When I first moved to Los Angeles, I explored the “secret stairways” of Silver Lake on evening walks, following narrow concrete steps up the jasmine-laced hills of my new neighborhood. One night I found a set overlooking a moonlit reservoir between terracotta-tiled apartments and agaves as tall as telephone poles. A plaque at the base read, “Harry Hay founded the Mattachine Society on this hillside on November 11, 1950.” 

Someone had taped a homemade memorial onto the plaque. It featured a photo of Hay: Moonbeams illuminated the elderly, sun-weathered man in a cowboy hat, long floral print skirt, chunky necklace and earrings.

I’d later hear stories about Hay from my friend Craig Collins, who organized campouts that Hay attended in California’s Anza Borrego State Park in the ’80s and ’90s. I first met Craig a few years later while reporting a story about unhoused anglers for High Country News. I was riding my bike along the banks of the Los Angeles River one January afternoon when I found him. He was looking at an osprey, binoculars pressed to his eyes, and we began chatting about everything from red-whiskered bulbuls to the extinct neighborhood gay bars of yesteryear. Well, Craig chatted; I nodded and merely absorbed his knowledge. 

“Most had renounced spiritual beliefs because religion had renounced them. But the spiritual jolt of the gathering caused them to undergo a complete internal re-evaluation.”

He told me about how Hay’s trailblazing work with the Mattachine Society, one of the first LGBTQ+ rights organizations in the United States, dovetailed with a new counterculture 30 years later. Hay became dissatisfied with the trajectory of gay activism and culture, and so, in the late 1970s, he started the New Age “Radical Faerie” movement. He moved to New Mexico in the early ’70s, but was drawn back to Los Angeles like a calliope hummer to a Dudleya after his Radical Faerie co-founders, Don Kilhefner, founder of what is now the Los Angeles LGBT Center, and Mitch Walker, a Jungian psychologist and author of ​​Men Loving Men: A Gay Sex Guide and Consciousness Book, convinced him and his partner, John Burnside, to return to the city.

In the summer of 1979, they advertised the “Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries,” hanging posters in bookshops, gay community centers and health food stores across Los Angeles. “A CALL TO GAY BROTHERS,” it read, displaying a drawing of a nude Adonis on a desert playa. “Exploring breakthroughs in gay consciousness …”     

A series of “strange doings” was reported by the Farmers’ Arizona Gazette at an ashram outside of Benson, Arizona, on Sept. 5, 1979. When I first read about the event, it was hard not to be jealous. I romanticized it the way Jimi Hendrix fans talked about Woodstock. Over 200 “faeries” spent Labor Day weekend performing rituals, eating vegetarian meals and attending spur-of-the-moment workshops in subjects ranging from desert botany to auto-fellatio. In The Trouble with Harry Hay, historian and attendee Stuart Timmons wrote, “Cosmetic rainbows trailed from eyelids, past mustaches and around nipples; feathers, beads, and bells dangled everywhere; any clothing worn was for shade or to pad a seat.” I imagined myself at the gathering in nothing but a wide-brimmed wicker hat, the scent of sand verbena slightly covering my body odor.

A photo from the gathering — “conference” was quickly deemed “too hetero” — shows the aftermath of a mud fight with 40 or more faeries covered in wet Sonoran earth. “Most had renounced spiritual beliefs because religion had renounced them,” Timmons wrote. “But the spiritual jolt of the gathering caused them to undergo a complete internal re-evaluation.”

The following year’s gathering took place near Boulder, Colorado, and soon regional events began to pop up like giant stalked puffballs. Craig told me that it was not just a way to escape from the drag of heteronormative society, it was also a kind of refuge from mainstream gay culture. Woof — here were the words I’d been looking for for so many years. Canyons of ocotillo shield both gazes. I loved being surrounded by so many queer people since moving to Los Angeles. But I also longed to be forever in the desert: It’s the constant tug-of-war so many crunchy queers face between the city and the rural.

“The heart circle was and still is the centerpiece,” filmmaker Eric Slade, director of the documentary Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay, told me. Slade explained how faeries sat in a circle at every gathering as each person was given time to bare their soul. Photos of the desert campouts in Collins’ Faerie Dish Rag newsletter depicted faeries gathered around Hay, the mother duck. Slade, who joined at Craig’s gatherings, remembers Hay’s long-winded lectures. “He believed that queer people were on the planet for a reason,” Slade said. “And he thought it was essential that we got together in nature and discovered why.”

Hay passed away in 2002 at the age of 90, but the Radical Faerie legacy lives on. It has inspired a loose worldwide network of gatherings and numerous year-round “radfae” sanctuaries, in Joshua Tree, California, Zuni Mountain, New Mexico, and as far away as Australia and Portugal. The events continue to draw both veteran and new faeries alike, connecting queer people across generations.

“There’s subtle homophobia that’s going on all the time that we don’t even notice,” Slade said. “The desert allows us to celebrate our existence.” And queer people do celebrate in the desert. Two of the largest mainstream gay events, Palm Springs White Party and Dinah Shore, both started as small desert gatherings. Burning Man, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, attracts numerous queer attendees, including a radical faerie camp called Comfort and Joy. Some joke that many straight people “spend a lot of money to get to Burning Man, just to be gay for the week.” They wear bells, beads, and feathers and dance to house music that was started by the queer Black and Latino underground scene in the late ’70s Chicago. And there’s the orgy tent.

“There’s subtle homophobia that’s going on all the time that we don’t even notice. The desert allows us to celebrate our existence.”

The desert strips us bare. We blame the heat and aridity, but we wear only ourselves in our desire to cast a connection. When I flip through archival copies of Craig’s Faerie Dish Rag, I see myself, my boyfriend and my friends, all trying to answer the same questions as the faeries, all of us sitting cross-legged under the white sun. We do it with rainbows trailing on our nipples during bare-assed botany excursions. And we bare our hearts not only in circles, but in dots, segments, triangles and polygons, too.   

Miles W. Griffis is a writer and journalist based in Southern California. He writes “Confetti Westerns,” a serial column that explores the queer natural and cultural histories of the American Southwest.

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This article appeared in the March 2024 print edition of the magazine with the headline “Radical faeries.”

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