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The Real (Radical) Harry Hay
Even in the glow of its conservatism, Americawhich was formed via revolution, after allhas always taken a certain pride in its radicals. Even so, America prefers to remember its history-makers in sanitized versions with none of the messy, often embarrassing flaws that are usually inscribed on the souls who take it upon themselves to change the world. Thus, we prefer to think of Thomas Jefferson as a revolutionary genius, rather than as a slave owner who not only had sexual relations with his female slaves but consigned his own children to slavery.
The fiery stances taken by anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman in the early part of this century are softenedor forgottenin her incarnations as a grandmotherly figure in the film Reds and an innocuous witty commentator in the musical Ragtime.
The popular image of Rosa Parks as a tired seamstress who just wanted a seat on the bus is far more comforting than the reality: she was a skilled political thinker and secretary of the NAACP chapter that planned the bus boycott long before she refused to sit down.
Even the most serious biographers of Martin Luther King Jr. portray him in rosy hues, as an American saint, not as a deeply religious man whose promiscuity and adulterous behavior tore him apart.
So it is with Harry Hayfounder of the gay movement in Americawho died at the age of 90 on October 24. Obits in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press left the impression that Hay was a passionate activist and something of a romantic. The New York Times referred to him as an ardent American Communist, a romantic homosexual, who was a restless middle-aged man by the time he formed the Mattachine Society, the first gay-rights group in the United States. The Los Angeles Times described Hays penchant for wearing the knit cap of a macho longshoreman, a pigtail, and a strand of pearls and also noted that he and John Burnside, his lover of 40 years, lived most recently in San Francisco in a pink Victorian house.
The reality is that while Hay may have been a romantic, he was also notoriously promiscuous, and his communism was far more rabid than ardent. While he did wear pearls with his longshoremans cap, it wasnt a form of charming gender-bender chic, as the Los Angeles Times put it, but a political statement Hay first donned back when it was still quite dangerous to do so. Hay, in fact, was fanatically resistant to the grandfatherly image the modern gay movement not only tried to attribute to him but expected him to play out.
The documentary Word Is Out, for instance, filmed in 1976, portrayed Hay and Burnside as paragons of gay domesticity. More recently, he was invited to address the National Gay and Lesbian Task Forces Creating Change Conference, in 1998, and was billed as a major speaker. But he was given no context in which to talk about his politics and found himself treated more as an artifact of gay history than as an activist with ideas.
Hay had strong opinions and never pandered to popular opinion when he voiced themwhether he was attacking national gay organizations for what he saw as their increasingly conservative political positions (The assimilationist movement is running us into the ground, he told the San Francisco Chronicle in July 2000) or when he condemned the national gay pressin particular, the Advocatefor its emphasis on consumerism. He was, at times, a serious political embarrassment, as when he consistently advocated the inclusion of the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) in gay-pride parades. Hays uneasy relationship with the gay movementhe reviled what he saw as the movements propensity for selling out its fringe members for easy, and often illusory, respectabilitydidnt develop later in life. It was there from the start.
In 1950, when Hay formed the Mattachine Societytechnically a homophile group, since the more aggressive idea of gay rights had yet to be conceivedhis radical vision was captured in a manifesto he wrote stating boldly that gay people were not like heterosexuals. Indeed, Hay insisted, homosexuals formed a unique culture from which heterosexuals might learn a great deal. This notion was at decisive odds with the view put forth by many other Mattachine members: that homosexuals should not be discriminated against because gay people were just like straight people. By 1954, the group essentially ousted Hay.
It wasnt the first time Hay had been booted out of a group he helped create. From the 1930s through the early 1950s, Hay had been an active member of the American Communist Party. In 1934, Hay and his lover Will Geer, who later played Grandpa on the long-running television series The Waltons, helped pull off an 83-day-long workers strike of the port of San Francisco. Though marred by violence, it was an organizing triumph, one that became a model for future union strikessuch as the one currently under way (but stymied by the Bush administration) at West Coast ports.
During the 1940s, Hay struggled unsuccessfully to be honest about his homosexualityof which hed been certain since adolescencewhile maintaining his status as a member of the Communist Party, which banned homosexuals from joining. He married a follow Communist Party member and adopted two daughterseven as he worked to form the Mattachine Society. But homophobia eventually won out. After the Mattachine Society gained notoriety in the early 1950s, Hay was unceremoniously kicked out of the Communist Party.
The story of Harry Hays life was that he was always just little too radicaland since he was also a bit of an egotist, too disinclined to demurefor the groups with which he was involved. He was also too idealistic. Hay took the name Mattachine from a secret medieval French society of unmarried men who wore masks during their rituals as forms of social protest. They, in turn, took their names from the Italian mattaccino, a court jester who was able to tell the truth to the king while wearing a mask.
As an old-time socialist, he was drawn to communism because of its egalitarian vision and, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, its stand against fascism. But he was also an actor and a musician drawn to a brand of scholarship that romanticized popular culture as intrinsically progressive and revolutionary. Despite, or perhaps because of, Hays difficulty getting along with others, his vision of gay liberation was decades ahead of its time.
His monumentally important contribution to the gay movement was his ability to communicate the notion that homosexuals made up a cultural minority with its own history, political concerns, and organizational strengths. An often-told story about Hay (retold in the New York Times obituary) recounts how he came up with a political strategy in 1948 that no one had ever voiced before: giving votes in exchange for ideological support. To wit: identity politics for homosexualson the same model African-Americans had begun to use in organizations like the NAACP. Hay wonderedout loud, the most basic form of political organizingif Vice-President Henry Wallace, who was the Progressive Partys candidate for president, would back a sexual-privacy law if he could be assured that a majority of homosexuals would vote for him.
