Harry Hay


Harry Hay (1912-2002) is best known as the founder of the U.S. gay movement but is increasingly known as a pioneer of gay spirituality. He started the Mattachine Society in 1950 and launched the Radical Faerie movement in 1979. Behind both efforts, he hoped to recover and affirm the nature of homosexuals as "separate people" with a consciousness that distinguished them from heterosexuals even more than their sexuality. 

Born on the same day the Titanic sank, Harry often said, "when one queen goes down another comes up." His early life was one of privilege, but he became devoted to social justice as a young man, learning about the International Workers of the World at age 13. Around the same time, he read Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk by the visionary gay writer Edward Carpenter. Like many gay men of his time, Harry married. He and his wife, Anita Platky, adopted two daughters: Hannah born in 1943 and Kate in 1945. The couple divorced in 1951. After several other gay relationships, he began his partnership with John Burnside in 1963 that lasted until Hay’s death.

In the mid-1930s Hay’s reformist convictions led him to join the American Communist Party. He wrote his original "call to action" in 1948, and two years later, he joined with Rudi Gernreich, Chuck Rowland, and a few others to found the Mattachine Society. The Society formed discussion groups and fought for basic rights. Their spin-off organization, ONE Incorporated, published a national gay magazine throughout the 1950s. Hay is widely credited with applying the term "minority" to homosexuals--though many resisted that concept in 1950.

In its first years, Hay viewed the Mattachine movement as a "sacred brotherhood" and the dedication of the society's original members was described as "evangelical." Mattachine's secret cell structure, composed of five levels, was based on the Masonic order, and Hay sometimes referred to the founders in the top level as "Parsifal," equating the quest for gay equality and affirmation as a holy mission.

 Harry was fascinated with the questions of why gays exist and researched extensively to understand: Who are we? Where have we been in history? What is our purpose? Hay's studies suggested that gay nature was neither male nor female; he adhered to the theory that GLBT people form a third sex and serve as a bridge between the masculine and the feminine. He based these thoughts on the historical, anthropological studies of Native American and other two-spirited people who lived trans-gendered roles integrated into tribal life. Hay’s frequent talks and writings often expounded on approaching gayness as something the larger world needed, the "gay gifts" of: innate gentleness, creativity, and the ability to act as agents of transformation. He sought through faerie gatherings to encourage the concepts of "gay consciousness" and "subject-subject consciousness," based on the belief that, unlike heterosexuality, homosexual relationships had a deep potential due to the inherent similarity of same-sex partners. For some years he and Burnside lived in a Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, where the couple built and sold kaleidoscopes. Hay was known for his “fabulous” playful wardrobe: fisherman's cap, camouflage skirt, pearls, one long earring, red sunbonnet. Even in jeans and a work shirt, he was never seen without pearls, insisting that he "never again wanted to be mistaken for a hetero."

In 1979, Hay, with Don Kilhefner, initiated the first Spiritual Gathering for Radical Faeries. He served as the elder philosopher for a movement that spread internationally. Hay believed that gays were inherently unique: “Most people say we are the same as straights except for what we do in bed. I say what we do in bed is the only place where we are the same.” In 1992, Harry initiated a series of what he called the Sex Magick workshops. Thirteen of these took place during the next nine years. Using a process based on the Hopi circle and healing ritual, these workshops sought to integrate gay sexuality and emotional intimacy with spirituality.

In 1999, Harry and John traveled from their home in Los Angeles to San Francisco to preside as Grand Marshals in the annual Gay Pride Parade. During this period, Harry’s declining health manifested with severe back and stomach pain. He rallied for several years and the couple remained in San Francisco under cared of a circle of friends. He died six months after turning ninety, on October 24, 2002.

The following poem is one expression of Hay's powerful vision of the gay gift:
Out of history we emerge,
A separate people whose time is at hand,
Out of the mists of our long oppression,
We bring love for ourselves and for each other,
And love for the gifts we bear.
So heavy and so painful the fashioning of them,
So long the road given us to travel to bring them.

A separate people,
We bring a gift to celebrate each other;
Tis a gift to be gay!
Feel the pride of it!

A separate people,
We bring the gift of our consciousness to everyone,
That all together we may heal our planet!
Share the magic of it!

Timmons, Stuart, The Trouble with Harry Hay: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement, Alyson, 1990.
Hay, Harry and Roscoe, Will, Radically Gay: Gay Liberation in the Words of its
, Beacon Press, 1996.
Bullough, Vern, ed., Before Stonewall, Harrington Park, 2002.
Slade, Eric, ‘Hope along the Wind,” a film documentary, 2002.
“Special Feature & Time Line”, RFD, vol. xxvii, no. 4,  Spring, 
2003, pages 15-32.
Radical Faeries website at www.radfae.org.
Memorial website at www.edenhome.org/forharry.htm.

(This biographical sketch researched and written by Jerrald L. Townsend, appropriately on
Mardi Gras, 2/19/2007, with additional information from Stuart Timmons.)

Biography Date: March 2007

Additional Resources


Archival Collections:


Gay Spirituality | Radical Faeries | Burnside, John | Kilhefner, Don | Gay Liberation Movement | Mattachine Society | Hay, Harry


“Harry Hay | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed May 24, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/harry-hay.


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