It is of interest that during the nineteenth century the term fairy applied to a woman or girl, specifically a prostitute. The application of the expression to gay men belongs to a fairly numerous category of terms originally applied to women that came to designate gay men. These include faggot, queen, skirt, nancy and many others.
In our realm the word designated the more stereotypical or "obvious" sort of street homosexual, with the semantic link supplied by the notion of the delicate and fastidious that had attached itself to the expression, so that it was transferred effortlessly to a dainty and effeminate type of male. The image of the "fairy" in book illustration as a winged creature flitting about the landscape probably contributed to the further evolution of flit as a slang term for homosexual.
The semantic development of fairy in this sense began on the East coast and spread to the rest of the country, but not to other English-speaking areas of the world. In the 1960s the word yielded to gay as a positive term preferred by the movement, and to faggot or fag as the vulgar term of abuse.
We turn now to an attempt to institutionalize values purportedly associated with fairy status. In 1979, Harry Hay, his partner John Burnside, Don Kilhefner and Mitch Walker, veterans of various phases of gay liberation, issued the call to a "Spiritual Conference of Radical Faeries." Those who heard the appeal showed up at an ashram in Benson, Arizona over Labor Day weekend (September 1st). Hay introduced the idea of spirituality into gay liberation, challenging the political orientation dominant in the gay movement at the time. Radical Faeries recognize the isolation and disconnectedness that Gay men grow up with, as a spiritual wound needing spiritual healing. This movement, combining counterculture survivals with elements of the hermetic tradition, is part of a larger complex of New Age religious phenomena that are characteristic of the western United States, though they also enjoy some following elsewhere in North America, as well as in Europe and Australia..
In keeping with the hippie, neopagan, ecology, and eco-feminist trends of the time, gatherings were held out-of-doors in natural settings. To this end, distinct Radical Faerie communities sought to create Sanctuaries in idyllic rural settings.
At a gathering rituals may include candles, fires, prayers, chanting, dancing, streamers, bedizened drag queens, ritual music, mud pits, sweat lodges, fire dances, drumming, running through the woods naked, Sufi twirling, and spiral dancing. Nudity at ritual events is common.
While the Radical Faeries have emphasized consensus as a process for issues resolution, some cherish confrontation, ostensibly rooted in the “contrarian” tradition ascribed to some Plains Indian tribes.
Faeries sometimes assume faerie names, blending and borrowing from many traditions of tribal nicknames, magic practice, and covert culture (such as "drag names").
The HIV epidemic did not, as was feared by some, bring about the demise of the Faerie phenomenon. During the 1990s, however, disputes emerged about a number of issues. Some held that the movement should be pangender, including heterosexuals and women, while other felt that only “faggots” (gay men) could become formal members. Other disputes concerned living arrangements at rural “sanctuaries.” In short these are the problems that have plagued utopian and communal movements since the nineteenth century.
At all events, the Faeries' earlier prominence, linked to the Counterculture and to New Age spirituality, has largely faded. Today, the movement probably counts only two to three thousand members in North America, with a scattering of others abroad.