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Two-line struggle tore apart 1950s gay movement

Lavender & red, part 50

Published Jan 6, 2006 11:07 PM

The first mass political gay liberation struggle took a different political turn after the communist founding organizers of the early Mattachine movement were forced to step down from leadership after the May 1953 convention.

A bitter internal battle created the split.

It’s not enough to say, as some progressive historians do, that the more radical leadership saw gay people as a distinct group in society and the more conservative forces saw gay people as not so different from non-gay people. The differences were much deeper, arising from a battle over which economic class in society to turn to for leadership in order to create change.

The revolutionary founders of the first phase of Mattachine believed gay people as a group shared distinct characteristics arising out of the conditions of their oppression. They were trying to formulate a political approach to what had been viewed as individual sexual expression—same-sex love.

Founder Harry Hay had stressed that the exclusion of gays and lesbians from the patriarchal heterosexual nuclear family—the economic unit under feudalism and capitalism—had led to their isolation in class societies. And these early leaders built a network of “consciousness-raising” groups to raise political and historical understanding about capitalism and earlier class societies.

These early leaders tried to find language and concepts that could galvanize individuals who had felt alone and isolated. They sought to fan the embers of self-pride in those who were surviving the oppression and struggling for a sense of community. And they hoped to imbue confidence that, collectively, an independent, political grassroots movement could be built that could fight for change, particularly if they united with other groups in capitalist society that were facing police brutality and institutionalized discrimination.

Their approach of taking the struggle to the workers ignited a movement which, as it grew exponentially, brought together people from antagonistic economic classes.

Stress fractures in theoretical framework

The Mattachine founders—predominantly white gay males—stressed that they saw gay people as sharing a distinct group culture.

But there was a limitation to the concept of a single “group identity.” The population that is broadly represented under the umbrella of LGBT is not made up of people who share the same degrees of social and economic oppression.

The theoretical approach that gay people share a common culture also obscured the realities of national oppression. And it left little room to address the additional burden that lesbians face as women in a patriarchal society, or the ferocity of violence that transgender and transsexual people cannot escape because of their visibility.

Although the founders of Mattachine did lean towards this theoretical concept of gays as one distinct cultural group in society, they were anti-racist activists in their day-to-day organizing. And they’d had opposed imperialist war, anti-Semitism and fascism. They did so when the going was tough. The revolutionary Mattachine founders led the movement against the headwinds of Cold War gay-bashing and anti-communism.

The left-wing leadership of the early Mattachine movement reached out to the grassroots with their campaign against anti-gay firings and red-listing, police raids and jail-cell rapes, electro-shock and castration for the “crime” of same-sex love.

While they struggled against the daily outrages of the capitalist system—like police entrapment—they tried to imbue that movement with an understanding that oppression is part of the machinery of class-divided society. They understood that a gay liberation movement had to be part of the struggle to overturn capitalism and replace it with an economic system that requires planning and cooperation, not cut-throat competition and “let’s-you-and-him-fight” ideology.

However, the labor movement was under siege at the time. Its most militant, revolutionary leaders were being driven out and even underground. This further isolated the burgeoning young gay movement from being able to reach out to the overall working class—the economic class that benefits most from defeating divide-and-conquer rule.

And as the Mattachine movement broadened and deepened its reach, it brought many from the more privileged classes in society into its ranks—and they wanted to shape the movement in their own class interests.

The concept of shared gay culture hampered the revolutionary leadership in its fight against the antagonistic political positions that middle- and upper-class gays were taking within the movement.

That internal struggle was not just about whether gays are “different” or not.

Conciliation, not assimilation

Today, progressive historians characterize the opposition as “assimilationist.” But that’s not the main problem with those who challenged and eventually defeated the communist leadership of Mattachine. Their political crime was that they were conciliatory to the boss class, which was carrying out an offensive against the working class as well using police entrapment against lesbians and gays.

The opposition tried to appease and curry favor with the Cold War capitalist rulers by opportunistically carrying out an internal red-baiting witch hunt within the Mattachine movement.

