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1970s gay liberation

People of color activists organize across the U.S.

Lavender & red, part 74

Published Sep 29, 2006 8:56 PM

Militant activists of color played a leading role in early multinational gay liberation groups and formed their own caucuses and organizations.

Black, Latin@ and Asian activists established Third World Gay Liberation in the summer of 1970. Their first leaflet, issued in Spanish and English, stated, “We are oppressed as people because our humanity is routinely devoured by the carnivorous system of Capitalism. We are oppressed as Third World people by the economically inherent racism of white Amerikan society.� The statement also included a commitment to deepen consciousness within people of color communities.

The group’s 13-point demands in its “3rd World Gay Revolution Platform� stated in part:

  • “We want the right of self-determination for all third world and gay people.â€?
  • “The right to be gay, anytime, anyplace. The right to free physiological change and modification of sex on demand. The right of free dress and adornment.â€?
  • “Full protection of the law and social sanction for all modes of human sexual self expression.â€?
  • “We want liberation for women. We want free and safe birth control information and devices on demand. We want free 24-hour child care centers controlled by those who use them. We want access for women to fill all educational opportunities. We want truthful teaching of women’s history. We want an end to preferential hiring against women and oppressed national minorities.â€?
  • “We want the abolition of the bourgeois nuclear family. We believe that it perpetuates the false categories of homosexuality and heterosexuality by creating sex roles and sex definitions. The nuclear family propagates capitalism.â€?
  • “We want a free educational system that teaches us our true identity and history, and presents the entire range of human sexuality without advocating any one form or style; that sex roles and sex-determined skills not be fostered by the schools; that language be modified so that no gender takes priority.â€?

The platform also demanded for people of color and gay people: full employment, decent housing, trials by “a people’s court with a jury of their peers from their community,� an immediate end to policy brutality and killings, exemption from military induction, and “an immediate end to military oppression both at home and abroad.�

The platform concluded, “We want a new society—a socialist society. We want liberation, food, shelter, clothing, transportation, health care, employment and utilities for all.� (“The Gay Militants,� Donn Teal)

Ortez Alderson

Ortez Alderson: organized behind bars

Ortez Alderson—born in Buffalo, N.Y., and raised on Chicago’s South Side—was chair of the Black caucus of Chicago Gay Liberation. Alderson—a young African American man described as “flamboyant�—became a leader of the Third World Gay Revolution.

He organized gay participation in the 1971 Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention convened by the Black Panther Party.

Alderson, a militant opponent of the Pentagon’s war against Vietnam and the military draft, was one of four defendants known as the Pontiac Four. They were convicted in 1970 of breaking into an Illinois draft board and destroying files. He was convicted and spent a year behind bars in the same Kentucky prison where Black gay civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, lead organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, had been imprisoned for draft evasion a quarter century earlier.

While jailed, Alderson tried to organize a gay liberation chapter behind the walls. In a 1972 interview, Alderson explained how, the year before, he and a Puerto Rican gay prisoner, Craig, “sat down and talked about the gay’s situation in jail—you know, hassles and stuff—and how we could stop it. The confrontation came on Gay Pride Day, June 28th, because we wanted to have a Gay Day celebration in prison. The prison officials said we could not have this celebration.

“At this point, we got up a petition attacking the institution’s discrimination against homosexuals. Craig, Green, Davis and myself were immediately arrested by the goon squad and put in the hole. Craig was Puerto Rican, Green was Black and Davis was a full-blooded Sioux Indian.� (Motive magazine, 1972)

‘Stephanie’s story’

Vernita Gray

Black lesbian activist Vernita Gray helped launch Chicago’s gay liberation movement. In 1969 she started the first lesbian and gay hotline—telephone number FBI-LIST—out of her South Side apartment. She organized lesbian and gay support groups and events.

Shortly after the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, Gray played a key role in the formation of the first Lesbian Caucus of Chicago Gay Liberation (CGL) and the city’s first lesbian newspaper, Lavender Woman. The lesbian and Black caucuses of CGL later became their own organizations—Chicago Lesbian Liberation and Third World Gay Revolution, respectively. (Encyclopedia of Chicago)

As an activist and organizer, Gray offered support to a Black butch lesbian student named Stephanie, who was fighting expulsion from her high school. Stephanie’s story is brought to light in a film by the same name, directed by Yvonne Welbon, focusing on 1972 events.

Stephanie, a Black lesbian youth often taken for being male, lived on the South Side of Chicago. “She came of age as a young butch with her “brothers�—older Black butches who formed “The Sons of Sappho.� Stephanie’s mother, Nadine, took her to Sears to buy her first suit.

When Stephanie and her friends were expelled from her Catholic high school by nuns who charged they were a “bad influence,� Nadine encouraged the youth to fight back by taking their case to the Free Legal Clinic at DePaul University Law School to file a lawsuit against the school. The students won their case, were re-enrolled and the principal was shipped off, reassigned to Peoria, Ill.

Ruth Ellis: The oldest ‘out’ lesbian

Ruth Ellis

Ruth Ellis was renowned as the oldest ‘out’ lesbian before her death at 101 years of age in 2000. She was born July 23, 1899, in Springfield, Ill., and came out around 1915.

