A Hunt Through the Queer Past for the Anonymous "HHC" Ended in an Unexpected PlaceRoundup
tags: archives, LGBTQ history
Aaron Lecklider is a professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is the author of two books, most recently Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture, which was published in 2021.
There is something lonely about working in archives—namely, everyone you’re working with has already died. You enter into a hushed room and perform funereal rituals. At Princeton University’s Special Collections, there’s a basin where you’re observed washing your hands before you are allowed to enter the room. A liturgical atmosphere blankets the whole affair. You spend days examining the private property of people long passed, placing decaying letters and decomposing photographs on cradles and handling them with cotton gloves. When you reenter the world of the living, you bring some of the ghosts with you, at least in your mind. You all find a Panera and sit down together with a sandwich. The guy over there enjoying the bread bowl doesn’t realize that though you look alone, you’re really dining with the dead.
For historians mining LGBTQ+ history before 1960, this loneliness is amplified. Many of the people we write about spent their lives making themselves unknowable, hiding aspects of their lives that, if widely known, might have caused them harm. When we find scraps of stories left in letters, diaries, and ephemera, we stitch them together into some kind of narrative. But much of what we learn remains incomplete. We take what we can and set the rest aside. In the end, we accept that they will remain behind a veil. History is always just a little bit too late. Every book claiming to convey it remains unavoidably unfinished. But still, we retain the hope that someday we might learn more.
When I began to research the book that became Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture, I realized that many of my subjects’ lives were doubly masked—once for queerness, and again for politics. “Who among us,” Harry Hay, an influential gay Communist and founding Radical Faerie, wrote in a letter to a historian searching for documentation about his past, “was stoopid enough to keep records through TWO Witch-hunts?” The veil falls again. Betty Millard, a lesbian who was active in leftist politics in the 1930s, sliced excerpts that were too risky out of the pages of her diary with a scalpel. Her past was not simply redacted, it was excised like a cancer. She discarded the scraps, but she left the remainder. We know that Chuck Rowland, a former Communist and founding member of the early gay rights organization Mattachine, burned his organization’s records, cremating his story into ash and cinder. Amidst so much loss, I mourned the stories I would not be able to tell. But I did not anticipate how one of these lives would, by a chance discovery and an act of collegial kindness, be miraculously resurrected.
Early in the research stage for my book, I stumbled across a short piece published in the “Workers’ Letters” section of the January 1929 issue of New Masses, a popular leftist magazine. The letter was from a young man who signed the piece “H.H.C.,” a series of initials that obscured his identity. He wrote about himself in the third person. In sweeping and romantic prose, he detailed his same-sex attraction. “He recalled the love that was in him,” H.H.C. wrote of himself; “he saw the faces to whom he desired to give his love … saw that they could not accept it … and wondered why he was at all.” H.H.C. was despondent. He worried about how “the world scorned his love, hated him for it.” He longed to find community, but it eluded him. He connected his yearning for those who might accept his same-sex desire with leftist ideas about solidarity. “Oh, to be one with the people, to feel them, know them, love them,” he wrote. “There is a gate somewhere but he is a coward, and will not open it.”
Perhaps not, but H.H.C. did nudge it ajar. Writing to New Masses was a gamble that H.H.C. might win some sympathy. But why here? Why choose a radical magazine to describe his homosexuality at a time when homosexuality was so dangerous that even Communists got skittish talking about it too openly? “The New Masses has helped to show him the gate,” H.H.C. wrote. “Perhaps some day he will walk out and find life and be worthy of himself.” By positioning himself alongside those who had committed themselves to working-class struggle, H.H.C. found a place to be seen. He took a shot in the dark. How brave he was to share his story with the magazine’s readers. How disappointing it was that even here, he had to mask his identity. His story was incredible, but it was lonely—or at least it seemed that way at first.
Two months after they published his letter, the editors of New Masses posted a notice. “A number of letters have been received for H.H.C.,” they reported. “These will be forwarded upon receipt of [his] name and address.” H.H.C. had taken a risk writing into the magazine, and it seemed to have paid off, sort of. His letter was published. Readers responded to it. Some reached out. The editors received their letters and offered to pass them on. But according to what I found in the archive, that’s where the story ended. There was no way to find H.H.C. There was no way to know whether he ever sent the editors his name and address. There was no way to know who the readers who responded to the article were. There was no way to know much more than what was nestled inside the pages of two issues of the magazine. H.H.C. was another ghost.