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|Subject: Harry Hay, Early Proponent of Gay Rights|
He was 90
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Date Posted: October 26, 2002 7:35:10 EDT
Harry Hay, who founded a secret organization six decades ago that proved to be the catalyst for the American gay rights movement, died early Thursday morning at his home in San Francisco. He was 90.
Although little known in the broader national culture over the years, Mr. Hay's contribution was to do what no one else had done before: plant the idea among American homosexuals that they formed an oppressed cultural minority of their own, like blacks, and to create a lasting organization in which homosexuals could come together to socialize and to pursue what was, at the beginning, the very radical concept of homosexual rights.
The group Mr. Hay founded — one that exists in remnants today — was the Mattachine Society. Its name was taken from a medieval French term for male dancers who performed in public, sometimes satirizing social customs, but only wearing masks.
Starting in Los Angeles in 1950, Mr. Hay formed his secret society with a handful of others. Virtually no men or women in the country then identified themselves publicly as homosexual. The law in California and other states made it illegal for homosexuals to assemble in public. The American Psychiatric Association defined homosexuality as a mental illness.
The term gay rights would not come into general use until 1969, after the New York City police raided a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, and its patrons staged a violent uprising against the arrests.
But by then, the political organizing and public expression of gay consciousness begun by Mr. Hay was long established in many cities across the country, and had matured for a generation.
In 1948, Mr. Hay was a restless, middle-aged man living with his wife and two daughters when he was struck one August night by the idea for a new kind of group. The impulse came out of a brew of other identities and allegiances that mingled in him, all of them described by his biographer, Stuart Timmons, in "The Trouble With Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement" (Alyson Publications, 1990). He was an ardent American Communist, a romantic homosexual, an amateur musician and aspiring actor, a disaffected Roman Catholic, a sometime labor organizer and a man of secretive nature. It was an array of opposing values that would put him in a state of conflict and tension for most of his life — and would cast him out of the Communist Party and his own Mattachine Society before the 1950's were half over.
But that summer night in 1948, he would later tell interviewers, he attended an all-male party in Los Angeles and fell into conversation about the next presidential election.
Maybe former Vice President Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party candidate, would include a sexual privacy plank in his platform in exchange for votes and support from homosexuals, Mr. Hay suggested. The others hooted at such a crazy idea. But later, while his wife and children slept, Mr. Hay wrote the future movement's first political manifesto. He raised the notion of homosexuals as an oppressed minority. (It was an organizing principle that would not appear in print until 1951, with the publication of "The Homosexual in America," the first commercially published nonfiction account of homosexual life in the United States written by a homosexual, though under a pseudonym, Donald Webster Cory.)
The thoughts in Mr. Hay's manifesto, which he revised and which later became known as "The Call," seem antique now. He labeled his unformed group "Bachelors Anonymous," and was both grand and bland about its purpose. "We, the Androgynes of the world, have formed this responsible corporate body to demonstrate by our efforts that our physiological and psychological handicaps need be no deterrent in integrating 10 percent of the world's population towards to constructive social progress of mankind," he wrote.
It took him more than two years to find four other men willing to discuss how they might organize. Two had also been members of the Communist Party in the prewar years when Communism seemed an attractive enemy of fascism. Another was Austrian, a Viennese refugee from fascism named Rudi Gernreich, who would become famous as a fashion designer, for miniskirts, the topless bathing suit and other creations. The last was Dale Jennings, whose arrest the next year for soliciting a police officer to commit a homosexual act gave the new group its first cause.
It was a case of police entrapment, common in those years, but instead of pleading no contest to avoid a public trial, as homosexuals usually did, Mr. Jennings, at Mr. Hay's insistence, went to trial with a lawyer hired by Mattachine, and swore that yes, he was homosexual, but no, he had not solicited.
The jury acquitted him. With that victory, the Mattachine Society grew, spreading chapters across the country. But as the cold war deepened, the group, fearful of Mr. Hay's history in the Communist Party, forced him out. The party, with which he had felt such class kinship before the war, rejected him as a homosexual after he and his wife, Anita, divorced, early in the 1950's. More than 20 years later, still on the sidelines of the main gay movement, he cofounded another kind of group, a brotherhood built along the lines of the spiritual tribe that he always thought gay men naturally formed. He called it The Radical Faeries.
Because Mr. Hay did not last long as the leader of the Mattachine Society, because it was a secret society, and because his role in it remained unknown until he talked about it to Jonathan Ned Katz for his reference anthology "Gay American History," (Arno Press, 1975) others became better known as leaders in the gay-rights movement and carried on the public fight that Mr. Hay had begun.
After his expulsion from the society's leadership, Mr. Hay became a fixture of West Coast progressive politics, of the antidraft and antiwar campaigns, worked in the Women's Strike for Peace during the Vietnam War, and with Native American activists, especially the Committee for Traditional Indian Land and Life.
Harry Hay was born Henry Hay Jr. in England in 1912, and raised by nannies. His father was a manager of gold and diamond mining in South Africa for Cecil Rhodes, and of copper mining in Chile, before settling the family in California.
He said he had his first homosexual sexual encounter at 14 while shipping on a tramp steamer down the California coast. He attended Stanford University, but did not graduate.
It was the actor Will Geer, who decades later played Grandpa Walton on television, who introduced Mr. Hay to Communist organizing, including the general union strike which closed the Port of San Francisco in 1934.
When he realized that the Communist Party would not accept homosexuals, he married a fellow Communist, Anita Platsky. They adopted two daughters, who survive him: Kate Berman and Hannah Muldaven, both of Los Angeles. He is also survived by his partner of 40 years, John Burnside, with whom he registered as a domestic partner in California weeks before his death.
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