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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

Harry  Hay

Harry Hay 1912to –2002

Pioneering American gay rights activist, founder of the Mattachine Society and the Radical Faeries. He was 11 years old when he came across Edward Carpenter’s book The Intermediate Sex at the public library. In the book, he first learned the word “homosexual” and realized that it applied to him. At 14, he managed to get a job on a cargo ship by claiming to be 21, and had his first sexual experience while learning about the existence of a loose underground gay community. He soon familiarized himself with the cruising scene and gay house parties of San Francisco and Los Angeles, while working as an actor and other odd jobs in theater and film. Through the art scene, he befriended the composer John Cage, and met his first partner, the actor Will Geer. Geer introduced him to leftist activism, and from there, the Communist Party. While Hay embraced Marxism, the Communist Party USA believed that same-sex attraction was an aberrant symptom of bourgeois society. Between that, and a psychiatrist who convinced him that marriage might “cure” him, Hay married Party member Anna Platky in 1938, later adopting two children. He soon realized, however, that he was not cured. When the Kinsey Report was published in 1948, he was inspired to form an organization of gay men, based on his theory that gay people constituted an oppressed minority, and described it in a document titled “The Call.” A few years later, his idea evolved into the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay rights organizations in the United States. At this point in 1951, Hay confided everything to his wife, who quickly divorced him. The Mattachine Society expanded rapidly across the country, but that also meant rapidly shifting demographics. New members were put off by the society’s leftist leanings, and wanted a more conservative, assimilationist approach. The original founders, including Harry Hay, stepped down from their positions as a result. In 1963, Hay met his life partner John Burnside, the inventor of the modern kaleidoscope. The two of them joined in on the counterculture of the 1960s, championed Native American rights, and led gay rights demonstrations in the years leading up to Stonewall. In 1979, Hay organized the first meeting of the Radical Faeries, a movement that is still active today, which combined anti-assimilationist gay rights with New Age spiritualism. Hay fought for an inclusive and active queer community along with numerous other progressive causes throughout his life. Today he’s considered one of the founders of gay liberation.

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