Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left / Edition 1 available in Paperback
LGBT activism is often imagined as a self-contained struggle, inspired by but set apart from other social movements. Lavender and Red recounts a far different story: a history of queer radicals who understood their sexual liberation as intertwined with solidarity against imperialism, war, and racism. This politics was born in the late 1960s but survived well past Stonewall, propelling a gay and lesbian left that flourished through the end of the Cold War. The gay and lesbian left found its center in the San Francisco Bay Area, a place where sexual self-determination and revolutionary internationalism converged. Across the 1970s, its activists embraced socialist and women of color feminism and crafted queer opposition to militarism and the New Right. In the Reagan years, they challenged U.S. intervention in Central America, collaborated with their peers in Nicaragua, and mentored the first direct action against AIDS. Bringing together archival research, oral histories, and vibrant images, Emily K. Hobson rediscovers the radical queer past for a generation of activists today.
About the Author
Emily K. Hobson is Associate Professor of History and of Gender, Race, and Identity at the University of Nevada, Reno.
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Lavender and Red
Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left
By Emily K. Hobson
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Beyond the Gay Ghetto
Founding Debates in Gay Liberation
In October 1969, a group called Gay Liberation Theater staged a street performance entitled "No Vietnamese Ever Called Me a Queer." These activists brought their claims to two distinct audiences: fellow students at the University of California, Berkeley's Sproul Plaza and fellow gay men at a meeting of the San Francisco–based Society for Individual Rights (SIR). The student audience was anti-war but largely straight, while SIR backed gay inclusion in the military and exemplified the moderate center of the "homophile" movement — homophile being the name for an existing and older network of gay and lesbian activism. Gay Liberation Theater adapted Muhammad Ali's statement when refusing the draft that "no Viet Cong ever called me nigger," and, through this, indicted a society that demanded men kill rather than desire one another. They opposed the Vietnam War and spoke to the self-interest of gay men by declaring: "We're not going to fight in an army that discriminates against us. ... Nor are we going to fight for a country that will not hire us and fires us. ... We are going to fight for ourselves and our lovers in places like Berkeley where the Berkeley police last April murdered homosexual brother Frank Bartley (never heard of him?) while cruising in Aquatic Park." Frank Bartley was a thirty-three-year-old white man who had recently been killed by a plainclothes officer who claimed that Bartley "resisted arrest" and "reached for his groin." In highlighting Bartley's case, Gay Liberation Theater pushed back against the demands of assimilation and respectability and linked opposition to the Vietnam War with support for sexual expression. The group termed it "queer, unnatural and perverse" to "send men half way around the world to kill their brothers while we torment, rape, jail and murder men for loving their brothers here."
"No Vietnamese Ever Called Me Queer" encapsulated three founding elements of gay liberation: a break with existing homophile groups, a demand for sexual freedom, and a claim that such freedom would be won only through radical alliance against militarism, racism, and police violence. This chapter details how these tenets structured Bay Area gay liberation and laid the groundwork for the gay left. It contextualizes this history by tracking the shifting meanings of the "gay ghetto" in the homophile movement and gay liberation. In the mid-1960s, homophiles used the concept of the gay ghetto to describe the urban geography of antigay oppression and to theorize sexuality as analogous to race. By 1969, gay liberationists altered the meanings of the gay ghetto by using the concept to criticize homophile activism, to defend everyday gender and sexual transgression, and to link sexual liberation to the anti-war movement and black liberation. When self-declared "gay nationalists" schemed to take over California's rural Alpine County, more radical gay men rejected that project on the grounds that it would replicate the exclusions of the gay ghetto. They used that break to align themselves instead with a more multiracial and socialist agenda. Through these responses, gay leftists began to theorize radical solidarity as central to sexual liberation and to organize accordingly.
