Harry Hay heard ‘siren song of revolution’
Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series, part 32
Published Apr 20, 2005 2:06 PM
Harry Hay, who had been living his life as a
gay man as “out” as he could be, joined the Communist Party USA in
At that time, the CPUSA barred openly gay and lesbian members.
Particularly ideologically harmful was the formulation to “justify”
such a membership rule: the view that homosexuality was a degeneracy that arose
from a decadent economic system.
That policy was indefensible, doing
damage to homosexuals as well as to the revolutionary movement as a whole.
This political stance did not arise out of a vacuum. While the Bolshevik
Party under Lenin’s leadership had abolished the tsarist anti-homosexual
law in 1917, by 1934 under a more politically conservative and bureaucratic
grouping, an anti-homosexual law was back on the books in the USSR.
were homosexual members in the CPUSA; they just didn’t say they were. It
would be wrong to glibly refer to this as a “don’t ask, don’t
tell” policy. That phrase refers to the reign of terror the
Pentagon—the military arm of the capitalist state—conducts against
its own GIs.
The CPUSA was nose-to-nose against that state. The party
leadership may well have feared the opening for state repression the
organization could face by having openly gay, lesbian and bisexual, and trans
members. After all, the party was struggling in a capitalist country in which
same-sex love was illegal.
Tragically, however, the CPUSA’s
position on homosexual members helped create a much greater political and state
vulnerability. Within a decade, the right wing of the U.S. capitalist class
would unleash a witch hunt to crush revolutionary resistance to its rule by
equating communists with homosexuals. And the CPUSA’s position weakened
the struggle to politically answer and defend victims of the anti-communist and
anti-gay witch hunt.
In fairness, there was not as yet a historical
materialist overview of the roots of state regulation of sexuality and gender
expression. The greatest Marxist theoretical contributions had been to reveal
the class basis of the oppression of women.
It would be Harry Hay who
would take that Marxist analysis further, to look at the origins of oppression
based on homosexuality and what would today be called transgender and
‘You might have to start it yourself!’
Hay thrived as a communist. He caught a glimpse of the future in his
Hay described those experiences in the biography “The Trouble
with Harry Hay,” written by Stuart Timmons.
Hay recalled, “We
were involved in organizing the unorganized; the CIO had a wide open field on
the West Coast. Along with the waterfront, the newspaper guilds began to
organize, as did the department stores.”
Hay and Will Geer continued
doing “agitprop” theater— shorthand for short street dramas
that taught political lessons while mobilizing audiences to take action. Hay
defined it as “a responsibility for keeping spirits high at picket lines
and keeping attention focused at large meetings.”
Geer took Hay to
Communist Party theory classes. Hay attended, but reflected, “It was
disorienting to sit there with urban people, mostly film workers, discussing
rural worker models of Marxism.”
Geer discouraged Hay’s talk
of organizing a “team of brothers.”
Hay recalled, “I
said I wanted to get a society of ‘just us’ together. Bill argued
that that was the theater.”
Only Maude Allen encouraged Hay’s
dream of organizing homosexuals. While Hay and Geer argued about the
possibility, she interrupted that, “this was possible, but you might have
to start it yourself.”
The experience that changed his
Hay explained how the West Coast longshore workers’ strike
The 1934 strike in San Francisco inspired all the
maritime workers to shut down the waterfront. The militant action by longshore
workers won the support of 120 local unions.
The CPUSA sent Hay and Geer
and many other organizers from Los Angeles to help the strikers. Hay and Geer
collected food for the striking workers as they drove up the coast.
early July, bosses tried to bring scabs past the picket lines, igniting battles.
Gov. Frank Finley Merriam called out the state militia. This sparked the call by
labor leaders for the July 1934 San Francisco General Strike.
there when troops were ordered to open fire on a crowd of more than 2,000
workers. He remembers a bullet whizzing past his left ear. Two workers were shot
dead; 85 more were hospitalized.
Later, at the huge funeral procession
for the two men, Hay remembered that “a posse of dock workers knocked the
bowlers off the heads of bankers who refused to show respect. It was pretty damn
“The strike was just something
tremendous!” Hay later told historian John D’Emilio. “You
couldn’t have been a part of that and not have your life completely
He was 23 years old. And he was answering what he called
“the siren song of Revolution.”
Hay in the thick of
In 1935 and 1936, Hay was in the thick of the struggle. He
took part in fundraisers and demonstrations against the rise of fascism in Spain
and Germany, and in support of African American civil rights and union
From 1936 to 1938 he worked on the End Poverty in California
campaign, the Hollywood Writers’ Mobili zation, the American League
Against War and Fas cism, the Mobilization for Democracy, the Workers’
Alliance of America and Labor’s Non-Partisan League.
He was active
in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, organized by Dorothy Parker in the spring of
1936. Supporters included Paul Muni and Boris Karloff.
Timmons wrote, “The Anti-Nazi Lea gue was a typical mass org ani zation,
which, while indepen dent, relied heavily on leadership from the CPUSA and
served to introduce sympathetic people to Marxist principles and to the Party.
The structure of the Mattachine Soci ety, 14 years later, was strongly
influenced by this model.”
Hay still frequented gay bars,
describing his experiences this way: “Gay life was not so much a life as
an aggregate of cliques.”
Just as earthshaking as the 1934 San Fran
cisco General Strike had been in chang ing his life, Hay explained how three
years later a panoramic Marxist view transformed his thinking.
writer Viola Brothers Shore invited Hay in late 1937 to a Marxist discussion
group in the home of film director Frank Tuttle.
This experience was
“wildly exciting,” Hay described. “Suddenly it all made
Next: Bringing communist experience to
building a new mass movement.
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