Harry Hay: Founding the Mattachine Society, 1948-1953
"A call to me . . . more important than life"
Reedited by Jonathan Ned Katz from Gay American History (1976).
Henry Hay 1938
The man who conceived and was a principal figure in the founding of the first Mattachine society, Harry Hay, here for the first time details the early history of that homosexual emancipation organization. Because of Hay's eighteen-year Communist party membership and activity, his role as a founding father of the American homosexual liberation movement has not before been told. In an interview recorded by Jonathan Ned Katz on March 31, 1974, and in a long correspondence referring to original documents of the period, Henry Hay recounted his version of the conception and founding of the Los Angeles Mattachine.
Hay was born on April 7, 1912, at Worthing, in Sussex, England. His father managed gold mines in West Africa, then worked for the Anaconda Copper Company in Chile. His parents returned with their children to their native America in 1917; Hay grew up in Los Angeles, graduating with honors from Los Angeles High School in the summer of 1929. He studied in a Los Angeles lawyer's office for a year, witnessing the stock market crash of October, which wiped out his father and many others.
In February 1930, at age seventeen, Hay reports:
- I enticed an "older" gentleman (he must have been at least 33) to "bring me out" by finagling his picking me up in Los Angeles's notorious Pershing Square. Poor guy--he was appalled to discover, subsequently, that I was both a virgin and jailbait. Champ Simmons didn't really turn me on, but he was a very decent human being; he was gentle and kind and taught me a great deal.
A link of a kind perhaps peculiar to gay male history connects Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society, with the abortive Chicago Society for Human Rights (1924-25). Hay says that
- Champ, the guy I seduced into picking me up and bringing me out into the gay world, had himself been brought out by a guy who was a member of that Chicago group. So I first heard about that group only a few years after its sad end. My impression was that the society was primarily a social thing. But just the idea of gay people getting together at all, in more than a daisy chain, was an eye-opener of an idea. Champ passed it on to me as if it were too dangerous; the failure of the Chicago group should be a direct warning to anybody trying to do anything like that again.
- J.K.: Do you think your knowledge of that 1920s organizing attempt played any role in your later conceiving and starting a gay organization?
- H.H.: Only indirectly. It was one of the things that sank into my memory.
- In my own life, in the following year, in the fall of 1930, I went to Stanford University. In the fall of 1931, I decided, on the basis of not a great deal of information and not too much experience, that I didn't want to live the life of a lie, so I declared myself on campus to all the people that I knew: to the eating club I belonged to, to the fraternities who were rushing me--
- J.K.: You declared yourself as gay?
- H.H.: Yes. I said I would understand perfectly if they all felt they had to stay away for their own security and position--and most of the people I knew did stay away, but the people 1 loved best said, "Okay, what else is new?"
First Conception of a Gay Group
- I first conceived of a gay group in August 1948, in Los Angeles. What happened was this: I went to a beer bust at the University of Southern California, run by some gay guys I knew. Half the people there were students –- one or two were theology students, some legal students--and we got to talking about the Henry Wallace presidential campaign. Wallace was running on the Progressive party ticket. I came up with the idea that we should start a group called "Bachelors for Wallace." With the help of a couple of quarts of beer, we worked up quite a case for what the Bachelors for Wallace would do, what we would ask for constitutional amendments, etc. It sounded like a great idea.
- J.K.: This was to be an openly gay group?
- H.H.: Yes. We didn't have the words in those years, but that was what we were going to be. I went home and was all excited and sat up all night, writing out the original prospectus for the group. The next day 1 called up the guy who had given the party and asked for the addresses and telephone numbers of all the people there. I called up all these guys and said, "Look, we can get this whole thing going." They said, "What thing?" I found out that the only one who remembered anything except his hangover was me. Well, I thought it was too good an idea to drop, so I started putting it in some kind of order. I said, "Let's see, to get started I'll get in touch with all the other homosexuals I can." They said, "You're mad! You're out of your mind! We can't do anything like this!" Then I said, "Wait a minute. Supposing we got some really influential people, like ministers and sympathetic sociologists, and psychologists to condone it, to sponsor it. Then what?" "Well," they said, "well--yes, it's possible. Get 'em, and we'll think about it."
