People in History: Harry Hay

Harry_Hay_in_September_2000 People in History: Harry HayBorn to an upper middle class American family living in England in 1912, Hay was raised in Chile, the son of a wealthy mining engineer and his Catholic wife. While an infant, Hay contracted bronchial pneumonia which left him with permanent scarring on his lungs. Shortly afterwards, his father lost a leg in an industrial accident, which resulted in his resignation and relocation of the family back to California. In 1919 Hay’s father purchased a farm just outside LA. While Hay Snr. secured the family’s income by trading on the stock market, he refused to spoil his children, and Hay Jnr. grew up working on the farm like any other labourer.

Hay resented his father, calling him “tyrannical” for the regular beatings he meted out — beating Hay believed stemmed from an attempt to “cure” him of his effeminate behaviour.

More than simply being an effeminate child, Hay’s awareness of his sexuality developed particularly early. His first sexual experience occurred when he was nine (with a twelve year old boy), and by eleven he understood himself to be homosexual — he discovered the term in Edward Carpenter’s book, The Intermediate Sex.

Hay spent his summer holidays on a cousin’s cattle ranch in Texas, where he was introduced to Marxism  by the ranch hands, who were members of the Industrial Workers of the World. A Native hand invited Hay to a traditional ceremony where he was blessed by the Ghost Dance prophet Wovoka, who declared Hay would one day be a great friend to the Native people.

At fourteen, Hay convinced union officials at a San Francisco hiring hall that he was twenty-one and secured a job on a cargo ship. There he had an affair with a merchant sailor who introduced him to the concept of gay men as a secret international fraternity.

Hay graduated school in 1929 and enrolled in Stanford to study International Relations (he had wanted to become a palaeontologist but his father insisted he pursue law). Hay became active in the gay cruising and social scenes of both LA and San Francisco, had numerous affairs with men, came out as gay to his friends, and developed a passion for poetry and acting. A severe infection in 1932 forced Hay to drop out of university, never to return.

Hay moved back in with his parents in LA for a while before establishing himself in artistic and theatrical circles, and found work as a professional voice actor, which led to more opportunities as a stunt rider in B-movies, a freelance voice coach, and ghost writer. A familiar face on the Hollywood gay scene, Hay had affairs with a number of actors, the most influential of which was Will Geer, a politically-conscious leftist who encouraged Hay to engage in activism. Together they took part in demonstrations for labourer’s rights and the unemployed, and even chained themselves to lampposts outside UCLA to hand out leaflets for the American League Against War and Fascism. Hay was a witness to police brutality at the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, which further inspired him towards political activism.

Geer introduced Hay to the Communist Party USA, which he joined in 1934, despite misgivings about the party’s attitude to homosexuals. In 1937 Hay attended classes in Marxist theory, at which point he fully embraced the party’s ideals. The same year, his father suffered a stroke which left him partially paralysed, and Hay took over much of his father’s responsibilities to his family’s welfare.

HarryHayApril1996AnzaBoregoDesert People in History: Harry HayEncouraged by CPUSA members to whom he’d confided about his sexuality, and influenced by Jungian theory, Hay married Anita Platky, a CPUSA member from a working-class Jewish family. Their honeymoon was cut short by the sudden death of Hay’s father, and afterwards Hay took a job with the Works Progress Administration. The couple engaged in activist protests together, and Hay claimed the marriage was a happy one, although it couldn’t suppress his same-sex desires. By 1939, Hay was seeking anonymous sex with men in public parks on a weekly basis.

In 1940 the Hays moved to New York, where Hay worked a series of low paid jobs while simultaneously working with the Communist Party organising theatre groups and staging political productions. Hay also had a series of longer affairs with men, even coming close to leaving his wife for one of them. He also took part in Alfred Kinsey’s research.

In 1942 the couple moved back to LA, where his Marxist activities attracted the attention of the FBI, who kept him under surveillance. In 1943, Hay and his wife adopted a daughter, and second in 1945. The following year, Hay began to suffer acute anxiety and repeated nightmares, culminating in the realisation that his marriage had been a mistake.

In 1948, Hay made his first serious attempt to organise a politically-motivated homosexual society. His first effort was a failure, but in 1950 he founded the Mattachine Society, which was to become America’s most prominent queer rights association. When Hay confessed the truth about the society and his sexuality to his wife the following year, she left him and filed for divorce on the grounds of “extreme cruelty.” He continued to send her half his paycheck for the next twelve years.

