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Harry Hay: Painful partings

Published Jun 28, 2005 8:30 PM

As Harry Hay’s dream of organizing homosexuals took on material reality with the formation and growth of the Mattachine Society in 1951, he faced painful partings.

Hay approached Anita, his partner of 13 years with whom he had adopted two children. He told her about the therapist who had said that Hay could “close the book” on his gay sexuality. “I told her that what the psychiatrist had said wasn’t true, that the book would not close.” Hay explained that he saw homosexuals as a scapegoated minority that had to be organized. The two were legally divorced in September 1951. (”The Trouble with Harry Hay”)

The end of his heterosexual marriage resulted in the loss of almost all the friendships the couple had shared.

One of the closest of those friends, Martha Rinaldo, remembered the conversation she had with Hay weeks after his breakup with Anita. “He explained why this had happened and that he hoped it wouldn’t make any difference in the way I felt about him.

”Because of the witch hunts that were starting up on leftists,” Rinaldo continued, “I remember saying something to the effect of, ‘Harry, are you sure you aren’t trying to jump out of that fire—and that you’re not jumping into a bigger fire?’

”None of us who weren’t gay knew anything about the intensity of feeling that must involve,” she concluded. “Looking back, I don’t see how I could have said something like that.” (”The Trouble with Harry Hay”)

‘Coming out’ to his party

Hay still faced another huge loss in his life.

In autumn 1951, Hay recalled, “I decided that organizing the Mattachine was a call to me deeper than the innermost reaches of spirit, a vision-quest more important than life. I went to the Communist Party and discussed this ‘total call’ upon me, recommending to them my expulsion.” (”Gay American History”)

The most details about why Hay called for his own expulsion, and what happened when he approached party leaders, can be found in Stuart Timmons biography, “The Trouble with Harry Hay.”

”At that time,” Timmons explained, “the Party was calling upon each member in one of its periodic re-registration campaigns. This was a project of the County Verification Committee of the Party, to make sure there was nothing politically vulnerable about the membership and to protect against a growing number of infiltrators and informers.”

Communists were being witch hunted, ordered to register as “foreign agents” and plans for internment of leftists were not just talk.

”Hay took this opportunity,” Timmons wrote, “to present his situation, in a considered, formal and political manner, to his district section organizer, Miriam Sherman.” Sherman and Hay had been friends since they’d met at the Horton dance company in 1934, where she was an accompanist.

When they sat down to talk about his membership, Hay handed Sherman a report. “It was two or three typed pages,” Hay later said, “that outlined my services to the Party and my current involvement in the Mattachine.”

Timmons added, “His continuation in the Party, he concluded, even under the best of circumstances, would be a liability to the organization, so he recommended his own expulsion as a security risk because of his homosexuality.”

Hay elaborated on how he arrived at this serious decision. “Since homosexuals were forbidden membership in the Party, according to its own constitution, I felt that those members in California who knew my Party work would know I had never endangered Party security. But, were this matter to be aired in the People’s World or the Daily Worker, members in other states might feel the Party had been lax about safeguarding the membership. I felt that a proposal for my expulsion would exonerate the California Party in their eyes, and that was the important thing.”

Hay and Sherman sat talking for hours at her kitchen table. “I said that I felt that this was an important conversation she and I were having politically, and that one of these fine days, when it had been made clear that my people were socially responsible, maybe we could all come back together again. But at that moment we couldn’t.”

Sherman later described, “It was traumatic for me. I felt this guy was such an original thinker and hard worker and asset to the Party.”

Timmons said that Sherman “probed uncomfortably” to see if Hay knew other, as she described them, “AC/DC” party members.

Hay responded by describing to her “the ancient and traditional pact faithfully adhered to in the Homosexual Brotherhood wherein one never reveals the identity of another without his permission—under any circumstances—even in the face of Party membership requirements.”

Hay continued, “I suddenly realized what that could mean, and so did she, and we both got involuntarily teary-eyed. Like so many other Party people in those Loyalty Oath and McCarthy-ridden times, we had both experienced best friends who turned out to be FBI spies. We all had friends and relatives whose Jewish cousins in Poland or Germany had their hiding places and identities revealed to the Nazis by friends, neighbors, and even family members.

