As with any revolution, there was a spark, which lit the fire fed by years of quieter work and struggle which preceded it. Such is certainly the case with the LGBTQ rights movement, which burst into prominence in our neighborhood on June 28, 1969 with the Stonewall Riots, leading to a new, much more aggressive phase in what was then called the gay rights movement. But that movement had predecessors, many also rooted in our neighborhoods, and they did not simply cease to exist after June, 1969. In fact, they struggled to adapt, taking some critical turns, also often in our neighborhood, which shaped the course of one of the last century’s most successful Civil Rights movements.
In the 1950s and 60s before the Stonewall rebellion was, contrary to what some might think, active and varied despite the conservative post-World War II era in which they functioned. It was, at the time, considered quite radical to agitate for the rights of gay men and lesbians to simply exist openly in society without fear of arrest or persecution. One of the organizations doing that work nationally was the Mattachine Society, whose work in Greenwich Village and beyond was marked by both successes and struggles as time passed, though they hit a crucial turning point in our neighborhoods on July 16, 1969, which altered their path forever.
The Mattachine Society was formed in secret in Los Angeles, California in 1950; its New York chapter was formed in December 1955 as the city’s first gay rights group. The name “Mattachine” came from a medieval French society of masked dancers and players, the Société Mattachine, who satirized social conventions. The Mattachine society focused on the roles of government, religion, and psychiatry as major agents of oppression. It also worked to stop police entrapment of gay men and provided legal advice and counsel to arrested men.
While the Mattachine Society’s offices were located above 14th Street, the organization still held many community meetings and actions in the Village. Under the innovative leadership of president Dick Leitsch (who was president from 1964 to 1972), their famous Sip In challenged the regulation that prohibited bars from servings gay clients, in essence making gathering places for gay people illegal. With reporters in tow, four activists declared they were gay and asked to be served at Julius’. While Julius’ was a historically gay bar, they had recently been raided, which meant they were under observation. Their denial of service helped launch a court case, which declared that the New York State Liquor Authority could not stop service to gay patrons.
Then in 1969 the Stonewall rebellion changed the face of the LGBTQ movements. When the police raided the Stonewall Inn on the evening of June 28th, 1969, one of many frequent police raids on bars that served gay patrons during this period, the bar’s patrons fought back. Protesters uprooted parking meters, trapped the police inside the bar, lit fires, and pelted the police with coins and rocks. For two nights thereafter, LGBT New Yorkers and their allies gathered outside of Stonewall, demanding that they be able to live their lives free of violence and discrimination. Half a century later, these events are credited with catalyzing the modern LGBT-rights movement.
During the heat of the Stonewall rebellion the Mattachine Society’s leadership, who had formed relationships with the mayor’s office and the police, agreed at a meeting with those city officials to discourage further protests. To this end, they made a sign in the storefront window of the Stonewall Inn which read: WE HOMOSEXUALS PLEAD WITH OUR PEOPLE TO PLEASE HELP MAINTAIN PEACEFUL AND QUIET CONDUCT ON THE STREETS OF THE VILLAGE-MATTACHINE.
This caused a rift with the more unapologetic Stonewall activists, which in its way was a death knell for the Society. Already, the once-radical work of the Society, the respectful, carefully-crafted demands of the Sip In seemed clean-cut — everyone had worn a suit, as did Black civil rights activists in their Southern sit-ins. But the action of Stonewall centered a bolder approach, openly embracing drag queens and trans folks who were targetted for breaking the rule of the time that each person must be wearing three items of clothing associated with the sex on their identification.
The changes were sudden and caused tensions within the Mattachine Society. On July 1 and 2, 1969, members of the newly-formed Mattachine Action Committee (MAC) passed out fliers announcing a public forum on the topic of “Gay Power.” That meeting—held July 9 at Mattachine’s meeting rooms in Freedom House at 20 West 40th Street—attracted nearly 100 participants who enthusiastically voted to stage a protest of police harassment.
Then, on Friday, July 16th, 1969, a tense argument between the Mattachine’s leadership and constituents broke out at a forum was held at Saint John’s Episcopal Church on West 11th Street and Waverly Place. In a way, that argument sums up some of the tensions at the heart of the post-Stonewall LGBTQ movements. Mattachine leadership wanted to “retain the favor of the Establishment” in order to achieve their rights. The MAC and other constituents took a more radical approach, wanting to overthrow the establishment from without rather than arguing for change from within. The MAC ultimately broke away from Mattachine-New York and established their own organization during a series of meetings on July 24 and July 31 at Alternate U at 530 Sixth Avenue, just north of 14th Street. This new group called themselves the Gay Liberation Front, which went on to make new waves and changes in the post-Stonewall LGBTQ movement. Much of this story is detailed in the Stonewall Inn Designation Report.
The shift, and the conflict between methods of activism, changed the Mattachine Society forever, and permanently shifted the center of activism in the LGBT rights movement away from this and all other pre-Stonewall groups. In 1972, the Society moved its office downtown to the second floor of 59 Christopher Street, which had become the center of gay life in New York City, in the hopes of recapturing that center. When the Mattachine Society moved to Christopher Street, the influence of the organization was already being superseded by the younger and more radical activist groups like the Gay Liberation Front, but the organization was hopeful that its new location would help. According to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, Bob Zolnerzak, a Mattachine member, remarked in 1972: “The new place needs lots of work, but it’s going to be nice, particularly with the now-necessary air conditioning, and we’re hoping for lots of off-the-street socializing, many committee uses of the library and meeting rooms, much individual counseling, and lots of printing material going out: I hope they’re right, and this will be the turning point for the organization…”
In spite of these efforts, the Mattachine Society did not survive, as the die had more or less been cast at those July, 1969 meetings when the activists permanently fled the organization. The Mattachine filed for bankruptcy in 1976, but made way for countless other organizations, taking its place in the history of LGBTQ movements — a casualty of the post-Stonewall shift in those movements.