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Gay liberation emerged both against and in debt to the homophile movement, which stretched from 1950 through 1970 and worked to normalize the status of homosexuality in psychiatry and medicine and to curtail legal and police persecution. Homophile activists formed local and national organizations (the two best-known being the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, though these were joined by many others) and circulated national and international publications. Harry Hay, until that point a member of the Communist Party in Los Angeles, founded the Mattachine Society in 1950, and while Mattachine soon turned away from Hay's leadership, members around the country remained bold and militant against state persecution. Homophile groups and publications varied in their politics and approaches, and historian Marc Stein questions a "canonization of homophile sexual respectability" that emphasizes the influence of the publications Mattachine Review, The Ladder, and One over the more openly erotic and widely circulated Drum. But divisions did appear between many homophile groups and the working-class, gender-transgressive, and racially diverse queer life of gay bars, house parties, and cruising grounds. Nan Alamilla Boyd has found these divisions to be significant in San Francisco, and other scholars have made similar observations for other sites. Differences also emerged between local and national agendas. By the later 1960s, homophile activists in San Francisco, Chicago, and other cities posed strong challenges to police abuse, but the national homophile movement's pursuit of military inclusion and liberal civil rights fell out of step with growing anti-war and black liberation struggles. Further, by this point many homophile activists' efforts toward gender and class norms — at protests, men wore suits and ties, women dresses — stood in contrast to androgynous and casual styles among radical youth.
Although many gay radicals came to perceive homophile activists as out of touch, the earlier movement influenced gay liberation in multiple ways. One of these was through the concept of the "gay ghetto." The term was frequently used in homophile publications and activism and by the mid-1960s held two principal meanings. First, the concept of the gay ghetto was used to communicate the idea that gay people and people of color, especially black people, shared parallel experiences in urban life. This highlighted the segregation of queer life in heavily policed, working-class, multiracial "vice" districts, yet imagined race and sexuality as parallel or analogous rather than intersecting — making it difficult for queer people of color to place themselves within gay politics. A second definition of the gay ghetto argued that gay people were isolated and exploited by collusions between police, organized crime, and the owners of gay bars. Across the 1950s and 1960s, many gay and lesbian bars upheld rather than challenged antigay laws. They enforced bans on same-sex dancing and affection, made police payoffs to minimize raids, charged high prices, and hired few gay staff. The concept of the gay ghetto thus also became a way to name queer people's confinement within a narrow and abusive geography of public life.
San Francisco's queer life held unique characteristics that shaped the ways activists understood and used the concept of the gay ghetto locally. On the one hand, an unusually high number of the city's gay and lesbian bars were gay or lesbian owned — by 1964, as many as a third. These owners formed the Tavern Guild and built the organization into an influential and comparatively conservative force in the homophile movement. At the same time, the exploitation of queer life remained widely apparent, most especially in the Tenderloin — a "red-light" neighborhood near downtown known for its cheap housing, sex economy, and high concentration of gay youth and transgender women. Those who lived in and visited the Tenderloin were frequently arrested or harassed by police on charges of prostitution, cruising, gender transgression, vagrancy, and drug activity, and as Susan Stryker observes, police frequently left transgender women there following arrests elsewhere in the city. Some residents were homeless or precariously housed "street kids." By the mid-1960s, daily existence in the Tenderloin became ever more difficult as urban redevelopment displaced residents from the surrounding neighborhoods of the Fillmore, Western Addition, and South of Market and made the area's housing more crowded.
