For those of you not familiar with the name, Harry Hay, he is considered by many to be the founder of the modern gay movement in America. All history is revision of course but it can be safely said that Harry Hay was, as early as 1948, pursuing a “vision quest more important than life”, which is how he described “the formation of an organization of homosexuals for homosexuals”, called the Mattachine Society. The word Mattachine dates to medieval France and refers to male dancers who performed in public, always wearing masks and frequently satirizing events of the times.
Though at first blush it may not seem like much, one of Hay’s greatest contributions to the queer universe may have been his insistence that we are a cultural minority. Hindsight being worth a million dollars that is certainly a pony we as a people have ridden around town plenty for the past thirty years!
Harry never pretended to speak for anyone other than gay men and felt strongly that gay men needed to explore their distinct identities apart, though not totally separated, from our lesbian sisters and the larger society. He felt we needed to create our own gay male space and from there try to figure out who the hell we are. Once we had a better grasp of our identity and perhaps the unique gifts we have to bring to the table our task of appropriate and respected incorporation into the larger society would go much easier.
I first met Harry in 1978 here in Denver. I had a few months before seen the documentary The Word Is Out, and had been particularly touched by one of the vignettes featuring two gay men in their sixties from northern New Mexico. Though they were certainly identified by name, Harry Hay and John Burnside, my knowledge of homosexual history was a bit lacking in those days. I was working as a volunteer then at the Gay Community Center (honest that’s all there was to the name in 1978!) and the day after seeing the film I was in The Center raving about it and the fact that two of the “older gay men” in the film had so impressed me. Perhaps I was a bit overwhelmed by the fact that gay relationships could last for decades, well into the golden years. I was overheard by an amazing Amazon Women named Katherine who said she knew Harry and John very well and would help me get in touch with them.
One thing led to another and they wound up coming to Denver several times in the late 1970’s to visit and hang out and discuss the state of gay maleness, post Stonewall, in my kitchen into the wee hours of the night. In June 1979 Harry was the “Grand Marshall” for our local Gay Pride March. That was back when it was a “march” and not a “parade” and folks actually came in part to attend the rally and hear the speeches. A few gay men and lots of lesbians in those days felt we needed to be “marching” for our rights and not riding in a parade in a convertible waving to the crowds. It was for some of course much easier to wear three inch heels and ride in a convertible rather that trying to “march” anywhere. These quite heated debates on “marches vs. parades” seem to have vaporized over the years, some would say because we have matured as a people though I am more inclined to think we have become lost in the fog of assimilation. At any rate, Harry of course came through with flying colors as Grand Marshall, exhorting us all to explore our queer potential beyond the bedroom whether we wore high heels or not and there by help us save all of humanity from itself! He always had quite the agenda for us.
I continued to work with Harry and John and attended the first Spiritual Conference for Radical Fairies held in the Arizona desert outside of Tucson in 1979 over the Labor Day weekend. This gathering of gay men was essentially the brainstorm of three men: Harry, John, and Don Kilhefner. Significant early input was also provided by a fellow named Mitch Walker, author of several books including the seminal but out of print, Visionary Love. Very clearly though Harry was the spark plug for it all! The flier announcing this confab called for “exploring breakthroughs in gay consciousness, sharing gay visions and the spiritual dimensions of gayness”, Harry put a lot on our plate for one weekend!
The gathering was quite the eclectic group of gay men and I was very blown away by the whole event. The sex of course was great, after all it was 200 plus gay men in 1979 naked in the desert. HIV was already present but still a shadow in the corner and just beginning its deadly dance.
More important though than the sex were the many workshops that seriously tried to address the questions of “who are we gay men and what are we for!” Was the essence of “gayness” what we did with each other in bed or were there perhaps other gifts we had to bring to the larger society, perhaps ways of relating and being as humans that might actually be desperately needed by all of humanity if the species were to survive? Quite a lofty agenda really and Harry was always about keeping us focused, though I think at times some of the activities of that weekend were even beyond his imagination. The ritual mud bath, participated in by dozens of naked fairies in a nearby arroyo, comes to mind as one such gloriously unplanned event!
This “conference” was the launching pad for a movement and group now identified as “The Radical Fairies”. I have often wondered what the real potential of this movement and its impact on queer life and culture might have been if it was not muted and perhaps even derailed by that little retrovirus, HIV. And to be honest here the Fairies certainly were not immune to internal politics and ego games that did nothing to further gay revolution! Hetero imitation at its worst or a universal human foible, I am not sure.
