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Mattachine: unmasking a ‘masked people’

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series, part 38

Published Jun 13, 2005 8:12 PM

“We sat there, with fire in our eyes and far-away dreams, being Gays.” That’s how Harry Hay described the first meeting on Nov. 11, 1950, of what would become the Mattachine movement.

The five founders--Harry Hay, Rudi Gernreich, Dale Jennings, Chuck Rowland and Bob Hull--formed a leadership core that met weekly. They took seriously the historic task of building what they hoped would become a homosexual emancipation movement.

Hay stressed that at the start of their organizing they “felt that if we made bad mistakes and ruined the thing it might be many, many years before the attempt to organize Gay people would be tried again. So we had to do it right, if possible. That’s why we operated by unanimity and were very slow moving.” (“Gay American History”)

Social oppression leveled against same-sex love and gender variance was so great, and political repression was becoming such an audible drumbeat, that the task appeared daunting.

One Mattachine founder explained to Stuart Timmons, Hay’s biographer, “It was dramatic because anyone in the early fifties who was gay had a strange feeling of fear. Everyone had experienced something. For instance, picture walking into a bar you’d been going to for some time, not a gay bar but one where gay people had been welcome to drink. Drinks were a quarter there, but one day the bartender says, ‘That’ll be a dollar to you.’ You’d realize with a shock that he didn’t want you there. That’s a minor example.”

Timmons added, “The laws and customs of the era were stringently anti-homosexual; in California, as in most states, any sexual act except the missionary position between a heterosexual couple was a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Anyone caught doing anything else could be made to register as a sex offender. Repeat offenders and those whose partners were minors were often sent to Atascadero state prison and given electroshock ‘therapy,’ or even subjected to castration. Since any public mention of homosexuality was equated with scandal, few workplaces would retain an employee whose involvement with such an organization became public.” (“The Trouble with Harry Hay”)

As the Mattachine founders met to discuss organizing, the “Lavender Scare” was becoming a sensationalized propaganda component of the McCarthyite anti-communist witch hunt. The Senate was making public its report rooting out “sexual perverts” from government employment.

The deep-freeze Cold War climate was meant to have a chilling effect on all progressive and revolutionary organizing. And the Mattachine founders, as young revolutionaries, understood the powers of the state that the capitalist class could unleash. They were well-aware that the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement and communists were early targets of the Nazi state capitalist regime.

Gernreich had been forced to flee fascism in Vienna. Jennings had worked to defend Japanese-Americans detained in U.S. internment camps during World War II. Anti-communism had forced Rowland out of his job as an organizer with the American Veterans Committee.

“Above all, Hay was acutely conscious of the growing climate of repression. With much of his party work centered on cultural activities, he was aware of the targeting of leftists in Hollywood by the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). California, moreover, had its own anti-communist investigating committee whose head, Jack Tenney, came from Lost Angeles, and which held highly publicized hearings throughout the postwar years. The two organizations in which Hay was most active, People’s Songs and the People’s Educational Center, had already come under its scrutiny.” (“Making Trouble,” John D’Emilio)

This inhospitable political environment shaped the organizational form of Mattachine—the first sustained gay liberation organization in the United States.

Clandestine organizing

Hay revised his original 1948 plan for an above-ground “Bachelors for Wallace” model of political organizing. Instead, he proposed an underground organization.

“The first thing we did was set up a semipublic-type discussion group,” Hay explained to interviewer Jonathan Katz, “so you didn’t have to reveal yourself if you didn’t want to. Only certain persons would be invited at first, but later they’d be invited to ask some friends.” (“Gay American History”)

Katz asked Hay where the idea of the underground organization came from. Hay replied, “In July 1950, I was still a well-sought-after teacher of Marxist principles, both in the Communist party and the California Labor School. I was teaching a course in music history at the Labor School, and was dealing with the Guild System and the Freemasonry movement, particularly at the time of [Austrian Hapsburg Queen] Maria Teresa, when to be a member of the Freemasonry was to court the death sentence. Both Mozart and Haydn had been Freemasons, courting punishment.

“This is also the way the Communist party had moved as a political organization in 1930-37, when it had been truly underground. I thought of the Freemason movement and the type of Communist underground organization that had existed in the 1930s, which I had known and been part of.

“So I began to work up the structure specified in the prospectus from the old left and, interestingly, was not too different from that structure employed by Algeria in its successful liberation struggle with France in the sixties.”

Hay described how his thinking had changed in the two years since he’d written his original 1948 prospectus for homosexual organizing. “At first I had not been so concerned with planting the organization underground. The goals and ideology never changed particularly; I felt that what we had to do was to find out who we were, and that what we were for would follow. I realized that we had been very contributive in various ways over the millennia, and I felt we could return to being contributive again. Then we could be respected for our difference, not for our samenesses to heterosexuals. To a large extent that’s what the whole movement was about.

“The 1948 prospectus outlined the basic idea. The 1949 version described how we would set up the guilds, how we would keep them underground and separated so that no one group could ever know who all the other members were and their anonymity would be secured.”

The founding members created a centralized organization with five levels—known as “orders”—of leadership, “with increasing levels of responsibility as one ascended the structure and with each order having one or two representatives from a higher order of the organization,” wrote historian John D’Emilio.

