In 1969 the gay liberation movement burst onto the streets with the Stonewall riot in New York. It was born out of outrage at systematic oppression—and radicals and socialists like Harry Hay were at the forefront.
Hay was a political radical from his teens. He was not only committed to LGBT+ liberation, but also to anti-capitalism.
Hay was born in 1912 into a well-off family and was raised a Catholic. By the age of 12, he had come to the conclusion that he was gay and rejected Catholicism. While working on the farm of his cousin in the summer holidays, he was introduced to Marxism through fellow ranch workers who were members of the IWW union. This was the start of Hay’s journey into socialist politics.
Being gay in early 20th century America meant oppression and discrimination. Homophobic laws existed in every US state with “sodomy” classed as a felony—a serious crime that carried a sentence of hard labour or imprisonment.
State repression of gay people was rife. In one well-documented incident in 1926, Eve’s Hangout—a nightclub that was a meeting place for lesbians—was violently raided by police. The owner, Eva Kotchever, was arrested and deported to Poland where she was eventually murdered by the Nazis. Arrests, beating and murders of LGBT+ people were commonplace across the US.
There was some visibility and tolerance of LGBT+ people, especially in the entertainment industry with some Hollywood films featuring gay actors. However, such tolerance led to a backlash, with the portrayal of drag queens in particular leading to state repression. In 1927 well-known actor and playwright Mae West was imprisoned for writing The Drag, on the basis it “corrupted the morals of the youth”.
It was around this time that Hay moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and he started a relationship with socialist actor Will Geer.
This period was one of rising class struggle with big clashes between workers and bosses. One such clash was the 1934 San Francisco general strike, with hundreds of thousands of workers downing tools to shut down the city. It was in this climate that Geer introduced Hay to the Communist Party (CP).
Communist militants had been part of working class struggles that fought with bosses and the CP grew as a result. Their militancy in the working class movement was coupled with a defiant anti-racism, most notably the defence of the “Scottsborough Boys”. After nine black men falsely accused of raping two white women in 1931, the CP led an impressive campaign that united black and white workers and helped to challenge racist attitudes.
The CP’s approach to racism influenced Hay’s politics on LGBT+ oppression, and he began agitating on the issue. But he soon came up against the ideological block of Stalinism in the CP. A common idea in wider society was that LGBT+ people were “mentally ill” or having been struck by a terrible curse or impulse. The CP’s position on sexual politics reflected this. Russian dictator Joseph Stalin had rolled back the Russian Revolution’s gains and women’s and LGBT+ rights as part of building up a state capitalist system from the late 1920s. And the CP in the US followed the line from Stalin that homosexuality was “a bourgeois deviance”.
At odds with its reactionary position, Hay left the CP. It was in the years afterwards that he became more radical.
He went on to found the Mattachine Society, a key part of the Homophile Movement which favoured a strategy called “ethical homosexual culture”. They believed that LGBT+ people should assimilate and reject the stereotypes of “screaming queens and butch lesbians”. And they though that by acting “normally” they could force some general level of acceptance among the population.
The tactic of assimilation was not unique to the Mattachine Society. It had been employed by the Daughters of Bilitis—one of the first lesbian organisations in the US—who aimed to break down the isolation felt by many lesbians at the time.
The tactic of seeking to make peace with the establishment took its toll. Members of the Homophile Movement had to endure prejudice and discrimination, rather than combating it, in the search for “assimilation”.
Many went along with it because of the extreme pressure to conform. McCarthyism—the witch hunts of socialists by Republican senator Joseph McCarthy—was in full flow and put huge pressure on the left. It is understandable why Hay and his contemporaries regarded any attempt to organise LGBT+ in the 1950s and early 1960s as courageous.
However, in 1969 the struggle was propelled forward with a new wave of militancy. The Stonewall riots, in Hay’s view, “meant that the East Coast was catching up” with what activists on the west coast had been doing. But it was a game changer. Gone was the talk of assimilation and appeasement. Here was a group of people who were loud, proud and unapologetically gay.
The movement born out of it talked about radical politics and led to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). The name was a deliberate attempt to provoke sections of the US ruling class by alluding to both the Algerian National Liberation Front and the Vietnam National Liberation Front. It identified with anti-racist and anti-imperialist causes and openly talked about revolution. It also extended its support to the Black Panther Party, which was growing in influence at the time. Hay threw himself into this and became the founder of the LA chapter.
He was now getting involved in a radical movement which challenged the status quo and was built on the tactics of the more radical elements of the anti-racist movement. Screams of “Gay Power” were an echo of the “Black Power” chants used by the Panthers.
Unfortunately, those struggles failed to break through and the movement fragmented. By 1970 Hay had moved to Mexico where he set up the Radical Faeries, a loose spiritual LGBT+ organisation. He still supported radical causes, including the end of Stalinism in Eastern Europe, and was involved in campaigns against apartheid in South Africa.
Hay should be remembered as a political radical who stood up and fought for LGBT+ rights. At a time when homosexuality was seen as an illness, he helped organise LGBT+ people to help break down these ideas. And at key points he argued for a politics firmly rooted in working class people fighting back as the key to undermining oppression.
We can build on that tradition today when attacks on LGBT+ people and transphobia are on the rise. The task remains, as Hay recognised, to draw in large numbers of people into a mass movement against oppression. As we celebrate LGBT+ history month, it is important to remember radical figures and struggles of the past. That can help us to get organised against all those who want to drive LGBT+ people back into the closet and to fight for lasting liberation.
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