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Left wing speaks, opposition unites

Lavender & red, part 48

Published Sep 21, 2005 12:14 PM

Faced with louder red-baiting both outside and inside the Mattachine movement, the left-wing founders called for a delegated convention in April 1953.

The convention was unprecedented. It drew together the first large-scale political assembly of those who identified as homosexual to address movement building. The conference also allowed the founding members to speak to the membership directly, for the first time.

But the convention also brought into the same room, for the first time, right-wing members of Mattachine. This gathering allowed them to fuse as an opposition hell-bent on purging the left-wing leadership.

The founding members of Mattachine—the Fifth Order—who had been leading the burgeoning West-Coast-based homosexual emancipation movement in early 1953, were faced with enormous obstacles.

McCarthyism was in its ascendancy. The anti-communist, anti-gay witch hunt threatened to crush any demand for economic, political or social change.

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in March and April came to Los Angeles, where Mattachine had first been organized, to investigate local communist activism and organizing.

Mattachine and one of its founders, Harry Hay, had recently faced red-baiting. Hay was “outed” as a former teacher of Marxism.

The public arm of the organization, the Mattachine Foundation, and its left-wing attorney, Fred M. Snider, had been red-baited in a March 1953 newspaper column by columnist Paul Coates, who described the lawyer as an “unfriendly witness” at a recent HUAC hearing.

And among the influx of new members, many were far to the right of the communist organizers who set the movement in motion. They were demanding that the underground leadership—the Fifth Order—which had operated in an underground manner because of fear of arrest and red-listing, create a more above-ground form of organization.

Guild councilor Marilyn Reiger, soon to become part of the reactionary opposition, was one of those who argued for restructuring. She stated that she was already an out lesbian at work, and that openness was essential.

Hay’s biographer, Stuart Timmons, elaborated, “The Fifth Order was deluged with demands for change. The foremost concern was about secrecy. Coates’ accusations of ‘subversion’ made the rank and file uneasy with the anonymous structure. Even before the Coates piece, many guild members reacted to the city council letter by saying, as Konrad Stevens recalled, ‘They think we’re activists! We’ll all get into trouble.’

“He further remembered that a growing faction was ‘scared to death that Mattachine was being run by the Communist Party and was part of a plot to overthrow the U.S. government!’ One guild member even called for a loyalty oath denouncing Communism as a condition for Mattachine membership. Harry termed this attitude ‘the middle-class mentality more concerned with respectability than self-respect.’ In his view, the organization was growing with the wrong people.” (“The Trouble with Harry Hay”)

Below-ground or above-ground?

Hay was opposed to lifting the secrecy under which the leadership structure operated. He felt it was an important protection against police and government retribution. Others in the core leadership criticized Hay as being out of touch with the changed realities of the organization and the large meetings it was helping to inspire and to coalesce.

“Harry was the theoretician and the consultant, but he was not present at these enormous gatherings,” observed Chuck Rowland. “It became evident to Steve, Bob, Dale, and me, that there simply were more people than we could handle.”

Chuck Rowland recalled, “Mattachine was growing so fast in the first few years that it became obvious to me there was no way we could control it. It was a very tight top-down organization, where no one who attended the meetings knew who the leadership was. It was kept very secret, but it had become unmanageable.” (“Making History”)

It is arguable whether the founders of Mattachine themselves would have mantled their leadership in secrecy had they not feared a fascist takeover in the United States was imminent. However, given the illegality of same-sex love, the employment purges and the overall period of political reaction in which they organized, it certainly is understandable that they chose that form of organization.

The sudden new influx of members put the question of reorganization on the agenda for immediate discussion. The fact that there were members who were brave enough to function as openly gay or lesbian in their daily lives, particularly at work, marked a new phase in the homophile movement.

But it quickly became clear that the forces calling for a “democratic” reorganization of Mattachine had a political objective, not an organizational one. Their real goal was to unseat the left-wing leadership.

