Saturday, October 24, 2009

LGBT History Month: Harry Hay

Harry Hay, often recognized as one of the principal founders of the American LGBT liberation movement, died seven years ago today. As founder and member of both the Mattachine Society and the Radical Faeries, he devoted his life to the cause of equality and dignity for LGBT people.

Born in England, Harry spent the first two years of his life without a father, while Big Harry, as Harry Sr. was known, worked for a mining company in South America. When the first world war broke out, Big Harry sent for his family to join him in Chile. Soon after, an accident forced Big Harry to quit his job and move the family to California.

Big Harry Hay saw himself as a real man, and he accepted nothing less from his son. Domineering, opinionated, demanding, and overly critical of anything he perceived as being less than manly in Harry Jr. This instilled in young Harry to live a life completely different than that of his father, a man he often said he hated.

Early on, Hay knew he was gay; his first same-sex sexual experience with a boyhood friend when he was just nine. And he was determined to find out what this attraction meant, and if there were others like him. He found a copy of Edward Carpenter's The Intermediate Sex and, although still only a boy, and unable to completely understand what he was reading, Harry felt the book marked a distinct turning point in his life. He knew he wasn't alone.

While his father wanted him to pursue a career in medicine or engineering, Harry was drawn to the world of drama and music. With his mother's support, he enrolled in Stanford University to study those fields. It was at university that Harry Hay came out, having several affairs with classmates.

In 1932, Harry became seriously ill, and was forced to leave school. When he recovered, however, instead of returning, he began working as an actor in mostly minor roles, and worked as a shill for drag entertainer Ray Bourbon at a Sunset Strip nightclub. While appearing onstage onstage in The Ticket of Leave Man in 1933, Harry met Will Geer--yes, he would become Grandpa Walton--and they quickly became lovers.

Geer and Hay both worked on a 1935 production of Clifford Odets's anti-Nazi play Till the Day I Die, in which Hay played a sadistic homosexual soldier. Although he hated the character, Harry took the role because it was one of the few openly gay characters to be played at that time.

With Geer's encouragement, Hay joined the the Communist party, working in political theater and learning organization strategies, but since the party condemned homosexuality, Harry distanced himself from his gay friends, and tried to live as a heterosexual man. He eventually married--as did his lover Will Geer--a woman named Anita Platky and adopted two infant girls.

But for Harry Hay, who'd known he was gay since age nine, living this life was nearly impossible. Unable to deny his true sexuality, he began having affairs with men again, and Hay's wife filed for divorce; he also his affiliation with the Communist party.

Hay began teaching music history at the Los Angeles People's Education Center where he learned of a secret society of monks, called the Mattachines, who donned masks and costumes and performed on the "Feast of Fools" [April Fool's Day] in defiance of a ban by the Roman Catholic Church. In that secret society, Harry Hay saw hope for "modern homosexual men, living in disguise in 20th century America."

Thus was born the Mattachine Society which began in November 1950 with a meeting of five men--Hay, his lover fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, Robert Hull, a student of Hay's, and two of Hull's friends, Charles Rowland and Dale Jennings. In fear of a police raid, the men always met in secret yet, even in secrecy, their numbers grew.

Hay oversaw the development of the society, using the Freemasons, an underground fraternal organization, as his model. Mattachines tried to operate by unanimous consensus but, given the strong personalities involved, including the sometimes volatile Hay, this often proved difficult.

When Dale Jennings was arrested in 1952 for allegedly soliciting a police officer, it was Harry Hay who bailed him out. The Mattachine Society established the Citizens' Committee to Outlaw Entrapment in Jennings' defense and, at trial, Jennings lawyer proved the arresting officer had lied. While eleven jurors favored acquittal, one
vowed to keep voting guilty "till hell froze over." After forty hours of deliberations by the deadlocked panel, the judge dismissed the case and though it was less definitive than an acquittal, the decision was seen as a victory in the struggle for gay rights.

As a result of the Jennings case, Mattachine membership soared from just a few hundred to several thousand which brought about notoriety, and a homophobic backlash. A newspaper columnist called the organization potentially "dangerous," and another identified Hay as "a Marxist teacher."

Members were uneasy about the group, especially new members who, in 1953, called for a new constitution and new leadership. It wasn't being labeled homosexual that caused the unrest, however; they were concerned about being perceived as a Communist organization in the McCarthy era. While new members favored assimilation, and Hay fought for action,in the end, the newcomers won, and Harry Hay reluctantly left the Mattachine Society.

