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Right wing ousts left leadership

Lavender & red, part 49

Published Sep 28, 2005 7:41 AM

The left-wing founders of the Mattachine movement—the Fifth Order—thought the anti-communist opposition had been pushed back at their convention in April. But when the May segment of the delegated conference resumed, the right wing came back with a vengeance and, wielding McCarthyite red-baiting as its primary weapon, successfully unseated the leadership.

The first segment of the two-week conference, held on the last weekend in April, had concluded with small work groups given the task of drafting a constitution and bylaws. Since the opposition's rallying cry was for a more democratic form of organization, the Fifth Order may have hoped to diffuse its opponents by assigning the tasks of restructuring to smaller discussion groups.

However, the job did not appear to lend itself to numerous clusters of discussion. Frustrated by the lack of results, delegates voted at the closing session to elect a committee to hammer out the pieces drafted by the small groups into a cohesive document and bring it back to the second half of the convention in late May.

After the April segment of the convention, the Fifth Order may have breathed a sigh of relief. The assembly had proceeded without a floor fight and the right-wing opposition had not shown its strength.

Fifth Order member Chuck Rowland wrote to a Northern California Mattachine leader, Gerry Brissette, that the opposition had been successfully isolated at the April conference. Rowland added that he expected "some rumbles from them at the next session," but felt confident they would not prevail.

Brissette did not agree. He reported the stealth maneuvering of "a real evil minority at the Convention," which he said had tried to win over his whole delegation to its side. Brissette warned Rowland that, "smarting under their rejection, they might return even better organized." Brissette advised the Fifth Order members to "come to the next session well prepared." ("Making Trouble," John D'Emilio)

Brissette had a good feel for what was brewing.

Opposition congeals

In the weeks building up to the May session, the reactionary opposition began to galvanize, with Los Angeles guild member Kenneth Burns at its head. Burns, a Carnation Co. engineer, was described as a "Brooks Brothers executive type."

Historian John D'Emilio explained, "Burns presided over a guild whose members, according to one of them, were 'politically conservative and closety' and which had reacted vehemently to [journalist] Paul Coates' column." Coates had red-baited the Mattachine Foundation.

"They had been as upset, one member recalled, by the Mattachine's questionnaire to local political candidates as they had been by the innuendos of Communist subversion, and felt that any direct political action was likely to destroy the organization. Nor did they look with favor on Rowland and Hay's opening speeches which 'shocked, angered, and infuriated' them."

They maintained that any political activism was "likely to destroy the organization."

Burns's command of parliamentary procedure allowed him to win the chair of the interim committee delegated to draft the new Mattachine constitution.

Marilyn Rieger was also selected to serve on the committee. Rieger was politically isolated in her own guild, which supported the founding leadership. But the larger body of the convention gave reactionary elements a bigger pond in which to fish for support.

Burns and Rieger met with journalist Hal Call from San Francisco. Rumors that Chuck Rowland had been a communist youth organizer enraged Call. The militant tones in the keynotes by Rowland and Harry Hay at the first convention had also angered Call.

This opposition came to the May convention with a single purpose, Call said: to "read out of the roll-call most of the founding members."

'Our homosexuality is irrelevant'

Rieger took the podium early on at the May convention to articulate the political view of the opposition. In a polemic against the concept that homosexuals were a distinct group, she argued, "We know we are the same, no different than anyone else. Our only difference is an unimportant one to the heterosexual society, unless we make it important."

Rieger stressed that "we are first and foremost people." This appeal was meant to sway those in the audience who had felt dehumanized and forcibly alienated from society by their oppression.

Rieger said that equality for gay men and women would be won "by declaring ourselves, by integrating, not as homosexuals, but as people, as men and women whose homosexuality is irrelevant to our ideals, our principles, our hopes and aspirations." She concluded that this was the only way to "rid the world of its misconceptions of homosexuality and homosexuals."

Irrelevant? What about the fact that homosexuality was illegal in every state? That police arrested and tortured gay men and lesbians? What about the fact that the reactionary Cold War used the "Lavender Scare," like the "Red Scare," to crush dissent, resulting in a widespread purge of lesbian and gay workers from whole industries?

