It’s hard to imagine that only a few decades ago LGBT organizations were secret and furtive, and the threat of being discovered so serious members often feared for their lives. It was in that environment that Harry Hay and some friends founded a radical new organization that transformed the face of LGBT liberation and ushered in many of the freedoms we enjoy today. It was called The Mattachine Society and we owe it a debt of unending gratitude.
The roots of Mattachine lay with progressive and communist organizer Harry Hay in the late 1940s. Speaking with other politically forward-thinking gay men supporting progressive candidate Harry Wallace, he proposed forming a group euphemistically known as “Bachelors for Wallace.” That idea received support, through many still feared membership in any organization connected with queer issues — at the time, they could be evicted, arrested and even medically experimented upon for being gay.
It took about two years for Hay to put together a group that could serve, as he put it at the time, “Society’s Androgynous Minority.” Initially, the organization went by the name “Society of Fools,” to disguise its true purpose — similar to the lesbian-focused Daughters of Bilitis, which intentionally obscured its purpose with its name.
The name “Mattachine” came several months later, inspired by a Medieval French group that wore masks to criticize the monarchy. “Mattachino” were Italian theatrical figures, generally portrayed as fools, who spoke open critiques of kings when others feared to do so. Their name is derived from “mutawajjihin,” colorfully attired Arabic sword-dancers.
Hay borrowed organizing principles from communist groups, forming tiers of membership based on work performed on behalf of the cause. Although queer activism will always be tied to critiques of capitalism, at the time Hay’s involvement in the Mattachine Society posed a threat to the other group he was active in, the Communist Party. He voluntarily withdrew from communist activism, though he remained committed to the cause and party members still commemorate his dedication to improving the welfare of working people and exploited groups.
The group’s profile was elevated after a campaign to combat police entrapment, and within a few years there were chapters dispersed around California. But there was a growing push within the organization for non-confrontational measures. Disagreement over tactics led to a slowing of the group’s growth as the focus turned toward community building rather than disrupting the dominant culture.
The radicalization of the 1960s spelled the end for the comparatively timid Mattachine Society, particularly after effective violent actions like the Black Cat Riots, Compton’s Cafeteria and Stonewall. It was clear that a more aggressive approach was needed; the group declined by the time the 1970s arrived.
Nevertheless, it paved the way for bolder advances. By providing a framework around which organizers could meet, Mattachine provided a crucial opportunity to gather and lay strategy. When the time came for organizers to lay siege to queer-excluding institutions, they were able to do so because of the foundation laid by Mattachine.