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The Mattachine Society and the Question of Gay Assimilation
Two roads diverged in the movement
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The gay rights movement didn’t start with Stonewall. Many actually trace its beginnings to the founding of the Mattachine Society in 1950. Even then, the Mattachine Society wasn’t the first group of early gay rights activists, but it did become the first such sustained organization in a long line of covert societies that stretched back to the 1920s in the United States.
In contrast to the idea of pride as protest, the Mattachine Society came to be known as an organization that sought gay assimilation and integration into society by working within existing power structures instead of tearing them down. The goal was to change public perception and thereby law and policy.
Naturally, this attitude and approach doesn’t sit well with today’s “queer” commentators. Writing for The Washington Post, trans activist Evan Greer complained that the Mattachine Society “actively discouraged members from engaging in ‘deviant’ expressions of gender and sexuality” and that “rather than challenge the rigid and repressive gender roles of postwar America, they embraced them in the interest of political gain.”
Well, yeah, the Mattachine Society wasn’t exactly interested in faffing around with “gender,” which wasn’t even conceptualized at the time as gender ideality activists conceptualize it today. It was started by gay rights and labor activist (and avowed communist) Harry Hay, along with some like-minded friends, with the specific goal of ending discrimination and improving the rights of gay men. The name was inspired by the secret medieval French Societé Mattachine, a fraternity of unmarried masked male dancers who satirized social conventions.
I can’t even be upset that such an organization, which championed a specific goal for a specific group of people, didn’t include lesbians (though a similar organization for lesbians, The Daughters of Bilitis, formed in 1955).
Hay himself was a provocative figure who initially envisioned the Mattachine Society as a more radical group. He even organized it according to the structure of the communist party, with an anonymous leadership order whose names were unknown to the rest of the membership. However, things began to change fairly early on in the organization’s history.
In February 1952, one of the original Mattachine Society founders, Dale Jennings, was arrested and charged with lewd behavior. Jennings insisted that a cop had tried to entrap him in a sexual encounter, but he said he wasn’t interested. He was arrested anyway and instructed to plead guilty.
At the time, men in Jennings’ situation often did plead guilty out of fear of police brutality and in the hopes that they could quietly rebuild their lives, often after having to pay hefty fines. However, Mattachine Society leadership decided that Jennings should fight in order to draw attention to the issue of police entrapment. They publicized the case, raised money, and went to trial.
During the trial, Jennings admitted to being a homosexual but denied the charge against him. The jury deadlocked, and the resulting attention caused the membership of the Mattachine Society to swell. Within a few short years, it had thousands of members across the country, with a substantial presence in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco.
As the membership of the Mattachine Society grew, it also began to skew far more conservative than its founders, and many new members and leaders grew concerned about the organization’s radical leftist origins. Because of this, the original founders all resigned in 1953. Hay was particularly opposed to the idea that homosexuals should seek to assimilate into heterosexual society. In fact, he argued that homosexuals were not like heterosexuals at all, and that they had their own unique culture that heterosexuals should seek to learn from instead.
The rest of the Mattachine Society decided to take a diametrically different approach after Hay and the original leadership left, opting to enact change through political engagement and legal action. The organization also sought to find allies in mainstream society and put forward an argument that homosexuals just wanted to live and be treated like everyone else.
For example, consider this 1960 flyer put out by the Mattachine Society that proclaimed:
Homosexuals are different…
we believe that they have the right to be. We believe that the civil rights and human dignity of homosexuals are as precious as those of any other citizen… we believe that the homosexual has the right to live, work and participate in a free society.
The Mattachine Society also joined forces with other early gay and lesbian rights organizations—The Daughters of Bilitis and the Janus Society—to form ECHO, the East Coast Homophile Organizations. In 1963, ECHO set up a conference in Philadelphia on the same weekend that the annual convention of the American Psychological Association took place.
On another front, inspired by Jennings’ court win, the Mattachine Society New York City chapter organized lectures on how to fight arrests. The chapter also handed out cards that outlined what steps to take if stopped by police. What I found particularly interesting was that, rather than encouraging a belligerent “fuck the police” attitude so common today, the cards instructed gay men to “behave with dignity” when arrested, because “unnecessary antagonism will only make matters worse.
In 1965, the Mattachine Society even held some of the earliest gay rights demonstrations in the United States. Over the course of two days, members protested Fidel Castro’s treatment of homosexuals outside of the White House and the United Nations.
The following year, the organization got creative with its activism and staged “sip-ins” at various bars in New York City. This demonstration was a nod to the sit-in, a non-violent direct action for opposing segregation used by the civil rights movement.
During a sip-in, members would visit a bar, clean-cut and dressed up in suits, and tell the owner that they were homosexuals who wished to order drinks. At the time, the New York State Liquor Authority often penalized bars that served gay patrons, despite the fact that there were actually no laws on the books against it. It claimed that such gatherings were “disorderly.” Bars that were frequented by gay men were also often targeted by police raids and entrapment schemes.
