The Radical Faeries at Thirty (+ one)

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LAST YEAR marked the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Radical Faeries. Since 1979, the Radical Faeries have developed into a vital international gay spirituality and consciousness movement. Along with the AIDS Quilt, the Radical Faeries is arguably the most important ongoing grassroots subculture in the GLBT world at large.

There are Radical Faerie gatherings comprised of a dozen participants or up to five hundred taking place all over the world. Three residential Faerie Sanctuaries exist in the United States: Wolf Creek, Oregon; Zuni Mountain, New Mexico; and Short Mountain, Tennessee. Recently a new residential Faerie Sanctuary opened in a rural area of eastern France. There are also scores of non-residential Faerie Sanctuaries as well. Recently I received an e-mail telling me that the Euro Faeries and the Asian Faeries were planning a move into the Middle East, beginning first with Turkey and Lebanon.

This is the story of the genesis of the Radical Faerie movement by someone who was involved in its founding. I’ll focus especially on the first Radical Faerie gathering in the Sonoran desert of Arizona in 1979.

Getting Started
The concept for the Radical Faeries had its imaginative beginnings in dialogues between Harry Hay and me in 1978 and ’79. Hay and I first met at one of the early Gay Liberation Front meetings in Los Angeles in the fall of 1969. Hay (1912–2002) is a major figure in gay American history, having founded the Mattachine Society, along with several other gay men, in Los Angeles in 1950. During the winter of 1969–70, Hay and John Burnside (1916-2008), his longtime companion, moved to San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico, where they operated the Pueblo’s trading post and worked to protect Native American water rights. Hay would travel to L.A. every year or two during the 70’s, and we would always carve out a chunk of time together to talk about the burgeoning gay liberation movement.

In the Spring of 1978, I spent two weeks meditating and fasting with the spiritual teacher Ram Dass, who was still in the closet, at Lama, a Sufi community in the Sangre de Christo mountains of New Mexico. After leaving Lama I visited with Hay for several days at his nearby home. Sitting on the banks of the Rio Grande for long hours at a time, we engaged in vigorous and far-reaching discussions about what was working and what was not working with the ten-year-old gay liberation movement. We both saw the slow encroachment of bourgeois gay assimilation—with its lack of vision, imagination, and audacity—as having a suffocating effect on the movement. A liberation consciousness, in which one claims or takes one’s freedom by any means necessary, was slowly being replaced by an emancipation consciousness, in which you petition your oppressor to free you through guilt trips, fundraising, and legal reform. It was also clear that liberation consciousness and energy were being siphoned off by conventional Democratic politics and party hacks.

After much discussion, Hay and I decided to call a conference of like-minded gay men to confer about the situation and to chart a new course for gay liberation. This would not only be political and social but would also address the emergence of gay-centered spirituality and consciousness. We did not want to hold the gathering at a conference center or university setting but instead out in nature, without the usual urban, heterosexual restraints, a place where gay men could have the maximum opportunity to be themselves. Hay called it “ripping off the ugly green frogskin of hetero-imitative behavior to reveal the beautiful Fairy Prince underneath.” I saw it as an opportunity for gay men to deepen and broaden their understanding of what it truly means to be gay, thus seeding a revolution in gay consciousness. The gathering was conceived as a coming together of gay men only, at a time when lesbian separatism was in full swing and women were forming communes under the aegis of building a “lesbian nation.” The gathering was set for the summer of 1979.

In that same 1978 visit, I also saw the need for Hay and Burnside to move back to Los Angeles. Partly, this was based on the greater ease of organizing from one location. But, more importantly, I was shocked how the quality of their lives had deteriorated in the four years since my last visit in 1974. The trading post in the San Juan Pueblo that they operated, their only source of income, had burned down a few years before and they couldn’t afford to rebuild it. They were living in genteel poverty, inhabiting a small kitchen next to a servant’s bedroom where they slept, while the rest of their home was shut off to save on heating. Thick plastic sheeting was tacked over each of the windows. They counted their coins carefully when we went shopping for food. Their lives had become threadbare. I schemed and cajoled until they agreed to return to L.A., which they did in June 1979. This marked the beginning of a renaissance in Hay’s life.

Organizing the First Gathering
In preparing for the first Faerie confab, Hay and I faced two major challenges. First, where would we hold it? We wanted a space in nature—somewhere not quite in the wilderness, with essential creature comforts such as toilets and showers, and with no one there except gay men. Second, in the age before the Internet, how were we going to reach gay men in North America who were ready to take the next step in gay liberation?

