A fascinating, in-depth look at gay pioneer Harry Hay 

click to enlarge Rebel and reformer: “Radically Gay: The Life of Harry Hay” presents a vivid, full and very human view of the social activist. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • Rebel and reformer: “Radically Gay: The Life of Harry Hay” presents a vivid, full and very human view of the social activist.

The diverse and remarkable history of social justice and gay activist Harry Hay comes to the fore in a jam-packed exhibit on view in the San Francisco Public Library’s Jewett Gallery.

“Radically Gay: The Life of Harry Hay,” curated by Joey Cain, includes amazing documents, photographs and memorabilia covering many varied facets of the gay rights pioneer, who was born in 1912 and died in 2002 in The City.

Compiled from some 55 boxes of archival material, the show is arranged in chronological order, highlighting themes: Hay’s youth, when he knew he was a homosexual, even though the word wasn’t in the dictionary; his formative political years as a communist; his participation in forming a secret social support group for gay men, which expanded and became known as the Mattachine Society; and his various lovers, concluding with inventor and optics engineer John Burnside, who became his lifelong partner for four decades, and with whom he promoted and practiced Native American spirituality, forming a group called the Radical Faeries.

According to Cain, Hay already was a rebel at age 9 when, after a fight with his abusive father, he knew that he would never feel guilty or apologize for being different.

The exhibit includes personal photographs and autographed yearbooks from Los Angeles High School and Stanford University.

As a young man in theatrical circles in Hollywood, Hay met actor Will Geer (later he played Grandpa on TV’s “The Waltons”), a communist who became his lover and was his political mentor.

Like many men in the 1930s, he married, partly on the advice of a Jungian psychologist, adopted two daughters, and got divorced in 1951. But he never stopped having male lovers.

Dense but fascinating paperwork on view describes the complex rules and growth of the groundbreaking Mattachine Society, a group Hay was instrumental in establishing, with its organizational principles loosely based on Alcoholics Anonymous.

Other images and documentation explore additional breakthroughs in gay-rights history: Mattachine co-founder Dale Jennings’ trial for lewd behavior in a Los Angeles park represented a victory in that it revealed, for the first time, the issue of police entrapment of gay men.

Hay’s brief appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities also is covered.

More fun objects on view are Hay’s mother’s tea set (he and his mom remained on good terms), as well as his partner Burnside’s kaleidoscopic inventions.

While Hay’s final years in The City aren’t covered with the same depth as his earlier exploits, “Radically Gay” nonetheless offers a full view of an extraordinary life.



Radically Gay: The Life of Harry Hay

Where: Jewett Gallery, Main Library, 100 Larkin St., S.F.

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, noon to 6 p.m. Fridays; closes July 29

Admission: Free  Contact: (415) 557-4400, www.sfpl.org

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Leslie Katz

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