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Mattachine Society

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Mattachine Society

Mattachine Society
Front cover of the May 1959 issue of the Mattachine Review, an American homophile magazine
The May 1959 issue of the Mattachine Review, an American homophile magazine
Formation 1950
Purpose Civil and political rights for homosexual men
Headquarters Los Angeles, California
Official language English
Key people Harry Hay

The Mattachine Society, founded in 1950, was one of the earliest Communist Party of the United States. In the anti-Communist atmosphere of the 1950s, the Society’s growing membership replaced the group's early Communist model with a more traditional ameliorative civil-rights leadership style and agenda. Then, as branches formed in other cities, the Society splintered in regional groups by 1961.


Alcoholics Anonymous.[4] Hay met Rudi Gernreich in July 1950. The two became lovers,[5] and Hay showed Gernreich The Call. Gernreich, declaring the document "the most dangerous thing [he had] ever read",[6] became an enthusiastic financial supporter of the venture, although he did not lend his name to it[7] (going instead by the initial "R"[8]). Finally on November 11, 1950, Hay, along with Gernreich and friends Dale Jennings and lovers Bob Hull and Chuck Rowland, held the first meeting of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, under the name Society of Fools.[9] James Gruber and Konrad Stevens joined the Society in April 1951 and they are generally considered to be original members.[10] Also that month the group changed its name to Mattachine Society, a name suggested by Gruber and chosen by Hay, after Medieval French secret societies of masked men who, through their anonymity, were empowered to criticize ruling monarchs with impunity.[11]

Members of the Mattachine Society in a rare group photograph. Pictured are Harry Hay (upper left), then (l–r) Konrad Stevens, Dale Jennings, Rudi Gernreich, Stan Witt, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland (in glasses), Paul Bernard. Photo by James Gruber.

As Hay became more involved in his Mattachine work, he correspondingly became more concerned that his homosexuality would negatively affect the Communist Party, which did not allow gays to be members. Hay himself approached Party leaders and recommended his own expulsion. The Party refused to expel Hay as a homosexual, instead expelling him under the more convenient ruse of "security risk", while ostentatiously announcing him to be a "Lifelong Friend of the People".[12]

Mattachine was originally organized in similar structure to the Communist Party, with cells, oaths of secrecy and five different levels of membership, each of which required greater levels of involvement and commitment. As the organization grew, the levels were expected to subdivide into new cells, creating both the potential for horizontal and vertical growth.[13] The founding members constituted the so-called "Fifth Order" and from the outset remained anonymous. Mattachine's membership grew slowly at first but received a major boost in February 1952 when founder Jennings was arrested in a Los Angeles park and charged with lewd behavior. Often, men in Jennings' situation would simply plead guilty to the charge and hope to quietly rebuild their lives. Jennings and the rest of the Fifth Order saw the charges as a means to address the issue of police entrapment of homosexual men. The group began publicizing the case (under the name "Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment") and the publicity it generated brought in financial support and volunteers. Jennings admitted during his trial to being a homosexual but insisted he was not guilty of the specific charge. The jury deadlocked and Mattachine declared victory.[14]


The Mattachine Society was named by Harry Hay at the suggestion of James Gruber, inspired by a French medieval and renaissance masque group he had studied while preparing a course on the history of popular music for a workers' education project. In a 1976 interview with Jonathan Ned Katz, Hay was asked the origin of the name Mattachine. He mentioned the medieval-Renaissance French Sociétés Joyeuses:

One masque group was known as the "Société Mattachine." These societies, lifelong secret fraternities of unmarried townsmen who never performed in public unmasked, were dedicated to going out into the countryside and conducting dances and rituals during the Feast of Fools, at the Vernal Equinox. Sometimes these dance rituals, or masques, were peasant protests against oppression—with the maskers, in the people’s name, receiving the brunt of a given lord’s vicious retaliation. So we took the name Mattachine because we felt that we 1950s Gays were also a masked people, unknown and anonymous, who might become engaged in morale building and helping ourselves and others, through struggle, to move toward total redress and change.
—Jonathan Katz, Gay American History. Crowell Publishers, 1974.[15]

