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‘Bachelors for Wallace’

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series part 35

Published May 26, 2005 4:14 PM

On Aug. 10, 1948, Harry Hay first formulated the organizational and political call for what would become in just a few short years the Mattachine movement for homosexual emancipation.

That was the night that Ray Glazer—who wrote for both the left-wing People’s Songs and for the popular radio program “Duffy’s Tavern”—invited Hay to be one of 90 people at a public signing of presidential hopeful Henry Wallace’s candidacy petition in California. (Stuart Timmons, “The Trouble with Harry Hay”)

Hay was thrilled about Wallace’s campaign. Henry Agard Wallace was running for president on the Progressive Party ticket against incumbent Democrat Harry Truman and Republican Tho mas Dewey. Wallace had been Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of agriculture during the Depression and then vice president from 1941 to 1945.

Wallace was still publicly championing the “New Deal” reforms he helped craft for FDR’s administration—economic concessions designed to save capitalism from a potentially revolutionary movement of workers and oppressed people. As a third-party candidate, he opposed the Cold War already begun by the right wing of the U.S. capitalist class, which had emerged from World War II with military, political and economic supremacy over the world.

The Communist Party USA (CPUSA), of which Hay was an active leader, was putting its weight behind the Wallace campaign. Some Democrats became enthused and were registering as Progressives. And for many who hungered for progressive change, Wallace’s slogan of faith in “the quietness and strength of grass”—the grassroots—infused them with hope and energy.

In virtually every campaign speech, Wallace denounced Jim Crow segregation—even in the rural Deep South. Wallace spoke to 16,000 cheering people in Louisville, Ky., in 1947—the biggest unsegregated meeting ever held in that city. (“Subversive Southerner,” Catherine Fosl)

Students for Wallace at UCLA marched in protest against “whites only” barber shops near the Westwood campus. (Timmons)

Bachelors for Wallace

That night of Aug. 10, still exhilarated by the signing event, Hay went to a party in which the two dozen guests were all men who he later said seemed to be “of the persuasion.”

A French seminary student at the party asked if Hay had heard about the recently published “Kinsey Report.” Hay himself had been interviewed and become part of that study eight years earlier.

It was a bit of a code for a male stranger to open up with talk about the Kinsey Report. Timmons points out, “Its first volume, ‘Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,’ was the season’s most talked-about book, especially among homosexuals, with its claim that 37 percent of adult men had experienced homosexual relations. To Harry, that newly revealed number suggested the dimensions of an organizable minority. He voiced the idea. When his friend protested that organizing homosexuals was impossible, Harry rebutted him. There could be millions of people who might fall into a group that would find great benefit in organizing. Certainly it would be difficult, but it was not impossible.”

Others at the party were drawn to this debate. They reportedly disagreed with Hay: “There was too much hatred of homosexuals. Any individual who went public could be entrapped and discredited. There were too many different kinds of homosexuals; they’d never get along. And anyway, people belonging to such an organization would lose their jobs.”

As Hay batted away at each argument, he reportedly became more convinced himself that it was possible to organize homosexuals. He raised the idea of creating a “fast bail” fund and seeking out progressive attorneys for victims of anti-gay police entrapment. This was an important concept, since getting caught in a sting operation by cops meant shelling out lots of money to shady lawyers and crooked officials.

Hay also suggested incorporating education about homosexuality in high school hygiene classes.

Soon Hay was leading a discussion about building a gay male organization to support Wallace’s presidential bid, which in turn might win a sexual privacy plank in the Progressive Party platform. (John D’Emilio, “Making Trouble”)

By then, Hay was winning over some of his audience. They suggested some defiantly campy names, but Hay put forward a more subtle one: “Bachelors for Wallace.”

While still at the party, Hay wrote out all the ideas that had been discussed that night about homosexual organizing on a sheet of butcher block paper.

‘It was high time!’

Biographer Stuart Timmons offers the following detailed account of what Hay thought about and did that night after the party.

As he drove home, Hay thought about how the reactionary post-war period “was already of concern to many of us progressives. I knew the government was going to look for a new enemy, a new scapegoat. It was predictable.” African Americans were galvanizing a movement for civil rights, buttressed by world horror at the mass extermination of Jews by German fascism. But those he called “the Queers” would be a natural scapegoat.

“They were the one group of disenfranchised people who did not even know they were a group because they had never formed as a group. They—we—had to get started. It was high time.”

That night he sat up in his study writing two papers. The first was a proposed plank for the Progressive Party platform. The second was a proposal for an organization of gay men that could continue after the party convention was over.

Timmons described the document concerning homosexual organizing in some detail. “This second, much more elaborate paper, based in a Marxist perspective, forged a principle that Hay had struggled years to formulate: that homosexuals were a minority, which he temporarily dubbed ‘the Androgynous Minority.’”

Hay referred to the shared characteristics of what
constitutes a nation to argue that homosexuals were a cultural minority. Hay wrote, “I felt we had two of the four, the language and the culture, so clearly we were a social minority.”

‘Some day a reckoning!’

Hay’s thinking in that document reflected the profound impact of the fight against racism on a white activist. Being a gay man whose sexuality made him an outlaw in every state, and who lived in fear of police and right-wing violence, certainly magnified his rage against other forms of inequality and injustice—particularly racism.

Hay often recounted a trip he had made to a political conference in Chicago in May 1940 with a Black married couple and a white man. En route, the four stopped at an all-night diner in Gary, Ind. The waitperson poured coffee for Hay and the other white man, but she balked at serving the African American woman and man. Instead, she dusted off a little sign and placed it in front of the cash register. It read: “We reserve the right to refuse service to customers whose patronage is unwelcome.”

