*originally posted October 24, 2009
Harry Hay, often recognized as one of the principal founders of the LGBT 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 World War I 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 accepted nothing less from his son; overly critical, domineering, opinionated and demanding of anything he perceived as being less than manly. This instilled in 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; he was nine when he had his first same-sex sexual experience with a boy, 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 unable to fully understand what he was reading, Harry felt the book marked a turning point in his life. He wasn't alone.
While his father wanted him to pursue a career in medicine or engineering, Harry was drawn to music and drama, and, 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 left school. After recovering, instead of going back to Stanford, he began working as an actor in mostly minor roles, and 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 — who would become Grandpa Walton — and they 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 Communist party, working in political theater and learning organization strategies, but since the party condemned homosexuality, he soon distanced himself from his gay friends, and tried to live as a heterosexual. He eventually married — as Will Geer — and adopted two infant girls. But for Harry Hay, who'd known he was gay since age nine, living this life was impossible. Unable to deny his true sexuality, he began having affairs with men again, and his wife filed for divorce.
Hay began teaching music history at the Los Angeles People's Education Center and 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 saw hope for "modern homosexual men, living in disguise in 20th century America."
Thus, in November 1950, the Mattachine Society was born with a meeting of five men — Hay, his lover, designer Rudi Gernreich, Robert Hull, one of his students, and two friends, Charles Rowland and Dale Jennings. In fear of a police raid, the men always met in secret, though even in secrecy, their numbers grew.
When Dale Jennings was arrested in 1952 for allegedly soliciting a police officer, it was 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" and after forty hours of deliberations the judge dismissed the case; that decision was seen as a victory in the struggle for LGBT rights.
As a result of the Jennings case, Mattachine membership soared from 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."
All this made new members uneasy about the group and, in 1953, they called for a new constitution and new leadership. It wasn't being labeled homosexual that caused the unrest, it concern about being called a Communist organization in the McCarthy era. While new members favored assimilation, and Hay fought for action, in the end, the newcomers won, and Hay left the Mattachine Society.
And he found himself alone, his relationship with Gernreich having ended and out of favor with the gay community, who wanted to live quietly and, perhaps, closeted. Hay soon 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 and they parted after a few months.
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" marriage and within three months, he had moved in with Hay. 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 Stonewall Riots in 1969. He and Burnside became fixtures on picket lines and at demonstrations in the late 60s and early 70s.
In May 1970, the couple moved to New Mexico, where they not only continued to work for gay rights, but also became involved in politics; 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 concluded 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.
Radical Faeries meetings usually occurred in rural settings and combine Native American and New Age elements. The first meetings were in the deserts around Tucson, but the movement has spread all over 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. It was there that 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 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.