Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay

Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay (Frameline, directed by Eric Slade, 2001)
This documentary provides an intimate view of the life of Harry Hay (1912-2002), a pioneering American gay rights activist, labor leader, and Communist Party member. The film also offers many insights into the history of the Mattachine Society, an all-men's group established by Hay in 1950 and described as "the first successful gay rights organization in America," as well as on the Radical Faeries, an alternative gay spiritual and political group he helped to create in 1979. Hay comes across in the documentary as a quirky, somewhat eccentric, and very engaging elderly man. He talks to the camera and to select groups of people, for example, in a gay bookstore, while presenting his collection of writings titled Radically Gay.

    At times with bushy beard, other times clean shaven, with his long white hair in a ponytail, always wearing a hat and some form of jewelry, Hay is a fascinating figure who participated in some of the most dramatic events of U.S. twentieth century history. These range from California labor organizing in the 1930s, to American Communist Party political militancy, involvement in the resurgence of gay activism in late 1940s Los Angeles, surviving 1950s' McCarthyite repression, and participation in 1960s and 1970s gay countercultural movements. Interviews with Hay are intercut with segments with voiceover narration that present historical and political context of his life, as well as offer biographical information.

     Merits of this film include rich use of archival footage and photography, a diversity of songs and music, and numerous interviews. The plot is enhanced with soft-focus fictional recreations of some key scenes from Hay's life, such as a disagreement with his father at the dinner table when Hay was an adolescent and a famous 1952 court case. Numerous individuals, both men and women, who knew Hay were interviewed and showcased in the documentary. In many ways, the film is as much a portrait of the early members of the Mattachine Society such as John Gruber, Konrad Stevens, and Dale Jennings, who are interviewed and presented in a complex and interesting way, as a film on Hay himself. Hay's lover of over thirty years John Burnside is also prominently featured, although we do not learn much about him besides the fact of his relationship to Hay.

   The film is organized chronologically. After outlining Hay's childhood and early bohemian years, the documentary traces his involvement with the Communist Party in California in the 1930s, especially as a result of his relationship with the actor Will Geer, who would later become well known for portraying Grandpa Walton on TV. The film also showcases Hay's unsuccessful marriage to Anita Platky, with whom he had two children and then divorced. Hay's personal and political frustrations lead him to eventually leave the Communist Party and to found the Mattachine Society. Members of the Mattachine "brotherhood" became publicly galvanized after Dale Jennings was entrapped by a policeman and falsely accused of soliciting sex at a public bathroom.

    George Shibley, a well-known progressive lawyer who also defended the accused in the Zoot Suit Riots, defends Jennings at the behest of Hay. Dismissal of the case by judge is seen as a victory, and gives great impetus to organization. As Mattachine grows and becomes more mainstream, the radical core group of founders are expelled. Hay experiences great disillusionment from this. After years of different forms of social activism and study in New Mexico, particularly on Native American transgender figures (the berdache or Two-Spirit people, that is to say, men who lived as women and had particular social roles in their tribes), Hay established the Radical Faeries, a gay group that embraces nature and spirituality. The film features a ceremony in which Native American leader, the Hon. Clyde M. Hall (Judge, Shoshone Bannock Tribal Court) recognizes Hay for his work.

    To its credit, the documentary portrays many individuals who question, challenge, and criticize Hay's style of leadership and who suggest that he was at times very self-obsessed. The portrayal of Dale Jennings is especially delightful, as he comes across as an independent-minded contrarian and an important historical figure in his own right.

    Overall, this film offers a well-rounded perspective on Hay. It is very informative and beautifully edited and scored. The film's weaknesses have to do with the lack of a more comprehensive framing of Hay's work in relation to earlier forms of gay activism in the U.S. (a person who saw this film and had no previous knowledge about the topic would erroneously believe that there was no gay activism in the U.S. before Harry Hay). The portrayal of Native American religiosity and culture also comes across as an exoticizing gesture.

Lawrence La Fountain-Stokes  University of Michigan, Ann Arbor <lawrlafo@umich.edu>

 

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