Radical Hope: Harry Hay and the Founding of Mattachine
Every year around and during Pride Month, in documentaries and on signs, we see many images over and over again. One among them is this one:
The message in the image appears to be carefully handwritten in chalk on a board across from the starting point of the Stonewall riots, the Stonewall Inn; there is also a notice of a meeting “to discuss solutions to your complaint”. The sign reads as follows:
We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the villiage - Mattachine.
The sign is usually met with derision, both subtly and pointedly, whenever it is shown. This was epecially true during the 50th Stonewall Riots anniversary. The sentiment is the opposite of the Reclaim Pride movement. This page aims to give readers an historical context to the image.
I met Harry Hay twice. The second meeting was at the book signing of his book, Radically Gay in 1996. I remember that day clearly. Harry Hay spoke for about 40 minutes then took questions and spoke for at least an hour and a half more. After that he recieved the audience for the book signing. Hay was eighty-four years old.
Radically Gay is a collection of Harry Hay’s writings – essays, columns, manifestos – introduced, curated, and extensively footnoted by Hay’s friend and editor, Will Roscoe.
The first story in the book is Hay recalling the summer of 1925. He had been sent to work on his uncle’s farm. Hay was invited to a neighboring tribe’s pow wow. He was brought to an elder, the near-legendary Wovoka. It was explained to thirteen year old Harry Hay that the elder was blind so he would want to touch Hay’s face. Afterward Wovoka spoke a few words. Hay asked what the words meant. They said Hay would be a friend.
Hay indeed did become a friend to Native Americans. In 1936 he petitioned on behalf of the Hopis. From that time on Hay became involved in various unions, campaigns to end poverty, the anti-nazi league, the League Against War and Facism, Mobilization for Democracy, and others. In 1939 Hay documented poor housing conditions (as Bernie Sanders did in his youth).
By the 1940’s Hay was giving classes in Marxism. In 1948 Hay had an idea of forming a society for advancing the concept of a cultural minority for gays. A few people said they were interested. Hay went home and wrote up a 100 page manifesto. Only one person showed interest at first.
From the two part documentary here is Harry Hay in a short clip from Before Stonewall:
In 1950 Hay produced a formal structure for the group. He called it Mattachine after a 13th century dance troupe of “unmarried men”. Although Hay studied Marxism, he wrote the structure for Mattachine in a democratic format. He would later say that he would never again belong to an organization that voted on membership; in future orgainzing by Hay everyone was welcome, no dues were required. Hay came to be known to defend all minorities, even minorities within minorities.
… he vowed never to join an organization that relied on voting, but to advocate instead for the kind of consensus decision-making that the Mattachine founders had successfully employed for three years. - Radically Gay, page 167.
In November of 1951 one of Mattachine’s members was caught in an entrapment case. Harry Hay arranged for his (Dale Jennings) defense. The case was dismissed in the spring of 1952. It was a first and news of it travelled around the world. Someone in Australia wrote to Hay and said he did not think it would happen in his country during his lifetime, but it brought “hope along the wind”. Hay used the phrase in his writing and talks, in various forms, over the years. The phrase is also the title of a documentary by Eric Slade.
Chapters of Mattachine Society spread across the U.S. With fear mounting from reports of gays fired from jobs in the State Department, plus McCarthism in general (comparable to Trumpism), in 1953, the East Coast chapter of Mattachine called a convention and voted to revoke the membership of the original members. Here is a short clip of Harry Hay telling it in his own words in Hope Along the Wind.
Hope Along the Wind clip - This is a three minute clip edited to around two minutes, nothing added, the visual glitch at 30 seconds was in the original, the DVD. Hay was in his late eighties.
The decision of Mattachine to oust the founding members was the beginning of what we today refer to as the Assimilationists, the Centrists (the do not progress nor disturb anyone, and often regressive policy, people), the “Log Cabin Republicans”, and the commercialization of Pride events.
Here are several quotes from Radically Gay:
Hay challenges the positions of both ONE and DOB, arguing that the notion of specific “rights” for a minority is inimical to democratic principles — rights are indivisible, that is, extended to everybody equally. Instead, Hay argues for a “bill of particulars” — a kind of political wish list of social changes that Lesbians and Gays should demand but be prepared to modify when the opportunity to negotiate arises.
