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The Gospel of Gay, According to Harry Hay

December 13, 1990|ROBIN ABCARIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1952, the group took on as a cause the entrapment arrest of one of its members, who was accused of soliciting sex with a policeman. It set up the Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment to raise funds for the defense and to educate Angelenos about the Police Department's harassment of gays. When the trial resulted in a hung jury and the judge dismissed the charges, the Mattachine Society declared it the first time an admitted homosexual had been freed after being charged with vagrancy and lewdness.

After being ousted from the Mattachine Society in a complicated power struggle over political approaches, Hay spent the '60s in a kind of withdrawal, then returned to politics in the '70s with a move to New Mexico and involvement in Native American causes.

On the verge of the '80s, Hay co-founded the Radical Faeries, a gay spiritual group that has worldwide chapters that meet once every year or two for woodsy retreats, in which participants are urged to "tear off the ugly green frog skin of conformity and find the beautiful fairy prince underneath." The group is a New Age synthesis of the spiritual and political, and is the wing of the gay movement that most closely expresses Hay's theory of gay pacifism.

A conversation with Hay is a challenge. His manner is a combination of aristocratic kindness and didacticism mixed with outrage and italicized condescension if he thinks he's been asked a particularly stupid question. One question that set him off during a recent interview was this: "How could you have been so active in the Communist Party in the 1940s when it was so fervently anti-homosexual?"

The fist pounds the table. The voice rises.

"That is the \o7 silliest \f7 statement I have ever heard," he huffs. "The point is that homosexuality doesn't even exist then! \o7 The point is you're not getting the point!\f7 As far as society is concerned, I am a hetero who performs nasty acts with men! This is what I'm told. This is all I know. I have a predilection to love men and this is dirty, this is awful, this is terrible and nowhere in the world is this accepted, \o7 nowhere\f7 ! So I am fighting oppression (as a Communist), recognizing that I am an oppressed person. I know it and feel it, but I don't have the words for it at that moment."

Timmons said one of his greatest challenges in writing the book was coming to grips with the apparent contradiction of Hay's dedication to the Communist Party and the party's condemnation of homosexuality.

"A lot of younger people have felt that this is a glaring contradiction and I struggled a lot when I was writing this," said Timmons, 33. "It's really hard to understand how underground the whole gay scene was and how there really was not that kind of identity and community and culture that we have so taken for granted today." It's not just that the Communist Party hated homosexuality, Timmons explained; the whole world hated it. Homosexuality was thought to be an arrested stage of heterosexuality, undesirable and curable.

"The positive gay identity is something we discovered in the 1950s," said Hay. "This is what the Mattachine Society did. It doesn't exist until that time. When this guy (Timmons) tried to to ask me what the gay lifestyle was in 1929, I said, 'Honey, we didn't \o7 have\f7 a lifestyle in 1929!' That is a stupid statement because that's not a concept we even had yet."

Said Timmons: "Many of the members of Harry's generation share the same frustration. Harry gets a little louder or upset. Young gay people and younger people in general suddenly think they know it \o7 all \f7 about the way it was and the way it should have been. The enormous pain and suffering and struggle of building (a movement) from the ground up just gets wiped out with one remark. As far as the Communist Party went, it was the place where many gays had the best chance of finding people who could look at them maybe some day as an oppressed group. They really did feel hopeful there, and more comfortable than they could have felt almost anywhere else."

Until the 1960s, it was not at all unusual for gay men to marry, hoping to effect a "cure." Hay tried marriage after receiving what he calls "tragic advice" from a therapist, who told him his sexual past could be shut like a book and the future, opened like a new one. It wasn't to be.

His wife, Anita, entered the marriage knowing he was gay, but believing that Hay could change. Marriage for Hay was misery. He lead a double life, cruising the parks and other homosexual haunts, and then in 1950, fell madly in love with the man with whom he would make history: Rudi Gernreich with whom he would co-found the Mattachine Society. (Fifteen years later, Gernreich would become famous as the designer of the topless bathing suit. In keeping with the Mattachine's code of semi-secrecy, Gernreich's critical role in its founding was not revealed publicly until after his death in 1985.)

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