Mattachine: Radical Roots of Gay Liberation
You can’t hardly separate homosexuals from subversives ... A man of low morality is a menace to the government, whatever he is, and they are all tied up together. Senator Wherry in New York Post, 1950
It may come as a surprise that the gay movement not only began in the 1950s, but that its founders were former communists and radicals. Harry Hay, who wrote the first call for a gay movement in 1948, had been a party member for 20 years, active in labor organizing and cultural work. The fact that these organizers had already spent most of their lives outside the mainstream no doubt prepared them for the risks involved in forming a gay organization.
The modern gay movement in America began in Los Angeles, a city that symbolized the mobile, affluent lifestyle of Americans after the War. The Mattachine Foundation (to be distinguished from the post-1953 Mattachine Society) was formed in the winter of 1950 by a group of seven gay men gathered together by Hay. The name refers to the medieval Mattachines, troupes of men who traveled from village to village, taking up the cause of social justice in their ballads and dramas. By sharing and analyzing their personal experience as gay men, the Mattachine founders radically redefined the meaning of being gay and devised a comprehensive program for cultural and political liberation.
In 1951, Mattachine began sponsoring discussion groups. Years before women’s consciousness-raising groups, Mattachine provided lesbians and gay men a similar opportunity to share openly, for the first time, their feelings and experiences.
The meetings were emotional and cathartic. From 1950 to 1953 attendance snowballed. Soon discussion groups were meeting throughout California. As Dorr Legg described it, The thing was growing. Never was there a mass movement in America like it. There were tens of thousands of people in the L.A. area involved with it.... You could go to a Mattachine meeting every night of every week, year in and out. Groups began to sponsor social events, fundraisers, newsletters, and publications.
In April 1951, Mattachine adopted a Statement of Missions and Purposes. This encompassing vision of gay liberation stands out in the history of the movement because it incorporated two important themes. First, Mattachine called for a grassroots movement of gay people to challenge anti-gay discrimination. At the same time, the organization recognized the importance of building community: Mattachine holds it possible and desirable that a highly ethical homosexual culture emerge, as a consequence of its work, paralleling the emerging cultures of our fellow-minorities . . . the Negro, Mexican, and Jewish peoples.
This ideal of a gay cultural and political community with a unique place in democratic society linked Mattachine to Whitman’s vision of a hundred years earlier.
The discussion groups proved effective in building gay consciousness. In 1952, the Mattachine founders pushed forward into political action. That spring, when one of the original members of the group was entrapped by the Los Angeles vice squad, Mattachine decided to mobilize the community and challenge the case in court.
Under the auspices of the Citizen’s Committee to Outlaw Entrapment, Mattachine hired a lawyer, raised funds, published newsletters, and distributed leaflets. When the jury was unable to reach a verdictand the case was dismissed Mattachine claimed victory. An acknowledged homosexual had beaten the vice squad and been acquitted in court!
Encouraged by this success, Mattachine took an even bolder step the following year. In 1953, the group sent questionnaires to local political candidates, asking them to state their positions on gay rights issues.
In March, a local newspaper columnist wrote an article about this strange new pressure group, noting that Mattachine’s lawyer had been unfriendly when he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Of course, at this time McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunt was at its peak.
The article set off a panic among Mattachine members, who were horrified at the thought of their activities being linked to communism. In the controversy that followed, two conventions were held and opposing sides took shape. These conventions were unprecedented public meetings of gay people, attended by delegates representing hundreds of discussion group participants.
Conservative delegates questioned the organization’s stated goals, challenging the idea that gay people were a minority. They claimed such an approach would only encourage hostility. Mattachine board members, however, argued that we must disenthrall ourselves of the idea that we differ only in our sexual directions and that all we want or need in life is to be free to seek the expression of our sexual desires.
While efforts to adopt anti-communist resolutions failed at the conventions, the original leadership was shaken. They, too, feared the consequences of a government investigation of Mattachine activities, which would expose the identity of members and destroy the movement. So, in May 1953, the founders resigned, turning the movement over to the conservatives.
Unfortunately, the new leadership shared none of the vision or experience of the original founders. They drastically revised the goals of the organization, backtracking in every area. Instead of social change, they advocated accommodation. Instead of mobilizing gay people, they sought the support of professionals, who they believed held the key to reform. They stated, We do not advocate a homosexual culture or community, and we believe none exists.
The results were devastating. Discussion group attendance fell and groups folded. The small core of members that remained, in San Francisco and other cities, invited psychiatrists to speak to them and sat patiently through the homophobic diatribes of these experts, to prove their impartiality. As Barbara Gittings said, At first we were so grateful just to have people anybodypay attention to us that we listened to everything they said, no matter how bad it was.... It was essential for us to go through this before we could arrive at what we now consider our much more sensible attitudes.
