If you look closely at the street on the far left of this 1956 atlas sheet, you’ll see that it’s labeled “concrete stairs.” Those stairs are part of Cove Avenue in Silverlake—a walkway that’s better known as the Mattachine Steps. You may know them only as the cardio-boosting incline with a gorgeous view of the reservoir, but they also played host to a major moment in LGBT history.
Right along this stairway is a small house where the courageous Harry Hay once resided during his long fight against homophobia in Los Angeles and beyond. In 1950, Hay founded the Mattachine Society, which was the first organization to advocate for gay rights at a time when being gay was deemed a “mental disease” by the misguided medical establishment. The life of this amazing—and sometimes controversial—man is complicated and full of heroic struggle against long odds.
Despite being born in Sussex, England, he spent much of his childhood in the Los Angeles area, attending Cahuenga Elementary, Virgil Junior High, and Los Angeles High School, where he excelled as a student-debater and in drama. He discovered he was gay early, but instead of accepting the current misconceptions of that day he came to view gay people as a cultural minority.
Across America gay men were subject to all manner of severe repression, including loss of livelihood and even time in jail. The LAPD vice squads actually maintained as many as 10,000 files on suspected homosexuals, many of whom were doing nothing more than going where they felt comfortable. Hay wanted to change that.
When an illness forced him to drop out of Stanford University, he returned again to Los Angeles to recuperate. Here he made friends with intellectuals like John Cage, Will Geer, and others who understood his passion for gay rights. He studied Marxism and joined the Communist party—which seems like it would have been a liberating gesture, until you realize that the party leadership disproved of his sexual orientation and convinced him to marry a woman.
When Hay ended the sham of his marriage in 1951, he set out to organize others in his social set, starting a group called Bachelors Anonymous that morphed into the Mattachine Society. (The name was taken from a medieval French secret society that set out to right wrongs.) When one of Hay’s Mattachine Society members, Dale Jennings, went to court to fight against an instance of police entrapment and won, it gave hope to the movement. The photo below shows Hay—second from the left in white—with the other founding members of the society on Christmas in 1951.
Not long after, though, Harry Hay was forced to remove himself from leadership of his society because of his ties to the Communist party—these were the days of the McCarthy witch-hunts, after all. Still, he kept fighting, despite the terrible pressure in society to remain in the closet. As late as 1964 Life magazine described homosexuality as ”a deviation” and a “social disorder,” but slowly the movement began to grow in numbers and strength. By the mid-1960s there were more than 80 bars, restaurants, and coffee shops catering to gay clientele in Los Angeles, including a dozen just along Sunset in Harry Hay’s neighborhood.
In 1969, just months after the uprising against gay persecution at Stonewall, Hay formed the Gay Liberation Front, and in December of that year, he organized a “gay-in” at Griffith Park. His advice was to “throw off the ugly green frogskin of hetero-imitation and find the shining faerie prince within.” Hay continued the fight up until 2002, when he died at the age of 90. In his lifetime he saw great progress, but he recognized that the fight for gay rights still had miles to go.
In February of 2012 the Los Angeles City Council officially named the steps beneath his long-time residence the Mattachine Society Stairs. If you go there, you’ll see a photo of Harry Hay standing proud and looking down on the Silver Lake reservoir and beyond.