By Marian Phillips
Marian is a second year graduate student in the Women’s and Gender History program at Sarah Lawrence College.
A year ago, when I began my Master’s research on homosexuality during the 1950s in America, I was certain that there was an abundance of research on the topic. I didn’t think there was anything more to discover that John D’Emilio, David Allyn, Estelle Freedman, Allan Bérubé, and Margot Canaday hadn’t already found. They cover such an immense breadth of information that covers the homophile movement, McCarthyism, red-baiting and queer-baiting, riots, Lewd Vagrancy laws, and sexology reports. As I flipped through page after page of archived materials at the Kinsey Institute Library and Special Collections, I noticed that there is an integral piece of the history of the Mattachine Society and the homophile movement that has gone understudied or completely ignored.
For the purposes of this post I am writing today, I will not pose my question onto the audience (you, the reader) until I have finalized the thesis in a year from now. Today, I present to you a few members of the Mattachine Society that assisted in the early beginnings of the gay rights movement and key figures in the thesis I am crafting. Posts that will follow throughout the month of June that I intend to cover include the Daughters of Bilitis, riots (including Stonewall and Cooper Do-nuts), and historical figures of the LGBT+ community.
The Mattachine Foundation (1950-1953), later becoming the Mattachine Society in 1953, formed in the mind of its founder, Harry Hay, in 1948. While historians debate the exact year the organization formed, most conclude that it was 1950, but Hay conceived of the idea two years prior. Henry “Harry” Hay was born to a well-to-do family on April 17, 1912 in Worthing, Sussex England. As a child, his family moved to California. Heavily influenced by Marxism and communism, Hay joined the Community Party USA in his adult years while living in Los Angeles. When the party discovered that he was gay, they told him to either resist his urges or to leave the party, so he left.
Determined to find an organization that would welcome him for being both gay and a communist, Hay decided to take matters into his own hands and formed the Mattachine Foundation. The organization welcomed homosexual men and women regardless of race, creed, class, gender, and political affiliation. Despite Hay realizing his dream through the Mattachine, Harold “Hal” Call took over its leadership in 1953. There are mixed accounts on why Hay stepped down as leader; some speculate it was a disagreement the two had, others say that Call was a more conservative member and didn’t believe Hay’s communist beliefs could benefit or assist in the growth of the Mattachine.
Nonetheless, Call took over in 1953 and changed its name to the Mattachine Society. Born in Grundy County, Missouri in September 1917, Call enlisted in the military as a private in 1941, and went on to receive a purple heart for his service. Upon returning to US in 1945, he moved to California and joined the homophile organization he would later become leader of. His dreams for the Mattachine were realized when, in 1955, he co-founded Pan Graphic Press, which would go on to publish The Mattachine Review, The Ladder, and other homophile publications. His goal was to ensure that the organization would and could grow throughout the nation, while assisting other homophile groups in their growth. They viewed each other as brothers and sisters of the gay liberation movement of the 1950s.
Call and Hay are only two of the countless members of the Mattachine that are key figures in the early beginnings of gay liberation; both considered fathers of the early homophile movement. The Mattachine would go on participate in legal proceedings, hold annual meetings in major cities, and help gay men and women across the United States. Under Call’s leadership, it appeared that nothing could stop the steady growth of the organization. Starting in 1955, chapters began in Denver, Chicago, Detroit, New York, and Washington, D.C. Some were short lived, while others have continued to thrive to this very day. Come 1961, the national organization of the Mattachine in San Francisco disbanded; thereafter, the society became a regional body.
Despite the disbanding of the first chapter of the Mattachine, the homophile movement continued to grow and change as most do. Today, the D.C. chapter seeks to keep the history of the Mattachine alive and well by digitizing the documents they have archived and offering resources to anyone who may need them. You can find them here: https://mattachinesocietywashingtondc.org/ . Now that we are a full week into Pride, I hope that this post finds you all at a moment of joy and celebration among friends, family, and/or loved ones. For more information on the Mattachine Society’s history, I highly recommend the Making Gay History podcast; links for specific episodes are found under the images of Hay and Call.