Remembering the Amazing Harry Hay
The occasion I had for
interviewing Harry Hay was his 80th birthday on April 7, 1992. I had just
read the wonderful biography of him The Trouble With Harry Hay by
Stuart Timmons from Alyson Publications.
I was sort of intimidated
to meet Mr. Hay. He was Mr. Gay Movement. The head honcho and ground zero of
gay politics so to speak. Any fears I had promptly dissipated upon our
introduction. He was so warm and friendly and for lack of a better word -- so
mod. I was almost immediately at ease with him.
Harry Hay died 10 years
after our interview - on Oct. 24, 2002 at age 90.
Keehnen: Happy Birthday!
Hay: Thank you very much!
Keehnen: When did you first become aware
of the need for an organization like the Mattachine Society?
Hay: I first began to feel the need for
a brotherhood of people like me, though I wasn't quite sure what that meant,
when I was 14 in 1926. I'd known for quite some time that I was different
from the others, but I didn't know how or why or what it all meant. Then I
was 14 and suddenly I discovered what it all meant and from there on out I
always wanted to get a brotherhood of people like me together.
Keehnen: So your intent with the
Mattachine Society was the formation of a brotherhood?
Hay: Yes, and in this brotherhood we
were going to find out who we were. In those years we weren't even in the
Encyclopedia Britannica. We didn't know anything about ourselves. When
we began the Mattachine Society we were in the process of developing a
positive gay identity. We wanted to see ourselves as good people. The first
time we sat down to meet we didn't even know what to ask each other.
Keehnen: What turned out to be the
question everyone wanted to ask?
Hay: Everyone was just curious. You see,
the Mattachine Society was really not the first of its kind, but in the
groups before everyone would just drop out after five meetings or so. We
needed a vehicle by which to get people to come together.
Keehnen: What was it?
Hay: We started to talk to each other,
specifically about the Kinsey Report, and we began to realize we had more in
common with each other than we had with our families. It was exciting and
all of a sudden no one wanted to miss a meeting. We wanted to know each
other's experience and a brotherhood was beginning to develop. At that point
we weren't thinking politically, we were thinking about who we were and what
we had in common.
Keehnen: What happened with the
Hay: In the Mattachine Society, we were
doing what would later be termed �consciousness raising' or �peer
counseling,' only in those years we didn't have phrases like that or even
concepts like that, but after the organization won a case on an entrapment
charge we were inundated with guys that were right of center�and we were all
left of center. We were inundated with the first wave of assimilationists.
They didn't believe in the brotherhood. What they wanted to do was get the
law changed and then everyone could just settle down and be happy, but they
didn't give a damn about the brotherhood.
Keehnen: In addition to your many
achievements, weren't you the first person to put forth gays as a cultural
minority as well?
Hay: Yes. My insistence on that was what
finally got me pounded out of the Mattachine Society in 1953. The wonderful
thing about that was when Stonewall came about 16 years later all the people
assumed we'd thought of ourselves as a cultural minority since day one.
Keehnen: How did the concept of
�cultural minority' come to you?
Hay: I was an educator and I loved
theory, and one was the theory of a national minority that has a common
language, a common territory and economy, and a common psychological make-up
that manifests itself in a common community or culture. Anyway, we had them
all except a common economy, which would have made us a nation, but with
three out of the four characteristics from a left point of view we had a
cultural minority. We needed to recognize we had these things in common and
have them work for us and not against us.
Keehnen: You were an actor in the 1930s;
what was gay Hollywood like in that decade?
Hay: Most places had one naked bulb and you really couldn't see the people across
the bar from you. In other words, it was a form of cruising indoors. Gay
Hollywood was a series of very well covered up cliques. They were all over
the city but none of them ever knew each other. And you never brought anyone
you cruised to your clique. He could be a front man for the cops.
Keehnen: How did you meet your mentor
and one time lover Will �Grandpa Walton' Geer?
Hay: When I met Will he was the leading
man in a show I was cast in called "The Ticket of Leave Man." Will was so
wonderful, I used to sit in the wings every night and just moon over his
performance. At that time he was one of those sort of ugly men who could be
Keehnen: Wasn't Will Geer the person who
introduced you to the Communist Party?
Hay: He was indeed. He wasn't terribly
interested in theory. He didn't know a great deal about Marxism. He was very
much caught up in the romanticism of the struggle but was never very strong
on theory. I'm the opposite--I have to know everything I'm doing or I have
trouble with it. During this time I tried to interest him in my theory of
the brotherhood, but he just couldn't see it or understand why.
Keehnen: You were married to a woman
with whom you had compatible ideological beliefs even though you were gay�do
you think compatible personalities can conquer sexual differences?
