In the vanguard for gay liberation: The life of Communist organizer Harry Hay

June is Pride Month – a time to celebrate the strides made toward LGBTQ equality, to remember those who have devoted their lives to this struggle, and to look ahead to the work still to be done. People’s World will publish a series of articles related to the LGBTQ freedom struggle throughout the month of June. In this edited version of an article which originally appeared in Political Affairs in June 2004, Professor Norman Markowitz provides a look back at the life of Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, the United States’ first gay liberation organization.

Beginning with the “ghetto riot” at the Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village in 1969, an open gay liberation movement came into existence which has been a significant force in the larger peoples’ movements for almost a half-century. While most people identify gay liberation with the “New Left” of the 1960s, it, like the civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements of the time, cannot be separated from the range of broad labor left organizations that had been forced into a political closet with the onset of the Cold War, including the Communist Party.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the life of Harry Hay, longtime Communist Party USA (CPUSA) activist, trade union militant, and founder in 1950 of the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights groups in U.S. history. But Harry’s situation was in many ways more complicated than activists like Paul Robeson in the U.S. or Alexandra Kollontai in Czarist Russia – those who combined the struggle for socialism with the interdependent but not subservient liberation of oppressed minorities and women.

Unlike racism or even sexism, there was no ideology of gay equality or rights to draw from, no definition of cultural pluralism for gay men and lesbians. Homophobia was “normal” across the political spectrum then (as it still is for the Right). Gay men and lesbians were compelled to live a closeted existence, facing possible prison sentences, certain blacklisting, and likely isolation from friends and family if they were exposed.

Most progressives and liberals at the time saw homosexuality as a “medical problem,” despite the path-breaking Kinsey Report of the late 1940s which showed homosexual conduct to be both widespread and hard to distinguish in terms of personality from heterosexual conduct. Virtually all political groups, including the Communist Party, rejected open homosexuals as members, although the sexual orientations of Harry Hay and other gay party members were known and, in the language of the time, “tolerated,” by fellow comrades who treated them as equals because of their work as activists and organizers.

In such an atmosphere, the task of pioneering a path toward what eventually became known as “gay liberation” fell to Harry Hay.

Answering the “siren song of Revolution”

Harry Hay was born in England in 1912, supposedly on the day, he liked to remember, that the Titanic sank. Eventually, his family settled in Southern California, where Harry, who became aware of his sexual orientation at a fairly early age, began to work in Los Angeles theater and movie projects in the early 1930s. As a young man, he was influenced by the writings of Edward Carpenter, a British homosexual and socialist, who saw gay people as an oppressed group with their own distinct culture and needs.

It was in Los Angeles in 1934 that Harry met Will Geer, a gay actor, singer, and CPUSA activist, who was to become his lover. After joining Geer in doing support work for the ILWU-led San Francisco General Strike of that year, Hay followed Geer into the Communist Party. Seeing the funeral procession of 40,000 people filing down Market Street to honor workers shot by police during the strike, Harry was to later tell historian John D’Emilio he was taken by the “siren song of Revolution” that day. “You couldn’t have been a part of that,” he recalled, “and not have your life completely changed.” From then, he used his substantial talents as an organizer, his theatricality, and his humor to become a very effective party activist.

Hay was open and philosophical about his sexual orientation, seeing it simultaneously as both a part of himself and an unfortunate handicap to his larger work. He once told a psychiatrist that he found party meetings very dull because there were no “flower-faced Marxist boys to stand with me in the class struggle against oppression.” In 1938, on the advice of the same psychiatrist, he married Anita Platky, a party comrade, in a union that was to last 13 years.

Meanwhile, Harry was a sort of Jimmy Higgins jack-of-all-trades on the California left, teaching at the California Labor School, playing a significant role in the election of Ed Roybal to City Council (the first Latino elected in L.A. County), organizing appearances by Pete Seeger, and serving as a bridge between trade union and cultural activists. In 1945, he even helped to lead a demonstration with Josephine Baker, the legendary African-American artist, against a restaurant which refused to serve her. Baker, who had survived in Nazi occupied France during most of WWII, was in no mood to countenance segregation in her own country.

Harry continued his party and left work through the late 1940s, organizing in California a group of progressive gay men, Bachelors Anonymous, to support Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party presidential campaign in 1948. During the campaign, Harry worked among gays and actually helped to carry a precinct with a large gay population for Wallace. He also raised the issue of the Progressive Party supporting a sexual privacy law in exchange for gay votes – perhaps the first time in U.S. history that anyone had defined gays as a voting constituency with specific political needs.

Launching the gay liberation movement

Hay had come to see what the Kinsey Report sought to show, but which most people everywhere, with or without power, did not see: that human sexuality was something far more complex than almost anyone realized at the time, and that confronting these complexities instead of fearing them was necessary for the liberation of all people.

