Epitaph: Harry Hay

Los Angeles Magazine
January, 2003

Harry Hay met the designer Rudi Gernreich at a Saturday-morning dance rehearsal on Melrose. Almost from the start, Harry wrote later, "we were in love with each other and with each other's ideas." This was risky business in 1950, possibly more subversive and perilous than his clandestine membership in the Communist Party. Two homosexual men broke laws just by congregating. Nobody dared be out, let alone out and political.

Harry shared his secrets with Rudi: Born in England and reared in L.A., Harry had known he liked men since Los Angeles High. Tall, muscled and handsome, he scored acting gigs in Hollywood and had a fling with the future Grandpa Walton, Will Geer, his guide into radical politics. In 1938 he married Anita Platky, a party member, after a therapist advised he bed a boyish woman to help quell his desires.

Through the years when the Hays hosted Leftist salons in their home at 2328 Cove Avenue, atop a Silver Lake stairway, his guise became more and more a burden. In the presidential campaign of 1948, Harry tried tried to straddle his two lives with a manifesto calling on "androgynes" to join a group he formed, Bachelor's Anonymous. Privacy was promised, but nobody bit.

Rudi, a Viennese immigrant, was the partner he needed. That summer of 1950, they worked the male-only beaches of Santa Monica Bay. "If a guy's eyes would shine a little bit more than usual, we would invite him to have coffee with us," Harry said. On November 11 they finally coaxed some men to gather in the Hays' yard while Anita and their two adopted daughters girls were away. Harry pitched a radical idea: a secret order made up of cells, like the Masons, to protect "homophiles" -- his term -- from persecution. They should be like other emerging minority groups, proud and unapologetic.

Five men plus Harry and Rudi swore allegiance to the Mattachine Society, named after troupes of masked male dancers in the Middle Ages. In its first big victory, Harry devised a novel legal strategy for defending a member arrested for lewd conduct in MacArthur Park: He had him admit to being homosexual but deny the crime. When every juror but one voted for acquittal, the charges were dropped. The LAPD was flabbergasted, but the society swelled with recruits and spread to other cities.

Harry's red past and insistence that the Mattachine confront the straight world got him tossed from the society in 1953. He had already divorced Anita and quit the Communist Party over its disapproval of homosexuals. Harry assumed a flagrantly queer style, sporting a dangling earring and pearls -- to go with blue jeans, flowing ponytail and the nickname of Duchess -- so he would not be mistaken for a hetero. Still, he respected the society's oath of secrecy for 25 years, an act of principle that delayed his being recognized as the father of the gay rights movement. (Rudi, who broke up with Harry in the early '50s, kept his role hidden until he died, in 1985.)

Harry and partner of 39 years, John Burnside, had recently left L.A. for San Francisco. Even before his death, at 90, there had been talk of bestowing historic landmark status on the Cove Avenue house as the birthplace of gay rights.

©Kevin Roderick 2003

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