[sixties-l] The real Harry Hay (fwd)

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Date: Sat Nov 09 2002 - 22:21:34 EST

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    Date: Sun, 03 Nov 2002 13:48:25 -0800
    From: radtimes <resist@best.com>
    Subject: The real Harry Hay

    The real Harry Hay


    With his sometimes crackpot notions and radiant, ecstatic, vision of the
    holiness of being queer, Harry Hay refused to play the model homosexual hero

    Issue Date: October 31 - November 7, 2002

    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 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 softened or forgotten in 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 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.
    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." And 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. 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 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.
    Hay 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. In 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.
    It 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.
    During 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.
    The story of Harry Hay's life was that he was always a 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. 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, Hay's 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 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. The 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.
    That said, Hay's vision was not completely original. It drew partially on
    the work of late-19th/early-20th-century gay British socialist Edward
    Carpenter and, to a lesser extent, the political work of Magus Hirschfeld.
    Carpenter pushed the idea that people with homosexual desires were a
    distinct group with a well-defined identity, and thus could have a
    distinctive consciousness about their place in society. Hay, who was born
    in England in 1912 and moved to the US with his parents almost 10 years
    later, would have had easy access to Carpenter's ideas, which were popular
    through the 1920s. But even though Hay's notions had roots in European
    intellectual circles, they were truly radical in American political thought.
    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 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.
    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 corporatized 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 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
    Hay's 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. Hay's 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. And 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 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 Communist
    Party. More often than not, though, his relationship with Will Geer was
    touted as proof that just like Grandpa Walton Hay was an icon of safe
    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 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. Even many of Hay's more dedicated supporters could not side with
    him on this. But 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. By 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.
    In death, though, Harry Hay's critics have finally been 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 organizing.) Even 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. Harry, 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.
    Michael Bronski can be reached at mabronski@aol.com

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