- Radically Gay, page 149.
The key challenge of the movement, he argues, is overcoming the prejudice against homosexuality. Trying to downplay, minimize, or sanitize homosexuality fails to address this prejudice. For this reason, Hay opposes the strategy of defending homosexual acts because they are based on “mutual consent,” much as he opposes the strategy of claiming legal protection for Gays and Lesbians on a presumed right to privacy. Neither of these approaches challenges the fundamental public perception of homosexuality — not as a mode of personhood or an emotional orientation whose fulfillment is central to the Gay person’s happiness, but as the social and moral equivalent of prostitution and adultery, which are victimless crimes between consenting adults performed in private. Those who view homosexuality in the same context as prostitution are hardly likely to welcome the presence of Gay men and Lesbians in their daily lives. Anti-Gay prejudice is unchallenged.
- Radically Gay, page 150 (1961).
In terms of everyday political exigencies the popularly current myth of “inalienable rights” is no more than the constantly reiterated posits of our founding fathers’ “self-evident truths.” As such, then, “inalienable rights” must be seen to be a valid concept only when comprehended as inseparable from “duties owed.” All other political sacra are “civil privileges” voluntarily and collectively conferred in convention by the democratic process. And precisely because they are conferred they are equally collectively revocable.
- Radically Gay, page 153.
As the progress of the Wolfenden Report from committee to the floor of Commons in the British Parliament demonstrated, there were many who warmly supported its right to be debated on the floor precisely in order to vote against it.
I am firmly convinced that a state-by-state jurisprudential insertion of a “mutual consent” clause — even were such a projection practicable — does not solve the contradictions oppressing our minority. I believe that the essential compromising opportunism and negativeness of the “mutual consent” position (as applied to the Homophile minority problem) was wholly exposed by the career of the Wolfenden Report and the consequential debate which buried it.
- Radically Gay, page 155, 156.
Founding of the Gay LIberation Front, December 1969.
Community of Interest: We are in total opposition to America’s white racism, to poverty, hunger, the systematic destruction of our patrimony; we oppose the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and are in total opposition to wars of aggression and imperialism, whoever pursues them. We support the demands of Blacks, Chicanos, Orientals, Women, Youth, Senior Citizens, and others demanding their full rights as human beings. We join in their struggle, and shall actively seek coalition to pursue these goals.
Gay Liberation Front, Los Angeles, will be a one-human, one-vote, non-exclusionary organization, welcoming all concerned homosexuals and sexual liberationists into its association. Decision-making process is by consensus. There is no formal membership; participants are called “Associates.”
- Radically Gay, page 175–178.
In 1979 Hay wrote an unfavorable review of Arthur Evans’ 1978 book, Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture. It is included in Radically Gay. Hay said Evans rushed the book into print. Hay included a deep dive into centuries of cultural minorities in his review.
Evans’ book at first was going to be a collection of essays he had published in a magazine. He offered the manuscript to Mitch Walker for review. Walker made several corrections and suggestions which caused Evans to rewrite the manuscript. Now it was twice its original length. The publiisher could not afford to print it at that length, so Evans edited it to a length acceptable to the publisher and this became Evans’ defense to Hay’s review.
Here is what Mitch Walker had to say in an interview with Steve O’Neil around the time of Hay’s review and after the first gathering of Radical Faeries, organized by Harry Hay, John Burnside, Don Kilhefner, and Mitch Walker:
Invocation For Strength read by its author and included as an epigraph in Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture by Arthur Evans:
Hay’s re-evaluation of Marxism was triggered not only by the obvious failings of the Soviet experience and the homophobia of the American Left, but also by the cumulative effect of the scientific advances of the twentieth century — especially theories such as Einstein’s principle of relativity, which undermined the suppositions of Cartesian objectivity, the separation of observing subject and observed object. As Hay put it, science had learned that “Nature could not be fitted into the binary system”.
- Radically Gay, page 182.
We recognize the background music in this recording as Mooncircles by Kay Gardner. ↩