History of the Mattachine Society

7 Feb

The Mattachine Society was born out of necessity during the McCarthy era witch hunts of not just communists but gays and anything that was somehow deemed as “Un-American.” The sad fact is that McCarthy believed homosexuality was something that prevented a person from being not just a true American but an equal person in many regards. He also felt many gays were communists and communist recruiters. What went into his thought process at arriving at these conclusions the world may never fully know, what we do know is he had enough supporters to push this agenda of thought. We also know Harry Hay didn’t agree, and it was from that disagreement that the Mattachine Society was formed.

We must go back to 1948 when Hay was working on George Wallace’s Presidential campaign to get a full picture of all the ingredients that went into this recipe. Harry was adamant that gay equality was a necessity and could only be truly realized through legislative power. Hay worked on proposals and platforms to make this a reality. It is suspected he told Wallace he could deliver the gay vote in exchange for making this a reality. As we know, Wallace didn’t win, the gay vote did not swing the election, gay rights were still a dream when the election was over. What is important is that during all of this Hay met a man named Rudy Gernreich.

Long before Gernreich became a well known fashion designer, he was Hay’s collaborator in the Los Angeles are where they actively sought out gay men to begin working together to fight for gay equality around 1950. The recruiting had it’s ups and downs initially until hay who was teaching at Southern California University showed the platform piece he wrote for Wallace to one of his students named Bob Hull. Hull was so impressed with the document and hay’s ideas he shared it with his friends Chuck Rowland and Dale Jennings. They were equally impressed and on the evening of November 11, 1950 the five met and formed what would come to be known as the Mattachine Society.

While the Mattachine Society was not communist, (Although hay was a Communist Party member) they were leftist, and did in fact conduct business much like communist organizations of the time. With the McCarthy hunts in full swing secrecy was of the utmost importance to preserve their careers and in their thinking safety as well. They rarely met in the same place two times in a row. They used aliases and code words to identify members. Some reports say there was even an honest to goodness secret handshake or hand sign to identify one another. In early 1951 two more members joined. Sensing that his affiliation to the communist party put everyone at risk Hay resigned from the Communist Party in early 1951 as well.

Over the next two years each member focused on recruiting gay men to organize Mattachine Society chapters throughout Southern California. While just how many formed is still unknown they did have at least several known chapters that formed in this time period. What changed everything was when Dale Jennings was arrested on the charge of entrapment. As the paper trail relates, Jennigs tried to solicit a police officer to engage in homosexual relations and was charged with crimes against nature. Rather than leave Jennings to be incarcerated as he insisted the charges were completely manufactured, the Mattachine Society came to his aid. Some members were reluctant, others stayed completely out of the line of sight but found other ways to support him. No matter what option they chose, the society was now known. The charges against Jennings were dropped as the officers testifying perjured themselves on the stand in a rather blatant fashion the presiding judge could not overlook.

While the press certainly didn’t report any of this, the Mattachine Society members decided it was time to come out of the closet so to speak. They began circulating more frequently around gay haunts as news of the victory spread by word of mouth. Suddenly they were seen as defenders of the community and not just talkers. With this victory membership steadily rose and the society went national with chapters reaching coast to coast. While the Mattachine Society was now very well known to exist it’s members for the most part were still kept secret if they so chose to be.

The Mattachine Society continued to grow and fight for gay rights well after the McCarthy era was considered over. In 1969 they joined forces with the Daughters of Bilitis which was a lesbian organization to visibly and vocally fight for gay equality. Over the next several years however many things changed. Some of the original leaders passed away or just grew tired of fighting. Some felt that the society had done all it could and moved on or formed their own offshoots. Whatever the case was membership was not what it used to be, With few members and almost no new recruits joining the Mattachine Society officially disband in 1980.

While they no longer exist what they stood for is still central to the gay rights movement. They stood for the principle that sexual orientation made no person better or worse, but simply different. They believed an injustice against any individual was an injustice against all. They believed we all have the right to lead whatever life makes us happy so long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of hurt another. Simple axioms we still all too sadly struggle with still today.

http://www.glbtq.com/social-sciences/mattachin e_society.html

http://www.outhistory.org/wiki/Harry_H ay:_Founding_the_Mattachine_Society,_1948-1953

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