10 Amazing San Francisco Highlights From the History of the Radical Faeries
What could possibly be more radical than a faerie? Especially when that faerie is part of a worldwide movement to elevate queer consciousness and liberation through spiritual exploration, which was the whole message of San Francisco's Summer of Love. For decades, San Francisco has been home to a life-changing movement known as the Radical Faeries, a loosely-organized group of free spirits who prize creativity, freedom and spirituality.
Like the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, the Faeries emphasize community: they socialize, they date, they engage in charity for the neighbors around them. Over the years, they’ve had a huge impact on San Francisco’s philosophy of sexual liberation, but also on the city’s social scene. The Faeries are for everyone — young, old, outcasts, drag, femme, nudists, non-conformists, regular guys and the rest of us.
- Faery Circles of the Haight
The movement traces its roots back to early adherents such as activists Harry Hay and Mitch Walker, who set out to provide gay men with an alternative to what they saw as mainstream gay life: discos, pop culture, capitalism, consumerism and assimilation. Activist Arthur Evans established Faery Circles in his Haight Street apartment, offering a social gathering where gay men could celebrate Greek and pagan rituals.
- The first spiritual conference
Harry Hay, a socialist who had previously helped run the Gay Liberation Front, joined with UCLA student Mitch Walker, who was working on a sex guide for gay men.
Together with other activists, these organizers put together an initial gathering that they called the Spiritual Conference for Radical Faeries in Arizona in late 1979. There was considerable resistance to calling their work a “movement,” since they wanted more a decentralized way of life. That approach seemed to resonate. Despite the remote location, over 200 men showed up for the retreat to hear speeches about resisting the urge to assimilate with non-gay people. Programs included practical skills such as massage and nutrition and imaginary beliefs like healing energy, ideas that soon would catch hold in mainstream culture as well. There was also a workshop on English country dancing and sex.
- San Francisco’s Faerie chapter
That successful initial gathering allowed the loosely defined group to create chapters around the country. Though many of the organizers lived in Los Angeles, another group formed the San Francisco Faerie Circle. They formed a nonprofit called NOMENUS and established a gathering place in Napa before it established itself as a major wine destination. Later, they acquired a farm in Oregon to continue spreading their message. There are now official gatherings across the United States, Canada, Australia, the UK, Italy and France.
- Inspiring the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence
Many of the participants in that early gathering returned to San Francisco eager to disrupt the dominant culture and assert queer power. The result: a new group known as the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Now a worldwide phenomenon, at the time the Sisters were an unusual group of men in nun outfits and makeup. They took the values of the Faeries (self-expression, empowerment, spirituality) and translated them into radical queer performance.
The Sisters started simply: a fundraiser, a bingo night, and a salsa dance. Many in the Castro, which at the time was still primarily a white working class enclave, were mystified. But the Sisters soon proved that they were an invaluable part of the community with charitable work and community support.
- A Home for the Sex-Positive in the Mission
The 14th Street Faery House was a colorful ode to love, and a place to gather and build community during the worst days of the HIV epidemic. It remains a refuge, providing housing to disadvantaged San Franciscans in the vibrant but expensive ‘hood.
The house is a safe place for rejecting the trappings of heterosexuality. The group are sometimes regarded as outcasts, even among other LGBTQ people. “Because of its indigenous, gay-centered nature, the Radical Faerie movement pioneers a new seriousness about gayness, its depth and potential, thereby heralding a new stage in the meaning of Gay Liberation,” Mitch Walker has written, reflecting on nearly two decades of the movement.
- Faetopia parties
The San Francisco group emphasizes DIY events, sex parties as fundraisers, and creative support for other members. Those projects include Faetopia, a 2012 screening series, and the Faerie Freedom Village, a massive annual gathering.
In San Francisco, the faeries tend to cluster near the Mission, where the nicknamed Feyboy Mansion is located. Their look tends to be flamboyant, a bit closer to Burning Man-style than other chapters might be. And questioning gender is to be expected.
These days, Faetopia remains an active online and offline community, with queer touch festivals, forestry events and a “new queers ball.”
- Faerie Freedom Village
Last year in San Francisco, the faeries created a “Faerie Freedom Village” during Pride in the heart of United Nations Plaza, adjacent to the main Pride rally. Decorated like an elaborate Burning Man camp, it was a commercial-free island of spiritual pleasure where the economy is based purely on gifts.
“We pulled ugly green frog skin of heterosexual conformity over us, and that’s how we got through school with a full set of teeth,” Harry Hay once said. “We know how to live through their eyes. We can always play their games, but are we denying ourselves by doing this? If you’re going to carry the skin of conformity over you, you are going to suppress the beautiful prince or princess within you.”
- Urban Ecology
Many radical faerie settlements are far from cities, hidden away in forests or farms. They are anti-materialist, spiritual and devoted to justice. But those who live in urban settings are able to transform their dwellings to something more natural, with pocket gardens, green living roofs, and even chicken coops.
- Stronger Together
In 2014, a member of San Francisco’s radical faerie community was beaten to death. Blindsided by the tragedy, his friends and chosen family sprung into action to support each other. A circle of prayer, silence, flowers and incense brought the community together to heal in Dolores Park. At the same time, faeries in Michigan, where the victim grew up, held a sister-vigil in his memory. It is at times of greatest tragedy that the strength of the Radical Faerie community is revealed.
- Xrysalis Retreat
Bonita Tindle, The Guardian
There’s seemingly no end to the events and parties and prayers and classes offered by Faeries around the Bay. One of the most memorable is Xrysalis, a retreat for queer people of color in Mendocino County, 100 miles north of San Francisco. Harkening back to the early faerie gatherings, the event invites participants to get naked, dive into mud and clay, and cover their bodies in nature. Participants return to the city feeling affirmed, fulfilled and connected to nature.