Harry Hay, a pioneering activist in the gay rights movement who founded a secret network of support groups for gay men five decades ago, has died. He was 90. Hay devoted his life to progressive politics and was among the first to argue that gays have a cultural identity and can be discriminated against like any other minority group. "What we haven't been doing in the 20th century is discovering what we bring with us to contribute, which the United States needs but doesn't necessarily have," Hay told the Associated Press in a recent interview. "Then our cultural minority appears in order to serve a purpose, instead of spending all our effort, time, and money finding sex, because it is the one thing that's been denied to us."
Hay was born April 7, 1912, in Worthing, England. Family members said he was diagnosed several weeks ago with lung cancer and that he died peacefully in his sleep at his San Francisco home early Thursday morning.
Hay was a strong, articulate, forward-thinking presence, said his niece, Sally Hay. She formed a relationship with Hay in the 1990s, decades after the rest of the family had broken off contact because of his connection to the Communist Party in the 1930s. "I have so much respect for his courage and his willingness to live his own life with integrity," she said from her home in Providence, R.I. "I'm delighted that he lived long enough to have received the recognition he deserved."
Hay was an actor living in Los Angeles in 1934 when he first became active in left-wing politics. He was involved in the labor movement of the 1930s and quickly realized he needed to organize the gay community. After a decade of gay life, in 1938 Hay married Anita Platky, who also was a Communist Party member. They divorced in 1951; Platky is now deceased. "They weren't gay, they weren't a group, they were just those sissy guys. That was part of the social oppression then," Stuart Timmons, who published a biography of Hay in 1990, said of the gay community in those years. "You just didn't dwell on those people and the idea that there might be a group of them. The idea they could be a minority, a constituency, a voting bloc, a market--all of those applications of putting a group identity onto gay people, that made all the difference."
In 1950 Hay formed the Mattachine Society, a secret network of support groups for gays. Based in Los Angeles, it was the first sustained homosexual rights organization in the United States. But at the height of the investigations by the House Un-American Activities Committee, Mattachine members feared investigation. They decided to make the group public and purge it of any Communist influence--which included Hay. Hay was called before the committee in 1955, but he refused to testify. The committee considered him insignificant and dismissed him.
He was a step ahead in 1969, when patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, clashed with police in an incident now considered the birth of the modern gay rights movement. "The importance of Stonewall is that it changed the pronoun from I to we," Hay told the Associated Press. "When I told them at Stonewall that I had been thrown out of the Mattachine Society because I insisted that we were a cultural minority and not individuals, they couldn't believe that. By the time of Stonewall they thought we had always been a cultural minority."
Some critics have accused Hay of limiting thinking within the gay rights movement. They argue that women's participation in the Mattachine Society was minimal and that Hay has never allowed women into his group the Radical Faeries, which he started in 1979. But Eric Slade, creator of the documentary Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay, said that despite his stubbornness, Hay's thinking never grew stagnant. "He once told me, 'Everyone, even heterosexual people, all have the potential to have that Faerie spirit,"' Slade told the Associated Press. "That was a big change for him."
Hay is survived by his partner of 39 years, John Burnside, and his adopted daughters, Kate Berman and Hannah Muldaven. Donations in his memory can be made to the San Francisco Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center. No information on a memorial service was immediately available.