Hay also confessed the truth to the CPUSA, and recommended his own expulsion. The party agreed and dismissed him as a security risk, although they honoured him as a “Lifelong Friend of the People” for the work he’d done for them.

After co-founder of the Mattachine, Dale Jennings, was arrested for solicitation in a public park, the Mattachine went public, using the case as an example of police persecution and entrapment of homosexual men. The Society’s membership grew in response, and the trial ended in a hung jury — which Hay et al declared a victory.

Increased membership and a new public face to the Mattachine invited scrutiny of its members, and Hay’s Marxist background was exposed in an LA newspaper. In order not to bring the Society into disrepute, Hay stepped down as leader. The new members voiced concerns with the radical left leaning of the rest of the founders, and most were revealed and ejected from the group. Under new leadership, the Mattachine adopted a more right-wing, conservative stance which significantly reduced its political effectiveness. Membership fell precipitously, and distraught by the fate of the organisation he’d founded, Hay had a nervous breakdown.

Hay toyed with the idea of founding a new Mattachine, but the plans never came to fruition. He began to study historical and anthropological texts about queerfolk, and developed an interest in the role of queerfolk in Native American societies. In 1955 he was called to testify before a sub-committee of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communist activity in Southern California.

Influenced by a growing counter-culture movement, by the early 1960s Hay changed his appearance, growing his hair long and wearing brightly-coloured clothing, earrings, and necklaces. He said he “never again wanted to be mistaken for a hetero.” At a subsequent activism event Hay met John Burnside, who was to become his lifelong partner. They moved in together in downtown LA, and created a “gay brotherhood” called the Circle of Loving Friends in 1965. The Circle attracted very few members, and through much of the rest of the decade, Hay’s most significant contributions to queer political activism came as a result of his membership in various societies founded by others.

I wasn’t impressed by Stonewall, because of all the open gay projects we had done throughout the sixties in Los Angeles. As far as we were concerned, Stonewall meant that the East Coast was catching up.

Post-Stonewall, Hay was instrumental in setting up the LA chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, and was elected as its first chairperson.

In 1979, Hay united his love of Native culture with his queer activism when he hosted a Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries. Originally planned to be a one-off event, around 220 men attended and as soon as it was over, wanted to know when the next Conference would be. The second gathering, held in 1980, was attended by double the number of the first and became known as “Faerie Woodstock.”  Once again, however, Hay’s commitment to left-wing activism was his undoing. While others wanted the Faerie movement to remain spiritual and introspective, Hay wanted it to be a force for activist change.

Another member formed the secret “Faerie Fascist Police” to combat “power-tripping” within the organisation. At a group meeting a new member confronted the founders about the power dynamics of the group, and the core fractured. The Faeries split into two factions, with the members who’d made a power-play against Hay leaving to form their own organisation. Nonetheless, the Faeries prospered, growing in membership, and Hay came to be regarded as their elder statesman at gatherings.

Through the 1980s, Hay became involved with a number of activist causes, including South African apartheid, the death penalty, Nicaragua’s Contras, nuclear disarmament, and pro-choice movements. He was critical of the mainstream gay rights movement, which he thought was too apologist and assimilationist. He courted controversy by standing with the North American Man/Boy Love Association when they were excluded from a number of mainstream activist activities, such as Pride marches. His support of NAMBLA was largely influenced by his own relationships with adult men when he was an adolescent, and was also part knee-jerk reaction against any kind of “pandering” to heterosexual sensibilities that he so despised from the mainstream rights groups.

Hay was also critical of organisations that were too aggressively activist — ACT UP earned his ire for displaying the “typical machismo” associated with straight men, and therefore Hay understood their protests in assimilationist terms. Hay believed that focusing on one type of bullish masculinity negatively impacted the position of diverse gender roles for queer men within the LGBT community.

In 1999, Hay and Burnside returned to San Francisco, unhappy with the medical care Hay had been receiving in LA while he battled pneumonia and lung cancer. In the same year, he served as Grand Marshal for the San Francisco Pride Parade. Hay died in October 2002, aged 90.

writing-with-pride-banner People in History: Harry Hay

Liked it? Take a second to support Kate Aaron on Patreon!
patreon-medium-button People in History: Harry Hay