The Push For LGBTQ Equality Began Long Before StonewallRoundup
tags: LGBTQ history, Gay Liberation
Aaron S. Lecklider is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture.
The annual raising of rainbow flags outside America’s strip malls and the bounty of LGBTQ-friendly swag being hawked inside them can only mean one thing: Pride month is upon us. Ostensibly commemorating the birth of the gay liberation movement, Pride also points to the outsize influence of Stonewall as a singular catalyst for sparking LGBTQ liberation.
And yet, there were activists advocating for LGBTQ Americans decades before the gay liberation movement of the 1960s. This history has been largely forgotten, because their work was tied to a radical social movement critiquing capitalism.
Thanks to the Cold War and the “Red Scare,” gay rights activists made a calculated decision in the 1950s to cut ties with this movement and to purge this history from the story of the fight for LGBTQ rights. While that strategy might have been politically advantageous for some, reclaiming radical queer history is essential to understanding the full scope of LGBTQ lives and politics in the 20th century.
In 1932, leftist journalist John Pittman published “Prejudice Against Homosexuals” in his radical Black newspaper, the Spokesman. “What Negroes and homosexuals both desire,” Pittman wrote, “is to be regarded as human beings with the rights and liberties of human beings, including the right to be let alone, to enjoy life in the way most agreeable and pleasant, to live secure from interference and insult.”
Prejudice against gay and lesbian Americans, Pittman argued, was anathema to social justice. As a Black leftist who was committed to revolutionary politics, Pittman well understood how prejudice structured American life, and he was unyielding in his opposition to all its forms.
One reason that leftists — communists, socialists, anarchists and labor organizers especially — concerned themselves with sexual politics was because radicals often found themselves in shared urban spaces with gay men and lesbians, notably local YMCAs and public parks. According to Jim Kepner, a gay leftist journalist, places such as Pershing Square in Los Angeles were available for “public open-air debate, officially designated as a ‘free speech area,’ ostensibly free from police harassment of people whose views they might find offensive, and also popular for gay cruising.”
These spaces reflected how marginalization from mainstream American life made leftists and LGBTQ Americans into strange bedfellows.
Once gay men and lesbians and radicals found one another, new worlds opened up to them. John Malcolm Brinnin and Kimon Friar, both members of the Young Communist League, developed an intimate partnership and observed other Depression-era same-sex couples who were also “consciously trying to mold the course of their relationship in channels that will fit their new sense of responsibility since they have become Marxists.” Betty Millard described her shared passions for radicalism and same-sex intimacy in her diary. “Socialism & sex is what I want all right,” she wrote in 1934. “I just didn’t happen to explain to him which sex.” The line between sexual and revolutionary desire was so often blurred.
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