The Gospel of Gay, According to Harry Hay
It’s not just the tasteful double strand of pearls around his neck or the single cascading earring that sets Harry Hay apart from your average 78-year-old activist. It’s his controversial theories on the nature of gay men, his demand that gays eschew “hetero-assimilation,” his imperious demeanor and, most important, his only recently acknowledged place as father of the modern gay movement.
Hay is well known in the gay community, but has never sought the limelight outside of it. That may change now that he is the subject of a new, aptly named biography, “The Trouble With Harry Hay” (Alyson).
A lifelong Angeleno, Hay lives with John Burnside, his lover of 28 years, in an overstuffed cottage off Melrose Avenue near the Paramount Pictures studios. Recently, he sat at a book-covered table in the book-filled dining room of his book-crammed home doing what he does best: holding forth.
He spoke about his theory of “gay consciousness"--that gays are non-competitive, spiritually evolved beings who wrongly attempt assimilation into “hetero society,” a phrase that sounds an awful lot like an epithet on his lips. (Don’t even ask what he thinks of the Washington, D.C., men who filed suit last month to get a marriage license.)
“All hetero boys are hopelessly competitive with each other,” said Hay. “Competition is the way of life. But we gay people are not competitors. We want to share with one another. We’re not the slightest bit interested in winning. This is not our way. And as I’ve always said, when we imitate heteros, we usually do it badly. We either overdo or underdo. Mostly, we overdo.” With a coy shrug and a flick of his pearls, he drives the point home.
“I think that’s ridiculous,” said David Thomas, a gay professor who is chairman of the politics department at UC Santa Cruz. “I know and Harry knows plenty of homosexuals who are competitive. Harry’s way of thinking is very seductive, in some ways attractive and in some ways dangerous. It’s basically a mythical way of thinking. But it can slide into a game of ‘gayer than thou’ because if somebody comes along and identifies homosexuals who are competitive, he says, ‘Well, they’re not really gay.’ ”
“This is a very controversial issue,” said Martin Duberman, a gay professor at City University of New York who specializes in gay and lesbian history. “I think Harry would be hard put to demonstrate that the same gay personality type repeats itself across history.
“Part of me strongly believes that gays are in fact different. I don’t believe gays are different biologically, but they . . . identify with qualities which in our either/or society have been parceled out only to women. I think gay men do identify with being nurturing and supportive. As a group, they are less aggressive and competitive than straight men, but there are plenty of gay men who are at least as aggressive as straight men.
“Harry has always had a tendency to infuriate people,” said Duberman. “That kind of strong, confident personality is always likely to produce sparks. He has always been an admirable figure and an essential figure in our history. Without him, the movement would probably have gotten started later and differently. To have that kind of pioneering spirit, that willingness to get up essentially all alone and confront what was then a consensus view of homosexuality as pathology, takes extraordinary courage and will.”
Even Thomas, who disagrees with some of Hay’s most closely held beliefs, is laudatory: “Harry is the most original and interesting figure that the American political gay movement has created. He should be better known.”
Hay’s indefatigable political activism and in-your-face theories on the importance of gays make his life story entertainingly readable. In the 1930s he was introduced to Marxism and agitprop theater by his then lover, left-wing organizer Will Geer (the late actor who portrayed Grandpa on “The Waltons”). In the 1940s, he taught classes in Marxism. In 1950, he co-founded the country’s first gay political organization, the Mattachine Society, for which he has earned his place in modern gay history.
The Mattachine, named for a secret European all-male society of the 15th Century, was structurally modeled after the Communist Party’s cells and secret fraternal orders. It had a pyramid structure, with discussion groups at the bottom and the small circle of founders at the top. Hay’s biographer, Stuart Timmons, describes it as “an underground resistance.”
One of the Mattachine founders told Timmons that “Harry is the first person I know who said that gays are a minority--an oppressed minority. This was the heart and core of the Mattachine movement and all subsequent gay movements.”
In 1952, the group took on as a cause the entrapment arrest of one of its members, who was accused of soliciting sex with a policeman. It set up the Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment to raise funds for the defense and to educate Angelenos about the Police Department’s harassment of gays. When the trial resulted in a hung jury and the judge dismissed the charges, the Mattachine Society declared it the first time an admitted homosexual had been freed after being charged with vagrancy and lewdness.
After being ousted from the Mattachine Society in a complicated power struggle over political approaches, Hay spent the ‘60s in a kind of withdrawal, then returned to politics in the ‘70s with a move to New Mexico and involvement in Native American causes.
On the verge of the ‘80s, Hay co-founded the Radical Faeries, a gay spiritual group that has worldwide chapters that meet once every year or two for woodsy retreats, in which participants are urged to “tear off the ugly green frog skin of conformity and find the beautiful fairy prince underneath.” The group is a New Age synthesis of the spiritual and political, and is the wing of the gay movement that most closely expresses Hay’s theory of gay pacifism.
