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Young Harry Hay and the Wobblies

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series, part 31

Published Apr 14, 2005 9:35 PM

The Mattachine movement for homosexual emancipation in the United States was initiated by a core group of five leftists in 1950 at the height of the anti-communist and anti-gay McCarthyite witch hunt. Two of the founders were members of the Communist Party (CPUSA), another had been active in the party in the Midwest after the war, and the other two leftists could be described as “fellow travelers.”

The short-lived Mattachine movement drew an estimated 5,000 homosexuals in California to its ranks in the early 1950s. And, Will Roscoe noted, “its name, carrying the promise of freedom, spread throughout the United States and the world.” (“Radically Gay”)

The political beliefs and experience of the founding members were far from incidental to organizing for homosexual emancipation.

That was particularly true for Harry Hay, the key figure in launching the Mattachine movement.

Hay had spent more than 17 years in the CPUSA. He wasn’t just a member; he had been a respected Marxist teacher and a tireless organizer. Communist politics, a Marxist world view, a historical materialist vista of history, and immersion in the class struggle gave material shape to Hay’s vision of homosexual emancipation.

Ticket to the working-class struggle

Hay had been born in England in 1912 with a silver spoon in his mouth. He spent his early years in Chile, where his father was a wealthy mining engineer employed by Anaconda Copper. The family returned to the U.S. in 1917, where he grew up in southern California.

Hay so loved theater and opera that at the end of his freshman year in high school, at the age of 13, his father sent him to labor for the summer in the hay fields of Western Nevada to “toughen him up.”

Hay worked alongside miners who did farm work in the summers. Many were Wobblies—members of the Industrial Workers of the World—whose ambition was to organize workers into “one big union.”

Those hay wagons became a school of Marxism for Hay. In his biography, “The Trouble with Harry Hay,” Stuart Timmons described, “Among the greasy, thumbworn pamphlets, Harry remembered Karl Marx’s Value, Price and Profit and Wage-Labor and Capital. By day, they drilled him in the principles of exploitation, organization and unity. By campfire, they told him stories. ‘I was immersed in the first great railroad strike of 1887, the Haymarket Massacre, and the dreadful Ludlow Massacre, where Rockefeller goons gunned down 14 women and children in the snow on Christmas Eve, 1913.’”

Hay also recalled being chilled by the anti-gay attitudes that many workers, including Wobblies, had been societally imbued with and which remained unexamined and unchallenged.

However, the Wobblies gave Hay an IWW card that was his ticket to work on a tramp steamer. The experience with these militant miners gave him more than that.

Timmons summed up, “Though he had already been earning money for several years, and the silver spoon of his infancy had long tarnished, he now had words to identify himself as ‘a working-class kid.’ He played down any class rebellion on his part, and said that his new politicization merely gave a theoretical basis for his personal hatred of his father’s staunch conservatism.

“The Wobblies’ praise for his honest toil strengthened this new political bond, and each winter he eagerly awaited the return of summer and their companionship.”

Hay’s first ‘bulls-eye’

Hay’s first gay experience was with someone who had ties to the much shorter-lived 1924 Society for Human Rights based in Chicago, whose founder, Henry Gerber, had been deeply inspired by contact with the Germany Homosexual Emancipation Movement.

Hay, who never lost his early love of theater, moved to Los Angeles—an urban magnet for many homosexuals—and became a struggling actor during the depths of the capitalist economic Depression of the early 1930s.

It was Will Geer, perhaps best remembered today as “Grandpa Walton” of the 1970s television series “The Waltons,” who first introduced Hay to the left-wing
current in Los Angeles and to the Communist Party. Over coffee with Geer and Maude Allen, said Timmons,
“They hashed over the anti-socialist Palmer Raids made by the federal government in the 1920s, the Sacco and Vanzetti trials, and various strikes—fascinating stuff to this young man.”

Geer and Hay helped organized demonstrations during these hard Depression years to support unemployed workers, exploited field laborers and labor unions. They chained themselves to a lamppost at the old UCLA campus while distributing leaflets for the American League Against War and Fascism.

One of the most life-altering demonstrations for Hay, which he reportedly loved to rehash, was in Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. Says his biography, “The Milk Strike was an action called in 1933 by the wives and mothers of the poor and unemployed to make the government stop allowing surplus milk to be poured down the storm drains to keep the price up. They wanted it for the needy. A crowd of thousands turned out downtown in the shadow of the newly built City Hall.”

Hay saw police posted atop nearby buildings aiming their machine guns at the crowd. Cops charged, swinging their clubs at protesters’ skulls. “Women were grabbing and shielding their children, and every so often you would see someone go down with a bloody head. The police were being absolutely brutal, without provocation. I think they may have wanted to incite a riot so they could clear the crowd.”

As he backed away from the police melee towards a bookstore, Harry grab bed one of the bricks used to keep stacks of newspapers from flying away in a breeze. “I made no conscious decision. I just found myself heaving it and catching a policeman right in the temple. He slid off his horse and a hundred faces turned to me in amazement. No one was more amazed than I. Always before, I had been the one who threw the ball like a sissy. This ‘bull’ was my first bull’s-eye ever!”

Timmons described what happened next. “Sym path izers murmuring in Yiddish, Portuguese and English grabbed him. He heard, ‘We’ve got to hide this kid before the cops get him.’” They guided him through a labyrinth of connected old 1880s tenement buildings. “He was pushed through rooms that immigrant women and children rarely left, across catwalks and planks, up, up, hearing the occasional reassurance, ‘Everything’s fine. Just don’t look down.’”

Hay arrived at a living room in the slums filled with men. Presiding over them was Clarabelle. Hay heard the other men refer to Clarabelle, who was born male-bodied, with the female pronoun. Clara belle had hennaed hair and wore a peasant blouse slung low over one shoulder.

“Harry had heard of Clarabelle as one of the most powerful of the ‘Queen Mothers’ who traditionally oversaw the temperamental comings and goings in the districts of town where they lived; Harry felt that such figures formed a regional network of salons among some pre-Stonewall gays,” Timmons explained.

Hay himself recalled, “Clarabelle controlled Bunker Hill and had at least a dozen ‘lieutenants’ covering stations, one called the Fruit Tank—that was our nickname for the jail cell for queers. Clarabelle was legendary, a [1930s movie star] Mary Boland type who really knew how to pin a curl while giving an order.

“‘My dear,’ she said to me, ‘we saw what you did, knocking that old cop off his high horse, and it should have been done years ago. We’ll have to hide you; they’ll be after you soon. Cup of coffee first? No, no time. They’re already on their way.”

Next: Answering the “siren song of revolution.”