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When idea for gay political organizing finally ignited

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series, part 37

Published Jun 7, 2005 9:45 PM

Harry Hay, Rudi Gernreich, Dale Jennings, Bob Hull and Chuck Rowland met for the first of a series of weekly meetings at Hay’s home in the Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles on Nov. 11, 1950, to discuss organizing for homosexual emancipation.

Each of the five brought their own history of activist mettle and revolutionary perspective to this bodacious initiative.

Rudi Gernreich was a gay Jewish immigrant from Vienna who knew about the rise of the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement. He had fled fascism and immigrated to the U.S. as a 16-year-old.

Gernreich and Hay had been organizing to stop the U.S. war against Korea and to bring the GIs home.

Hull and Hay were still members of the Communist Party USA, although Bob Hull was not as active as Harry Hay.

Hull and his lover Chuck Rowland--a former CPUSA member--had briefly lost touch with Harry Hay in the spring of 1950 when they moved to Mexico. Rowland stressed, “That was not just a wild, romantic spree; we were fleeing the witch hunts along with thousands of other [North] Americans from all parts of the country.” Months later, the two decided it was safe enough to return to the U.S. to continue their work there. (“Making Trouble,” John D’Emilio)

Dale Jennings was a writer and an activist who worked to defend the civil rights of Japanese-Americans who had been interned in the U.S. during World War II.

“Though Jennings was not a Party member,” Hay biographer Stuart Timmons wrote, “Harry knew his sister and their mother, ‘Ma Jennings,’ from Party circles of the thirties, and Hay and Rowland regarded Dale Jennings as ‘one hell of a fellow traveler.’” (“The Trouble with Harry Hay”)

Chuck Rowland had worked for the American Veterans Committee, which drew progressives, when he returned to civilian life after World War II. “I was made organizer for North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, and Wisconsin. … I was making speeches and advocating all the leftish things.

“We did some very daring things in the AVC. To start with, we were interracial--and I was organizing chapters in places like Missouri and southern Iowa. It was incredible. I didn’t know of any other interracial organizations at that time. … Plus, women were admitted on an equal basis. We didn’t have a women’s auxiliary or anything like that.” (“Making History,” Eric Marcus)

AVC national officers charged in 1946 that communists had “infiltrated” the group. “Rowland’s own inquires established that Communists were prominent among the AVC organizers, but in his opinion they invariably turned out to be ‘the most dedicated workers and sounded strategists.’” (“Sexual Politics,” D’Emilio)

Rowland joined the party and was finally forced out of the AVC as a result. After that, he said, “I became head of the youth division of the Party, which was called the American Youth for Democracy, for both Dakotas and Minnesota. … “I left the Communist Party in 1948, not because I was kicked out, not because I disagreed with anything, but because I just wanted out.” (“Making History”)

Timmons noted that neither Hull nor Rowland had experienced problems in the CPUSA because of their homosexuality. Rowland elaborated: “All the kids I worked with in AYD knew I was gay. It was not an issue you discussed, but they knew. Leaders of the Party in Minnesota knew. But I don’t recall the issue arising in the two years I was active. I didn’t even discuss it with Bob or another gay friend who was in the Party.”

Rowland held on to his revolutionary perspective. “To most [North] Americans, Communists were wicked, horrid people. Even to liberals. But the so-called liberals sat around and talked about socialized medicine, integration, and the rights of women. The Communists, on the other hand, were out there on the barricades or picketing or closing down something—doing something about it instead of just talking.” (“Making History”)

‘I could have written this myself!’

The November 1950 meeting of these five revolutionary activists in Los Angeles was not the first time that the idea of organizing homosexuals had been discussed.

Rowland recalled, “I don’t think there was any thinking gay person who hadn’t, at some time back in the 1920s or 1930s, said at a bar one night when feeling a little happy, ‘You know, we should have an organization. We should get together and have a gay organization.’ And usually you would be laughed out of the place.

“I think we started talking about a gay organization in Los Angeles in 1949, but I know the Mattachine wasn’t formally organized until 1950. I don’t think we had anything written down. It was just something my lover, Bob Hull, and I talked about. …

"Bob had a music class taught by Harry Hay. One day Harry showed Bob something he had written about a gay organization. Bob brought this home and showed it to me. When I read what Harry had written I said, ‘My God, I could have written this myself!’

“So Bob said, ‘You’ve got to meet Harry.’

“Harry lived up in the Silverlake district on Fargo. We drove up there. Harry says I jumped out of my car waving the document saying, ‘I could have written this myself!’

“I don’t think I would have approached a stranger in that way at that time, but that’s the way Harry tells the story.”

Tinder for the sparks

If the idea for homosexual organizing had been discussed for decades, why did it suddenly ignite? Like flint striking flint, the idea needed the dry tinder of material conditions in order to catch fire.

D’Emilio explains, "The movement's history cannot be understood merely as a chronicle of how activists worked to mobilize masses of gay men and lesbians and to achieve a fixed agenda. Instead, the movement constitutes a phase, albeit a decisive one, of a much longer historical process through which a group of men and women came into existence as a self-conscious, cohesive minority.

