|Summer 2008||Vol:XII-1||Whole #: 45|
PREFATORY NOTE: While researching a book on African-Americans and the anti-Stalinist left in the archives last summer, I stumbled across a striking and long-forgotten document, "Socialism and Sex," in a 1952 discussion bulletin, The Young Socialist. In one page, its author H. L. Small -- almost surely a pseudonym -- provided an elegant, concise exposition on behalf of destigmatizing consensual sexuality between same-sex lovers. Excited by this discovery and persuaded that the document deserved rescue from obscurity, I arranged for it to be printed in The Journal of the History of Sexuality. That the editors of New Politics are now publishing it in these pages, too, ensures its accessibility to a wider political audience. I am very grateful to all concerned. 1
H. L. SMALL'S DOCUMENT "Socialism and Sex" was written at a moment when few in the United States imagined, let alone expressed, so bold a philosophy of sexual liberation or so explicit a political program in favor of decriminalizing sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex. Therefore, it provides fresh evidence supplementing recent understandings that a "homophile" or homosexual rights consciousness was tentatively emerging within a severely repressive context. The important developments of the 1950s catalogued by scholars include the Mattachine Society (formed 1951), ONE magazine (first issued 1953), the Daughters of Bilitis (launched 1955), and literary manifestations such as Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl" (1956) and Ann Bannon's bestselling novel Odd Girl Out (1957).2 "Socialism and Sex" illustrates that like-minded views found expression in yet another subterranean niche: among socialist youth.
Although many American lives in the 1950s did not fit the domestic stereotypes fostered by such radio and television series as "Father Knows Best," conservative postwar gender ideology and anti- communist hysteria had severely constrictive consequences for anyone attracted to others of the same sex.3 During and before the Second World War, a flourishing gay subculture existed, but starting in the 1930s and escalating in the late 1940s and 1950s, morals crusades, conformist pressure, and restrictive governmental interventions, including the anti-gay aspects of Cold War repression, combined to impose fear, shame, and invisibility on gay life.4 Quincy Troupe, a writer and friend of James Baldwin, recalls that in the 1950s, "You weren't just in the closet, you were in the basement. Under the basement."5 Martin Duberman observes that in the 1950s "the vast majority of gay people were locked away in painful isolation and fear, doing everything possible not to declare themselves."6 Given this context of loneliness and terror, the present document is of great significance -- a statement rare and daring for its time.
At the same time, the document confirms that conceptualizations of same-sex longing as a social issue in need of political solutions existed well before the 1969 Stonewall rebellion signaled the arrival of a vastly larger, bolder, and more visible gay civil rights movement.7 The most famous of these forerunners is the Mattachine Society, formed by Harry Hay and a handful of other veterans and sympathizers of the Communist Party.8 "Socialism and Sex," written one year after Mattachine was created, appeared within a very different radical milieu: the democratic socialist movement. Because of the great variance between the respective political traditions that produced these efforts on behalf of the rights of homosexuals, "Socialism and Sex" represents a parallel and simultaneous impulse to political action that contrasts in salient ways with the Mattachine approach.
"Socialism and Sex" appeared as a single typewritten page in Young Socialist, the mimeographed bulletin of the Young Socialists, the youth group of the Socialist Party headed by Norman Thomas. Until shortly before, the Young Socialists had been known as the Young People's Socialist League, and its members as YPSLs (with this acronym affectionately pronounced "Yipsels"). The Socialists -- whose youth wing was more militant than their adult party -- were defined by a commitment to social reform, but also by an opposition to the dogmatism and authoritarianism they perceived in the American Communist Party and Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin.
The essay's rhetorical strategy was to claim that a libertarian rejection of strictures against same-sex encounters would help win new adherents to the socialist cause. This may have seemed implausible, causing readers' eyes to roll at the time. Given the blanket of ignorance and stigma that overlay the issue in the 1950s, public advocacy of eliminating legal sanctions against homosexuality would have been far more likely to unnerve or alienate potential recruits (even gay ones) than win them over. On the other hand, this claim carried within it the astute insight that those suffering oppression in a specific manner often come to political awareness or socialist consciousness through that identity -- in other words, that so-called "single issues" often lead to broader perceptions and connections, prompting more sustained and ambitious commitments.
