April 7, 1912– Harry Hay:
I knew that I was gay in every bone of my body. So I did the only thing I could do. I started the movement.
Hay was a pioneer of the Gay Rights Movement in America who is remembered as a rather romantic figure and as the founder of The Mattachine Society, the first Gay Rights group in the USA. I like seeing photographs of him in his signature knit cap, with a pigtail and a strand of pearls, alongside John Burnside, his lover of four decades, in front of their pink Victorian house in San Francisco.
Hay was notoriously promiscuous, and a fervent Communist. He did wear those pearls and his longshoreman’s hat, yet it wasn’t a form of charming gender-bending chic, but a political statement that Hay adopted when it was quite dangerous to do so. Hay didn’t really own his kindly grandpa image. In the documentary film, Word Is Out (1976), Hay and Burnside are portrayed as the epitome of gay domesticity.
Hay didn’t care much for popular opinion. He was dismissive of the national gay organizations, declaring that they were too conservative. He condemned The Advocate for its slant on consumerism. He told the San Francisco Chronicle:
The assimilationist movement is running us into the ground.
In 1950, when Hay formed The Mattachine Society, he labeled it a “homophile group”, since the notion of Gay Rights didn’t really exist yet, and there was certainly nothing called “LGBTQI”. His was a radical and he boldly said that gay people were not like heterosexuals. He insisted that homosexuals were a unique culture apart from heterosexuals and that the straights might learn a lot from them. Other members of The Mattachine Society thought that gay people should not be discriminated against because they were just like straight people. In 1954, they kicked Hay out of the group that he had helped start. It wasn’t the first-time Hay was asked to leave an organization that he helped create.
In the 1930s-1950s, Hay had been an active member of the American Communist Party. In 1934, Hay and his lover, actor Will Geer, (#BornThisDay honoree, March 9) who later played Grandpa on the long-running television series The Waltons, helped organize an 83-day-long workers’ strike of the port of San Francisco. Although it had turned violent, it became a model for future union strikes.
In the 1940s, Hay struggled with being open about his gayness as a member of the American Communist Party, which banned homosexuals. He married another party member and adopted two daughters, all the while working to form The Mattachine Society. After The Mattachine Society became known, Hay was kicked out of the Communist Party.
Poor Hay, all his life he was just a little too radical, a bit too egotistical, a bit too strong a personality for the organizations that he was part of. He was also too idealistic. Hay chose the name “Mattachine” from a secret medieval French society of unmarried men who wore masks during their rituals as forms of social protest. They took their names from the Italian “mattaccino”, a jester who was able to tell the truth to the king while wearing a mask. A 19th century style socialist, Hay became a member of the Communist Party because of its stand against fascism in Europe. But, he was also an artist who decided that popular culture could also be revolutionary.
Hay was prickly and his vision of Gay Liberation was way ahead of its time. His biggest contribution to the Gay Rights Movement was his conclusion that gay people made up a cultural minority with their own history, politics, and advantages. He was one of the first to come up with the notion of giving votes in exchange for ideological support. He used the model of African-American organizations like the NAACP. Hay offered that if Vice President Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party‘s candidate for president, would back a sexual-privacy law, Wallace could be assured that the majority of gay voters would cast their ballots for him. The idea was revolutionary. During that era, it was dangerous to be even a tiny bit out-of-the-closet; you could be arrested on even the suspicion that you might be a queer. Most states had laws against serving alcohol to homosexuals, much less allowing them to gather together in public. It was still two decades away from when the American Psychological Association rescinded its definition of homosexuality as a mental illness in 1974.
Hay used his training as an organizer for the American Communist Party. He used the party’s own “cell” organization to build and expand The Mattachine Society. Even the group’s recruitment tactics were modeled on the Communist Party’s strategy of getting names of potential members from current members.
The Mattachine Society lost its momentum after the Stonewall Riots in 1969 and the birth of the modern Gay Liberation Movement. With its seeds in Feminism, the Black Power movement, street culture, and the Antiwar Movement, the Gay Lib Movement appealed to Hay. It was what he wanted all along. But, he was turned-off when the movement became corporatized by The Gay Activist Alliance and the National Gay And Lesbian Task Force, who wanted gay people to assimilate into the mainstream rather than change society.
He found that the new movement wanted to elect gays to government positions instead of the government being responsible to the needs of its people. He couldn’t wrap his head around gay people wanting to be better represented in television and films, rather than being critical of mass culture destroying the human spirit. Hay saw no reason for making strategic alliances with Conservatives, instead of exposing how politicians were working with corporations.
So, Hay decided to reinvent gay politics one more time, and in 1979, he founded The Radical Faeries. The spiritual core of the Radical Faeries is the conviction that gay guys are spiritually different than other humans; they were more in touch with nature, pleasure, and the true essence of human nature. He believed that they embrace both masculine and feminine. Hay promoted the concept that queers had an outsider quality that made them the model for opposing a straight society with its strict gender roles, enforced reproductive sexuality, and spiritually strangling social status. He saw Radical Faeries as a hybrid of newly liberated forceful queers and the shocking players of gender-fuck drag.
As the Gay Movement went from “Gay Liberation” to “Gay Rights”, Hay became a quaint, but important historical figure. The new generation didn’t care about his message when the Christian Right began to launch their vicious anti-gay attacks like Anita Bryant‘s 1979 “Save Our Children” campaign and California’s Briggs Initiative, which would have banned openly gay schoolteachers in 1980. Plus, Hay had the political baggage of his involvement with the American Communist Party.
Despite his long partnership with Burnside, Hay still proclaimed the joys of promiscuity and he denounced the increasingly popular mandate that monogamy was the new path. Hay didn’t wish to be the model of the modern homosexual. In 1994, he refused to march in the official parade commemorating the Stonewall Riots in NYC. Instead, he joined a competing march, The Spirit Of Stonewall, and was seen as a serious political liability for his support of the inclusion of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA). Hay’s most dedicated supporters moved away from him because of it. He felt that silencing any part of the movement because it was disliked or hated by mainstream culture was a seriously mistaken political strategy. He felt that young gays failed to see that mainstream culture would always object to queers. He saw that eliminating any “objectionable” group, like drag queens or leather enthusiasts only pandered to the idea of respectability.
Hay left this world for faerie-land in 2002 at 90-years-old. Burnside joined him in 2008, taken at 91.
Hay was right, LGBTQ folks, as we are now known, did end up assimilating. We now get legally married, have kids, go to PTA meetings, hold public office, and go to church. But, there also continues to be spiritual gatherings of Radical Faeries across our pretty blue spinning orb. The Faeries also gave birth to The Sisters Of Perpetual Indulgence and other splinter groups.
Faeries figure in Armistead Maupin‘s iconic Tales Of The City books, and are a major force in John Cameron Mitchell‘s wonderfully moving film Shortbus (2006), including the performance by the magical Justin Vivian Bond. The American version of Queer As Folk (200-2005) has an episode where the characters Emmett and Michael attend a gathering in the woods to discover their “Inner Faerie.”
Radical Faeries mostly meet in rural areas, offering an alternative to mainstream urban gay culture. Land in rural areas and urban buildings where Faeries come together to live a communal life are called “Sanctuaries”. There is one in Southern Oregon, and there is one my city, Portland, called “Queer Magic“. They host gatherings from time to time. They are a loosely affiliated tribe. Don’t go looking for them, they find you. By the way, I am not a Radical Faerie, even as informal an organization as they have, I just don’t want to belong to any group that would have me as a member.
If you want to know more about Harry Hay, and you really should, try The Trouble With Harry Hay (1990) by Stuart Timmons.