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Mattachine red-baited

Lavender & red, part 47

Published Sep 13, 2005 8:20 PM

The communist leaders of the Mattachine organization were red-baited soon after they publicly defended Dale Jennings, one of the founding members of the group, against anti-gay police entrapment charges.

Arab-American attorney George Shibley, who defended Jennings, became the target of McCarthy ite red-baiting.

Harry Hay, a founding member of Mattachine, was “outed” in a Los Angeles daily paper in February 1953 as having been a former Marxist teacher. Mattachine itself was characterized by a February Los Angeles Times article as organizing dangerously subversive activities.

In response, the Mattachine Foundation—as the above-ground voice of the organization—hastily published an “Official Statement of Policy on Political Questions and Related Matters.” The document disavowed any relationship with any other organization—which of course at the height of the McCarthyite witch hunt meant the Communist Party USA—and from any political, religious, or cultural ideology or “ism.”

No matter how wise or tactically sound this public statement may have seemed to the Mattachine leadership at that time, it’s hard to imagine that such a political retreat could have provided any respite from the anti-communist Cold War witch hunt.

The defensiveness of the stance was made even clearer by the unanimous agreement by the core leadership—the Fifth Order—that since Hay had been publicly singled out, he had to remove himself from public association with the Mattachine Society and Foundation. It’s not clear from accounts of the group decision how Hay himself felt about it. But he agreed to pass on all speaking engagements to other Mattachine founders and thereafter only wrote under his nom de guerre, Eann MacDonald. (“The Trouble with Harry Hay”)

‘A movement in motion’

With the Foundation as its public face, Mattachine sent questionnaires to all the candidates in the local Los Angeles elections.

Candidates running for the Board of Education received letters charging the public school system with “a high percentage of responsibility for the social tragedy” faced by homosexuals. The questionnaire polled each candidate about where they stood on “non-partisan” counseling about homosexuality in high schools.

Electoral hopefuls in the race for mayor, city council and board of supervisors got letters detailing the “growing body of evidence” that Los Angeles police were carrying out “explicitly unlawful” actions against homosexuals. Candidates were canvassed about their view on these police activities.

Few candidates replied. But the Mattachine founders were on a roll. With new numbers swelling their ranks, they attempted to take this nascent movement to unprecedented heights. Konrad Stevens remembered, “[W]e were meeting very often. We just lived Mattachine. We didn’t do anything else. We never went anywhere just for pleasure. When we went, it was organizing.”

Chuck Rowland wrote to Harry Hay that they had all “set a movement in motion.”

Twisting the knife of red-baiting

The Mattachine leaders were not just vulnerable because they were anonymous. They were also a core of dedicated revolutionaries, most with communist backgrounds. But because they were underground they could not speak out about their political beliefs and try to win over others in the organization to their world view. While speaking out may not have seemed to them to be an option—because they feared McCarthyism presaged a fascist takeover of the federal government—it left these revolutionaries voiceless to defend themselves against red-baiting.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy had taken over the chair of the Government Operations Committee as well as its permanent subcommittee on investigations in January 1953. A month later, while the Mattachine leaders were holding their urgent meeting to discuss reorganization, McCarthy’s probe to find communists in the State Department was accompanied by scare headlines.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), which had terrorized Hollywood with six years of investigations, was back in Los Angeles in March and April, holding public hearings focusing on the Communist Party USA, of which Harry Hay had been a member for 18 years.

It was in this political context of repression and whipped-up fear that a syndicated columnist at the Los Angeles Daily Mirror, Paul Coates, wrote an article on March 12 describing the Mattachine Foundation to readers as “a strange new pressure group.”

At first glance, Coates’ article appeared to be a real media breakthrough. He explained what the Mattachine name meant.

“It is not inconceivable,” he argued, that homosexuals, “scorned” by the community at large, “might band together for their own protection. Eventually they might swing tremendous political power.” He added that homosexuals, “one of the largest minorities in the country,” could exercise a voting bloc of 150,000 to 200,000 in the local area alone.

Pointing to the Foundation’s demand for protective laws against police harassment, Coates wrote that this “scorned part of the community” could turn out to be “a group of responsible citizens seriously concerned with a tragic social problem.”

However, he dropped the other shoe: there were some matters that should be alarming to the organization’s membership and the public at large.

Claiming that he had tried to track down the foundation’s treasurer, Romayne Cox, to no avail, he ran a provocative subhead in his article: “Where is Romayne?”

“If I belonged to that club, I’d worry,” he wrote with mock concern.

Coates claimed to have checked and found no record of the foundation’s incorporation. In fact, Mattachine attorney Fred Snider had filed the papers already, but there had been a bureaucratic delay.

Coates twisted the knife of red-baiting. He reported that Fred Snider had been called before HUAC and that he had been an “unfriendly witness.”

Baiting the leadership, Coates concluded that, “A well-trained subversive could move in and forge that power into a dangerous political weapon.

“To damn this organization, before its aims and directions are more clearly established, would be vicious and irresponsible.

“Maybe the people who founded it are sincere. It will be interesting to see.”

To the Mattachine leaders, the article seemed like good publicity during a period of such political reaction.

“We all thought it was pretty good,” Hay recalled in a later interview, “and so we ran off 20,000 copies to send out to our mailing list and to be distributed city- and statewide. Wow! Whammo! We’d forgotten what the detail about Fred Snider’s being unfriendly to the House Un-American Activities Committee would do to the middle-class Gays in Mattachine. We had been getting in this status-quo crowd; the discussion groups had been growing by leaps and bounds.

“When Paul Coates’ article appeared, all the status-quo types in the discussion groups were up in arms; they had to get control of that damn Mattachine Foundation,” he recalled with sarcasm, “which was tarnishing their image, giving them a bad name. This is when the real dissension began between the founders and the middle-class crowd.”

Next: Left wing loses battle for Mattachine.

Sources for this article: "Gay American History," "The Trouble with Harry Hay," “Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities” and "Making Trouble."