Thorstad remarks at 2012 Harry Hay conference
Harry Hay’s Support for Man/Boy Love
statement by David Thorstad to Harry Hay Centennial panel on “Sexuality, Ethics, Resistance,” CUNY Graduate Center, New York, September 28, 2012)
All three words in the title of this panel relate directly to Harry Hay’s involvement in the issue of man/boy love. I intend to show that his support was deeply felt, repeatedly demonstrated, and grew out of his own personal experience. It went far beyond a mere defense of democratic rights of association and expression.
Some in today’s conservative, conventional so-called “LGBT” movement would no doubt wish that were not so. As hagiography of Harry proceeds apace, this aspect of his radical vision is either downplayed or excised—as it was in the suggested topics for this conference.
Harry’s often expressed and enthusiastic support for NAMBLA and man/boy love is seen as embarrassing by some gay activists. Their usual impulse is to minimize it, marginalize it, ignore it, or even deny it—similar to the way Stalin airbrushed Trotsky out of photos where he appeared together with Lenin.
Before I discuss Harry’s views and actions, let me hasten to acknowledge that his activism touched many different chords, and went in multiple directions. He felt strongly about all the issues he got involved in. Man/boy love was neither the bee’s knee of his activism nor his central focus. Nevertheless, the subject was far more important to him than the sanitizers and airbrushers care to admit. My modest aim here is to cast those efforts by the assimilationist revisionists into the dust.
A key principle of feminism is that the personal is political. When it comes to man/boy love, however, the broader gay and lesbian movement has too often sought to deny this principle. Many years ago, I wrote a letter to my childhood pastor, with whom I was in love at age fourteen when he was thirty-five. I submitted it to the radical gay paper The Body Politic. It was rejected. The reason, a lesbian member of the editorial board explained, was that since I was then an adult, I had no right to speak about my own experiences as a teenager! Such censorship was typical of many feminists, who spoke freely and convincingly of their own experiences—often negative—as girls at the hands of heterosexual men, even as they would deny gay men the same right.
Harry’s views on man/boy love—which he often stated publicly—gained their power and immediacy from his own teenage years—when he too was fourteen, as it turns out.
My friendship with Harry began over a turkey dinner in New York in the early 1980s, when my friend and lesbian witch Katherine Davenport introduced us. But my first connection to him goes back to 1975, when I was president of New York’s Gay Activists Alliance. One day, we received a letter from Harry from San Juan Pueblo detailing his philosophy of gay liberation. The letter was full of capital letters and concepts new to me, such as “Subject-Subject Consciousness.” I was pleasantly surprised to see that Harry was still alive—I had heard nothing about him for years. Subsequently, I met him in many venues, including a Radical Faerie event in Manhattan, at Phil Willkie’s St. Paul apartment and at his cabin in northern Wisconsin, at Harry’s home in San Francisco, at several NAMBLA conferences, and at the Stonewall 25 anniversary in New York in 1994, where Harry marched with the Spirit of Stonewall (SOS) contingent formed to defend NAMBLA’s right to march, and where he addressed a sex speakout event during those festivities. On a couple of those occasions, Harry met my then teenage boyfriend. Like the good gay activist he was, he was completely accepting of intergenerational love, unlike some of the antisex prudes in the feminist and “LGBT” movements.
Harry’s most well known action in defense of NAMBLA was in 1986 when he marched in the West Hollywood gay pride parade wearing hand-made sandwich-board signs stating “NAMBLA Walks with Me” and “Valerie Terrigno Walks with Me.” Both lesbian city council member Terrigno and NAMBLA had been banned from marching in the event, in what was dubbed America’s first “gay city.” The organizers called on the police to surround Harry and threatened to arrest him.
Harry’s views on man/boy love reflected his gay worldview. That was greatly influenced by Edward Carpenter, who regarded homosexuals as a blend of male and female who were destined to guide the rest of humanity into a future socialist utopia. For Carpenter—though not for Harry—same-sexers were an “intermediate sex” (not the same thing as Magnus Hirschfeld’s “third sex”). Harry regarded homosexuality as a sport of nature, one that was necessary to the preservation of the human species. Same-sex love was a natural phenomenon. It arose spontaneously as part of the human condition. It had nothing to do with an artificial age of consent, laws, or political correctness. Harry believed that gay males should organize separately from lesbians, and intersect with them in joint action where goals were the same. Gay male love is universal. It is not a matter of mere identity, and certainly not part of an “LGBT” mishmash, and of course it included pederasty (which was also an integral part of the early homosexual rights movement in Germany and England).
Native American cultures also influenced Harry’s outlook, because many American Indian tribes were accepting of same-sex behavior, some even allowing youngsters to choose gender identity. Especially in the Southwest, some accorded a special status to same-sexers.
Pederasty is the form that male homosexuality has taken throughout most of Western—and not only Western—culture, however much it is misunderstood or anathematized in the United States today. Thus, it arises naturally as a universal facet of human sexuality and, perhaps, an inherent attraction of men and boys for each other. Harry understood, from his own experience, that this attraction deserves to be nurtured. Gay men, he said, have an ethical obligation to be there when younger males reach out for that erotic connection. We need to respond when younger males are looking for us to help them discover and learn about their homosexuality. They need liberation, not protection. Not a mommy state. Their attraction to other males, frequently older, not only makes them feel safer than with their peers, but is in and of itself a form of resistance against heterodominance and repression, a sharing of homoerotic attraction so joyful and strong that no amount of state or social repression is capable of stifling it.