- So I went around to a couple of ministers I knew--Unitarians-and some sociologists from UCLA, and a couple of psychologists who were around the progressive movement who were sort of open--minded. One minister, one sociologist, and one psychologist said, "That's not bad; that might be a very useful new idea. You get one of these groups started, and we'll come and visit it. If it's going in the right direction, we'll consider offering our names." This went on for quite a while.
The Historical Era
- J.K.: Can you say why you conceived of a gay organization at the time you did?
- H.H.: The anti-Communist witch-hunts were very much in operation; the House Un-American Activities Committee had investigated Communist "subversion" in Hollywood. The purge of homosexuals from the State Department took place. The country, it seemed to me, was beginning to move toward fascism and McCarthyism; the Jews wouldn't be used as a scapegoat this time--the painful example of Germany was still too clear to us. The black organizations were already pretty successfully looking out for their interests. It was obvious McCarthy was setting up the pattern for a new scapegoat, and it was going to be us--Gays. We had to organize, we had to move, we had to get started.
- I was going back and forth, back and forth, trying to get homosexuals interested and to get the sponsors to lend their names-I was caught in the middle, because one group wouldn't move without the other. What I needed was some other person's point of view, and X wasn't getting that. Then, in July 1950, I met "X." He was on the fringe of the old left, but he wasn't a practicing member of anything. He was a refugee from Auschwitz; he and his family had come through some horrible experiences, and he was rather badly hurt as a child. He thought the group was a great idea, but he had a number of other people he wanted to go to. That's why I rewrote the prospectus.
Prospectus for a Gay Organization: July 7, 1950
Hay's original prospectus for a gay organization was written in August 1948; he prepared a second version in 1949; a third version was written in July 1950, soon after Hay met 'X" (Rudi Gernreich), his first "recruit." Hay's third prospectus is a six-page, dittoed document headed:
Preliminary Concepts…copyrighted by Eann MacDonald
July 7th, 1950
Eann MacDonald was Hay's pseudonym. The group's name follows, underlined in red:
The group is described as "a service and welfare organization devoted to the protection and improvement of Society's Androgynous Minority!' The reasons for the group's formation are listed as follows:
- encroaching American Fascism…seeks to bend unorganized and unpopular minorities into isolated fragments…
- …the Androgynous Minority was…stampeded into serving as hoodlums, stool pigeon…hangmen, before it was ruthlessly exterminated [a reference to the Nazi extermination of homosexuals];
- …government indictment of Androgynous Civil Servants… [legally establishes] GUILT BY ASSOCIATION;
- …under the Government's announced plans for eventual 100% war production all commerce…would be conducted under government contract…making it impossible for Androgynes to secure employment;
- …Guilt of Androgynity BY ASSOCIATION, equally with Guilt of Communist Sympathy . . . can be employed as a threat against…every man and woman in our Country . . . to insure thought control and political regimentation;
- …in order to earn for ourselves any place in the sun, we must…work collectively on the side of peace . . . in the spirit…of the United Nations Charter, for the full-class citizenship participation of Minorities everywhere, including ourselves;
WE, THE ANDROGYNES OF THE WORLD, HAVE FORMED THIS RESPONSIBLE CORPORATE BODY TO DEMONSTRATE BY OUR EFFORTS THAT OUR PHYSIOLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL HANDICAPS NEED BE NO DETERRENT TO INTEGRATING 10% OF THE WORLD'S POPULATION TOWARDS THE CONSTRUCTIVE SOCIAL PROGRESS OF MANKIND.
