The Mattachine Society was founded in LA in 1950 by Harry Hay and a number of his friends. Hay conceived of an “international…fraternal order” to serve as “a service and welfare organization devoted to the protection and improvement of Society’s Androgynous Minority”. He had tried to form a similar political activist group in 1948 in support of a Progressive presidential candidate, but it never got off the ground. Over the following two years, Hay worked hard on the model of a queer emancipation group which could be politically engaged on a public stage.
Originally meeting under the banner Society of Fools, the name Mattachine Society — which references anti-monarchy Medieval French societies of masked men who used anonymity in order to be critical of the establishment — was adopted a year later.
Originally the Mattachine’s organisation was modelled after the American Communist Party: different levels of membership required increased commitment and involvement, and information was closely guarded from lower level members. The founders were anonymous, and the society existed as a collection of independent cells.
In February 1952, one of the founding members, Dale Jennings, was arrested in an LA park and charged with lewd conduct. Rather than keeping the case quiet, the Mattachine decided it was the perfect vehicle to publicise their cause. During his trial, Jennings admitted to being homosexual but claimed the police had entrapped him and he was innocent of the crime of which he was accused. The jury were deadlocked, and the Mattachine declared the verdict a victory.
Membership of the Mattachine soared following the trial, with over 2,000 Californians joining by May 1953, and average meetings attracting in excess of a hundred people. With the increased membership, the Mattachine underwent another significant change. The early members had been members or, or heavily influenced by, the American Communist Party, and as the Red Scare witch-hunt of Communists in America took over, the society distanced itself from its founding members, including Hay, despite the fact he had been dismissed from the ACP when he informed them of his work with the Mattachine.
Under new leadership, the society moved away from the radical-left policies of its founders and adopted a more conservative, assimilationist approach. While unpopular with the early members — numbers declined significantly following the ousting of the old leaders and the change of direction — nonetheless the Mattachine proved effective in engaging the public: producing a magazine, influencing political opinion, and developing relationships with other civil rights groups who would become important allies.
The Mattachine expanded from LA, with branches opening in San Francisco, Washington, and New York, which were at the forefront of the gay rights movement through the 1960s. By the end of the decade, however, faced with increasing hostility and even deliberate targeting from law enforcement, and with an eye to more effective civil rights movements which didn’t solely rely on pacifism, the queer community in America was at breaking point and prepared to lash out. Following the Stonewall Riots, the Mattachine was seen as too conservative, too apologist, too white and middle class, and too much part of the establishment which had kept the community downtrodden for years. As the 1970s brought a new generation of activists, the Mattachine and its methods fell by the wayside in favour of more aggressive political agitation.