Besides his defiance of the ban on NAMBLA’s marching in the Los Angeles “pride” parade in 1986, Harry addressed a number of public forums and NAMBLA conferences: at New York University in 1983 at a forum by the Stop the Witchhunt Committee to defend NAMBLA from FBI and police harassment during which they concocted a cockamamie theory that the group had kidnapped and murdered Etan Patz; in San Francisco in 1984; in Los Angeles in 1986; at a press conference by Spirit of Stonewall in 1994 at the Stonewall Inn in New York, site of the Stonewall Riots; and at a NAMBLA conference in New York that year. Here, in his inimitable style, is what he wrote in 1985 to help promote the book A Witchhunt Foiled: The FBI vs. NAMBLA:
There is no doubt that our beloved SEPARATE PEOPLE, the (not)Men and (not)Women of Gay Consciousness, are in for some rough years ahead. But so long as our Gay Liberation Movement continues to guarantee itself that our forward cutting edges toward ever newer perceptions of Gay Consciousness, and to ever more encompassing dimensions of social change, are maintained vigilantly, we may stay fluid and malleable to whatever flexes and transformations we shall need to make. It isn’t necessary that we each concur with every new proposition, or tentative stance. It only matters that we remain malleable enough within our Collective to offer appreciation to one another for the “witnessing” we occasionally contribute to the forward lurch, and so development, of us all. This little book, I think, serves as such a witness. Thank you, NAMBLA, for giving me the space to express my appreciation for your travail.
At the Stonewall Inn press conference, he argued that true “child molestation” “is the sexual coercion by which gay and lesbian children are bedeviled into hetero identities and behaviors. . . . This outrageous coercion of gay kids into hetero identities and behaviors against their will is not only sexually abusive, it is spiritually devastating rape, because the child unbeknowingly is being led into developing self-loathing at the same time.”
At a forum in San Francisco in 1984, he fondly recalled an endearing experience he had as a twelve-year-old in the men’s swimming pool at the Bimini Baths in Los Angeles in the 1920s, when a man came up to him and said he wanted to show Harry how long he could stay underwater. The man swam the length of the pool and several times swam through Harry’s legs and pulled Harry’s cock out of his swimsuit and played with it, repeatedly. Harry found it pleasurable and it didn’t occur to him to yell out or report the man. “So, the point is that I am being manipulated,” Harry says. “I am not going to reveal him so that he can keep playing his game. But I am not being molested, because that was as controlled a situation as I know of. This has happened to me maybe five or six times.”
Harry often told of his love as a fourteen-year-old for Matt. Here is what he told the same forum:
I want to simply say that I have love and honor to a man named Matt. I don’t know his last name. At this point now, if he’s alive, he must be close to ninety. This is something that happened to me in 1926. I’m fourteen years old. As far as the law is concerned, I’m a child. For two years I had been sent by my father to work in the hay fields in Nevada. In the summertime, I am doing a man’s work and getting a man’s pay and I’m living a man’s life. I would go with the rest of the migratory workers to a town thirty miles away on a Saturday night . . . and I can get drunk with the fellows at the speakeasy, because this was Prohibition times. . . . On the way home, I come down through San Francisco and I figured that instead of spending money on the train coming home, I’ll get a job on a freighter. . . . And I did this. And right next to me swabbing deck was this very nice twenty-five-year-old guy, and he suddenly appeared to me to be one of the people like us. He was the first one I felt I could really trust. . . . And I felt that I was trusted with love. He told me one wonderful thing that I have never forgotten: “Once you meet a place like Zanzibar, or Dar-es-Salaam”—he had obviously been on the African coast—“you know, you can be in any one of these towns, and you can be in a place where there isn’t a language or a word being spoken that you’d recognize, and there isn’t a custom being carried out that you’re familiar with, and the smells are all strange, and you’re in a strange place, and you look across the crowd and you see a face, and all of a sudden your eyes lock in to that pair of eyes, and all of a sudden those eyes glow through to the world; if you move yourself to glow back, you’re home, and you’re safe.
Wherever he is, I want him to know that my love and my gratitude followed him all my days, and all his days. And I’m saying to all of you: We haven’t shared our own puberty past with each other, and certainly with the younger generation coming forward. We have allowed all this discussion of child molestation to go on and on, but we haven’t spoken as gay men. We should have been sharing long ago, because, after all, the younger generation coming forward . . . who are reaching out for that person for them to trust—we haven’t shared ourselves in that trust, giving it back to the younger generation. . . . We’re the ones who are going to be responsible for their coming to happiness and understanding. And we should be about sharing and beginning that responsibility.
The full text of Harry’s speeches to these and other events are available on the NAMBLA Web site.
I leave the last word to Harry—his comment to the 1983 forum at New York University:
. . . if the parents and friends of gays are truly friends of gays, they would know from their gay kids that the relationship with an older man is precisely what thirteen-, fourteen-, and fifteen-year-old kids need more than anything else in the world.