Gay Rights Pioneer, Last Mattachine Society Member Dies

23 Mar

John Gruber

John Gruber, the last living member of The Mattachine Society passed away today at the age of 82.

The Mattachine Society, as we wrote about here, was founded 60 years ago and was one of the country’s first gay rights organizations. The Mattachine Society grew into a national movement, and in conjunction with a lesbian organization, the Daughters of Bilitis, became the above ground civil rights organizations for gays and lesbians until the Stonewall riot in 1969. The final Mattachine Society office closed in the 1980s.

The early photo that is known as one of the only pictures of the original Mattachine Society, was actually taken by Gruber. According to South Florida Gay News, Gruber was born in Des Moines on August 21, 1928, andenjoyed sexual relations with both men and women from an early age. In 1946, Gruber enlisted in the Marines where, as he recalled, he “went bananas in the sex department.” After Gruber was honorably discharged in 1949, he studied English literature at Occidental College and befriended authors Christopher Isherwood and W. H. Auden and psychologist Evelyn Hooker.

In April of 1951, Gruber and his boyfriend Konrad “Steve” Stevens attended a meeting hosted by a gay advocacy group soon to be known as the Mattachine Society. Soon Gruber and Stevens were invited to join the other founders: Harry Hay, Rudi Gernreich, Chuck Rowland, Bob Hull and Dale Jennings.  According to historian John D’Emilio, it was Gruber who suggested the name Mattachine Society for the new group, inspired by Hay’s talk about medieval “mattachines.”

Gruber was also responsible for a famous photo of the early Mattachine Society that now appears in LGBT history books. Taken at Harry Hay’s house on Cove Avenue, the photo preserves for posterity Mattachine members Hay, Gernreich, Rowland, Hull, Jennings, Stan Witt and Paul Bernard.  According to historian Daniel Hurewitz, “Hay was so concerned about secrecy that Gruber had to convince him that there was no film in the camera when he took the picture; he revealed the truth only years later.”

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