“Out of the mists of our long oppression, / We bring love for ourselves and 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 them. A separate people, /We bring a gift to celebrate each other, /’Tis a gift to be gay! / Feel the pride of it!”
Harry Hay was born in England on the day the Titanic sank. When he was ten years old, he and his family moved to Los Angeles. As a young man, he worked in Hollywood as a ghostwriter and an extra on movie sets, where he met the actor Will Geer (best known for his later role as Grandpa on The Waltons). Geer became Hay’s lover and introduced him to the American Communist Party. Hay became an active trade unionist and learned the organizing skills he later used to advocate for gay rights.
Despite his homosexuality, Hay married fellow Communist Party member Anita Platky in 1938 because the Party rejected gays. He helped found the Mattachine Society in 1950 to create a network of support for gays. Hay went public with the society in 1951 and he and Platky divorced. Ironically, Mattachine rejected him in the early fifties for his Communist beliefs.
He continued organizing for gay rights, championing the notion that gays represented a political and cultural minority who had to be honest about who they were if they wanted to live authentic lives. He put forth the radical idea that gays could give votes in exchange for ideological support. In 1948, Hay suggested publicly that Vice President Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party’s candidate for president, would get the homosexual community’s vote if he backed a sexual privacy law. It was a brave act at a time when it was illegal for gays to congregate and the American Psychological Association classified homosexuality as a mental illness.
Hay rejected the idea that homosexuals should assimilate into society—instead he thought they should change it so that gays would be accepted as full individuals. He rose up against huge odds in his struggle to give American gays a voice by constantly pushing the margins of acceptability, asking questions, and taking a stand at enormous personal risk.
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