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
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
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
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
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.
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
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”)
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
The Mattachine founders found themselves in the same
Next: Twisting the knife of anti-communism.
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