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