Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Harry Hay, the Mattachine Society, and Musicology’s Role in the early U.S. Gay Rights Movement

By John Gabriel

June is LGBTQ Pride Month, an ideal occasion to think about the intersections of musicology and the long, ongoing struggle for queer and trans liberation. We are used to thinking of musicology as having come late to queer studies, but if we expand our definition beyond the academy, we see that musicology — that is, researching and teaching music history — played a small but important role in the origins of the modern American gay rights movement. Musicology, it turns out, helped inspire the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950, the first gay rights (or in the parlance of the time, homophile) organization in the United States after WWII.<1> This musicology took place in the adult education programs of the American Communist Party, and specifically in a course at the Los Angeles People’s Educational Center taught by Harry Hay. In order to design the course, which was to take a materialist approach to music history, Hay had to conduct substantial research. This led him to the historical Feast of Fools and sociétés mattachines of Renaissance France. Hay saw the Fool in these societies as a model for a new role gay men could fulfill in the modern world. Enriched by his background in music performance and continuing work on folk music, this revelation inspired key elements of the Mattachine Society’s organization and became the foundation for Hay’s evolving vision for the future of society and gay men’s role in it.

Harry Hay
From San Francisco Public Library

Harry Hay (1912-2002) left a complicated legacy. He is widely praised for his role in the founding of the Mattachine Society and later the Radical Faeries.<2> A life-long activist, he was also involved in campaigns for numerous progressive causes including Native Americans’ rights, environmental protection, and nuclear non-proliferation. Yet, even among his fellow activists, Hay was controversial. As a young man, Hay had been a member of the Communist Party, an affiliation that distressed many members of the Mattachine Society in the 1950s. In the 1980s, Hay continued shocking many queer activists by, for example, speaking out against what he perceived as the “machismo” (or what we today might call “toxic masculinity”) in ACT-UP’s confrontational activism or by marching in the 1986 Los Angeles Gay Pride parade carrying a sign in support of the National Association for Man-Boy Love (NAMBLA) after that organization had been banned from the parade. Even his personality could be divisive; personal as much as political disputes led to him being ousted from leadership roles in both the Mattachine Society and the Radical Faeries shortly after their founding.

The Mattachine Society has a comparably mixed legacy in queer historiography.<3> Its historical precedence is uncontested, but as a predominantly white, middle-class organization exclusively focused on gay men, it has come under repeated criticism for class and racial bias, and for what are now perceived to have been assimilationist and respectability politics.<4> The latter of these postdate Hay’s involvement. While Hay’s original plan for the organization was focused explicitly on gay men and largely blind to the concerns of gay men of color, it was distinctly not assimilationist. Instead, Hay envisioned a radically transformed society in which gay men served a unique and essential social function. His removal from his leadership role was the result of an internal struggle over the direction of the organization that led to it taking on the assimilationist agenda for which it is most remembered today.

While the founding of the Mattachine Society is frequently described as a transition in Hay’s activism from Communism to gay rights, in fact his early life was similarly characterized by the triangular interactions of his gay identity, his Communist politics, and his career as a musician and actor. This dynamic began already in his teenage years, when Hay accepted his homosexual orientation, choosing to live most of his young adult life as a discreet, but sexually and romantically active gay man. It was also in his teens that Hay was exposed to Leftist politics. He spent several summers working on a cousin’s farm in Nevada where many of the workers were members of the International Workers of the World (Wobblies). Hay joined the Communist Party in his early 20s, after fellow actor and then-lover Bill Geer convinced him to attend the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. Hay was inspired by the energy of the strike and the violence with which the strike was suppressed further triggered his activist impulse.<5>

In addition to his teenage interest in music and theater, another contemporaneous  connection helped launch his career as a singer and actor. Hay attended the same high school as John Cage, who was a few years older and tutored him informally; they later reconnected when Cage was living with Don Sample in Los Angeles in the early 1930s.<6> The three men spent much time together, often in costume. In Cage’s family house, they would dress in women’s clothes, and when Hay performed Cage’s early songs in Los Angeles, he wore Bauhaus-inspired, abstract geometric outfits. Hay eventually parted ways with Cage and Sample, but the experience cemented his ambition to pursue work as a singer and actor. This work in turn introduced him to various circles of Leftist and queer artists, especially through the Hollywood Film and Foto League, and a homoerotic spiritualist group, the Los Angeles Lodge of the Order of the Eastern Temple. It also occasioned his first experiences in music historical research: he worked as an uncredited ghostwriter on a number of films, including Largo, a full length film on the life of Handel which never made it to production, and an Academy Award-winning short on Handel, Haydn, and Mozart titled Heavenly Music.<7>

By the mid-1940s, Hay’s work in the Communist party and his interest in music brought him into contact with Earl Robinson and other Leftists interested in the political application of folk music.<8> Hay had a long-abiding love of music from around the world; he therefore joined the Los Angeles branch of the organization People’s Songs and even composed a handful of political songs under various pen names.<9> This activity in turn led to his being asked to teach a course on music history at the People’s Educational Center,where he developed a course along Marxist historical materialist lines that traced the development of primarily, but not exclusively Western music with a focus on its social function, and a particular focus on folk music.<10> In the 10-week course, Hay illustrated lectures with titles such as “Feudal Formalism and the Guerilla Warfare of the Carol,” with musical examples drawn from his extensive record collection. He often encouraged students to sing along to the recordings or from sheet music.<11> It was in his research preparing this class that Hay discovered the French Renaissance sociétés mattachines.