Ellis’ life is honored in a 1999 documentary made by her friend Yvonne Welbon titled, “Living with Pride: Ruth C. Ellis @ 100.�

From 1946 to 1971, Ruth and her partner Babe’s home became the “Gay Spot� in Detroit at a time when local bar owners discriminated against African Americans. Ellis said, “There wasn’t very many places you could go when I came to Detroit, unless it’d be somebody’s home. In those days everything was hush hush. … So after we bought our home, we opened it up to the gay people. That is where everyone wanted to come on the weekend.�

Welbon explained, “Her home was a refuge of sorts to African Americans who came ‘out’ before the civil rights movement and Stonewall. Ruth and Babe offered lodging to black gay men newly arrived from the South. They also helped many of the young people through college.�

Welbon concluded that in making the documentary, “I learned of many stories of black women’s involvement in the gay and lesbian liberation movement that are virtually unknown to the general public. The incredible impact that Ruth’s story has had on our community has shown me that if we don’t record these stories that we are in danger of depriving ourselves of the treasures found within our own history. These stories provide an alternative history, one we are proud to embrace.� (sistersinthelife.com)

Today, Detroit’s Ruth Ellis Center is a home for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth. Detroit residents celebrate Ruth Ellis Day in February, during Black History Month.

1970s: Organizing sweeps the country

Kiyoshi Kuromiya

Kiyoshi Kuromiya was a pre-Stonewall activist who marched for gay rights on July 4, 1965, at a demonstration in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. He went on to be one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front—Philadelphia. Like Ortez Alderson, he was an openly gay delegate to the Black Panther Convention.

Kuromiya was born in 1943 during World War II in a U.S. government-run internment camp for people of Japanese descent in Nevada. As a civil rights activist in the 1960s, he bore a scar on his scalp from a beating by Alabama sheriffs who opposed his voter-registration activism in Montgomery. A staunch opponent of the Pentagon, he was also arrested for demonstrating against the Vietnam War.

“Jody,� an Asian-American woman, founded the Lesbians of Color Caucus in Seattle during the late 1970s.

In a brief summary of the excitement and conflict she experienced during that era, she recalled: “Over time I started meeting more and more women of color. I lived up on Capitol Hill and there was a lot of activity there. I’d meet one woman of color, and then she would introduce me to more, so then I started feeling a bit better. Also, by that time, there were some white women that I finally developed friendships with, which was good.� (HistoryLink.org Essay 4266)

Other groups that formed in the 1970s included the Native American Gay Rap Group (1972), Gay American Indians (1975), Gay Latin@ Alliance/GALA (1975), Third World Lesbian Caucus (1977), Black Gay Caucus (1977), Asian-American Alliance (1979) and Gay Asian Support Group (1978).

On the eve of the first national march on Washington in October 1979, hundreds of lesbians and gays of color convened a Third World conference there.

Black activist Keith Boykin wrote in the Encarta Africana Encyclopedia, “Black writers, intellectuals, and activists have left a profound impression on the gay rights movement. Linda Villarosa served as executive editor of Essence magazine and introduced hundreds of thousands of black women to black lesbians when she co-authored a ‘coming out’ piece with her mother. Barbara Smith’s groundbreaking anthology Home Girls presented dozens of perspectives of black feminism that integrated black lesbian viewpoints. Others such as Cheryl Clarke, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, and June Jordan have shared their experiences about bisexuality and lesbianism in their writings and public comments. Black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde spoke at the 20th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, and activist Phill Wilson addressed the 30th anniversary march in 1993.�

Hidden by history

The history of those nationally oppressed organizations, and leaders who self-identified as lesbian, gay or drag queens, is grossly under-reported in official histories of early gay liberation.

Black lesbian feminist and socialist Barbara Smith emphasizes, “Despite the building of a Black lesbian and gay political movement since the 1970s and the simultaneous flowering of Black lesbian and gay art, Black lesbians and gays are still largely missing from the historical record.� (“The Truth that Never Hurts,� Smith)

It’s important to remember that unlike white activists, the struggle for national liberation meant that the terms “lesbian� or “gay� were not the primary identification for many people of color activists.

Smith writes, “My own experience as a Black lesbian during the past two decades indicates that Black lesbians and gay men are linked by our shared racial identities and political status in ways that white lesbians and gays are not. These links between us are sociological, cultural, historical and emotional and I think it is crucial to explore this new terrain together.�

The activist identity of many people of color leaders in their own national liberation movements was not based on their sexuality necessarily or exclusively.

For example, in April 1977, the Combahee River Collective, a group of Black feminists of all sexualities, issued a historic statement against the “interlocking� system of “racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression.�

Smith, a member of the Combahee River Collective, concludes, “I do not want to dissuade white scholars from investigating and including material about people of color. Indeed current queer studies needs to be much more racially and ethnically inclusive, but at the same time it also needs to demonstrate a thorough consciousness of the racial and class contexts in which lesbians and gays of color actually function.�

Such an understanding will be enriched when more of these histories are unearthed, analyzed and narrated by African American, Lakota, Puerto Rican, Filipino, Mexican@/Chican@, Salvadoran, Chinese, Arab and many other nationally-oppressed activists.

Widening the focus of the historical lens is crucial and imperative. It will remedy a distortion of the activist past. It is essential to strengthening anti-racist unity. It is necessary to understanding that the left wing of early gay liberation was defined by its anti-racist, anti-imperialist stance. It makes clearer why this political emphasis won significant demonstrations of solidarity from the left wing of national liberation organizations.

And it will reveal more sharply why this political position within the overall gay liberation movement in the United States led to a significant split.

Next: Panthers, Young Lords: Solidarity with gay liberation

E-mail: lfeinberg@workers.org