I met Harry Hay roughly 20 ago today, in 1992, when Wayne Karr of ACT UP and Queer Nation asked me to cover Harry's 80th birthday. The festivities in Plummer Park, West Hollywood, were colorful and poignant as the young people surrounding Harry revered and doted on him, clearly aware they were in the presence of the gay man most recognized as the founder of the modern gay rights movement.
Harry Hay during a protest march against the LAPD in downtown LA (Photo by Karen Ocamb)
I stayed a respectful distance, politely meeting people, taking notes, taking some pictures. But inside I was both chuckling and thrilled: Harry Hay was an old hippie! Right up my alley! He was wearing a pink crinoline petticoat over blue jeans and after receiving a princess tiara, rejoiced as if he was a stiff, aging ballerina who remembered some old moves. The overhead lights were off, the room was lit by candles and Christmas lights - but the atmosphere was so spiritually enlightened, it felt as if no other light was necessary.
At one point Wayne organized a circle and gave everyone candles. Harry was in the center and spoke quietly but in a firm, almost matter of fact way about kinship among those who are different and the importance of celebrating that difference as something natural and unique to gay people. He talked about shedding this ugly green frog skin of conformity as if the very thing that caused society, religion and our families to reject us was - beautiful.
I was so used to thinking of being gay in context of shame and anger, it was a new way of thinking for me. And yet, I was still the reporter/anthropologist being given exclusive access to a private meeting of a secret tribe. Wayne offered me a candle. I declined since my mission was to be an outsider recording what I saw; I couldn't participate. But I was grateful for the offer - and I quietly changed that night.
I fought back tears as Harry went around the circle and lit the candle of each person, looking them in the eye and saying something akin to a blessing. We all knew that many in that room - including Wayne - had AIDS and would probably die soon. This circle, this ceremony, this camaraderie of the blessed rejected was a feeling they could hold inside to never again feel alone. Wayne died three years later; he was 40.
There was a quiet dignity to Harry Hay. And yet, he was just a man. In fact, at times during the birthday party, he was fussy and snapped at people - which I attributed to his age but later learned was a prickly part of his personality.
Harry Hay with Connie Norman at an event honoring Harry (Photo by Karen Ocamb)
I met Harry again at Connie Norman's house in Downey. Her husband, Bruce Norman, was upstairs with his boyfriend as Connie held court downstairs among five or more cats running around or perched everywhere. Connie, a self-proclaimed "AIDS Diva," wasn't doing well. But she invited me out to talk to me about her "tranny kids" - as she called them. I appreciated Connie immensely. When I first started covering ACT UP/LA 1988/89, I didn't know who I could trust. I quickly discovered that Mark Kostopoulos and Connie Norman just told me the flat truth - they didn't inflate numbers of people at events or make something more dramatic than it was. Mark had little patience for my lack of AIDS and LGBT knowledge - but Connie walked me through what was happening and why. The night I was at her house, she explained what it was to be a transsexual woman.
I don't know if Harry had been invited or dropped by unexpectedly - the two were very close - but suddenly my lesson was interrupted. I was nervous - Harry remembered me from his birthday - but I was so "straight-looking," I thought he'd scold me. He had no way of knowing that I'm Aquarius to the core, and in the 1960s/70s, I'd been a weekend hippie, an antiwar student protester, lived in a witches' commune and a Maoist collective and basically was my own version of a rebel. And had attempted suicide repeatedly over the shame of being gay.
I think Harry at first saw me as a project. When it was clear I knew nothing of gay history - instead of mocking or rebuffing me, he delighted in becoming my teacher. And with Connie watching from her regal bed, Harry and I sat before her fireplace and he talked to me for hours about gays being a third sex, about gays being our own distinct minority, Native American "two-spirit" people, about Radical Faeries and that ugly green frog suit. By then - it was 12 years clean and sober and had worked hard in my 12 Step program on recognizing and shedding what I called my "masks." I often quoted T. S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" - "There will be time, there will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet..." I came to better understand his frog suit - but like my masks, I sometimes didn't know how to take them off. That night Harry gave me a new mirror in which to look at myself differently.
A reporter is not supposed to really become "friends" with people you cover - but sometimes, especially in a minority community, that becomes difficult. You almost have to make an agreement - making it clear when we speak candidly, off the record and when we are acting professionally, as "objective" journalists. Harry didn't really get the distinction, but his beloved life partner John Burnside did. John was incredibly smart, an inventor, and surely the man to whom the song "You are the wind beneath my wings" most applied. Harry and John lived down the street from me in West Hollywood and I would call or go over sometimes just to talk - though candidly, I was always afraid their place would catch fire, they seemed to have books and papers shoved in every nook and cranny.
Connie died at the Chris Brownlie Hospice in 1996 - one year after Wayne Karr. She was still trying to stop smoking and loved watching the new all-shopping channels. That was also the year the new life-saving HIV medications started becoming available, making HIV a "manageable disease," rather than a death sentence. Too late for so many friends Harry Hay survived.
Jim Kepner, Harry Hay and Morris Kight at a straight progressive group's event in Santa Monica honoring Harry (Photo by Karen Ocamb)
I covered Harry throughout his life until he moved to San Francisco where he and John were cared for by the Radical Faeries. I listened politely as Harry and Jim Kepner and Morris Kight gossiped about each other and I hung out with Harry and Mark Thompson when they had a terrible rift with some former friends. I covered him protesting with ACT UP outside Ronald Reagan's birthday party at Chasen's restaurant on Beverly Boulevard and the protest of the LAPD with Jesse Jackson and Rep. Maxine Waters and a number of gays in downtown LA. I would see him, squeeze his arm hello, do a quick interview, then slip his hand into mine or give him a quick hug goodbye as I darted off to interview someone else. I wondered how many others realized the continuity of gay history that was in their midst.
Harry Hay would have been 100 years old today. He is being honored outside what had once been his mother's home in Silver Lake where the Mattachine Society, which he founded in 1952, first met in secret. The Radical Faeries are having a lunch near the spot where Harry first thought of gays as the third sex. And later, gay author and Harry's friend Stuart Timmons is reading from his updated book, The Trouble with Harry (White Crane) that Mark Thompson and others helped renew. Today, I think he'd be happy to know that the frog has turned into the Princess.
Happy Birthday, Harry! And thank you for everything!