05/01/2012 12:24 pm ET | Updated Jul 01, 2012

America's Least Known Civil Rights Leader

Legendary gay leader Harry Hay is in a season of high honor in three major U.S. cities. Hay, who died at age 92 in 2002, would have celebrated his 100th birthday this spring. Exhibitions highlighting his life are on display in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York. In addition, a book and a film about Hay await the public.

A major exhibition, "Radically Gay: The Life of Harry Hay," opens May 8 at the San Francisco Public Library. Curated by Joey Cain, it explores the life, ideas and contributions of Hay. It continues through July 29. Later, on Sept. 27-30 in New York City, "Radically Gay: The Life and Visionary Legacy of Harry Hay," will be celebrated at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

On April 17 in Los Angeles, the dedication of "The Mattachine Steps" was a civic event to mark the founding of the gay Mattachine Society in 1950 in the Silver Lake home of Hay. This is now an historic site, officially designated by the city of Los Angeles. I expect that soon it will become a pilgrimage monument for gays visiting the city from all over the world. This event also marked the publication of a new, updated edition of the biography "The Trouble with Harry: Founder of the Modern Gay Movement" by Stuart Timmons, published by White Crane Books.

I asked several people who were close friends or associates of Hay to tell about him from their own perspective. Portland-based filmmaker Eric Slade produced the documentary "Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay," which will be shown June 13 as part of the San Francisco exhibition. Slade cited two of the important legacies left by Hay. The first is radical politics. "Harry's work makes it clear that radical political action is the only thing that brings about real change. Attempts at assimilation never work. Because when we say we're just like you, no one is fooled. Our job isn't to quietly fit in but to celebrate our difference and fight for our right to exist as boldly and out as we can be.

"The second legacy is love. It took Harry decades of struggle to realize that the human revolution he wanted has to be based on love and human connection."

Robert Croonquist is founder of Youth Arts New York and an organizer of the upcoming City University of New York conference. I asked him: What is the enduring legacy Harry Hay will have on American life? He replied, "Hay saw the fruit of our liberation was the freedom to be of service. The ethical life is a life of service. Harry will be known for his intellectual ferocity, his understanding of political and social theory, and his steadfast work empowering communities to engage in the struggle for justice and self-determination.

"Harry brandished the sword of the left brain so that the right brain could flourish on fertile ground. He lived both in the world of the intellect and in the world of the heart. His ferocity protected a sweet, loving and vulnerable soul, dedicated to creating a world that did not crush the souls of little sissy boys like him." According to Croonquist, Hay asked the gay community to reveal at last for all to see "who we really are and what we bring to share -- a Separate People who seek to live collectively private lives of their own within their own communities but who have much to share, in great respect and affection, with the American community surrounding us."

Will Roscoe is a legacy bearer as the anthologist of Harry Hay's writing and author of the book "Radically Gay." Roscoe told me: "Harry's greatest contribution was the intellectual breakthrough, won after years of study and self-examination, that enabled him to see in queer folks a people -- who had been present in history, who shared languages and worldviews, and whose difference could be the source of valued social contributions. This visionary belief in the possibility of loving ourselves and each other sparked a revolution that is still sweeping the world -- giving hope to all who are different in whatever way -- and making it possible for LGBT people to finally take our rightful place in the human family."

In my view Harry Hay remains perhaps the least known major civil rights leader in America. Is it time to get to know him?