By Stephen Nonack, The History Project
Having just concluded Stuart Timmons’ biography of Harry Hay, The Trouble with Harry: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement (a source for The Temperamentals), I am struck by my distance from the place and time when the Mattachine Society was founded, and my failure to connect on a personal level with Harry Hay. Hay, who grew up in privileged circumstances in Los Angeles, sought from an early age to discover why he felt attracted to other boys. At the public library he managed to speed read through a restricted copy of Edward Carpenter’s The Intermediate Sex, published in 1906, which offers a uniquely positive view of same-sex relationships and, most importantly, gave the boy a word not found in dictionaries of the period – homosexual. It was a revelation and launched Hay in a life-long quest to understand the nature of gay identity. His first “adult” gay sexual encounter occurred at age 14, when he seduced a 30 year old sailor (Hay was tall for his age, but the sailor freaked out when the age difference was revealed). He made no apologies for who he was and as a student at Stanford, publicly came out of the closet (before there was anything to come out of the closet for), creating a scandal. That was daring – especially since there were no role models in history (except for Carpenter and Walt Whitman, perhaps) and few in his life, for inspiration.
During the 1930s he fell under the sway of Marxist-Leninist thought and the dream of an egalitarian society and organized for the Communist Party USA, though the Party forbade homosexuality and he was compelled to keep his identity a secret. He was living a contradictory, conflicted life, having affairs with men (like handsome actor and CP agitator Will Geer [later “Grandpa Walton”]) yet, in 1938, he met and married Anita Platky, a Communist Party member, with whom he led an ostensibly hetero-normative life for the ensuing decade. Hay’s involvement with the leftist mass movement, called People’s Songs, was based on a revival of folk songs, and inspired the idea of the Mattachine Society, an all-male secret society that performed stylized dances in costumes and masks and spread a social justice message to the oppressed in medieval Europe. Harry Hay met dancer Rudi Gernreich at Lester Horton’s Dance Theatre in L.A. in 1950; Hay was there to watch his eldest daughter practice. They were attracted to each other immediately, and gay friends of Hay’s lent them their homes so that they could conduct their affair.
Hay and Gernreich were co-founders of the Mattachine Society, which grew as new members were drawn to an organization that had a mission to provide brotherhood and support, education and study around homosexual identity, resistance to repression (and police harassment and entrapment), the ultimate goal being full civil rights. Hay was armed with the Kinsey Report, published in 1948, which quantified homosexuality in America, and the organizing tactics (and devotion to secrecy) derived from his affiliation with the Communist Party USA. Rules for structuring the discussion groups that were the magnets for attracting new members were quite specific, and topics were suggested (“Is there a homosexual culture?” “What causes swishing?”). Ultimately, internal tension over real or imagined Communist sympathizers in the Society as well as Harry Hay’s domineering role in it led to his split in 1953 from the organization that he had inspired and led (referred to as the First Mattachine Society). His leadership was a failure, essentially. Rudi moved to New York to pursue a career in fashion, and the movement continued with others at the helm. So, what was Hay’s lasting impact? That’s hard for me to say. [Some believe that Hay’s more lasting influence was in his organizing the Radical Faerie network, and his theorizing on the subject of “gay spirit.”] This reads like so much ancient history. At the time of my own coming to awareness of my sexuality I never heard or read anything about Mattachine or Harry Hay. Though the subjects of Martin Duberman’s account of the Stonewall rebellion were born before the end of World War II and so are not, technically, Baby Boomers like me, their stories are much closer to my own. That moment in 1969, beginning the night after Judy Garland’s funeral, came on the heels of the Civil Rights, Women’s Lib, and anti-war movements, and was spearheaded by people I can recognize. The event still resonates for me and perhaps for most gay people of my generation.
Of course, I worry that the message and memory of Stonewall will be lost to succeeding generations of LGBTQ Americans. The NewYork Times last week carried a review of the new play about Judy Garland’s last days, End of the Rainbow. The reviewer, Robert Leleux, a gay man in his 30s, took a friend to the performance; a Judy Garland devotee, he afterwards asked his friend whether he considered her a gay idol. “Not to me, she isn’t. I mean, I know she used to be important to gay guys, but I don’t see what she has to do with being gay anymore, except she did sort of remind me of Whitney and Lindsay and Britney. You know, train wrecks.” Leleux laments that “because of the holocaust that was the AIDS epidemic and its annihilation of the previous generation of gay men, the faith of our fathers risks extinction. Today, Judyism, like Yiddish, is little more than a vague cultural memory.” Oh dear. But did you enjoy the performance? Judyism, like Communism, like the First Mattachine, appears to be dead.
Thank goodness for The History Project, which documents and preserves a documentary record of LGBTQ lives and history, including people like Boston gay activist Prescott Townsend, a near contemporary of Harry Hay’s. But perhaps the best and most immediate way to connect with our gay icons is through art. A few years ago, gay singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright, recreated Judy Garland’s legendary 1963 Carnegie Hall concert, bringing the legend to a modern audience. So thank the Lyric Stage for bringing the story of Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich to Boston audiences in TheTemperamentals, a work of art that performs history and hopefully transcends generations.