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Mattachine victory sparks internal debate

Lavender & red, part 46

Published Sep 1, 2005 12:15 AM

The successful defense of a Mattachine founder against criminal charges stemming from police entrapment in the summer of 1952 was a heady victory, expanding the membership at a geometric rate.

The campaign against police entrapment had successfully taken the organization’s activist work into the public arena. However, the campaign itself had been organized in the name of an ad-hoc, single-issue committee, which provided greater freedom for mobilizing the grassroots effort.

Almost immediately this presented a crisis for Mattachine. New leadership was needed for the growing number of discussion groups. Unlike the small circle of founding members, who built a leadership based on a “consensus of principle,” the gay men and lesbians who flocked to Mattachine now did so because it spoke to social needs that arose from their oppression. However, they did not necessarily share the political view of the founding leaders that homosexuals were an oppressed minority who needed to unite in collective political activism to bring about social change.

These new members wanted to know who the leaders were and where the direction for the discussion groups was coming from. During the frenzy and fear of the McCarthyite witch hunt, all such anxieties were directed against communists. And the founding members were communists.

The secret “underground” structure of leaders that protected the anonymity of the founding core—the Fifth Order—strained the need for above-ground political organizing. Same-sex love was still illegal, though, making the problem of creating a homosexual rights organization a thorny one.

Split in leadership

How could Mattachine reorganize to meet the needs of a burgeoning movement? This question split members of the Fifth Order almost immediately after the Jennings legal victory. The Fifth Order held an urgent weekend conference in February 1953 to hash out their differences.

Most of the inner group demanded the creation of an above-ground membership organization. Voicing the concerns of this grouping, Chuck Rowland wrote to Harry Hay. Rowland argued that the conditions under which the original underground organization was formed in 1950 had drastically changed, and that “a radical new approach” was needed.

Rowland stressed that the new Mattachine movement had opened up “a qualitatively new situation in which even our Junior Chamber of Commerce Laguna Group (the exact type of group the secrecy of the Society was designed to protect)” favored above-ground organizing.

Rowland concluded that he was going to put forward a motion at the next leadership meeting for a convention and draw up a constitution for a new organizational structure for the Mattachine Society. “Whether you like it or not,” Rowland warned, “the subject of discussion for today is reorganization.”

Hay was unwavering in his opposition to reorganization. He believed it would do irrevocable harm to Mattachine to open up the structure at a time when there was an influx of large numbers of new members who, historian John D’Emilio relates, “had little if any sense of solidarity with other oppressed gays and no allegiance, Hay felt, to the long-term goal of building a powerful, militant mass movement for homosexual rights.” (“Making Trouble”)

Skittish professionals

In an attempt to create at least one flexible public organizational vehicle for movement building, the leadership did resolve in February to incorporate the Mattachine Foundation in California as a not-for-profit educational organization in order to take another step into the public arena. Left-wing lawyer Fred Snider handled the incorporation.

The Mattachine leaders hoped that an incorporated foundation could openly conduct research into homosexuality and use the findings to create mass education about homosexual rights. To do so, the foundation could reach out for heterosexual support—including professionals and public officials.

The foundation could also ease the fears of the mass membership in Mattachine about who the leaders of the organization were and who was organizing the discussion groups at a historical moment when such doubts always fanned the flames of anti-communism.

Chuck Rowland, a Mattachine founder, drew up a four-page pamphlet announcing the establishment of the foundation by a group of Los Angeles residents. Basing its arguments on Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s study of male sexuality, published in 1948, the pamphlet debunked many of the pejorative attitudes about homosexuality. “But homosexuals as such have only limited social and legal rights,” the pamphlet emphasized, “in fact, our whole society is organized to keep them completely oppressed.”

Mattachine founders asked prominent individuals to join the foundation’s board of directors.

UCLA research psychologist Dr. Evelyn Hooker and novelist-screenwriter Christopher Isherwood both turned down the invitation, although each reportedly said they supported the aims.

Isherwood argued that he was not a “joiner,” but he donated money to the effort and offered to spread the word about the foundation. Hooker, who had just opened up her study of male homosexuality, expressed concern that membership would open her up to peer scrutiny about her objectivity.

Wallace de Ortega Maxey did say yes to participation in the foundation’s work. This pastor of the First Universalist Church in Los Angeles was known for his support of progressive political causes. San Bernardino physician Richard Gwartney also agreed to take part.

In general, however, the contradiction of approaching professionals and officialdom became immediately apparent. The Mattachine founders, all with communist backgrounds or influences, wanted to organize a grassroots movement that would fight for every right.

The public figures Mattachine was approaching, however, did not share its revolutionary outlook, or even a similar class outlook.

Hay charged that Isherwood was “rude and sneering” to Mattachine leaders. Hay stressed, “Isherwood made no bones about his contempt for our socialist mass-organization approach.

“He told us we were recruiting the wrong people—we should aim for the important people among the film colony, the queens with money and influence, not the workers, not the ribbon clerks.”

Mattachine leaders arranged a sit-down with Dr. Alfred Kinsey in 1953 while he was in Los Angeles on his travels. But Kinsey couldn’t make it at the last minute.

The cancellation may have been more than a scheduling problem. Kinsey may have wanted to distance himself from homosexual rights. Kinsey’s scientific conclusion that human sexuality could best be represented as a spectrum helped equip homosexual activism. But it also made Kinsey the target of the red-baiting, lavender-hating ideologues of McCarthyism.

The Mattachine founders found themselves in the same crosshairs.

Next: Twisting the knife of anti-communism.