The opposition figures tried to mask their reactionary class conciliation with the dishonest claim that they were just trying to “democratize” Mattachine to help the organization build a broader movement.

Opposition leader Hal Call explained in a later interview, “We wanted to see Mattachine grow and spread, but we didn’t think that this could be done as long as Mattachine was a secret organization. But we knew that if we became a public organization, the FBI and other government agencies would find out about us. That was okay with us, but before we went public, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t have a person in our midst who could be revealed as a Communist and disgrace us all. We wanted to be able to stand up and say who we were and what we were about and not be accused of these other things.

“Despite the secrecy, we knew that some of the founders of the Mattachine Society, the inner circle, had been rumored to have some Communist leanings and maybe connections elsewhere. They had to go.

“So we sort of took the organization out of the founders’ hands. We did this at a pair of meetings in the spring of 1953 in Los Angeles. At the second meeting, which was held in May, the founders of Mattachine gave over the Mattachine idea to those of us who wanted to form a democratic Mattachine Society with elected officers and with members and officers we knew.” (Eric Marcus, “Making History”)

Two weeks after the May convention, opposition figure David Finn wrote to Kenneth Burns, another opposition leader, that the FBI had gotten in touch with him in San Francisco. Finn reportedly handed over copies of the Mattachine constitution to government investigators and outlined the opposition’s actions to remove any traces of communist influence within the organization. (D’Emilio, “Sexual Politics, Sexual Community”)

Political surrender

Once the opposition had ousted the left-wing leadership, they dropped the mantle of concern for “democratic” forms of organization and their real political agenda became crystal clear.

Hal Call continued, “I didn’t just disagree with how the original Mattachine was run. I also disagreed with the philosophy of the Mattachine founders. I felt that they were sort of pie in the sky, erudite and artistically included. Take Harry Hay, the kingpin of the original founders. You could never talk to him very long without him going way back in history to some ancient Egyptian cult or something of that sort. He was always making Mattachine and the homosexual of today a parallel to some of those things he found out about in his historical research.

“You see, I was a journalist and a public relations man and I felt that education and getting the word out was the best thing we could do, so the whole society could ultimately say, ‘Homosexuals are human beings in our midst. They’re only different in certain ways from the rest of us. Leave them alone.’”

How could this be politically achieved while the population was being hammered by the anti-gay terror of the Cold War “Lavender Scare”?

Hall explained, “We wanted to see those goals achieved by evolutionary methods, not revolutionary methods. … So public protests were not part of our program. Not at all. We wanted to see changes come about by holding conferences and discussions and becoming subjects for research and telling our story. We wanted to assist people in the academic and behavioral-science world in getting the truth out to people who had an influence on law and law enforcement, the courts, justice and so on.”

In order to plead with the rulers of society for social acceptance, the opposition had to pry up every plank of the demands the Mattachine organization was built on.

In his chapter “Retreat to Respectability,” historian John D’Emilio explained, “Their reliance on professionals as the agents of social change pushed them to abandon collective, militant action by the Mattachine Society. In sum, accommodation to social norms replaced the affirmation of a distinctive gay identity, collective effort gave way to individual action, and confidence in the ability of gay men and lesbians to interpret their own experience yielded to the wisdom of experts. Under its new officers, the Mattachine Society shifted its focus from mobilizing a gay constituency to assisting the work of professionals.” (“Sexual Politics”)

D’Emilio concluded that the new leaders “urged homosexuals to adjust to a ‘pattern of behavior that is acceptable to society in general and compatible with [the] recognized institutions … of home, church and state.’”

Such political surrender did not beef up the ranks of Mattachine. Instead, the network of discussion groups fell apart and overall membership quickly dwindled. Within weeks after the May 1953 conference in which founding Mattachine leaders were forced to step down, the San Diego groups imploded. By the fall, the three East Bay Mattachine discussion groups that had each drawn up to 60 participants were reduced to two groups that attracted a total of eight members.

Doing the state’s dirty work

Mattachine founders Chuck Rowland and Konrad Stevens continued to provide leadership in the Los Angeles chapter, leading a vote to form a group to be known as the “Legal Chapter” to continue the struggle against police entrapment by finding cases “of significance to the whole minority” and fighting the charges “aggressively.”

