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Guest Editorials

Bathing Harry

Harry Hay
Written by Staff

by Connell O’Donovan

Harry Hay (1912-2002), appropriately described as the father of Gay Liberation, founded the first “gay rights” group in 1949 Los Angeles, called the Mattachine Society. He was also one of the founders of the Radical Faeries in 1979, a movement exploring an essentially nature-based Gay male spirituality. I first met Harry and his longtime partner John Burnside at the Wolf Creek Radical Faerie Sanctuary commune near Grants Pass, Oregon, and years later had the honor of being on his care team preparing him for death — I was his masseur. I was then honored to be an usher at his memorial service in San Francisco. His nom du Fae was The Duchess. To find out more about this extraordinary person, read his biography, The Trouble with Harry Hay by Stuart Timmons, or watch the documentary, Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay.


On a languorous mid-July afternoon in 1994, after a morning of solitary prayer, meditation, and seeping myself into the sacred loam of Wolf Creek Sanctuary during my first journey there, some dozen Radical Faeries gathered to caravan down the road to Hooter’s Hole on the creek — a large swimming hole affectionately named for said Faerie. It was a magical and sacred place of wood, stone, water, and sunlight. We flung off clothes and rushed into the large, deep pool of water, naked and laughing 10-year-old children again.

After a long while of splashing, swimming, and jumping off a high rock into the deep pool, I slowly spun off on my own, a solitary leaf on water, carried by a mild current away from the noise and bustle. Mostly out of sight, I found an underwater boulder that I could easily perch on, just my head, shoulders, and chest above water, and sank into another meditation.

A few minutes passed in nature’s “silence” and then came a nearby splish-splash. I opened my eyes to see Harry Hay, the Duchess herself, happily dog-paddling toward me, his long white hair wild and dripping sparkles in the sunlight, his eyes bright with delight, an 82-year-old child, skinny-dipping for the first time, or so it seemed, his joy so palpable and contagious.

I only recall silence between us for a while, but I’m sure we exchanged a few words, as he came and clung to me on my submerged boulder. And I remember gently flipping him onto his back to draw him across my lap, his arms wrapped around my neck. I held him tenderly, quietly in my arms, a partially submerged Pietà of sorts. I felt at once a fierce maternal embrace in our closeness, as well as the gentle intimacy of old lovers.

With my right hand, I cupped a handful of creek water and poured it on the crown of his head, and then another. Then I washed his cheek and neck. And cupped water onto his chest and bony knees — the rest of him being underwater. As I did so, I quietly uttered words of blessings and blissings into his ear. It was a delicious, spontaneous ritual, almost an Arcadian baptism of old. He curled up against my chest and huddled in the safety of my arms. Those briefly eternal seconds are now etched into my heart.

The purity and sanctity and depth of that moment I count as one of the greatest spiritual experiences of my life. There now exists an existentially definitive “before I bathed Harry” and an after. Dry husks of seeds that had laid dormant within me now burst open into life and abundance. I can never recall bathing Harry without breaking into tears of joy and gratitude.

I miss you, Harry and I love you. Thank you.

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