Remembering the Amazing Harry Hay
By Owen Keehnen
The occasion I had for interviewing Harry Hay was his 80th birthday on April 7, 1992.
I had just read the wonderful biography of him The Trouble With Harry Hay by Stuart Timmons from Alyson Publications. I was sort of intimidated to meet Mr. Hay. He was Mr. Gay Movement. The head honcho and ground zero of gay politics so to speak. Any fears I had promptly dissipated upon our introduction. He was so warm and friendly and for lack of a better word -- so mod. I was almost immediately at ease with him. Mr. Hay was such a sweet and generous and humble man and one who had definitely lived an incredible life!
It's easy to forget that there was a time in the not so distant past when gays and lesbians had no political rights. Nada. But gay and lesbian activism didn't just happen one stifling June night at the Stonewall Inn. The seeds of power and identity that erupted that evening had been firmly planted years before. In 1950 Harry Hay established The Mattachine Society that historians tend to mark as the official starting point of the modern gay movement. The Mattachine Society laid the foundations for activism two decades before Stonewall and was crucial to all brands and manifestations of gay and lesbian activism that have arisen since then.
In addition to this achievement Mr. Hay co-founded The Radical Faeries in 1979. He was the first elected chair of the Southern California Gay Liberation Front and he worked fearlessly with The Citizen's Committee to Outlaw Entrapment. He was also a staunch member of The Communist Party and a Hollywood actor during the 1930s. This man was an absolute force to contend with and that force had not lessened with age! Perhaps his greatest contribution was his tireless life as a gay theorist, scholar, and historian. He was a born teacher and always anxious to impart his knowledge on listeners. I was fortunate enough to have the chance to listen and ask him about his fascinating story.
He was an amazing man, another true hero of mine. Harry died 10 years after our interview - on Oct. 24, 2002 at age 90.
Thank you very much!
When did you first become aware of the need for an organization like The Mattachine Society?
I first began to feel the need for a brotherhood of people like me, though I wasn't quite sure what that meant, when I was 14 in 1926. I'd known for quite some time that I was different from the others but I didn't know how or why or what it all meant. Then I was 14 and suddenly I discovered what it all meant and from there on out I always wanted to get a brotherhood of people like me together.
So your intent with The Mattachine Society was the formation of a brotherhood?
Yes, and in this brotherhood we were going to find out who we were. In those years we weren't even in The Encyclopedia Britannica. We didn't know anything about ourselves. When we began The Mattachine Society we were in the process of developing a positive gay identity. We wanted to see ourselves as good people. The first time we sat down to meet we didn't even know what to ask each other.
What turned out to be the question everyone wanted to ask?
Everyone was just curious. You see, The Mattachine Society was really not the first of its kind, but in the groups before everyone would just drop out after five meetings or so. We needed a vehicle by which to get people to come together.
What was it?
We started to talk to each other, specifically about the Kinsey Report and we began to realize we had more in common with each other than we had with our families. It was exciting and all of a sudden no one wanted to miss a meeting. We wanted to know each other's experience and a brotherhood was beginning to develop. At that point we weren't thinking politically, we were thinking about who we were and what we had in common.
What happened with The Mattachine Society?
In The Mattachine Society we were doing what would later be termed 'consciousness raising' or 'peer counseling' only in those years we didn't have phrases like that or even concepts like that but after the organization won a case on an entrapment charge we were inundated with guys that were right of center…and we were all left of center. We were inundated with the first wave of assimilationists. They didn't believe in the brotherhood. What they wanted to do was get the law changed and then everyone could just settle down and be happy, but they didn't give a damn about the brotherhood.
In addition to your many achievements, weren’t you the first personal to put forth gays as a cultural minority as well?
Yes. My insistence on that was what finally got me pounded out of The Mattachine Society in 1953. The wonderful thing about that was when Stonewall came about 16 years later all the people assumed we’d thought of ourselves as a cultural minority since day one.
How did the concept of 'cultural minority' come to you?
I was an educator and I loved theory and one was the theory of a national minority that was a common language, a common territory and economy, and a common psychological make-up that manifests itself in a common community or culture. Anyway, we had them all except a common economy, which would have made us a nation, but with three out of the four characteristics from a left point of view we had a cultural minority. We needed to recognize we had these things in common and have them work for us and not against us.
You were an actor in the 1930s, what was gay Hollywood like in that decade?
Most places had one naked bulb and you really couldn't see the people across the bar from you. In other words, it was a form of cruising indoors. Gay Hollywood was a series of very well covered up cliques. They were all over the city but none of them ever knew each other. And you never brought anyone you cruised to your clique. He could be a front man for the cops.
