It's not just the tasteful double strand of pearls around his neck or the single cascading earring that sets Harry Hay apart from your average 78-year-old activist. It's his controversial theories on the nature of gay men, his demand that gays eschew "hetero-assimilation," his imperious demeanor and, most important, his only recently acknowledged place as father of the modern gay movement.
Hay is well known in the gay community, but has never sought the limelight outside of it. That may change now that he is the subject of a new, aptly named biography, "The Trouble With Harry Hay" (Alyson).
A lifelong Angeleno, Hay lives with John Burnside, his lover of 28 years, in an overstuffed cottage off Melrose Avenue near the Paramount Pictures studios. Recently, he sat at a book-covered table in the book-filled dining room of his book-crammed home doing what he does best: holding forth.
He spoke about his theory of "gay consciousness"--that gays are non-competitive, spiritually evolved beings who wrongly attempt assimilation into "hetero society," a phrase that sounds an awful lot like an epithet on his lips. (Don't even ask what he thinks of the Washington, D.C., men who filed suit last month to get a marriage license.)
"All hetero boys are hopelessly competitive with each other," said Hay. "Competition is the way of life. But we gay people are not competitors. We want to share with one another. We're not the slightest bit interested in winning. This is not our way. And as I've always said, when we imitate heteros, we usually do it badly. We either overdo or underdo. Mostly, we overdo." With a coy shrug and a flick of his pearls, he drives the point home.
"I think that's ridiculous," said David Thomas, a gay professor who is chairman of the politics department at UC Santa Cruz. "I know and Harry knows plenty of homosexuals who are competitive. Harry's way of thinking is very seductive, in some ways attractive and in some ways dangerous. It's basically a mythical way of thinking. But it can slide into a game of 'gayer than thou' because if somebody comes along and identifies homosexuals who are competitive, he says, 'Well, they're not really gay.' "
"This is a very controversial issue," said Martin Duberman, a gay professor at City University of New York who specializes in gay and lesbian history. "I think Harry would be hard put to demonstrate that the same gay personality type repeats itself across history.
"Part of me strongly believes that gays are in fact different. I don't believe gays are different biologically, but they . . . identify with qualities which in our either/or society have been parceled out only to women. I think gay men do identify with being nurturing and supportive. As a group, they are less aggressive and competitive than straight men, but there are plenty of gay men who are at least as aggressive as straight men.
"Harry has always had a tendency to infuriate people," said Duberman. "That kind of strong, confident personality is always likely to produce sparks. He has always been an admirable figure and an essential figure in our history. Without him, the movement would probably have gotten started later and differently. To have that kind of pioneering spirit, that willingness to get up essentially all alone and confront what was then a consensus view of homosexuality as pathology, takes extraordinary courage and will."
Even Thomas, who disagrees with some of Hay's most closely held beliefs, is laudatory: "Harry is the most original and interesting figure that the American political gay movement has created. He should be better known."
Hay's indefatigable political activism and in-your-face theories on the importance of gays make his life story entertainingly readable. In the 1930s he was introduced to Marxism and agitprop theater by his then lover, left-wing organizer Will Geer (the late actor who portrayed Grandpa on "The Waltons"). In the 1940s, he taught classes in Marxism. In 1950, he co-founded the country's first gay political organization, the Mattachine Society, for which he has earned his place in modern gay history.
The Mattachine, named for a secret European all-male society of the 15th Century, was structurally modeled after the Communist Party's cells and secret fraternal orders. It had a pyramid structure, with discussion groups at the bottom and the small circle of founders at the top. Hay's biographer, Stuart Timmons, describes it as "an underground resistance."
One of the Mattachine founders told Timmons that "Harry is the first person I know who said that gays are a minority--an oppressed minority. This was the heart and core of the Mattachine movement and all subsequent gay movements."