This French group was named in turn after Mattaccino (or the Anglicized Mattachino), a character in Italian theater. Mattaccino was a kind of court jester, who would speak the truth to the king when nobody else would. The "mattachin" (from Arabic mutawajjihin—"mask-wearers") were originally Moorish (Hispano-Arab) sword-dancers who wore elaborate, colorful costumes and masks.[16]

The Mattachine Society used so-called harlequin diamonds as their emblem. The design consisted of four diamonds arranged in a pattern to form a larger diamond.


Most of the Mattachine founders were affiliated with African Americans. Although Hay claimed "never to have even heard" of the earlier gay liberation struggle in Germany—by the people around Adolf Brand, Magnus Hirschfeld and the Austrian-Hungarian Leontine Sagan—he is known to have talked about it with German émigrés in America, including the Austrian-born Rudi Gernreich.

The Mattachine Society existed as a single national organization headquartered first in Los Angeles and then, beginning around 1956, in San Francisco. Outside of Los Angeles and San Francisco, chapters were established in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and other locales. Due to internal disagreements, the national organization disbanded in 1961. The San Francisco national chapter retained the name "Mattachine Society", while the New York chapter became "Mattachine Society of New York, Inc." Other independent groups using the name Mattachine were formed in Washington, D.C. (Mattachine Society of Washington, 1961),[17] and in Chicago (Mattachine Midwest, 1965).[18] In 1963 Congressman John Dowdy introduced a bill which resulted in congressional hearings to revoke the license for solicitation of funds of the Mattachine Society of Washington; the license was not revoked.[19]

A largely amicable split within the national Society in 1952 resulted in a new organization called North American Conference of Homophile Organizations).


The primary goals of the society were to

  1. Unify homosexuals isolated from their own kind;
  2. Educate homosexuals and heterosexuals toward an ethical homosexual culture paralleling the cultures of the Negro, Mexican and Jewish peoples;
  3. Lead the more socially conscious homosexual to provide leadership to the whole mass of social variants; and
  4. Assist gays who are victimized daily as a result of oppression.[15]


Following the Jennings trial, the group expanded rapidly, with founders estimating membership in California by May 1953 at over 2,000 with as many as 100 people joining a typical discussion group. Membership diversified, with more women and people from a broader political spectrum becoming involved. With that growth came concern about the radical left slant of the organization. In particular, [21] Other historians contend that the Mattachine Society between 1953 and 1966 was enormously effective as it published a magazine, developed relationships with allies in the fight for homosexual equality, and influenced public opinion on the topic too.[22]

During the 1960s, the various unaffiliated Mattachine Societies, especially the Mattachine Society in San Francisco and the Mattachine Society of New York, were among the foremost gay rights groups in the United States, but beginning in the middle 1960s and, especially, following the Stonewall riots of 1969, they began increasingly to be seen as too traditional, and not willing enough to be confrontational. Like the divide that occurred within the Civil Rights Movement, the late 1960s and the 1970s brought a new generation of activists, many of whom felt that the gay rights movement needed to endorse a larger and more radical agenda to address other forms of oppression, the Vietnam War, and the sexual revolution. Several unaffiliated entities that went under the name Mattachine eventually lost support or fell prey to internal division.

Depictions in fiction

The 1995 film Stonewall includes members of the New York City chapter of Mattachine among its characters. Mattachine members are seen leafleting, attending meetings and participating in the Annual Reminder picket in Philadelphia.

In 2009 The Mattachine Society and its founders became the subjects of the play The Temperamentals by Jon Maran. After workshop performances in 2009, the play opened Off-Broadway at New World Stages in early 2010.[23] The Temperamentals received a Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble Cast. Michael Urie, who originated the role of Rudi Gernreich, received a Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Lead Actor.[24]

The Playboy Club, a 2011 television series on NBC, includes a lesbian Playboy Bunny in a lavender marriage with a gay man. The two are members of the Chicago Mattachine chapter.


