Monday, March 22, 2010
More on Left-Wing Homophobia: My Story of Survival
When I was writing the other day about the "Forgotten Legacy of Left-Wing Homophobia" I kept wanting to add a coda about what was generally my own ultimately positive experience of finding a corner of the left that was pro-gay. It seemed too much to squeeze into that post, but in thinking about it all some more I remembered some forgotten details and am reminded that my own experience was actually a little more mixed.
I first became involved with the organized left when I was at college in Chicago. In 1976 I joined the "Spartacus Youth League" which was at the time the youth group of the Spartacist League. I had known I was gay since I was a small boy, but in those long-ago days before high school gay-straight alliances I kept it to myself. None of my friends seemed to be also gay, and when I got to college where there were a very small handful of openly gay students I was confused and uncertain about how to cross the threshold out of my closet.
That today gay and lesbian high school students can go to their proms with same-sex dates seems like something wonderfully hopeful and miraculous. Back then I think I was afraid to even say the word "gay." The Sparts had a party line on the issue that was couched in their typically archaic dense Leninist prose. "Full democratic rights for homosexuals" was their rousing slogan; like the New York Times of the day they had a distaste for using the word gay in print, viewing it as prettified, faddish and generally coddling of reformist petite-bourgeois tendencies. The SL had many lesbian and gay members, including especially many gay women in national leadership, and dry as it was, its pro-gay-rights line was shared by precious few left parties at the time. Anyway I wasn't out so who was I to quibble.
In 1977 I travelled to a Spartacist national conference in New York; afterwards I stayed in the city for a few days. My visit coincided with a major protest against the anti-gay orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant, then inflaming the ignorant with a crusade of bigotry. That's me in these two yellowed photos from the SL's Workers Vanguard paper carrying the "Stop Anita Bryant Full Democratic Rights for Homosexuals" sign. My visit also coincided with 1977's Christopher Street Liberation Day celebration: Gay Pride.
I left my host comrades for the evening and went off to that alone. I had never seen anything like it in my life. Christopher Street had a grittier feel back then: the West Side Highway was still elevated, and the piers were still crumbling multi-level structures, not astroturfed parkland. The intersection of Christopher Street and the dark space under the Westside Highway was full of gay bars: it had an edgy, industrial, down-by-the-docks fringe feel, unbelievably distant from today's gentrified landscape of glass condominiums. A stage was set up down there, from which blared Donna Summer's hypnotic synthesizer-beat hit "I Feel Love." And the streets were packed with gay men celebrating the night. I was unbelievably excited, but unbelievably scared. Strangely, at one point I saw one of the gay SL members walking in my direction. He began to smile and wave at me and Judas-like I abruptly dashed into the street to hide behind a car to avoid talking to him or confronting several of the obvious facts now hammering at my head. At a party meeting the next day he gave me a knowing smile which was sort of warmly reassuring. I thanked him silently for not forcing me to acknowledge what had happened.
All of this is ironic because what the Sparts supported was gay rights but what they hated was gay liberation. They held that the notion of gay liberation was a middle-class lifestyle issue, somehow false and misleading in its disconnection from the struggle of "the workers." Gay people, er, homosexuals, deserved legal rights but their issues were secondary to the struggle for Women's Liberation. Further, they had a rule for their membership called "the closet rule," whereby gay Spartacist members were forbidden to publicly identify themselves as gay. "Disciplined communists do not risk victimization for their extra-political conduct, for instance public avowal of homosexuality" was how the SL described this monstrous rule in a 1977 issue of their press. Despite this unbelievable bit of bigotry, the Sparts attracted most of a small gay communist collective in California called the Red Flag Union (though the minority split to the RSL, the group I ended up in a few years later).
That trip to New York had really expanded my mind. I was only 18 that summer; it was a lot to process. Back in Chicago I really failed to apply myself to school. I lived with other party members. I socialized mostly with my political comrades, and that was a peculiar blend of liberating experiences and horrifying ones. I remember one female comrade who worked as a waitress took me out one night to my first gay bar: it was a drag bar on the near north side called The Baton. She went there all the time with her coworkers and thought it would be fun to take some of us. It was an amazing evening: unbelievably beautiful drag queens lip-synched perfectly to pop and disco songs. The highlight of the evening was some performer whose name I have long forgotten strutting about and mouthing the words to Linda Clifford's "Don't Give It Up." It's probable that the following Monday morning I'd be up at dawn to attempt to sell newspapers to the shift change at the factory gate at a steel mill on the city's southern edge.