With gay friends and comrades, he formed the Mattachine Society in November 1950. The name itself had an interesting history – one deeply connected with those who had to hide their identity. Harry took the name from a medieval French secret society of unmarried men who wore masks as part of their rituals. The French had taken the name Mattachine from the Italian mattachino – court jesters who could speak the truth to kings only when they wore masks – much like gays and other minorities who were compelled to disguise themselves and deprecate themselves when addressing those who refused to see them as they were.

At a time when the CPUSA was facing unprecedented political persecution on all fronts and losing tens of thousands of members, Harry Hay remained a dedicated and committed party member, an activist in the best sense. He reached a point, however, where he saw his work as first and foremost as being with the struggle for gay liberation, which, as a Communist, he identified with the struggles of oppressed people throughout the world. With the defeat of fascism and the collapse of colonialism, he saw a new opening of possibilities for gay liberation.

The Communist Party leadership in California respected his contributions, but as with almost all organizations, the dominant ideology of the times kept the CPUSA from accepting open homosexuals as party members. The argument that party functionaries passively accepted was essentially the same one used to purge homosexual men from the federal government – that gays would be subject to blackmail and thus could be used to betray the organization. 

Faced with this, Hay went to the party leadership and asked to be expelled in 1951. At first, they refused. Finally, Hay worked out a compromise with the California CP leadership, in which he would be dropped from membership as a “security risk,” but not for being a homosexual. In the larger society, during the depths of the Cold War, being fired from a job as a “security risk” was not something Communists were ashamed of.

In a tragicomic expression of the situation, the Communist Party issued a formal statement praising Harry Hay and gave him a farewell testimonial dinner, perhaps the only one of its kind ever held. In its statement, the party proclaimed Harry Hay to be “a lifelong friend of the people,” certainly bizarre language to describe someone whose membership was being revoked. It would be several decades before Harry’s party caught up to him in being fully committed to LGBTQ equality.

Harry reluctantly left the Communist Party because its leadership was not yet ready to grasp the possibilities and significance of a homosexual liberation movement. He did not, however, leave the struggle for social change.

Harry and his comrades used CPUSA organizing and educational techniques to develop the Mattachine Society into an active and effective representative of gay people and the issues facing them. Like most organizations of its time though, even the Mattachine was not immune to the political pressures of McCarthyism. By the mid-1950s, Harry and Mattachine’s Communist and left leadership found themselves the victims of the same kind of internal redbaiting that had devastated trade unions and mass organizations during the early Cold War.

Gays who sought acceptance and assimilation within the existing system – the opposite of everything Harry and his comrades stood for – took over Mattachine and turned it into an organization of proper men in suits and ties, holding forums with homophobes and centrists, and engaging in very tame actions to seek greater “toleration” for gays. By the time the mass gay liberation movement took shape after the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, the Mattachine had come to be seen by many gay activists as an artifact with establishment pretensions.

A life lived in struggle

Harry kept on fighting, though, using the Leninist tactics and strategies that he had first learned in the 1930s – relying on the development of a broad, inclusive people’s front to advance the struggle. Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1955, he stood up to his interrogators, treating them with the contempt they richly deserved. Fearful, perhaps, of making him into a martyr, HUAC declined to cite him for contempt and send him to prison, which it had previously done with the Hollywood Ten and others.

In the 1960s, Harry joined Women’s Strike for Peace, a left peace activist group and sought to develop coalitions of the emerging gay movement with anti-war and women’s rights movements. He also became an activist and supporter of Native Americans in their struggle to reclaim their cultural heritage. It 1963, he began to share his life with John Burnside, developing with John a partnership that would last the rest of his days.

At the same time, Harry became an active critic of the mass gay rights movement which emerged in the 1970s, particularly its penchant for involving itself in narrow interest group politics and supporting traditional Democratic Party politicians in what he saw as a political protection racket. In 1979, Harry became the organizer of Radical Faeries, which sought to revive the broad humanism of the original Mattachine Society with a commitment to the notion that complete sexual freedom and diversity were inseparable from the liberation of people. Harry continued to be politically active in the last decades of his long life, serving as a leading figure in California of the Lavender Caucus of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in the 1980s.

To his last day, Harry rejected the hatred that ruling circles fomented against gay men and lesbians, as they do against all other oppressed minority groups as a means of divide and conquer. He also always challenged expressions of self-hatred within, which for the LGBTQ community is perhaps more intense than for any other oppressed group. He would fight in an underground struggle if necessary, but he would never live in a closet.

Harry Hay is today rightly praised by a wide variety of LGBTQ activists and organizations as a pioneer in the struggle for freedom and liberation. It is important also to remember him as a Communist who both preached and practiced the ideological militancy and tactical flexibility that produced great victories for the working class and oppressed minorities on many fronts in the past, and which can and will do so in the future. 

Photo: Left: Harry Hay in 1937. Credit: LeRoy Robbins / San Francisco Main Library Gallery; Right: Harry Hay in the late 1980s. Credit: Robert Giard / GayToday.com; Center: Communist Party poster, 1980s.


CONTRIBUTOR

Norman Markowitz
Norman Markowitz

Norman Markowitz is a history professor at Rutgers University.

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