Throughout the remainder of 1978 and early 1979, Hay and I individually looked at numerous sites, but they always seemed to be lacking something—a kitchen, privacy, or basic amenities. In March 1979, I saw an advertisement in The Advocate about an ashram in the beautiful Sonoran desert outside of Benson, a town east of Tucson. I wondered if this could be the place. It had formerly housed a residential program for the local juvenile probation department and included a commercial kitchen and a pool. I telephoned Swami Dayanand (Bill Haines), who headed the ashram, and told him about our plans for a gathering. I wondered whether his Sri Ram Ashram might meet our needs. He said he would be in Los Angeles the next week to talk with me about our plans.

Swami Dayanand came to visit me at the Gay Community Services Center (GCSC), arriving in a chauffeured limousine. A uniformed chauffeur opened his car door, bowing deeply. The Swami was as phony as hell, but I couldn’t help but like him. I found out later the chauffeur was his former boyfriend who lived at the Arizona Ashram in an underground room. The Swami, although a gay man, was taken aback when I mentioned the words “a Faerie gathering.” After an hour of discussion, it was agreed that Hay and I would go to the Ashram for a site visit to determine its suitability.

In April 1979, I met Hay, along with Burnside, in Albuquerque, and we drove together to the Sri Ram Ashram. It was a little oasis in the desert down seven miles of barely drivable road. The nearest neighbor was miles away. The dining room was rustic but ample, including a modern commercial kitchen and large walk-in refrigerator. There was furniture-free indoor space for laying out sleeping bags, and lots of space to set up tents for those wanting to sleep outdoors. Toilets and showers were adequate. And in the middle of it all was a large swimming pool—a turquoise jewel.

Almost immediately, Hay and Swami Dayanand fell into a heated argument. Hay did not like the Swami initially and felt the rental price of $1,500 for three days made it unaffordable. He thought this was not the place we were looking for. While Hay and Burnside took a nap in an air-conditioned trailer, I did some number crunching, calculating the income and expenses of such a gathering. When Hay woke up, I went over all of the math with him, concluding it would be tight but it was financially feasible if we charged fifty dollars for the entire three days—with the proviso that no one would be turned away due to lack of money, a bottom line I always insisted on in my gay community organizing. With me advocating strongly for this location, we agreed to take the Ashram site and scheduled the gathering for Labor Day weekend, 1979. That left four months to reach possible participants—precious little time remaining to organize a three-day event located miles into the Sonoran desert. We followed Albert Einstein’s advice: “Always plan to do the impossible.”

After securing the Ashram, Hay, Burnside, and I continued to my West Hollywood apartment, where we met Mitch Walker from Oakland, who wanted to help out with the organizing. Hay also had an interview scheduled for May 1 with Mark Thompson, then the Cultural Editor of The Advocate, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The article that Thompson wrote for The Advocate turned out to be one of the two major avenues by which we informed gay men of the upcoming event. After Thompson completed the interview, he immediately departed for San Francisco, while Hay, Burnside, Walker, and I continued with the nuts-and-bolts work of putting the gathering together. On a walk during their first day of planning, Hay and Walker argued vehemently over the timing of the event, with Walker insisting that it be postponed. Walker returned to Oakland and washed his hands of the organizing process, though he did attend the first gathering.

The second means of reaching possible participants was the distribution of a two-sided leaflet, conceived by me, announcing the event. The front side was designed by Bruce Reifel, a talented L.A. artist who had done graphics for the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front and the GCSC during the early years of the movement. The reverse side carried “A Call To Gay Brothers,” written by me, that set out the purpose of the gathering. We finalized the name “Radical Fairies,” which was first proposed by Hay. We had discussed for a year what to call the gathering and kept coming back to the word “Fairy.”* Arthur Evans and friends had convened Fairy Circles for a brief time in San Francisco in the mid-70’s, but little came of them.

We were drawn to that name because it was one of the words that had been turned around in meaning by patriarchal culture to demonize gay men. In truth, Faeries are magical and creative beings, often experienced as healers and wisdom-carriers that live at the edge of the village and are found all over the world in one form or another. Shamanically, Faerie Doctoring is considered a powerful healing modality. The Irish say that Faeries are from “the other world” and it is wise to stay on their good side. It was believed that if children heard their music at night, they would want to go join the Faeries, dancing in the moonlight, and parents might never get them back again. But we felt something was lacking with just the word “Fairy.” One day, Hay excitedly telephoned me from New Mexico saying: “Radical Fairies!”