The document is written in an allusive language that is nonetheless assertive and crystalline in the clarity of its meaning. This quality speaks to the lack of a common vocabulary at the time to describe variance in sexual orientation. Nevertheless, "Socialism and Sex" drew effectively upon several traditions to make its case. Its expression of civil libertarian sensibilities in a Jeffersonian idiom was redolent of contemporaneous left-liberal resistance to McCarthyism's attack on subversive "un- Americans." Here, however, the individual right to pursue happiness was applied to the fulfillment of sexual desire without fear of arrest or blackmail. Reference to the sexual openness of Scandinavian countries drew upon a more general trans-Atlantic social-democratic admiration commonplace among YPSLs. The warning that suppression of "libidinal expression" or its "practice under fear" will thwart "a whole, productive individual" suggests the Kinsey report and Wilhelm Reich as possible influences.9 Conscious placement of the word "deviant" in quotation marks called into question not only the castigation of a particular sexual preference as abnormal simply because it is a minority one, but also hinted of resistance against the host of psychological and popular prejudices then prevalent against "inverts" as depraved, irresponsible, pathological, or unnatural. "Socialism and Sex" postulated that unhealthy guilt and shame were the result not of sex or sexual orientation but of puritanical and discriminatory injunctions against same-sex relations. The way for those attracted to others of the same sex to become "whole" and "productive" was not to suppress their desires but for the society to cease branding them in pejorative terms. In this way, "Socialism and Sex" pointed the way toward notions of psychology and health that would not become normative until the 1970s.
All of this contrasts with Harry Hay's political and intellectual framework, as reflected in the Mattachine Society. Hay first enrolled in Communist Party classes in 1933 in emulation of his lover, the actor Will Geer, who after the lifting of the Hollywood blacklist would play Grandpa Walton in the 1970s television series. Standard accounts of Hay's attraction to the Communist movement emphasize his fleeting involvement in the 1934 San Francisco general strike. At that very moment, ironically, the Soviet Union, which Communists upheld as the highest hope for humanity, was proceeding to outlaw homosexuality by prescribing five years of hard labor for men guilty of voluntary sexual relations with other men.10 At the height of the Popular Front, in 1937, Hay joined the American Communist Party despite its prohibition of homosexuality among its members. By the 1940s, he was a teacher of numerous Party classes, both internal and public. The immersion in ideology and theory that this required of him explains why he drew upon Joseph Stalin's writings on nationalities and self-determination as well as anthropological understandings of culture (stemming from his interest in indigenous peoples and world folk music) to arrive at a historical materialist theory of "homophiles" as akin to "Negro, Mexican, and Jewish peoples."11 Hay's perception of gays as an oppressed minority culture was developed in tandem with his organizing of "bachelors" to support Henry Wallace's Progressive Party campaign in 1948, culminating in the creation of the Mattachine Society, the first enduring American organization of gays for self-understanding and social transformation. The Mattachine was not entirely original, because at least one precursor existed: Henry Gerber had begun the very short-lived Society for Human Rights in Chicago in 1924, an attempt that an early lover of Hay's had told him about. However, that earlier effort was almost entirely lost to memory in the general culture by the 1950s, and the Mattachine Society was an unquestionable breakthrough: the first sustained gay rights advocacy group in American history.
