Doug Ireland: Turns out Norman Thomas's Socialist Party Came Close to Breaking the Gay Taboo in 1952

Roundup: Talking About History

[Doug Ireland, who served as the media critic of the Village Voice for 7 years, can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com .]

Recovering our hidden gay history has been a critically important byproduct of the modern gay movement, and in its current Summer 2008 issue, the 46-year-old independent socialist review New Politics has published a significant discovery that restores to us a lost moment of our political history - specifically, of the history of gays and the left.

The discovery was made quite accidentally by the historian Christopher Phelps, a professor of history at Ohio State University at Mansfield whose books include the critically well-regarded biography "Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist." While Phelps was researching a forthcoming book on anti-Stalinist black radicals, he came across an article by one "H.L. Small" on homosexual emancipation entitled "Socialism and Sex," which appeared in 1952 in Young Socialist, the mimeographed bulletin of the youth section of the Socialist Party, then led by Norman Thomas.

And on further investigation, and after interviewing survivors of that period, Phelps unearthed the fact that there was an organized effort within the Socialist Party at that time to have it take a firm and bold position in favor of the decriminalization of homosexuality and the end of discrimination against gays and lesbians - an unheard of political initiative at the time for any political party.

Until now, it has been thought that the roots of modern gay political activism could be found only in the work of the legendary Harry Hay, who began organizing homosexuals while he was a member of the Communist Party. The first gay organization Hay fathered was created during the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, the former FDR vice president who that year became the candidate of the newly-formed, left-wing Progressive Party, initiated and dominated by the Communists. Bachelors for Wallace was the discreet name Hay gave to this embryonic group.

And it was in part out of the nucleus he'd recruited for Bachelors for Wallace that Hay and Rudi Gernreich, who became a well-known fashion designer in the 1960s and '70s, founded the Mattachine Society in 1951, the first US "homophile" organization. Gernreich was an Austrian refugee from the Nazis who brought with him both his left-wing politics and his knowledge of the early agitation for homosexual liberation in Germany, led in the first third of the last century by Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld.

Gernreich was in the same political orbit as Hay, and indeed the earliest members of Mattachine were mostly drawn from the Popular Front culture dominated by the Communist Party.

In order to organize Mattachine, Hay was obliged to leave the Communist Party. As historian Phelps writes in his essay in New Politics, "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 would make individuals susceptible to blackmail or exposure that would discredit it."

Moreover, Phelps notes, "Although he left the Communist Party, Hay brought many residues of his Stalinism with him. 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."

In other words, Hay followed a Leninist model of organization.

There was a different political tradition in the Socialist Party and in its youth arm, the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL, commonly pronounced "Yipsel"). The Yipsels "made no official prohibition against same-sex desire and had no official ideology against it," as Phelps records. "No one was ever expelled from the Socialist Party or its youth group for 'deviancy' or 'bohemianism.'"

This meant that the author of the article on homosexual emancipation in the Young Socialist, "H.L. Small" - undoubtedly a pseudonym, as was common in radical publications during the era of McCarthyism to prevent employer reprisals - "could write freely without fear of suppression within the left, such as the expulsions gay Communists experienced... YPSL members in the 1950s were attracted to libertarian socialism - evincing, for example, a strong interest in Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish-German revolutionary who supported the Russian Revolution but was critical of the early Soviet state for its ominous consolidation of power."

In his 1952 article, rediscovered by Phelps, "Small" drew on democratic socialism's libertarian traditions, writing, "The freedom of the legally of-age adult of both sexes to have sexual relations with whomever he or she wishes of the same or opposite sex, without fear of sanction, is an important libertarian principle that is part of the law in many socialist and semi-socialist countries today, e.g., in Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, etc. It means, to the individual 'deviant,' that the fear of legal sanction, as well as illegal repression, blackmail, etc., are forever banished from his mind. It means an area of operational freedom that will enable the emancipated individual to work and think more effectively in his tasks of everyday life. It means the difference between health and sickness for thousands of people who are non-productive members of society today... Whether we individually consider it right or wrong, healthy or unhealthy, to have a large or small vocabulary of libidinal expression, repression of such expression, or practice under fear, does not make for a whole, productive individual. Propaganda aimed toward the homosexual individual should stress his importance as a political concern, it should point out his right to what the Declaration of Independence called 'the pursuit of happiness'..."

