Tag Archives: Will Geer

LGBT Pride and History Month 2014: Harry Hay

26 Jun

hay5Today I would like to honor and celebrate the late Harry Hay.  Hay, whom many consider the founder of the Gay Rights movement died in October of 2002.  Hay understood intersectionality, as he advocated not only for LGBT rights, but also for the Labor movement, and for Native American civil rights. Hay founded the Mattachine Society, a leftist gay liberation organization which worked for the civil rights of homosexuals during the 1950s.  The Mattachine Society was tied to the Community Party during the age of McCarthyism here in the United States, which made it difficult to secure consistent leadership.  Many members left the society in fear of the dire actions being carried out by McCarthy’s henchmen.

Unlike other gay liberation movements, Hay strongly resisted the move towards assimilation.  Like many gay men, Hay succumbed to societal pressure to deny his identity and try to adopt the identity of being heterosexual.  This attempt led him to marrying Anita Platky.  The couple adopted two children and later divorced, for Hay could no longer manage the pretense of being heterosexual. Sadly, 60 years later, we still see people engaging in heterosexual marriages due to the overwhelming societal pressure to be “straight.”  Here is a perfect example of how the liberation of LGBT people is directly tied to the liberation of our heterosexual brothers and sisters and is connected to the liberation of other targeted populations.  I know my own narrative and activism as a gay man helped to pave the way for my activism around other social justice issues, such as eradicating racism, misogyny, and poverty.

Hay’s first male partner was none other than the amazing civil rights leader Will Geer, whom many remember only for his role as the grandfather on the television show the Waltons. My husband and I loved Geer in the  1954 film adaptation of Salt of the Earth — not a trip to chuckle town, but a great film about social justice racism, and poverty.

Years later, Hay and his partner John Burnside would look to the Mattacine Society and Native American cultures that revered gays for inspiration to start the Radical Faeries in 1979. Today, I am aware of two Radical Faerie communes that still exist; one in Tennessee and one here in Oregon.

Harry Hay was a true pioneer — a bold speaker of his personal truth who demanded that everyone be afforded the right to live openly, honestly, and safely. Justly called the “Father of Gay Liberation,” he is a person to whom we all owe a continued debt today.

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Farewell Pete Seeger, Social Justice Activist

28 Jan

Pete Seeger at his home in Beacon NY 9.14.2005Yesterday the world lost one of its longest-lasting voices for social justice. Pete Seeger — singer, songwriter, environmentalist, peace activist, and social justice pioneer — died at the age of 94. His long musical career was inextricably interwoven with his passion for equity and basic human rights.

Seeger was born in Manhattan in 1919. His father, Charles Seeger, founded the first collegiate musicology program in California in 1912 but was forced to resign for his outspoken pacifism during the first World War. His stepmother, Ruth Crawford Seeger was a noted composer and one of the most important resources for folk music in the early 20th Century. Pete blended what he learned in his youth into a long, beautiful career.

He learned banjo and began singing, passions that derailed his attempt to pursue a journalism degree. While he considered his future, he began working with the legendary Alan Lomax at the Library of Congress, cataloging early folk and protest music. He joined the integrated cast of the radio broadcast Back Where I Come From, joining Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Leadbelly, and other luminaries. Although the ensemble was well received — including an invitation by Eleanor Roosevelt to perform at the White House — the racially integrated cast kept the show from national syndication.

An avowed socialist, Seeger had first met Guthrie at Will Geer’s Grapes of Wrath concert for migrant workers’ rights. His politics became an ever-stronger part of his music. He sang with the Almanac Singers, a group designed to function as a singing newspaper promoting the industrial unionization movement, racial and religious inclusion, and other progressive causes. That group evolved into the Weavers, which had a huge hit with Leadbelly’s Goodnight Irene in 1950. Throughout the music, he attended and organized many protest and activist events.

Although he decried Stalin’s perversion of socialist values, he remained committed to equity and workers’ rights, causes that brought him before the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1955. Refusing to bow to pressure, he summed up basic American values in his famous response to the Committee’s questions:

I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.

As a result he was indicted and tracked by Congressional officers for the better part of a decade, losing many performing opportunities. This did not stop him from performing and speaking out, including early work in the growing civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Seeger sang and spoke out for decades, providing wonderful music and powerful messages. He and Joan Baez helped popularize the use of We Shall Overcome as a civil rights anthem. He co-wrote famous protest and equality songs like Where Have All the Flowers Gone, If I Had A Hammer, Turn! Turn! Turn!, and The Bells of Rhymney. He championed disarmament, opposed American intervention in Vietnam (and all subsequent wars and military actions), fought for environmental justice, and demanded quality education (including the teaching of music) for all children.

Seeger never slowed down. In his 94th year he appeared at concerts and events for Farm Aid, activist Leonard Peltier, and a protest commemorating the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. quietly passionate, firm in his beliefs, and actively engaged over a more than 80-year career, Seeger was a model of social justice and civic engagement. His legacy is indelible and his witty, bright presence will be sorely missed.

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