Gerard Brissette, El Cerrito California, 11/17/76
Introduction: Gerard Brissette is the individual who brought the early Mattachine to the San Francisco Bay Area. In this interview, he especially emphasizes the ideological divisions between the politically more conservative and those of a more leftist bent, and how this led to a change in direction for the organization. He also mentions in passing Rod McKuen and Jack Spicer as Bay Area individuals whom he involved in the Mattachine Society.
Mentions influence of Ruth Benedict on Hay’s thinking—the berdache. Remembers Hay always talking about the berdache. Says Mattachine comes from Muslim dancers in Southern Italy and North Africa; survivals from fertility cults; Knights of Malta and Knights Templar; Freemasonry, Illuminati, Rosicrucians. All this coalesces in Hay’s mind into a secret society with several orders.
Immediate reaction to hearing about Mattachine (at an organization in Berkeley)—wrote to Rowland who was so impressed that he offered to hand over Mattachine mailing list in Northern California.
Brissette decides to go to LA—“this is what I had to do.” Meets Hay and Rowland at Union Station —“scared to death,” “one of the greatest moments of life.”
Rowland—6 ft; from U of Minn, involved as a student in left politics, great gifts—organizational abilities; wore glasses; interesting tattoos. Man of character, pride, dignity, forcefulness. Hay—more academic, reserved; musician type.
Stayed with Rowland in Norwalk. Went to Discussion Group in Hollywood, LA., Laguna Beach. Going to something every night; sleeping two hours a day; Chuck had “enormous energy.”
Laguna Beach Discussion Group—the “bomb.” Gays well established there—wealthy; impressive homes. Laguna DG called Mattachine leaders commies—wanted an open organization. Laguna Beach instrumental in forcing an open convention.
DG assembled dossiers—handed out at every meeting; trying to build file on police officers. Vice squad would show up—could tell them apart; would change topic immediately, start talking about lists of vice officers and they would leave suddenly.
San Diego getting started—never went down to see them. Hollywood, LA, and Laguna Beach only ones going then. Brissette brought mailing list back. Lots of meetings—talking about what Mattachine Foundation would be in 10, 15, 20 years. Also, all decisions had to be unanimous. Lots of talk.
Bay Area—DG and chapters. Also study groups. Finally got an entrapment case tried—Dale Jennings. Issues still being talked about were talked about then. (e.g., homophobia).
Brissette recruited lots of women - at Convention, he brought many women as part of delegation.
Returns to Bay Area after LA visit. First recruits friends. Generated lots of enthusiasm, first in Oakland, then in Berkeley (made links with Langley-Porter Clinic), then SF. Has picnic in Tilden Park - puts signs in bars. Expected 50, about 500 show up. Another at Redwood Regional Park - some become exhibitionistic—raised money for telethons.
Rod McKuen went to May 53 convention.
Very, very exciting time—sense of pride, thrill, at last out in the open.
People from Laguna Beach and their type primarily concerned with getting lobbyist in Sacramento to change law. Lots of junior executive types. Brissette became Bay Area council chairman. Chapters set up. Study group in Berkeley made contact with Karl Bowman. But political focus seems to predominate—SF chapter especially, look respectable, wear suits.
Ken Burns elected president—Brooks Brothers executive type—wants to know what Brissette is doing; bureaucratizing Mattachine. Brissette resented it—was taking important initiatives—wasn’t about to turn Bowman down, supplied him with cases. Brissette wanted to open a center, alternative to bars.
Sometime in fall 53, a big blowout. More and more people turned off by straightness of Mattachine—Brissette disaffiliates. Blowup meeting, which leads to Brissette resigning, occurred at Hal Call’s house. Jack Spicer also drops out - a poet. Felt a real division between them and Brooks Brothers crowd.
April 53 Convention: Brissette brought lots of women—Rowland amazed. Ida Bracy involved. Concerned about equal number of men and women. Great to-do about credentials—concern about security. Parliamentarian.
