On November 11th. 1950, Harry Hay and a group of Los Angeles friends formed The Mattachine Society, a group to protect and improve the rights of gay men and lesbians.
Hay conceived of the idea of a “homosexual” activist group in 1948 after signing a petition for Progressive Party presidential candidate Henry A. Wallace. Hay had planned to call this organization “Bachelors Anonymous” and wrote the organizing principles that night, a document he referred to as “The Call”.
Hay met fashion designer Rudi Gernreich in July 1950 and the two became lovers. Hay showed Gernreich The Call and Gernreich said: “You know that I’m an Austrian refugee. This is the most dangerous thing I have ever read. And, yes, I’m with you 100 percent.” and became an enthusiastic financial supporter of the venture, although he did not lend his name to it going instead only by the initial “R” when signing it.
Finally on November 11th, 1950, Hay, along with Gernreich and friends Dale Jennings and lovers Bob Hull and Chuck Rowland, held the first meeting of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, at Hay’s apartment under the name of The Society of Fools.
The Mattachine Society name was suggested by member James Gruber, inspired by a French medieval and renaissance masque group.
In a 1976 interview with Jonathan Ned Katz, Hay was asked about 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.
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, D.C., Chicago, and other locales.
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 variants”; and
- “Assist gays who are victimized daily as a result of oppression”
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, D.C., Chicago, and other locales. Due to internal disagreements, the national organization disbanded in 1961. And each group became its own single entity
In 1963 Congressman John Dowdy introduced a bill which resulted in congressional hearings to revoke the license for solicitation of funds of the Mattachine Society of Washington; the license was not revoked.
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 too traditional, and not willing enough to be confrontational.
The Mattachine Society eventually lost support and fell prey to internal division.