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The Mattachine Society, Los Angeles

Mattachine Society, Harry Hays, Mattachine Steps, Silver Lake, Los Angeles

Photo by Glenn Francis, 2017, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
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In 1924, a group of men in Chicago established the nation's first known gay-rights group, the Society for Human Rights. However, within months, the organization was disbanded after some of its small number of members were arrested on anti-homosexuality charges. It wasn't until a quarter century later, in 1950, when another effort would be made to establish a gay-rights organization in America. Then, British-born Harry Hay, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, Dale Jennings, Bob Hull, and Chuck Rowland gathered at Hay's home in Silver Lake in Los Angeles to establish the nation's first sustaining gay rights organization. Initially, the new group was named the Society of Fools. Several months later, when James Gruber and Konrad Stevens joined, it changed its name to the Mattachine Society (pronounced "mát-ta-sheen"). The new name was derived from the medieval French secret societies, that, during certain festivals, entertained crowds with open criticism of the king, while hiding their identities behind festive jester-like masks and costumes. It should be noted that, in the 1950s, not only were LGBTQ people mentally-ill heterosexuals, their lifestyle was also criminalized, subjecting them to persistent police harassment and arrest.

In 1952, the Mattachine Society marked its first notable victory, working for the acquittal of founding member Dale Jennings after he was charged with lewd behavior in Los Angeles. Typically then, LGBTQ people were steamrolled by the criminal justice system and simply resigned themselves to the humiliation and consequences of arrest and prosecution. This rare victory, in Jennings' case, drew national attention and new interest in forming Mattachine Society chapters in other cities. Chapters were established in San Francisco, New York, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Hay and most of the Mattachine Society's founders were also members of the American Communist Party during a time when the country was deep in the midst of a "red scare." Their experiences as American communists caused them to be more secretive in how they operated the Mattachine Society than many new members were comfortable with. The far-left political orientation of the founders also concerned some members that their civil rights efforts would be negatively impacted. In 1953, at a Mattachine Society national convention, a majority of members voted to replace Hay and other left-leaning founders with more politically moderate leadership to take the organization down a more mainstream, more open and less confrontational path. Not long afterwards, the organization's national headquarters was moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco and chapters were released to operate independently.

The new less confrontational nature of the Mattachine Society, however, was not widely welcomed by America's gay community which was growing more eager to fight back against discrimination and harassment. Whereas the organization had seen increasing numbers of new members through 1953, that trend went into reverse after that year. The society's national structure was eventually dissolved in 1961.

One of the bright spots in the early days of the Mattachine Society was the formation of ONE Inc. in Los Angeles. The idea behind ONE was formed during a Mattachine Society discussion meeting in 1952 and the new organization was officially established later that year. Although the Mattachine Society did work in tandem with lesbian groups, gay men were its priority. ONE, on the other hand, actively welcomed all LGBTQ persons. ONE also became the nation's first LGBTQ organization to open a public office and, in 1953, became the first to regularly publish a magazine. ONE is now known as One Archives Foundation and houses its archival collection at ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries. ONE is now America's oldest continuing LGBTQ organization.

ONE, Inc., One Magazine, Los Angeles

Cover image of One Magazine, April 1953. Image from ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries.
Use of this small, low-resolution image to illustrate the publication in question qualifies as fair use under U.S. copyright law.

In 2012, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to recognize the historical significance of the Mattachine Society and voted to rename the Cove Avenue Steps in Silver Lake as the Mattachine Steps. A commemorative plaque was also installed at the base of the stairway. The designation recognizes the location as adjacent to the home of Harry Hay where the Mattachine Society was established in 1950. The base of the steps begins near 2355 Cove Avenue, Los Angeles.

--- Radically Gay - The Life of Harry Hay, San Francisco Public Library
--- The Trouble with Harry : In 1950, Harry Hay Founded the Modern Gay-Rights Movement. He May Have Been the Bravest Man in Los Angeles., Stuart Timmons, Los Angeles Times, Nov. 25, 1990
--- The Mattachine Society, Library of Congress
--- Harry Hay - Wikipedia,
--- Harry Hay, John Cage, and the Birth of Gay Rights in Los Angeles, John Ross, The New Yorker, June 25, 2021
--- Harry Hay, Early Proponent of Gay Rights, Dies at 90, Dudley Clendinen, New York Times, Oct. 25, 2002
--- Meet Pioneer of Gay Rights, Harry Hay, Anne-Marie Cusac, The Progressive Magazine, Aug. 9, 2016
--- How Harry Hay Became a Pioneer of the Gay Rights Movement, Colin Bertram, Biography.com, June 8, 2021

Also see:
--- LGBTQ History Made in Los Angeles
--- World's First LGBTQ Pride Parade
--- Historic LGBTQ in STEM, Los Angeles County
--- LGBTQ Population in Los Angeles County