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The Trouble with Harry : In 1950, Harry Hay Founded the Modern Gay-Rights Movement. He May Have Been the Bravest Man in Los Angeles.

November 25, 1990|STUART TIMMONS | Excerpted and adapted from "The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement," by Stuart Timmons (Alyson Publications,). Copyright 1990 by Stuart Timmons. This is Timmons' first book.

IN THE SUMMER of 1950, Harry Hay had the trappings of conventional happiness. He lived with his wife, Anita, and their two daughters in a handsome old house overlooking Silver Lake. As a production manager for Leahy's, a manufacturer, he was indispensable. And he had the respect of the left-wing community of Los Angeles. Yet Harry was drawn to the unconventional. Creative interests tugged at him; before his marriage, he had worked as a stage actor and Hollywood ghostwriter. Marxism, with its fiery idealism and self-assured theory, had captured Hay's passions; he joined the Communist Party, of which Anita was a member, in 1938, the year they married.

Harry and Anita worked tirelessly on civic campaigns, attended meetings, raised funds and followed current events, with a Marxist perspective, of course. Their house was often filled with students from Harry's class, "Music, the Barometer of Class Struggle," which he taught at the People's Education Center downtown. Political, cultured and gracious, the Hays were considered by many to be model progressives.

But there was a secret Harry had to keep from even his most solid comrades. He had married because a counselor assured him that marriage could eclipse his homosexual urges. Within a decade, Harry realized that the deepest parts of his psyche could not be suppressed. In 1948, when the Kinsey Report concluded that as many as 10% of American men were homosexual, a central puzzle of his politics was unlocked. Inspired, Hay drafted a call for "Androgynes" to form a society, but "Bachelors Anonymous" never got off the ground.

That summer of 1950, weeks after the declaration of the Korean War, his life changed when he fell in love with a young dancer who was just getting his start in fashion design. Rudi Gernreich encouraged him to rewrite his prospectus and reinvigorate his daring dream. Harry had started his society, even if it had only two members.

WITHIN A MONTH of their meeting, Harry and Rudi set out on a field trip to drum up a discussion group on homosexuality. As an icebreaker, they armed themselves with copies of the Stockholm Peace Petition, a leftist initiative to recall the early troops that had been sent to Korea. They took the petitions to strategic spots. "We set about discovering new adherents on the two slices of beach (that) gays had quietly made their own," Hay wrote later. "The section of beach below the Palisades, just west of Marion Davies' estate and that slice of Malibu between the pier and the spit--which would be taken over by the surfers in the 1960s."

Nearly 500 sunbathers signed the petition, and Hay and Gernreich asked each if he or she would be interested in attending a discussion about new findings about social deviancy. Not one was. "They were willing to designate themselves peaceniks by signing our petitions in the teeth of the Korean War . . . but were not willing to commit themselves to participating in easily disguised semi-public forums, oh-so-diffidently fingering the newly published Kinsey Report." After more unproductive weeks of outreach, Rudi proposed that Harry take a chance on Bob Hull, a man who had come to Harry's music class. Harry gave him a copy of the prospectus. Chuck Rowland, who lived with Hull, recalled how "Bob came home and told me about this brilliant teacher who had approached him about this."

On Nov. 11, 1950, Hull called Harry and asked if he and a couple of friends could come over to discuss the paper. Anita and the children were away, so Harry called Rudi over and they waited outside to steer the visitors to a quiet spot on the oak-studded hillside. A thrill broke over Harry when he saw Rowland "running up the hill, waving the thing like a flag, saying, 'We could have written this ourselves! When do we get started?' " The five sat on the hill that windy Armistice Day, talking and basking in each other's excitement. "We sat there," Hay wrote, "with fire in our eyes and far-away dreams, being gays."

Robert Hull and Charles Dennison Rowland became founding members of the Mattachine Society. Rowland was a thoughtful, cordial man, covered with tattoos. He held a production-control job similar to Hay's in a furniture factory downtown, but his real interest was in theater. Hull was also culturally inclined but had given up an unsteady living as a pianist for a job as a chemist.

Though Rowland and Hull were roommates and best friends, they had other lovers--Hull was having an affair with a man named Dale Jennings that winter. They had shown Jennings the prospectus and brought him along. Opinionated, intelligent and aggressively virile, Jennings had worked as a carnival roustabout and was developing a career as a screenwriter.

Both Hull and Rowland were former Party members; Rowland had headed American Youth for Democracy, which, he explained, "wasn't officially Communist, but it was."

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