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Remembering Harry Hay

Harry Hay would have been 105 this month. His life and work as a gay man and a Communist helped lay the foundations of the modern LGBTQ movement.

If Harry Hay is known to the public today, it’s usually as a founder of one of the early and conservative gay rights organizations or as an oddball loner name-checked in lists of gay rights pioneers. Both impressions are incorrect. Hay was a crucial and fascinating theorist and activist whose life and work has been slowly rediscovered by scholars since the early 1980s.

Hay was born April 7, 1912, to a wealthy American family in London. His life was radically changed by two powerful forces he discovered in his teens: Marxism and homosexuality.

Radicalized by IWW organizers and Native American farmhands he met while working on his uncle’s property in Smith Valley, Nevada, Hay encountered the word “homosexuality” in English socialist Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex in a neighborhood public library. Later, he remembered he “KNEW — that I had found a word that validated me … I wasn’t peculiar, … or the only one of my kind in the whole world after all. There were others: the book said so … and they believed in comradeship and being everything to each other.”

He joined the Communist Party in the 1930s in Los Angeles, working as a singer (he premiered early works by John Cage), English teacher to German emigres, agitprop theater actor, and organizer. In the 1940s, Hay developed an enormously popular materialist history of Western music for a class he taught at the CPUSA’s California Labor School. The development of that course deepened his understanding of Marxist anthropologies and analyses of the interplay between cultural systems.

In 1948, after a beer bust organized by fellow supporters of Henry Wallace’s third-party campaign for President, Hay dreamed up what would become the Mattachine Society, America’s first lasting queer liberation organization. The initial idea was to get the decriminalization of sodomy into Wallace’s platform. But Hay expanded the concept over the next couple of years, crafting an organizational platform based on the secrecy of Communist cells he hoped could attract hundreds of thousands of likeminded people.

The organization was shaped like a pyramid: a top-level group, eventually made up of Hay and six other men, would oversee smaller discussion groups in a pyramid shape. Each member would lead another group, and so on: no individual other than the top-level founders would know who the other members were. In addition to these discussion groups, with their focus on identity formation and political education, Hay envisioned a social-services wing and a committee of doctors and scientists who would face the public.

The organization was to be open to men and women of the “androgynous minority” — throughout his life, Hay saw gender as central to homosexual identity. Hay used Popular Front communism’s conception of the meaning of a cultural minority: in Hay’s adaptation of the model, minorities, to qualify, had to share a history, psychological outlook, and distinctive modes of communication.

From those characteristics, Hay argued that homophiles deserved recognition as a group, and possessed crucial social contributions that could assist the political and social development of the larger collective. From here originated Hay’s idea that homophiles had, in addition to rightful demands for recognition and respect, a responsibility to provide something of social value, to support movements for racial justice, and to fundamentally change the economic structures of world society.

By spring of 1953, the Society had successfully defended one of its members from entrapment charges and was attracting thousands of people to discussion groups up and down the California coast. But McCarthyism, and the poisonous destruction of movements it entailed, was just around the corner.

After a Los Angeles newspaper column attacked the organization as a potentially sinister source of Communist infiltration into local politics, new right-wing and upper-class members insisted the organization be divested of its Communist leadership and its broader political goals. Hay and his co-founders were kicked out, and the organization was reoriented to an apologetic, assimilationist line — a forerunner to organizations like the Human Rights Campaign.

Hay was himself called before HUAC, however FBI ineptness meant the Committee had no idea about his gay life. He was able to successfully escape prosecution by pleading the fifth.

The twenty years or so after his appearance at HUAC were largely spent theorizing. Never departing from his commitment to a materialist analysis of sexuality and history, Hay worked to expand his conception of queer sexuality and its cultural and social expression as helpful, even essential, components of a future socialist society. Returning to the materialist anthropologists he had read when creating his music classes for the Communist labor school, Hay relied heavily on Engelsian principles about the relationships between gender, family structure, labor, and politics.