It was perfect. Both Hay and I came out of “radical” political backgrounds—Hay since the 30’s, I since the 60’s. Our use of the word “radical,” however, was meant to be something larger than just a political designation. Etymologically, the word “radical” comes from the Latin word for “root.” To be “radical” is to get to the root of things, which is what we were trying to do. The early success of gay liberation had by now carved out a little breathing space for gay men and lesbians—a liberated clearing in a homophobic forest. Hay and I felt that the next stage of gay liberation should focus on root questions regarding gay-centered existence. Why are there gay people? What are we contributing to society that makes us keep reappearing generation after generation? Evolutionary biology tells us that a trait is not passed on over time unless it somehow contributes to the survival of individuals who bear that trait. What advantage could homosexuality confer to offset the reduced probability of leaving offspring of one’s own?† If survival meant minimizing our differences from the dominant culture in an earlier era, by 1979 it was possible—indeed critically necessary, we felt—for us to begin to focus on our differences as a step forward in understanding our importance to society.

Basically, the Radical Faeries were being called into being to examine fundamental questions of gay consciousness and gay spirituality, encouraging us to declare our own identity for ourselves rather than having it imposed upon us, as it had been since the late 19th century, when the word “homosexual” was coined and laid upon us like a slave name. We had allowed ourselves to be reduced to a sex act. It was time for gay people to make a jailbreak from this one-dimensional definition of ourselves that we had internalized as oppressed people. It was envisioned that the work of the Radical Faeries would lubricate the way to a new understanding of ourselves. In traditional non-Western societies, where minds have not been completely colonized by patriarchal, monotheistic religions, we find that what we call “gay people” had very important social roles in the tribe, usually of a spiritual nature. We were not defined as a sexual orientation but as a “third sex” that played a distinctive social role as shaman or spiritual medium.

Once the “Spiritual Conference for Radical Fairies” leaflet was printed, Hay and I mailed it to every gay person, newspaper, bookstore, bathhouse, community organization, adult movie house, church, synagogue, yoga center, glory hole, ashram, and commune in North America that we could find. I can remember well when I tacked the first leaflet up on the bulletin board at the GCSC. Fifteen minutes later the Center’s maintenance man came barging into my office, yelling at me angrily, “All my life I have been trying to get away from the ugly word ‘Fairy’ and now you’re deliberately using it. You’re calling yourself and the rest of us by the hate word ‘Fairy!’ Are you crazy!?” At that moment, I knew that the name was working.

The First Gathering
In the Spring of 1979, I had organized the first Radical Faerie Circle in L.A. It grew out of workshops that I’d been facilitating twice a year since 1975 titled “Gay Voices and Visions: The Enspiritment of Gay Politics / The Politics of Gay Enspiritment.” I had gathered together all the gay visionary literature I could get my hands on beginning with Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter, Gerald Heard (writing under the pseudonym D. B. Vest in homophile publications), and Harry Hay. We also culled the relevant literature in evolutionary biology and sociobiology. In workshop after workshop, gay men read and discussed these writings together. A significant part of the intellectual foundation for the Radical Faeries was developing from these workshops at that time as well as from Hay’s evolving insights into gay consciousness.

The detailed organizing of the initial Radical Fairy conference came out of the first Radical Fairy Sanctuary on La Cresta Court in Hollywood, where an intergenerational commune consisting of four gay men lived—Harry Hay and John Burnside, both in their sixties; Michael Fleming, nineteen; and me, who was then 41. The men from the newly formed Los Angeles Radical Faerie Circle were also integral to the logistics of the conference, especially in the month of August leading up to the gathering.

Hay and I had agreed that we’d deem it a success if fifty gay men showed up. As it turned out, 200 found their way from all over North America to a remote spot in the Southwest American desert. For example, the Louisiana Sissies piled seven people into an old VW van and drove across the country to be there. Just about every area of the U.S. and Canada was represented, and these men became the seeds from which the Radical Faerie experiment soon blossomed across the nation.

A week before the gathering was to begin, Hay and I, along with Burnside, Fleming, and the members of the L.A. Radical Fairy Circle headed for the Sonora desert to prepare the space for the gathering. After our arrival at the Ashram, a group of us did all our food shopping at a nonprofit co-op in Tucson. All the menus had been typed out beforehand with detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to prepare each meal, so that all the participants would have a chance to prepare and serve a meal to their gay brothers. We also spent two days baking scores of loaves of four-grain bread so we would have enough for the gathering as well as to provide loaves to participants for the journey home.

