Harry Hay: One Big Idea

by Paul Varnell on October 30, 2002

Originally appeared October 30, 2002, in the Chicago Free Press.

HARRY HAY, who died recently at the age of 90, was the principal founder in 1950/51 of the early gay Mattachine Society. But Hay lived to see the gay movement grow in a very different direction from his original vision and he denounced it for what most of us would regard as its very successes - legal reform, partner recognition, media visibility - and played little role in organized gay activism after 1953.

Hay had one big idea. After reading Kinsey and recalling a short-lived Chicago gay organization in the 1920s Hay decided that homosexuals should form an organization to advance their interests. And he had the courage and perseverance to create one. But for the rest, his ideas seem now, from a distance of 50 years, largely without merit.

A Communist Party member from 1933 to 1951, Hay was asked to withdraw because Party members felt his homosexuality was "a security risk" (to the Party!) but the Party formally declared him "a lifelong friend of the people" - i.e., non-Party communist. He apparently retained his radical sympathies for the rest of his life, visiting the Soviet Union shortly before its collapse.

As a Communist Hay imbibed secrecy, paranoia and an ideology of authoritarian control by unknown leaders and he brought those to Mattachine. But in 1953 members rebelled, forcing Hay to withdraw. In a 1974 interview, Hay said, "What the opposition wanted was an open, democratic organization." Hay didn't want that: "In order to be such an organization, all the idealism that we held while we were a private organization would have to go."

The "idealism" amounted to this: "... a great transcendent dream of what being Gay was all about. I had proposed from the very beginning that it would be Mattachine's job to find out who we Gays were (and had been over the millennia) and what we were for and, on such bases to find ways to make our contributions to our parent hetero society."

Why that required secret leaders, dictatorial control, and no elections Hay never explained.

Hay's "idealism" had three components: a) gays are qualitatively different from heterosexuals, mentally, psychologically, spiritually, not just in "what they do in bed;" b) the core difference lies in the natural androgyny of homosexuals, that they embody both male and female elements; and c) in order to help promote their acceptance gays need to explain the contribution this difference makes to society.

Each of these deserves extended discussion; this is just a sketch.

Androgyny seemed to be a continuing obsession for Hay. In a 1950 prospectus for what became Mattachine, Hay repeatedly referred to "Society's Androgynous Minority," and "We, the Androgynes of the world." He exaggerated and romanticized intermediate gender roles occasionally found in earlier societies, ignoring examples of masculine warrior homosexuality in other cultures.

Today the idea that gays are androgynous seems based on selective perception and merely a capitulation to a social stereotype. Gay men work out to attract men who are attracted to men. More sports figures are coming out. One 1938 photo of Hay himself suggests a sullen James Dean masculinity. Nor has psychological testing discovered any noticeable psychological androgyny among gays that cannot also be found among educated heterosexuals.

Second, whether gays and lesbians have any intrinsic, special "gay consciousness" at all seems doubtful. Hay told biographer Stuart Timmons, "We differ most from heterosexuals in how we perceive the world. That ability to offer insights and solutions is our contribution to humanity ... ."

It may be that under conditions of prejudice and discrimination, gays can develop a heightened awareness of the arbitrariness of social conventions that impact them differentially, and even learn a heightened sensitivity to unconscious signals and nuances of personal interaction. But whether those would develop in the absence of prejudice and discrimination seems doubtful.

Alternatively gays may, like other minorities, learn to view the world from the mainstream perspective as well as their own. If so, that double vision - like looking at those 3-dimensional "Magic Eye" pictures - may provide a kind of "depth perception." But if so, that capacity would not be limited to gays, but be common to any minority.

Finally, Hay's idea that being gay has to be "about" something, that gays should account for their existence as a group, to answer the question "What are homosexuals for?" feels odd. But steeped as he was in Communist doctrine, Hay thought in terms of classes and "peoples" and conceived of gay liberation as "bargaining ... between Gays and straights as groups."

Most of us today probably realize that the purpose of our individual life is whatever we want it to be and that we can insist on respect as gay individuals whether or not being gay contributes to our purpose. The idea that gays need to justify our existence as gays falsely assumes that reproduction is itself a justification the lack of which gays need to compensate for.

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.

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