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Reminiscent of Cold War Mattachine divide

Early 1970s: Political split in gay movement

Lavender & red, part 77

Published Nov 11, 2006 9:13 PM

National liberation movements fighting for sovereignty and self-determination in Asia, Africa and the Middle East inspired the left wing of early gay liberation. In addition, oppressed nations held as virtual domestic colonies within the borders of the U.S. were rebelling from Watts to Wounded Knee. Struggles of Black, [email protected]/[email protected], Native and Asian peoples were roiling, with militant leadership.

As Vietnam veterans returned wounded or in body bags, anger against the war built. Women’s liberation was taking on social momentum.

Stonewall combatant Sylvia Rivera later recalled, “All of us were working for so many movements at that time. Everyone was involved with the women’s movement, the peace movement, the civil rights movement. We were all radicals. I believe that’s what brought it [Stonewall] around. You get tired of being just pushed around. We are people. We are gay people.”

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people brought valuable experience to gay liberation that they had acquired as activists and leaders in the union movement, tenant and unemployed organizing, defense of political prisoners and the civil rights movement.

Left-wing gay liberation sought solidarity with all who were oppressed. The gay movement itself was made up of many nationalities, countries of origin, sexes, genders and ages.

The Gay Liberation Front, named to honor the national liberation fronts in Vietnam and Algeria, issued a founding statement of purpose in 1969 after the Stonewall Rebellion that articulated the anti-capitalist consciousness of early gay liberation, as well.

The language in the statement is dated—particularly regarding Asian peoples—but the solidarity from that period still rings clear: “We are in total opposition to America’s white racism, to poverty, hunger, the systematic destruction of our patrimony; we oppose the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, and are in total opposition to wars of aggression and imperialism, whoever pursues them. We support the demands of Blacks, Chicanos, Orientals, Women, Youth, Senior Citizens, and others demanding their full rights as human beings. We join in their struggle, and shall actively seek coalition to pursue these goals.”

Third World Gay Liberation, established by Black, [email protected] and Asian activists in the summer of 1970, stated in its first leaflet—issued in Spanish and English—“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.”

U.S. finance capitalism—the ascendant capitalist and imperialist power after World War II—faced resistance domestically and internationally. The great struggles of the 1960s forced Democrat Lyndon Johnson to make some concessions on the home front while still waging war against Vietnam—new social programs like the “War on Poverty.” This “guns and butter” policy, which aimed to buy some social peace domestically, plus the strong war economy, helped isolate the national liberation struggles and the growing activism of middle-class youth, and to keep rebellion from igniting the entire working class.

At the same time, the FBI worked hammer and tong to bust up unity among oppressed groups. That covert “dirty war” was COINTELPRO: the Counter-Intelligence Program.

J. Edgar Hoover, who is widely reported to have had a male lover, led the FBI at that time. That certainly demonstrates that same-sex attraction doesn’t automatically make a person politically progressive. As the union song asks: “Which side are you on?” Hoover certainly knew which side of the class barricades he served.

The FBI used the weapons of spying, lying, infiltrating, disrupting and spreading smear campaigns on the oppressed. They assassinated and framed up progressive leaders in order to “neutralize” them. And they tried to drive a wedge between gay liberation and Black liberation.

Under this pressure, gay liberation developed an ideological fissure.

Reminiscent of Cold War split

The Gay Liberation Front was originally conceived not as an organization but as a political front—a left-wing umbrella group. In early November 1969, at a GLF meeting, a vote to support the Black Panther Party was defeated. A week later, a GLF member called for a recount. This time, the majority—including reportedly all the women—voted to support the Panthers, who were the target of vicious state repression.

Angered by the vote, GLF members Marty Robinson and Jim Owles resigned, walked out and became founders of the Gay Activist Alliance.

The split and the formation of GAA had national implications. Ostensibly, the divide was over “priorities.” Those who created GAA claimed that Gay Liberation Front was not focused enough on gay issues.

But beneath that argument was an ideological fault line reminiscent of the Cold War anti-communist divide in the Mattachine gay mass organizing during the McCarthyite witch hunt. Harry Hay, a communist who founded the early Mattachine organization and was later driven out by red-baiters, helped draft the Los Angeles GLF founding statement in 1969.

Anti-communism reared its ugly head again in the GLF split.

In the summer of 1969, Marcus Overseth penned an article in the “San Francisco Free Press” about the growing chasm between what he termed “leftists” and “social revolutionaries”—in reality, between revolutionaries and social democrats.

“These people—whose emphasis is on left rather than Gay—might be called Gay leftists,” he wrote. “The primary orientation of left Gay social revolutionaries is Gay. Gay leftists, however, look upon the Gay liberation movement as a means of furthering their peculiar notions about political revolution. They look at Gay liberation through leftist lenses—from a framework of Marxist-Leninist thought. To such persons the most important reason for their involvement is not freedom for Gay brothers and sisters but blood-in-the-streets revolution.”

Overseth concluded that from New York to San Francisco, “Here lies the real reason for the current disruption within the Gay Liberation Movement. It has been co-opted by politicos who are still hung up on political revolution.”

In an interview with a New York Times Magazine editor in June 1970, Jim Owles—GAA’s first president—stated, “In its beginnings, GLF, aside from being revolutionary, was doing things that were related to the homosexual cause. ... [But] the majority ... considered themselves revolutionaries, and they wanted the group to identify and align itself with the other like groups. There was the beginning of a split, very early.”

Anti-communism was rife in the 1960s and early 1970s—as it still is today. The communist leadership that had won so many gains during the class struggles of the 1930s was driven out of the unions, tenant organizations and campuses during the Cold War. The class lessons of those struggles were lost with them.

The legacy of McCarthyism hung heavy on the “New Left.” The reactionary political positions and internal membership policies regarding same-sex love in parties that called themselves communists helped fan the flames of anti-communism, too. Each of those parties and organizations is responsible for explaining its own political history.

But in one communist organization in the United States, the demand to end oppression based on sexuality, gender and sex became a genuine and dynamic part of its revolutionary program: Workers World Party.

Next: Theory and practice: Workers World walked its talk.

E-mail: [email protected]