The Mattachine Society began as a secret organization in Los Angeles in 1950, founded by Communist organizer Harry Hay and other leftists including Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, Dale Jennings, Konrad Stevens, James Gruber and Rudi Gernreich, a Jewish refugee.
The leadership was anonymous, so members didn’t even know their names.
Influenced by the publication of the Kinsey Reports, Hay conceived of a homosexual activist group in August 1948, which later became the Mattachine Society.
It started in Southern California but quickly spread across the state and the country, providing a space for gays and lesbians to gather and discuss their experiences as homosexuals.
This was a radical concept at a time when few Americans were out and in some places it was illegal for homosexuals to gather at all.
At the center of its approach was Hay’s view that homosexuals were “a social minority” or “cultural minority” who were being oppressed.
The organization would go on to declare that homosexuals were an oppressed minority, that developing a community was essential to overcoming oppression, and that anti-gay legislation in the U.S. needed to be overturned.
However, in 1953, the group’s radical ideals were traded for more accomodationist ones, which stated that homosexuals should adapt to, not combat, heterosexual lifestyles in order to obtain equality.
Historians today argue about the organization’s effectiveness after this, citing that it either flourished and helped make changes to legislation, or that membership declined leading to inefficiency.
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.
Groups such as the Mattachine Society, which had flourished in the 1950s, made way for more radical groups such as the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA).
The Mattachines dissolved at the end of the 1960s, when gay rights activism became more aggressive.
Hay began Jungian analysis in 1937. He later claimed that the psychiatrist “misled” him into believing that through marriage to a woman, he could become heterosexual; the psychiatrist suggested that Hay find himself a “boyish girl”
After confiding with fellow Party members that he was homosexual, they too urged Hay to marry a woman, adhering to the party line that same-sex attraction was a symptom of bourgeoise decadence.
Acting on this advice, in 1938 he married Anna Platky, a Marxist Party member from a working-class Jewish family. Hay maintained that he loved her, and was happy to have a companion with whom he could share his political pursuits; he also got along well with her family.
The budding gay rights activist went on to write a manifesto on the movement, wherein he was the first to view homosexuals in the United States as a culturally “oppressed minority,” a term usually attributed to racial groups. His ideas, however, were not published under the pseudonym Donald Webster Cory until 1951, in the essay “The Homosexual in America.”
A life-long activist, Hay was also involved in campaigns for numerous progressive causes including Native Americans’ rights, environmental protection, and nuclear non-proliferation. Yet, even among his fellow activists, Hay was controversial.