How did you meet your mentor and one time lover Will 'Grandpa Walton' Geer?
When I met Will he was the leading man in a show I was cast in called 'The Ticket of Leave Man'. Will was so wonderful, I used to sit in the wings every night and just moon over his performance. At that time he was one of those sort of ugly men who could be gorgeously sexy.
Wasn't Will Geer the person who introduced you to The Communist Party?
He was indeed. He wasn't terribly interested in theory. He didn't know a great deal about Marxism. He was very much caught up in the romanticism of the struggle but was never very strong on theory. I'm the opposite, I have to know everything I'm doing or I have trouble with it. During this time I tried to interest him in my theory of the brotherhood, but he just couldn't see it or understand why.
You were married to a woman with whom you had compatible ideological beliefs even though you were gay…do you think compatible personalities can conquer sexual differences?
No. No they can't. She knew about everything. I told her. You must understand, this was in the late 1930s and in the 1930s we were just starting to get Jung and Freud in English. We didn't have anything written down on us. I was looking for someone who would fight with me and stand with me on the shared principles of the CIO and The Communist Party. So, I went to the first Jungian to open an office in Los Angeles and he said to me, "Maybe you're not looking for a girlish boy, maybe you’re looking for a boyish girl." Whenever someone asks a question in two parts, always answer the first part and never the second. I answered the second. I desperately desperately needed to find a compatible, charming, and magnificent companion -- she was that. Only after the second or third time we were together I had to visualize a man.
You were also a founder of The Radical Faeries. What did you feel this movement had to offer gay men?
We called a conference in Arizona over Labor Day in 1979 thinking we'd get maybe 35 people…and 210 showed up. We realized in the ten years since Stonewall we had gone through a door. The Radical Faeries moved again towards the brotherhood I had always dreamed about. There are now Radical Faeries groups in New Zealand and Scotland and Australia. We have fifty gatherings across the country now and in 1979 there was one.
Do you still believe in maximizing the difference between gays and straights rather than downplaying them?
Of course. In those differences come the great contributions we've been making.
I like that viewpoint.
Because you know in your heart it's true and when we feel something together then we should walk together. That's my sense of organization and from that how we can inspire ourselves an empower each other.
Back in 1967 you said on television, "Gays should reject society's negative stereotypes and insist on defining themselves." Do you feel much progress has been made in that direction?
Yes I do. I think the contributions especially on the stage with people like Harvey Fierstein and the marvelous gender fuck of The Cockettes. There are so many wonderful people and they all show we have an enormous amount to contribute. There was a marvelous story in 'The Gay Community News' on the Outwrite speakers and one of them was a fine lesbian sister by the name of Dorothy Allison who spoke of herself as an outlaw and I thought, "Oh goodness, I have to write her. I feel the same way."
What exactly is your definition of an outlaw?
Outside the system. When I was 8 I understood this for the first time. The guys all told me I threw a ball like a girl so I asked the girls if I threw a ball like a girl and they said, "No, you throw a ball like a sissy." The point is, as far as the boys were concerned, sissy and girl are the same thing, but as far as the girls are concerned the two are very different. If you had that experience and believed what the boys said then you bought your first sexist remark. The girls would have told you the truth; you are neither masculine nor feminine. The neitherness is who we are and the neitherness is our power and out of the neitherness comes our contribution.
You've spent a great part of your life sifting through gay history. Why do you think gays and lesbians have been constantly oppressed throughout history?
We have to look at organized religion as a way to control populations. And we are the one people willing to go to the gallows to do the different thing that we do. So consequently we are a threat at all times to the established authority. We have been persecuted because, in effect, we gave them the middle finger. We are going to do what we want even if we have to burn for it, and we have. This is another definition of the outlaw.
What do you think of the current gay organizations Act-Up and Queer Nation?
I think both are doing swell jobs. Their form of street theatre is superb. Act-Up has been very effective and as we certainly know they are the ones who have made breakthroughs in getting the government to give any consideration for AIDS funding. They have scandalized the government into taking motions.
Which accomplishment, of your many, are you the most proud of?
I don't think of anything I've done as an accomplishment. All my life I've had a vision and a dream to build this brotherhood and little by little it's happened and The Radical Faeries have become my brotherhood.
So it's all been a matter of the evolution of your brotherhood vision?
Yeah. I'll tell you your story, I'll tell you my vision and what I think we can do and where we've gone and the marvelous things we've done and how we can do them all over again and if you feel the same way I do let's walk together. This is the way I've always seen it and this is the way I still see it.
Well, I think living that closely and consistently to your belief system is a major accomplishment in and of itself.
Don't forget, we are the people that can have dreams for which we don't yet have words. Maybe my accomplishment has been to find some of those words.