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Hay, Harry (1912-2002)  
 
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The Mattachine Society

From 1947 until 1952 Hay taught music history courses at the Los Angeles People's Education Center. In his research on the medieval period he learned about secret societies of monks, including one called the Mattachines, who, masked and costumed as jesters, performed songs and dances--often including satire and social parody--on the "Feast of Fools" (April Fool's Day) in defiance of a ban by the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. Hay concluded that "the Mattachine troupes conveyed vital information to the oppressed in the countryside of 13th-15th century France," adding that he "hoped that such a society of modern homosexual men, living in disguise in 20th century America, could do similarly for us oppressed ."

The modern Mattachine Society had its genesis at a November 1950 meeting of five men--Hay, his lover fashion designer Rudi Gernreich, Robert Hull, who was a student in Hay's classes, and two of Hull's friends, Charles Rowland and Dale Jennings. The men continued to meet, always in secret for fear of a police raid if their organization were discovered.

Sponsor Message.

Membership gradually increased. Hay oversaw the development of the society, taking as his model the Freemasons of the eighteenth century, an underground fraternal organization. The Mattachines attempted to operate by unanimous consensus, which, given the strong personalities involved, including the sometimes volatile Hay, caused occasional difficulties.

McCarthyism

In early 1952 Jennings was arrested for allegedly soliciting a police officer. Hay bailed him out of jail, and the Mattachine Society established the Citizens' Committee to Outlaw Entrapment in Jennings' defense.

At trial Jennings' lawyer was able to prove that the arresting officer had lied. Eleven of the jurors favored acquittal, but one pledged to keep voting guilty "till hell froze over." After forty hours of deliberations by the deadlocked panel, the judge dismissed the case. Although less definitive than an acquittal, the decision was viewed as a victory in the struggle for gay rights.

As a result, membership in the Mattachine Society burgeoned from a few hundred to several thousand. There was, however, also a backlash. A newspaper columnist called the organization potentially "dangerous," and another identified Hay as "a Marxist teacher."

The scrutiny produced uneasiness within the Mattachine Society. Newer members at the Society's 1953 convention called for a new constitution and new leadership. They were concerned in particular about being perceived as a Communist-influenced organization in the McCarthy era. Whereas the newcomers favored an assimilationist strategy, Hay wanted to celebrate the uniqueness of glbtq people. Hay reluctantly dissociated himself from the pioneering organization that he had founded.

Hay was called to appear at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Los Angeles in 1955. He had great difficulty in finding a lawyer willing to represent a gay client, a circumstance that left him "almost catatonic with fear." When he did appear, he was briefly questioned and rather quickly dismissed.

The 1950s proved to be a difficult period for Hay. Soon after his divorce, his relationship with Gernreich also ended. Despite his bold leadership in the gay rights movement he found himself excluded from contemporary organizations.

Shortly after his separation from Gernreich, Hay began a ten-year relationship with Jorn Kamgren, a Danish hat-maker. In order to propitiate the often temperamental and possessive Kamgren, Hay distanced himself from former associates, a privation that eventually led to the couple's break-up in 1962.

The following year Hay moved in with fellow activist Jim Kepner. The two felt affection and respect for each other, but romance failed to blossom. After a few months they parted but remained good friends.

By then past fifty, Hay was pessimistic about ever having an enduring committed relationship. In September 1963, however, at the ONE Institute Dorr Legg introduced him to John Burnside, an engineer who owned a kaleidoscope factory. Burnside was in a "not unhappy" but unfulfilling marriage at the time. Within three months, however, he moved in with Hay, and the two remained "loving companions" for life.

Return to Activism

Hay and Burnside were also committed partners in the struggle for glbtq rights. In 1965 they founded a gay and lesbian collective, the Circle of Loving Companions, based on "the Whitmanesque ideal of the inclusive love of comrades."

The following year they joined the North American Conference of Organizations (NACHO). As chairman of the Los Angeles committee, Hay organized a "picket line on wheels," in which cars bore placards decrying discriminatory policies in the Unites States military (although Hay was also active in assisting gay men who resisted the draft during the war in Vietnam).

After the foundation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in New York in the wake of the Stonewall riots in 1969, regional chapters were also organized. Hay was elected chairperson of the Southern California branch, and he and Burnside became fixtures on picket lines and at demonstrations in late 1969 and early 1970.

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