Henry Hay and four of his friends created the Mattachine Society as a gay male organization in Los Angeles in 1950-51. Chapters in other major cities later represented the Mattachine Society. The name came from the Société Mattachine, a masked group of musical performers from the Renaissance. It was meant to imply that "gays were masked people, unknown and anonymous". The founders were Marxists and they analyzed homosexuals in the terms of an oppressed cultural minority, which led to government scrutiny in the red scare period of the United States. Because of pressure from the government, the structure of the society was reformed, and the goal of the Mattachine Society became to assimilate homosexuals into general society. The society declined and by May of 1954 it began to lose its appeal to the homosexuals who were previously avid members. In 1965, the Mattachine Society was replaced by the San Francisco Society for Individual Rights as the leading homosexual organization in America.

Among the achievements of the Mattachine Society is the publication of ONE Magazine. This monthly periodical began in January of 1953 and ended regular publications in 1968. The publishing company, ONE Inc., still exists today. The San Francisco branch of the society began a scholarly journal, Mattachine Review, which lasted for ten years. These periodicals helped the Mattachine Society to become known nationwide.