The Communist Movement and Gay Rights


Norman Markowitz – Political Affairs

June was International Gay Pride month a concept in itself which would have been unthinkable a half century ago.  In looking at the history of what we today call Gay Rights/Gay Liberation, the Communist and Socialist contributions to the struggle for what today we call Gay Rights deserves to be both recognized and analyzed. The role of militancy itself deserves to be remembered, both by gay and straight people if the gains of recent decades are not to be reversed

.   In part one of this essay posted on the PA blog, ( see Norman Markowitz “A Second Draft, With Corrections, on the Communist Movement and Gay RightsPar One”, PA Blog, March 31, 2013) I dealt broadly with the struggles of the Communist movement against the exploitation of the working class and the oppression of colonized peoples and national minorities.  I also dealt with Gay Rights as first and foremost a civil rights issue.

Here in part two, I will look more specifically at socialist and communist responses to homophobia and gay rights, looking  at the most important U.S. figure in the struggle for Gay Liberation, Harry Hay.

In 2004, I published an article in the Political Affairs on Harry Hay and his importance at a time that the homophobic politics of the “religious right” were in full gear in the Bush administration. As part of this article I have used, reformulated   and expanded on that post.

Today, the Obama administration has clearly committed itself to Gay Civil Rights and the purveyors of homophobic politics are on the defensive, fighting rear guard battles, even though homophobic violence by street thugs, police brutality, and of course multi-faceted forms of social stigmatization remain part of life for gay men and lesbians in areas of the country where political and social “conservatives” wield power.  Even with the substantial gains,  the struggle to make homophobia as unacceptable in civilized society as all forms of racism and sexism are still has a long way to go.

The Communist Movement and Gay Rights

Gays have been involved in the struggles for the emancipation of the working class  as revolutionary agitators, labor organizers, partisans of socialist, communist and anarchist movements since at least  the days of the Paris Commune and the First International, when for many those three categories were interchangeable.

Scholars of Gay History have pointed to appeals made to both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to bring the oppression of Homosexuals into the larger struggle for the emancipation of the Working Class.  Here, to be frank, one finds from Marx a refusal to entertain the subject and from Engels open hostility to the individuals involved.

Gays involved in organizing trade unions and in other actions for the socialist movement in Germany and other countries did find themselves targeted by the police and often  abandoned by their unions and parties.

This is certainly no record to be proud of on any level, but it must be understood in context.  The socialist movement, struggling to achieve elemental political democracy in a world where the working class did not have even the right to vote outside of a few countries, found itself divided on many questions, including how to respond to colonialism, the question of women’s rights, and  the rights of oppressed national minorities.

On the postive side, the first significant support  from a political party in the form of proposed state policiy that Gay Civil/Human  Rights received in world history came at the end of the 1890s from the flagship Marxist Socialist Party of the Second International and the world at that time, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD)

Conservative socialists, including those invoking Marx’s ideas, often contended, as they did extensively  on women’s rights and even the question of oppressed minorities, that these were not “class issues,” that they would detract from the organization of the working class and retard the movement for socialism.

The Communist movement after the Soviet revolution broke with these narrow approaches on the question of   all forms of racism, oppressed  nationalities, women’s rights, etc.  But, on these other questions, there was a long history of anti-sexism, anti-racism, anti-colonialism on which to build in fighting both rightwing opportunists and left doctrinaires in the socialist movement

The arguments made by conservative socialists and some  left doctrinaires against active participation in the struggles against racism and sexism in the socialist movement were always tactical ones.  Women, the people of the colonies, oppressed national minorities were not seen as homosexuals were,  “unnatural” and unacceptable, at best  a “medical” or social problem to be tolerated as long as they remained hidden,  at worst their very existence condemned by organized religion and laws passed to criminalize them for their erotic orientation.

It is no exaggeration to say that homosexuals faced and in parts of the world still face a level of societal oppression similar to the Hitlerite  fascist oppression  of people  who they according to their racist theories defined as   Jewish —that is, these people’s  very existence threatened society, they were both diseased and the carriers of disease, and must either be quarantined or, in the Hitlerite final “solution” exterminated.

Since homosexuals can’t be “found”  by birth records,  circumcisions, etc, the way the Hitler fascists hunted down people whom they defined as Jews, Gays have the “protection” of wearing masks, leading double lives, either repressing their erotic orientation or living an underground or closeted existence.