In 2002 Mattachine Midwest was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.[25]

See also


  1. ^ a b Miller, p. 333
  2. ^ Hay/Roscoe, p. 61
  3. ^ Hay, quoted in Hay/Roscoe, p. 63
  4. ^ Hay, quoted in Hay/Roscoe, p. 65
  5. ^ Hay and Gernreich were together until 1952, when Gernreich ended the relationship (Hay/Roscoe, pp. 359).
  6. ^ Cusac, Anne-Marie (September 1999). "Harry Hay Interview". The Progressive. Retrieved 2009-04-26. 
  7. ^ Ehrenstein, p. 47
  8. ^ D'Emilio, p. 62
  9. ^ Hogan, et al., pp. 382–3
  10. ^ Van, Jim. "James Gruber, last original Mattachine member, dies". Retrieved 2013-12-05. 
  11. ^ Bronski, Michael (2002-11-07). "The real Harry Hay".  
  12. ^ Feinberg, Leslie (June 28, 2005). "Harry Hay: Painful partings".  
  13. ^ D'Emilio, p. 64
  14. ^ D'Emilio, pp. 69–70
  15. ^ a b Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History. Crowell Publishers; 1974.
  16. ^ Johansson, p. 92.
  17. ^ Rainbow History Project (1964-07-22). "Kameny". Retrieved 2009-11-05. 
  18. ^ "Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame". Retrieved 2009-11-05. 
  19. ^ Johnson, David K. (2004). The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 186.  
  20. ^ Loughery, pp. 228–29
  21. ^ Hogan, et al., p. 383
  22. ^ Meeker, pp. 37–76
  23. ^ Brantley, Ben (2010-03-01). "The Churning Insides of a Quiet Revolution". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-23. 
  24. ^ Healy, Patrick (2010-05-10). "Honors and the End for ‘Temperamentals’". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-05-23. 
  25. ^


  • D'Emilio, John (1983). Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-14265-5. OCLC 300567643.
  • Hay, Harry, with Will Roscoe (ed.) (1996). Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of its Founder. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 0-8070-7080-7. OCLC 33333896.
  • Hogan, Steve and Lee Hudson (1998). Completely Queer: The Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-3629-6. OCLC 34731659.
  • Johansson, Warren and William A. Percy (1994). Outing: Shattering the Conspiracy of Silence. New York: Haworth Press. ISBN 1-56024-419-4. OCLC 28026413.
  • Loughery, John (1998). The Other Side of Silence: Men's Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth-Century History. New York, Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-3896-5. OCLC 38096858.
  • Meeker, Martin (2006). Contacts Desired: Gay and Lesbian Communications and Community, 1940s–1970s. University of Chicago Press.
  • Miller, Neil (1995). Out of the Past: Gay and Lesbian History from 1869 to the Present. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-09-957691-0. OCLC 33009776.

Further reading

  • Boyd, Nan Alamilla. Wide Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965. University of California Press, 2003.
  • Bullough, Vern L. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. Harrington Park Press, 2002.
  • Carter, David. Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution. St. Martin's Press, 2004.
  • Dynes, Wayne R. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1990.
  • Johnson, David. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Meeker, Martin. Contacts Desired: Gay and Lesbian Communications and Community, 1940s-1970s. University of Chicago Press, 2006.
  • Poling, John D. Mattachine Midwest: The History of a Chicago Gay Rights Organization, 1965 to 1986 (thesis, M.S., Illinois State University, 2002).
  • Sears, James T. Behind the Mask of the Mattachine. Harrington Park Press, 2006.
  • White, C. Todd. Pre-Gay L.A. University of Illinois Press, 2009.

External links

  • Mattachine Society, Encyclopedia of Homosexuality
  • The Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society
  • Mattachine Society, Shreveport, Louisiana
  • FBI file on the Mattachine Society
  • Documents from the Mattachine Society's archives
  • Mattachine-related correspondence of Franklin Kameny
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