The Daily Agenda for Saturday, April 7
April 7th, 2012
I can really be so gemisht sometimes. I have it in my goyish calendar that today is the first day of Passover. It is the first full day of Passover, but I really should know better. In fact, I do know better. Which is why I should have noted in yesterday’s Agenda that Passover begins at sundown yesterday. And I should have done that yesterday because the beginning of Passover is the most important part of Passover — indeed, perhaps the most solemn occasion in the entire Jewish calendar — when the traditional Seder takes place. And which is why yesterday I should have wished you Chag Sameach, a joyous festival. Yesterday.
Anyway, Happy Pesach, belatedly.
Harry Hay Centennial Celebration: Los Angeles. At 11:a.m., there will be a ceremony at the foot of the Cove Avenue Steps on Silver Lake Blvd. recognizing the site as a historic place by the City of Los Angeles. The staircase leads up the the cul-de-sac where LGBT-rights pioneer Harry Hays lived. It was at his home where on November 11, 1950, a group met to form the Mattachine Society. Those steps will be dedicated as “The Mattachine Steps” to mark the historic site. Following the dedication, the Radical Faeries will host a picnic in an adjoining park overlooking the Silver Lake Reservoir (east side).
Then, at 2:30, there will be a book signing and reading of Stuart Timmon’s newly updated biography, The Trouble with Harry Hay, at Stories bookstore, 1716 Sunset Blvd, in Echo Park.
Harry Hay: 1912. Today is the centenary of Harry Hay, who founded the Mattachine Society which became the first successful society of gay men and women. It wasn’t the first such society however; that distinction went to the short-lived Chicago Society for Human Rights, which didn’t last a year (See Dec 10). But Hay wound up holding a curious and tenuous link between the Chicago group and the Mattachines when, in 1930, at the age of 17:
I enticed an “older” gentleman (he must have been at least 33 ) to “bring me out” by finagling his picking me up in Los Angeles’s notorious Pershing Square. Poor guy–he was appalled to discover, subsequently, that I was both a virgin and jailbait. Champ Simmons didn’t really turn me on, but he was a very decent human being; he was gentle and kind and taught me a great deal.
…Champ, the guy I seduced into picking me up and bringing me out into the gay world, had himself been brought out by a guy who was a member of that Chicago group. So I first heard about that group only a few years after its sad end. My impression was that the society was primarily a social thing. But just the idea of gay people getting together at all, in more than a daisy chain, was an eye-opener of an idea. Champ passed it on to me as if it were too dangerous; the failure of the Chicago group should be a direct warning to anybody trying to do anything like that again.
Hay wasn’t put off by dangerous ideas, a propensity which would always mark him as a controversial figure throughout his life. He joined the Communist Party in 1934, and remained a member until the early 1950s. He also became active in theater, where he briefly became the lover of actor Will Greer. In 1938, he married at the urging of his therapist and party members. He and his wife adopted two daughters, but the couple divorced in 1951.
In 1948, Hay went to a party at USC with several other gay men who supported the presidential campaign of Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace. It was at that party that Hay conceived of organizing a gay activist group. His first efforts to found the “Bachelors for Wallace” failed, but Hay stuck with the idea of creating an organization specifically for gay people. Finally, on November 11, 1950, Hay and several others met at Hay’s home for the first meeting of “The Society of Fools”, which later became the Mattachine Society, named after the Medieval French secret societies of masked men whose anonymity allowed them to criticize the ruling monarchs. As the Mattachine Society got off the ground, Hay left the Communist Party, which didn’t allow gays to be members.
By 1953, the Society grew to over 2,000 members in Southern California. And also by 1953, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s red and pink scares were in full swing. With homosexuality being equated with subversion and treason, many Mattachine members became concerned about the communist connections of some of the Mattachine’s founders, principally, Hay. When Hal Call and others Mattachine members from San Francisco sought to amend the Mattachine’s constitution to oppose “subversive elements” and to affirm that members were loyal to the U.S., Hay resigned, he said later, to save the Society from investigations related to the Red Scare. (In 1955, Hay would, in fact, be called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee.)
In the 1960s, Hay and his partner, John Bernside, became involved again with gay activism, helping to found the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations (NACHO), the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, and, in 1979, a gay spirituality movement called the Radical Fairies. It was during this time when his opposition to assimilationist attitudes within the gay community really began to stand out:
“We pulled ugly green frog skin of heterosexual conformity over us, and that’s how we got through school with a full set of teeth,” Hay once explained. “We know how to live through their eyes. We can always play their games, but are we denying ourselves by doing this? If you’re going to carry the skin of conformity over you, you are going to suppress the beautiful prince or princess within you.”
Hay’s concept of homosexuality, it could be said, was more of a nineteenth century conception than a twentieth century one. He was enamored with the concepts of androgyny, with some of his ideas being similar to the nineteenth-century formulation of homosexuality being a “third sex.” He was influenced by Edward Carpenter, who wrote of gay people as a distinct, well-defined group with its own unique ideals that set if apart from society. Carpenter also wrote of “Greek love” and its pederastic ideals. This perhaps explains how Hay’s radical and anti-assimilationist politics could reach its most controversial limits when, in the early 1980s, he protested NAMBLA’s exclusion from LGBT organizations and activities. He was forcibly removed from the Los Angeles pride parade in 1986 when he showed up with a sign reading “NAMBLA walks with me.” Even some of Hay’s most dedicated supporters and closest friends couldn’t abide this stance. The majority of the gay community had grown, matured, and move in directions that Hays couldn’t accept.
This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Hay’s legacy that we are left to grapple with. And yet, without Hay’s extremely radical idea — radical for 1950 — that gay people should come together from out of the shadows and begin to ask for simple things like the freedom to gather in bars or not to be arrested or not to have their newsletters and magazines confiscated by the post office, it’s hard to know how long the fruition of a far more radical idea would have been delayed — the extremely radical, impossible-to-fathom-in-1950 idea that gays and lesbians could assimilate, that they could become police officers, run businesses, publish newspapers, serve in the military, run for office, marry, raise children, join PTAs and churches and car pools and homeowners associations and march openly in parades down the middle of public streets in June, and do all of those things without hiding or retreating back into the closet. If Hay saw himself as the sworn enemy of assimilation, his pioneering efforts in 1950 were ultimately what made that assimilation possible. And for that, I think that perhaps the late Paul Varnell put it best:
Hay may have been wrong about almost everything. But in the end we do not insist that founders have the right answers, not even ask the right questions. We can honor them as founders and leave it at that.
If you know of something that belongs on the agenda, please send it here. Don’t forget to include the basics: who, what, when, where, and URL (if available).
And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?