SINCE THE MATTACHINE SOCIETY AT FIRST existed in a veil of secrecy, it was probably unknown to the writer of "Socialism and Sex." This newly found document therefore represents a synchronous impulse. It ratifies the findings of scholars on the Mattachine Society who have identified the political left as an important wellspring for modern gay civil rights consciousness, but speaks at the same time to a need for more in-depth scholarship on other left-wing contributors to that consciousness. "Socialism and Sex" does not reflect or anticipate the instinct of self-organization that would shape the Mattachine Society and so much subsequent gay political activism. Its author does not refer directly to homosexuals or coin a term, like Hay's "androgyne" and "homophile," that would avoid stigmas attached to the word "homosexual" and yet describe those attracted primarily to others of the same sex. That "Socialism and Sex" did not contribute to the creation of an independent organization goes a good way toward explaining why it was lost to memory. It is not that "Socialism and Sex" was guilty of what would later be termed an "assimilationist" or "accommodationist" reticence, for its animating spirit is emancipation. The contrast is rather between the structure and cultures of two very different sectors of the left.
Hay was compelled to leave the Communist Party, advocating his own expulsion, in order to pursue his quest for homophile rights. The leadership valued Hay's contributions, but accepted his judgment that severance of attachment was necessary. The Communist Party forbade membership to homosexuals on the grounds that homosexuality was symptomatic of bourgeois decadence, a perversion, a byproduct of capitalism and fascism. It also viewed homosexuality, like drug use, as a security risk that made individuals susceptible to blackmail that would undermine the organization or exposure that would discredit it. Needless to say, this policy did not prevent gays from becoming party members, or party members from coming to the realization that they were gay. It did, however, perpetuate inner identity conflicts and encourage subterfuge by subjecting gay party members to the very same pressures inflicted upon them by conventional society. Hay, for example, felt compelled to marry Anita Platky in 1938 in order to demonstrate his reformed nature when he sought to join the Communist Party in that same year. Although he had many same-sex affairs and stands throughout his marriage, abandonment of the mask came only when he left the Party and formed the Mattachine Society. The logic behind the CP's policy was blinkered. Homosexuality becomes a heightened security risk when there is a policy that denies gays and lesbians membership, thereby requiring them to remain closeted. Openness annuls blackmail by removing its opportunity. As the California Communist leader who informed Harry Hay he was being dropped from membership observes, "It was a stupid policy nonetheless. After all, we had a number of Communists in Los Angeles who became informers because they worked for the post office and their jobs were at risk, but no one ever proposed that all government employees be dropped from our membership."12
Although he left the Communist Party, Hay brought many residues of his Stalinism with him.13 The Party's habits of organization, combined with the circumstances of McCarthyism and anti-gay repression (which demanded at least some modicum of discretion), led Hay to conceive of Mattachine as a hierarchical organization led by an inner circle while maintaining the secrecy of the underground. By 1953, a majority of newer members, hundreds of whom had joined after Mattachine successfully defended a member in Los Angeles from police entrapment, came to feel manipulated and sought an "open, democratic organization." Hay opposed them, holding that such a transformation would sacrifice "all the idealism that we held while we were a private organization."14 This membership rebellion, reflective of widespread distrust of the initial conspiratorial and top-down structure, coincided with threatened inquiry by Congressional investigative committees, prompting Hay and other radical founding members to withdraw from Mattachine in 1953. As its new and more conservative leaders sought respectability, the Mattachine Society subsequently lost many members and pursued a timid, self- effacing course. Although other groups and individuals would make fits and starts -- including within the Mattachine Society itself -- a combination of openness and democracy with militancy and uncompromising gay politics would not be forged consistently or completely until after Stonewall.
