection from the Communist Party
While New York and San Francisco have been considered the centers of LGBTQ activism in the United States, the genesis of the homophile movement took place in Los Angeles. Harry Hay, Rudy Gernreich, Robert Hull, Charles Dennison Rowland, and Dale Jennings formed the Mattachine Society in November 1950. Three of the five were formerly members of the Communist Party. Harry Hay had been introduced to the Communist Party during the 1930s during his romantic relationship with the actor Will Geer (who played “Grandpa Walton” in the TV show The Waltons), with whom he participated in demonstrations. Hay joined the Party in 1936.
After World War II, the early Cold War period and its culture of hyper-heteromasculinity had produced within the Communist Party a Lavender Scare (fear of homosexuals). The Communist Party took a formal position against homosexuality in 1950. Hay learned of the Society for Human Rights from Champ Simmons, a former lover of one of the members of SHR, (Simmons warned Hay about the dangers of forming such an organization). Inspired by SHR, Hay prepared a manifesto for an organization of homosexuals: the International Bachelors Fraternal Order for Peace and Social Dignity. Like Gerber before him, Hay had trouble getting men to join him. It took two years for him to find even four men who agreed with his call for the integration of homosexual people into the larger society.
Unlike the Society for Human Rights, the Mattachine Society was not based on a prior Gay rights organization. It was modeled on the structure and the secrecy of the Communist Party. The name Hay chose for the group, “Mattachine,” possibly from Italian mattaccino, “little fool,” referring to a secret all-male troupe of masked folk jesters (Societé Mattachine) who performed in Southern Europe during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Hay proposed five orders of membership with increasing levels of responsibility, with the Fifth Order or founders responsible for centralized leadership. While the Third and Fourth Orders were never formed, the structure produced a “Statement of Mission and Purpose” in 1951, which for the first time added “sexual minority” to the list of oppressed groups.
The Society added thousands of members in 1952 when one of the founders, Dale Jennings, was arrested for “lewd and dissolute behavior” that spring. With the aid of the Mattachine Society, he contested the charge, saying that he was indeed a homosexual, but that he had been a victim of entrapment by a member of the Los Angeles Police. On June 23, the court declared a mistrial (one juror refused to concede that the accused might not be guilty) and dismissed all charges against Jennings.
The Foundation and ONE
During the summer of 1952, Hay and the other leaders of the society decided to incorporate as a non-profit educational organization, the Mattachine Foundation. They believe this would allow them to win heterosexual support and to conduct research that would support an educational campaign for Gay rights. In October, the Mattachine discussion group in West Hollywood decided to start ONE, a homophile magazine with national distribution. ONE was formally independent from the Mattachine organization, but Dale Jennings served as its first editor. The magazine began publication in January 1953 and, within a few months, had a subscription base of 2000 people.
Visibility and the End of the Foundation
Success made the Society more visible, but also subject to increased scrutiny. In March 1953, Los Angeles newspaper writer Paul Coates received a letter that Mattachine had mailed to candidates for the Los Angeles City Council asking for their views about sex education. In a column in the Los Angeles Mirror, he reminded his readers that homosexuals were security risks and that “a well-trained subversive could move in and forge that power into a dangerous political weapon.”
This alarmed many of the new Mattachine members. Most Americans believed that communism was anti-American. Any hint of communist leanings and homosexuals could provoke the US government into cracking down on the Mattachine Society for reasons of national security. In two conventions during the summer of 1953, Harry Hay and the other founders who had been associated with the Communist Party were forced to resign from the organization, and the Foundation was dissolved.
The new Mattachine organization abandoned its secrecy for a more open membership and a democratically-elected leadership. Its mission shifted from trying to create a homophile constituency to assisting the work of academics and professionals in understanding the male homosexual personality. Hal Call, a journalist and Mattachine member, began to publish the Mattachine Review, designed to open a dialogue with psychiatric and legal professionals in San Francisco at the beginning of 1955. The Society relocated its headquarters to San Francisco in 1957, opening an office at Third and Mission Streets. By that time, Mattachine, ONE, and the Daughters of Bilitis (an organization for Lesbians) were the standard-bearers of the homophile movement and working from an assimilationist-accommodationist position. The national organization was disbanded in 1961, but chapters continued to successfully function across the USA.
Although Stonewall would inspire many Gay people to reject the Mattachine Society and its attempts to portray Gays as respectable, gender-normal homophiles, the local chapters that persisted were training grounds for the activists of the 1970s Gay Liberation Movement.
D’Emilio, John, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970.Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983.
Faderman, Lillian and Stuart Timmons, Gay L.A.: A History of Sexual Outlaws, Power Politics and Lipstick Lesbians. New York: Basic, 2006.
Meeker, Martin, Contacts Desired: Gay and Lesbian Communications and Community, 1940s-1970s. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006.