A conversation with Hay is a challenge. His manner is a combination of aristocratic kindness and didacticism mixed with outrage and italicized condescension if he thinks he’s been asked a particularly stupid question. One question that set him off during a recent interview was this: “How could you have been so active in the Communist Party in the 1940s when it was so fervently anti-homosexual?”
The fist pounds the table. The voice rises.
“That is the silliest statement I have ever heard,” he huffs. “The point is that homosexuality doesn’t even exist then! The point is you’re not getting the point! As far as society is concerned, I am a hetero who performs nasty acts with men! This is what I’m told. This is all I know. I have a predilection to love men and this is dirty, this is awful, this is terrible and nowhere in the world is this accepted, nowhere ! So I am fighting oppression (as a Communist), recognizing that I am an oppressed person. I know it and feel it, but I don’t have the words for it at that moment.”
Timmons said one of his greatest challenges in writing the book was coming to grips with the apparent contradiction of Hay’s dedication to the Communist Party and the party’s condemnation of homosexuality.
“A lot of younger people have felt that this is a glaring contradiction and I struggled a lot when I was writing this,” said Timmons, 33. “It’s really hard to understand how underground the whole gay scene was and how there really was not that kind of identity and community and culture that we have so taken for granted today.” It’s not just that the Communist Party hated homosexuality, Timmons explained; the whole world hated it. Homosexuality was thought to be an arrested stage of heterosexuality, undesirable and curable.
“The positive gay identity is something we discovered in the 1950s,” said Hay. “This is what the Mattachine Society did. It doesn’t exist until that time. When this guy (Timmons) tried to to ask me what the gay lifestyle was in 1929, I said, ‘Honey, we didn’t have a lifestyle in 1929!’ That is a stupid statement because that’s not a concept we even had yet.”
Said Timmons: “Many of the members of Harry’s generation share the same frustration. Harry gets a little louder or upset. Young gay people and younger people in general suddenly think they know it all about the way it was and the way it should have been. The enormous pain and suffering and struggle of building (a movement) from the ground up just gets wiped out with one remark. As far as the Communist Party went, it was the place where many gays had the best chance of finding people who could look at them maybe some day as an oppressed group. They really did feel hopeful there, and more comfortable than they could have felt almost anywhere else.”
Until the 1960s, it was not at all unusual for gay men to marry, hoping to effect a “cure.” Hay tried marriage after receiving what he calls “tragic advice” from a therapist, who told him his sexual past could be shut like a book and the future, opened like a new one. It wasn’t to be.
His wife, Anita, entered the marriage knowing he was gay, but believing that Hay could change. Marriage for Hay was misery. He lead a double life, cruising the parks and other homosexual haunts, and then in 1950, fell madly in love with the man with whom he would make history: Rudi Gernreich with whom he would co-found the Mattachine Society. (Fifteen years later, Gernreich would become famous as the designer of the topless bathing suit. In keeping with the Mattachine’s code of semi-secrecy, Gernreich’s critical role in its founding was not revealed publicly until after his death in 1985.)
When Hay, father of two girls, finally ended his marriage in 1951 on grounds of extreme cruelty, and began to live an openly gay life, his family was deeply wounded by a two-pronged shame: divorce and homosexuality. Anita died of cancer in 1983. One daughter does not speak to Hay; his relationship with the other is cordial but distant.
“Harry totally went against the grain of society,” said Timmons. “The big, distinguishing feature of Harry Hay is that he has encouraged people to be more gay, and in that way, to be more themselves. He has stopped all the accommodationist compromises that most civil rights-oriented activists will encourage. Therein lies his true, unique contribution.”
Eventually, Hay was expelled by members of the Mattachine Society for the “sin” that would alienate his friends and fellow activists over and over: his irascible imperiousness. The same thing would eventually happen with the Radical Faeries, although Hay is now nearly untouchable as the elder statesman of the movement.
These days, Hay’s age may protect him somewhat from the attitudes that lead, for example, to Timmons’ being chased and vilified by three men on the streets of Seattle during their book tour over Thanksgiving.
Last summer, on a plane flying from Charlotte to Asheville in North Carolina, Hay was glared at by a trio of conservatively dressed families, which is about the most threatening thing that happens to him.
“All I was wearing was just a simple string of false pearls, as you can see,” said Hay. “On my way back from the head, one of the mothers stopped me and said, ‘Why do you wear that?’ and I said, ‘Well, because I like it!’ And I scooted past her back to my seat.”
He isn’t optimistic for the civil rights of gays.
“We know that gays are visible,” he said. “We have busted out and we are all over the place. How safe are we? We have the word of the Honorable Supreme Court Justice Byron White, who in 1986 said that under the U.S. Constitution, homosexuals have no rights. (White wrote the majority opinion in a case that upheld a Georgia law outlawing acts of sodomy.) It hadn’t been said openly that blatantly before.
“So consequently, I would say we were less safe in ’86 than we were in 1950 before that statement was made. Back in the days when we were in the woodwork, you didn’t know we were there. We were suffering, it was awful, but at least we were safe.”