’Radically Gay: The Life of Harry Hay’ Shows at SF Main Library

  • by Chris Sosa, BAR Contributor
  • Friday May 4, 2012
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Acknowledged by many as the founder of the modern gay and lesbian rights movement, Harry Hay, who died in 2002, was a transformational figure whose legacy is fondly remembered in Radically Gay: The Life of Harry Hay. The exhibition, now at the San Francisco Main Library Gallery, brings its subject to life on the centennial of his birth, and illuminates the intersection of activism and personal biography, political conscience and humanity. The show, laid out in five sections, charts the progress of the precocious Hay, who early on recognized his "allegiance to high purposes, tenacity of vision, irrevocable resolve, and above all else, audacity."

What critical factors shape a radical psyche and future civil rights leader when passivity and maintaining the status quo are the easiest route? As is often the case, the answers lie close to home. Defying his brutal, autocratic father, a self-made man who acquired his fortune in the gold mines of South Africa, appears to have contributed to Hay's inherent resistance to injustice, rebellion against all forms of bigotry and an unwillingness to surrender to entrenched power or authority. After he stood up to his father at the age of nine during an especially vehement argument, and subsequently endured a severe beating, he experienced an epiphany of sorts and wrote the following: If my father can be wrong, then the teacher can be wrong. And if the teacher can be wrong, maybe the priest could be wrong. And if the priest can be wrong, then maybe even God could be wrong.

Lovers and life partners John Burnside and Harry Hay in 1979. (Photo: Harry Hay Papers, James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center, San Francisco Public Library)

His mother, on the other hand, nurtured in him a love of the arts. Hay had a fling with film and stage acting - his first publicity still is on view - and, in the early 1930s, he had an affair with Will Geer, later known as Grandpa Walton on the long-running television series. Hay did agitprop theatre with Geer, who introduced him to the Communist Party, which he joined in earnest in 1938.

Nearly 20 years later, in 1955, Hay would be summoned to appear before HUAC. Visitors can see notecards on which he outlined his responses to the committee; he declined to answer and, to his great relief, was dismissed. He was also on the radar of the FBI. The agency monitored him from 1943 to 1961, producing a thick file, on display with mistakes corrected in pink by Hay.

The presentation of these and other details. like Hay's 1929 L.A. High School yearbook, where years later he noted former gay classmates who were gay, and of those, which ones had killed themselves or been murdered, gives the show added flavor, making it more than a catalog of organizational accomplishments, impressive as those may be. His various love affairs while attending Stanford, and with gay activist and topless swimsuit designer Rudi Gernreich, among others, are covered. Advised by his Jungian psychiatrist to "go straight," Hay married Anita, a fellow Communist. They had a family and shared political commitment, but like many married gay men of that era, he led a double life. In 1963, he met and fell in love with John Burnside, an optical engineer with whom he lived until his death.

In 1979 Hay, along with Burnside and friends, established the Radical Faeries, the apotheosis of Hay's vision of a loving spiritual community exploring gay consciousness, leftist politics, ecology, counterculture and "centeredness." The Faeries, gathered for an outdoor ritual seen in a picture here, sought to "maximize the differences" with the straight world. Partial to Native American jewelry in the late 1960s and 70s, Hay could often be seen wearing a necklace and a single dangling earring to ensure, he said, that he would "never want to be mistaken for a hetero." As Hay and Burnside grew old, some members of the group moved them to San Francisco and took care of them.

Historical shows can be deadly earnest and didactic, but the exhibit's independent curator Joey Cain has done an excellent job of culling archival materials, photographs, ephemera and original documents, including Hay's research and manifestoes, and touching on pivotal influences and events, while not losing sight of the fullness of a man who had strong ties to the Communist Party, dabbled in theater and poetry, enjoyed a rich and varied love life, and organized the first gay action group (in the late 1940s), the Mattachine Society, which recognized gays as a persecuted minority at a time when society at large regarded homosexuality as an illness. Cain supplies just enough supporting content to create a lean and coherent narrative of Hay's life, and flesh out a human portrait of an unconventional, outspoken man whose presence made the times he lived in more interesting.

May 8: Opening program, Above All Audacity! Guest curator Joey Cain will give an introduction to the exhibition. Colleagues, friends and other community leaders will discuss Hay's contribution to the modern LGBT movement. Special guests include Jewelle Gomez, Phyllis Lyon, Sally Hay (niece of Harry Hay), Will Roscoe, Mark Thompson, Malcolm Boyd. Main Library, Koret Auditorium, 6 p.m.

(Through July 29.)

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