Monday, December 21, 2009

The left and the homophile movement

The intersections of socialism, Marxism, and the left in general, on the one hand, and the various movements for homosexual emancipation, on the other, have been complex. Sometimes these political tendencies have played a positive role as catalysts. In other instances, as in Stalin’s USSR and Mao’s China, they have been repressive. A number of instances of this intersection are discussed in Gert Hekma, Harry Oosterhuis, and James Steakley, eds., Gay Men and the Sexual History of the Political Left (New York: Haworth, 1995). Despite this valuable collection of material, there has not been, as far as I know, any adequate synthesis of the whole question. Perhaps this lack reflects parti pris on the two sides--those who are sympathetic with the left and those who are not. It is hard to say.

In what follows I restrict myself to the American homophile movement that effectively began in 1948-50. (The early Chicago effort of 1924-25 was suppressed, and played no further direct role.) The pivotal figure in launching this movement, whose ultimate successes are undeniable, was Harry Hay of Los Angeles, a long-time activist in the Communist Party USA (CPUSA).

In 1948 Hay initiated a prefiguration called Bachelors for Wallace. Although it was widely denied at the time, Henry Wallace’s presidential campaign in that year was dominated by his CP advisers. Hay gave an account of his political background to the historian Jonathan Ned Katz; it can now be found at In short order, the Party forced Hay to resign, maintaining that his gay activism was incompatible with Party membership. Unlike others however, Hay never renounced his views. Even after the evidence became overwhelming that it was North Korea that had invaded South Korea, Hay clung to the myth that the opposite had occurred. Late in life, he and his partner John Burnside made a final political pilgrimage to the USSR, shortly before its dissolution.

It was the historian John D’Emilio who first sought to offer a “unified-field” theory of left involvement (specifically CP) in the origins of the American homophile movement. This he did in a series of periodical articles at the beginning of the 1980s. D’Emilio then reworked his findings in his Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983). In this book D’Emilio showed that not only Hay, but also some of his closest associates in starting Mattachine, including Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, and Dale Jenning, had CP backgrounds.

These experiences proved useful in organizational matters, and in fostering the idea that homosexuals constituted a minority, analogous to African Americans (a cause championed at that time by the American Communist Party). In fact, Mattachine’s structure combined CP and Masonic influences. For prudential reasons, secrecy, hierarchical structures, and "democratic centralism" were the order of the day. Following the example of Freemasonry, the founders created a pyramid of five "orders" of membership, with increasing levels of responsibility as one ascended the structure, and with each order having one or two representatives from a higher order of the organization. As the membership of the Mattachine Society grew, the orders were expected to subdivide into separate cells so that each layer of the pyramid could expand horizontally. Thus members of the same order but different cells would remain unknown to one another. A single fifth order consisting of the founders would provide the centralized leadership whose decisions would radiate downward through the lower orders.

Not all the early founders had Marxist leanings. We now know that Hay was strongly influenced by his partner, the fashion designer Rudi Gernreich. Gernreich, who had escaped the Holocaust in Austria, remained wary of specific political commitments. Another founder, W. Dorr Legg (William Lambert), was a Republican (though not I think a “conservative” Republican, as has been recently stated). Legg, who had his own organization, the Knights of the Clock, had moved to Los Angeles because he could live more freely there with his African American partner Merton Bird. No doubt Legg was influenced by the recollection, still vivid in those days, that the party of Lincoln had freed the slaves. Later, Dorr became a stalwart of the Log Cabin Republicans.

It is important to remember that Katz and D’Emilio formed their ideas in the context of the 1970s upsurge of Marxist and leftist ideas in the wake of opposition to the Vietnam War. In my judgment, this commitment on the part of the two historians has led to some distortions, procured in the service of a kind of entitlement myth. If only, we are led to believe, it had not been for the machinations of McCarthyism and rabid anti-Communism in general, the homophile movement would have developed "organically," with an unwavering progressive bent.

