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1950: Gay leftists organize against Korean War

Lesbian, gay, bi and trans pride series, part 36

Published Jun 2, 2005 9:03 PM

Harry Hay met young Rudi Gernreich, a costume designer and dancer, at Lester Horton’s Dance Theater on Melrose Avenue on July 8, 1950. “The day he met Gernreich, he often said, they created a ‘society of two’ that became the Mattachine,” biographer Stuart Timmons recalled. (“The Trouble with Harry Hay”)

The 28-year-old Gernreich, a left-wing Jewish gay man, had fled fascist Austria when he was 16.

In the days after they met, Hay excitedly revised his call for organizing homosexuals. This third revised draft is the only one that still exists in print.

Hay gave his prospectus to Gernreich, who exclaimed after he’d read the written ideas, “It’s the most dangerous thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m with you one hundred percent.”

While Gernreich was enthusiastic, he also reminded Hay of the dangers. Before escaping fascism, Gernreich said, he had known about the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement led by Magnus Hirschfeld. Gernreich explained that when the Nazis destroyed the movement’s Institute for Sexual Research, they used its records to send homosexuals to concentration camps.

Hay poured out his frustrations about the two years since he’d written the first prospectus. He had approached homosexuals about organizing a public forum to objectively discuss the Kinsey Report. And he talked to professionals about being sponsors. Neither group would move until the other did. “I had talked to hundreds of people between Bachelors for Wallace and Mattachine, and people on both sides were afraid to take the first step. It was like being told you had to have a harp to get into heaven and that you had to go to heaven to get a harp.”

Gernreich had connections in Hollywood. He had worked as a sketch artist for Edith Head. Marlene Dietrich and Dorothy Dandridge had befriended him. And being a dancer with the Horton dance company put Gernreich in touch with both audiences and cutting-edge artists from a socially-conscious current.

Gernreich asked Hay for 60 copies of the manifesto, took Hay to social events and introduced him around.

Gay activists against Korean War

Just 10 days before Hay and Gernreich met for the first time, the Pentagon had unleashed war against Korea.

The two young activists actively opposed the war and organized to bring the troops home. For the next two months, they walked up and down the stretches of beaches in Los Angeles and Santa Monica collecting signatures on an anti-war petition demanding the return of the first GIs deployed to Korea.

Hay later wrote: “At that time, all over the country there was a movement, sponsored by progressives, to get as many signatures as possible for the Stockholm Peace Petition against the war.”

This anti-war organizing took strength of conviction. W.E.B. DuBois, the 82-year-old founder of the NAACP, was arrested and handcuffed by police for trying to get signatures on the same petition. The case against him? That he had not registered as a “foreign agent” as mandated by the reactionary Smith Act. After widespread struggle that won multi-national support, the charge was later dropped.

Hay and Gernreich canvassed beaches where many gay and bisexual men gathered. They hoped that individuals courageous enough to sign the anti-war petition might also be brave enough to be interested in organizing for homosexual emancipation.

“We set about discovering new adherents on the two slices of beach Gays had quietly made their own,” Hay later told historian Jonathan Katz. “The section of beach below the Palisades just west of Marion Davie’s huge waterfront estate, and that slice of Malibu between the pier and the spit—which would be taken over by the surfers in the 1960s.

“From August through October 1950, ‘X’ [Gernreich’s nom de guerre] and I undertook to get 500 of these petitions signed on the Gay beach in Los Angeles, in Santa Monica. And we got them, too, by God! We went down to the Gay beach and got them filled! And the Korean War was going full blast!

“We also used this petition activity as a way of talking about our prospectus. We’d go up to them on the beach—of course, this is an entirely different period, you understand, so when people went to the Gay beach then they’d talk about everything else except being Gay. We would tell them what we knew about the war, about the story of North Korea attacking South Korea being a fake.

“They we’d get into the Gay purges in U.S. government agencies of the year before and what a fraud that was. Then we’d ask, ‘Isn’t it high time we all got together to do something about it?’ Everybody agreed, but nobody could think of anything to do without committing themselves. But at least they signed the petition, and some of the guys gave us their names and addresses—in case we ever got a Gay organization going. They were some of the people we eventually contacted for our discussion groups.” (1974 interview, “Gay American History”)

Fellow travelers!

Hay had met two like-minded activists earlier that year—Bob Hull and Chuck Rowland. In the spring of 1950, historian John D’Emilio noted, “The three men met one evening at a concert, and Hay, who suspected that the pair might be gay, decided to broach the subject of a homosexual rights organization.

“As it turned out, they had more in common than their homosexuality, since Row land and Hull had also been Com munist Party members.” (“Sexual Politics”)

D’Emilio explained that Rowland had “come out” at the University of Minnesota, where the militant mood of 1930s Min neapolis also swept him into campus pro tests “in support of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War and against compulsory military training for students.” (“Sexual Politics”)

Hull attended the university at the same time, but the two men didn’t meet each other in the Twin Cities until 1940. By that time Bob Hull, who had a graduate degree in chemistry, was following his passion as a pianist. The two men became lovers, and later, remained dear friends.

Hull and Rowland moved to Los Ange les together. Rowland had left the Com munist Party USA by then, for personal reasons. Hull, who was still active in the CPUSA, took part in one of its southern California cultural units and the People’s Educational Center, where he enrolled in Hay’s music class.

But after that class ended, Hull and Rowland lost touch with Harry Hay.

In November 1950, Hay told Gernreich that Bob Hull had re-registered for his music course, and that he had a friend: “I think they might be interested.”

Hay described the anxiety he felt as he later physically handed the prospectus in an envelope to Hull after class.

“On the following Saturday afternoon he calls up and asks whether he could come over. He sounds kind of distant. Well, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland and Dale Jennings come flying into my yard waving the prospectus, saying, “We could have written this ourselves—when do we begin?”

Next: Cold War ‘Lavender Scare’ sparks struggle