It is no accident that the Hitler regime, even though its enemies noted the closeted gay men within its ranks, added the pink triangle to the yellow star as they placed homosexuals in concentration camps along with  political and “racial” enemies.   Homosexuals in the fascist ranks were as “valuable” to the defense of other homosexuals as high profile gay Republicans in the U.S. are today to Gay Rights.

And  it is no accident either   that Magnus Hirschfeld, the leading exponent of  ending the oppression of homosexuals under the law, in Weimar Germany was among the Nazis first targets when they seized power in 1933.

While Marxists and Communists have always rejected the “great man “theory of history in principle, there are two individuals whose activism  most directly helped to shape the development  of the Gay Rights/ Gay liberation movement globally in the 20th century.  The first, Magnus Hirschfeld, in pre Hitler Germany, was a socialist.  The second, Harry Hay, in  the U.S. in the post WWII period, was a Communist with both a small and a big C.

Magnus Hirschfeld, liberal, humanist, and socialist

Magnus Hirschfeld, born in 1868, came from a very different background than Harry Hay.  A medical doctor and the son of a prominent physician, Hirschfeld, was well to do,  traveled widely, and  wrote for prestigious medical journals. In 1897, he founded the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, which sought to repeal a section of the German penal code which criminalized homosexuality.

The Committee was “essentially” at elite group of figures in the arts, sciences and profession, whose endorsement  would give decriminalization respectability.

Legislation to that effect was put forward in the German Reichstag at the very end of the 19th century.  Its support came mostly from elected delegates  of the German Social Democratic Party.(SPD)

Over the years, Hirschfeld, working within the imperial and later Weimar political systems wrote extensively and  campaigned relentlessly for the decriminalization of homosexuality, arguing that science and reason called for such policies.

Prominent figures in the Marxist Socialist movement, including Marx’s compatriot August Bebel, the leading Marxist theorist at the time Karl Kautsky, the leading revisionist socialist theorist , Edward Bernstein signed petitions for Hirschfeld’s Committee, as did Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Mann,  Kathe Kollwitz, the philosopher Martin Buber, and other very famous figures in the arts and sciences.  The legislation advanced in the Weimar era, but was never enacted

After WWI, Hirschfeld organized international conferences calling for the repeal of anti-homosexual legislation  everywhere and  established  a World League for Sexual Reform.

He also organized and directed in Germany an Institute for Sexual Research and sought to connect the repeal of anti-homosexual legislation with  both the scientific study of human sexuality  and  a broader reform of  laws regulating human sexuality.

When the Nazis took power in 1933, they ransacked the headquarters of the Institute and made a public show of burning its books and pamphlets.  Hirschfeld, who fortunately was abroad so as to keep from being thown into an early concentration camp or worse,  went into exile in France, where he died of a heart attack in 1935, still hoping that the Nazis would somehow be driven from power in Germany and the struggle for  the elimination of repressive laws against human sexuality would  be revived.1

Harry Hay, Communist Militant, Organizer and Educator for Gay Liberation

Harry Hay was born in England in 1912, on the day, he liked to remember, that the Titanic sank.  Eventually, his family settled in Southern California, where Harry, who became aware of his erotic orientation at a fairly early age,  began to work in Los Angeles Theater and movie projects in the early 1930s.  As a young man, he was influenced by the writings of Edward Carpenter, a British homosexual and socialist, who saw Gay people as an oppressed group with their own distinct culture and needs.

It was in Los Angeles in the early 1930s that Harry  met Will Geer, a  gay actor, singer and CPUSA activist, who was to become his lover.  After joining Geer in doing support work for  the ILWU-led San Francisco General Strike(1934), Hay followed Geer into the CPUSA and used his substantial talents as an organizer and his theatricality and humor to become a  very effective CPUSA activist. Never seeking power for himself, Harry Hay was an example of the best kind of Communist cadre.

Hay was always  open and philosophical about his erotic orientation, seeing it as both part of himself and a handicap to his larger work—he once told a psychiatrist that he found party meetings very dull because there were no “flower-faced Marxist boys to stand with me in the class struggle against oppression.”  In 1938, he did marry Anita Platky, a comrade whom he liked, and their marriage was to last 13 years.  They  were to have two children.

But, as the marriage went on, he came to reject the view of some of his comrades, including his therapist, that he must struggle against his homo erotic feelings, in effect make himself unhappy and repressed in order to live a “happy normal life.”