As Warren Johansson remarked in his article in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, “The political background of Hay and the other founders, while it gave them the skills needed to build a movement in the midst of an intensely hostile society, also compromised them in the eyes of other Americans.” An attack on the Mattachine Society by a Los Angeles newspaper columnist named Paul Coates in March 1953 sought to link “sexual deviates" with "security risks" who were banding together to wield "tremendous political power." (If only that had been the case.)

“To quiet the furor, [Johansson continues] the fifth order called a two-day convention in Los Angeles in April 1953 in order to restructure the Mattachine Society as an above-ground organization. The founders pleaded with the Mattachine members to defend everyone's First Amendment rights, regardless of political affiliations, since they might easily find themselves under questioning by the dreaded House Un-American Activities Committee. Kenneth Burns, Marilyn Rieger, and Hal Call formed an alliance against the leftist leadership that was successful at a second session held in May to complete work on the society's constitution. The results of the meeting were paradoxical in that the views of the founders prevailed on every issue, yet the anti-Communist mood of the country had so peaked that the fifth-order members agreed among themselves not to seek office in the newly structured organization, and their opponents were elected instead.”

The new leadership rejected the notion of a "homosexual minority." They took the opposite view, holding that "the sex variant is no different from anyone else except in the object of his sexual expression." They were wary of the ideas of a homosexual culture and a homosexual ethic. Viewed in retrospect, their program was “assimilationist.” Instead of militant, collective action, they preferred collaboration with the professionals - "established and recognized scientists, clinics, research organizations and institutions" - the sources of authority in American society. The discussion groups were downplayed. In effect the homosexual cause was to be defended by proxy, since an organization of "upstart gays . . . would have been shattered and ridiculed."

The Mattachine Society, it seems, had been hijacked by the reactionaries. Such, at any rate, has been the view promoted by Katz and D’Emilio (who were close friends), and endorsed by others, including (to some degree) the very learned Warren Johansson.

In reality, the tenor of the 1953 meeting was more complex and nuanced than this account would suggest. It was not a simple conflict between the forces of light (the leftists) and the forces of darkness (the reactionary “assimilationists"). This more nuanced approach has been set forth in an important article by Martin Meeker, “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s,” Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 10, No. 1 (January, 2001), pp. 78-116.

It is unlikely that the left-leaning ideas of the founders could have prevailed in the long-run. That is shown, e.g., by the more mainstream approach of the San Francisco branch of Mattachine, led by Hal Call. [See the monograph of James T. Sears, Behind the Mask of the Mattachine: The Hal Call Chronicles and the Early Movement for Homosexual Emancipation (New York: Haworth Press, 2006)]. And of course the notion of operating in secret was overthrown, in a very salutary way in the years following Stonewall (1969) by the new insistence on transparency: "out and proud."

In the meantime there was a movement to build. The later progress of the Los Angeles groups as they struggled to meet the daily challenges of keeping afloat, has been ably limned by C. Todd White, Pre-Gay LA (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2009).

What are we to conclude from this history? The short answer is that, at certain points, the left played an important catalytic role. However, the left--and socialism--has never really taken root in the United States. In order to survive and flourish, the homophile movement had to outgrow its origins--to become broader, more supple, and more inclusive.



Blogger The Gay Species said...

I found these observations fascinating, but I wonder how one "squares" Queer Theory, based on post-structuralist and post-modernist French theory, which is itself a composite of Marxism, Freudianism, and Deconstructionism, with the contention that homophiles and the "left" have not bonded? I cannot think of three more "leftist" dogmas.

I realize, for example, that Foucault is deemed a "post-structuralist," but his readings of Antique Greek philosophy veer toward deconstructionism, and his essay, "What Is Enlightenment?" leaves me stunned for its clear circumlocutions of history (Foucualt, of course, was a historian by trade).

But, Foucault aside (here I think of Butler, Stein, Kramer, et alia), the adoption by QTists of three discredited theories begs the conclusion that homophiles and transgender are not of the "left." I would tend to agree that QT is predominately confined to big-city academia and high-brow liberal arts colleges, so its effect may be more transitive than positive.

10:26 AM  

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