100 Heroes: Harry Hay
The gay man who founded the Mattachine Society.
As we continue to celebrate the icons of LGBTQ history, let’s take a look at the life and legacy of Harry Hay.
Born in 1912 in England, Harry Hay was the son of an American mining engineer. He was born as Henry Hay, Jr. but became known as Harry.
In 1919, the family returned to California.
Finishing school in 1929, Hay took a job in a law firm in Los Angeles. He briefly studied international relations at Stanford University, before embarking on a career in acting and screenwriting.
In the early 1930s, Hay was becoming increasingly involved in politics and demonstrations. His particular focus was on workers’ rights.
Hay was a vocal supporter of Marxist ideology.
The marriage and the men
In 1938, at the urging of his psychiatrist, Hay married Anna Platky - a woman he had met through his involvement in the Marxist movement.
They adopted two children. The marriage ended when they were divorced in 1951.
Hay had been having encounters with men throughout his life and throughout his marriage. He described his first gay sexual appearance as being at the age of nine, and also talked about having sex at the age of 14 with a 25-year-old merchant sailor.
During college and while working in various jobs, Hay had immersed himself in the cruising grounds and underground parties of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.
Hay had several significant relationships with men through the years, including Will Geer, William Alexander, Rudi Gernreich, Jorn Kamgren, Jim Kepner, and John Burnside.
It was in August 1948 that Hay began to discuss the formation of an activist group for homosexual men. He wrote a document outlining the need for the group, a document that he referred to as The Call.
Influenced by the work of Alfred Kinsey and also Marxist theory, Hay’s view was that homosexuals were a social minority or a cultural minority who were being oppressed.
With financial support from Rudi Gernreich, Hay held the first meeting of the group on 11 November 1950. In attendance were Hay, Gernreich, Dale Jennings, Bob Hull, and Chuck Rowland. The group initially adopted the name Society of Fools, however this was soon changed to Mattachine Society - a name that referred to Medieval French secret societies of masked men who, through their anonymity, were empowered to criticise ruling monarchs with impunity.
Operating on the Leninist basis of democratic centralism, the Mattachine Society had cells, oaths of secrecy, and five different levels of membership, each of which required greater levels of involvement and commitment. As the organisation grew, the levels were expected to subdivide into new cells, creating the potential for both horizontal and vertical growth.
Mattachine’s membership grew slowly at first, but received a major boost in February 1952 when founder Jennings was arrested in a Los Angeles park and charged with lewd behaviour.
At the time, men in Jennings’ situation would generally plead guilty to the charge and hope to quietly rebuild their lives. Jennings and the leaders of the Mattachine Society saw the charges as an opportunity to address the issue of police entrapment of homosexual men.
The group began publicising the case under the name Citizens Committee to Outlaw Entrapment, and the resulting publicity brought financial support and volunteers. During the trial, Jennings admitted to being homosexual but insisted he was not guilty of the specific charge. The jury was deadlocked and the charges were dismissed.
Following the Jennings trial, the Mattachine Society expanded rapidly. By 1953, the group had over 2,000 members in California, with as many as 100 men attending their discussion group events.
With the growing membership came a push for a more democratic structure. Unhappy with the direction that the society was taking, Hay resigned and leadership of the group was taken up by Hal Call. The Mattachine Society continued to play an important role until the late-60s.
Following the Stonewall riots, the Mattachine Society became seen as too conservative and non-confrontational.
Hay remained active in gay rights activism throughout the remainder of his life.
Hay died in 2002, at the age of 90.