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Finding the right word

Published Jul 8, 2005 10:25 PM

“We had no words for ourselves,” stressed Harry Hay. “That’s the important point—we didn’t have words.”

Organizers of the Mattachine Society were trying to build a movement to battle same-sex oppression in 1951. But how could they organize—write a leaflet or an article or hold a consciousness-raising discussion—without language that precisely conveyed the same meaning to large numbers of people?

Descriptions of sex between two people of the same sex existed in writing—it was codified in every law book, with harsh penalties attached. But the word “homosexual” didn’t first become an entry in a U.S. dictionary until 1938. More dictionaries only followed suit after World War II.

Mattachine leaders rejected the word. The term had been so criminalized and pathologized that it didn’t socially invoke the meaning “same-sexual.”

Other terms did exist, of course. Most were epithets and slurs that cut painfully deep.

Chosen language and euphemisms for same-sex love and variant gender expression developed among smaller social circles of what today would be referred to as LGBT people in towns and cities, among different nationalities and economic classes. But there was no recognizable term of pride that could be used for mass political organizing.

Instead, the Mattachine founders set out to coin what they thought was a new word: “homo phile.” The term was drawn from the New Latin philia—friendship—which in turn had derived from the Greek word philos—loving.

Homophile: The word meant same-sex affection and loving.

“I really thought we had invented something new,” recalled Hay. “I was astonished when Rudi [Gernreich] told me that he remembered the same word from the Hirschfeld movement.”

The voice of the European movement had been so violently silenced or dispersed by fascism that it took those who had escaped—like Gernreich, a gay Jewish émigré from Austria—to retain and spread the knowledge of its gains in language and concepts.

As the Mattachine leaders crafted a term, it in turn helped hone their own thinking, like a sharp shovel blade. Hay in particular began digging around in history, sifting for answers: “Who are gay people? Where have we been in history? And most important, What might we be for?”

Early socialists like Edward Carpenter had asked these same questions half a century earlier. So had the leaders of the German Homosexual Emancipation movement.

But now these questions were being asked by a new generation of communist organizers looking to give their movement a historical foundation.

Marxist tools

Harry Hay was the Mattachine member most concerned with finding the historical roots of same-sex expression in order to understand where and why the oppression arose. He had for many years been a Marxist educator. He’d taught a series of popular lectures examining folk music from the standpoint of what it revealed about the historical conflicts between the laboring and ruling classes.

He was a voracious researcher who had spent years scouring the work of anthropologists, particularly those writing from a historical materialist viewpoint, looking for mention of those who lived in a social role outside of “heterosexual man” or “heterosexual woman.”

Hay had explored the role of women in pre-class
societies and the remnants of matrilineal traditions on the European continent. The Catholic Church—characterized by Frederick Engels as the political party of feudalism—had carried out a counter-revolutionary wave of terror to eradicate them.

Hay also studied the more complex paths of sex/gender/sexuality in Native nations on this continent.

He found a great deal of what he was looking for. Enough to develop his own ground-breaking survey and analysis of the history of “gay” people—a study he continued for many years.

The gist of the early conclusions he drew from his research can be found in talks he began to present at Mattachine meetings and discussion groups in 1953. “The Homosexual and History—An Invitation to Further Study” is reprinted in “Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of its Founder,” edited by Will Roscoe. (Beacon Press: 1996)

Hay stressed that “Since a proper coordination of the social history of the Homosexual in Society has yet to be attempted, some of my material organizations and coordinations must be regarded as speculation. But, even so, it is speculation carefully molded in the anthropological tradition of Lewis Morgan, whose 19th-century speculative reconstruction of American Indian clan or tribe culture out of similarities between the Iroquois Matriarchate and the Hawaiian group marriage culture was authenticated completely in the 20th century by Boas, Benedict and Densmore in the Americas, Herskovitz in the Caribbean, and Mead in Melanesia.”

Frederick Engels and Karl Marx thought the work of Morgan was as profound and revolutionary a contribution to anthropology as Darwin’s theory of evolution was to biology.

Morgan documented “family” relationships among communal peoples that were completely unlike the father-dominated families in class-divided societies. Descent in these cooperative, pre-class societies was determined through the mothers, creating radically different familial formations—what Hay is referring to as Matriarchate.

Engels based his book “The Family, Private Property and the State” on Morgan’s research. Engels made a landmark contribution to the struggle for women’s liberation by showing how, as group labor grew more skilled, the accumulation of more than what was needed for immediate survival became wealth. He documented how this wealth developed in the male sphere of labor—primarily through animal domestication—and eventually led to the overthrow of matrilineal societies and their replacement with patriarchal family units designed to pass on wealth to male heirs.

“Leaning upon the coherent picture presented by these great scholars,” Hay said he was “attempting a new correlation in assigning similar roles and developments to identical historical and cultural artifacts as they appeared earlier in the Mediterranean and later in Western Europe.”

It was in this historical nexus between pre-class and class-divided societies that Hay looked for what he described as “the long-hidden outline of truth—and within that truth the real measure of the Homosexual’s great contribution to society, to history, and to progress.”

Hay traced the modern legal hounding of homosexuals in California back to that earliest accumulation of wealth at the dawn of class society.