Friedrich Engels, in The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, exploded the bourgeois nuclear family’s claim to “natural” status with a vision of a primitive, matrilineal communism. In pre-“Civilized” society, Engels wrote, descent had often been matrilineal. Family structures were more flexible. Groups collaboratively owned “the tools they made and used,” and the household “was communistic, comprising several, and often many, families.” Only with the transition from communal ownership of herds to individual ownership of them did private property and male autocracy (inseparable concepts) dominate.

Engels’ argument was that primitive communism represented human society’s past and future, and that matriarchy was central to its practice, maintenance, and renewal. Hay’s theoretical contribution was to add a proto-queer figure he called “berdache” as a key figure, and to argue that living queers should emulate the berdache as part of that tradition.

The Engelsian claim that “to emancipate woman and make her the equal of the man is and remains an impossibility so long as the woman is shut out from social productive labour and restricted to private domestic labour” maps neatly onto Hay’s insistence on finding liberation for same-sex-loving peoples through “socially productive” contributions, in the form of what we might now call “affective” labor. Human beings, Hay thought, “exist ever in a state of becoming,” changing their patterns of behavior as social structures changed.

Taking neither a strict constructionist angle that argued that it is impossible to make any comparisons between contemporary and ancient same-sex romantic social institutions, nor an essentialist approach that argued that homosexuality has always existed in roughly the same forms, Hay instead argued that changing cultures had created a variety of historically specific, institutional forms of ingrained and universal homosexual and homoromantic impulses.

Social homophobia had led scholars to silence on these institutions, but one could, Hay thought, read a history of these impulses back into scholarship, launching “a candid and objective re-exhumation of History” that would liberate homophiles to continue their contribution to “constructive human development,” which had always been “in direct proportion of the opportunities afforded (or the surreptitious political expropriations of) its singular capacities.”

While he took the term “berdache” from scholarship about Native American cultures (today, the term “two-spirit” is often preferred), Hay believed this social role had existed across almost all human societies before the rise of capitalism. He compared English Morris dance to Chinese opera to Native American and Indigenous fooling and religious rituals, seeing them as serving similar social functions and rising from expressions of queer sexuality.

Fundamentally, Hay thought, queer people had experienced isolation as children — they knew what it was like to be different. This gave them an ability to perceive social structures subjectively rather than objectively.

Additionally, they had time left over from not raising children — time they could use for spiritual and political work, work that could “reproduce … the internal life of the society” in contrast to the heterosexual reproductive social role. Hay thought people born in bodies classified both as male and female could occupy this third-gender social role.

Later in life, he helped found the Radical Faeries, an organization devoted to recreating that role in the present and preserving natural land.

When he died at ninety in October 2002, many remembrances focused on Hay’s late-life defense of the North American Man/Boy Love Association. While Hay never joined the group, he did defend it from being expelled from several LBGTQ conferences. His defense of NAMBLA was eccentric and troubling, rooted in his own experiences of teenaged sexual activity. But it was a small piece of Hay’s long life of writing and activism.

In a late interview with the Progressive, he proudly showed off his necklace to the interviewer:

this necklace that I’m wearing I always refer to as my sport pearls. This is the one I wear for the trade unions. I wear it to speak, to be in actions, to be on the picket line. Every once in a while, I’d have to rush over to do something with the guys after work. I wouldn’t have time to go home. So I wouldn’t have this on. And these guys came up to me and they said, ‘What happened? Did it break? Can we buy you a new one?’

Hay’s project was a fundamentally Marxist one, and the first American queer liberation movements were socialist from stem to theoretical stern. He aimed to create a materialist history of the various expressions of the social and sexual urges that had historically created queer sexual identities and, from that history, to define a social role for contemporary queers to inhabit.

The idea was not to cheer for queer peoples on the margins, as marginal actors, but to understand their liberation as central and essential to a broader socialist project. Integrating Hay into the Marxist fold provides key context for his ideas and grounds them, him, and contemporary identities.

We should remember Hay not as a founding father or a lone hero or an oddball isolate, but as an activist and thinker in conversation with other activists and thinkers, to better understand a very early Marxist theoretician and scholar of sexuality, and to see the political possibility that emerges from his fascinating synthesis of struggles that are too often artificially split into questions of identity and labor. Happy (belated) birthday, Harry.