Hay and the other white man gave their coffee to their friends, waited until their omelets arrived and then ground their meal checks into the freshly-delivered meals. The four walked out, knocking over the racist sign as they all left.

Years later Hay recalled vowing as he left the restaurant, “Someday, someday, there’s going to be a reckoning if I can help it.”

Hay also remembered being part of an anti-racist protest in autumn 1945 in Silver Lake, Los Angeles, when Josephine Baker came to town. The management at the Thistle Inn refused to seat some 50 to 60 luminaries from Los Angeles’s African American community who were waiting for Baker to arrive.

Hay described his excitement as those who were turned away immediately set up a picket line outside the restaurant. And, he recalled, when Baker and her entourage arrived, she immediately joined them in protest.

One culture or many cultures?

Hay’s attempt to compare homosexuals to African Americans as a “cultural minority” demonstrated how powerful the Black movement was in the United States.

However, African peoples, who had come from many nationalities and cultures with different languages, were forged into an oppressed nation by mass kidnapping and chattel slavery historically imposed by the landowning class with complicity from the captains of banking and commerce and industry.

Hay and others who wanted to struggle against the degrees of discrimination and disenfranchisement that they experienced were inspired by the rising resistance of African Americans, who had been blocked from achieving even basic equal democratic rights with whites by the overturning of the revolutionary effort at Black Reconstruction.

The period in which the CPUSA had recognized the right of African Americans to self-determination as an oppressed nation—including the right to a separate state in the South—must surely have inspired Hay to consider that it was not a contradiction to fight against oppression while waging the class struggle to overturn capitalism. In fact, fighting oppression is a prerequisite for building class unity.

Hay’s early formulation that homosexuals were a cultural minority was also a political approach that in many ways was aimed at answering the social current of opinion, voiced by the men at the Aug. 10 party, which argued that homosexuals were not “organizable” because they shared nothing in common except their sexual attraction.

However understandable and well-meaning Hay’s political equation was, attempts to compare gays, lesbians, bisexuals and trans people as a group with oppressed nationalities as a political model—a political equation which continues to this day among many in the modern LGBT movement—has not brought greater theoretical clarity to the movement for sexual and gender liberation. Where this view has not been dealt with thoughtfully, it has done harm to solidarity with nationally oppressed peoples as a whole.

In truth, homosexuals and bisexuals—female and male—transsexual, gender variant and intersexual people, then and now, belong to many diverse cultures and nationalities.

And they are represented in every economic class in capitalist society. In this country, for example, the vast numbers of men who are sexually and affectionally attracted to other men are not all white and small-business owners or mega-rich—as they are often divisively portrayed in the spin of the modern monopoly media machine.

The overwhelming majority are from the laboring class—and this is even more true for lesbian and bisexual women. And certainly the segment of the transsexual and transgender population that is socially visible and recognizable in the U.S. is particularly marginalized in the workforce, if able to find work at all.

As workers they all have nothing to rely on to survive economically but their own labor or that of their families—chosen family as well as those related through patrilineal blood lines.

However, even among LGBT workers as a whole, those from oppressed nationalities—Black, [email protected], Arab, Native, Asian—face a much different social, political and economic reality overall based on inequality, discrimination and other forms of institutionalized racism than do white LGBT workers.

Cold War created fear of fascism

As Hay worked throughout the night on his first manifesto, certainly easier to assess from today’s historical vantage point, he farsightedly aligned the struggle of “androgynes” with the left. However, he saw them uniting against what he thought was the encroachment of fascism.

Timmons wrote, “He suggested a comparison of the political manipulation and murder of homosexuals in Nazi Germany to recent firings of gays by the State Department. This particularly alarmed him; could what happened in Germany happen here?”

Hay’s incorrect view that a fascist takeover was looming was shaped by the CPUSA’s similar assessment. This led the party to send its cadre underground and it also resulted in Hay later stressing the need for Mattachine to be a clandestine organization.

In the statement Hay worked on all night, he did emphasize that civil rights for homosexuals was a struggle that would have an impact on the civil rights of all heterosexuals, as well. He explained that “guilt of androgynity BY ASSOCIATION, equally with guilt of Communist sympathy by association, can be employed as a threat against any and every man and woman in our country as a whip to insure thought control and political regimentation.”

In this very accurate line of reasoning, he was sadly far ahead of the overall CPUSA leadership, which was caught in the Cold War between the anvil of the “Red Scare” and the hammer of the “Lavender Scare” without being able to politically arm the movement against both forms of capitalist reaction.

Arguing that U.S. laws were rooted in fundamentalist religion, Hay called for application to homosexuals of international laws that he believed more broadly protected overall human rights.

When the sun came up, Hay had signed this five-page organizational outline and manifesto which he termed “the Call” with his nom de guerre: Eann MacDonald. This original document was lost during the 1950s. (A version he revised and expanded on July 7, 1950, is included in “Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of its Founder—Harry Hay,” published by Beacon in 1996)

That morning, Aug. 11, Hay phoned everyone from the party who had shown serious interest in this prospectus for organizing homosexuals. But in the light of day, their hope for its possibility burned off like the mist.

Hay described how during the next two years he faced a “Catch 22” situation. When he approached progressive social workers, teachers and ministers with his idea, they told him to come back when he got a discussion group on his ideas underway. When he talked to progressive-minded gays, they told him to get prominent support first.

“So—there it was!” he concluded. “I couldn’t get a list of sponsors until I got a discussion group going, and I couldn’t get a discussion group going until I had a committee of sponsors.”

It took two more years before Hay found one other person who shared his vision. Once this “society of two” discovered each other in 1950, the history of homosexual organizing in the U.S. accelerated.

Next: Communists ignite dry tinder of material conditions