Harry soon found himself alone--his relationship with Gernreich ended--and out of favor with the gay community, who wanted to live quietly and, perhaps, closeted. Shortly after his separation from Gernreich, Hay began a ten-year relationship with Jorn Kamgren, and when that ended in 1962 he moved in with fellow activist Jim Kepner. The two men felt affection and respect for each other, but romance failed to blossom. After a few months they parted but remained good friends.

By now, Harry was over fifty and certain he would never have a long-term relationship, but in 1963, he was introduced to John Burnside, who was in a "not unhappy" but unfulfilling marriage. Within three months, however, he moved in with Hay, and the two remained together for the rest of Harry's life.

They also became partners in the battle for LGBT rights. In 1965 they founded a gay and lesbian collective, the Circle of Loving Companions, and the following year they joined the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. As chairman of the Los Angeles committee, Hay organized a "picket line on wheels," in which cars bore placards decrying discriminatory policies in the U.S. military.

Harry Hay was also elected chairperson of the Southern California branch of the Gay Liberation Front, which had been borne out of the aftereffects of the Stonewall Riots in 1969. He and Burnside became fixtures on picket lines and at demonstrations in the late 60s and early 70s when they left California.

In May 1970, the couple moved to New Mexico, where they not only continued their work for gay rights, but they also became involved in political movement; Hay and Burnside led a successful effort to block a federal canal-building project that would have diverted water from the Rio Grande for the benefit of wealthy private developers while local communities would have suffered a devastating loss of water for irrigation.

In New Mexico, Harry Hay had the opportunity to study Native American cultures, with which he had been fascinated since hearing Quechua and Aymara music as a boy in Chile. He also began studying the role of berdaches or two-spirit people in Amerindian cultures, which led him to new ideas about gay consciousness. He concluding that, while heterosexual men see themselves as subjects and their female partners as objects, gay men perceive their lovers to be equals, to be "respected and cherished." Hay envisioned a "gay fairy family of loving-sharing equals," and pursued the idea by founding the Radical Faeries two years later.

Meetings of the Radical Faeries usually occur in rural settings, and their celebrations combine Native American and New Age elements. The first meetings happened in the deserts around Tuscon, but the movement has spread throughout the U.S. and into Europe.

In 1999 Burnside and Hay, who was suffering from lung cancer, moved to San Francisco's Castro district, where Harry could be cared for by hospice nurses and care-taking members of the Radical Faeries. At the same period Hay arranged for his personal papers to be donated to the James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library.

Harry Hay died on this day, October 24, 2002. At his side were John Burnside, with whom he had registered as domestic partners only weeks before, and his care givers from the Radical Faeries, who laid Hay out and sprinkled rose petals over him.

Visited by his biographer Stuart Timmons [The Trouble With Harry Hay] a few weeks before his death, Harry said: "Tell my people I want them to be happy and strong. And free. And contributive. And to fly."

And the march goes on.

On This Day In LGBT History

October 24, 1926 – The New York Times printed a book review of “The Doctor Looks at Love and Life” by Dr. Joseph Collins. In the chapter on homosexuality, Dr. Collins countered the claim that homosexual love is pathological and that homosexuals are psychopaths or neurotic, saying that he knew many well-balanced homosexuals of both sexes who have distinguished themselves in various fields from arms to the pulpit. He also stated that “Genuine homosexuality is not a vice, it is an endowment.”
October 24, 1981 – The first National Conference on Lesbian and Gay Aging was held in California.
October 24, 1987 – Elizabeth Kirby Lewallen was named the new president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays at the organization’s Sixth International convention in Washington DC.
October 24, 1992 – Thirty-five religious leaders in northwest Vermont joined to condemn two acts of hate-motivated violence, one anti-gay and one anti-Semitic.
October 24, 2002 – Pioneering gay activist Harry Hay dies. A founder and architect of the modern gay rights movement in 1950, Hay and four others formed one of the nation’s first gay rights organizations, the Mattachine Society.


Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

Interesting life Mr. Hay lived. Lots of good causes in very different times.

Kyle said...

Lovely post Bob. We are most of the things he wanted; I hope that made him happy. We still have many freedoms to gain, but so do many minorities seeking equality. We also still need to work on being able to "fly," as he put it. We are still very much weighed down by our collective past and present; it does amaze me how much we do "fly" given the circumstance many of us live in.

Anonymous said...

"while heterosexual men see themselves as subjects and their female partners as objects, gay men perceive their lovers to be equals, to be "respected and cherished."

How true do you think his belief is? It rings true to me as the core difference between gays and straights. I'm going to be thinking about this for a long time and adding some of Mr. Hay's writing to my reading list.

Grandpa Walton...we should splash that one across the internet. That would really freakout the freepers.