Green, queer, drum-beating, hobbit-loving, drag-wearing, shaman- consulting, Wiccan-worshipping, country-hiking: the Radical Faeries aren't exactly easy to categorise. Iain Finlayson reports on the gay men's movement for nature-lovers
STRAIGHT men have Iron John; gay men have the Radical Faerie. He lives in the Castro district of San Francisco, earns his living as a florist and gardener, works out at the gym and makes regular personal appearances countrywide at gatherings of his eponymous organisation. John Bly's book on men's missing "inner warrior" has filled the backwoods of America with the light of campfires, the pounding of drums and the screaming of soul-wounded men beating their breasts, weeping, hitting things with phallic weapons and pouring out their pain to their anguished buddies. When gay men want to get in touch with their archetypal side, things are a bit more laid back. Plus, there's the added bonus that they can have sex with their fellow searchers after truth.

Radical Faeries recognise no leaders, but acknowledge that they were probably brought into being by Harry Hay, who founded the original gay rights group,the Mattachine Society, in the Fifties. His first acolyte was Rudi Gernreich, inventor of the topless dress and topless bathing suit, and one of his lovers was the actor Will Geer (best known as Grandpa Walton in the TV series The Waltons). Harry Hay is now a venerable 86- year-old and still active in radical gay politics. The Faeries developed when Harry and his longtime partner John Burnside decided in the mid-Seventies that the gay rights movement had become too conservative. Hay combined radical politics with a "neo-pagan" taste for Native American tribal life, an interest in androgyny and a fascination with the natural aboriginal magic of shamanism and produced the world's first gay crusties. The Radical Faeries are trickster figures in magical motley subverting the po-faced pomposities of strait-laced masculinity - or so they like to think. The organisation has taken three of the major themes of the late twentieth century - sexual liberation, New Age neo-paganism and the ecology movement - and plaited them into a unique synthesis of sex, spirit and sensitivity. Whereas straight men are tentatively coming to terms with hugging one another and looking for their inner warrior, the Radical Faeries are having a good snogging session and developing their inner sister.

The first Radical Faerie gathering of some two hundred gay men took place on the Labor Day weekend of 1979 in the Arizona desert near the little town of Benson. Local people, including Sheriff Waldo Pruitt, were perplexed. The Sheriff first became aware of the event, according to a report in The Farmers' Arizonan Gazette, "through reports about cattle displaying unusual behaviour in the vicinity... Informants also claimed that large groups of men were engaged in orgiastic rituals." "They said that all the animals in the area started to act real strange," ruminated the Sheriff. "I guess I don't mind what you do so long as you don't do it in public. But when you start in on plants and animals, well, then you've gone too far."

The Faeries themselves explained they were enjoying "a shared mudbath and a feeling of at-homeness". "With luck," added one organiser, "we'll learn to levitate as faeries should." Twenty years on, Sheriff Pruitt is probably still scratching his head and wondering whether to believe in Faeries or not. Rural retreats for gay men have sprung up under the Faeries' auspices worldwide - mostly in the West and North East of the United States, though there are Faerie Circles now in Canada, Australia, Ireland, The Netherlands, Germany and France. And the movement is alive and kicking; earlier this month, they held a fundraiser at Sal's Salmonella Interactive Terrorist Brunch (cuisine a la fee) for the Kawshaway Radical Faerie Sanctuary, a 17-acre tract of land outside Finland, Minnesota.

So what does it all mean? The RFs scorn anything as pedestrian as an official membership or mission statement. By its nature amorphous, the movement was bound to spawn argument over just what constitues pure Faerism. Last year gay theorist Paul Couillard suggested that Faeriedom is about "gay men exploring what gay means", a development of Harry Hay's idea of "figuring out what particular viewpoint or gift we may have to offer the world". Faeries are gay men, who "tend to feel like we are misfits in the everyday world, tend to believe that life should offer more than the drab, rigid patterns of 'normal' life... But let's face it, honey, for every faerie who comes to a gathering to get in touch with his spirituality, there's another who comes to get sex, and another who's come for a vacation, another who's come to be with friends, and another who's come to feel glamorous."

That's enough for some, but there are others, like Rick of Albuquerque (known in Faerie circles as Lord Merdowynn and a member of the New Mexico Rainbow Circle) who is a professed Wiccan and sympathetic to the neo- pagan element among the Radical Faeries. He has seen the movement "become more mainstream since the late Seventies: it has grown and evolved. I see more of a blend of the social and the spiritual, a disillusionment with the traditional churches and the chance to be in a totally accepting atmosphere. That's what's drawing people in." Rick suffers from cerebral palsy, and the Faerie rituals he finds helpful for his own personal growth include "full and new moon sweats, sabbats [a gay witches' coven] and drumming."

A typical Faerie rural weekend gathering will involve candles, fires, prayers, chanting, dancing, drag, music, nudism, sex, maybe a communal sweat lodge, massage, a mud pit, hikes through the woods and communal living and catering. It's a sort of Iron John men's group bent out of any shape that a straight buddy-buddy guy would recognise - but might seriously envy. And the Faeries aren't ashamed to throw in a dash of Dungeons and Dragons. There's a definite whiff of Tolkein crossed with Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz about Faerie circles. Like their founder, Harry Hay, the RFs are "pre-psychology" in their ethos and attitude. At any circle gathering there are, erm, elves, warriors, munchkins and magicians. Above all, there are merry hobbits. Harry Hay, in his person and pronouncements, looks and sounds like a queer, hipped-up Yoda.

The fruit topping on the spiritual flan of the Radical Faeries is the often inspired silliness of informal Faerie circle gatherings. It can be a way, Rick thinks, "for some people to overcome their internalised homophobia; it's part of growing and centring." Harry Hay himself recently agreed that, "I think the circle makes it possible for us to speak out. When you speak from the heart, you're already beginning to work on those problems." As one devotee puts it, "Radical Faeries are a group of people who believe the world is a great place, but it would be far better if there was a reliable source of high heels in extra large sizes." And in the Faerie world there are not four but five elements: earth,air, fire, water - and polyester.

The RF website is at www.eurofaerie. org