In the late 1960s the Black Panthers and the early gay liberation movement fought against different forms of oppression. But, as Noel Halifax explains, they could find common ground.
In August 1970 in the Black Panthers’ paper Huey Newton wrote “A letter to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation” arguing that they were fellow revolutionary movements and pledging the Panthers to support gay liberation.
This was unusual for the time as in the 1970s Stalinism and Maoism dominated the left, especially in the US, and they both viewed homosexuality as a bourgeois deviancy — a pastime for the decadent upper classes. So how did this come about?
In the spring of 1970 the Black Panthers were in trouble. They had formed in 1966 in the black neighbourhoods. Following the political explosions of 1968 the US state and the FBI in particular decided to take them out.
They were gunned down, prosecuted and harassed to the point where they were in danger of collapse. Bobby Seale, imprisoned since 1968, was awaiting his second trial. Twenty panthers were arrested in New York for conspiracy against their country (including Erica Huggins who was to give birth in jail to Tupac Shakur the rapper) with bail set at $2.1 million.
Eldridge Cleaver, fearing assassination or arrest, had fled to Cuba and then Algeria. The Panthers faced huge legal fees while at the same time much of their previous left support dried up. It was against this background that the French writer Jean Genet received a phone call. Black Panther David Hilliard rang Genet to ask for his help and support.
Genet’s response was immediate: he asked what he could do and within a week was in the US touring campuses and major cities to raise money. He also castigated the left, and especially the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society, the main student left organisation), for not being more forthcoming in their solidarity with the Panthers.
The three-month tour was remarkable, not least because Genet was in the US illegally. He was refused a visa to enter the US because he was a many times convicted felon and infamous as the world’s most notorious homosexual, not to mention his association with the revolutionary left in France. So he travelled to Canada, slipped over the border and appeared on this grand speaking tour monitored all the way by the FBI. Such was his fame that he was never arrested.
Jean Genet was an orphan left by his prostitute mother, father unknown, and raised in the awful semi-military orphanage system of France in the 1910s. He grew into a thief, a transvestite prostitute, burglar and tramp, living in the gutters of the cities of France and Spain in the 1930s. He loathed respectable French society.
In 1948 he was in prison with an unlimited sentence. He wrote under the most awful conditions, often on toilet paper. His writings were seen by the French left wing philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and others, and his case was taken up. Following a campaign he was pardoned and released. His first novel was published just after the war with many to follow in the 1950s and 60s, as well as plays.
He was the epitome of the French existential writer and he was unashamed about his homosexuality. He wrote detailed descriptions of and emotional dramas about gay sex at a time when homosexuality was illegal and at best thought of as an illness except in the fringes of bohemia.
Genet took a keen interest in the Panthers and supported them from the beginning. In 1958 he had written the play Les Negres, translated in 1960 to The Blacks: A Clownshow, a play with an all-black cast and a theme of revenge against the oppressors.
It opened in New York in 1961 and was to run till 1963 when it moved to Montreal. It was a pivotal play for the development of black theatre in America and starred what was to become the cream of black American acting, including James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou.
It was because of this play that Genet had clout within black America. As Angela Davis put it, because of this play we considered him an ally. He was also famous for supporting Algeria against his own country and denouncing French and US imperialism. The only other time Genet had been to the US was in August 1968 when he took part in the gathering of the left and the great riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. He witnessed the events, and it was here that he spoke alongside writers William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg, and first met Black Panthers.
Angela Davis was Genet’s translator on the tour in 1970, and she describes the problems the Panthers faced convincing reluctant white radicals to support them. At UCLA it was advertised that Genet was coming to speak but did not mention he would be there to support the Panthers. A huge, largely white crowd turned up, but when it was clear Genet would not talk about his work, only the Panthers, over half of the audience left.
Davis also remembers that during his tour not only did he not make any secret of his homosexuality, but he deliberately provoked debate — on one occasion by wearing drag — and argued with the Panthers about their homophobia and use of words such as faggot. She believes it was these arguments that later led to Huey Newton’s article in the Panthers’ paper arguing to support gay liberation.
Today the LGBT movement is highly respectable, dominated by the white middle class, with the annual Pride marches in the control of corporations with most of the politics bleached out. This has not always been the case. Neither are the gallant efforts of Genet the only reason the Panthers supported gay liberation.
A key person at the centre of the riot at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 was Sylvia Rivera. As she describes it, you get the flavour of who made up the gay movement that the Panthers were relating to:
We were led out of the bar and they [the police] cattled us all up against the police vans. The cops pushed us up against the grates and the fences. People started throwing pennies, nickels, and quarters at the cops. And then the bottles started… We were not taking any more of this shit.
It was street gay people from the Village out front — homeless people who lived in the park in Sheridan Square outside the bar — and then drag queens behind them and everybody behind us. The Stonewall Inn telephone lines were cut and they were left in the dark.
It is clear that many of the rioters were Latino like Sylvia Rivera or black like her friend and comrade Marsha P Johnson. From the riot the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was formed with its own programme and calls for revolution. Sylvia and Marsha also helped to form STAR — Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries — taking over an empty building to make it a base for the young homeless transvestite street people.
At the People’s Revolutionary Convention in Philadelphia in 1971 Sylvia met with Huey Newton. She says he agreed that such groups as GLF and STAR were revolutionary peoples.
While the Panthers were being won over to support for gay liberation many other left groups coming from a Stalinist or Maoist background still saw the gay movement as “decadent”. But the liberal left also lampooned GLF. The Village Voice, at the time a radical and left paper, joked that the Stonewall riot probably happened because the queens were upset at the death of Judy Garland.
The fact was that the Panthers and the early gay movement were movements from the same class, both from the street, and often the same streets and bars. Before Malcolm X was Malcolm X he was the street hustler and dealer Malcolm Little, hanging out in bars in Boston similar to the Stonewall Inn in New York, mixing with the drag queens and drug dealers and street people and, it seems, having gay lovers and a rich white boyfriend.
The revolutionary black movement of the 1960s and the gay movement had one big thing in common — class, not the industrial organised working class but the disorganised street working class. Both movements came from the streets and their respective ghettoes, which Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P Johnson show were not closed boxes. Sylvia was active in downtown gay Greenwich Village and in Spanish Harlem, being a member of STAR, GLF and Puerto Rican nationalist movement the Young Lords.
On the surface they were very different organisations of the oppressed, relating to the oppressed group as an oppressed group, but organised from the same streets and neighbourhoods. Similarly Marsha was active in GLF and STAR but also in Harlem. Behind the difference of varying oppressions was the similarity of class.
These movements were built from and on the streets — out of the closets and onto the streets, as the slogan went. The homeless and drifters, the young people who flee oppressive backgrounds, were joined by a vast number of draft dodgers.
At the time the US had the military draft and for hundreds of thousands of the poor who couldn’t afford to avoid it they fled, going underground. Here was a potential army of disaffected young men and women in the major cities alienated from mainstream society because of the draft and open to revolutionary politics.
The politics of the LGBT and black movements have long moved away from their original base in the politics of this revolutionary but unstable class. The pink economy and the black middle class have ruled their respective roosts for decades.
Recently, however, there have been some stirrings of their revolutionary roots with the unrest in the US over the police killings of young black men and the arguments within this year’s London Pride.