— Will Roscoe
August 17, 2005
Contact: Gail Stewart
For Immediate Release (619) 531-3790
Former Carter Administration Official Joins DAs Office
San Diego District Attorney Bonnie M. Dumanis has announced that former Assistant to President Jimmy Carter, Midge Costanza, has joined the DAs Office as a Public Affairs Officer.
Our office and the San Diego community are fortunate to have someone with the credentials, experience and background that Midge brings to the job, DA Dumanis said. Her public service has been characterized by a strong social conscience and unwavering support of human rights and civil rights issues.
Costanza made history when she was the first woman named Assistant to the President by Jimmy Carter in 1976. She was a liaison between the President and groups that had previously been given only limited access to the executive branch of the U.S. government. Those groups included youth, women, seniors, veterans, minorities and the handicapped. California Governor Gray Davis appointed Costanza as Special Assistant to the Governor in 2000, serving as a liaison for womens groups and issues. She often traveled throughout the state speaking on his behalf. In the early 1970s, Costanza was the first woman elected to the Rochester, NY city council.
Costanza will be assigned to the Communications and Community Relations Division, with an emphasis on crime prevention. As an Elder Abuse advocate, Costanza will be helping to educate seniors throughout the county how to protect themselves against elder abuse. She will also be working with financial institutions on identity theft deterrence. Her contribution in the areas of elder abuse and identify theft prevention will contribute greatly to our number one priority of public safety.
Midge will be a welcome addition to our team, DA Dumanis said. I look forward to working with her in making San Diego County a better place.
# # #
Who is Margaret ("Midge") Costanza?
- 1976 New Yorks Vice-Mayor, Margaret Midge Costanza
- 2000 Special Assistant to California Governor Gray Davis
Harry Hay, working on the Henry Wallace presidential campaign, wrote a startling document, declaring homosexuals an oppressed minority. While the idea is widely accepted today, at the time the notion of homosexuals as a minority was considered absurd. But it was this key concept that would eventually bring the gay and lesbian rights movement together.
Harry's platform for the Wallace campaign was never voted on, but he remained determined to organize homosexuals to fight for their equal rights. Two years later, he met Rudi Gernreich (who would later go on to become a noted fashion designer)[more on Rudi Gernreich at link on this post: post 90 and listing in Henry Hay's obituary post 91] and together they canvassed beaches in the Los Angeles area known as homosexual gathering places, inviting people to a discussion group about the just released Kinsey Report. In November 1950, Harry showed the plank written for the Wallace campaign to Bob Hull, a student in his Southern California Labor School class. Bob shared the document with two of his friends, Chuck Rowland and Dale Jennings, and on November 11, 1950, the five met for the first time to discuss forming a political group that would later become the Mattachine Society. All of the founding members identified themselves as leftist.
Given the fearful political climate, Mattachine Society meetings often took place in secret with members using aliases. Like the Communist Party, the organization was organized in a cell structure that was non-centralized so that should a confiscation of records occur only limited information would be available to the authorities. In 1951 the group of five was joined by two other members, Konrad Stevens and James Gruber, and together the created the Mattachine Society Missions and Purposes statement and held their first conference. Given the risk that homosexuals presented the to Communist Party, Hay resigned from the Party in that same year.
Over the course of the next two years, the Mattachine Society worked to organize and increase regional chapters throughout most of Southern California, but it was not until the arrest of member Dale Jennings on police entrapment charges that the Mattachine Society took on its first political battle. Police entrapment was a common form of harassment against homosexuals during that period. Suspects' names were printed in the newspapers, which caused many to lose their jobs and become estranged from their families. By standing up to defend Jennings, the Mattachine Society not only rose to the defense of one of their members, but also took on the notorious Los Angeles Police Department for its pattern and practice of homosexual harassment.
Jennings charges were dismissed due to the judge catching the arresting officers in a lie. This victory was not reported in the papers, but the Mattachine Society took it upon themselves to publicize the vent through flyers distributed throughout Los Angeles to areas where homosexuals met. The result was a swelling of attendance at Mattachine Society meetings. But the newcomers, nervous about the founders ties to leftist political causes, called for a statewide conventions. On the last day of the conference the original Mattachine founders (Hay, Rowland, Hull, Jennings, Stevens, Gruber) resigned due to political differences with the new membership.
The Mattachine Society grew into a national movement, and in conjunction with a lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, became the above ground civil rights organizations for gays and lesbians until the Stonewall riot in 1969. The final Mattachine Society office closed in the 1980s.