Mattachine Society

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The Mattachine Society is perhaps the best known but also among the least understood organizations of the homophile movement. This is largely because the organization existed in several different manifestations, some of which were antagonistic to the others, and because of the tendency of historical scholarship to evaluate past social movements according to contemporary beliefs and strategies.

The Mattachine Society experienced three distinct stages in its organizational history that can be categorized along the following lines: the Mattachine Foundation (1951–1953); the Mattachine Society as a national organization with local chapters (1953–1961); and the national headquarters and local chapters of the Mattachine Society as several independent organizations (1961–1970s).

The Mattachine Foundation was formed in Los Angeles in 1951 and the process of incorporation was initiated in 1952, but it can date its origins as far back as 1948. That year Harry Hay, a Los Angeles–based actor who was active in the Communist Party, met with a group of like-minded gay men and suggested that they mobilize support for presidential candidate Henry Wallace, with whom they had political sympathies. Although the gathering never moved beyond coining a name ("Bachelors for Wallace"), it did provide the impetus for Hay and others to found a group of gay men three years later. Hay suggested the name Mattachine—the term used to describe traveling performers in medieval Europe who staged satires while wearing masks—because he thought that their performances resonated with the experiences of many American homosexuals who also were forced to hide behind masks. Many of the founders shared Hay's leftist politics, including Rudi Gernrich, Bob Hull, and Chuck Rowland. The founders agreed that the foundation should be organized along the lines of the secretive, cell-like structure of the Communist Party, which also needed to protect the identities of its members. Hay also took from the Communist Party and Marxism in general the idea that homosexuals must develop a group consciousness as an oppressed class as a prerequisite to ending their oppression.

The leaders of the organization sponsored discussion groups for homosexuals as one method for fomenting a group identity and minority consciousness. Between 1951 and early 1953 the organization grew throughout Southern California and in the San Francisco Bay Area. The leadership made tentative steps into the arenas of public relations and the law. The Mattachine Foundation claimed a modest victory when a member who had been arrested for solicitation in a public restroom, Dale Jennings, pled not guilty to the charge, admitting his homosexuality but also declaring his innocence. The case was dismissed and the man set free, although the judge's decision did not establish any real legal precedent.

The foundation pursued an ambiguous path of publicity. Leaders of the foundation contacted local politicians and journalists in an effort to elicit their opinions on homosexuality. The same leaders, however, preferred to remain anonymous. This basic inconsistency proved to be problematic. In March 1953 a journalist who had received a foundation mailing did some research on the organization and uncovered little information; playing on the widespread fear of communism, he wrote a somewhat sensationalist article in which he suggested that the organization, with its secretive leadership, might be a front organization. The article surprised and worried many of Mattachine's rank-and-file participants, who started asking questions and demanding answers of their leaders. In a pair of membership conventions in April and May of 1953, the leadership of the foundation abandoned its secretive structure and opened the organization to democratic elections. In a climate of suspicions about everything from financial improprieties and personal misrepresentations to communist infiltration and the aims of the organization, the membership elected a new slate of leaders. Some historians have claimed that the newly elected leaders (such as Ken Burns and Marilyn Rieger of Los Angeles and Harold "Hal" Call of San Francisco) were "conservative," whereas the ousted leaders (such as Harry Hay and Chuck Rowland) were "radical." However, most fail to note that the original leftist leaders were reluctant to publicly identify themselves with the organization or as homosexuals themselves, while the new leadership did so readily and without the use of pseudonyms. This discrepancy begs the question of how "conservative" and "radical" should be defined in the context of the 1950s homophile movement.

At the Mattachine Society's May 1953 convention, the leaders of the foundation signed a document that officially dissolved the Mattachine Foundation and recognized the establishment of the Mattachine Society. Some participants in the foundation shifted their energies to work on the homophile magazine, ONE, which had first appeared in January 1953, shortly before the demise of the foundation. The next two years witnessed a great deal of change within the Mattachine Society. As the organization sought to establish itself, some members dropped away, new ones took their place, and some rose to positions of influence. Chief among the latter group were Call and Donald Stewart Lucas, both from San Francisco. Call had moved to San Francisco in 1952 and shortly thereafter became involved in the Berkeley chapter of the foundation. With his aggressive personality, Call easily assumed a leadership role and began to notice what he perceived as significant problems within the small organization—chief among them were secrecy and a lack of communication. Call was trained as a journalist and, before coming to San Francisco, had even owned a small daily newspaper. Immediately after the May 1953 convention, Call set out to establish a "publications chapter "of the organization in San Francisco and to become the chair of its publications committee. From that institutional position, Call published newsletters and proposed that the organization publish a journal in order to provide a public voice for homosexuals and to end what he called the "conspiracy of silence" surrounding the objective discussion of homosexuality. The journal, which came to be known as the Mattachine Review, first appeared in February 1955. As it became the central activity of the society, the publication of the Review in San Francisco played an important role in shifting the locus of power within the organization to that city. The national headquarters of the organization officially moved to San Francisco in January 1957, albeit not without some wrangling between leaders in Los Angeles and those in San Francisco.

