Mattachine Society Is Founded

Harry Hay and four other gay men founded the first gay organization in the United States in 1950, soon naming it the Mattachine Society. The group’s creation marked the start of an unbroken history of GLBT activism in the United States.

Summary of Event

In 1948, Harry Hay, a music history teacher at the People’s Educational Center in Los Angeles, was working on the Henry Wallace presidential campaign for the Progressive Party. He proposed an interest group called Bachelors for Wallace to endorse and publicize the campaign. The group did not come to fruition, but for Hay it sparked the concept of a political group for gays. Two years later, Hay, along with four gay friends, Rudi Gernreich, Bob Hull, Dale Jennings, and Chuck Rowland (all leftists politically), met to discuss forming such a group. Believing that prejudice against gays was not a problem that individuals could solve, the founders wanted to popularize the concept of a gay minority and develop group consciousness around this concept. [kw]Mattachine Society Is Founded (1950)
Mattachine Society
Political activism;Mattachine Society
[c]Organizations and institutions;1950: Mattachine Society Is Founded[0400]
[c]Civil rights;1950: Mattachine Society Is Founded[0400]
[c]Publications;1950: Mattachine Society Is Founded[0400]
Hay, Harry
Gernreich, Rudi
Jennings, Dale
Rowland, Chuck

At the time, homosexuality was illegal in every U.S. state, so Mattachine Society (as the group came to be called in 1951) meetings often took place in secret and members used aliases. A cell structure was used (an idea from the American Communist Party) that was noncentralized: In case of a raid by authorities, limited information about the group could be found at a given location.

In April, 1951, Mattachine created statements of missions and purposes, which were ratified on July 20 of the same year. There was a call to challenge antihomosexual discrimination and for building a positive, ethical gay community and culture. Discussion groups provided gays a place to share openly their thoughts and feelings and to feel self-worth. By 1953, more than one hundred discussion groups existed in Southern California. Affiliates also existed in New York, Boston, Chicago, Denver, and the District of Columbia. Mattachine also sponsored social events and fund-raisers and published newsletters, ONE magazine, ONE magazine and the Mattachine Review. ONE was the first homophile magazine in the United States to be distributed publicly. The group’s periodicals and newsletters reached gays outside urban areas, extending Mattachine’s message.

After the 1952 arrest of cofounder Dale Jennings on a sex charge following police entrapment, the Mattachine Society took on its first political battle. By defending Jennings, Mattachine also took on the notorious Los Angeles Police Police abuse and harassment;Los Angeles Department Los Angeles Police Department and its pattern of harassing gays. The arresting officer was caught lying, and the judge dismissed the charges. Although the outcome of the case was not reported by media, the Mattachine Society nonetheless distributed information about the case with flyers, which were placed throughout Los Angeles and mostly where gays met.

In March, 1953, a columnist for a local newspaper, the Los Angeles Daily Mirror, wrote that gays in Los Angeles were a “strange new pressure group” of “sexual deviates” and were banding together to wield “tremendous political power.” The column also linked Mattachine to communism, saying the group’s attorney was a well-known subversive and an unfriendly and uncooperative witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. This publicity worried Mattachine members. Some called for statewide conferences to address the issue.

A strong coalition of conservative delegates emerged at the conferences, and some were determined to get rid of the so-called communists in the leadership. The original Mattachine founders resigned on the last day of the conferences and turned over leadership to the conservatives. The result was a second Mattachine Society, which moved its headquarters to San Francisco.

The new leadership shared none of the visions of the original founders and revised Mattachine’s goals Assimilation;and early gay rights movement[gay rights movement] drastically. They opposed social change, a separate gay culture, the political mobilization of gays, and the idea that the problems faced by gays was institutional. They preferred to conform and accommodate and to assimilate into mainstream society. Except for their sexual lives, they felt no different from heterosexuals. They wanted to present themselves as reasonable, well-adjusted persons, hoping that arbiters of public opinion (professionals such as psychiatrists) would rethink their assumptions and views about homosexuality. Membership soon declined, and a convention in May of 1954 saw only forty-two attendees. The national structure dissolved in 1961, but the New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco chapters remained active for several more years.


The Mattachine Society would grow into a national movement, and, in conjunction with the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis (created in 1955), the two existed as the only civil rights organizations for gays and lesbians until the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion in New York City. Harry Hay’s belief that gays are an oppressed minority was thought of as an absurd idea at the time of Mattachine’s founding, but eventually the idea would be a central theme in the gay and lesbian rights movement.

After Stonewall, however, Mattachine and the Daughters of Bilitis were considered to be too traditional and politically nonconfrontational and assimilationist. Other organizations, such as the San Francisco Society for Individual Rights, the Gay Liberation Front, the Gay Activist Alliance, Lavender Menace/Radicalesbians, Lesbian Feminist Liberation, Third World Gay Revolution, and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries would start the GLBT movement on a different, more radical, and later more diverse, path. Mattachine Society
Political activism;Mattachine Society

Further Reading

  • Bullough, Vern L. Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context. New York: Harrington Park Press, 2002.
  • D’Emilio, John E. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
  • Hay, Harry. Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder. Edited by Will Roscoe. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
  • Johnson, David K. The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Timmons, Stuart. The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement. Boston: Alyson, 1990.
  • Williams, Walter W., and Yolanda Retter. Gay and Lesbian Rights in the United States. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.

December 10, 1924: Gerber Founds the Society for Human Rights

1952: ONE, Inc., Is Founded

1955: Daughters of Bilitis Founded as First National Lesbian Group in United States

May 27-30, 1960: First National Lesbian Conference Convenes

February 19-20, 1966: First North American Conference of Homophile Organizations Convenes

April 19, 1967: First Student Homophile League Is Formed

August 11-18, 1968: NACHO Formally Becomes the First Gay Political Coalition

July 31, 1969: Gay Liberation Front Is Formed

May 1, 1970: Radicalesbians Issues “The Woman Identified Woman” Manifesto

June 28, 1970: First Lesbian and Gay Pride March in the United States

November 28, 1970: Del Martin Quits Gay Liberation Movement

1973: National Gay Task Force Is Formed

October 18, 1973: Lambda Legal Authorized to Practice Law

April 22, 1980: Human Rights Campaign Fund Is Founded