Accusations of communism from conservative Republicans. Apparent there was real division between those who saw a movement developing and those who just wanted legal change. Great deal of fear expressed by Harry and Chuck that Laguna Beach crowd had walked away with Mattachine—very upset about it.
Original members forced to succumb to pressure for an open society rather than destroy what they had already created—maybe it could survive as a political pressure group. Divisions were ideological—two groups apparent. Didn’t think Burns played important role in April.
May session—much happened in between—split intensified. Big issue was whether Mattachine Foundation would surrender name of Mattachine. “most emotionally fraught issue.” Rowland announces surrender of name and end of Foundation. Leaders felt there already was a movement; name could be transferred—name so well known it should remain and survive.
Dave Finn: Brissette brought him into Mattachine. (Vice squad visited meetings.) Began taking aggressive role in SF meeting in a disturbing way—claimed connections with Attorney General Brown—said he was reporting everything to Brown. Finn didn’t go to April session—only went to May session; tried to take very active role. Would go on and on in SF meeting about connections to people with money who wouldn’t contribute unless organization respectable—“unless we behaved ourselves and looked very straight.”
Finn widely disliked. Suspected of being FBI agent. Doesn’t remember him threatening to turn over names to FBI at May Convention, but did threaten this in private and in SF meetings.
General feeling—great liberation, joy; no longer cruising in bars, meat racks. “Thrilled.”
Supplement to Side #1A , with quotes
Says Rowland and Hull met Hay at a concert who told them about his ideas. The days of McCarthy: secret society.
Orders—no one from 1st Order would know who was in 2nd Order, etc.
“Immediate reaction” to hearing about Mattachine—wrote long letter to Rowland.
Working in chemistry dept. at Berkeley. Tells his supervisor why he needs to take time off.
Rowland had “great gifts”—he and Hay: “men of such character, pride, dignity, and forcefulness.”
Laguna Beach—gay community begins there in the 20s: film and artistic types. “Very wealthy”
[ONE Magazine just getting started]
Laguna Beach called leaders “communists”—“instrumental in forcing us to hold an open convention.”
“Constantly planning the Foundation in terms of what it would be in 10, 15, 20 years.”
Going to bars, constantly talking to people. In Bay Area, Brissette tried to form study groups right away; also interested in influencing the churches.
Jennings now a “crypto-fascist”—quite a different person.
Mattachine “a wild wide-open affair”—discussing issues then which are still being discussed now. “they were amazed… that I brought in lots of women.”
Return: “generated great deal of enthusiasm. First Oakland and Berkeley, then SF. Hal Call appears at an early SF meeting.
“A very, very, exciting time. A sense of pride that we had in standing up, forging a constitution like that… at last we were doing something intelligent about ourselves.”
Not yet using word “homophile.”
Side #1B, Supplement with Quotes
Laguna Beach: “their focus primarily… to change the laws.” “Junior executive types with gavels and Roberts Rules of Order.” Wanted to create a lobbying group—Brissette wanted a movement.
Brissette involved Jack Spicer.
SF chapter “let’s cut our hair right, let’s get dressed up and look like straights…let’s butch it up.” One member claiming he was reporting activities to FBI. Trotskyites also involved.
Burns “Brooks Brothers suit, a nice executive type.” Placing restrictions on Brissette’s initiatives—Karl Bowman; churches; wanted a center; bothered them in LA. “More and more conflict with LA—a meeting in SF, fall 53, “a big blowup”.
“We felt there was a real division between ourselves and this San Francisco Brooks Brothers’ crowd.” Whole group dropped out.
Apr 53: “great to-do about credentials, fear about security.”
“There was a division between those of us who had more of a movement idea… and the group who wanted to be respectable and to function with the direct goal of changing the laws.”
“Conservative McCarthyite Republicans had walked away with their baby.” Leaders “forced to succumb,” “vague and inarticulate” at April session. Divisions were “ideological.”
May—by second session “a good deal in the meantime had taken place to intensify this split.” Mattachine became “a legal aid society and a lobbying group.”
Wide round of applause when Mattachine Foundation hands over name—big issue.
David Finn: “motives never clear to us.”