Although some homophile activists rejected Tenderloin dwellers as embarrassments, others organized with and for gay and transgender people against poverty and harassment. By 1965 homophile activists worked in the Tenderloin through two key groups: the Council on Religion and the Homosexual, an alliance of left-liberal clergy drawn from across the city; and Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, located in the heart of the Tenderloin and headed by the African American preacher Reverend Cecil Williams. As Christina Hanhardt has detailed, homophile activists drew on these networks to win funding for a project they termed the Central City Anti-Poverty Program. They wrote a report detailing the discrimination and poverty experienced by gay and transgender residents, giving their document the official title "The Tenderloin Ghetto" and the unofficial name "The White Ghetto." As the terms "Tenderloin" and "white" served as placeholders for "gay," the label of whiteness both described the Tenderloin's dominant demographics and set up a parallel between sexuality and race. Homophile activists in San Francisco also drew parallels between sexuality and race through their responses to police, forging alliances in which they defined their interests alongside those of communities of color. In 1966 Reverend Williams founded Citizens Alert, a police accountability organization that homophile activists helped to staff and that brought homophile efforts into coalition with black, Latina/o, Chinese, Japanese, and other civil rights groups.
By spring 1966 another organization had formed in the Tenderloin. Called Vanguard, it sought to mobilize gay and transgender youth and in July helped to stage a protest in front of Compton's Cafeteria, a Tenderloin diner that had begun to call the police on its queer patrons. On a weekend night in August 1966, officers attempted to arrest a transgender woman inside Compton's. She fought back, and a multiracial mix of queens joined in by throwing dishes, smashing the windows of the cafeteria, and then moving into the streets of the Tenderloin where they fought back physically against police and damaged a police car. Susan Stryker estimates that fifty to sixty Compton's customers, plus police and passersby, joined in the riot, which she terms the "the first collective, organized" queer resistance to police harassment in US history.
The Compton's riot preceded the Stonewall Riots by nearly three years but failed to prompt activism on the scale that followed the 1969 protest in New York. Indeed, Compton's remained little known until Stryker resuscitated it in 2005 as a foundational account in queer history. The riot's principal outcome was to accelerate the creation of transgender-affirming programs in San Francisco, including access to job training, the selection of a liaison within the San Francisco Police Department, the first known transsexual support group in the United States, and a public health program (the Center for Special Problems) that provided counseling, hormone prescriptions, surgery referrals, and accurate ID cards. Nonetheless, many gay and lesbian activists — both liberal and more radical — formulated sexual identities and politics in ways that marked boundaries between themselves and transgender people.
Moreover, even as Tenderloin organizing grew, San Francisco's queer life expanded beyond that neighborhood. Gay men and lesbians also found each other in the motorcycle scene of South of Market, the bohemian spaces of North Beach and the Haight, and residential communities of the Castro and Polk. The Castro emerged as the most middle-class and gender-normatively masculine of all of these areas, and by 1971 nearly a third of all Castro businesses (not only its gay bars) were gay-owned. By the late 1960s San Francisco's gay scene was second only to that of New York City, and the Bay Area was increasingly seen as a queer haven. Although the concept of the gay ghetto still resonated with many, it seemed less tenable as a description of San Francisco's geography because queer life was increasingly widespread. In addition, black liberation and Third World radicalism began to inspire activists to use the concept of the gay ghetto to analyze sexual identity at scales beyond the urban neighborhood.
Black liberation held a central place in the 1960s Bay Area because of three interwoven factors: the Oakland formation of the Black Panther Party, the Party's rootedness in local black community, and the strength of the student left. Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party on October 15, 1966, initially naming it the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, and the organization grew by mobilizing southern black migrants to Oakland, Richmond, South Berkeley, and San Francisco's Fillmore and Hunters Point neighborhoods. Donna Murch argues that Newton, Seale, and other early Party leaders and members bridged "campuses and streets" in a "convergence ... inseparable from the vast increase in educational access among poor youth" in 1960s California: by the end of the decade the Bay Area and Los Angeles claimed higher rates of college attendance among youth of color than anywhere else in the United States. In addition, the internal diversity of Bay Area Latino and Asian communities fostered pan-ethnic internationalism and contributed to the linking of student activism and urban protest. These trends inspired activists around the country and heightened both the local and the national significance of the Panthers along with other Bay Area groups.