The group's service function is compared to Alcoholics Anonymous; among its aims are adjustment of members to the “enlightened…ethics of the standard community"' "to understand. ourselves and then demonstrate this knowledge to the community"; "to regulate the social conduct of our minority" (promiscuity, "violation of public decency," etc.); "to dispel the fears and antagonisms of the community…"; "to present to the community a…social analysis upon which…progressive sexual legislation can be based; to make common cause with other minorities in contributing to the reform of judicial, police, and penal practices…"; and to provide "a collective outlet for political, cultural, and social expression to some 10% of the world's population."
The prospectus goes on for four more pages to detail the group's proposed work for law reform, against "police brutality" and blackmail, for "self-determination of nations and national minorities," and to provide legal services and bail money, study groups, forums, cultural and recreational activities, group discussions, therapeutic groups, and first-aid squads. Participants are to remain anonymous; membership is to be nondiscriminatory as to race and political affiliation, and a complex membership classification system is outlined. Groups are to be "mainly geographical." "Supplementary subsidiaries" are envisioned, such as "International Spinsters' Orders," and "Well-Wishers Auxiliaries." The group's decision-making process was not spelled out; a mall governing committee would make policy and run the organization.
- J.K.: How did your original 1948 prospectus differ from that 1950 version?
- H.H.: At first I had not been so concerned with planting the organization underground. The goals and ideology never changed particularly: I felt that what we had to do was to find out who we were, and that what we were for would follow. I realized that we had been very contributive in various ways over the millennia, and I felt that we could return to being contributive again. Then we could be respected for our differences not for our same nesses to heterosexuals. Our organization would renegotiate the place of our minority into the majority. To a large extent that's what the whole movement was about. I was thinking of an amendment to the United States Constitution.
- J.K.: What kind of actions and tactics were envisioned?
- H.H.: I didn't know at that time. We would have to move with what the times would allow. The 1948 prospectus outlined the basic idea. The 1949 version described how we would set up the guilds, how we would keep them underground and separated so that no one group could ever know who all the other members were and their anonymity would be secured. The 1950 prospectus is basically like the 1949 one.
- J.K.: Where did your idea of this type of secret organization originate?
- H.H.: In July 1950, I was still a well-sought-after teacher of Marxist principles, both in the Communist party and the California Labor School. I was teaching a course in music history at the Labor School, and was dealing with the Guild System and the Freemasonry movement, particularly at the time of Maria Theresa, when to be a member of the Freemasonry was to court the death sentence. Both Mozart and Haydn had been Freemasons, courting punishment. This is also the way the Communist party had moved as a political organization in 1930-37, when it had been truly underground. I thought of the Freemason movement and the type of Communist underground organization that had existed in the 1930’s, which I had known and been part of. So 1 began to work up the structure specified in the prospectus of 1950. The whole organizational setup was based on what I had learned from the old left and, interestingly, was not too different from that structure employed by Algeria in its successful liberation struggle with France in the sixties. At this time, incidentally, I was married and had two children, but I felt I had to move back into my own Gay part of the world again. I felt I should bring the best from the heterosexual side to contribute to my side of the fence-to bring all I had learned in terms of organizational principles in moving back to my own.
- The Korean War had broken out just ten days before my meeting "X," in July 1950. At that time, all over the country there was a movement, sponsored by progressives to get as many signatures as possible for the Stockholm Peace Petition against the war. From August through October 1950, "X" and I undertook to get five hundred of these petitions signed on the Gay beach in Los Angela, in Santa Monica. And we got them, too, by God! We went down to the Gay beach and got them filled! And the Korean War was going full blast! We also used this petition activity as a way of talking about our prospectus. We'd go up to them on the beach--of course, this is an entirely different period, you understand, so when people went to the Gay beach then they'd talk about everything else except being Gay. We would tell them what we knew about the war, about the story of North Korea attacking South Korea being a fake. Then we'd get into the Gay purges in U.S. government agencies of the year before and what a fraud that was. Then we'd ask, "Isn't it high time we all got together to do something about it?" Everybody agreed, but nobody could think of anything to do without committing themselves. But at least they signed the petition, and some of the guys gave us their names and addresses-in case we ever got a Gay organization going. They were some of the people we eventually contacted for our discussion groups.
