Harry Hay 1912 – 2002: Refusing to be a model homo

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In 1982, while visiting Los Angeles, I met Harry Hay. I was a young gay liberationist and Marxist feminist and the 70-year-old Hay was a radical icon — Commie, gay pioneer and fearsome critic of gay community sell-outs of every stripe.

Harry Hay has left quite a legacy. During the 1940s he reached the bold conclusion that homosexuals were not sinners or psychopaths but an oppressed minority which should unite and fight for their rights. This was pretty way out, given most homosexuals hid their sexuality. Gay sex was a crime and even some gays believed their sexual preference was a sickness.

Hay’s background helped him break out of the self-hatred which had many homosexuals in its grip. He was both a fighter and a thinker. In 1934, with his lover Will Geer, Harry played a leading role in a successful 83-day waterfront strike in San Francisco. In later years he was fond of matching his prized union beanie from this struggle with a string of pearls. The same year, Harry Hay joined the Communist Party and went on to become a respected Marxist educator. He also had a deep interest in pre-patriarchal cultures and conducted important research about the role of the transgendered berdache among Native American tribes.

In 1948, the indefatigable Hay decided on the necessity for homosexuals to campaign for gay rights. It took him two years to find four others willing to join him — all of them Communists or fellow travellers of the communist movement. The five formed the Mattachine Society. They were remarkably successful. When one of their number, Dale Jennings, was entrapped by police and arrested, they did the unthinkable — they fought back and won! Historian John D’Emilio estimates that, by May 1953, more than 2,000 people were involved in Mattachine Society activities in the Los Angeles area alone. But by the end of a high-profile year, Hay had been driven out of the Mattachine society for being Communist and unceremoniously expelled from the Communist Party for being gay!

McCarthyism destroyed the Mattachine Society. A red-baiting newspaper editorial raising the Communist links of its founders provoked a backlash. The radical leaders of Mattachine called a convention determined to resist the imposition of an anti-communist loyalty oath to keep Mattachine an organisation committed to action and the conscious acceptance of homosexual existence. They got rolled. Mattachine was turned from a radical and visionary organisation into a conservative and closeted one.

But Hay remained radical. He organised against the Vietnam war and was a lifelong supporter of Native American struggles. When the 1969 Stonewall Riots helped spark gay liberation, he provided leadership to younger activists and helped draft the charter of the LA chapter which placed gay liberation as part of a broad coalition of minorities and oppressed people committed to achieving nothing less than complete liberation.

Once the post Stonewall radicalism abated, Hay found himself speaking out against consumerism and lambasting the corporatised leadership of mainstream gay organisations. Harry believed those who craved respectability sold out the least marketable members of the community. In 1994 when the movement held a huge parade to mark the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, he declined to be part of the event which excluded the North American Man Boy Love Association. Instead he was a proud participant in the Spirit of Stonewall, a competing march which attracted many original Gay Liberation Front members.

Harry Hay was a bitter opponent of assimilationist queer politics. He spent his last 40 years in a relationship with John Burnside, a dream record the advocates of gay happy families would love to promote. But Harry Hay refused to be morphed into a model homo! He rejected monogamy and proudly advocated the joys of promiscuity. Harry Hay did not want “acceptance” and “tolerance.” He was an in-ya-face queer radical who fought for nothing less than liberation for all of society’sdowntrodden and oppressed. I’m with you Harry!

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