Behind the Mask of Respectability

An article about Henry Hay, one of the founders of the Mattachine Society  Image courtesy of: http://bentley.umich.edu/exhibits/queer/1950s.php

An article about Henry Hay, one of the founders of the Mattachine Society
Image courtesy of: http://bentley.umich.edu/exhibits/queer/1950s.php

Meeker, Martin.  “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and the Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s.”  Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol 10, No. 1 (Jan., 2011):  78-116. 

Subject: A reevaluation of the Mattachine Society’s place in the gay rights movement that specifically addresses just how “radical” or “conservative” the Society actually was.

Meeker’s main argument is that the history of the Mattachine Society has become so standardized in the last twenty years that scholars have stopped looking at primary documents for their judgments and instead have simply repeated what other scholars have said before them.  Meeker singles out John D’Emilio for forming our current understanding of the Society as initially radical, but eventually ousting its radical leaders and then taking on a passive role in which it urged homosexuals to adopt an image of respectability and assimilate into mainstream society.  By the end of the 1960s, the Society was almost useless and was left by the wayside by other, more radical and activist groups.

But Meeker urges us to take a closer look at the Mattachine Society by not only looking at the documents it prepared for a wider, mainly heterosexual and homophobic public.  Instead, we should look “behind the mask of respectability” and observe the inner workings of the Society.  This, Meeker argues, reveals a Society that was much more radical than they are given credit for today.

Meeker asserts that scholars have been right in pointing out that the original leadership of the Mattachine Society was vocally more radical than later leaders.  He calls this period between 1950-1953 the “Mattachine Foundation” (80).  Its successor, the Mattachine Society (1953-1967) was vocally more conservative.  Meeker’s essay “demonstrates that the Society was much more complex and far-thinking in its philosophy than earlier accounts suggest” (80).  In trying to demonstrate that the Society was more radical than previously thought he says that “a closer look reveals that rather than being a cowardly retreat, the Mattachine Society’s presentation of a respectable public face was a deliberate and ultimately successful strategy to deflect the antagonisms of its many detractors…This practice of dissimulation disarmed some of the antigay sentiment in American society while it also enabled the homophiles to defend and nurture the gay world” (81).

The body of the essay presents five major reevaluations about the organization of the Mattachine Foundation/Society.  First, he demonstrates that the ideology and practice of sexual politics of the Foundation was not so definitively radical when compared to the later Society.  “The Mattachine Foundation, accessible only through a post office box, its leaders surrounded in secrecy, and publicly represented on its letterhead by three married women, did not directly challenge the social requirement that homosexuals remain invisible.”  Moreover, Meeker asserts that while the organization sought publicity for its cause, its actual leaders chose to remain hidden.  Even the more “radical” Foundation urged its members to “try to observe the generally accepted social rules of dignity and propriety at all times…in conduct, attire, and speech” (90). This leads Meeker to the conclusion that, “the Foundation was not yet ready to confront unswervingly the demon of public invisibility” (89).

The second reevaluation Meeker demonstrates is that there is much more to the Mattachine Society than its public image.  Through its publications, it established social needs and help lines for homosexuals throughout the nation who felt alone or isolated. “In responding to the needs of troubled homosexuals, the Mattachine Society took many risks.”  Even in an era when “the homosexual youth” wasn’t believed to exist (the medical and psychiatric establishment believed one could still be cured), the Society “transgressed the greatest taboo of all: it quietly guided underage homosexuals out of their isolation into self-acceptance.” “At the same time that it was presented to the public as a group of staid professionals in suits and ties who remained within the law and the realm of good taste, the Society quietly expanded the boundaries of acceptable social behavior and political activism” (98-99).

A third reevaluation shows how the Society built a productive and innovative alliance with sexologists as well as other sex radicals in the 1950s and 1960s in order to change Americans’ attitudes towards homosexuals (instead of just sheepishly accepting whatever the sexologists told them about homosexuality).

The fourth reevaluation has to do with the Society’s relationship with the gay bar scene.  Meeker shows that the Society demanded that all homosexuals receive the same civil rights as everyone else.  This included the right to congregate, assemble, and socialize.  The Society was “vehemently opposed to any laws prohibiting homosexuals from enjoying the right o seek partners in public, yet it was publicly in favor of laws that punished sexual acts that occurred in public places” (106).  Meeker reveals the Society’s middle class propriety and its beliefs that no one – homo or heterosexual – should have sex in public places.

The final reevaluation traces the contributions made by the Society’s leadership even as the Society’s membership and budget dwindled as it went on into the 1960s.  Meeker argues that the Society died not because it had become inherently unimportant, but because it’s success in reaching out to more gay people meant they overspent on trying to provide more services to them.  Additionally, more specialized gay groups appeared on the scene in San Francisco, drawing membership away from the Society (112).

Meeker’s ultimate conclusion is that the Mattachine Society donned the mask of respectability not to bend to hetero-normative demands, but instead as a political maneuver that would allow them to operate under the radar. “In the 1950s, to agitate for fair and nonsensationalized representation, to ask that homosexuals be shown to the mainstream public as being just like everyone else, was not a conservative demand.  For the homophiles to insist that they were just like other Americans and were therefore deserving of the same rights was to demand what they did not yet possess:” equal rights (116). This made them more radical than they are given credit for.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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Categories: Book Review, History, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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