Leadership issues call for convention

“Harry Hay has never quite forgiven us for what happened next,” Rowland later recalled, “but several of us said that it was obvious we couldn’t go on like this. I said that the only thing to do was to open up Mattachine, to make it a fully democratic organization. To this end I proposed that we call a constitutional convention.” (“Making History”)

In response, the Fifth Order called a democratic convention to change the structure of Mattachine. They called on several hundred members at various stages of membership and responsibility to come to a two-day April conference to draw up a constitution, vote on by-laws and elect the leadership. The Rev. Wallace Maxey made his Universalist Church available for the political gathering, an unparalleled event in the United States.

Rowland argued for restructuring with a more visible leadership. “So I wrote a constitution, which I thought was a damn good one. And then we at the highest echelon of Mattachine worked on it for weeks and months. I thought it was a really marvelous document. We thought it was so good and so workable that it never occurred to us that anybody would come up with another constitution. Or if they did, that they could get anybody to vote for it.”

The founding Mattachine members braced themselves to hold a principled position against anti-communism at the convention. Rowland wrote Hay at that time, “Come hell or high water, we will oppose all idea of a non-Communist statement by any group using the name Mattachine … [and] will have nothing to do with any group which has a loyalty oath as a condition of membership.” (“Sexual Politics”)

Hay stressed that since the Mattachine Foundation had been publicly red-baited in the article by Paul Coates, Sen. Estes Kefauver and his red-baiting committee would zero in on the Mattachine Foundation as part of its “investigation” into local nonprofit groups.

Hay stated, “We had made a mutual pledge in the Fifth Order to invoke the Fifth Amendment if questioned, which, I felt, was the best protection for us and for the membership of the society.”

‘I got some applause, but most were in shock”

The convention spanned two weekends that April and May. The founding members invited two leaders, or “councilors,” from every guild in California. Each delegate was believed to represent up to about 10 members.

The first weekend of the convention began on April 11. Timmons described, “On the opening weekend, the convergence of such a large number of gay people in one room was emotionally overpowering. Harry insisted that close to 500 were there, though Jim Kepner, who saved voting tallies, counted fewer than 150. But Kepner and Hay agreed on the exhilaration of the occasion.”

Hay remarked in a later interview, “Can you imagine what that was like? This is the first time it’s ever happened in the history of the United States.”

However euphoric members initially felt about being brought together in one room, though, the group quickly split along political lines.

Founders Chuck Rowland and Harry Hay delivered the keynotes in the opening session.

Rowland argued from the podium that homosexuals were a distinct cultural minority. His political position did not take into account that  within the broad category of “homosexual” were the national identities and cultures of Black, Latino, Native, Asian and other nationally oppressed peoples. Today, this drawing of an equal sign between oppressions based on nationality and sexuality would sow disunity, not solidarity.

But at that 1953 convention, Rowland was calling on more politically conservative white gay men and lesbians to see the necessity for unity with the liberation struggles of oppressed nationalities--in particular African American and Chicano/Mexicano peoples, and with Jewish people in the post-war era, as well.

Rowland ended his speech with a moving prediction. “I remember saying, ‘The time will come when we will march arm in arm, 10 abreast down Hollywood Boulevard proclaiming our pride in our homosexuality.’

“One of my friends in Mattachine said he almost had a coronary at such an outrageous thought at the time. I deliberately built this speech up to what I hoped would be a rousing climax. I got some applause, but people were more in shock than anything else. To me, it seemed perfectly reasonable.”

Hay takes the podium

Hay spoke next from the dais. The title of his speech, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a Homosexual,” satirized the increasingly familiar question put to communists by McCarthy.

Hay took on the red-baiting attacks against the Mattachine Foundation and against lawyer Fred Snider for having been an “unfriendly witness” at a recent HUAC hearing.

Historian John D’Emilio wrote that Hay “reminded his listeners that, with the federal government removing homosexuals and lesbians from its payroll, each of them had something to hide from investigators. Hay urged Mattachine members to see that it was in their interest to defend the Fifth Amendment rights of everyone, regardless of political belief, since some day they might be the target of Congressional questioners.” (“Sexual Politics”

Hay characterized the Mattachine Foundation as “strictly non-partisan and non-political in its objective and in its operations.” The foundation merely articulated the need for a debate about the position of homosexuals in U.S. society.

