HARRY HAY pulled his Greek fisherman’s cap over his broad forehead. He’d just read an article on gay history containing so many assumptions he disagreed with that he barely knew where to begin arguing. He fiddled with his long strand of cultured pearls and let out a deep sigh. “There’s an old saying,” he muttered. “Them that don’t know tell, and them that know don’t.”
Hay, who died last October after a brief battle with lung cancer, told plenty during his ninety years. Often called “the father of gay liberation,” Hay is cited in histories of the American gay movement as the first to apply the term “minority” to homosexuals. Due to the pervasive homophobia of his times—it was illegal for more than two gay men to congregate in California in the 1950’s—Hay and his colleagues took an oath of anonymity that lasted a quarter century. (He finally revealed his identity in an interview with Jonathan Ned Katz for the groundbreaking book, Gay American History.) Often gruff and imperious in manner—survival skills he learned in the 50’s—he was often more iconoclastic and controversial than warm and avuncular. Still, for many gay people his message of was the first affirmation of their nature that they had ever heard.
In 1930, as a teenager in Los Angeles, Hay dated a man from Chicago who had been a member of a short-lived gay group formed by Henry Gerber. Not long afterward, he met some members of the International Workers of the World at a summer job. These two encounters inspired his early vision for a team of “temperamental brothers” based on their sexual orientation. His first real attempt at gay organizing came in 1948, when a group he called Bachelors Anonymous that he formed to support the candidacy of Progressive Party leader Henry Wallace for president. Hay wrote and discreetly circulated a prospectus calling for “the androgynous minority” to organize as a political entity. Two years later, his concept of an “international bachelor’s fraternal order for peace and social dignity” bore fruit. On November 11, 1950, at Hay’s home in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, the first meeting of “the Mattachine Society” took place. In addition to Hay, the group included John Gruber, the late Bob Hull, the late Dale Jennings, the late Chuck Rowland, and Konrad Stevens.
Hay’s love affair with Viennese immigrant Rudi Gernreich, whose fashion designs eventually landed him on the cover of Time magazine, had brought him into gay circles where a critical mass of daring souls could be found to begin these meetings. “Mattachine” took its name from a group of medieval dancers who appeared publicly only in mask, a device well understood by homosexuals in the 1950’s. Hay devised its secret cell structure (based on the Masonic order) to protect individual men and the nascent gay network. Officially co-gender, the group was predominantly men. (The Daughters of Bilitis, the pioneering lesbian organization, would form 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 from Berkeley to Buffalo, and created a lasting national framework for gay organizing. Indeed Mattachine laid the ground for the rapid civil rights gains following 1969’s Stonewall riots in New York.
Harry Hay was born in England in 1912, the same week that the Titanic sank. His father had managed gold mines for Cecil Rhodes in South Africa, but in 1917 the family settled in Southern California. From early childhood he understood that he was a “sissy”—a word Hay always used with pride—and 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. After high school he briefly attended Stanford but dropped out and returned to Los Angeles.
Tall and muscular, Hay fit easily into 1930’s Hollywood, finding work as both an extra and as a ghostwriter. His passion for theatre landed him on L.A. stages with Anthony Quinn in the 1930’s, 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 his later gay organizing. Geer himself once observed, “Harry’s very believable under amber spots.” His charisma worked equally well in living rooms and around campfires.
Despite a decade of gay life, in 1938 Hay married Anita Platky, also a Communist Party member. The couple were stalwarts of the L.A. Left. Hay taught at the California Labor School and worked on political campaigns such as that of Ed Roybal, who became the first Latino elected to public office in L.A. Hay worked with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger when they were in town, and demonstrated with Josephine Baker in 1945 over the Jim Crow policies 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 its leader, viewing him as a liability due to his Communist affiliations. In 1955, when he was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, he had trouble finding a progressive attorney to represent him—due, he felt, to homophobia on the Left. (He was dismissed by HUAC after his curt testimony.)
Hay’s political breakthroughs were informed by years of personal research and theorizing. His close examination of human history from a gay point of view forms a significant if unheralded life achievement. A bibliophile and a night owl, he spent hours hunched over a kitchen table stacked high with books and folders reflecting ongoing projects. Often foregoing sleep, he searched endlessly for the presence of gay people in texts on history, anthropology, and religion. He read, as he put it, “between the lines, in the shadows of the words and phrases—for traces of us.” He found such traces in goddess-worshipping agrarian societies, in the “fool” tradition of medieval Europe, and most clearly in the berdache tradition of Native American societies. (Hay’s research and ideas can be found in Will Roscoe’s 1996 anthology Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of its Founder.)
Starting with the social mascots of the “faerie” and the “fool,” Hay posited a distinctive “gay consciousness” and proposed that it was due to a variant neurology for homosexuals. Wrote Hay: “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.” His exhortations to gays to “maximize the differences” between themselves and heterosexuals remain controversial to this day, as does his notion that homosexuality is an indicator that a person has “greater gifts” than those of heterosexuals. “Who are we gay people?” he would ask. “Where have we been throughout history? What purpose might we be for?” His goal in raising such questions was to inspire further inquiry; he titled a 1955 paper, “The Homophile in History: A Provocation to Research.”
A fierce advocate of coalition-building for sixty-plus years, Hay worked in Women’s Strike for Peace during the Vietnam War, with Native American activists at various times, and with Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition during the early 1980’s. He lost no opportunity to convince the gay community that its political success was inextricably tied to a broader progressive agenda. A second wind of activism came in 1979 when Hay founded, with Don Kilhefner, the Radical Faeries, a movement affirming gayness as a form of spiritual calling. Radical Faeries continues as an international movement to the present day.
I saw Harry three weeks before he died; his every breath seemed insufficient and painful. Knowing our time was short, he showed me a few 19th-century family photographs, explained the provenance of Native American art, and prodded me to ask more questions. At parting, clutching a pen and yellow pad by habit, he gestured for me to write. “Tell my people I want them to be happy and strong. And free.” He stopped for breath. “And contributive,” he added. “And to fly.”
Harry Hay died peacefully at his home in San Francisco. With him were his partner of forty years, John Burnside, and a circle of Radical Faerie caregivers, who laid out his body and cast rose petals over it.