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The Daily Agenda for Thursday, April 11

Jim Burroway

April 11th, 2013

TODAY’S AGENDA:
Events This Weekend: AIDS Walk, Belmont, NC; Women’s Fest 2013, Camp Rehoboth, DE; AIDS Walk, Cincinnati, OH; AIDS Walk, Des Moines, IA; AIDS Walk, Honolulu, HI; AIDS Walk, Las Vegas, NV; Miami Beach Pride, Miami, FL; Ride for AIDS, Pasadena, CA; Gay Snow Happening, Solden, Austria; Tallahassee Pride, Tallahassee, FL.

TODAY IN HISTORY:
First Mattachine Constitutional Convention: 1953. The Mattachine Foundation, founded in Los Angeles in 1950, was the brain child of Harry Hay (see Apr 7), Dale Jennings (see Oct 21), Chuck Rowland, and Bob Hull,  all of whom felt that the time was right to push for gay rights. As Rowland later commented, “We had just won the war. We had rid the world of fascism, except in Spain. We came back and we were going to save the world.” Idealism came naturally to Rowland, Hay and Hull: they had earlier been members of the Communist Party.

When they formed the Mattachine Foundation, one of their chief concerns was secrecy. The Lavender Scare was just getting underway in American, and the group feared that if one member was picked up by the FBI and interrogated, he might reveal the names of other members of the Foundation. To alleviate those concerns, they decided to borrow a secretive membership structure from American Communists, with Freemasonry providing the inspiration for a series of “orders,” with the founding members serving as anonymous members of the Fifth Order, and members in lower orders in charge of local chapters, and with all of them remaining anonymous through the use of pseudonyms. Once the organization structure was set, they then set about articulating the Foundation’s goals: educating the public about homosexuality, advocating for tolerance, and engaging in “political advocacy,” which presumably meant challenging the anti-sodomy laws which were then in force in all fifty states.

The Mattachine Foundation first became known to general public following Dale Jennings’s 1952 arrest in an LAPD entrapment operation (see Jun 23). Hays and Jennings decided to fight the charges, with Jennings admitting in open court that he was a homosexual — a very daring move — but insisting that he was innocent of the particular charges against him. The jury deadlocked and the charges ended up being dropped.

This court victory was a massive public relations coup for Mattachine. Suddenly new members were joining in droves and creating new discussion groups all across California. By 1953, it was estimated that membership stood at more than 2,000 with as many as 100 joining a single discussion group. This exponential growth diversified the group considerably, attracting more women to the discussion groups and drawing in those from a much broader political spectrum, many of whom didn’t share the radical vision of Mattachine’s founders. Some worried that the group wouldn’t be able to withstand an investigation by a Senate committee if some of the founders’ former Communist ties were made public. Others feared that including an explicit call for gay equality as part of its mission would endanger the security of the group’s members. That concern was amplified in March 1953 when Los Angeles Mirror columnist Paul Coates obtained copies of the Mattachine’s lobbying questionnaires, and published an article questioning the group’s legitimacy and charging that its members were “bad security risks.”

New members from Northern California made bulk of the growing internal dissension within Mattachine. Hal Call (see Sep 20), who joined the group in Berkeley, was especially concerned. “We wanted to see Mattachine grow and spread, and we didn’t think that this could be done as long as Mattachine was a secret organization.” But before the group went public, it had some housecleaning to do. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t have a single person in our midst who could be revealed as a Communist and disgrace us all.” The Mattachine’s founders “had to go. Mattachine had to be free of Communists.”

It all came to a head in April 1953, during the first constitutional convention to re-organize the Mattachine Foundation. Rowland delivered a speech which lifted the veil of secrecy of the group’s leadership. “You will want to know something about the beginnings of the Mattachine Society, how the Fifth Order happened to be. … I think it is reasonable that you should ask this and important that you understand it,” he said. He then introduced five of the founding members to the rank-and-file.

The meeting broke down into an ideological battle between two distinctive camps. The first camp was represented by most of the founding members who had set up the secret society. Hay, Rowland and Hull advocated a view that homosexuals were a unique minority, and, as with other minorities, they were possessed with special qualities and a unique culture. The opposing camp, made up of Call, Kenneth Burns, Don Lucas, David Finn, and others, countered that homosexuals were no different from any other American except for their sexuality. Dale Jennings, while a founding member, would have been sympathetic with this group’s philosophy if he hadn’t already left Mattachine to join the fledgling ONE magazine (see Oct 15). He had long argued that the task for the group wasn’t homosexual emancipation, but sexual freedom for everyone. This second camp also feared an FBI investigation, and for good reason. Finn and Lucas were already acting as informants for the FBI and the police, and they were desperately trying to convince the FBI that Mattachine posed no danger to national security.

With the group unable to come to an agreement, the first attempt at a constitutional convention broke down and a second meeting was called for May. At that meeting, Mattachine’s founders grew tired of the argument and resigned. The group then declared the work of the Mattachine Foundation completed and disbanded the organization, replacing it with a new one to be known as the Mattachine Society. Leadership then passed to a new group led by Call and Burns, who called for another general meeting in November to establish a new constitution which would open up the group to greater transparency while setting the group on a much less confrontational path.

[Sources: Douglas M. Charles “From subversion to obscenity: The FBI’s investigations of the early homophile movement in the United States, 1953-1958.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 19, no. 2 (May 2010): 262-287.

Martin Meeker. “Behind the mask of respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and male homophile practice, 1950s and 1960s.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 1 (January 2001): 78-116.]

If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).

And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?

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