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"Where Were You During the Christopher Street Riots?"
The document above was handed out by members of The Mattachine Society, one of the earliest and longest-running homophile organizations in America, in the days following what would eventually become known as the Stonewall Riots.
If you’re familiar with The Mattachine Society at all, it’s probably from images like this one, which was taken by Kay Tobin Lahusen at the second annual Reminder Day protests in Philadelphia in 1966.
Founded in 1950, the Mattachines took their name from a French Renaissance-era group of masked peasants who performed skits during the Feast of Fools – often ones that poked fun at or protested their treatment at the hands of the local nobility. Along with the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian social and political group founded in San Francisco in 1955, they advocated a kind of radical normality in the face of the overwhelming consensus that homosexuals were deviant, pathological, and diseased. Looking at pictures of them now is like looking at gay activists by way of Leave It to Beaver. Yet it’s hard to overstate how radical their actions were at the time, when so few people were out publicly in any way.
Just how wholesome was their public image? This is a recruitment ad they used in the 1960s:
However, if we are most familiar with the image of The Mattachine Society as a group of clean-scrubbed (mostly) young men, it is because this was a political choice on their part. The early founders of Mattachine, including the legendary Harry Hay, were Communists, and they organized the group in anonymous, independent cells, much like the party itself was organized at the time. It wasn’t until 1953 that they were forced out by a growing membership that wanted to purge “subversive” elements and foster an ethos of non-confrontation.
In this way, the history of The Mattachine Society neatly mirrors the history of America as a whole. One year after they purged their own subversive elements, the McCarthy Communist witch-hunts would begin. By the early ‘60s, the national Mattachine organization would disband, leaving the local branches to radicalize at different rates – much as the country itself was doing. Mattachine New York, the producers of the “Christopher Street Riots” flyer, quickly became particularly militant.
After Stonewall, new organizations like the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front quickly began to appear, capturing the confrontational, in the streets spirit of the time. Yet branches of The Mattachine Society continued on well into the eighties – indeed, Mattachine New York wasn’t disbanded until 1987.
The New York Public Library’s Manuscripts & Archives Division is is home to the Mattachine Society of New York's records from its founding in 1955 all the way up to 1976, and it is a fascinating record of social change told from within one of the very organizations pushing for change.