The Mattachine Society was the earliest lasting homophile organization in the United States. The Society for Human Rights (1924) in Chicago predated the Mattachine Society, but was shut down by the police after only a few months.
The organization was founded by Harry Hay along with a small group of friends. The group first met in Los Angeles, on November 11, 1950, with Hay, Rudi Gernreich, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, and Dale Jennings in attendance, but was not incorporated until 1954 when a different group assumed leadership positions. Several other related organizations were formed shortly afterward in San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Chicago, Denver, the District of Columbia, and Philadelphia.
The primary goals of the society were to:
- Unify homosexuals isolated from their own kind;
- Educate homosexuals and heterosexuals toward an ethical homosexual culture paralleling the cultures of the Negro, Mexican and Jewish peoples;
- Lead the more socially conscious homosexual to provide leadership to the whole mass of social deviates; and
- Assist our people who are victimized daily as a result of our oppression.
The Mattachine Society was named by Harry Hay, inspired by a French medieval and renaissance masque group he had studied while preparing a course on the history of popular music for a workers' education project. In a 1976 interview with Jonathan Ned Katz, Hay was asked the origin of the name Mattachine. He mentioned the medieval-Renaissance French Sociétés Joyeux:
- "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."
This French group was named in turn after Mattaccino (or the Anglicized Mattachino), a character in Italian theater. Mattaccino was a kind of court jester, who would speak the truth to the king when nobody else would. The "mattachin" (from Arabic mutawajjihin — "mask-wearers") were originally Moorish (Hispano-Arab) sword-dancers who wore elaborate, colorful costumes and masks.
Most of the Mattachine founders were affiliated with Communism and based the organization on the cell structure of the Communist Party USA (i.e., democratic centralism). As the Red Scare progressed, the association with communism concerned some members as well as supporters and Hay, a dedicated member of the communist party for 15 years, stepped down as the society's leader. Others were similarly ousted, and the leadership structure became influenced less by communism, more by a moderate ideology similar to that espoused by the liberal reformist civil rights organizations that existed for African Americans.
Although Harry Hay claimed "never to have even heard" of the earlier gay liberation struggle in Germany - by the people around Adolf Brand, Magnus Hirschfeld and Leontine Sagan - he is known to have talked about it with German émigrés in America, including Rudi Gernreich.
The Mattachine Society existed as a single national organization headquartered first in Los Angeles and then, beginning around 1956, in San Francisco. Outside of Los Angeles and San Francisco, chapters were established in New York, Washington DC, Chicago, and other locales. Due to internal in-fighting, the national organization disbanded in 1961. The San Francisco national chapter retained the name "Mattachine Society," while the New York chapter became "Mattachine Society of New York, Inc." Other independent groups using the name Mattachine were formed in Washington, D.C. (Mattachine Society of Washington, 1961), and in Chicago (Mattachine Midwest, 1965).
A largely amicable split within the Society in 1952 resulted in a new organization called ONE, Inc.. ONE admitted women, and together with Mattachine, provided vital help to the Daughters of Bilitis in the launching of Bilitis' magazine The Ladder in 1956. The Daughters of Bilitis was the counterpart lesbian organization to the Mattachine Society, and the two organizations worked together on some campaigns, although their approaches to visibility in the mass media differed considerably. Under a different leadership, however, the Daughters of Bilitis came under attack in the early 1970s for "siding" with Mattachine rather than with the new separatist feminist organizations. Also in the 1960s, the Mattachine Society of New York was associated with other groups (including the Mattachine Society of Washington) in ECHO (East Coast Homophile Organizations) and, from 1966, in NACHO (North American Conference of Homophile Organizations; see Timeline of LGBT history).
The Mattachine Society's goal was to liberate the oppressed homosexual community and provide a variety of services to the gay community, including referral services for legal and other professionals, and counseling. They also lobbied for the repeal of sodomy laws and other laws that are discriminatory toward gay people. It published The Mattachine Review.
During the 1960s, the various unaffiliated Mattachine Societies, especially the Mattachine Society in San Francisco and the Mattachine Society of New York, were among the foremost gay rights groups in the United States, but beginning in the middle 1960s and, especially, following the Stonewall riots of 1969, they began increasingly to be seen as stodgy and traditional and not willing enough to be confrontational. Like the divide that occurred within the black civil rights movement, the late 1960s and the 1970s brought a new generation of activists, many of whom felt that the gay rights movement needed to endorse a larger and more radical agenda to address other forms of oppression, the Vietnam War, and the Sexual revolution. Several unaffiliated entities that went under the name Mattachine eventually lost support or fell prey to infighting; for example, due to impending bankruptcy, the Mattachine Society of New York was disbanded in January 1987.
Unrelated to the earlier iterations of the Mattachine Society, a group reorganized under the name Mattachine Society in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 2005. The organization was founded by a group of young adults aged 16–28 in response to a sharp increase in heterosexist legislation in the Louisiana State Legislature. Although acquiring a sizable following for a period of time, the Shreveport Mattachine fell into disorganization and was disbanded in August 2006 by its president and founder, Jesse Smith.
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LGBT and Queer studies