”After looking at each other for that long, blurry moment, Miriam blurted out, ‘Could that be why the Party always insisted that homosexuals shouldn’t become Party members or shouldn’t be allowed to come close to inner Party life?’”

Hay concluded, “If I had gotten involved with a guy who had been an FBI snitch, this reason would have been very legitimate as regards Party security.”

Any sympathetic reader can understand how difficult it was for these two comrades and friends of many years to try to sort all this out at the kitchen table. But this needs sorting out, even now.

Mixing apples and oranges

Yes, gays and lesbians were considered “outlaws” by the state at that time. The cops and courts actively hounded and persecuted them, and tried to use this legal vulnerability to manipulate anyone in their custody so as to extort cooperation or provide information.

However, having to hide their sexuality in order to remain members of the CPUSA made lesbian and gay, bisexual, transgender and intersexual comrades more vulnerable to extortion and state pressures, not less.

And wasn’t the state bearing down on communists, too? Weren’t communists being fired and hounded on the basis that they were “security risks”? The CPUSA actually went underground during periods in which the leaders feared fascism was imminent.

It is important to remember that the CPUSA did have real security concerns—all communists did at that time. But the party’s stance that prohibited gay and lesbian members can’t be justified on that basis. The CP officially barred gay and lesbian members from joining, putting it on a political basis: that homosexuality was a result of the degeneracy of a decadent capitalist system.

This position flew in the face of the revolutionary leadership of Lenin and the early Bolshevik Party in Russia. Within weeks after the 1917 seizure of state power by workers and peasants, the Bolsheviks had removed the czarist anti-gay law that had made same-sex love vulnerable to state repression. They explained that this was a political action to tear down the walls dividing homosexuals from the rest of society.

It was an amazingly bold step for the new workers’ state to take—one far in advance of anywhere else in the world at the time. And this advance was made not in a country with a long history of bourgeois enlightenment, but in one recently emerged from feudalism and medieval authoritarianism.

By the time the Communist Party had been firmly established in the United States, however, it took its outlook on homosexuality from the regressive re-criminalization of homosexuality that emerged in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s leadership. As imperialism continued to surround and isolate and menace the workers’ state, making it harder to build socialism, the grouping that took over the leadership after Lenin’s death retreated from earlier revolutionary positions on many social issues.

Marx stressed that, since the partitioning of society into exploiting and exploited classes, the dominant ideas of any epoch have been the ideas of the owning classes. The bureaucracy Stalin came to personify in the USSR was not a new owning class. But its growth reflected the problems arising from the preponderance of capitalism on a world scale. These problems derived not from an inherent weakness in a socialist, planned economy itself, but from not enough socialism.

Under the weight of imperialist pressures and lack of material resources, old divisive prejudices—learned like habits over centuries of life under feudalism and capitalism—crept back in.

In the U.S. during the Cold War, the inability of the CPUSA to take a revolutionary position on same-sex love weakened the communist movement. The capitalist class here seized the opportunity to gay-bait communists and to subversive-bait homosexuals as primary weapons in the Cold War.

‘Lifelong friend of the people’

It says a lot about Hay’s character and his commitment to the struggle for a communist future that he put the party ahead of his own life’s struggle. But his attempt to justify his organization’s position on the basis of security really only illuminates how hard it was for him to face the fact that he had to leave the party in order to organize a movement against same-sex oppression and state repression.

The CPUSA leadership didn’t take lightly the loss of Harry Hay, a party educator and theoretician.

Sherman described Hay’s coming out as a gay man to her as “less a shock than an eye-opener,” because it made her think about homosexuality in political terms for the first time.

Timmons explained, “She added that the manner in which he handled it posed a challenge to the Party. For a respected, valued Party member to make such a declaration was ‘something new,’ she said. ‘Nobody knew how to handle it.’”

The paperwork regarding Hay’s membership was taken up on county, state and national levels of the CPUSA before a decision was made.

Hay concluded, “They rejected ‘expulsion,’ and, in honor of my 18 years as a member and 10 years as a teacher and cultural innovator dropped me as ‘a security risk,’” but they added that he would be considered “a life-long friend of the people.” (”Gay American History”)

The CPUSA lost a committed communist from its ranks. And the work that Hay was setting out to accomplish in building a movement for same-sex emancipation, and developing a historical and theoretical understanding of the roots of this form of oppression, had to take place outside the Communist Party.

Next: ‘We had no words!’