The Spiritual is Political: Activism and Self-Care Among Early Radical Faeries
In order to think about the early years of the Radical Faeries and their relationship to activist work, I want to begin slightly before the founding of the Faeries with a brief excerpt from Larry Mitchell’s The Faggots and Their Friends Between Revolutions. In this text, published about two years before the first Radical Faerie gathering, Mitchell offers the following text under the heading “Nothing can defeat the spirit of the earth:” He writes “The fairies know that the earth will not tolerate the men much longer. The earth, scarred and gouged and stripped and bombed, will deny life to the men in order to stop the men. The fairies have left the men’s reality in order to destroy it by making a new one.” Hold on to this language about men – the Faerie relationship to this word will recur.
So – Mitchell’s quote does significant work in framing early Radical Faerie politics, identifying the creative force that I mark as politically reinvigorating as well as spiritually and personally empowering, while also suggesting the Radical Faerie’s tender relationship to the earth. This paper will focus on the early years of the Radical Faeries under the leadership of Harry Hay, Don Kilhefner, and Mitch Walker, three men from three different generations of gay activism, ranging in age at the time of founding from Hay at 66 to Walker at 25. Their shared roots in gay male activism were a uniting force, particularly as the three worked in opposition to what was seen in the early gay liberation movement as, in Kilhefner’s words, the “encroachment of bourgeois gay assimilation – with its lack of vision, imagination, and audacity.” In thinking liberation and revolution through the radical Faeries here, I also offer a reading of Radical Faerie gatherings as liminal space ripe for transformational experience, and lending itself to spontaneous ritual and perhaps even magic oriented towards self-care and renewal.
To give a brief history: the Radical Faeries were officially founded in 1979 at a meeting in rural Arizona, called together by Hay and Kilhefner’s vivid ad – “A Call to Gay Brothers: A Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries” in the rural queer magazine RFD. Although 1979 marked the first meeting, Hay had previously associated the word faerie with same-sex sexuality and consciousness in 1970 in a speech at the Western Regional Homophile Conference, and in years prior to this meeting other gay men had been holding unaffiliated rural gatherings not marked by the term Faerie, though with some shared political ideas and aspirations. These earlier speeches and gatherings, along with personal dissatisfaction with mainstream gay liberation, signaled to Hay, Kilhefner, and Walker the need for spiritual and political alternatives for gay men, and in the face of such a need the Radical Faeries were born. Since 1979, then, the Radical Faeries have continued to adapt to the changing face of gay liberation and queer politics not by making room for political strategizing, but by creating space for rejuvenation and creative self-care for its constituency of political organizers and activists.
In thinking about the founding and early years of the Radical Faeries, Harry Hay often receives the bulk of the credit because of his decades of work in the homophile and gay liberation movements, particularly as founder of the Mattachine Society, and later for his rather controlling personality, sometimes dubbed Faerie fascism. However, it is the youngest member of the founding triad, Mitch Walker, who likely contributed the psychotherapeutic framework that was part of the healing matrix of the Radical Faeries and that ultimately made political transformation possible by renewing the spirits of participants. Walker was a psychology student out of UCLA and UC Berkeley specializing in Jungian depth psychology, an intellectual concept that he explicitly brought to bear on gay culture in his academic work. So although, for example, the early Faerie David Liner speaks of Harry Hay as “giv[ing] thousands of gay men the space to get over the most painful wounds that this society could possibly inflict on them,” I would argue that the therapeutic nature of the community implied by this statement draws its foundation less from Hay’s work than from Walker’s. By mending psychological wounds caused by systemic homophobia and gender oppression, Radical Faeries found themselves better prepared to respond to, navigate, and transform the outside world. Additionally, creating space for healing at Radical Faerie gatherings ultimately brought about the empowerment necessary to reclaim a word long used against gay men and, with that reclaiming, the production of an identity. The Faerie self was not-man and was especially other than straight he-men or gay Castro clones. Indeed, the question of reclamation was the topic of one of the very first Faerie circles, circles being the primary organizational formation of the Radical Faerie –
workshops was too straight of a term, as was meeting. In Faerie circles, the participants listened closely to each other, and in listening felt heard through the intensity of shared experiences.