“Feast of Fools,” 1559, engraving by Pieter Van der Heyden after Brueghel
Wikicommons Media

The Renaissance French sociétés mattachines were involved in the celebration of the Feast of Fools. Members wore masks, performed an intricate sword dance, and processed through towns, mocking authority figures and social mores.<12> Hay interpreted the Feast of Fools and the cross-dressed, gender-bending “Fools” of the sociétés mattachines as holdovers from Europe’s pre-Christian past, which he idealized as a matriarchy in which gay men were accepted and took on additional responsibilities for the maintenance of society. These ranged from handicrafts, to assisting with child rearing, to officiating rituals. Hay saw the retention of ritual actions like the Feast of Fools as evidence of their importance to maintaining a healthy society, and imagined a role for gay men in contemporary society along analogous lines.<13> Assuming that gay men would be free from the responsibilities and expense of raising children, Hay believed they could therefore “take stock of the communities in which they live and find the services they can undertake that the community needs and that familial households have not the time to do.”<14>

Hay had long been thinking about ways to create gay male communities for fellowship and activism in a way that the Communist Party had done for Leftists during his first experiences with the Party. The Party, however, was not open to out homosexuals (with very few exceptions); moreover, Hay found little support from other gay Communists.<15> In adherence with the Party line, Hay had married a woman in 1938, but his discovery of the historical sociétés mattachines as part of his music history research in 1947 coincided with other events that would lead him to re-embrace his gay identity and enter into gay rights activism. In 1948, a friend from the 1948 Henry Wallace presidential campaign invited Hay to a party consisting mostly of gay music and theology students. There, discussion of the campaign turned into discussion of organizing gay men for the campaign. Hay received enthusiastic feedback from the intoxicated partygoers, but the morning after, he found no one was willing to join a public homosexual campaign organization. Undaunted, Hay continued to privately develop his ideas for a gay rights organization. It took two years before Hay convened the first meeting in 1950. Again, his music course proved central to solving one of the new organization’s greatest obstacles: finding members. Hay recruited students he thought would be receptive, and they in turn recruited friends out of their own social circles.<16>

Harry Hay and members of the Mattachine Society, Christmas 1951.
From Chicago Reader:

While the structure Hay proposed for the organization is often said to have been modeled on the American Communist Party, he himself described it as modeled on a Masonic lodge — an organization he had studied while researching Mozart’s life for the film Heavenly Music.<17> As with both the Communist Party and a Masonic Lodge, Hay imagined a secretive organization with hierarchical levels, and his love of opera (his friends remembered him as an “opera queen”) inspired the unofficial name of the highest level: Parsifal. Hay was especially fond of Wagner and idealized the brotherhood of the Grail Knights. (He also appreciated that Wagner’s long operas were conducive to cruising in the standing area in the upper balcony at the Met.)<18>

After its founding in 1950, the Mattachine Society expanded rapidly across the United States, though not all of its new members shared Hay’s views about Communism, the organization’s need for a secret leadership order, or the special role gay men could play in society. In response to internal pressure, Hay resigned his leadership role in 1953, and the membership voted on new leadership and a new direction, taking an assimilationist approach to gay rights and emphasizing middle class respectability. Disenchanted, Hay eventually moved to New Mexico in 1971, where he became involved in political campaigns for Native Americans’ rights and environmental protection. He pursued his long-standing interest in Native American culture (as part of his work on folk culture) with greater intensity, focusing his investigations on what is today known as Two Spirit identity (Hay used the term berdache, then commonplace in anthropology).<19> The shamanistic role fulfilled by Two Spirit individuals in many Native American cultures became the driving inspiration for his ideas about the special role gay men could play in modern society, much as the sociétés mattachines had been during his Communist period. Hay was also drawn to the New Age movement, and out of this confluence of ideas, the Radical Faeries were born in 1978.<20>

