Harry Hay’s America

Julie-Anne Whitney, Assistant Box Office Manager

In 1950, Harry Hay co-founded The Mattachine Society, the first national gay rights organization in America. Their goal was to “eliminate discrimination, derision, prejudice and bigotry,”[1] against homosexuals and to assimilate them into mainstream society. At the time Harry and his friends formed the group there were hardly even whispers of the controversial topics that are so often openly discussed today. I bet Harry would be happy to know there are now more than 75 national LGBT rights organizations[2]–a reality The Mattachine Society could have only dreamed about.

Here is a snapshot of Harry Hay’s America: In 1952 the American Psychiatric Association called homosexuality a “sociopathic personality disturbance”[3]. One year later President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, banning homosexuals from working for the federal government as they were deemed “security risks.” In 1955 the Unified School District produced Boys Bewarewhich described homosexuality as a “sickness that was not visible like smallpox but no less dangerous and contagious.” These horribly distorted views spread like wildfire through America’s schools, on television, in the news, and did much to strengthen the country’s gay phobia for decades to come.

In many ways the America Harry Hay knew is strikingly similar to the America we know today. Gays and Lesbians still cannot get married (Ok so, we can get married in a whopping 6 states[4]. Whoopty-do). In 30 of our 50 states it is legal for businesses to refuse to hire, and even fire LGBT people based on their sexual orientation[5]. I am sure Harry–were he still alive–could tell us all about the racial segregation and discrimination of the 50‘s and 60’s, but I wonder if he would be surprised to hear that now LGBT people can be refused service in restaurants and businesses[6]. Many members of our community are also subject to extreme harassment and/or physical assault. In fact, less than two weeks ago two Kentucky men were arrested for assaulting and kidnapping a gay man[7]–a headline we have repeatedly seen for the past four decades, with 25 LGBT-related hate crimes in the past 2 years alone[8]. 

It is not just these blatantly discriminatory acts that keep us gridlocked in the fight for equality, but also the seemingly deliberate exclusion from main-stream entertainment which has the potential to greatly alter public perception of the LGBT community. The lack of more frequent, fully-developed, and well-rounded representations of LGBT people in television and film (two of our most effective means of idea transference), makes us seem less important, less an integral part of the America we all live in. According to the 16th Annual “Where We Are on TV” report[9] released by GLAAD in September 2011, LGBT characters “account for only 2.9 percent of scripted series regulars” on major broadcast networks, with only “29 LGBT characters on mainstream cable” networks in the past year. The movie industry isn’t any better. In the past three years, there have been a mere 13 US films[10] that featured LGBT characters and/or their romantic relationships. 

So, why am I telling you all this? Because, quite simply, it is important. Harry Hay knew that these issues had to be talked about in order for them to be changed and 62 years later the conversation has not ended. I’m telling you this because sometimes we need to be reminded of where we started in order to see how far we have come, and to understand how very far we have still to go. 

Here is a snapshot of Harry Hay’s America: Equal rights and opportunities (both at home and in public life) for all regardless of orientation. A society that is less tolerant of “discrimination, derision, prejudice and bigotry.” A country whose citizens are judged not by who they love but by “the content of their character.”[11] We’re getting there, Harry. We are getting there. 

[1] “Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement.” (www.pbs.org)
[2] “List of LGBT Rights Organizations.” (www.wikipedia.org)
[3] “Milestones in the American Gay Rights Movement.” www.pbs.org
[4] Same-Sex marriage is not recognized by the United States federal government, but such marriages are recognized by the following six states: Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, New York, Iowa, Vermont as well as our nation’s capitol, Washington D.C. The states of Washington and Maryland have recently passed laws to begin granting same-sex marriage licenses, but each may be delayed or derailed by November 2012 voter referenda. Source: www.wikipedia.org
[5] See “Employment Non-Discrimination Act.” (www.aclu.org) 
[6] In January, 2012 there was a bill being considered in the NH House of Representatives that would allow people to refuse to serve gays in privately owned establishments. (www.wmur.com
[7] David Jason Jenkins and Anthony Ray Jenkins became the first people to be charged with a LGBT-related indictment brought by the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which was signed into law on October 28, 2009 by President Barack Obama. This is the first federal legislation to provide inclusive protections for the LGBT community. (www.advocate.com and www.barackobama.com)
[8] “History of Violence against LGBT people in the United States.” (www.wikipedia.org)
[9] “Where We Are on TV Report: 2011-2012 Season” (www.glaad.org)
[10] A Single Man (2009), Bloomington (2011), Chloe (2009), Elena Undone (2010), I Love You Philip Morris (2009), Make the Yuletide Gay (2009), Pariah (2011), Prayers for Bobby (2009), Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), The Kids are All RIght (2010), The War Boys (2009), Valentine’s Day (2010). (www.wikipedia.org)
[11] Passage from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream Speech” deliver