Harry, one might say, had come to accept his erotic orientation as positive for himself  and a part of his civil  and human rights  long before  others dared profess those views

Meanwhile Harry was a sort of Jimmy Higgins jack of all trades guy on the California left, teaching at the  CPUSA’s California Labor school,  and playing a significant role in the election Ed Roybal,the first Latino elected to the Los Angeles City council after WWII.

Hay also organized “Batchelors for Wallace”  in California,the first gay political group involving itself in an American or any other election and his actions  helped

to carry a precinct with a large Gay population for  Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party In the 1948 presidential election.

Furthermore,  he in effect raised the issue of the Progressive party supporting a sexual privacy law in exchange for Gay votes–perhaps the first time in U.S. history that anyone had defined Gays as a voting constituency with specific political needs.

Now we come to a poignant and in its own way tragic moment in history. At a time when the CPUSA was facing unprecedented political persecution on all fronts and losing tens of thousands of members,  Harry Hay was a dedicated and committed party member, an activist in the best sense.

He had reached a point  though where he saw his work as first and foremost the struggle for gay liberation, which he identified as a Communist with the struggles of oppressed people through the world.  With the defeat of fascism and the collapse of colonialism, he saw a new opening, a huge increase in possibilities for gay liberation.

The Communist party leadership in California respected his great contributions  to people’s struggles.  But, because of the dominant ideology across the political spectrum,  \the CPUSA, like all other groups, would not accept open homosexuals as party members and Hay was now committed to being both a Communist activist, as he had been for the greater part of two decades, and an open homosexual activist.

The arguments that party functionaries passively accepted at the time was essentially the argument used to purge homosexual men from the government—that they would  be subject to blackmail and could then become a force to “betray” the party.  Faced with this, Hay went to the party leadership and asked to be expelled—which they at first refused!  Finally, Hay worked out a “compromise” with California party leadership in which he was “expelled “as a  “security risk”(which at the height of the postwar persecution was  in the larger society a plus, rather than as a “homosexual.” 2

.  Harry’s situation then  was in many ways more complicated than activists like Paul Robeson who now faced relentless persecution by cold warriors/racists  in the U.S. at the same time  and earlier Alexandra Kollontai in Czarist Russia, that is,  those who combined the struggle for socialism with the interdependent but not subservient liberation of  people of color and women

In a tragic-comic expression of this whole situation, the CPUSA issued a formal statement praising Harry Hay and gave him in California a farewell testimonial dinner  perhaps the only testimonial dinner   and in their statement proclaimed him to be “A Lifelong Friend of the People  a bizarre acts by  any party for someone that they had just expelled

Hay  in his thinking had built upon his earlier reading of Edward Carpenter to see, in the context of global liberation struggles then sweeping the world, Gay men and Lesbians as an  oppressed people whose double lives were barriers to their emancipation.

Gay men and lesbians were compelled to live a closeted  existence, facing possible prison sentences, certain blacklisting, and likely isolation.  Hay was also influenced by  the widely publicized Kinsey report, which contend that homo-erotic sentiments and behavior could be found in large numbers of people, deriving a figure as high as ten percent of the human race, based on his extrapolations from the report.

Hay had come to see what the Kinsey report sought to show but which most people everywhere, with and without power, could not see—that human sexuality was something far more complex and that confronting the complexities instead of fearing them was necessary to the liberation of all people.

Harry  reluctantly left the CPUSA, whose leadership was not ready to grasp the possibilities and significance of a homosexual liberation movement, for  much the same reason that W.E.B Dubois joined the CPUSA at the end of his life  after leaving the socialist party before WWI and engaging in debates with the CPUSA for decades.

Dubois saw that the world, with the defeat of fascism and the collapse of colonialism was rapidly changing and the future for the liberation struggles for the “non white” peoples of the world rested with the Communist movement.  Hay saw in the postwar world the possibility of applying what he had learned as a CPUSA activist in the new situation to bring about a gay liberation movement/

And Harry  acted in  the Autumn of 1950 as the Korean War  and Senator Joe McCarthy both  raged on in 1950 and the rightists in Congress and the press denounced “crooks, communists, and queers” in and outside of the government

With Gay friends and comrades he formed the Mattachine Society.  The name itself had an interesting history–one deeply connected with those who had to hide their identity.  First, Harry  took it from a medieval French secret society of unmarried men who wore masks as part of their secret society rituals.

