Saturday, January 22, 2011

Harry Hay's Writings: Touch Points for Today's Queer Liberation Movement

Activist, author, teacher, and visionary, Harry Hay is an American original. Through eight decades of living he has witnessed—and left his mark on—some of the most significant social and cultural movements of the twentieth century, from avant garde theater and film-making to trade unionism and Marxism, Native American revivalism, and New Age spirituality. But of all the movements he has witnessed and participated in, it is his role in launching Gay liberation that has earned him a permanent place in history.

By now the story of the early Mattachine movement should be well known—how in 1948 in Los Angeles Harry Hay began pursuing “a vision-quest more important than life,” as he once described it—the formation of an organization of homosexuals for homosexuals. It had began as a wild idea spun out at a Gay party on a summer night. Hay had just come from signing a petition on behalf of the third party candidacy of Henry Wallace. It was the eve of the cold war and Wallace represented for progressives a bright spot on the political horizon. As the party-goers discussed the election, Hay suddenly had the idea that homosexuals might organize themselves and lobby for a plank in Wallace’s platform calling for reform of sex laws. Others brought up objections, but Hay found answers for them all. That night he wrote up a prospectus for an organization devoted to the welfare of Gay people—“Bachelors’ Anonymous.” The next morning, however, a few phone calls quickly revealed that he was the only one of the party-goers serious about undertaking such a project.

Two more years would pass before he found another Gay man who would join him, Rudi Gernreich, and several months more before these two, now lovers, found three more and launched the Mattachine movement. They named the organization after a traditional European folk dance called les Mattachines, performed in Renaissance France by fraternities of clerics (i.e., unmarried men), called sociétés joyeuses, whose public performances satirized the rich, powerful, high, and holy. The Mattachine movement, launched in the midst of the anti-Communist, anti-homosexual hysteria of the post-war era, would involve, in three short years, an estimated five thousand homosexuals in California, while its name, carrying the promise of freedom, spread throughout the United States and the world. When a Mattachine discussion group decided to start ONE magazine in 1953, the organization was able to provide an initial mailing list of some three thousand names. By that time, Mattachine had successfully challenged in court the vice squad entrapment of one of its members—in those days an ever-present danger in the lives of Gay men. . . .

Before there could be a social movement of homosexuals, regardless of the presence of the necessary social conditions, someone had to think about homosexuals and homosexuality in a new way. Harry Hay was one of the first to do so. How he made that breakthrough is a story that will unfold in the course of this collection. For now, it is important to stress that this breakthrough was and had to be visionary in nature, not merely political. Considering the stigma of homosexuality in those years, only the passion of “a vision-quest more important than life” could make it possible for one man with a new idea to inspire others to adopt it. That’s what Hay did in 1950 and what he continues to do to this day—inspiring us with his enthusiasm for being Gay, with his golden visions of the goodness, rightness, and beauty of that way of being. These visions are the heart and core of what the Gay movement is about.

As this collection reveals, Hay has remained relevant decade after decade without repudiating any of his past. Rather, he has managed to absorb each new wave of cultural and political change, wrestling with it mightily to synthesize the new and the old, and then announcing the results to the world. Hay’s thinking has grown by accretion. What might seem a series of agonizing ruptures—between politics and art, or Marxism and spirituality—Hay has experienced as organic growth, albeit slow and sometimes painful. And, too, part of Hay’s personal dynamism comes from the way he embodies contradictions. He is an opera queen who has mastered Marxist dialectics; a farm hand who could rein in a team of horses with one hand and today never fails to appear in public without a string of fake pearls; a radical Gay separatist who has never stopped working in coalitions with non-Gays; a well-mannered scion of middle-class Edwardians and an in-your-face activist; an indefatigable organizer who relishes the solitude of the night, reading, writing, thinking, and surfing channels on TV.

Harry Hay is the Lesbian/Gay movement’s living Malcolm X—the unassimilable radical who returns in every generation to inspire those young-at-heart unwilling to accept indignities that their elders have learned to accommodate. He was there at the beginning, in 1948, talking about homosexuals as a cultural minority; he was there in the sixties urging stodgy homophiles to make room for Gay liberation; he was there in the seventies challenging a new wave of Gay assimilationists with radical faerie vision; he was there in the eighties, speaking to the Gay masses in New York’s Central Park on the twentieth anniversary of Stonewall, wearing a camouflage skirt over a pair of blue jeans. Hay always raises the stakes one more notch, challenging us to demand more, chiding us for seeking the approval of heterosexuals at the expense of our integrity. He is the Gay movement’s antidote to complacency.

Isn’t it time we paid more attention to what this visionary has to say? . . .

—from the Preface by Will Roscoe

Bachelors Anonymous

Should we be considered individuals or be considered a group?

Mattachine Documents: Missions and Purposes, Discussion Groups, Your Rights in Case of Arrest

“We, these elders, have become the real enemies of unity”

"Our goal is total liberation"

Through the Gay Window, 1970-1980

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