1950: Gay leftists organize against Korean War
Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series, part 36
Published Jun 2, 2005 9:03 PM
Harry Hay met young Rudi Gernreich, a costume
designer and dancer, at Lester Horton’s Dance Theater on Melrose Avenue on
July 8, 1950. “The day he met Gernreich, he often said, they created a
‘society of two’ that became the Mattachine,” biographer
Stuart Timmons recalled. (“The Trouble with Harry Hay”)
28-year-old Gernreich, a left-wing Jewish gay man, had fled fascist Austria when
he was 16.
In the days after they met, Hay excitedly revised his call for
organizing homosexuals. This third revised draft is the only one that still
exists in print.
Hay gave his prospectus to Gernreich, who exclaimed after
he’d read the written ideas, “It’s the most dangerous thing
I’ve ever seen, and I’m with you one hundred
While Gernreich was enthusiastic, he also reminded Hay of
the dangers. Before escaping fascism, Gernreich said, he had known about the
German Homosexual Emancipation Movement led by Magnus Hirschfeld. Gernreich
explained that when the Nazis destroyed the movement’s Institute for
Sexual Research, they used its records to send homosexuals to concentration
Hay poured out his frustrations about the two years since
he’d written the first prospectus. He had approached homosexuals about
organizing a public forum to objectively discuss the Kinsey Report. And he
talked to professionals about being sponsors. Neither group would move until the
other did. “I had talked to hundreds of people between Bachelors for
Wallace and Mattachine, and people on both sides were afraid to take the first
step. It was like being told you had to have a harp to get into heaven and that
you had to go to heaven to get a harp.”
Gernreich had connections in
Hollywood. He had worked as a sketch artist for Edith Head. Marlene Dietrich and
Dorothy Dandridge had befriended him. And being a dancer with the Horton dance
company put Gernreich in touch with both audiences and cutting-edge artists from
a socially-conscious current.
Gernreich asked Hay for 60 copies of the
manifesto, took Hay to social events and introduced him around.
activists against Korean War
Just 10 days before Hay and Gernreich
met for the first time, the Pentagon had unleashed war against Korea.
two young activists actively opposed the war and organized to bring the troops
home. For the next two months, they walked up and down the stretches of beaches
in Los Angeles and Santa Monica collecting signatures on an anti-war petition
demanding the return of the first GIs deployed to Korea.
Hay later wrote:
“At that time, all over the country there was a movement, sponsored by
progressives, to get as many signatures as possible for the Stockholm Peace
Petition against the war.”
This anti-war organizing took strength of
conviction. W.E.B. DuBois, the 82-year-old founder of the NAACP, was arrested
and handcuffed by police for trying to get signatures on the same petition. The
case against him? That he had not registered as a “foreign agent” as
mandated by the reactionary Smith Act. After widespread struggle that won
multi-national support, the charge was later dropped.
Hay and Gernreich
canvassed beaches where many gay and bisexual men gathered. They hoped that
individuals courageous enough to sign the anti-war petition might also be brave
enough to be interested in organizing for homosexual
“We set about discovering new adherents on the two
slices of beach Gays had quietly made their own,” Hay later told historian
Jonathan Katz. “The section of beach below the Palisades just west of
Marion Davie’s huge waterfront estate, and that slice of Malibu between
the pier and the spit—which would be taken over by the surfers in the
“From August through October 1950, ‘X’
[Gernreich’s nom de guerre] and I undertook to get 500 of these petitions
signed on the Gay beach in Los Angeles, in Santa Monica. And we got them, too,
by God! We went down to the Gay beach and got them filled! And the Korean
War was going full blast!
“We also used this petition activity as a
way of talking about our prospectus. We’d go up to them on the
beach—of course, this is an entirely different period, you understand, so
when people went to the Gay beach then they’d talk about everything else
except being Gay. We would tell them what we knew about the war, about the story
of North Korea attacking South Korea being a fake.
get into the Gay purges in U.S. government agencies of the year before and what
a fraud that was. Then we’d ask, ‘Isn’t it high time we all
got together to do something about it?’ Everybody agreed, but nobody could
think of anything to do without committing themselves. But at least they signed
the petition, and some of the guys gave us their names and addresses—in
case we ever got a Gay organization going. They were some of the people we
eventually contacted for our discussion groups.” (1974 interview,
“Gay American History”)
met two like-minded activists earlier that year—Bob Hull and Chuck
Rowland. In the spring of 1950, historian John D’Emilio noted, “The
three men met one evening at a concert, and Hay, who suspected that the pair
might be gay, decided to broach the subject of a homosexual rights organization.
“As it turned out, they had more in common than their
homosexuality, since Row land and Hull had also been Com munist Party
members.” (“Sexual Politics”)
that Rowland had “come out” at the University of Minnesota, where
the militant mood of 1930s Min neapolis also swept him into campus pro tests
“in support of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and against
compulsory military training for students.” (“Sexual
Hull attended the university at the same time, but the
two men didn’t meet each other in the Twin Cities until 1940. By that time
Bob Hull, who had a graduate degree in chemistry, was following his passion as a
pianist. The two men became lovers, and later, remained dear friends.
Hull and Rowland moved to Los Ange les together. Rowland had left the Com
munist Party USA by then, for personal reasons. Hull, who was still active in
the CPUSA, took part in one of its southern California cultural units and the
People’s Educational Center, where he enrolled in Hay’s music class.
But after that class ended, Hull and Rowland lost touch with Harry Hay.
In November 1950, Hay told Gernreich that Bob Hull had re-registered for
his music course, and that he had a friend: “I think they might be
Hay described the anxiety he felt as he later
physically handed the prospectus in an envelope to Hull after class.
“On the following Saturday afternoon he calls up and asks whether
he could come over. He sounds kind of distant. Well, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland and
Dale Jennings come flying into my yard waving the prospectus, saying, “We
could have written this ourselves—when do we begin?”
Cold War ‘Lavender Scare’ sparks struggle
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