Even in the glow of its conservatism, America—which was formed via
revolution, after all—has 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.
fiery stances taken by anarchist and feminist Emma Goldman in the
early part of this century are softened—or forgotten—in
her incarnations as a grandmotherly figure in the film Reds
and an innocuous witty commentator in the musical Ragtime.
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.
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.
it is with Harry Hay—founder of the gay movement in America—who
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 Hay’s 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.
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 longshoreman’s
cap, it wasn’t 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.
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 Force’s
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.
had strong opinions and never pandered to popular opinion when he
voiced them—whether 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 press—in particular, the Advocate—for
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. Hay’s uneasy relationship with the gay movement—he
reviled what he saw as the movement’s propensity for selling
out its fringe members for easy, and often illusory, respectability—didn’t
develop later in life. It was there from the start.
1950, when Hay formed the Mattachine Society—technically a
“homophile group,” since the more aggressive idea of gay
rights had yet to be conceived—his 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.
wasn’t 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 strikes—such as the one currently under way
(but stymied by the Bush administration) at West Coast ports.
the 1940s, Hay struggled unsuccessfully to be honest about his homosexuality—of
which he’d been certain since adolescence—while 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 daughters—even 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.
story of Harry Hay’s life was that he was always just little
too radical—and since he was also a bit of an egotist, too
disinclined to demure—for 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.
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, Hay’s
difficulty getting along with others, his vision of gay liberation
was decades ahead of its time.
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 homosexuals—on
the same model African-Americans had begun to use in organizations
like the NAACP. Hay wondered—out loud, the most basic form
of political organizing—if Vice-President Henry Wallace, who
was the Progressive Party’s candidate for president, would
back a sexual-privacy law if he could be assured that a majority
of homosexuals would vote for him.
politics of quid pro quo was revolutionary for its time. Remember,
at that time it was dangerous to publicly identify as a “homosexual”—you
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 Association’s lifting of the definition
of homosexuality as a mental illness was a good 20 years away.
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 party’s own “cell” organization to build
and propagate the ever-growing Mattachine. Even the group’s
recruitment tactic—it 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
group—was modeled on the Communist Party’s strategy of
getting names of potential members from current members.
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.
these years, Hay spoke out against what he saw as the increasing
conservatism of the gay-and-lesbian movement. As he saw it, the
gay—and now, lesbian—movement 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.
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
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 wasn’t 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.
this time, the gay movement—which had devolved from a “liberation”
movement into a quest for “gay rights”—treated 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 Bryant’s “Save
Our Children” campaign of 1979 and California’s 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
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 Hay’s
persistent support of NAMBLA’s 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.
many of Hay’s more dedicated supporters could not side with
him on this. From Hay’s 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 Harry’s 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.
pretending the movement could be made presentable by eliminating
a specific “objectionable” group—drag queens and
leather people were the objects of similar purges in the 1970s and
1980s—gay leaders not only pandered to the idea of respectability
but betrayed their own community.
Harry Hay’s critics are able to do what they couldn’t
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 HRC’s 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 didn’t 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
the Metropolitan Community Church issued a statement hailing Harry
Hay’s 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.
it turns out, was a grandfatherly figure who had an affair with
Grandpa Walton. But it’s important to remember Hay —with
all his contradictions, his sometimes crackpot notions, and his
radiant, ecstatic, vision of the holiness of being queer—as
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. Martin’s)
and Taking Liberties: Gay Men’s Essays on Politcs,
Culture and Sex.