While the Black Panther Party was born in the Bay Area, its political imagination stretched much farther. As Murch states, "The Oakland Party drew its inspiration from a rural movement in Lowndes County, Alabama [the first to use the black panther as symbol] while internationally it embraced the Cuban, Vietnamese, and Chinese revolutions as its own." Moreover, the Party's early police patrols "translated" a key idea becoming widespread across Black Power: that black people were an "internal colony" within the United States. Other uses of the internal colonialism thesis defined US police violence as interconnected with the war in Vietnam and named the exploitation of US communities of color as a facet of US imperialism. Through these and other aspects of its thought, the Black Panther Party contributed to an ongoing redefinition of blackness as not only a racial category but also a source of political power and a transnational ideological formation.
In May 1967 a contingent of Black Panther Party leaders and members traveled to Sacramento to protest the Mulford Bill, a measure that expressly targeted Panther police patrols by banning the open display of loaded weapons. Entering the state capitol bearing their legally owned, registered, and loaded rifles, the Panthers won substantial media attention and cemented their public image of armed black radicalism. The California legislature's passage of the Mulford Act in July 1967 compelled the Party to end its police patrols and, combined with the growth of new Black Panther Party chapters in Richmond, San Francisco, and East Oakland, led to a sharp uptick in police harassment. On October 28, 1967, Oakland police officer John Frey pulled over Huey Newton and another Panther member. A series of disputed events left Frey dead, another officer and Newton wounded, and Newton painfully shackled in a local emergency room. When Newton was charged with three felonies and faced the death penalty, the Party responded with a campaign to "Free Huey." As Donna Murch observes, the campaign's "most striking claim was not [only] that Newton was innocent but that a fair trial was impossible." During 1968, the Black Panther Party grew nationally through the Free Huey campaign and its newspaper the Black Panther, which reached a weekly circulation as high as 139,000. This campaign continued through August 1970, when Newton's conviction was reversed and he was released.
Amidst the Free Huey campaign, students at San Francisco State College (now San Francisco State University) launched the Third World Strike. Extending from November 6, 1968, through March 21, 1969, the strike was born as a coalition between the campus Black Student Union and Latino and Asian American organizations, which collectively adopted the name the Third World Liberation Front and forged an alliance with the local, white-led Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Among the Third World Strike's key demands were the admission of four hundred new first-year students of color, the creation of nine positions to be filled by faculty of color, and the elimination of campus ROTC training. Following extended protests and record mass arrests, the college president, conservative S.I. Hayakawa, partially conceded to the Strike by creating the School of Ethnic Studies.
As Daryl Maeda argues, the Third World Strike aligned with black radicalism by redefining race as an ideological identity and a basis for coalition. Asian American radicals played a central role in the Strike and, by countering the conservative Japanese American president of the college, constructed a new pan-Asian identity that oriented itself through alliance with black radicalism rather than assimilation into whiteness. Latina/o radicalism was fostered by the convergence between the Strike and the case of Los Siete de la Raza, seven young men who, following their activism in favor of ethnic studies at the College of San Mateo, found themselves charged in a fatal police shooting (casting suspicion on the charges, four of the men were not present at the shooting itself). The Black Panther Party gave prominent support to the Third World Strike, to the Asian American radicalism that grew from it, and to the Los Siete case.
Excerpted from Lavender and Red by Emily K. Hobson. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations Acknowledgments Abbreviations Introduction 1. Beyond the Gay Ghetto: Founding Debates in Gay Liberation 2. A More Powerful Weapon: Lesbian Feminism and Collective Defense 3. Limp Wrists and Clenched Fists: Defining a Politics and Hitting the Streets 4. 24th and Mission: Building Lesbian and Gay Solidarity with Nicaragua 5. Talk About Loving in the War Years: Nicaragua, Transnational Feminism, and AIDS 6. Money for AIDS, Not War: Anti-militarism, Direct Action against the Epidemic, and Movement History Epilogue Notes Bibliography Index