The French took the name Mattachine from the Italian mattachino, court jesters who could speak the truth to Kings only when they wore masks–much like Gays and other minorities compelled to disguise themselves and deprecate themselves when addressing those who refused to see them as they were.

Although Harry’s commitment to gay organizing had  led him to leave the CPUSA by a kind of mutual consent, in  reality he and his comrades used CPUSA organizing and educational techniques to develop the Mattachine society as a representative of Gay people and a vehicle for Gay Liberation

However, Harry and  Mattachine’s  Communist and left leadership found themselves by the mid 1950s the victims of the kind of internal  divisions that had devastated trade unions and left mass organizations of all kinds during the cold war period.

Gays who sought acceptance within the existing system, the opposite of everything Harry and his comrades stood for, took over Mattachine and turned it into an organization of proper men in suits and ties having forums with homophobes and centrists and engaging in very tame actions to seek  greater “toleration” for Gays.

When the mass Gay Liberation movement took shape after the Stonewall Gay Ghetto Riot of 1969, the Mattachine Society was considered by many  Gay activists to be an artifact with establishment pretensions, something like a conservative AFL business union to labor militants or the National Urban League to Black militants.  Its early crucial history was largely unknown

Harry, though  never stopped   fighting for Gay Liberation,  using the Leninist tactics and strategies that he had first learned in the 1930s–the building of organization and of broad inclusive Peoples Fronts to advance struggle.

Called before HUAC in 1955(one should  remember that homophobia was cultivated by McCarthyites as a companion to their generic red-baiting) he stood up to the committee, treating them with the contempt they richly deserved, although he felt  bitter that it was difficult to get Left attorneys to represent him because of his open homosexuality.

Fearful, perhaps, of making him into a martyr(McCarthy had been censured the previous year and McCarthyism in its crudest forms was in decline) HUAC declined to cite him for contempt and send him to prison, which it had previously done with the Hollywood Ten and others.

In the 1960s, Harry joined Women’s Strike For Peace, a left peace activist group including both former and ongoing CPUSA members, and sought to develop coalitions of the emerging Gay movement with antiwar and women’s rights movements.

He also became an activist and supporter of  Native Americans in their struggle to  reclaim their cultural heritage. Harry also began to share his life with John Burnside in 1963, developing with John a family life that would last for the rest of his life.  In an age when the word “role model” became a national cliché, Harry and John became for many an example of the kind of committed and happy relationships that Gay people could forge even in a homophobic environment.

At the same time,  Harry became an active critic of the mass Gay Rights movement which emerged in the 1970s, particularly its penchant for involving itself in narrow interest group politics and supporting traditional Democratic party politicians in what was a sort of political protection racket.

In that sense, he continued to be the militant left Communist that he had been since the early 1930s, seeking to broaden the horizons of people’s struggles  In 1979, Harry became the organizer  of Radical Faeries, which sought to revive the broad humanism of the original Mattachine Society with a commitment to complete sexual freedom and diversity as inseparable

Harry continued to be politically active in the last decades of his long life,  serving as a leading figure in California of  the Lavender Caucus of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow coalition in the 1980s and  practicing the pluralism that liberals in the larger society  now preached in what was still its most tabooed area–erotic expression.

To his last day, Harry , who passed away in 2002, rejected the hatred that ruling circles fomented against Gay men and Lesbians, as they do against all other oppressed minority groups as a way to divide and conquer, and the self-hatred,  which for Gays is perhaps more intense than for any other oppressed group.  He would fight in an underground but never live in a closet.  3

Harry Hay is  today rightly  praised today by a wide variety of Gay Rights organizations as leading  pioneer in the struggle for Gay Liberation.  It is important  to remember him as a Communist who both preached and practiced the ideological militancy and tactical flexibility that produced great victories for the working class and oppressed minorities on many fronts in the past and can and will do so in the future.

It is also important to understand that the CPUSA, his party,  caught up to him in its commitment to Gay Rights and its  complete rejection of the backward conceptions of Gays in politics and society.  Unfortunately, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, claiming to be the “successor” of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, has, if press reports are correct, gone back in time in supporting the homophobic policies of the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet Putin government, which it claims to opposed

It was  forty four years  last week,   June 28 that the Stonewall Riot, in essence a Gay “ghetto riot” at the Stonewall Bar in Greenwich Village started.   In its aftermath an open Gay Righss//Gay Liberation movement  came into existence and has been a significant force in the larger peoples movements over the last thirty-five years. Both the theories and practice of Magnus Hirschfeld and Harry Hay live the movements today for Gay Civil Rights in all of its manifestations.  Hirschfeld has received many posthumous honors in European countries for his contribution.  Harry Hay deserves a few here.