A rather different organizational style and set of political traditions existed among the YPSLs. The Young Socialists made no official prohibition against same-sex desire and had no official ideology against it. No one was ever expelled from the Socialist Party or its youth group for "deviancy" or "bohemianism." As one of the leading youth members in New York City, Bogdan Denitch, puts it, "We did discuss things sexual and were open to gay members."15 "Socialism and Sex" lacked any suggestion of a caucus or separate organization, or even of a notion of distinctive cultural identities built upon variance in sexual orientation. That was consistent with the standard social-democratic manner of thinking about oppressed groups, which had both strengths and weaknesses. To challenge racism, for example, socialists of this persuasion tended to protest discrimination and encourage inclusiveness, rather than a policy of separate action by African-Americans. This tradition, when applied to the question of "the sexual individualist," was double-edged. It inhibited and discouraged the type of independent self-organization that Mattachine pioneered and which would prove decisive for later gay and lesbian political development. On the other hand, the socialist valuation of tolerance, democracy, and inclusion meant H. L. Small could write freely, without fear of suppression within the left, such as the expulsions gay Communists experienced. Given the censorious climate in the wider society toward homosexuality and socialism, there were abundant reasons to fear sanction from outside the organization, of course. This most likely explains why the author adopted a pseudonym. Use of a party name, even if a thin veil for identity, was not unusual in radical periodicals in the 1940s and 1950s as a means to prevent employer reprisals in the age of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. It was one thing to be a socialist or homosexual, or even to be known as such to acquaintances. It was another level of commitment to put one's name on documents that might lead to persecution in the press, the workplace, or court of law.
That The Young Socialist would publish such an article at all without disclaimer or controversy is testament to the scope of its internal freedom. H. L. Small may even have had reason to believe that the precepts of "Socialism and Sex" might actually be adopted as official group policy. YPSL members in the 1950s were attracted to libertarian socialism -- evincing, for example, a strong interest in Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-German revolutionary socialist who supported the Russian Revolution but was critical of the early Soviet state for its ominous consolidation of power.16
None of this is to say that the YPSL was free from homophobia or that a culture of complete openness prevailed on sexual matters within the organization, since nowhere in the United States was that true at the time. The atmosphere that prevailed within the group was a peculiar admixture of freedom and caution, acceptance and denial, silence and honesty. David McReynolds, a YPSL in Los Angeles who came to terms with his attraction to men in 1949, says, "Generally, in those days, it just wasn't discussed. . . . It wasn't tolerance but rather 'look the other way.' The Socialist Party always had a strong streak of 'libertarianism' on such matters. What we would have done if the member was a flaming queen I don't know. But so long as it was not pushed in our faces we didn't care. Nor was it discussed -- so far as I know -- in our groups on the West Coast."17 Vern Davidson, who became a socialist as a freshman at UCLA in 1948 and who would later serve prison time for his resistance to compulsory military service during the Korean War, says that he had two serious male lovers when he was a YPSL and numerous same-sex encounters within Socialist Party circles, including many with men who were not homosexuals. Nevertheless, he recalls a conversation in which he took McReynolds aside to say, "David, you know, it would be a lot better if you just wouldn't be so gay, openly." He explains, "It was an issue, if we made a scene of it, but so was drinking. Drinking took you away from the cause. We had a real drunk party at the party headquarters in L.A., and boy did we catch hell for it. . . . Our position had nothing to do with being against homosexuality, but that it distracted from our main job which was to sell to a public the concept of socialism."18 According to Ralph Shaffer, who attended many public meetings of the Socialist Party in southern California in the 1950s and on a few occasions paid membership dues, "'gayness' was not a topic of discussion." Nevertheless, he notes, it "was common knowledge -- even for someone as naive as I was -- that several male socialists were gay and it was accepted. . . . I don't recall that any of the CP/PP people were known as gays. Nor was the gayness of the SP men openly displayed. It was discreet."19
When Vern Davidson moved to New York after he was elected YPSL national chairman in 1951, he participated in policy discussions of the very issues raised in the document "Socialism and Sex," conversations that very nearly resulted in a new plank in the Socialist Party platform:
Before the 1952 party convention, when I was still in New York, I was instructed by the YPSLs to attempt to put a homosexual rights plank before the platform committee. . . . That was my instructions. And I do know at the convention, I went into the convention, and I was a member of the platform committee, and said, "The YPSL would like the party to consider a" -- we didn't use "gay rights" in that day, but a gay rights platform. We didn't have any history to work from. There weren't any of those things. You've got to remember how much things have changed. I was met with a lot of embarrassed-looking old codgers staring at me in a little horror, but not getting angry; it just shocked them that we had to talk about this nasty thing. But good old Norman Thomas, and he's a sweet guy, said, "Well, Vern, if the YPSL thinks that's something that we should consider, I certainly think that we should consider it, and I have nothing against it, but I wish you could draw up something and come back with it." So I've always felt that I was the cause of all of this, because I tried and tried and tried, and I just couldn't write anything that seemed to fit into the platform. So I let it slide by. I had no guidance. We didn't talk about "discrimination because of sexual preference" in those days. That phrase would never have come to me. And everything was going fast, we were fighting over the war and everything, and it didn't get done. And I take responsibility. But I believe to this day, had I been able to do my job Thomas would have joined me, and we could have had it back then, in '52.20
DESPITE THE MARGINALITY OF SOCIALISM in the 1950s, such a plank, had the Socialist Party adopted it, would have been nothing less than a historic breakthrough in American political life. This episode goes unreported in existing accounts of the Socialist Party or the American left, suggesting that there would be value in further research into the Socialist Party's sexual politics. Is there, for example, a connection between this early history and the Socialist Party USA's role almost thirty years later as the first party in United States history to nominate an openly gay man, David McReynolds, for President of the United States, in 1980?