Phelps deserves added points for recognizing the importance of his rediscovery of this article because he is not himself gay, although he has been in the forefront of the fight against anti-gay discrimination on the campus where he teaches. And, as Phelps writes in New Politics, the article "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 narrow 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 these reasons, 'Socialism and Sex' is a document of great significance in the larger sexual history of the political left... It stands as an arresting forerunner of modern gay civil rights consciousness."

Moreover, in a series of interviews with YPSL and Socialist Party activists from the 1950s, Phelps discovered that the Party came very close to adopting a homosexual emancipation plank in its platform at its 1952 convention. The chairman of YPSL at that time was Vern Davidson, a UCLA senior who had had several same-sex affairs, including with other Party members, and who, he told Phelps, "was instructed by the YPSL to attempt to put a homosexual rights plank before the platform committee."

Norman Thomas, often called "the grand old man of American socialism," who had been the Socialist Party's candidate for president six times and who was widely admired as a man of principle in progressive circles way beyond the Socialist Party, was sympathetic when Davidson raised the idea of a homosexual emancipation plank at the platform committee. As Davidson recalls, "He said, 'Well, Vern, if the YPSL thinks that's something that we should consider, I certainly think we should consider it, and I have nothing against it, but I wish you could draw up something and come back with it.'"

Davidson told Phelps he tried and tried to draft an appropriate platform plank but "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 based on sexual orientation' in those days. That phrase would never have come to me. And everything was going fast, we were fighting over the [Korean] 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 would have had it back then, in '52."

The fact that there was political discussion of what we now call gay rights and an effort within the Socialist Party organized enough to bring the question to the national decision-makers of the party in the same time frame that Harry Hay and his pro-Communist circle were giving birth to the Mattachine Society is a chapter of gay history that until now has never been written.

Hay's semi-clandestine Leninist model for Mattachine eventually failed. As Phelps writes, "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 idealisms that we held while we were a private organization.'

"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 founders to withdraw from Mattachine in 1953. As its new and more conservative leaders sought respectability, the Mattachine Society lost many members and pursued a timid, self-effacing course..."

Phelps' rediscovery of the "Socialism and Sex" article and the organizational initiatives it reflected give rise to interesting speculations as to what course the nascent homosexual emancipation movement might have taken if the Socialist Party had indeed embraced the cause back then. Eventually, it did become the first US political party to put forward an openly gay candidate for president when, in 1980, it nominated veteran pacifist organizer David McReynolds as its candidate.

Phelps' article in New Politics is a must read for anyone interested in the history of the American gay movement, and it also was the jumping-off point for a symposium of mini-essays in the magazine on "Gays and the Left," with fascinating and widely different political perspectives from McReynolds; Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Martin Duberman, known as the "Father of Gay Studies"; historian John D'Emilio, the biographer of gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and the founding director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Policy Institute; gay theorist Jeffrey Escoffier, author of "American Homo: Perversity and Community" and other books; and lesbian Bettina Aptheker, a professor of feminist studies at the University of California/Santa Cruz, who was the daughter of leading Communist intellectual Herbert Aptheker and herself a former member of the CP for two decades, and author of "Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech, and Became a Feminist Rebel."

As it happens, the same issue of New Politics also includes a hitherto-unpublished poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini and a critique of his cinema.

If you can't find this important Summer 2008 issue of New Politics at one of the better magazine shops, you may order it for $9 from New Politics, 155 West 72 Street, Room 402, New York, 10023. The Phelps article and mini-essays in the symposium on "Gays and the Left" are also available online at http://www.wpunj.edu/~newpol/ .

Read entire article at Gay City News

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