Radical Faeries Have Been Pushing Queer Boundaries for More Than 40 Years
Maybe you’ve heard the term used in queer circles, or maybe you’re completely unfamiliar. What the heck are the Radical Faeries? That’s a hard question to answer — and intentionally so. For some people, it’s a movement. For others, it’s a way of life. And for some, it’s a fun pastime.
But its roots are deeply serious. Even before the group’s inception, the Radical Faeries were devoted to challenging the status quo, and to queer liberation. Though decentralized and lacking much structure at all, they are all universally dedicated to freedom: politically, artistically and sexually.
You can trace the origins of the Radical Faeries as far back as the early free love movements that followed the Civil War. Experimental colonies such as the Oneidas formed, where family units were de-coupled from strict social rules. But those early groups were hampered by regressive ideologies, like eugenics.
Starting in the 1960s, countercultural radicals began experimenting with more spiritual and sexual ways of life. Those lifestyles were adopted by free thinkers like Harry Hay, previously an organizer with the Communist Party and Mattachine Society. And then there was Arthur Evans, an activist in San Francisco who created a mishmash of mythologies to lead prayer circles inspired by Greek and Pagan gods in his Haight Street apartment in the mid-’70s.
Harry Hay was intrigued. He had already joined with some fellow radicals, Mitch Walker and Don Kilhefner, to try to formulate a gay social tribe with a spiritual aspect. They found inspiration at a workshop led by Betty Berzon entitled “New Breakthroughs in the Nature of How We Perceive Gay Consciousness.” Together they organized a retreat in Arizona to invite gay men to learn more about their own innate power.
Deeply informed by the New Age movement, they coined the term “Radical Faerie” to emphasize their extreme intentions, and also to evoke the nature-spirits of European folklore. Over 200 people attended their workshops in Arizona, focusing on topics like nutrition, energy healing, and masturbation. It was described later as a “four-day acid trip without the acid,” an experience familiar to anyone who’s ever been indoctrinated into a tight-knit community.
From this gathering, a general sort of philosophy emerged. Radical faeries rejected assimilation with heterosexuals and strove to liberate themselves from social norms. They were devoted to earth and rural life; they rejected consumerism and consumption.
Though the initial gathering was positive, it was followed by friction. Harry Hay started a Faerie Circle in Los Angeles, but the escapist fantasy of the Arizona campout was hard to recapture. Hay wanted to pursue political agitation, but his collaborators were more focused on spiritual improvement.
The initial group of men parted ways in 1980, but because their young movement was so decentralized, local chapters continued to thrive.
A group came together the following year in Australia, and another in Colorado. San Francisco formed a Radical Faerie group as well and purchased land in Oregon. There are also outposts in Canada, France and Israel, among other countries.
Because the Radical Faeries are now so popular and unmanaged, it’s likely they’ll always exist in some form or another. But that also means a dilution of their founding goals — far from being a radical movement, now they are often regarded as simply an aesthetic. But for those who take Radical Faeriedom seriously, it remains a driving force that pushes queer people to recognize that they are always free to push boundaries and transgress.
Did you know about the history of the Radical Faeries?
Photo at top: Radical Faerie gathering, c. 1970s. ONE Archives at the USC Libraries / Mark Thompson
This article was originally published on Nov. 18, 2016. It has since been updated.