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Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.1 (2001) 78-116

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Behind the Mask of Respectability:
Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s

Martin Meeker
University of Southern California

The telling of United States gay history after the Second World War is often marked by two key events: the founding of the Mattachine Society in 1951 as the nation's "first" gay rights organization and the eruption of the Stonewall Riots in 1969 at the beginning of the period of gay liberation. 1 Both events are cited as major turning points in the centuries-long struggle for the creation of a stable gay community and in the development of a homosexual political movement. With frequent retellings these events have achieved the status of defining myths along the same line as creation stories: powerful in their symbolism, if contested in their facts and meanings. While the history of the Stonewall Riots has received a great deal of attention and constant reconsideration, the historiography of the Mattachine Society has not evolved significantly since historians began writing about it twenty-five years ago. 2 Still, the founding organization of the [End Page 78] gay civil rights movement has been the subject of many books and articles as well as documentary films and even a staged performance. 3 In the process, the organization has achieved the status of legend, and like most legends, this one has been increasingly mythologized with each subsequent telling. Fifty years after the birth of the Mattachine Society, a thorough reconsideration is now in order.

According to several historical accounts, the idea for the Mattachine Society originated in Los Angeles in 1950 when a small group of homosexuals, influenced by communist ideology, came together to organize homosexuals in defense of their rights as citizens. The hierarchically structured organization was officially founded in 1951, gaining members and organizing chapters in California over the next two years. By 1953, a schism had developed between the cadre of founding leaders and the rank and file, resulting in the dissolution of the original organization and its subsequent reformation under the leadership of a second generation. According to several published histories, the new Mattachine Society abandoned the radical critique of the original group, and instead embraced conservative politics advocating that homosexuals adjust to life in a homophobic society by adopting heterosexual social and cultural mores. The histories claim that this new accommodationist philosophy caused the Mattachine Society's membership and influence to decline drastically. By 1957, the organization's national headquarters moved to San Francisco, where it remained until 1961, when the national organization disbanded and the San Francisco chapter went on its own, drifting further into irrelevance and obscurity. At the same time, chapters in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, freed from the influence of the conservatives in San Francisco, began charting a newly radicalized path for homosexual liberation. 4 [End Page 79]

In his landmark 1983 book, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, historian John D'Emilio first introduced this narrative of the homophile movement--and the Mattachine Society in particular--to a large audience. 5 His study closely examined the motives of the activists and the philosophies of the organization and arrived at the conclusion that the group in its early phase--what I call the Mattachine Foundation (1950-53)-- first articulated the idea of a radical sexual politics, while its successor, the Mattachine Society (1953-67), introduced a conservative sexual politics. In the nearly two decades since Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities first appeared, this powerful, if problematic, chronology has been reiterated time and again, eventually achieving the status of a historical truth in which complexities have vanished. For instance, a typical recent account of the Mattachine Society, found in David Allyn's Make Love, Not War, offers the following thumbnail history:

Although the early founders of the [Mattachine Society] were members of the Communist Party, over the years the movement became less and less militant. Instead of demanding immediate social change, activists focused on forging ties with the psychiatric...