Harry Hay

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Harry Hay

Harry Hay was an American gay and Labor rights activist. He is most known for pioneering gay activism with his creation of the Mattachine Society with his male friends, the first sustained gay rights group in the United States. Later in life, he would co-found the Radical Faeries movement with Don Kilhefler. He's known to have shown consistent support for NAMBLA. [1][2]

Membership in the Communist Party

Harry Hay would join the Communist Party of America in 1934 despite concerns over their views that homosexuality was a defect that came from bourgeois society. Though he would only attend fundraisers for years, he would finally become a committed member in late 1937. Hay would teach a variety of subjects during his membership from marxist theory to folk music.[1]

Despite his work in the party, members who he admitted his sexuality to would encourage him to marry a woman. He followed this advice and married party member Anna Platky (herself an intersex individual with both genitalia)[3] in 1938. This did not stop Harry from seeking men in local parks and feeling isolated, saying that his marriage was as if "living in an exile world."[1]

Gay Rights Activism

Mattachine Society

Harry Hay

Harry Hay would attend a beer bust meant to support Democratic presidential candidate Henry Wallace. There, he talked to other gay men about the creation of an organization to reform anti-gay law. He wrote a document for this theoretical organization, although no copy survived. He would show this document to his then-lover, Rudi Gernreich, who was excited by this. This would inspire the creation of Bachelors Anonymous, forerunner to the Mattachine Society.[4][5][6][7]

Mattachine's name would be inspired by French masque groups at the suggestion of James Gruber. Ned Katz would ask Harry Hay of the origin of the name. Harry then would reply, "One masque group was known as the 'Société Mattachine.' These societies. . . were dedicated to going out into the countryside and conducting dances and rituals. . . Sometimes these dance rituals, or masques, were peasant protests against oppression. . . So we took the name Mattachine because we 1950s Gays were also a masked people. . . who might become engaged in morale building and helping ourselves and others, through struggle, to move toward total redress and change."[8]

Harry and his lover would peruse gay beaches in Malibu and the Pacific Palisades to look for potential Mattachine Society members. They brought copies of a the Stockholm Peace petition, which called for a withdrawal of troops from Korea. They thought the radicalism of the petition would make the gay organization seem mild. They were exceptionally wrong as 500 signed the petition, but none signed up for Mattachine. Later, their efforts would finally prove justified as they gained members.[9]

The Mattachine Society would eventually have several branches in other cities and by 1961 would form into regional groups. In 1965, the Mattachine Society would eventually be moved to organize protests at the United Nations and White House due to news of Cuban prison camps for gays. Frank Kameny and Jack Nichols would form the Washington, D.C., branch of the Mattachine Society. This chapter would eventually begin protests outside Independence Hall and the White House in demands of civil rights, such as the right to fair employment, to military service, and to teach. Later, inspired by the black civil rights movement, the Mattachine Society would organize a sip-in during 1966 at Greenwich Village.[1][10][11][12]

Though most of the founding members were communists, the radicalism of the organization would decline over time. As the organization grew, some became concerned over the leftism of the Society and wished to change its constitution to oppose "subversive elements" and present itself as loyal to the United States. Hay would state that he was kicked out because "I stood for us being a national minority. They didn't want that. All they wanted was to march up to Sacramento and change the law just a tiny bit."[9]

Radical Faeries

See also, Wikipedia

The Radical Faeries are a network and counter-cultural movement without a definitive purpose, perhaps due to its anarchist inspirations. This movement was founded in the 1970s by Hay in conjunction with Don Kilhefner and had its first "Spiritual Conference for Radical Fairies" in Arizona in September, 1979. The movement contains elements of anarchism, environmentalism, feminism, as well as Paganism. The movement is largely spiritual in nature. [13][14]

The movement can be seen as a solution to the emptiness gay men saw both in heterosexual society and in assimilationist gay communities.[14][15]

Support of NAMBLA

Harry Hay - Positive memories (14 male with older male, gay sex)

Though not a boylover or a member, Harry Hay was nevertheless a staunch supporter of NAMBLA. During a 1986 Los Angeles Pride, he wore a sign to protest the banning of NAMBLA from the march. He also boycotted the New York Pride in 1994 for their refusal to include NAMBLA. He spoke several times throughout the 80s and 90s at NAMBLA conferences.[2][16]