Much further research is warranted on same-sex desire and the anti-Stalinist left, both its social-democratic and revolutionary socialist variants. Anti-Stalinist radicals known or believed to have had lovers of the same sex include the Harlem Renaissance poet and novelist Claude McKay; Trotskyist poet John Brooks Wheelwright; poet and film critic Parker Tyler, who wrote for the Trotskyist New International as early as 1938 and was in the Workers Party and Independent Socialist League subsequently; Bayard Rustin, pacifist advisor to Martin Luther King; and Tom Kahn, a Yipsel in the late 1950s and a lover of Rustin who helped organize the March on Washington in 1963 before becoming a high-ranking official in the AFL-CIO. Dwight Macdonald's iconoclastic periodical Politics published Robert Duncan's pathbreaking "The Homosexual in Society" in 1944, and in his phase as a semi-Trotskyist "libertarian socialist" the novelist Norman Mailer wrote a sympathetic piece for ONE entitled "The Homosexual Villain" in 1954. To be sure, the anti-Stalinist left was also capable of censorious approaches to homosexuality. The largest Trotskyist party in the United States, for example, the Socialist Workers Party, expelled its known gay members until 1970.21
The actual identity of the author of the article "Socialism and Sex," H. L. Small, remains obscure.22 Most likely the writer was male, since a majority of YPSLs were male, and since movement veterans remember no apparent lesbian members.23 This obscurity of identity makes it impossible to trace the forebears who influenced the writer of "Socialism and Sex." Nevertheless, the document may be situated within a heritage of left-wing support for sexual freedom espoused by such earlier figures as Oscar Wilde, Edward Carpenter, Alexandra Kollontai, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Emma Goldman, Magnus Hirschfeld, and André Gide. This tradition combined acceptance (and often celebration) of same-sex love with social and political radicalism. Although it was beleaguered at midcentury by the consolidation of Stalinism and further obscured by Cold War repression and homophobia, this historical current had the democratic, libertarian proclivities often attributed to the new left of the 1960s -- a decade when a freewheeling form of radicalism would indeed come to be espoused more widely, even if it was not "new" in the sense of being unprecedented.24
In several other senses, "Socialism and Sex" prefigured the 1960s. It urged socialists to understand the genesis of political commitment and their ultimate goals in a capacious sense, transcending narrowly economic terms. It treated sexuality as a political issue, comprehending the interrelationship between personal and public in a manner strikingly similar to the subsequent feminist position that "the personal is political." While the scant intellectual resources available to a young person exploring such questions in the early 1950s lent the article a modest temperament, the document contains in embryonic form the admixture of socialism and gay liberation that would find more militant, revolutionary expression in the post-Stonewall explosion of such groups as the Gay Liberation Front. For all of these reasons, "Socialism and Sex" is a document of great significance in the larger sexual history of the political left. However brief, it stands as an arresting forerunner of modern gay civil rights consciousness.