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He Paved the Way for Modern Gay Activism: Harry Hay Dies at 90

Harry Hay Paved the Way for Modern Gay Activism

by STUART TIMMONS

Henry “Harry” Hay, known as the founder of the modern American gay movement, has died at age 90. The pioneering gay activist devoted his life to progressive politics and in 1950, he founded a state-registered foundation and secret network of support groups for gays known as the Mattachine Society. He was also a co-founder, in 1979, of the Radical Faeries, a movement affirming gayness as a form of spiritual calling. A rare link between gay and progressive politics, Hay and his partner of 39 years, John Burnside, had lived in San Francisco for three years after a lifetime in Los Angeles.

Hay had been diagnosed weeks earlier with lung cancer. Despite his illness, he remained lucid and died peacefully in his sleep in the early hours of October 24.

“Harry Hay’s determined, visionary activism significantly lifted gays out of oppression,” said STUART TIMMONS, who published a biography of Hay in 1990. “All gay people continue to benefit from his fierce affirmation of gays as a people.”

Hay is listed in histories of the American gay movement as first in applying the term “minority” to homosexuals. An uncompromising radical, he easily dismissed “the heteros,” and never rested from challenging the status quo, including within the gay community. Due to the pervasive homophobia of his times (it was illegal for more than two homosexuals to congregate in California during the 1950s) Hay and his colleagues took an oath of anonymity that lasted a quarter century until Jonathan Ned Katz interviewed Hay for the ground-breaking book Gay American History. Countless researchers subsequently sought him out; in recent years, Hay became the subject of a biography, a PBS-funded documentary, and an anthology of his own writings.

Previous attempts to create gay organizations in the United States had fizzled – or been stamped out. Hay’s first organizational conception was a group he called Bachelors Anonymous, formed to both support and leverage the 1948 presidential candidacy of Progressive Party leader Henry Wallace. Hay wrote and discreetly circulated a prospectus calling for “the androgynous minority” to organize as a political entity. Hay’s call for an “international bachelor’s fraternal order for peace and social dignity” did not bear results until 1950. That year, his love affair with Viennese immigrant Rudi Gernreich, (whose fashion designs eventually made him a TIME cover-man) brought Hay into gay circles where a critical mass of daring souls could be found to begin sustained meetings. On November 11, 1950, at Hay’s home in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, a group of gay men met which became the Mattachine Society. Of the original Mattachine founders, Chuck Rowland, Bob Hull, Dale Jennings pre-deceased Hay; Konrad Stevens and John Gruber are the last surviving members of the founding group.

“Mattachine” took its name from a group of medieval dancers who appeared publicly only in mask, a device well understood by homosexuals of the 1950s. Hay devised its secret cell structure (based on the Masonic order) to protect individual gays and the nascent gay network. Officially co-gender, the group was largely male; the Daughters of Bilitis, the pioneering lesbian organization, formed independently in San Francisco in 1956. Though some criticized the Mattachine movement as insular, it grew to include thousands of members in dozens of chapters, which formed from Berkeley to Buffalo, and created a lasting national framework for gay organizing. Mattachine laid the ground for rapid civil rights gains following 1969′s Stonewall riots in New York City.

Harry Hay was born in England in 1912, the day the Titanic sank. His father worked as a mining engineer in South Africa and Chile, but the family settled in Southern California. After graduating from Los Angeles High School, he briefly attended Stanford, but dropped out and returned to Los Angeles. He understood from childhood that he was a sissy – different in behavior from boys or girls – and also that he was attracted to men. His same-sex affairs began when he was a teenager, not long after he began reading 19th Century scholar Edward Carpenter, whose essays on “homogenic love” strongly influenced his thinking.

A tall and muscular young man, Hay worked as both an extra and ghostwriter in 1930s Hollywood. He developed a passion for theater, and performed on Los Angeles stages with Anthony Quinn in the 1930s, and with Will Geer, who became his lover. Geer took Hay to the San Francisco General Strike of 1935, and indoctrinated him into the American Communist Party. Hay became an active trade unionist. A blend of Marxist analysis and stagecraft strongly influenced Hay’s later gay organizing.

Despite a decade of gay life, in 1938 Hay married the late Anita Platky, also a Communist Party member. The couple were stalwarts of the Los Angeles Left; Hay taught at the California Labor School and worked on domestic campaigns such as campaigning for Ed Roybal, the first Latino elected in Los Angeles. The Hays occasionally hosted Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie when they performed in Los Angeles, and Hay recalled demonstrating with Josephine Baker in 1945 over the Jim Crow policy of a local restaurant. When he felt compelled to go public with the Mattachine Society in 1951, the Hays divorced. After a burst of activity lasting three years, the growing Mattachine rejected Hay as a liability due to his Communist beliefs. In 1955, when he was called before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, he had trouble finding a progressive attorney to represent him, he felt, due to homophobia on the Left. (He was ultimately dismissed after his curt testimony.) Hay felt exiled from the Left for nearly fifty years, until he received the Life Achievement award of a Los Angeles library preserving progressive movements.

For most of his life Hay lived in Los Angeles. However, during the early 1940s, Hay and his wife lived in New York City; he returned there with John Burnside to march and speak at the Stonewall 25 celebration in 1994. During the 1970s, he and Burnside moved to New Mexico, where he ran the trading post at San Juan Pueblo Indian reservation.

His years of research for gay references in history and anthropology texts lead Hay to formulate his own gay-centered political philosophy, which he wrote and spoke about constantly. His theory of “gay consciousness” placed variant thinking as the most significant trait in homosexuals. “We differ most from heterosexuals in how we perceive the world. That ability to offer insights and solutions is our contribution to humanity, and why our people keep reappearing over the millennia,” he often stressed. Hay’s occasional exhortations that gays should “maximize the differences” between themselves and heterosexuals remained controversial. Academics tended to reject his ideas as much as they respected his historic stature.

A fixture at anti-draft and anti-war campaigns for sixty years, Hay worked in Women’s Strike for Peace during the Viet Nam War as a conscious strategy to build coalition between gay and feminist progressives. He also worked closely with Native American activists, especially the Committee for Traditional Indian Land and Life. Hay was a local founder of the Lavender Caucus of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition during the early 1980s, determined to help convince the gay community that its political success was inextricably tied to a broader progressive agenda. His decades of agitation for coalition politics brought him increasing appreciation in later life from labor and third-party groups.

A second wind of activism came in 1979 when Hay founded, with Don Kilhefner, a spiritual movement known as the Radical Faeries. This pagan-inspired group continues internationally based on the principal that the consciousness of gays differs from that of heterosexuals. Hay believed that this different way of seeing constituted the contribution gays made to society, and was indeed the reason for their continued presence throughout history. Despite his often-combative nature, Hay became an increasingly beloved figure to younger generations of gay activists. He was often referred to as the “Father of Gay Liberation.”

Hay is survived by Burnside as well as by his self-chosen gay family, a model he strongly advocated for lesbians and gays. His adopted daughters, Kate Berman and Hannah Muldaven also survive him. A circle of Radical Faeries provided care for him and Burnside through their later years. Harry Hay leaves behind a wide circle of friends and admirers among lesbians, gays, and progressive activists.

STUART TIMMONS can be reached at: Stimmons@LAANE.ORG