Harry Hay life and biography

Harry Hay picture, image, poster

Harry Hay biography

Date of birth : 1912-04-07
Date of death : 2002-10-24
Birthplace : Worthing, England
Nationality : British
Category : Arts and Entertainment
Last modified : 2010-08-23
Credited as : Actor and writer, philosopher, gay rights pioneer

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Harry Hay, born April 7, 1912 in Worthing, United Kingdom - died October 24, 2002 in San Francisco, California, United States was an British-American actor, writer, philosopher and gay rights pioneer who founded two pathbreaking organizations, the Mattachine Society and the Radical Faeries.

Born to American parents, Henry Hay, Sr., who managed mining operations in Africa and South America, and Margaret (Neal) Hay, a homemaker, Hay was the oldest of three children. After Hay’s father lost part of his right leg in an accident in 1916, the family moved to southern California and settled in Los Angeles in 1919. Tall and precocious, the young Hay rebelled against his status-conscious mother and especially his authoritarian father, who, in the summer of 1925, sent the thirteen-year-old boy to work on a Nevada ranch. During this time, ranch hands who were members of the Industrial Workers of the World introduced Hay to progressive politics. Also during this time, Hay, who had a lifelong fascination with American Indian culture, received a blessing from a Northern Paiute Indian elder. Hay later learned that the elder was the prophet Wovoka, the onetime leader of the Ghost Dance religion.

Hay graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1929 and attended Stanford University from 1930 to 1932. While at Stanford, he discovered San Francisco’s gay society, had a series of affairs with men, and defied conventions of the time by declaring his homosexuality to his classmates. Hay left Stanford without graduating and returned to a bohemian life in Los Angeles. For the next few years he held acting jobs in theaters and movies; wrote poetry and stories; worked as a ghostwriter; and, with two friends, made a surrealist film, Even—As You and I (1936). During this time, he became involved in leftist causes. Will Geer, one of Hay’s many lovers in the early to mid-1930s (and who later played the grandfather in the 1970s television drama The Wallons), initiated Hay into Los Angeles labor circles and the Communist Party. Together they participated in labor demonstrations and political theater. Hay described his experiences at the San Francisco general strike of 1934—where the police shot dead two protesters—as a life-changing event.

Like most gay men of his time, Hay married. A disaffected Roman Catholic, he married Anita Platky, a Jewish woman and fellow Communist Party member, in 1938. To their circle of progressive friends, the Hays seemed a model couple. They were active in Communist Party functions, both in New York (1939–1942) and after returning to Los Angeles. They adopted two girls. Hay taught Marxism and folk music history at leftist organizations and in 1948 landed a job as a production engineer at Leahy Manufacturing, where he worked until 1964.

Hay continued to have gay dalliances. In 1948, following the publication of Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (which suggested that homosexuality was more prevalent than was previously thought), Hay began formulating an idea for a gay organization. At a time when gays were forbidden to assemble in public and were frequently harassed by police, Hay asserted that homosexuals constituted a cultural minority and, like racial and ethnic minorities, deserved equal civil rights with the majority.

Hay found few sympathetic ears until 1950, when he met and began a two-year relationship with Rudi Gernreich, an Austrian refugee and fashion designer who would become famous in the 1960s and 1970s. With Gernreich and five others, Hay founded a secret organization based in Los Angeles that became known as the Mattachine Society (named after the all-male troupes of masked clowns in medieval France who mocked social conventions). The first significant and long-lasting gay rights organization in the country, the society held discussion groups and encouraged political action. In 1952 it won a historic legal victory when Dale Jennings, one of the Mattachine founders, was acquitted in a police-entrapment case. The society spun off satellite chapters and ONE Incorporated, which published ONE Magazine: The Homosexual Viewpoint, the first widely distributed gay publication in the United States.

With his role in the fledging homophile movement (as this first wave of gay organizing activities is often called), Hay made a break from his former life. In 1951 he and Platky divorced, and he resigned from the Communist Party (although he remained a dedicated Marxist throughout his life and continued to fight for various oppressed groups). The anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s caught up with him in 1953. A faction of the Mattachine Society that favored adapting to the mainstream forced out the founders, citing their communist roots. In 1955 Hay made a short but dramatic appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

From 1952 to 1962 Hay was in a relationship with Jorn Kamgren, a Danish milliner who did not share his intellectual or political interests. Hay devoted this period to the study of gay anthropology and wrote voluminous notes on the roles of gay people in non-western cultures.

In 1963 he met John Burnside, with whom he would spend the rest of his life. For the next ten years Hay helped run a factory that manufactured a type of kaleidoscope that Burnside, an engineer, had invented. Although he remained politically active, Hay increasingly turned his attention to defining gay spirituality. He grew his hair long and wore colorful clothes and bold accessories. In 1965 Hay founded the Circle of Loving Companions, a small but enduring collective made up mostly of friends. The next year Hay helped organize the first gay protest parade in Los Angeles.

In 1969 a more militant and visible chapter in the gay rights movement opened with the Stonewall riots in New York City, named after a Greenwich Village gay bar, the Stonewall Inn, at which a routine police raid in June touched off riots when the bar’s patrons resisted arrest. Later that year, Hay was elected the first chair of the Gay Liberation Front of Los Angeles. In 1970 Hay and Burnside moved to San Juan Pueblo in northern New Mexico, where they stayed until 1979. During this time Hay continued his study of Indian culture, successfully led a campaign to stop a dam project on the Rio Grande, and developed a theory of gay consciousness that led to the first Radical Faerie conference in 1979.

In settings ranging from small gatherings to large rural retreats, the Radical Faeries encouraged gay men to free themselves from the constraints of straight society and its “gay clones,” and to redefine their relationships with one another, nature, and the spiritual world. Although internal strife marred Hay’s leadership in the growing movement, he stayed involved in the group, his Utopian vision of gay brotherhood. After moving back to Los Angeles with Burnside in 1979, Hay continued to lecture, organize, and protest in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1999 the couple moved to San Francisco, where Hay died of lung cancer at age ninety. His body was cremated.

Hay was at times cantankerous, autocratic, and idealistic. Some of his core ideas, like his thesis that homosexuals are intrinsically different from heterosexuals and his insistence that the gay community not exclude its fringe groups, were and remain controversial. Nonetheless, his ideas and actions drew a road map for gays and lesbians to realize their individual potential and exercise their collective power. In the process Hay helped reshape the social and political landscape of twentieth-century America.

Hay’s personal papers are housed in the San Francisco Public Library’s James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center. His major speeches, papers, and interviews are collected in Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of Its Founder (1996), ed. by Will Roscoe. Stuart Timmons, The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement (1990), is a detailed account of Hay’s life. Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 25 Oct. 2002). There is also a documentary film, Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay (2001), directed by Eric Slade.

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