Hay: No. No, they can't. She knew about
everything. I told her. You must understand, this was in the late 1930s, and
in the 1930s we were just starting to get Jung and Freud in English. We
didn't have anything written down on us. I was looking for someone who would
fight with me and stand with me on the shared principles of the CIO and the
Communist Party. So I went to the first Jungian to open an office in Los
Angeles, and he said to me, "Maybe you're not looking for a girlish boy,
maybe you're looking for a boyish girl." Whenever someone asks a question in
two parts, always answer the first part and never the second. I answered the
second. I desperately, desperately needed to find a compatible, charming,
and magnificent companion--she was that. Only after the second or third
time we were together I had to visualize a man.
Keehnen: You were also a founder of the
Radical Faeries. What did you feel this movement had to offer gay men?
Hay: We called a conference in Arizona
over Labor Day in 1979 thinking we'd get maybe 35 people�and 210 showed up.
We realized in the ten years since Stonewall we had gone through a door. The
Radical Faeries moved again towards the brotherhood I had always dreamed
about. There are now Radical Faeries groups in New Zealand and Scotland and
Australia. We have fifty gatherings across the country now and in 1979 there
Keehnen: Do you still believe in
maximizing the difference between gays and straights rather than downplaying
Hay: Of course. In those differences
come the great contributions we've been making.
Keehnen: I like that viewpoint.
Hay: Because you know in your heart it's
true and when we feel something together then we should walk together.
That's my sense of organization and from that how we can inspire ourselves
and empower each other.
Keehnen: Back in 1967, you said on
television, "Gays should reject society's negative stereotypes and insist on
defining themselves." Do you feel much progress has been made in that
Hay: Yes, I do. I think the
contributions, especially on the stage, with people like Harvey Fierstein
and the marvelous gender fuck of The Cockettes. There are so many wonderful
people and they all show we have an enormous amount to contribute. There was
a marvelous story in �The Gay Community News' on the Outwrite speakers, and
one of them was a fine lesbian sister by the name of Dorothy Allison who
spoke of herself as an outlaw and I thought, "Oh goodness, I have to write
her. I feel the same way."
Keehnen: What exactly is your definition
of an outlaw?
Hay: Outside the system. When I was 8 I
understood this for the first time. The guys all told me I threw a ball like
a girl so I asked the girls if I threw a ball like a girl and they said,
"No, you throw a ball like a sissy." The point is, as far as the boys were
concerned, sissy and girl are the same thing, but as far as the girls are
concerned the two are very different. If you had that experience and
believed what the boys said, then you bought your first sexist remark. The
girls would have told you the truth; you are neither masculine nor feminine.
The neitherness is who we are and the neitherness is our power and out of
the neitherness comes our contribution.
Keehnen: You've spent a great part of
your life sifting through gay history. Why do you think gays and lesbians
have been constantly oppressed throughout history?
Hay: We have to look at organized
religion as a way to control populations. And we are the one people willing
to go to the gallows to do the different thing that we do. So consequently
we are a threat at all times to the established authority. We have been
persecuted because, in effect, we gave them the middle finger. We are going
to do what we want even if we have to burn for it, and we have. This is
another definition of the outlaw.
Keehnen: What do you think of the
current gay organizations ACT UP and Queer Nation?
Hay: I think both are doing swell jobs.
Their form of street theatre is superb. ACT UP has been very effective, and
as we certainly know they are the ones who have made breakthroughs in
getting the government to give any consideration for AIDS funding. They have
scandalized the government into taking motions.
Keehnen: Which accomplishment, of your
many, are you the most proud of?
Hay: I don't think of anything I've done
as an accomplishment. All my life I've had a vision and a dream to build
this brotherhood, and little by little it's happened and the Radical Faeries
have become my brotherhood.
Keehnen: So it's all been a matter of
the evolution of your brotherhood vision?
Hay: Yeah. I'll tell you your story,
I'll tell you my vision and what I think we can do and where we've gone and
the marvelous things we've done and how we can do them all over again, and if
you feel the same way I do, let's walk together. This is the way I've always
seen it and this is the way I still see it.
Keehnen: Well, I think living that
closely and consistently to your belief system is a major accomplishment in
and of itself.
Hay: Don't forget, we are the people
that can have dreams for which we don't yet have words. Maybe my
accomplishment has been to find some of those words.
This interview occurred on Harry Hay's eightieth birthday, April 7, 1992. It
was first published here on December 15, 2004.
About Owen Keehnen
||Owen Keehnen has
worked as a journalist, book reviewer, and interviewer for a number of
years. Currently, the Chicago based author is completing a trilogy of
interview books on gay XXX stars, finishing a horror novel, and supporting
himself as a massage therapist. He is also launching a website which
celebrates independent horror films,