“As the membership of the Mattachine Society grew, the orders were expected to subdivide into separate cells so that each layer of the pyramid could expand horizontally. As the number of cells increased, members of the same order but in different cells would be largely unknown to one another.” (“Sexual Politics”)

‘A masked people’

Hay described the first organizational attempts. “We talked about the prospectus of the foundation, made our contacts with a fighting lawyer, who had defended one of us in court on a Gay charge, applied for a preliminary charter for a nonprofit corporation, and began (as of late November 1950) to have our discussion groups.” (“Gay American History”)

In the spring of 1951, the leadership core—the “fifth order”—formally changed the interim name of the organization from “Society of Fools” to the Mattachine Society.

“One of the cultural developments I had discussed and illustrated in my Labor School class on ‘Historical Materialist Development of Music’ was the function of the medieval-Renaissance French Sociétés Joyeux,” Hay recalled. “One 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.”

Fear of police raids, Timmons emphasized, required that the Mattachine founders meet in secret. “When the occasional guest was invited, it was a standard security process for him to meet a Mattachine member at some public landmark, then to be driven around for a few blocks before being taken to the meeting place.”

Rowland said, “We did not want to lead the police to our meetings, so we did not give guests the address.” They changed locations regularly and kept the shades and curtains drawn—men meeting together in one room would appear suspicious.

Timmons added, “Because they had read that telephones could be used to bug a room, Rowland always put the phone in a dresser drawer and put a pillow over it. When people left the meetings, they kept their voices down.”

‘People were able to bloom’

In April 1951, Konrade Stevens and James Gruber became the last new members of the fifth order—affectionately dubbed “Parsifal,” after the operatic knights on a quest to find the Holy Grail.

Neither Stevens nor Gruber had any experience with communism or knowledge of Marxism. After several months of meetings, Gruber related, “We would meet in various homes, and once, when we met at Chuck and Bob’s, I was sitting on the couch and innocently picked up a newspaper. It was the Daily Worker. I thought it was a gag and made some sort of funny reference to it. Bob just took the paper. He didn’t find it funny.”

When other founding members took the opportunity to talk about their communist beliefs and activism, they discovered that neither Stevens nor Gruber proved to be very anti-communist.

The fifth-order founder drafted the “Missions and Purposes” of Mattachine in April 1951 and ratified them on July 20. The stated goals were as follows:

“To unify” homosexuals who were “isolated from their own kind,” and to create a principle from which “all our people can … derive a feeling of belonging.”

“To educate” all of society—homosexual and heterosexual alike, by developing an “ethical homosexual culture … paralleling the emerging cultures of our fellow-minorities—[African American], Mexican, and Jewish Peoples.”

“To lead,” providing leadership of more “socially conscious homosexuals” to the whole mass of the homosexual population.

The goals included the “imperative” need for “political action” against “discriminatory and oppression legislation.” And they concluded with the need to assist “our people who are victimized daily as a result of our oppression,” terming this group “one of the largest minorities in [North] America today.” (“Gay American History”)

By summer of 1951, the number of discussion groups began to grow. The first participants were drawn from those courageous enough to sign the anti-Korean War petition Hay and Gernreich had circulated on southern California gay beaches. (“The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement”)

The fifth-order group drew up a questionnaire to facilitate the discussion about first-hand experience with discrimination or encounters with police and courts, meeting sexual partners and going to bars, and coming out to family and co-workers.

“Few participants had ever before been asked such questions systematically, and the questionnaire fueled extended discussions,” historian John D’Emilio explained. “Group members speculated on causes of homosexuality, reasons for social hostility to it, and where sexual ‘deviants’ could lead well-adjusted lives. They described the pain of discovering their sexual identities and the surrounding tragedies, as well as the strengths that survival in a hostile society had produced. Together they imagined how life might be different, how a gay subculture might emerge to provide emotional sustenance, and how homosexuals and lesbians might act to change social attitudes.” (“Sexual Politics”)

Hay noted, “The meetings were mostly male. A few women came and protested that they were not included, and after that more women came.”

At first, Mattachine leaders adopted noms de guerre. Rudi Gernreich was referred to as “X” or “R”; his role in Mattachine was not revealed until after his death.

Those who took part in the discussion groups were “petrified that the government might get a list” of participants and feared that “the cops would come barging in and arrest everybody.” (“Sexual Politics”)

“But as time passed and no raids materialized, men and women dropped their defenses, friendships formed, and the meetings took on the character of intimate gatherings,” D’Emilio continued.

James Gruber described the experience: “All of us had known a whole lifetime of not talking, or repression. Just the freedom to open up … really, that’s what it was all about. We had found a sense of belonging, of camaraderie, of openness in an atmosphere of tension and distrust. … Such a great deal of it was a social climate. A family feeling came out of it, a nonsexual emphasis. … It was a brand-new idea.”

Geraldine Jackson, who became active in Mattachine, said that “people were able to bloom and be themselves. … [It] was something we didn’t know before.” She added that, finally, there was the chance to “say what you wanted to say and feel accepted.”

She concluded, “You felt that you were doing something terribly worthwhile for our people.”

Next: Impact of Black civil rights struggle on pre-Stonewall gay liberation.