Another time hanging out at some bar or restaurant with comrades after an event this wretch of a woman named Tweet, an older woman in party leadership with an oddly aristocratic southern air about her and a younger boyfriend sitting on her other side, rammed her tongue in my ear and announced that she was trying to determine if I was gay. I felt completely assaulted. I had peers in the group who were also wrestling with questions of sexual identity and their friendship was valuable and life-transforming; but this was a singularly unpleasant episode. Not long after party leaders suggested I avail myself of some therapy available to me at school. When the therapist asked me why I was there, I told her my friends said I needed therapy. She said I probably needed new friends. I left school and left the SYL and came out at the end of 1978.
I got a job, I got an apartment on the north side near Wrigley Field, I made some attempt to socialize in the gay world, but I remained a radical. I started to talk to a woman from the group Spark, which was trying to break out of its Detroit home turf. Spark had been founded by people who had left the Spartacist League many years before. After the high-octane arrogance and self-righteousness of the Sparts I needed to go back to basics; I needed something more gentle. Spark tried to recruit people through what was basically a reading club. I met with a Spark activist and a couple other people to talk about a piece of assigned fiction. The books were actually really great: rather than dry Marxist Leninist theology we read things like Howard Fast's "Spartacus." The discussions were pretty interesting. These works of fiction addressed issues of class consciousness and the possibility of revolution in a really useful way.
I went up to Spark's annual "Winter Festival" in Detroit. A fairly apolitical event, it was like a giant house party for all its contacts and members: hundreds of people attended, an interracial crowd larger than any Spartacist event I had ever attended, even if it was social rather than activist in nature. I was struck by how the leadership of this group seemed mostly female, and to my eyes, mostly apparently lesbian; actually the woman in the group who was trying to recruit me, although she never discussed her personal life, gave off a strong lesbian vibe as well (and I really mean that as a compliment!). Here was the odd thing about Spark: in our open, fairly liberal society, Spark operated under the rules of a Bolshevik cell ca. 1910. Anyone working with the group had to choose a new first name: even peripheral contacts like me (now "Daniel") and the very nice (probably lesbian) woman "Carrie" who became my same-level trainee partner. Phone numbers were not to be shared: as a contact I only a number I could call -- from a payphone -- to leave a message for Sarah and was to use it only in emergency. Otherwise meetings were to be by regular place and location, with an emergency fallback. I had regularly scheduled meetings with "Sarah" and separate ones with "Carrie" and "Sarah" together either to discuss our readings or to sell papers. It must be said the Spark newspaper was fairly vapid and written for a very low reading level, although I enjoyed the theoretical journal that was published by Spark's international tendency in France.
So finally I decided I had to come out to "Sarah." I asked her something abstract about Spark's position on the issue. She asked me if I was asking hypothetically or because I was gay. Then she floored me. She told me, "Well if people who are that way want to work with our group we ask that they no longer be that way." In other words, being gay might be offensive to the workers Spark was trying to recruit so being gay was incompatible with being one of their activists. I was flabbergasted; even though I was recently out I my gaydar was finely tuned and I knew there was no way I was reading these people so completely wrongly.
It was an extension of the Spartacists' 1950s-style closet rule taken to its logical extreme: not only can you not tell people you're gay you can't actually be gay. She said it as softly and gently as she said everything; it was without rancor or moral condemnation. She didn't spit out a complicated justification about the proletarian family like the Canadian Maoist tract I reported on, it was just matter of fact. And I knew, having gone through what I had already gone through, I could not settle for that kind of personally corrupt defeat.
So that Spark went out. I realized that my gay identity was too important a part of me--too hard won--to be able to set aside. I had been talking off and on to a guy named Joe Galanti who was in the Revolutionary Socialist League. As a Spart I had learned to sneer at the RSL, but I gave them a second chance. Joe was proudly and openly gay; and the slogan of the RSL was "Gay Liberation Through Socialist Revolution."
I went to the first national gay march on Washington with them in 1979, and formally joined the League in 1980. In 1981 I even moved to New York to be the art director of their newspaper. While in the end the organized Leninist left was not the place for me, I felt that in the RSL I could truly be myself. It was liberating and empowering to discover like-minded people who walked the walk as well as talked the talk. That's me, above, surrounded by red gay liberation flags, in the RSL contingent of a gay pride march in New York City in the early 1980s.