Interrupting the spirit of freedom that was part of this self-care oriented healing in the Faerie circles, Hay attempted to apply his pet notion of subject-subject identity to these renewed and realized selves and emphasized the idea of being other than men, though not women. Many participants found Hay’s explicit and forward focus on a theoretical identity framework to be overbearing, particularly as they worked to find supportive grounding through an emphasis on lived experience. In response to Hay’s forcefulness, by 1980 Mitch Walker found himself monitoring Hay’s activities and tendencies towards manipulation as the head of what Walker called the “Faerie fascism police force.” If Walker was responsible for opening up a space for psychotherapeutic transformation, then, Hay tended towards closely directing that transformation to his own ends, which were explicitly political. This tension over the relationship of the Radical Faeries to politics would be an ongoing one, evoked in large part by Hay’s behavior, a point I will return to.
Continuing to think about transformation, it is necessary to look at the ritual structure – or lack thereof – in which the Radical Faeries existed. Unattributable to and unguided by any specific person, and in this sense perhaps most naturally of the Radical Faerie community were the rituals that arose at the 1979 and 1980 spiritual gatherings. It may seem contentious to describe these largely unplanned or guided episodes as rituals, but that is how every Faerie speaks of them – with the respect accorded to much more rooted and traditional acts. These Faerie rituals were rooted in an embrace of those aspects of the self that had originated as wounds. If these men – or not-men as many of them might have it –if they had come to these gatherings deeply hurt by society’s treatment of their sexuality and gender, it was the uplifting of those aspects of the self that allowed for transformation. So, for example, in 1979 the most widely remembered and affective ritual of the gathering was what is known simply as the mud ritual. The mud ritual literally consisted of lugging buckets of water out beyond the ashram where the gathering was being held, dumping them into a clay-based dry river bed, and then, covering each other in mud. At the center of it all laid one man with an erection, and the group covered him in mud and built up a giant earth phallus upon him, then lifted the man up while the group chanted around him. The scene was spiritual, orgiastic, and primal all at once, and many felt that they came away from that ritual transformed. As the men stripped the thick mud from their bodies, some spoke of “scraping off the ugly green frog skins” – the participants were frogs who had become princes through this moment of communion in the mud. There is perhaps no clearer or more playful allegory for transformation than the frog prince.
Here I will take a diversion to think briefly about the concept of transformation as it relates to liminal space. I would argue that Faerie gatherings took place in liminal space – space that is in the words of anthropologist Victor Turner “neither here not there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial… their ambiguous and indeterminate attributes are expressed by a rich variety of symbols.” Faerie gatherings are certainly rich with symbols – bells, talismans, circles, the list goes on –but more importantly, Faeries refuse the social positions assigned by convention, particularly when they are gathered together. While some ultimately came to live on Faerie land full time, or otherwise lived in rural settings, many of the more urban men who felt called by the Faeries felt a shift occur that they carried with them back into their day to day lives and jobs. Even the occasional Faerie gathering was enough to sustain men caught in corporate drudgery or capitalist collusion back in the real world; inside they knew they were different and more importantly that they were not alone. A whole Faerie community waited for them out on the land, could be called up in quiet moments of communion with the true self.
This internal knowledge of being different did ultimately have political ramifications for the Radical Faeries. While some resented Hay bringing the outside onto the land, political involvement is central for Faerie sensibilities. As Stuart Timmons writes, Hay was highly insistent when it came to sharing what he saw as the political possibilities of the Radical Faeries. Hay urged involvement in demonstrations, the writing of letters to congressional representatives, coalition building, and more. Many were unsure that this kind of political orientation was appropriate to or necessary for the Faerie life they imagined. Attempting to keep the peace, Don Kilhefner tried to balance Hay’s enthusiasm, but ultimately his interventions were unnecessary. Particularly with the rise of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, Faeries found themselves spontaneously engaging in political organizing without any urging or meddling on the part of Hay. As a subject of organizing emphasis for the Faeries, AIDS makes a kind of logical sense in that it directly effected the community, but it is also interesting to note that, thinking about the work of ACT UP, for example, AIDS-related organizing was some of the most creative political work in recent times. The unconventional nature of the Radical Faeries, then, seems perfectly suited to this political project and although Hay was critical of the kind of confrontational masculinity he felt ACT UP endorsed, I would suggest that the kind of freewheeling, generative ritual space of the land shares many characteristics with the kind of organizing that galvanized queer communities confronting AIDS. Although the Faeries were oriented towards rural spaces and ACT UP was a more urban movement, the same kind of creativity was definitive of the two groups and some Radical Faerie members, such as Stephen Fish and Robert Navarret, were active in primarily west coast branches of ACT UP.
