Radical Faeries: in search of the “Gay Spirit”

Article publié le 24 novembre 2021

Text by Patrick Thévenin taken from Antidote’s « Karma » Issue (Winter 2021-2022).

In the late seventies, two gay activists launched the Radical Faeries movement – a blend of paganism, Marxist ideology, early environmentalism, New Age hippydom, empowerment, psychedelia, spirituality and sexual liberation a-go-go taking the form of big gatherings – and renewed a sort of homosexual transcendentalism. A zany, hybrid ideology that urged us to explore the gender spectrum beyond cis-normativity, spread throughout the world and thrives to this day.

On Labor Day weekend in 1979, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 2, more than 200 gay men answered the call of a mysterious flyer. A drawing by the celebrated artist Bruce Reifel depicted a supine naked man gazing at the sun, and an inscription underneath read “A call to gay brothers: a spiritual conference for radical fairies” and, in smaller letters, “Exploring breakthroughs in gay consciousness – Sharing gay visions – The spiritual dimensions of gayness.” Men came from the four corners of the United States, and some even from Canada. Strangers to one another, they gathered at a more or less abandoned ashram in the Sonora, one of the largest deserts in the United States, located in the state of Arizona. Their mission: to tap into gay awareness, reconnect with the forces of nature, and explore pagan mythology and the new forms of spirituality – since most religions condemned homosexuality.
The very Friday of their arrival, the participants gathered in a circle and began getting to know one another, through song. The three days ahead were to be filled with a multitude of workshops, initiations to the mystic power of crystals, the virtues of botany, the control of personal energy and – more prosaically – the craft of autofellatio. In groups, clad in robes or long tunics, or nude as worms, these future “radical faeries,” camping or squatting collective dormitories, were instructed to take all their fears, anguish and anxieties and place them into a little iron cage, to be tossed into the vast desert. Meanwhile, others swam in a huge pool, set off on a desert hike to reconnect with nature, caressed one another in mud baths, imbibed LSD and other psychedelic drugs of the time, danced as if possessed, fucked every man harder than the last, and listened religiously to conferences on the history of the gay movement, spirituality or total awareness. The weekend dealt those men a mighty blow and raised them to a new, untold state of awareness. As the story goes, John Platania, a Californian psychiatrist, yogi and early gay liberationist, arrived late on Saturday and had to leave a few hours later, so paralyzing was the event’s powerful, destabilizing energy. “It was as if I was watching a dream which I wasn’t able to enter,” he would later say. Mark Thompson, the first journalist to take an interest in the birth of the Radical Faeries, would publish a long account of the event in the gay magazine The Advocate: “There had been no plans beyond the first evening, there had been no messianic ego directing us along a prescribed path. Our experience of the weekend had arisen from a collective awareness, from particles released in the unconscious, from the intuitive, from dreams not remembered in the past. This spiritual conference for now radicalized fairies was as important in its implications for the future as Stonewall had been ten years ago.”

A Movement Founded in Advocacy

The Radical Faeries movement was created by two American activists and old friends: Harry Hay, then in his 60s, and Donald Kilhefner, 20 years his junior. In 1948, with the help of a few friends, Hay – former member of the American Communist Party, then more of a band than proper political party, because of the pitiless persecution of its adherents – founded the Society of Fools. Taking inspiration from the first few homosexual demonstrations, which were then seeing the light of day, this informal circle of gay-rights advocates raised protest against the labor camps to which the Cuban government was sending “invertidos” for reeducation and echoed the Kinsey Report, which was raising hackles in what was then a Puritanical America (Alfred Kinsey, author of the lengthy study, underscored the diversity of sexual practices in the human male, noting his research finding that about a third of American men had partaken in homosexual relations). The group quickly consolidated, made itself official and changed its name to The Mattachine Society. It would become one of the first associations to fight for the rights of homosexuals in the United States. The society draws its name from the Sociétés Joyeuses, a medieval French group that Harry Hay describes in an interview published in Jonathan Ned Katz’s book Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.: One of the cultural developments I had discussed and illustrated in my Labor School class on ‘Historical Materialist Development of Music’ was the function of the medieval-Renaissance French Sociétés Joyeuses. One was known as the Société Mattachine. These societies, lifelong secret fraternities of unmarried townsmen who never performed in public unmasked, were dedicated to going out into the countryside and conducting dances and rituals during the Feast of Fools, at the Vernal Equinox. Sometimes these dance rituals, were peasant protests against oppression – with the maskers, in the people’s name, receiving the brunt of a given lord’s vicious retaliation. So we took the name Mattachine because we felt that we 1950s Gays were also masked people, unknown and anonymous, who might become engaged in morale building and helping ourselves and others, through struggle, to move toward total redress and change.”

