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Harry Hay tried to 'close chapter' on his gayness

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 33

Published May 4, 2005 5:15 PM

In 1938, Harry Hay—only a decade away from launching the first mass political movement for homosexual emancipation in the United States—married a woman comrade in the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).

Since the CPUSA at that time did not allow openly homosexual members, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Hay, a member of the CPUSA, felt so isolated as a gay man that he married merely in order to hide his sexuality inside the organization.

But Hay knew he wasn’t the only gay party member. He wrote, “I knew a number of Black and white men from the performing arts in the Communist Party who were gay, but the Party didn’t seem to suspect. I realized that since they weren’t that unnoticeable, certain Party people saw the necessity of tolerating and covering for them.” (Stuart Timmons, “The Trouble with Harry Hay”)

Simply attributing the pressure towards heterosexual marriage to the CP’s internal policy removes the historical context. Outside the party, homosexuality was illegal; state regulation of sexuality was enforced by police entrapment and raids, imprisonment and institutionalization.

As biographer Timmons succinctly summed up, “Marriage was common for both male and female homosexuals of Harry’s generation. The most famous modern homosexual, Oscar Wilde, was married with children. Matrimony, in one of Harry’s more philosophical letters, seemed ‘the casting couch for society.’”

As historian Jim Kepner noted, “In the forties, for many gays who wanted to be socially productive, marriage was a necessity.” While there were a few professions in which a gay man might remain unmarried—dance, design, dressmaking—those were not political hot spots of organizing.

Harry Hay was an organizer who wanted to be in the thick of the working-class struggle.

‘If only she’d been a boy!’

In the late 1930s, Hay had talked to psychologist Dr. Saul Glass, while taking part in Glass’s experiment that sought physiological markers for same-sex love. Hay was part of a control group whose blood and urine was compared to that of gay/bi/trans prisoners held in the “Fruit Tank” of the county jail.

Hay lamented to Glass that he felt hopeless “in not being able to find a flower-faced boy who was a Marxist like me, who would stand with me in the class struggle against oppression.”

Glass’s suggestion was creative, within the confines of accommodation to oppression: “Maybe instead of a girlish boy, you’re looking for a boyish girl.”

Hay recalled, “He told me that all I needed to do to change my orientation was to deliberately close one book and open another.”

Shortly afterward, Hay was drawn to Anita Platky. She was a 6-foot tall, strong-jawed athletic woman described by some as “boyish.” And much to the dismay of Hay’s well-to-do Catholic family, Platky was Jewish.

Timmons wrote, “Harry told Anita about his homosexual past. She assured him she understood, that she already knew several men who were ‘that way.’ At least one of Anita’s few boyfriends before Harry had also been gay.”

The two marched in the same demonstrations, walked the same picket lines, and shared the same hatred of oppression and the same commitment to the socialist future of humanity.

So in 1938, Harry Hay and Anita Platky exchanged wedding vows. At the request of the couple, the ceremony left out any “God stuff.”

They remained married for 13 years. Hay said, “Anita and I loved each other dearly and had a wonderful time doing anything together. We rarely quarreled because I usually understood her point of view. Most of her family and friends thought we were a perfect match—I never looked at another woman. (But oh the men!)”

Timmons concluded, “Harry once said, with awkward sincerity, ‘If she had been a boy, we would still probably be together.’”

Learning communication skills

In 1939, the couple moved to New York and as communists became immersed in the movement there.

In 1940 they were part of the many thousands who marched through the streets on May Day. Hay described, “Everyone was singing the Leftist anthem, the ‘Bandiera Rossa Trionfera.’ It echoed through the canyons of the city. People were hanging out of windows singing. You’d really think the whole of Manhattan had signed up with the Party.”

Hay was assigned to the Artists and Writers branch of the New York CP.

He became interim head of the New Theater League in 1941. This trade union theater staged actual shop floor battles that workers had fought in order to educate and organize.

Harry explained that as workers successfully organized their shops into unions, “Somebody would eventually say, ‘Jeeze, somebody ought to write a play about what we went though. … If we told our story, other shops could learn from us.’”

Hay organized a fund-raising concert for the theater effort that brought the legendary blues singer Leadbelly, Aunt Molly Jackson, the famous voice of the Harlan County coal workers’ struggle, and others to the Auto Workers’ Hall in lower Manhattan.

Hay taught acting to workers in unions, including the Longshore, Cooks and Stewards, and Bus Drivers unions. Timmons concluded, “In their classes, people often re-enacted actual confrontations with their bosses, living out the idea of shops learning from one another’s struggles.

“So Harry joined the clan of theater teachers, from whose distinctive bag of communications tricks he would draw heavily in his future activism.”

Next: Turning to struggle and history for answers.