The politics of quid pro quo was revolutionary for its time. Remember, at that time it was dangerous to publicly identify as a homosexualyou could be arrested merely on the suspicion that you might be looking for sex; many states legally forbade serving drinks to homosexuals, much less allowing homosexuals to gather together in public. Indeed, the American Psychological Associations lifting of the definition of homosexuality as a mental illness was a good 20 years away.
Political genius that he was, Hay never would have achieved what he did without his training as an organizer for the American Communist Party. He used the partys own cell organization to build and propagate the ever-growing Mattachine. Even the groups recruitment tacticit was as dangerous to walk up to someone and say, Hey, are you a homosexual? Want to join our club? as it was for someone to drum up membership for a seditious political groupwas modeled on the Communist Partys strategy of getting names of potential members from current members.
The homophile movement of the 1950s and 1960s gave way after the 1969 Stonewall riots to the Gay Liberation movement. With its roots in feminism, the Black Power movement, street culture, and the antiwar movement, the Gay Liberation movement initially appealed to Hay. It was, essentially, the movement he had envisioned in 1950 but that never came to fruition. Soon, however, Hay became disenchanted as the radical Gay Liberation movement became corporat- ized with groups like Gay Activist Alliance and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, whose goals were to assimilate into the mainstream rather than change the basic structures of society. Hay, yet again, was a queen without a movement.
During these years, Hay spoke out against what he saw as the increasing conservatism of the gay-and-lesbian movement. As he saw it, the gayand now, lesbianmovement was far more interested in electing homosexuals to government positions than in making the government responsible to the needs of its people. It was more interested in making sure that gay people were represented in commercial television and films than in critiquing the ways mass culture destroyed the human spirit. It was too interested in making strategic alliances with conservative politicians, rather than exposing how most politicians were working hand in glove with bloodless, destructive corporations.
Hays response was to reinvent gay politics all over again: in 1979, he founded the Radical Faeries. The spiritual core of the Radical Faeries was the same as the one Hay had envisioned for his original Mattachine Society: the conviction that gay men were spiritually different from other people. They were more in touch with nature, bodily pleasure, and the true essence of human nature, which embraced both male and female.
Hays spiritual radicalism had its roots in 17th-century British dissenting religious groups, such as the Diggers, Ranters, Quakers, and Levelers, who sought to refashion the world after their egalitarian, socialist, non-hierarchical, utopian views. Unlike his dissenting predecessors, however, it wasnt millennial Christianity that drove Hay, but a belief that all sexuality was sacred. A belief that queer sexuality had an essential outsider quality that made the outcast homosexual the perfect prophet for a heterosexual world lost in strict gender roles, enforced reproductive sexuality, and numbingly straitjacketed social personae. The Radical Faeries were something of a cross between born-again queers and in-your-face frontline shock troops practicing gender-fuck drag.
By this time, the gay movementwhich had devolved from a liberation movement into a quest for gay rightstreated Hay as a benign crackpot. He was frequently praised as an important historical figure, but no one was really interested in what he had to say, especially since the Christian right had already begun to launch vicious anti-gay attacks with Anita Bryants Save Our Children campaign of 1979 and Californias Briggs Initiative (which would have banned openly gay schoolteachers) a year later. Often the discomfort with Hay was coupled with an overriding discomfort with his long history of involvement with the American Communist Party.
Despite his 40-year relationship with John Burnside, the aging radical still proclaimed the joys of sexual promiscuity and denounced the increasingly popular mandate that monogamy was a preferable lifestyle. In his own determined, often irritating, manner, Harry Hay resisted becoming a model homosexual hero. Nowhere was this more evident than in Hays persistent support of NAMBLAs right to march in gay-pride parades. In 1994, he refused to march with the official parade commemorating the Stonewall riots in New York because it refused NAMBLA a place in the event. Instead, he joined a competing march, dubbed The Spirit of Stonewall, which included NAMBLA as well as many of the original Gay Liberation Front members.
Even many of Hays more dedicated supporters could not side with him on this. From Hays point of view, silencing any part of the movement because it was disliked or hated by mainstream culture was both a moral failing and a seriously mistaken political strategy. In Harrys eyes, such a stance failed to grapple seriously with the reality that there would always be some aspect of the gay movement to which mainstream culture would object.
By pretending the movement could be made presentable by eliminating a specific objectionable groupdrag queens and leather people were the objects of similar purges in the 1970s and 1980sgay leaders not only pandered to the idea of respectability but betrayed their own community.
Now Harry Hays critics are able to do what they couldnt do when he was alive: make him presentable. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign have issued laudatory press releases. (The HRCs Davis Smith says, for example, When you were in a room with him, you had the sense you were in the company of a historic figure. A sense I certainly didnt get at a cocktail party 12 years ago, when he came across as nothing but a cantankerous old queen who was more interested in speculating about what some of the younger party guests would be like in bed than discussing the connections between 1950s communism and gay-community organizing.)
Even the Metropolitan Community Church issued a statement hailing Harry Hays support for its work (a dubious idea at best). Neither of the long and laudatory obits in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times mentioned his unyielding support for NAMBLA or even his deeply radical credentials and vision.
Harry, it turns out, was a grandfatherly figure who had an affair with Grandpa Walton. But its important to remember Hay with all his contradictions, his sometimes crackpot notions, and his radiant, ecstatic, vision of the holiness of being queeras he lived. For in his death, Harry Hay is becoming everything he would have raged against.
Bronski is a journalist, cultural critic, and political commentator.
His writings have appered in the Boston Globe, Utne Reader,
the Los Angeles Times, and the Advocate.
He is the author and editor of many books and collections, including:
The Pleasure Principle (St. Martins)
and Taking Liberties: Gay Mens Essays on Politcs,
Culture and Sex.
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