At these NAMBLA conferences, he would sometimes speak on his experiences as a boy, such as on February 22, 1983. At this conference, he would recount his pursuit both of knowledge and of a man named Matt. At the 1983 conference he would dedicate his statements as being "in memory of that fourteen-year-old boy who was handled by Matt so long ago. And in memorial to Matt, I offer you my love." At a forum on October 7, 1984, in reference to his boyhood, he would be recorded as saying "I would like very much to contribute the experiences that I had at that time and give honor to the men who were there when I needed them so very desperately, and who reached out in love, and who reached out in trust, and who gave me the opportunity to learn love and trust at a very early age." [2]

Harry Hay would be remembered by David Thorstad in his writing entitled "Harry Hay on Man/Boy Love," wherein he would state, "I considered him a friend. I was lucky to have spent more time with him than I could have hoped for, yet far less than I would have liked. . ." He would also write that "Harry stood for much more than the comments published here. But these views were also important to him, as his moving expressions of love for Matt, the man in his life as a boy, make clear. Wherever he is, I thank him for them, and offer them to posterity."[17]

"NAMBLA Walks With Me" and Los Angeles gay pride

Harry Hay in 1986

In 2012, The San Francisco Public Library displayed an exhibit, Radically Gay: The Life of Harry Hay, which included a historic/iconic photograph of Hay wearing a cloth sign reading “NAMBLA WALKS WITH ME” at a 1986 Los Angeles gay pride parade. The exhibit's caption for the photo reads:

Until the end of his life Harry stood up for the right of NAMBLA to march in the LGBT Parades. His support was predicated on two deeply held convictions. One was the belief that the gay movement should not be throwing any element of the community under the bus in order to gain 'respectability' with and acceptance by the hetero world. The other was his support for young gay boys, 'our younger gay brothers', and their right to choose when and with whom they had sex. In this he drew on his own experience at age 14, with Matt the 24-year-old man he met on the steamer tramp from San Francisco to Los Angeles with whom he made love and opened Harry's eyes to the beautiful vision of a 'silent brotherhood' that stretched around the world. Conversely, Harry believed that greatest, as yet unprosecuted, child sex abuse crime was the forcing of gay kids by parents and churches compulsory heterosexuality, leading to self-hatred, depression, destroyed lives and suicide.[18]

In his PhD thesis "Punishing Queer Sexuality in the Age of LGBT Rights", LGBT historian Scott de Orio describes the event:

On June 22, 1986, an altercation took place between the organizers of the Christopher Street West pride parade in Los Angeles and the gay rights activist Harry Hay, who had founded the Mattachine Society, the earliest sustained gay rights organization in the U.S., in 1950. Hay had come to the parade wearing a large, white sign on his torso protesting the exclusion of two key figures from the event. The front of the sign read “VALERIE TERRIGNO WALKS WITH ME”—referencing a recent public scandal in which Valerie Terrigno, the lesbian mayor of West Hollywood, was convicted of embezzling federal funds during her mayoral campaign — while the back of it exclaimed “NAMBLA WALKS WITH ME.” [...] After West Hollywood sheriff’s officers tried unsuccessfully to get Hay to remove the sign from his person, one of Hay’s friends, who had once been in prison, tore up the sign for fear that Hay would be arrested.


Hay argued that the exclusion of NAMBLA from the parade was “an affront to the whole process of gay liberation,” because it was undemocratic: it was not the place of the parade organizers to “arbitrarily decide who are members of the gay community and who may speak.” He also expressed sympathy for the organization’s defense of consensual sex between teenagers and adults by recalling how such a relationship had been beneficial to him when he was a teenager: “And let me tell you, I will always be grateful that 25-year-old Matt was there for 14-year-old me.” But in the context of the growing war on child sexual abuse, it was becoming less and less viable for the mainstream lesbian and gay movement to entertain discussions about the issue of the sexuality of young people. (De Orio 2017, pp. 137-138).[19]

Death and legacy

Harry Hay died at 90 years old of lung cancer on October 24th, 2002. He has been honored in several ways. He is included on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco's Castro district, as well as the National LBGTQ Wall of Honor in New York City's Stonewall Inn. In 2012, the Cove Avenue Staircase was officially renamed the Mattachine Steps in honor of Harry Hay.[20][21][22][23][24]