Mattachine podcast uncovers the forgotten history of queer liberation | Art Feature | Chicago Reader

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Mattachine podcast uncovers the forgotten history of queer liberation

The way out of the closet began with a strike against American fascism.


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I t's fitting that writer Devlyn Camp chose to podcast the story of the Mattachine, the United States' first successful gay emancipation movement.

Like the majority of queer history, the movement's inception took place deep in the closet-muffled and through word of mouth, relying on people operating outside conventional media networks. In order to communicate, queer folks had to take language, media, and distribution into their own hands. As a medium, the podcast totally falls in with this legacy.

The Mattachine story itself begins like this: It was 1950, the second Red Scare was in full swing, and Senator Joseph McCarthy was playing his own sadistic game of smear the queer. In the Mattachine's initial manifesto, "The Call," founder Harry Hay, writing under the pseudonym Eann MacDonald, announced he was forming the group in "full realization that encroaching American Fascism, like unto previous impacts of International Fascism, seeks to bend unorganized and unpopular minorities into isolated fragments of social and emotional instability." They borrowed the name from the Société Mattachine, a group of masked players in medieval France.

With Mattachine, Camp, a 25-year-old Columbia College grad with a background in musical theater and television production, has created a smart series about the 20th-century emergence of gay liberation that acknowledges the movement's predecessors—including Chicago's Henry Gerber, the founder of the Society for Human Rights, the first gay emancipation organization in the U.S.—and its shortcomings—wow, was this shit white or what?

I spoke with Camp—yes, they know they have the best last name for this project—about the experiences and research behind this big, queer podcast.

What's the Mattachine movement?

In 1950, there was a closeted communist named Harry Hay who was married to a woman, and he saw the government starting to use queer people as scapegoats for communism. He started gathering the only queer people he knew to work anonymously at organizing other queer people. They would just meet in living rooms; they just wanted to identify each other: "I'm not the only one, you're out there, and I bet you know other people too." Then it took off.

  • Courtesy of ONE Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries
  • A Mattachine Society Christmas party

And this is happening in Los Angeles?

In LA, in 1950, just before McCarthy's big speech alleging that there were 205 card-carrying communists working in the State Department. A few days after this initial speech, with all the hype, he gave another [speech] on the Senate floor in which he blurred communists and homosexuals. People were so unfamiliar with homosexuals that the blurring made sense to them, because communists and homosexuals both had their own literature, meeting places, culture, etc. Since everyone was already scared of communists, McCarthy made them panic about homosexuals simultaneously. So, naturally the government wanted to take down a gay group run by former communists, secretly meeting to take political action. [Episode 4 of Mattachine, "Lavender Scare," covers this moment thoroughly.]

And this gay group was mostly white folks?

Mostly white, mostly male-that's actually part of the problem. It's a lot of white gay men, then it's a lot of conservative gay men turning on feminine gay men. Many of them try to bring in women and people of color, but they fight a lot about it. This part of the narrative is in our most recent episodes.

  • Courtesy of ONE Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries
  • Harry Hay posing like a spy

It sounds like a deeply problematic survival mechanism.

Absolutely. Because the Mattachine are being hunted by the FBI, they have to weed people out in order to keep the organization going. It's that ongoing question of whether we're normal or the minority. It made me reflect on my own gender.

How so?

When I read the arguments from genderqueer folks about having our own subculture separate from the outside [mainstream heterosexual] culture, I realized that was something I was fighting in myself. I'd been out of the closet for a decade and thought I had it all figured out, but I realized I was still picking on parts of myself.

When did the project begin for you?

I started researching two years ago. My mentor, [Reader contributing writer] Albert Williams, recommended some stuff to me about the Mattachine. This spun me into a bunch of different directions: books about the FBI hunting queer organizations in the 50s, the cold war, the "lavender scare"—it was all interconnected. I wound up at the ONE archives out in Los Angeles, which is the largest queer archive in the world, and they have all of the original Mattachine files there. It was like Christmas. I was there for days. There were documents from lesbian organizations, conservative gay groups, liberal gay groups—after the Mattachine, after Stonewall, they got to splinter off in a thousand ways. The stories are endless.

Why turn this story into a podcast?

Mostly impatience. I want to write and produce television, and as I was reading up, I saw it as a TV series: there are lots of incredible twists, heartbreaks, love stories, and visual excitement. I don't have the resources right now to make television, but serialized podcasts became popular as I was writing-I guess it was luck and impatience. Fortunately, podcasting is this brave, new medium where anything goes. There aren't any gatekeepers, so you can do whatever you want.

I think about that a lot too. It's a medium that really lends itself to queerness.

I was just getting mad about this the other day. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram remove posts about queer news because they see it as filthy. The Stonewall Gazette has a Twitter account, and when I went to follow them, it was all grayed-out as "sensitive material." It was just clean, queer news. On podcasts, they can't really do that. They'll look at you for copyright infringement, but they can't take down anything explicit.

How do you want to impact your listeners?

Hopefully, they'll see that the disagreements we have in the queer community right now, the issues with internalized homophobia and blatant misogyny, are problems that we've had since we found each other. Understanding the endurance of these problems can help us fight them within ourselves.   v

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