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.
rejected the word. The term had been so criminalized and pathologized that it
didn’t socially invoke the meaning “same-sexual.”
terms did exist, of course. Most were epithets and slurs that cut painfully
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Hay traced the modern legal hounding of homosexuals in
California back to that earliest accumulation of wealth at the dawn of class
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