Queerly Audible History: The Don Lucas Mattachine Society Tapes

February 12, 2021
Franz Kunst
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Working in a large archive means you're always discovering collections - sometimes even collections that are already open and available. In this case, it was a group of audio tapes related to 1950s gay rights organization the Mattachine Society. In the midst of preparing for a vault move, we came across a tape labeled “Reel #6” which had been misfiled and listed as lost. After considerable sleuthing the reel was finally returned to its rightful box. But it was not too hard to realize these recordings demanded further examination - and also a finding aid.

This collection - which has been completely digitized - totals 45 open reel audio tapes and contains recordings of the Mattachine Society's local and national conferences, meetings, and panel discussions, mostly in San Francisco. Talks feature members of such groups as the Daughters of BilitisOne, Incorporated, the Society for Individual Rights, the Tavern Guild of San Francisco, and the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, as well as a range of psychologists and other health and social work professionals. Lawyers, clergy, and politicians also make appearances. Some of the discussions were broadcast on radio stations such as KPFA, and there are several related broadcast recordings.

What were once catalogued as the "Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society Tapes" (more on that later) has now been titled the Don Lucas Collection of Mattachine Society Audio Recordings after its original owner and creator, Donald Stewart Lucas (1926-2003). Lucas moved to San Francisco from Tacoma, Washington in 1949, attended a local chapter meeting of the Mattachine Society in 1953, and became involved in both local and national activities of the Society for several years, including publishing the Mattachine Review. Although Lucas was later devoted to broader poverty and social welfare causes, these tapes reveal how much work he put in to building the Society.

As the Mattachine Society's president, Harold "Hal" Call is also present on most of these recordings. In the years prior, the Society had shed most of its overt associations with the political left with the purge of Harry Hay in Los Angeles, and Call’s brand of assimilationist porno-capitalism has been the subject of much study. Meanwhile New York and Southern California groups did not necessarily take it as a given that San Francisco would lead the movement on a national level, and while these tapes document a lot of important cooperation among various homophile groups, there was apparently occasional friction.

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The majority of the recordings were probably captured for transcription, and many of the more formal lectures and discussions appear in text form in the Review. The Mattachine Society also produced a short educational series for possible distribution or broadcast, referred to as "tape recordings for use in discussion groups throughout society" in one announcement. The way these tapes got to us may never be precisely determined, but a compilation reel of these educational discussions is labeled “for Stanford.” Inquiries turned up a few more details, and it appears this collection came from the GLBT History Center via intermediaries around the time the Center’s archives received Lucas’ papers. In the days of open reel preservation masters, Stanford had previously arranged for the reformatting of the tapes, but it’s not clear if those copies were ever distributed or widely available.  At any rate, they have now been fully re-digitized and described in detail.

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Some tapes were probably recorded off the radio for legal purposes; political editorials by San Francisco candidate for Mayor Russell Wolden Jr. were the subject of a defamation lawsuit by the Mattachine Society. Wolden was a second-generation City Assessor who delivered these paid ads on KNBC and KCBS while trying to unseat incumbent George Christopher with a vitriolic anti-deviance campaign. Wolden was later convicted of bribery and conspiracy and sentenced to state prison for 14 years. 

Other important broadcast recordings include radio interviews with participants and a panel discussion moderated by Glide's Rev. Cecil Williams following the infamous 1965 California Hall raid, and an audio recording of the landmark 1961 television program "The Rejected," the full program of which has only relatively recently been recovered and is online now via the SFSU Bay Area Television archive (our recording contains brief KQED announcements not on the publically available video). I was also introduced to or learned more about people like Richard Schlegel, an advocate for equal rights in civil service, Robert "Bob" Flippin, a counselor at San Quentin prison, and Phyllis Lyon of the Daughters of Bilitis, who passed away in April of last year (there's a great interview with her here).

Be forewarned, most of the meeting recordings are informally recorded. Panel Q&A portions are almost entirely inaudible, and volume problems, noise, hums, abrupt breaks, and silences are frequent. Tapes were used multiple times, and many contain more than one recording.

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  •  A helpful hint for accessing the second track from a tape in our media player: click on the bar with three dots along the bottom of the box, and you'll a get a choice of files to select.

While the topic of discussion is often homosexuality (and more broadly "sexual deviance"), related issues in the fields of health (mental health, venereal disease, alcoholism), law (police brutality & entrapment, prostitution, incarceration) and military & government employment are also covered in the talks. Needless to say, the FBI took note, as the systematic monitoring and harassment of homophile organizations is amply documented.

By the way, if you thought these recordings would finally resolve the conundrum of how to pronounce "Mattachine," don’t get your hopes up - it's pronounced at least four different ways here!

 Mattachine Review adDaughters of Bilitis FBI file, redacted