In conclusion, we might return to my observation at the beginning of this post: The musicology discussed here that shaped the postwar gay rights movement was musicology outside the academy. Universities in the 1950s were not welcoming places for out homosexuals or Communists, nor was Hay’s Marxist methodology generally accepted in American academic musicology at that time. Anne Shreffler has argued that East German Marxist musicology prefigured many of the concerns of the so-called New Musicology, a claim that also fits remarkably well with Hay’s music history.<21> For Hay’s music history not only parallels Marxists’ interest in folk music, non-Western music, and social context, but it also adds a concern for gender and sexuality that these other Marxist histories lacked. The story of Hay’s music history class in the late 1940s and early 1950s is thus not just one of musicology helping to shape the early gay rights movement, or of the sometimes unexpected ways that musicological research finds relevance in the world. It also exemplifies a queer and trans critique of academic institutions and the barriers around them. And that is just what Pride is a time for: Celebration and Critique.
<1>The first known gay rights organization in the United States was the Society for Human Rights, founded in Chicago in 1924. It dissolved after a few months. The Mattachine was the second. While there is currently no active national Mattachine Society, it arguably continues to exist to this day in various splinter, spin-off, and regional organizations.
<2>The most substantial biography of Hay remains Stuart Timmons, The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement (Boston: Alyson Publications, 1990). See also Will Roscoe, Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996); and John D'Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940–1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983).
<3>For an introduction to the Mattachine Society, the early gay rights (homophile) movement, and additional bibliography, see Martin Meeker, “Homophile Movement” and “Mattachine Society,” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America, edited by Marc Stein, vol. 2, 52-56 and 234-37 (Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004).
<4>On the historiography of the Mattachine Society and a revisionist take on its work and legacy, see Martin Meeker, “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 1 (January 2001): 78-116. On race in the early gay rights (homophile) movement, see Kent W. Peacock, “Race, the Homosexual, and the Mattachine Society of Washington, 1961–1970,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 25, no. 2 (May 2016): 267-96. As the Mattachine Society grew, it began to attract female members, but it remained primarily an organization of gay men and other organizations were founded explicitly for women, like the Daughters of Bilitis, or mixed-gender, like ONE. See Meeker, “Homophile Movement.”
<5>Timmons, 33, 54, 69-70; and Roscoe, 326.
<6>On Cage and Hay, see Rob Haskins, John Cage (London: Reaktion Books, 2012), 24-5; Roscoe, 319-23; and Timmons, 56-59.
<7>Timmons, 75-76, 80-81; and Roscoe, 70, 72.
<8>Roscoe 357-58. On Earl Robinson’s role in debates among American Leftists over folk music, see Maria Christina Fava, “The Composers’ Collective of New York, 1932-1936: Bourgeois Modernism for the Proletariat,” American Music 34, no. 3 (Fall 2016), 331-36.
<9>Timmons, 128. On People’s Songs, Earl Robinson, and Leftist use of folk music, see Robbie Lieberman, “My Song is my Weapon”: People’s Songs, American Communism, and the Politics of Culture, 1930-1950 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); and R. Serge Denisoff, Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971).
<10>Notes for one of Hay’s lectures on music history are reprinted in Roscoe, 120-29. Pace Roscoe, Hay’s emphasis on “the relationship of folk music to daily life tasks” (120) was much in line with many Marxist music histories. See, for example, Hanns Eisler, “The Builders of a New Musical Culture” (1931), in A Rebel in Music, edited by Manfred Grabs, 36-58 (Berlin: Seven Seas Publishers, 1978). Except for its focus on folk music as opposed to institutional music, Hay’s music history resembles Hanns Eisler’s music history essays from the 1930s and 40s and his music history course at the New School in 1938. While it seems Hay and Eisler never met, Hay may have had access to Eisler’s work; beyond institutional Communist channels, both men were friends with Earl Robinson, and Robinson also taught at the People’s Education Center in Los Angeles.
<11>Timmons, 127-31.
<12>The definitive modern history of the Feast of Fools is Max Harris, Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).
<13>Timmons, 194: “Harry had taken on an enormous investigative project. His earliest document was a six-page typewritten outline titled ‘The Homophile in History: A Provocation to Research,’ sketched out from 1953 to 1955. Divided into fourteen periodic sections, it traces homosexual prototypes from the Stone Age through the European Middle Ages up to the ‘Berdache and the American Scene,’ where Hay cited Johnny Appleseed as one example of an ‘American Fool Hero.’ Much of the study for this was expanded from the syllabus of his music classes at the Labor School.” My emphasis.
<14>Hay, “The Homosexual and History … An Invitation to Further Study,” reprinted in Roscoe, 94-115, here 114.
<15>Timmons, 54, 69-70, 108-9.
<16>Timmons, 134-35, 143.
<17>Timmons, 151-52. The Los Angeles Lodge of the Order of the Eastern Temple (discussed above), for which Hay had been an organist, was also organized on a Masonic model. While Hay’s biographers emphasize the role of music in the founding of the Mattachine Society, it is almost always excluded from histories focused on the Society or on the early gay rights (homophile) movement. See, for example, Meeker, “Behind the Mask.”
<18>Roscoe, 9; Timmons, 111, 146.
<19>Timmons, 228-47.
<20>Timmons, 248-79. On the Radical Faeries, see David S. Churchill, “Radical Faeries,” Encyclopedia of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered History in America, ed. Marc Stein, vol. 3, 7-8 (Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004).
<21>Anne C. Shreffler, “Berlin Walls: Dahlhaus Knepler, and Ideologies of Music History,” Journal of Musicology 20, no. 4 (2003): 504-5.
John Gabriel is a postdoctoral fellow in music in the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at the University of Hong Kong.

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