September 7, 2010

Setting the Record Queer - Harry Hay and The Mattachine Society

If my father could be wrong, then the teacher could be wrong. And if the teacher could be wrong, then the priest could be wrong. And if the priest could be wrong, then maybe even God could be wrong. -Harry Hay

Radical Fairies and the Revolt of the Homosexual! Oh My!

The Mattachine Socity was the second major homophile group in the U.S. - the first group being the Chicago based Society for Human Rights. Harry Hay and Henry A. Wallace formed the Mattachine Society in 1950 - after first conceiving the idea two years earlier - for the purpose of advancing homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle and culture. The name, chosen in 1951, refers to the Société Mattachine from Medieval France, which consisted of masked travelers, who revealed and mocked the injustices perpetuated by the French Monarchs. The name is in reference to gays and lesbians being an invisible minority in the 1950's, thereby being masked from the mainstream.

Many of the founding Members of the Mattachine Society, including Hay, were members of the Communist Party and based the structure of their new organization upon it.

The Society reached it's peak in 1952 during the trial of Dale Jennings, who had been arrested and charged with "lewd behavior". The publicity the Mattachine Society was able to generate (under the name "Citizens to Outlaw Police Entrapment") gave the group a huge boost, drawing both volunteers and attention to it's cause.

The fall of the group came about as a result of the 1950's McCarthyism driven Red Scare. Accusations of communist ties drove conservative voices within the group to challenge it's communist roots, before ultimately taking control following the ouster and resignation of the founding members.

Once in the hands of the conservatives the group fell apart. Their goals were of accommodation for gays and lesbians, rather then advocating for social change. This change in outlook proved devastating to the Society, which entered into a period of extended decline before fading away altogether following the Stonewall Riots in 1969.

Harry Hay though, continued to be an advocate for social change and was certainly not afraid of embracing controversy. One of his greatest desire was for the formation of an organized queer culture, which was also arguably his greatest contribution (through the Mattachine Society) to the LGBTQA rights movements.

Philosophically, Hay was adamantly opposed to the assimilation of queer culture into the mainstream. To put it in his own words: "We pulled ugly green frog skin of heterosexual conformity over us, and that's how we got through school with a full set of teeth. We know how to live through their eyes. We can always play their games, but are we denying ourselves by doing this? If you're going to carry the skin of conformity over you, you are going to suppress the beautiful prince or princess within you."

In the 1980s' he protested the exclusion of NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association) from LGBTQA rights organizations, which at the time were making serious attempts to distance themselves from NAMBLA. In 1986, he attmepted to march in the Los Angelos gay pride parade, with a sign stating "NAMBLA Walks with me". He also opposed Act Up! (a direct action group for improving the lives of AIDS patients) believing the group was too aggressive and macho in it's tactics. His argument went that this discouraged divirsity by denying effiminate and soft men a place within Act Up!.

"The assimilation movement is driving us into the ground," Hay once remarked. Indeed. It can be noted that the change in the Mattachine Society where more emphasis was placed on assimilation, that caused it to die. While his support of NAMBLA and opposition to Act Up! certainly can be considered at the very least controversial, there is no denying his impact and influence on the queer rights movement.


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