On November 11th, 1950, Harry Hay held the first meeting of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, under the name “Society of Fools.” The name was changed to “Mattachine Society” in April 1951. The name was chosen by Hay, and based on Medieval French societies of masked men, who used their lack of visibility to freely criticize the ruling monarchs. It is often regarded as the first modern organization for gay rights. Hay insisted that lesbians and gay men deserved equality, writing, “In order to earn for ourselves any place in the sun, we must with perserverance and self-discipline work collectively…for the first class citizenship of Minorities everywhere, including ourselves. At first Hay had difficulty finding people to join him in forming the organization, until he ment Rudi Gernreich (who would go onto invent unisex fashion and the topless swimsuit). Eventually their efforts came to fruition, and the Mattachine society at its larges had about 5,000 members. Their goals were largely focused around creating a supportive, empowered, intelligent, and self-sustaining community for queer people. Following the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the Mattachine Society appeared to the new generation of radicals as too traditional, and began to disband. Harry Hay, with his lover John Burnside, would go on to found the Radical Faerie movement in the Late 70s, which they was more relevant to the to the radical counterculture of the time.
The following is an excerpt from journalist Anne-Marie Cusac’s interview with Harry Hay, which she published in 1999. (The interview can be found at http://progressive.org/mag_cusachay)
Q: And members of Mattachine won an important legal victory, didn’t they?
Hay: The police had a practice of entrapping people. This was done all over the country, but we had a particularly vicious group here in Southern California because of the Hollywood situation. They knew they could get a lot of them. They were shaking down people for thousands in blackmail. This would all be handled hush-a-hush, but thousands and thousands of dollars had to change hands anyway.
This was when we were all illegal. The guys would get some cute little number. And he would entice people to do things they probably would never ordinarily do. The moment that you’d make a pass, a couple of witnesses would just appear out of the bushes and arrest you. So, one particular boy–one of our members, Dale Jennings–was entrapped one night.
The man who I got to act as his lawyer was one of the tough lawyers for the waterfront, who had come to my Marxist classes at the Southern California Labor School. And he said, “I don’t know a thing about homosexuality, but I owe you one because you’re one of the best Marxist teachers I ever had. So, yes, Hay, I’ll handle the case.”
For three months, we went down after work to his labor-front office, which was forty miles away from here. We came out to him–what it was like growing up as underground gay guys. He managed to catch the arresting cop in a lie on the stand. He also discovered that the jury was being tampered with.
This kind of a case had never been tried. It had always been taken care of by payoff. We fought it out. We let every newspaper in the country know about that trial three months in advance. Not a single word was ever printed about it one way or the other by anybody. And certainly not by the progressive press, honey.
Hay: In the only way we knew how–which was to go to the johns and paper the floor with leaflets, or even to go to the bushes and leave things around in the bushes. All the public johns, all the libraries. That’s the only way you could do it. It was totally illegal.
In those years, we still had street cars as well as buses. And in each of the public transportations, there would be on a post a little tin can which said Take One, and there would be some information about the time schedule. So we would stuff ours in the can and paper literally all up and down the aisles and stick it in corners. An awful lot of people learned how to find stuff like that.