November, 11 — Mattachine Society founded
On November 11, 1950, five men met for the first meeting of the Mattachine Society, the most influential pre-Stonewall organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. They were Harry Hay, Rudi Gernreich, Dale Jennings, Chuck Rowland and Bob Hull, and James Gruber and his boyfriend Konrad Stevens joined within a year.
More history, including rarely-seen documents, after the jump.
Harry Hay had first conceived of the Mattachine as an “International Bachelors Fraternal Order for Peace and Social Dignity,” to be referred to as “Bachelors’ Anonymous,” but talks with Rudi had convinced him to revamp the idea into an organization for social change, and Gruber was the source of the Mattachine name, after a group of French masked fools that could speak truth to power.
Hay had long been a member and organizer in the Communist Party, and knew the necessity for secrecy if the Mattachine Society was to flourish. He organized the new society along “guild lines,” really basing it off of the Communist cell organizational structure. It was intentionally confusing, with all of the official officers (Hay’s mother and Stevens’ sister among them) serving as figureheads.
By 1952, outrage over corruption in their ranks had led the LAPD to respond by stepping up vice busts, specifically targeting gay men with entrapment, leading to “vag-lewd” charges. In April 1952, a vice officer followed Jennings home from MacArthur Park and arrested him in his home for being gay. The Mattachine Society mobilized as the Citizens’ Committee to Outlaw Entrapment and enlisted Long Beach attorney George Sibley, a straight ally who had worked with the ACLU and organized labor.
Jennings’ ten day trial ended in acquittal and a stern rebuke to the LAPD from both judge and jury over their persecution of LGBT citizens, and made Mattachine famous among liberals and the LGBT community.
It was, ironically, this surge of success that led to the ouster of Harry Hay. New members had little use for Hay’s byzantine organizational structure, and the McCarthyism that dominated public discourse meant that there were legitimate fears of having Mattachine discredited as a Communist front group. An attempt to ratify a new constitution in 1953 led to the “unmasking” of the original members, an anti-Soviet resolution and a statement against “-isms,” as well as an official policy of non-confrontation.
Scholars of LGBT history debate the impact of the reorganization — it sidelined many radical members, and may have decreased relevancy, but ONE Magazine (published by the Mattachine Society) was influential both in communicating nascent American LGBT culture and in winning important legal victories for LGBT people. Regardless of its eventually supplanting by the Gay Liberation movement, the Mattachine Society was the first sustained LGBT organization in America, and its members led the fight on issues from obscenity to acceptance.
All images courtesy ONE Archives at USC