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Harry Hay Centenary Celebrated in Los Angeles
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 04/06/12
Last updated on: 04/06/12
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Harry Hay. Photograph by Stathis Orphanos.

To mark the centenary of the birth of gay rights pioneer Harry Hay, a ceremony will be held in Los Angeles on April 7, 2012 to rename the Cove Avenue Steps, which lead to the house where Hay helped found the Mattachine Society in 1950, "The Mattachine Steps." The site has been designated a historic place by the City of Los Angeles.

One of the earliest American homophile organizations, the Mattachine Society had its genesis at a November 1950 meeting arranged by Hay. Attendees at this organizational meeting included Hay's then-lover, fashion designer Rudi Gernreich; Robert Hull, who was a student in Hay's classes in music history at the Los Angeles People's Education Center; and two of Hull's friends, Charles Rowland and Dale Jennings. James "John" Finley Gruber, Jr., and his boyfriend Konrad Stevens became the last of the group's original members when they joined in April 1951. The men continued to meet for several months to plan a grassroots organization.

By sharing their personal experiences as gay men and analyzing homosexuals in the context of an oppressed cultural minority, the Mattachine founders attempted to redefine the meaning of being gay in the United States. They devised a comprehensive program for cultural and political liberation.

In 1951, the Mattachine Society adopted a Statement of Missions and Purpose. This Statement stands out in the history of the gay liberation movement because it identified and incorporated two important themes. First, Mattachine called for a grassroots movement of gay people to challenge anti-gay discrimination; and second, the organization recognized the importance of building a gay community.

The Mattachine Society also began sponsoring discussion groups in 1951, providing lesbians and gay men an opportunity to share openly, often for the first time, their feelings and experiences. The meetings were frequently emotional and cathartic.

Over the next few years attendance at Mattachine meetings increased tremendously, especially after members of the group protested police raids and entrapment. Soon discussion groups were meeting throughout the United States.

Mattachine groups also began to sponsor social events, fundraisers, newsletters, and publications, including, most notably, the monthly periodical ONE Magazine, which at its peak achieved a circulation of 5,000 copies. Although formally independent of the society, its first editor, Dale Jennings, and most of its editorial board were members.

In 1954, the Los Angeles postmaster seized and refused to mail copies of ONE on the grounds that the magazine was "obscene, lewd, lascivious and filthy." The seizure led to a lengthy court battle with significant consequences for the gay and lesbian movement, when in 1958 the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the mere discussion of homosexuality was not obscene. Without this court victory, it is difficult to conceive how a viable movement for change could have developed.

Hay was forced out of the Mattachine Society during the McCarthy-era, when his past membership in the Communist Party came to be seen as endangering the burgeoning homophile movement.

Hay and his lover John Burnside returned to gay activism in the 1960s, and in the 1970s he founded the Radical Faeries movement in a conscious rejection of the gay assimilationism that developed in North American urban centers during that decade.

The radical faeries appeal to those gay men who do not feel "just like anyone else except for what we do in bed" to "come home" to gatherings of the tribe in rural settings. There they find sanctuary, commune with nature away from the distortions of the urban environment, and share feelings and ideas about the nature of the sexual "other." The faeries celebrate the differences that separate gay people from heterosexuals.

Appropriately, following the ceremony on April 7 dedicating the "Mattachine Steps," the Radical Faeries are hosting a picnic in an adjoining park overlooking the Silver Lake Reservoir in honor of Hay's centenary.

Also on April 7 in the Silver Lake neighborhood, at Stories Bookstore, Stuart Timmons will read and sign his newly updated biography, The Trouble with Harry Hay.

On Sunday, April 15, 2012, the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, at 909 W. Adams Boulevard in Los Angeles, will host a panel discussion about Hay's life and times.

Below is a trailer for Eric Slade's Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay, the 2001 documentary that Wik Wikholm reviewed here. He concluded that rather than being a predictable exercise in hero worship, the "straightforward and well-crafted" film "reveals almost as much about the flaws that kept Hay from achieving more as it does about the strengths that led to his substantial accomplishments."

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