In addition to publishing the Review, the San Francisco chapter of the society, first as a local chapter and then as the national headquarters, greatly expanded the educational activities of the organization. Lucas claims that education was the main priority of the society, but the group's leaders defined "education" very broadly. That is, education encompassed not merely the transmission of information about specific items of interest, but also the complete enlightenment of society, including both heterosexuals and homosexuals, about the scientific, objective facts of homosexual behavior and identity. Although scientists and psychologists had long offered their own "truths" about homosexuality, the leaders of the society were heavily influenced by the decidedly nonhomophobic research of Alfred Kinsey and Evelyn Hooker. To achieve these ends, the society pursued an education program through the Review as well as through the publications of Pan-Graphic Press (a small press owned by Call and Lucas); the research sponsored and aided by the society; public relations activities and work with journalists, broadcasters, and photographers on a local and national scale; exchanges with social workers, clergy, parole officers, lawyers, and psychologists; and the hosting of conventions and meetings addressing the topic of homosexuality.

Between 1953 and 1961 active chapters of the Mattachine Society also flourished at various times in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. Although a few of the chapters amounted to not much more than one-man shows (as was the case with Prescott Townsend in Boston), other chapters, like New York City's, pursued a wide-ranging program of education not unlike the one run by the society's leaders in San Francisco. In New York, Curtis Dewees, Joe McCarthy, John LeRoy, and author Donald Webster Cory (Edward Sagarin) established a regular series of lectures and discussion groups and lent their voice to the occasional radio program that wished to interview a homosexual. Throughout the second half of the 1950s, however, a sense of dissatisfaction arose among the branch chapters, particularly in New York and Washington, D.C. The struggle largely centered on questions of autonomy, control, funding, visibility, and personality, and resulted in the dissolution of the society's national structure in 1961.

Following that formal dissolution, several of the branch chapters continued their work and some even thrived. The national chapter in San Francisco became known simply as the Mattachine Society, Inc., while some branch chapters retained their original names (e.g., the Mattachine Society of New York) and others changed theirs (e.g., the Philadelphia chapter evolved into the Janus Society, under the leadership of Mae Polakoff and Mark Kendall). The Washington, D.C., offshoot, known as the Mattachine Society of Washington, was arguably the most active and committed to political change among the former chapters. Franklin Kameny, the leader of the Mattachine Society of Washington, challenged the discriminatory policies of the U.S. Civil Service and worked to change the designation by the American Psychological Association that homosexuality was an illness. The Mattachine Society of New York outlasted both the Los Angeles and San Francisco groups and played a role in activism in the gay liberation era.

In San Francisco, Call and Lucas continued to lead the organization, which by 1960 had become less a membership group and more of an education and social service organization. A mixture of increased demand for services from the organization (partially due to the vastly expanded public visibility of the society) along with diminishing financial and human resources resulted in the decline of the group between 1965 and 1967. Not coincidently, a new generation of homophile organizations that assumed many of the society's prior functions appeared between 1960 and 1966 in San Francisco, including the Council on Religion and the Homosexual (1964), the Tavern Guild (1962), the Coits (1962), the Imperial Court (1966), Vanguard (1966), and the Society for Individual Rights (1964). Although the Mattachine Society continued to exist as a paper organization until Call's death in 2000, it all but ceased operation in 1967 when Call opened the Adonis Bookstore and when Lucas began doing community organizing and antipoverty work with President Johnson's Great Society programs.


Boyd, Nan Alamilla . Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

D'Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970, 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.

Marcus, Eric. Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights, 1945–1990. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Meeker, Martin. "Behind the Mask of Respectability." Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 1 (2001): 78–116.

Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Streitmatter, Rodger. Unspeakable: The Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1995.

Timmons, Stuart. The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement. Boston: Alyson, 1990.

Martin Meeker

see alsoanarchism, socialism, and communism; brewster, lee; call, hal; chicago; colorado; grahn, judy; hart, pearl; hay, harry; homophile movement; homophile movement demonstrations; homophile press; janus society; kameny, franklin; kepner, james; latina and latino lgbtq organizations and periodicals; mattachine review; one; one institute; stonewall riots; transgender organizations and periodicals.