“Before a movement could take shape, that process had to be far enough along so that at least some gay women and men could perceive themselves as members of an oppressed minority, sharing an identity that subjected them to systematic injustice.” ("Sexual Politics”)

The centralizing force of capitalism had drawn populations from rural and small town life into large cities. The second world imperialist war accelerated this historic process.

This massive migration was not just numerical. Large-scale war-time industry and military conscription of millions transformed the economic landscape, shook up the old family structures, and brought vast numbers of people who might never have come into contact with each other in the past into anonymous--often same-sex--employment, rooming houses and barracks.

After the war, many chose to stay to live and work in urban areas, which helped create milieus and subcultures that were the material precondition for gay organizing in 1950. (It would take another five years after that for the first large-scale lesbian organization to coalesce.)

Subhead: ‘Lavender Scare’ sounds the tocsin

The five activists who met at Harry Hay’s home in November 1950 were also alarmed into action by the ominous and mounting Cold War “Lavender Scare.” This targeting of gays and lesbians, meshing with the “Red Scare” anti-communist campaign, helped ignite homosexual organizing.

In February, Sen. Joseph McCarthy had delivered his infamous speech in which he declared that “card-carrying” communists were moles in the State Department. A month later, Deputy Undersecretary John Peurifoy testified before a congressional subcommittee that no communists were found in the department’s employ, but that homosexual employees were the “security risks.”

Peurifoy’s testimony about gay and lesbian workers in the State Department, noted David K. Johnson in his comprehensive book “The Lavender Scare,” generated “heated debates on the floors of Congress, congressional committee investigations, countless newspaper articles, and numerous White House meetings. It eventually led to the ouster of thousands of government employees. It marked the beginnings of a Lavender Scare.”

The anti-communist drum beat was growing louder as the Pentagon waged imperial war against Korea. The federal government established “loyalty commissions” to spy on government workers.

This government snooping also worried federal workers who fell along the LGBT spectra. Barry D. Adam explained: “The commissions scrutinized their personal lives for what they thought were ‘tell-tale’ details: ‘communist associates,’ ‘un-American’ magazines or books, affiliation with Henry Wallace’s Progressive party—even ‘too great sociability with Black people or unorthodox styles of dress.’” (“The Rise of a Gay and Lesbian Movement”)

Adam noted that a 1949 Newsweek article headlined “Queer People” had “already named homosexuals as ‘sex murderers,’ echoing a consistent media theme identifying homosexuals as destroyers of society. From there, it was but a small step to brand gay people as traitors and to call for their expulsion from public life.”

David K. Johnson documents the chilling effect the government witch hunt had on what he described as “the vibrant lesbian and gay subculture that had developed in Washington as a result of the large influx of young people during the New Deal and World War II.”

But he adds this very important conclusion: “Though intended to contain what was perceived as a growing homosexual menace, the Lavender Scare inspired not only the founding of the first sustained gay organization in the United States in southern California in 1951--an area heavily dependent on government-sponsored defense work--but also the later radicalization of the movement in 1960s Washington.”

An idea whose time had come

Hay had been tipped off by an acquaintance about the State Department expulsions two years before they became media headlines in 1950. In notes he made in July 1950, Hay made clear he thought the purge of homosexual civil servants was part of an imminent takeover of the federal government by fascists.

As a communist organizer, Hay felt the hot breath of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Hollywood. Johnson adds, “Moreover, California had its own anti-communist investigating committee, and the two organizations in which Hay was most active had already come under its scrutiny.”

Hay also feared that the federal purge of government workers accused of being gay or lesbian would set the stage for mass firings in privately-owned industries, particularly as U.S. capital’s war against Korea deepened. “With ‘the Government’s announced plans for eventual 100 percent war production mobilization,’ Hay reasoned that all commerce would be conducted by government contract, ‘making it impossible for Androgynes to secure employment.’ Working in Southern California, an area already heavily dependent on government contracts for much of its manufacturing base, Hay knew very well the influence the federal government could have on private enterprise.” (Johnson)

In 1946, after the foundry he worked in was closed by the government, Hay had been employed at Interstate Aircraft. He was fired from that job after he and a co-worker organized about 15 employees into the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians. He also had to pass up some jobs because as a communist he couldn’t get security clearance. (Timmons)

So Hay understood that the federal anti-gay and anti-communist witch hunts would also have a broad impact on manufacturers that relied on big government contracts.

The whole state depended on government contracts--they fueled half the economic growth in that region in the decade after the war. And there were a quarter of a million federal workers in California, which was dubbed “a second United States capital.” (Johnson)

“Given this experience and his fears about the future,” Johnson concluded, “Hay felt that homosexuals in California had to organize a response to the encroaching federal purges.”

Organizing--it was an idea whose time had finally come. And although communists didn’t create these conditions that had made the political organizing of homosexuals possible, it was gay revolutionaries who took action.

Next: “We need a theory!”