But the opposition’s “Coordinating Council” overruled the group’s decision. According to opposition leader Kenneth Burns, the new Mattachine lawyer warned that, “[T]he very existence of a Legal Chapter, if publicized to society at large, would intimidate and anger heterosexual society. … It would be detrimental to the [Mattachine] Society to let the public know of the existence of the Legal Chapter; and it would probably bring more pressures on the Society if the heterosexual felt that the homosexual, whom he hates, was trying to change the laws to suit himself.” (CC Minutes, Aug. 28. 1953, Lucas papers; D’Emilio, Sexual Politics, 82)

Instead, the Coordinating Council proposed referring individuals who had been snared by police entrapment to lawyers.

The new leadership did not want to challenge the anti-gay laws. The Coordinating Committee made this quite clear in a pamphlet it published in August 1953. “Any organized pressure on lawmakers by members of the Mattachine Society as a group would only serve to prejudice the position of the Society. … It would provide an abundant source of hysterical propaganda with which to foment an ignorant, fear-inspired, anti-homosexual campaign.”

Such a campaign was underway. It was the Cold War. It would take an organized political struggle to oppose the frenzy of “Lavender Scare” propaganda that was being used to step up enforcement of anti-gay penal codes.

Instead, the CC proposed the Mattachine adopt a policy of “merely acquainting itself” with legislation and let members know that the “burden of activity must rest upon the individual.” (“Sexual Politics”)

The reactionary ideology and political opportunism of the new leadership led them to carry out the state’s Cold War agenda within the Mattachine movement.

Under the direction of the Coordinating Committee, the San Francisco and Los Angeles Area Councils issued pamphlets in the months after the May convention declaring that Mattachine was “unalterably opposed to Communists and Communist activity.”

The Los Angeles pamphlet vowed, “Homosexuals are not seeking to overthrow or destroy any of society’s existing institutions, laws or mores, but to be assimilated as constructive, valuable, and responsible citizens.” (Kepner papers, “Sexual Politics”)

The new leadership was at the helm of the organization-wide convention in Los Angeles in November 1953. Kenneth Burns was by then the official leader of Mattachine.

He won the vote on a resolution rejecting “any direct, aggressive action.” The resolution called for limiting Mattachine’s activities to “working with and through … persons, institutions, and organizations which command the highest possible public respect.”

When Mattachine founder Chuck Rowland rose to speak out against changing the preamble on which the organization had been formed, David Finn ruled him “out of order.” Finn then declared, to the outrage of convention participants, that he would turn over to the FBI the names of everyone there if they did not vote down the “communistic” values of the old leadership.

Finn’s threat provoked such outrage that it scuttled the Coordinating Committee’s agenda of getting three loyalty-oath resolutions passed at the convention.

The first read, “[T]his Society unconditionally subscribes to the American creed.”

The second would mandate that each member sign a statement that included, “I believe it is my duty to my country to love it; to support its constitution; to obey its laws; to respect its flag; and to defend it against all enemies.”

The obvious and bitter irony of asking members, all of whom were there because they were breaking the law based on their sexuality, to obey all laws was apparently lost on those who penned the resolution.

The third resolution called for the formation of a “Committee for Investigating Communist Infiltration” that would act as a little HUAC body within the group, questioning members about “subversive” activities and booting out anyone who didn’t provide the right answers.

All three resolutions did come to a vote at the convention. But in the atmosphere of turmoil and rage over the threat to “out” the membership to the FBI, all three rotten resolutions were voted down.

Despite the claims of the anti-communist leaders that they were trying to build a movement that was more mainstream, membership continued to drop dramatically.

The group was still called Mattachine, but the shift towards accommodation to political reaction derailed the early militant grassroots character of the movement for years to come.

Founder Chuck Rowland later concluded sadly, “We should never, never have given Hal Call our name, never have let him take our name.”

Next: Lesbian organizing, “red feminism” and Black liberation.