“Their mission: to tap into gay awareness, reconnect with the forces of nature, and explore pagan mythology and the new forms of spirituality – since most religions condemned homosexuality.”

Donald Kilhefner, for his part, is a Jungian psychologist who began his activism at a very tender age, protesting the war in Vietnam before joining, in the 1970s, the Gay Liberation Front: a congregation of several American groups advocating for sexual liberation in the wake of New York’s Stonewall riots, often considered the starting point of LGBTQIA+ liberation. Donald later became the founder and president of the Los Angeles Community Services Center, a refuge for LGBTQIA+ people. There he met Harry, and from their lively discussions on the future of gay-liberation movements sprang, in 1973, the idea of the Radical Faeries movement. As Kilhefner explains on the website lgbtqhp.org: “The Radical Faeries came out of conversations between Harry and me beginning in 1973 about the course of the Gay Liberation movement and what was missing. The Faeries intellectual and spiritual foundation came out of workshops I hosted in 1975-1981 called Gay Voices and Visions where the work of gay visionaries and our intellectual history beginning with Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter and others was examined.”
Blending all kinds of influences – from Marxism to feminism, New Age to environmentalism, paganism to sexual liberation, Alcoholics Anonymous-style self-help to anarchism, community spirit to radical individualism, psychology to poetry, gay liberation to transvestite subversion – the Radical Faeries philosophy is a grab-bag with a sprinkling of camp. In short, Harry Hay and Donald Kilhefner sought to inject a little sense and critical thinking back into the global gay-liberation movement – the 1970s one – which had heeded the call of capitalism and yielded to the rainbow lifestyle, copying the heterosexual, patriarchal model while neglecting its own deep roots. Hay began with the observation that homosexuals, in their rejection by so many religions, were growing up with a sort of spiritual wound that could heal only through the creation of communities whose members could help one another, assemble and reflect on their role in the world. Not for nothing did Harry and Donald choose the term “fairies”, then an insult aimed at effeminate gay men. It was a way both to flip the script and to ground their approach in the heritage of previous pagan spiritual movements, themselves populated with unicorns, elves, shamans and witches.  Harry and Donald draw this philosophy largely from one of their core texts, Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture, by Arthur Evans, which analyses the close relationship between gay spirituality and ancient pagan religions. In a particularly relevant chapter, titled “Magic and Revolution,” the author writes: “We look forward to re-establishing our communication with nature and the Great Mother, to feeling the essential link between sex and the forces that hold the universe together. […] We look forward to regaining our ancient historical roles as medicine people, healers, prophets, shamans, and sorcerers. We look forward to an endless and fathomless process of coming out – as Gay people, as animals, as humans, as mysterious and powerful spirits that move through the life cycle of the cosmos.”

