THE TRUE ORIGINS OF
THE RADICAL FAERIES
A constant power struggle in our story is the minimalization and sometimes erasure of the catalysts who created our community and civil rights. Their individual stories are being replaced by lofty, 21st-century archetypes and those who look like many feel. This is not preservation. Our history is being stolen from us. In the span of 50 years, our entire life has transformed from illegal to as far assimilated as you want to take it.
Most of the LGBTQ History Project’s work is correcting what is wrong, pushing new ideas, new concepts and new understandings of what is and can be considered right. We are giving first and, sometimes, last breaths to those smothered by vested or confused interests trying to claim what was never theirs. We are real people telling their real stories in their real words.
After an intensive week of interviews with Dr. Don Kilhefner, and more than 50 hours of recorded interviews to date, we knew what we had to do: correct the wrong history of a group he co-founded, the Radical Faeries. This is our collaboration. This is his story: Impossible but True.
"There has always been a shadow element to the Radical Faeries that never gets talked about. It irritates me that egos got in the way because people have hijacked our history and taken it away from our original goals and the whole concept of community-driven spirituality.
The founders of the Radical Faeries are often attributed to four people: John Burnside, Harry Hay, Mitch Walker and me. To call anyone besides Harry and me a founder is incorrect. Mitch Walker was only invited to help with the organization of the first Radical Faerie gathering in late May of 1979. On the first day of organizing in my apartment in West Hollywood, Harry and Mitch went for a walk. They had a verbal fight and Mitch returned to my apartment and said, 'I wash my hands of this whole thing. I am returning to Oakland,' which he immediately did. He was never involved in the organization of the early gatherings.
He attended the first gathering as a participant, and he contributed nothing as a founder. John Burnside was Harry’s companion and lover and simply because they lived in the same space he would overhear the early meetings. He was also not at the planning meetings. He did not understand the message of Harry’s and my work until he was at the first gathering.
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. We discussed new breakthroughs in evolutionary biology: what do we see and what are we contributing?
Frequently, the Radical Faeries are associated with the Pagan movement in the United States. Again, this is incorrect. There was a Pagan movement happening in the country at the time and because we conducted ceremonies and had gatherings in nature they lumped us together. The term 'Pagan' was never the right term for us. There were other terms used in the late 1970s and early 1980s but none of them did justice to what we were trying to do. We were connecting gay history and our heritage to the world as ceremonious medicine makers and healers. As I wrote on the flyer for our first event, our agenda was 'exploring breakthroughs in gay consciousness, sharing gay visions and the spiritual dimensions of gayness.' This was not part of the Pagan agenda. We were not influenced by the 1960s counter-culture. Of course, it was part of the environment, but the Radical Faeries came from the connection between gay liberation, gay history and evolutionary biology. We wanted to help men explore and find different levels of consciousness.
Harry and I looked for a site for the first Radical Faerie gathering for about a year and a half. We just couldn’t find the right place. We wanted someplace in nature where there were no heterosexuals around. That’s not the easiest thing to find. I was just about at the point of giving up. I didn’t think it was going to work, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life looking for Shangri-La.
One day, I was reading The Advocate and there was a small ad in it for an Ashram in the Sonoran Desert. The Ashram was owned by Swami Dayanand, a gay man.
I talked to Harry and said, this could be it.
I organized a trip for the Swami to come to Los Angeles to talk to me. Next, I flew to Albuquerque. Harry and John came down from San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico, and the three of us drove to the Ashram together. It was down a dirt road that was rutted and bumpy. The property had previously been used for a juvenile delinquents’ program. It was fairly primitive, but it had everything we needed: a commercial kitchen with a large dining room, a swimming pool, buildings where people could sleep and space for people to bring tents.
As soon as we got there, Harry and the Swami got into a fight. Harry did his whole ego-thing and said, this is not the place, the energy is not right.
Once he had calmed down, he and John went into an air-conditioned room and took a nap. While they slept, I crunched the numbers. All we had to do was charge 50 people $50.
After Harry and John woke up, I put my foot down and said, I'm tired of looking for a place. The Ashram has what we want and we can afford it.
All of the meals were prepared by a group of Faeries from Los Angeles who were largely graduates of my Gay Voices and Visions workshops. They came to the Ashram a week before the gathering to help bake bread and cut vegetables. Despite what he says now, Mitch Walker was not with us when we originally visited the site. He did, however, come during this time and was part of the preparation group, but he was just one of the 10 people who were there helping.
Now, finally, we were ready for the gathering. We didn't want people to be spectators. We wanted people to explore, bring their gifts and share their gifts with the other gay men there. We set up a board where anybody could post a workshop that they wanted to host. For example, there was a group called the Louisiana Sissies. They were seven men who piled up in a Volkswagen van and came. One of the Louisiana Sissies did a workshop on crochet lace making. Somebody else did one on gemstones. Somebody else on autofellatio. Somebody did a workshop about being by the pool rather than another night at the baths. He discussed how we can bring sensuality into our relationship rather than just an orgasmic connection. There were also workshops on botany and healing energy. Those are loose examples, but do you get the point? We discussed relevant topics to us as gay men, but we mainly explored consciousness and gay centered spirituality.
After we came back from the gathering, Harry became much more ego inflated around the Radical Fairies. I felt like I was becoming more and more marginalized because Harry had taken over the organizational structure that I largely created.
I said, there's something about this that morally doesn't feel right.
For better or for worse, I am a person who has, as we all do, an innate conscience, an innate ability to differentiate right from wrong. I decided to move out of the Radical Fairies sanctuary because it became deadening to me.
It was like saying one thing and doing another thing. There was now hypocrisy, and I morally couldn't continue. I slowly and gradually began to reorient myself to the exploration of gay consciousness outside of the Faeries. I recognized that the Fairies were trying to explore some kind of consciousness, but it became more and more about Harry's ideas of gay consciousness and not about the history of gay cultures, Walt Whitman or any of these other, crucial people. I was wracked by moral development. Do I go along with something that I feel is losing, getting diluted, and just keep my mouth shut? No, I couldn't do it."