Like so many things that are seminal in American gay history, the Radical Faeries came out of the American West. Indeed, L.A. has often been called the birthplace of American gay history. The Mattachine Society was founded there, and it became the organizational home of the homophile movement (1953-1969). The Metropolitan Community Church was started there in 1968, as was The Advocate, the first national gay newspaper, still a magazine to this day. The militant Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front (1969-71) became the flagship for the early gay liberation movement, and the GCSC (1971-present) served as the primary template for gay community organizing throughout the country during the 70’s.

Anyone who has traveled in the American Southwest knows of its spiritual power, which is a result of its vast open spaces, its magnificent hidden canyons and mesas, the clarity of its bright sunlight, the rich flora and fauna supported by the desert floor, the purity of its crystalline air, the stillness of the night, the amazing colors of its spring flowers, and the many hues of its rocks and sands. A noted European writer observed recently that the Radical Faeries could only have come out of the American West. This statement is not about West Coast chauvinism. It’s about the vision and imagination of a group of people who came together and ignited a spark of inspiration within themselves and throughout their land. “Magical” or “coming home to who I really am” are words I have heard over the years to describe the experience of gay men after their first Radical Faerie gathering.

On the Thursday night beginning of the conference, a Great Fairy Circle was convened. Everyone who had arrived by that time was welcomed, and the purpose of the gathering was restated in several different ways. Much like Walt Whitman differentiating “adhesive” (“gay”) consciousness from “amative” (“heterosexual”) consciousness in his poetry, Hay talked about subject-subject consciousness, which, he argued, is what differentiates gay men from the subject-object consciousness of non-gay people. I suggested that what differentiates us from heterosexuals is not just our sex object but the kind of consciousness that Whitman spoke of.

For three days we spent time together and talked with each other as gay men rarely had done before. There were no rules of correct behavior. Two men might be making love at one end of the pool area while at the other end Murray Edelman would be facilitating a workshop called “A Different Night at the Baths.” After lunch one day, a group of about forty men spontaneously carried buckets of water into the desert to make pools of mud with which they covered and anointed each other with love, caring, and sacred chanting. It was as if these mud-men were out of a primordial tribe thousands of years ago. Throughout the weekend, we shared methodologies of healing, massage, gemstones, giggles, fancy lace, history, spirituality, and sacred spaces with each other as if we were all lovers.

It was as if a cone of power had been formed around the gathering, hermetically sealing us together, as we were all gently but powerfully being made anew. Due to work and airline scheduling problems, an old, dear friend of mine, John Platania, a Berkeley psychologist, yogi, and early gay liberationist in L.A., arrived at the gathering at noon on Saturday. He amicably left after a few hours to return home. He later told me that the energy was so high that he couldn’t find a way in. He knew he was welcomed by the participants, but it seemed like a different energy or consciousness had taken over. Platania reported, “It was as if I was watching a dream which I wasn’t able to enter.”

Thirty years later, I still get goose bumps when I think of the closing ceremony conducted at the last Great Faery Circle that was convened the Sunday night before the gathering ended. In desert moonlight, I see David Cohen, naked and clasping his Dionysian thyrsus, leading 200 Radical Faeries up a mysterious desert ravine to a circle outlined with a hundred hurricane candles with a blazing fire at the center. Several participants saw a white long-horned bull standing on a nearby hill, silhouetted by the moon, as if guarding and blessing the ceremony. A minute later he was gone.

The next morning—Labor Day, 1979—the men prepared to leave for home with loaves of homemade bread under their arms. They had been fed in a way they had never been fed before as gay men; in a way that mysteriously felt as if they had come home at last. A group of us stayed after the conference ended to return the desert to the state in which we had found it. No one could have guessed that a tectonic shift of gay consciousness had just shaken the area. After a year and a half of imagining and organizing, Hay, with Burnside by his side, and I drove back to L.A. in an old Chevy pick-up truck in virtual silence. We understood that something of historical and spiritual significance for gay people had just transpired, and our silence spoke of how humbled we were by the whole experience.

Since the First Gathering
News of the first Radical Fairie gathering spread quickly throughout North America and beyond by the gay media and by word of mouth. Shortly after the gathering, Mark Thompson, who had attended the event, wrote in The Advocate (Nov. 15, 1979): “There had been no plans beyond the first evening; there had been no messianic ego directing us along a prescribed path. Our experience of the weekend had arisen from a collective awareness, from particles released in the unconscious, from the intuitive, from dreams not remembered in the past.” Thompson continued, “This spiritual conference for now ‘radicalized’ fairies was as important in its implications for the future as Stonewall had been ten years ago.”