This first get together though was such a smashing success it was decided we should do it again and the next one would be in August of 1980 in Colorado. We had a slight name change, that I am sure involved hours of process though I have thankfully forgotten that part of it. We were now going to bring together a “Spiritual Gathering for Radical Fairies”. The most delicious part of this for me now is that we pulled it off at all, 300 plus crazy fairies cavorting along Buffalo Creek, only a short distance from Colorado Springs! Only on the last day did State Troopers appear investigating “reports of nudity”. “Nudity, what nudity”, I exclaimed, confident that everyone was already packing up and heading out and nobody was driving away naked, or so I told the officers!
The Colorado gathering was about celebration, spirit, sharing, healing, and politics, and most importantly for Harry I think the potential for developing sanctuaries, a Fairie Network of protected living spaces throughout the land. Today there are a few viable Fairie Sanctuaries but I do not think on the scale or having the impact Harry had initially hoped for. These envisioned Sanctuaries would have provided the safe space for gay men to explore their true and unactualized potential and answer those questions raised by the Mattachine Society thirty years before, “who are we and what are we for”.
After the Colorado Gathering in 1980 all sorts of shit came down, some external and some very internal, that kept the Fairie Movement from really taking off like it might have. Perhaps in an attempt to let some of us off the hook a bit I would like to think that the unbelievable nightmare that AIDS became had a lot to do with it. This may of course only be revisionist history at its best! Maybe it was the ego-crap that certainly had raised its ugly head early on that really kept a Fairie analysis and approach to queers and their lives from taking off. Oh what the hell, for the sake of this piece let’s blame AIDS!
As the AIDS epidemic evolved my working with Harry decreased over the years as I became more consumed by the epidemic each year. Learning in 1985 that I was HIV positive also served to redirect my personal energies. Before this descent into my own self absorption though I did have a great experience in 1983 where Harry took me and my partner David Woodyard and several other fairies including the visionary anthropologist, Will Roscoe, to his old New Mexico haunts. Harry’s work with Native Americans dates back to his teenage years and the wisdom of America’s native people’s always guided and informed his efforts in the queer world.
My political and spiritual work with Harry and John pretty much ceased after our 1983 trip to New Mexico. This was primarily my fault and was related directly to the redirection of my time and energy to local and personal HIV issues. We did reconnect again in the spring of 1989 when I arranged to bring Harry to town again for a public talk and a couple small gatherings to discuss the Radical Fairie Movement. I then took off with them on a short road trip into New Mexico to Chaco Canyon. They had never been to Chaco and I offered to be their guide having visited the ruins several times. We were there mid week before tourist season and had the opportunity to sit quietly together in one of the ancient Kiva’s. Harry was deeply moved by the surroundings and nearly speechless, a very rare occurrence.
A few weeks later Harry was a speaker at New York City’s 1989 Pride Rally on the twentieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots. The text of his address was published in the July 10th issue of the New York Native. Harry exhorted the crowd to attack at every opportunity the conspiracy of silence that serves to deny our innate differences from the heterosexual majority. Again he encouraged us all to explore our differences, relish the gift of being gay and appreciate the fact that we are a very different people.
My last visit with Harry was in early December 2001. He and John were living in San Francisco on 17th Street only a few blocks from the Castro, supported in large part by the largesse of many dedicated Fairies. The topic of 9/11, still very fresh in the minds of many did not come up in our discussion. Harry was to be interviewed the next day by local National Public Radio (NPR) about a soon to be released documentary on his life. Our conversation was wide ranging as usual, with Harry periodically nodding off only to abruptly rejoin the discussion and redirect it if he felt we had strayed to far from topics of relevance. Including of course very important issues such as; “John dear, are there any more of those cookies”?
What I remember most clearly though from that visit was Harry getting off on his observation that straight men smelled different than gay men! I sincerely hoped that he would not address this issue in his interview the next day with NPR, but in our nearly 25 year history together I never told him what to do! The issue though was in some ways very consistent with his life’s work and that was exploring ways in which queer peoples and gay men in particular were different, not better but different, from the heterosexual majority, and how those differences might actually be real gifts to be brought and appreciated to the human banquet.
If you would like to learn more about this great gay pioneer I suggest the following sources as a start: Radically Gay (Beacon Press, 1996.), edited by Will Roscoe and two essays by Harry, one in Mark Thompson’s great compilation Gay Soul ( Harper. San Francisco, 1994.) and the other in Gay Men at the Millennium, edited by Michael Lowenthal (1997.) And do what Harry would have done and support your community, look for these sources at Relatively Wilde (formerly Category Six) located at 42 South Broadway.