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Gay History: April 7, 1912: Happy Birthday Harry Hay, The Forgotten Founder of Gay Liberation

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John Burnside, Harry Hay and Jim Kepner

April 6, 1912 – – Harry Hay (Activist, Co-founder of The Mattachine Society, 1950)  – Henry “Harry” Hay, Jr .(April 7, 1912 – October 24, 2002) was a teacher, labor advocate and early leader in the American LGBT rights movement.

Drawing on his background in the Communist Party USA, Hay co-founded the Mattachine Society, the first enduring LGBT rights organization in the United States.

in 1950. Following his ouster from Mattachine leadership in 1953, Hay largely withdrew from organized LGBT activism until the late 1970’s, although he continued to participate in the movement informally and following the 1969 Stonewall riots became involved in a local Gay Liberation Front chapter. 

Hay’s developing belief in the cultural minority status of homosexuals led him to take a stand against the assimilationism advocated by the majority of gay rights campaigners.

Said Hay:


“We pulled ugly green frog skin of heterosexual conformity over us, and that’s how we got through school with a full set of teeth. We know how to live through their eyes. We can always play their games, but are we denying ourselves by doing this? If you’re going to carry the skin of conformity over you, you are going to suppress the beautiful prince or princess within you. “

In 1979, Hay and his longtime companion, inventor John Burnside, founded the Radical Faeries. The term “Radical” was chosen to reflect both political extremity and the idea of “root” or “essence”, while the term “Faerie” was chosen in reference both to the immortal animistic spirits of European folklore and to the fact that “fairy” had become a pejorative slang term for gay men.

Hay and Burnside remained together for almost 40 years, from 1963 until Hay’s death.

Unfortunately Hay’s life was not without controversy.

In the early 1980’s and still highly critical of the mainstream gay rights movement. Hay joined several other early gay rights activists in protesting the exclusion of the North American Man/Boy Love Association( NAMBLA) from participation in LGBT social movements, most noticeably pride parades on the grounds that such exclusions pandered to heterosexual-dominated society. When questioned on his support for NAMBLA in a 1983 New York University forum, he remarked “If the parents and friends of gays are truly friends of gays, they would know from their gay kids that the relationship with an older man is precisely what thirteen-, fourteen-, and fifteen-year-old kids need more than anything else in the world”, highlighting his own relationship with an adult man when he was 14. At the 1986 Los Angeles Gay Pride Parade he courted controversy by carrying a banner with “NAMBLA Walks With Me” written on it, after organizers banned the group from joining the march; the organizers complained to police and he narrowly avoided arrest. From that moment on Hay was persona non grata in the new organized and corporate backed LGBT rights movement and is rarely ever mentioned by them.

Despite this Harry Hay has been described as “the Founder of the Modern Gay Movement” and “the father of gay liberation” and has been the subject of numerous biographies and a documentary film.

Harry Hay died of lung cancer on October 24, 2002 at age 90. His ashes, mingled with those of his partner John Burnside, were scattered in Nomenus Faerie Sanctuary, Wolf Creek, Oregon

*Learn more about Harry Hay: Read Stuart Timmon’s published a biography, The Trouble with Harry Hay.

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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is one of America's well known LGBT historians, He is also a a accredited journalist and the owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as BBC News, CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Daily Wall Street Journal, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story, Mr. Kohler is available for comment, interviews and lectures on LGBT History. Contact: Will@Back2Stonewall.com

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