So we can ask – how does the politicization of the Radical Faeries fit into this narrative of transformation and self-care? Weren’t many of the men involved with the Faeries activists prior to that involvement? In what ways is this different? I posit that the Radical Faeries, while making some activism more creative, more importantly served as a space of rejuvenation that prevented activist burn out. Harry Hay, for example, was 66 at the time the Radical Faeries were founded and he had been embedded in the earliest phases of the gay rights and homophile movement. Hay clearly knew something about maintaining momentum as an activist that was worth sharing. Although RFD dismissed Hay’s theory of subject-subject relations as nonsense, the idea that this kind of consciousness that refuses objectification of the other, the submissive, or the interest of lust or relation, may have been more valuable than it appeared. I would argue that the subject-subject relations theory was part of the notions of self-understanding that the Radical Faeries used to help their members navigate a heteronormative world. It was also the start point of the rituals, play, sex, and the reconstruction of a different kind of masculinity that the Radical Faeries would employ as part of their spiritual practice. By viewing each other on this plane of equality and outside the bounds of subject-object or even object-object relations, Radical Faeries oriented themselves to a greater intimacy and self-knowledge. I also would suggest that subject-subject relation theory as advanced by Hay shares some critical characteristics with consciousness raising and feminist neo-pagan practices like Dianic Wicca.
Thinking briefly about the relationship between the Radical Faeries and Dianic Wicca is an ideal place to conclude this consideration of queer spirituality and self-care. These two largely separatist traditions share several common threads, the first of which returns us to Mitch Walker, the Jungian of the Radical Faeries and the role of therapy in their gatherings. Margot Adler, author of the famous neo-pagan text Drawing Down the Moon describes the therapeutic as a natural extension of the consciousness raising and ritual work of Dianic Wiccans. Dianic traditions may look like therapy, but this is in many ways a function of the fact that women’s oppression was a starting place for much of the group’s spiritual work. This parallels the sense of an oppressed other-gender among Radical Faeries and Harry Hay’s insistence that Faeries were a kind of not-men. Dianic Wiccans were emphatically women, but they could see the limitations places upon that role. Radical Faeries, on the other hand, had in many cases spent years of their lives being ridiculed and marginalized for their gender expression because it failed to meet the requirements for normative masculinity. Radical Faeries were not-men and Dianic Wiccans were women and neither of those gender situations were positions of power. Both left more to be desired, and separatist gatherings and communal rituals helped to manifest those desires.
A final shared point of relation between the Radical Faeries and Dianic Wicca better allows us to understand the ways in which these traditions supported healing at the site of the body. Acculturated to view the body as shameful, both groups use aspects of physicality and sexuality in their practices and rituals, embracing a sense of the body as not only natural, but as a powerful location for performing magic and engaging in ritual – think again about the mud ritual of the first Radical Faerie gathering and the centrality of the male body in that event. Reclamation of the body by Dianic Wiccans and Radical Faeries can be as simple as the common practice of performing rituals in the nude or it can take more complex forms through sex magick – a practice that is relatively common among Radical Faeries though decidedly contentious, particularly among more contemporary participants. However, because both women and gay men are so consistently shamed for their sexuality in our culture, this recuperation of the body and sexuality remains highly therapeutic, refusing the cultural disapproval placed on participants’ supposedly improper or perverse desires.
The early years of the Radical Faeries were both fraught and exciting, but even the earliest gathering – two hundred men who felt the call, arriving at a space meant for no more than 75 – even this gathering did critical work in terms of recuperating marginalized identities. Something deep, something about the intense wounding produced by a homophobic and rigidly gendered society, brought this body of men to the Arizona desert to heal in community. In healing, a new kind of politics was founded by Radical Faeries, whether intentional or not. This innovative and creative political spirit traveled with the Faeries when they left the land and translated itself into other activist contexts as time went on. Today the Faeries have spread – across the country, across continents. There are still permanent Faerie settlements and gatherings. I encountered some urban Faeries a year or so back in an enchanted forest temporarily erected in an old warehouse space in Brooklyn. Those present continued to honor the Faerie circle, the site of sharing and communing and most importantly listening to each other. Much began in the Faerie circle and much continues to grow there.