Rieger, in putting forward the views of the opposition, offered no tactics or strategy to fight back against reaction. Instead, they accommodated themselves to political reaction.

Red-baiting weapon unholstered

After having staked out their political position from the dais, Hal Call led the anti-communists' siege on the founding leadership from the convention floor, allied to another opposition figure, David Finn.

Call raised a motion, backed by the whole San Francisco membership, that "a very strong statement concerning our stand on subversive elements" be written into the new constitution. "We are already being attacked as Communistic," Call told those gathered. Adding this wording "guarantees us that we will not be infiltrated by Communists."

D'Emilio elaborated, "Not restricting himself to parliamentary maneuvering, Call used every available opportunity to abuse Chuck Rowland, whom he especially disliked. Finn, too, joined the fray with a blanket accusation of Communist Party membership against the Mattachine Foundation directors. Though their attacks antagonized more delegates than they persuaded, they added an element of personal bitterness and factionalism that soured the proceedings."

But when it came time for the delegates to vote, the right-wing opposition did not hold sway. The left wing won every vote. Most significantly, Call's proposal for anti-communist language in the constitution was voted down.

The preamble proposed by the founding members, which declared the need for the homosexual minority to develop "a highly ethical homosexual culture," was approved by the convention as well.

Mattachine activist Jim Kepner later wrote that the opposition "saw this as viciously communistic." ("Gay Movement History and Goals")

But the left-wing leadership was taken off guard when the opposition put forward its own draft constitution. It was written, biographer Stuart Timmons explained, "specifically to eradicate the founders and their most visionary language and ideas." ("The Trouble with Harry Hay")

Rowland stated, "What this group of conservative people wanted was an open organization, which is what we were advocating. But because we were Communists, we couldn't be trusted. So they came up with their constitution, which was as strictly top-down in structure as Mattachine had been to begin with. I said that we couldn't live with this constitution; it was clearly unworkable."

Kepner described seeing Call "redder in the face than usual, screaming at Chuck, 'The Society is not big enough for the two of us—there's no room for Russian agents.'"

Left wing resigns

As the anti-communism mounted, the Fifth Order met to assess the situation.

"We were aware," Fifth Order member James Gruber recalled, "that Communism had become a burning issue. We all felt, especially Harry, that the organization and its growth was more important than any of the founding fathers. The Mattachine had grown beyond our control and it had reached the point where we had to turn it over to other people. There was no guarantee that they would continue with what the organization started, but we couldn't help it."

It was a serious threat to be openly red-baited in the spring of 1953. Bob Hull raised at the meeting that the Kefauver Committee, an anti-communist congressional "investigating" committee, was on its way to Los Angeles to scrutinize "subversive activities."

Hay later observed, "We realized that we couldn't bear investigation. We original Mattachine founders and our lawyers would all show up as either having been 'fellow travelers' or actual Communist Party members. None of us were party members any longer, but some had been. We couldn't answer that 'Have you ever been?' question without taking the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination."

Hay said Hull told him, "We can't hold this thing."

Recalled Hay, "The middle-class groups were all for pulling out, the whole society seemed to be falling apart—it looked like the Titanic going down.

"At that moment I suddenly realized for the first time that we weren't unanimous any more. Our original dream was gone. I thought, 'We'll have to dissolve anyway, because of this investigating committee.'"

Hull and Rowland argued that the Fifth Order should do away with unanimity in decision making and instead adopt majority-rule voting.

"Harry was the most reluctant of the group to accept what we decided on," according to Rowland.

Finally, all seven founding members of the Fifth Order agreed to disband as a core group and not attempt to run for office in the new organization, give over the Mattachine name, and resign openly as a group at the convention—the first time the leadership would publicly present itself to the membership.

When the seven members took the stage, "outed" themselves at the final session of the May convention, and announced that they were stepping down, Rowland described the reaction of astonishment from many delegates that these respected individuals were the anonymous leaders who had been so demonized. Rowland said, "When we announced that we were resigning, a lot of people yelled, 'Oh, no, no.' But the Hal Call faction was delighted."

Next: Two-line struggle: Which class will lead?