While most people identify Gay liberation with the “New Left” of the 1960s, it, like the civil rights, women’s rights, and anti-war movements of the time, cannot be separated from the Communist Party, USA, and broad labor left organizations which it had helped to bring about.  In the 1950s and 1960s, CPUSA activists in civil rights, women’s rights, and peace movements often found themselves “working in the closet,” hiding their identities because of the dangers of external and internal repression.

In the case of the postwar U.S. Gay Liberation movement, Harry Hay, a militant Communist, in effect organized and led that movement at the height of cold war reaction, interpreting it as a part of a larger global struggle for the liberation of oppressed people.

At the risk of sounding repetitious, it is important  to both repeat and  remember Harry Hay as a Communist who both preached and practiced the ideological militancy and tactical flexibility that produced great victories for the working class and oppressed minorities on many fronts in the past and can and will do so in the future.

He did  fight wearing a mask, but hee never hid in  a  closet, engaging in the self-segregation that oppressors offer oppressed groups for “their own protection.” .  And like the Communist movement through the world, he saw group pride in terms of a larger social solidarity which was the only way both institute and consolidate progressive social change


[1][1] Unfortunately, the most comprehensive major studies of Hirschfeld are not in English.  However I would recommend a number of works.  In Blasius and Phelan, eds.,We Are Everywhere: A Historical Sourcebook of Gay and Lesbian Politics(New York, 1997) the chapter on “The Emergence of a Gay and Lesbian Political Culture in Germany” is valuable, as is James Steakley’s early work,The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany(New York, 1975).  There is also an excellent work which helps to understand the broader Weimar  cpntext concerning sexuality  in which Hirschfeld struggled, Atina Grossman,The German Movement for Birth Control and Abortion Reform, 1920-1950(Oxford, 1995) On Hitlerite oppression of Gay men and Lesbians, see especially,see Gunther Grau, ed.,Hidden Holocaust:Gay and Lesbian Persecution in Germany, 1933-1945(New York, 1995)  On Hirschfeld himself see Charlotte Wolf, Magnus Hirschfeld: A Portrait of a Pioneer in Sexology(London, 1986)

2 There is an abundant, multi-faceted scholarship connecting cold war anti-Communistt ideology and policy with cold war homophobia, as they two both mirrored each other and merged. For example, Barbara Epstein, “Anti-Communism, Homophobia, and the Construction of Masculinity in the Post War U.S.” in Lori Lyn Boyle, ed The Cold War:Cold War Culture and Society( 2001) uses concepts derived from contemporary feminist and gender studies to analyze the relationship between the two.   Elizabeth Collins dissertation, “Red Baiting Public Women:Gender, Loyalty and Red Scare Politics” connects  the two  to  sexism and is available on the Internet   There is also a fine academic  study of the issue and the development of U.S.foreign  Vietnam War policy, Robert D. Dean, Imperial Brotherhood: Gender and the Making of Cold War Foreign Policy(Amherst, 2001) Dean, after examining the “male bonding” rituals of the graduates of prep schools, ivy league colleges, and exclusive fraternities and clubs from whom foreign policy makers from both parties came, looks at the anti-Communist and anti-Gay purges in the state department and foreign service and their effects on all policy makers, both the purge victims and those who continued in their positions. What he shows is the development of a culture of fear, in which all peace policies were not only compared to the Munich appeasement policy and internal Communist subversion, but all weakeness, to “tendermindness”, effeminacy and homosexuality. For many policy makers  in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, these fears muted criticisms of the disastrous Vietnam escalation even as evidence grew that it was disastrous.

3  On Harry himself, I would look at a collection of his writings before his death at the age of ninety, Harry Hay and Will Roscoe,eds, Radically Gay:Gay Liberation in the Words of its Founder(Boston, 1996)  Stuart Timmons,The Trouble With Harry (1990)  is the major biography a very valuable detaied studyl which, even though much more could have been done with Harry’s  thought, deals forthrightly with his CPUSA background, unlike earlier works which lapsed into anti-Communism even when they sought to portray Harry positively.  There is also  Jack Walsh’s award winning documentary film,  “Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay”(2002) Finally, as a general work, I would recommend that readers consult John D’Emilio,Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities:  The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970(Chicago, 1993)

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