The Movement Spreads Abroad

The first gathering was an extraordinary success, surprising the organizers, and with this the Radical Faeries movement (the original name was amended, as many members found the term “fairies” to be “insulting”) took off. Meetings, called Faerie Central, are held regularly at Hay’s house, in Los Angeles. There he explains the movement’s fundamentals, encourages the curious to take up political activism, delivers distilled courses in Marxism and lets his strong character show, ejecting potential members with whom he fails to see eye to eye. Hence the exclusion one day of the famous theater director John Callaghan, who reproached Hay for his marked hostility toward heterosexuals and women, and the restriction of Radical Faeries events to gay men alone.
The movement had its definitive launch with the second gathering, which took place in August 1980 at the huge Estes Park, a natural paradise in Colorado. The occasion drew men from all over the world (Australia, Norway, France and Germany), and soon there sprang up other communities and gatherings espousing the Radical Faeries spirit. Today the movement, or rather state of mind, of the Radical Faeries – who have set aside their 100% gay ostracism to welcome lesbians, trans people, families and heterosexuals, yielding in a way to the evolution of the various LGBTQIA+ communities – extends to more than fifteen countries and counts several thousand members. These are located in the United States, of course, but also in Canada, Israel, Asia, Turkey, Germany, Lebanon and France, where a sanctuary has been established in Vosges Mountains. Its name, Folleterre [literally Madland, “folle” being a slang term for queer, translator’s note], is the Radical Faeries philosophy in a nutshell. Taking the form of gatherings in remote natural settings – the dates that usually coincide with those of witches’ sabbaths (equinoxes, solstices, first days of February, May or August, last days of October) – or of perennially or periodically open communities, the various emanations of the Radical Faeries operate independently (the movement is essentially anti-hierarchical) and offer a deep dive into a parallel, fantastical universe: a fairy world of hirsute drag queens and full nudes, of tie-dye tunics, fishnets and runny stockings, of flower-adorned beards, where workshops blend with collective ceremonies and cabarets alternate with “circles of the heart,” for discussion and the sharing of emotions… All of it in celebration – at times under the effect of certain drugs – of nature, love, brotherhood, the community, mutual aid, telluric spirits and, of course, free and spontaneous sex.

Not far removed from the spirit of the Cockettes, a theatrical troop of radical, intellectual artists making waves in 1970s San Francisco with their beards and long-train dresses, or of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, which formed during the AIDS epidemic, the Radical Faeries movement has made a place for itself in pop LGBTQIA+ culture. In the third season of the series Queer as Folk (2003) the two main protagonists, Emmet and Michael, attend a gathering, and on arrival are asked to change into fabulous costumes the better to express their inner “me.” In another series, Looking (2014-2015), the main character, Patrick Murray, a handsome if somewhat uptight kid, takes his first hit of ecstasy at a fairyland party in a wood, amid doings not unlike the hijinks of the Radical Faeries. Then there’s the wonderful Shortbus (2006), a cult film that approaches sex in the zaniest ways, taking much of its inspiration from gatherings that director John Cameron Mitchell himself often took part in, as he told Libération in 2011: “I’d heard about it from friends. Astonished and curious, I went to Short Mountain [gathering place of the world’s largest Radical Faeries community, in Tennessee, editor’s note]. I was impressed with how relaxed and nice the communities’ inhabitants were. Naturally, drugs accounted for a big part of their open-mindedness! The thing that really struck me, though, was the way those people had constructed an identity that went against not only heterocentrism but also the worst aspect of the gay community: the tendency to always go along with the majority, with convention […]. You arrive at a gathering carrying not a personal but a social hostility. It’s shocking to encounter a radically different way to live.”
It has now been more than 40 years since the birth of the Radical Faeries, and a new militant and politicized queer generation is making its voice heard, calling for greater openness, diversity, body positivity, integration of persons of color, and gender and sexual fluidity. The perpetually evolving philosophy of the Radical Faeries seems more current than ever. The movement was in fact among the first to formulate a powerful critique of the gay milieu’s masculinism as well as of the heterosexual, patriarchal model, all while reconnecting with nature, exploring the role that LGBTQIA+ people can play in protecting the planet, and advocating for the emancipation of Western societies with respect to their amorous and sexual norms. So many milestones on the way to a potential sweet utopia, one that Harry Hay describes in his book Radically Gay, in reference to the Radical Faeries’ first gathering: “It could have been the first time in recent years history that gay men realized that there was something more to do with their sexualities besides simply to accept it.”

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