Robin Hardy, a member of the collective that published Canada’s The Body Politic, traveled by bus from Toronto to attend the gathering and was mightily impacted by his desert experience. In a report on the event, he wrote: “The Spiritual Conference for Radical Fairies was a project to reinvent gay male spirituality, and in turn the manner in which gay men relate to each other. And by its nature that spirituality will be a reflection of gay male history and culture. Male gay liberation has forgotten these things. The fairies have not.” Hardy finished his article with the observation, “At the end a small miracle. As the last cars and vans pulled away from the Sanctuary, a rainbow appeared, stretching far across the desert.”

In November 1979, Hay, Burnside, and I traveled to Denver to do a weekend training with the Denver Faeries, who had volunteered to organize the second Radical Faerie Gathering in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado during the Summer of 1980. The third occurred in New Mexico in 1981. Since then, there have been no national gatherings, and the Radical Faeries have become a highly decentralized, grassroots phenomenon of international scope. There is no Radical Faerie pope or CEO, although from time to time an ego-inflated Faerie or two aspire and scheme to such a position. They are usually politely and patiently ignored by the other Faeries until they’re restored to sanity, having done unfortunate damage to the Radical Faerie movement in the meantime.

Dogma is shunned by the Faeries, while the sharing of personal explorations and experiences is valued. During the past thirty years, however, there are certain patterns that I have observed. First, the Radical Faeries are gay-centered. By “gay-centered”—academics call it “gay essentialism” as opposed to Foucault’s “social constructionism”—I mean our identity begins with “us” not “them.” At the same time, it is larger than “us” and “them” polarities—more like yin and yang wholeness. “Gay-centered” means that gay reality is important, substantial, and meaningful. It means further that being gay constitutes a significant evolutionary and social purpose much greater than a sexual identity. It means that gay consciousness is different—neither better nor worse—from non-gay consciousness. This is very different from the gay assimilation and bourgeois conformity that have become the dominant ideology of our community.

Second, the Radical Faeries are politically progressive. Radical Faeries work to develop a larger political and social conscience and consciousness in the gay community, supporting liberation movements of women and men, people of color, working people, and ordinary people like ourselves. They support electoral politics where there is integrity, imagination, and substance. During the thirty years defined by the Reagan Revolution (1980-2008), the political pendulum swung to the extreme right with a corresponding conservative shift in the gay community.

Third, the Radical Faeries value community-building. In its traditional sense, the word “community” implies caring about and assuming responsibility for each other. Radical Faerie gatherings represent the kind of larger and healthier gay community Faeries want to create and live in: being visibly and openly “gay” in the widest sense of that word; valuing the gifts of each person and weaving those gifts into the fabric of community life; feeding each other literally and spiritually; recognizing that a healthy community honors ancestors, requires elders, depends on adults, and invites youth; acknowledging and assuming our responsibilities not only to the gay community but to the larger community of beings; being environmentally conscious and working to protect and heal the planet; performing the necessary rituals and ceremonies that keep a community healthy and sane; valuing charity and generosity over hoarding and self-centeredness; being culturally aware, imaginatively engaged, and creatively expressive; and, finally, singing, dancing, playing, dressing up, and having fun. The disappearance of the gay community and the diminution of gay identity are inherent in gay assimilation theory and practice, and they are happening everywhere.

The Radical Faeries are now involved with passing the torch of activism to a new generation of Faeries. I spoke recently at a Faerie symposium in San Francisco where half of the assemblage appeared to be under forty, a rarity in gay organizations these days. Mark Thompson and I are in the process of editing Dancing In The Moonlight: A Radical Faerie Reader for which we had over forty excellent submissions from all over the world. It is hoped that this collection will spark continued interest in the Faeries as an international movement of gay consciousness and spirituality.

There is a critical need for a national, if not international, gathering of the Radical Faeries. Moving in that direction, a new generation of Faeries is holding a Western Regional Spiritual Gathering for Radical Faeries this year.

The gay community is at present emerging from the wreckage of the extreme right-wing Reagan-Bush debacle, like Rip Van Winkle awakening from a thirty-year slumber. The Radical Faeries stayed awake during that period of retrenchment and have a national infrastructure in place which will emerge as a model and beacon for what can be accomplished if we work together consciously, cooperatively, and harmoniously—continuing to build a physically healthy, politically active, creatively alive, and spiritually awake gay community; deepening our gay-centered identity and consciousness; and, clothing optional, dancing in the moonlight.

 

Don Kilhefner, PhD, is a Jungian psychologist based in Los Angeles. He can be reached at donkilhefner@sbcglobal.net.

 

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