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Early left-wing liberation: ‘Unity with all the oppressed’

Lavender & red, part 75

Published Oct 5, 2006 8:03 PM

The multinational left wing of early gay liberation was defined by its struggle against racist state repression and in defense of national liberation here and abroad. Even white activists who lacked a thoroughgoing anti-racist consciousness or were uneven in their understanding saw unity in the struggle against all forms of oppression as key to gay liberation.

For example, the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front’s statement of purpose read in part, “We are in total opposition to America’s white racism.” The Los Angeles chapter also started a Gay Action Patrol to monitor the police.

In cities from Houston to Chicago, gay liberationists protested local bar owners’ segregationist policies that only admitted white gay men and lesbians.

In London, too, the Gay Liberation Front allied itself with Black liberation, defending Black activists like the Mangrove Nine, who were framed by police in the early 1970s.

The very first resolution from the floor of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations conference in August 1970 was a call from the Radical Caucus to support the Black Panther Party—which was under state siege across the United States. The motion passed. A later attempt to overturn the motion was decisively defeated.

The Radical Caucus had also won passage of a resolution that called for support of Chicano grape pickers, who were trying to organize a United Farm Workers union in the field factories.

The Radical Caucus program read in part: “We see the persecution of homosexuality as part of a general attempt to oppress all minorities and keep them powerless. ... A common struggle, however, will bring common triumph. Therefore we declare our support as homosexuals and bisexuals for the struggles of the black, the feminist, the Spanish-American, the Indian, the Hippie, the Young, the Student, and other victims of oppression and prejudice.”

The left wing of gay liberation won demonstrations of solidarity from the left wing of the militant nationally oppressed movements, as well.

The Black Panther Party invited the Gay Liberation Front to take part in the September 1970 Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention. Nine members of Third World Gay Liberation and one lesbian member of GLF attended a planning meeting for the convention that summer. At that time, Panther David Hilliard reportedly told the lesbian participant that BPP leader Huey Newton was about to issue a statement in support of the gay and women’s liberation movements.

Newton issued his message in “The Black Panther” newsletter on Aug. 21, 1970. It was titled “A Letter from Huey Newton to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements.” (Full version can be found at www.workers.org.)

Newton wrote, “When we have revolutionary conferences, rallies, and demonstrations there should be full participation of the gay liberation movement and the women’s liberation movement.” He urged revolutionaries to excise any historically anti-gay references to “men who are enemies of the people, such as Nixon.” Newton concluded, “Homosexuals are not enemies of the people.”

This message from the Supreme Commander of the Black Panther Party sent shock waves of solidarity that reverberated throughout the progressive and revolutionary movements.

Rivera: ‘A great moving moment’

Lesbian and gay delegates—Black, Latin@, Asian and white—traveled by car, bus, train and plane to take part in the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention on the weekend of Sept. 5, 1970. At a time when the Panthers were being rounded up, assassinated and framed by the state, some 10,000 to 15,000 people answered the Panther call to take part in the convention.

The aim of the revolutionary gathering was to draw up a revolutionary people’s constitution. Each delegated group was asked to convene its own workshop to draw up its own demands for rights to be included in the constitution.

At least 60 self-identified gay men and some two dozen lesbians formed a delegation. They traveled from Ann Arbor, Mich., Los Angeles and Berkeley, Calif., Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia, Tallahassee, Fla., and Yellow Springs, Ohio.

There were problems at a gathering that size, to be sure. But here are some important recollections and impressions.

The publication Gay Flames wrote in its issue No. 2: “When we got there, the women and men each got a place where they could stay together and be with gay people from other cities. Some of the men dressed in drag the first night and rapped to some Panthers who came over.”

The next morning “Panther Michael Tabor, a N.Y. 21 defendant, spoke about ‘how we’re all in the same boat’ when it comes to facing the power of the pigs. He talked about the oppression of gays and women.”

Transgender Stonewall combatant Sylvia Rivera said it was “a great moving moment to be there.”

Rivera told me that when she saw Huey Newton at the convention, he already knew of her: “Yeah, you’re the queen from New York!”

On Sunday morning, the multinational gay men’s caucus met. Issue No. 8 of Gay Flames explained, “Long meetings dedicated to the adoption of [the] gay platform for the constitution were interrupted for vital discussions of racism and sexism.”

Gay Flames No. 2 elaborated: “The most important discussion centered around the Third World/Gay Male statement. They confronted the gay whites on our racism, specifically on our willingness to criticize the sexism of black men but not that of white men. They asked us to recognize Huey Newton’s recently stated position in favor of Gay Liberation as being a tremendous advance in the revolution and that the Black Panther Party holds the most out-front position in terms of the struggle to give power to the people.”

Panther 21 defendant Afeni Shakur spoke to the gay men’s gathering. “She helped to explain a lot about the Black Panthers to all of us. She said that all she wanted was a farm with lots of trees and grass and a place to grow cabbage, but that to get this for herself and her people, it would be necessary to fight. Most of us were convinced by what she had to say. We therefore decided to include in our statement that gay men at the Session recognized the BPP as being presently the vanguard of the people’s revolution.”

Many of the white lesbians left the convention with resentments. The most often expressed grievance—that the Panther women related to them as Black and as Panthers rather than bonding as women—showed a low level of understanding of national oppression by the white women.

In the gay men’s caucus, a revised version of the Third World Gay Revolution platform “was adopted by the group as the basis of a national gay liberation program. ... Gay people formed a 15-member delegation under the leadership of Third World people and women, which attempted to present the 16-point program to the Panthers. This delegation gave gay people the experience of women and men, Blacks, Latins and Asians and Whites, working collectively in a practically revolutionary context, though the chaos and crowd kept the delegation from completing its task.”

The gay men’s statement, read by the delegation at the convention, concluded: “We recognize as a vanguard revolutionary action the Huey P. Newton statement on gay liberation. We recognize the Black Panther Party as being the vanguard of the people’s revolution in Amerikkka.”

Next: More solidarity: D.C. 21, Panthers, Young Lords, Cesar Chavez.

Email: lfeinberg@workers.org