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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 1934.

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.

There 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 transsexuality.

‘You might have to start it yourself!’

Hay thrived as a communist. He caught a glimpse of the future in his work.

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 life

Hay explained how the West Coast longshore workers’ strike transformed him.

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.

In 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.

Hay was 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 impressive.”

“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 changed.”

He was 23 years old. And he was answering what he called “the siren song of Revolution.”

Hay in the thick of struggle

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 organizing.

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.

Biographer Stuart 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.

Screen 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 wonderful sense.”

Next: Bringing communist experience to building a new mass movement.