- Despite the success of this initial action, X and I worked from August to October 1950, but basically we were getting nowhere. Finally, in November 1950 I said, "There's a guy in my Labor School class, Bob Hull, and he has a friend; I think they might be interested." I didn't know for sure if they were gay or not. I thought these guys were gay, but whether they would want to reveal themselves to me I didn't know. So I swallow hard, and clench my fists, and on Thursday night at the class I hand out a prospectus in an envelope to Hull. On the following Saturday afternoon he calls up and asks whether he could come over. He sounds kind of distant. Well, Bob Hull, Chuck Rowland, and Dale Jennings come flying into my yard waving the prospectus, saying, "We could have written this ourselves when do we begin?" So we sat down and we began.
- The first thing we did was set up a semipublic-type discussion group, so you didn't have to reveal yourself if you didn’t want to. Only certain persons would be invited at first, but later they'd be invited to ask some friends.
- J.K.: These were to be discussions of gayness?
- H.H.: Yes.
Continued at: Harry Hay: Founding the Mattachine, part 2
- Henry Hay, taped interview by Jonathan Katz, March 31, 1974; Hay to J.K.. Feb. 20, 1974. All the following quotes from Hay, unless otherwise indicated, are from the taped interview. The photos of Hay reproduced here are from his own collection.
- Allen Ginsberg claims that a similar historical-sexual link exists between Edward Carpenter, Gavin Arthur, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsberg ("Ginsberg" [interviewed by Allen Young, Cherry Valley, N.Y., Sept. 25, 1972; transcript ed. by Winston Leyland,] Gay Sunshine; A Newspaper of Gay Liberation (San Francisco), Jan.-Feb., 1973, no. 16, p.1, col. 1; p. 4, col. 4). The late Gavin Arthur left an unpublished document describing his sexual encounter with Carpenter. This document is now, in the collection of Allen Ginsberg (Ginsberg to Leslie Parr, April 3, 1975; photocopy in the collection of Jonathan Katz). As described by Timothy d’Arch Smith (who does not mention Gavin Arthur's authorship), this document "claims to have been written by an American in his early twenties who went to visit Carpenter when the poet was eighty years old. Carpenter made love to the young man, expertly, 'gazing at my body rapturously between kisses and growling ecstatically….I had the distinct feeling that he felt my coming as if he were coming himself--that in that moment he was me. Afterwards, he said 'When I was a clergyman I thought at Communion I was at one with God. But I realize now that this is a much more intimate communion…." Smith describes this source as: 'Typescript document, five leaves, 4to, headed 'Anonymous: Document received from the hands of a living person and its authenticity vouched for by Allen Ginsberg,' New York, private collection" (Love in Earnest … [London: Boutledge & Kegan Paul, 1970], p. 24, 43.note 84). A somewhat less explicit description of Gavin Arthur's encounter with Carpenter is found in Arthur's The Circle of Sex (N.Y.: University Books, 1966), p.128-39). I wish to thank James Kepner for information about the latter source.
- Since Katz's interview with Hay, his first recruit has been publicly identified as Rudi Gernreich, later famous as a clothes designer.
- [Henry ,Hay,] Eann MacDonald, pseud., "Preliminary Concepts …(Los Angeles: privately printed [dittoed], July 7, 1950); photo reprint in A Homosexual Emancipation Miscellany (N.Y.: Arno, 1975). Jonathan Ned Katz thanks Henry Hay for providing an original copy of this document.
- Since this interview, X has been identified publicly as Rudi Gernreich, later famous as a clothes designer.