Mattachine Society members attempted one such sip-on at Julius Bar in Greenwich Village on April 21, 1966, and the bartender refused to serve them. This resulted in a lawsuit, and the New York State Supreme Court eventually found that patrons could not be denied service simply for being homosexual.
The Mattachine Society was creating incremental but steady change in law, policy, and social attitudes with its tactics, but everything was turned upside down with the events of Stonewall in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. That night, bar patrons decided to fight back against a police raid, sparking several days of riots.
The Mattachine Society feared that the riots could compromise the hard-won changes it had worked for over the years in cooperation with the law. As it already had established relationships with the police and the mayor’s office, members met with city officials and agreed to help discourage further protests. They wrote a message on the window of the Stonewall Inn which read, in bold capital letters:
WE HOMOSEXUALS PLEAD WITH OUR PEOPLE TO PLEASE HELP MAINTAIN PEACEFUL AND QUIET CONDUCT ON THE STREETS OF THE VILLAGE - MATTACHINE.
This caused a rift with more unapologetic and radical activists who supported the riots.
On July 9, 1969, the Mattachine Society held a public forum that attracted nearly 100 participants, the majority of whom voted to stage a protest against police harassment. On July 16, another forum was held where a tense argument broke out between the half of participants who wanted to keep working with the establishment and implementing change from within and those who favored a more radical approach to activism that pushed for reform through confrontation.
The Mattachine Society and its methods fell out of favor with mainstream gay rights activism, and the organization filed for bankruptcy in 1976.
It is unfortunate that a group pushing for sustained change by working with the establishment, as hostile as it could be, was replaced pretty much entirely by more radical-minded activists within the gay movement. At the same time, the desire for more direct and impactful action and for activists to want to capitalize on the powder keg that was Stonewall was also understandable. It’s hard to blame people who were tired of police harassment and of being treated like second-class citizens for their sexuality for wanting a more forceful and radical movement at that time in history.
An indication that the radical activists went to far, however, is that the modern queer movement which has subsumed the gay rights movement, maintains this radical outlook despite all of the political and cultural gains that have been made in the intervening decades. In fact, queer and trans activists continue to become steadily more extreme as even their most radical demands, like sex self-ID, are met.
The current mythology also says that the gay rights movement was always anti-cop because, as the slogan goes “Pride was a riot.” Over the past several years, there has been a concerted effort not to allow uniformed police officers to march in pride parades across North America. “No cops at pride” is now a common refrain.
“For decades, the police have tormented our communities,” wrote Roxane Gay in The New York Times in 2021. “They enforced laws about how we dressed, where we congregated and whom we had sex with. They beat us, blackmailed us and put us in jail.”
But it wasn’t a historical consensus that the way to counter this was to alienate gay police officers and express contempt for policing as a whole. As we’ve seen, many of the men who actually bore the brunt of these laws and of police harassment thought that the way to change the status quo was by working with the establishment. The Mattachine Society even encouraged gay men to be respectful in their encounters with the police.
Consider as well, Stonewall veteran and friend of The Distance Fred Sargeant, who himself went on to become a police officer. In an interview that Sargeant did with us, he explained that it was well understood at the time that something in policing needed to change. He joined the police force with the goal of changing and improving the department from the inside.
“The ACAB [all cops are bastards] people, they really aren't looking to make anything better,” Sargeant said. “Their approach is to tear it all down.”
Another testament to the idea that tearing things down isn’t always the better way to go is that Harry Hay, who was fairly quiet after leaving the Mattachine Society in the early 1950s, jumped back into activism in the early 1970s because it was finally radical enough for him. Not only was he an ardent communist, but Hay was also a staunch supporter of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA).
Like Hay, today’s mainstream queer movement is avowedly anti-assimilationist. And while you might not see open advocacy for pedophilia (at least not yet), a rebrand of pedophile to “minor-attracted person” is taking place among the more fringe and academic elements. Then there is also the fact that childhood gender transition and puberty blockade, with all of its pedophilic under and overtones, is not only accepted but encouraged and celebrated by these queer activists.
The conversation has moved completely away from same-sex attracted people and is now centered exclusively in queer theory. Queer theory views everything through the lens of a power dynamic in which the fringe is oppressed by the normal, even if the fringe are literal pedophiles. However, this new crop of radical activists still wears the skin of the gay rights movement, dancing around in it and making a mockery of those who tried to build a respectable movement that offered the people it was fighting for a real and lasting place in society.
I’ll always have a soft spot for activists who are willing to take the bold steps that are needed to move a cause forward and stake their claim, fighting for their liberation rather than asking nicely and waiting for scraps. But the counterbalance of a side that seeks integration and cooperation is also needed if a movement is to be successful.
The gay movement has always had to strike this balance. When radicals would surface, they were tempered, like how Hay left the Mattachine Society shortly after founding it. Today, the TQ+ has come along with a crop of radical activists that threaten to sweep away all of the hard work that has gotten us to this point, presenting us with another fork in the road. Are we going to let them tear it all down?
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