“But,” he added, “in the very raising of the need for such debate, the Mattachine Foundation deliberately put itself squarely in opposition to a dominant section of the status quo, and elects to become a victim of the myriad implications and slanders derivative of that opposition.”

Hay noted that, “It would be pleasant if the social and legal recommendations of the Foundation could be found impeccable both to the tastes of the most conservative community as well as to the best interest of the homosexual minority. But since there must be a choice … the securities and protections of the homosexual minorities must come first.” (“Gay American History”)

It was brave of Hay to take that position in 1953, when “the most conservative community” really meant the forces of a domestic anti-gay and anti-communist witch hunt.

But here was the chance, finally, for Hay and the other leaders to do more than allude to “myriad implications and slanders.” Hay, Rowland and the other leaders could have spoken out against anti-communism, pointing out that anyone who called for progressive change--and revolutionary change--would face red-baiting. And since those whose sexuality made them criminals were calling for change, they needed the broadest and most resolute defense of all left-wing currents within their ranks.

Was that a hard position to take in the spring of 1953? Of course it was. And it could have meant defeat for the leaders who took the red-baiters head on. But Hay did not take them head on--he made an egregiously conciliatory move in his speech.

Hay attacked the left.

Hay reminded those gathered that recent anti-gay purges of workers in government agencies were based on the argument that homosexuals were “security risks” because they could be easily extorted by a “foreign power.”

“It is notable,” Hay said, “that not one single political or pressure group among the liberals, let along the left wing, lifted either voice or finger to protest the monstrous social and civil injustice and sweeping slander of this dictum. The complete hostility with which the [homosexual] Minority was surrounded by this indictment was a clear barometer of the outright antipathy unitedly maintained by every color of political opinion. …”

Hay continued, “It should be stated here that the Left was the first political grouping to deny a social potential to the Minority by going on public record with the opinion that the perverts were socially degenerate and to be avoided as one avoids the scum of the earth. The Foundation idea was conceived only when the Right, in the substance of the State Department actions, followed suit some years later.”

That’s where Hay caved in to the growing anti-communist opposition in the ranks of the Mattachine movement.

Appeasement never works

Those who are not politically attuned might argue, “Wasn’t what Hay said true? Didn’t the left movement--particularly the Communist Party USA of which Hay was a member for 18 years--take a terrible position regarding homosexuality, and exclude openly gay and lesbian members?”

Yes, that was true. But timing is everything in politics. When Hay left the CPUSA in order to devote his time and energies to building a homosexual emancipation movement, he defended the party as though its position was merely a matter of organizational protection.

Yet now he was standing up in front of a convention called because the volume of red-baiting was so loud--and he attacked the left. His speech drew an equal sign between the political backwardness of some on the left and the state repression by the right. The CPUSA at that time, no matter how bad its position on homosexuality, was itself in the bull’s-eye of the Cold War target.

Of course, had the CPUSA supported homosexuals who were also under the gun, it would have made it easier for all communists--especially Hay and the other founders--to withstand and combat the “red scare” and the “lavender scare” unleashed by the capitalist class against all left-wing challenges.

Whether or not Hay knew that Lenin and the Bolshevik Party had abolished the tsarist anti-gay laws, Mattachine founders like Rudi Gernreich were most certainly aware that German communists supported the homosexual emancipation movement before World War II.

All in all, it was a low blow to hit “the left” to deflect red-baiting. Hay hadn’t just been a member of the CPUSA for 18 years, he had been a leading theoretician and teacher in the party.  Rowland and the other Mattachine founders were either communists or fellow travelers and continued to be part of the left wing in the U.S. That’s why they were all being red-baited by the right wing.

Yet Hay tarred the left with the same brush he used against the right. If he thought that this political conciliation would appease the right-wing in the room, he was dead wrong. Instead, this sop to the reactionaries merely whetted their blades.

Next: May convention: Right wing ousts left-wing leaders.