Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Mattachine Society

In my opinion, and for many American gay and lesbian people, the history of the Gay Rights Movement begins with The Mattachine Society in 1950. Up until that time, there were some movements in Europe (mainly in Germany and the Scandinavian countries), but American gays and lesbians were far behind there European counterparts. I think that speaks volumes about how homosexuality is viewed in America today, versus how it is viewed in Europe. Somehow it always seems like America is a little bit behind the times, but I digress.

The Mattachine Society was formed in 1950 by a former member of the Communist party, named Harry Hay. A few years earlier, he had some idea of what he wanted Mattachine to be, but his first few attempts failed to attract members. On November 11th, he met at his home in Los Angeles with his lover, Rudi Gernreich (who was already involved in gay movements in Germany), Dale Jennings, and a homosexual couple (Chuck Rowland and Bob Hull), and established the first meeting of the Society of Fools (later to become The Mattachine Society).
Most of the founders were former or current Communist members. Mattachine based its structure on the Communist Party, with different "cell groups" and "levels" of membership. Hay said that the wanted to create "a service and welfare organization devoted to the improvement of society’s androgynous minority".

Mattachine set itself up for obstacles from the very beginning, being as that it was formed by a group of communists in an era where McCarthy’s notorious witch hunts and disdain for homosexuals were commonplace. Members of the Mattachine were taking considerable risks by affiliating themselves with such a group. Crimes of homosexuality, at the time, were punishable in California, by prison terms as long as 20 years and/or "curing" treatments at state hospitals.

The Mattachine’s Goals were this…

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

The Mattachine started out quite radical in its approach of introducing gays and lesbians to the mainstream society. People say that some of it’s meetings sometimes numbered around 200 people. Other chapters of The Mattachine Society began to crop up and down the California coast. Groups also began to spring up in places like Washington and New York. Although some of the groups were not officially affiliated with the original group. Mattachine protested outside government buildings, held seminars, and affiliated themselves with other later groups, later merging with One Inc. Together, Mattachine and One were vital in helping launch a magazine called One (after One Inc.). They also helped in the launching of "The Ladder", a magazine publication of The Daughters of Bilits (another early gay group focused on lesbianism).

In the Spring of 1952, one of the members (Dale Jennings) was arrested by an undercover police officer, for solicitation in a public park. Mattachine gained national attention, when it decided to contest the arrest in court, by enlisting an attorney. George Sibley, who was affiliated with the Citizens’ Council to Outlaw Entrapment, decided to defend Jennings in court. At that time, gay men usually just plead guilty to escape public scrutiny. Jennings declared that he was indeed a homosexual, but was not guilty of the charge. After a long battle, Jennings finally won, when the trial resulted in a deadlocked jury, and the case was dismissed. It was the first time a gay man had stood up to police entrapment in court and won. This court trial attracted membership to The Mattachine Society in droves.

In 1953 the founders of the organization began to lose control of its members. Gays and lesbians did not like the wording of "social deviates" in its constitution. They were also fearful of the organizations links to communism in a McCarthy era. Many feared for their jobs by being linked to the group. In 1953 the founders resigned from their posts. With the founding fathers gone, the new leadership decided to take a less militant approach to society, and suggested that it’s members "assimilate" into American culture and take a less radical approach. It adopted a non-confrontational policy, and as a result, membership decreased. Many members found the group too docile and passive for its efforts. Although Mattachine Society officially disbanded in 1961, many chapters (affiliated and non-affiliated) continued into the late 60’s. After the Stonewall riots, those groups who changed their policies to a more militant stance, gave birth to new organizations like Gay Activist Alliance and Gay Liberation Front.

I think the importance of The Mattachine Society in gay and lesbian history, is its outright bravery in a time when being homosexual could get you arrested and cause you to lose your job. Even much more so than faced by gays and lesbians today. It inspired other groups to form, where there were none before. It allowed people to become less isolated and find others of their own kind. Never before in US history had gays and lesbians met in an organized fashion.

Did you know…

.The Mattachine Society takes its name from a French Renaissance Group called Societe Mattachine. They were a band of men who went from town to town in masks, holding parties and peasant protests during the Feast of Fools (what we call April Fools Day today), They often did impromptu speeches denouncing the political conduct of the ruling monarchs

The magazine "One" was forbidden to be mailed in the U.S. on the grounds that it was "perverse, obscene and filthy". The U.S. postal service was challenged in court. "One" magazine won on the grounds that the court found that, talking or writing about homosexuality was "in and of itself, not obscene".

"Those who do not learn from history, are doomed to repeat it."