I would not have survived long in the Mattachine Society. The organization’s own founders were ousted in its third year. Even five cisgender white men were considered too radical to run a homosexual group seeking respectability, especially one fearful of FBI infiltration. Although the society was founded in 1950 in order to declare homosexuals a cultural minority and became the first successful American homosexual rights organization, the leaders who overthrew the proud founders were determined to declare us a group just like everyone else in mainstream society. Their lack of pride in their queerness took the organization down a narrow path. It’s a story I began studying in 2015 in order to produce my podcast, Mattachine: A Serialized Story in Gay History.
The conservatives of the Mattachine Society believed that, despite our queer existence, there was no special queer culture: queers had no unique identity or perspective on life. It was a form of self-protection, even as the FBI was collecting Mattachine publications and showing up on the founders’ doorsteps. The conservatives wished to come out of the closet quietly, to get in line with mainstream society, and make no disruptions. Never ask too much in the way of human rights, they said, never wear clothes of the wrong gender or swish down a sidewalk, but always remain loyal to the American family values in which you can never participate. For maintain the safety of its members, they pushed out the communists and the femmes. The new iteration of the Mattachine Society asserted its homosexuality meekly.
This deviation from the organization’s original purpose was its undoing, though it would take many years for the new leaders to see the results. They spent their time building a membership of well-behaved homosexuals in suits and ties, but their numbers faded after Stonewall. The bricks thrown by trans women of color at police officers were a far more powerful message for the queer minority than assimilationist “masculine” white men pushing other queers out of their own community in order to look wholesome.
Reading these stories, I learned that pride is a tricky trait to commit to. When I began my research on the Mattachine Society, I had been out of the closet for eight years, and I considered myself proud: very openly gay and happy to talk to anyone about it. The research revealed a long history in our community of queer people who were proud the way my friends and I are proud, but I also heard the original voices that are now echoed in “masc4masc” dating profiles, the voices that protest that the the too feminine and polished “yas” queens, the Jonathan Van Ness types, make us look bad. The swishing step makes us targets for abuse. The dirty details of queer sex are too vulgar to discuss among straight friends, and brought up only with hesitation among gay friends. However proud I might have considered myself, the conservative Mattachine’s values still felt almost intuitive to me.
I had beaten the faint “gay lisp” out of my own voice a decade ago after I stopped my freshman biology class cold while loudly using my real voice to joke with a girl three rows behind me. Of all the students, her chilly stare was the most terrifying. Mattachine cofounder Dale Jennings said, “Why fear? We do no wrong. Moderation is a form of fear. . . . We accept the enemy’s own evaluation of us when we fear.” But in my research, I saw the angry, prideful reactions of the feminine men of the 1950s to the Mattachine’s cold glares.
Over time, I felt the sibilant consonants I’d repressed for so many years making their own way into conversation. My gait relaxed into a less rigid movement that felt more natural to me, what the second wave of Mattachine leaders called a “swish.” I became happier, more comfortable, and more understanding of discomfort I had always ignored. Pride is a daily protest. It also begins to feel intuitive.
Living with confidence in our differences from heteronormative society is how we cultivate unique perspectives, diverse art, our own language, and inside humor: Vaaaaaanjie.
We diversify and improve society by living with pride. When people see us swish down the sidewalks with pride, we’re showing them how to embrace their own queerness. We reveal that the world is queerer than the cis heteros assume. And when more of us are seen, we still give the conservative Mattachinos something that they wanted all along: normalcy.
After doing all the research, my “boy” clothes began to feel wrong. My sneakers, I realized, weren’t really my thing. My haircut was not mine. The facial hair I hid behind certainly was not right. Makeup completed my face. It sent the right message to people looking at me. Pink walls made me feel more at home. Flowers in the window did, too. They/them pronouns announced me as a person, not a person cornered into assumed expectations and limitations. I feel proud to have grown past the organization I obsessively researched, though I still admire its members for their work.
As the Mattachine Society pushed forward into the 60s it adopted a new logo of a court jester, inspired by the Société Mattachine, the Renaissance group of masked bachelors from which the organization had lifted its name. The jester stands in profile, holding up a marotte, or puppet, of himself, which stares back at him. With the other hand, the jester points his finger at the puppet, scolding him. The members of the Mattachine Society unknowingly did the same thing, criticizing their own appearance with a stern finger, but they entertained no one. The logo was printed on their conservative publications, and is featured on the artwork for my podcast as I follow the organization’s story. The jester’s mask is only for himself. He has to perform with pride in order for anyone else to listen.
As cofounder Chuck Rowland had said at the 1953 opening of the first Mattachine convention:
Of what does this pride consist? Is it made up of the idea that we are of finer clay, that we are more intelligent or have produced more geniuses or actors or writers or poets or musicians than other groups? No, it is none of these things. It is, rather an expression of our new confidence that we are a minority, with a culture we can create, work, and produce in the interests of society.