Harry Hay was not only an activist, he was a thinker. Largely self-taught, he read widely and sought to perfect his ideas over the years. In the view of many, Harry’s central insight is his contrast between two types of human relations: subject-object and subject-subject. In Hay’s view many people (especially, he thought, heterosexuals) are limited because they regard their partners as simply things, made available for their gratification. Gay people, he believed, were more likely to be characterized by the subject-subject dynamic in which the partner is treated as having equal personhood.
This concept was examined in two important presentations on Friday afternoon at the panel “Interrogating the Ideas of Harry Hay.” First, Jay Michaelson offered a comparison with Martin Buber’s influential concept of the I-Thou relation. He was followed by Jesse Sanford, who has sought to practice Hay’s ideas in the context of a faery collective in San Francisco. Yet the charismatic Sanford is no blind follower: he questioned the coherence of the subject-subject assertion. Those who knew Harry, as I did, recognized that he had a strong authoritarian streak, and he not infrequently sought to belittle those with whom he disagreed, treating them as objects and not subjects.
The opening keynote presentation on Thursday night was by Will Roscoe of San Francisco, who knew Harry well and edited a collection of his writings. Forcefully presented, his talk generated highly vocal enthusiasm. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that had won the crowd over by rearranging certain facts about Hay. He repeatedly referred to Hay’s community as “LGBT.” While it is commonplace now, this expression goes counter to Hay’s thinking. He always viewed gays as a unit, not as part of come congeries or constellation. Moreover, Harry felt that we were truly a people, one with fundamental differences separating us from heterosexuals. Today this view, integral to Hay’s thinking, is generally rejected as essentialist. Will Roscoe simply danced around this issue.
At the closing keynote on Saturday afternoon John D’Emilio told a very different story. In 1976, when he was still a graduate student, D’Emilio was privileged to have a nine-hour interview with Hay. He was swept away. More recently, after reading Stuart Timmons’ biography “The Trouble with Harry,” he changed his mind. He viewed Hay as having retained a streak of arrogance from his privileged background. Mincing no words, D’Emilio said that Harry was a bully who “spread dissension wherever he went.” He faulted him for being a quitter. After a crucial 1953 meeting went against him, Hay upped and retired to New Mexico for sixteen years. D’Emilio contrasted his career with that of Bayard Rustin, who despite even more severe obstacles never gave up.
Still, when all is said and done, Harry Hay was a formidable figure. I had occasion to talk with him several times in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Once, when we were having a disagreement, he seized me in an iron grip by the shoulders--he was very strong. Of course, he didn't harm me, and I like to think that he was conferring a blessing on me through a laying on of hands, as a legendary Indian seer had done with him.
Unlike Harry, I am not blessed with a spiritual dimension. But perhaps there was one occult influence. In Hollywood I went to the same elementary school. Cahuenga as Harry had been to twenty years before. Perhaps his spirit lingered on the playground on in the classrooms, to invade my as yet unformed mind.