The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The push for LGBTQ equality began long before Stonewall

The value of restoring the LGBTQ rights movement’s radical roots

A Progress Pride flag and rainbow flags fly at the Stonewall National Monument, the first U.S. national monument dedicated to LGBTQ history and rights in New York City. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)
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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.

LGBTQ people were drawn deeper into the orbit of the left because they, too, were cast as deviant in American society. “I’m a gay fellow, so what do I care about social position?” a gay man wrote in a 1949 letter. “I don’t want to go to any tea parties.” Allying with the radical left was less marginalizing to those who already lived on the margins of American society. In fact, sexuality and communist leanings were both things that kept people closeted.

One such man was Ted Rolfs, a member of the Marine Cooks and Stewards (MCS), a radical labor union that was well-known in the 1940s for its disproportionately Black and gay membership. “On the San Francisco waterfront,” one member reported, “the word was that the Marine Cooks and Stewards union was a third red, a third Black, and a third queer.”

That unique composition shaped the politics of the union. “If you let them red-bait,” Revels Cayton, a prominent Black MCS member cautioned, “they’ll race-bait, and if you let them race-bait, they’ll queen-bait. These are all connected, and that’s why we have to stick together.”

The existential threat posed by the rise of Nazism shifted the focus of American radicals away from revolution to anti-fascism, which meant building alliances with liberals promoting democracy. Edward Dahlberg published a radical novel, “Those Who Perish,” in 1934 — one year after Hitler’s rise — depicting a gay man at the center of the anti-fascist struggle. Willard Motley, a Black radical writer, gave an anti-fascist speech in the 1940s in which he listed gay men and lesbians among other groups whom Americans “love to hate.” Gay men such as Will Aalto and David McKelvy White joined international soldiers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.

In 1951, it was out of this populist milieu that a group of former communists built on their experiences opposing fascism to form Mattachine, an organization explicitly advocating for gay rights. In 1954, a writer in ONE Letter, a movement newsletter, described its founders as “young communists with a rage to get out and do something active like picketing and get themselves clobbered and perhaps laid.” In one of its earliest actions, Mattachine teamed up with the Los Angeles chapter of the Civil Rights Congress, an organization with deep connections to the U.S. Communist Party, to protest the entrapment of five Mexican American boys arrested in Echo Park.

Yet this alliance was short-lived. In 1953, Mattachine’s founding members were ejected from the organization over concerns about their histories with the Communist Party, and the organization shifted focus to positioning gay men and lesbians as upstanding citizens. The Cold War’s impact on LGBTQ Americans is often remembered through the lens of the “lavender” scare that purged gay employees from the U.S. State Department. But its influence was no less significant in shaping the fledgling homophile movement, an emergent coterie of new organizations sharing the goal of advancing gay rights through full-throated claims to citizenship.

Anti-gay and anti-communist conservatives invoked historical connections between radicals and gay men and lesbians to discredit both groups. “The Homosexual International began to gnaw at the sinews of the state in the 1930s,” one right-wing journalist correctly, but perniciously, wrote in 1960. These sorts of attacks prompted homophile activists to distance themselves from earlier leftists who had spoken out in defense of gay men and lesbians. “Communism and homosexuality,” the editors of ONE Magazine, a nationally circulated homophile publication, declared in 1960, “are contradictory and inimical.”

By the 1960s, members of Mattachine were fully enlisted as stalwart Cold Warriors, using these anti-communist credentials to push for citizenship rights. While earlier leftists had folded gay men and lesbians into a movement advocating for the end of predatory capitalism, the advance of racial justice and the liberation of the working class, the homophile movement sided with those who saw gay rights as disconnected from broader revolutionary struggles. Full incorporation into mainstream American life became their primary goal.

The post-Stonewall gay liberation movement restored some of the radical energy that animated earlier leftists seeking to align sexual politics with radical social change. There is much in that moment that is worth celebrating. Yet ongoing debates about the radical roots of contemporary queer politics too often overlook connections between LGBTQ rights and the left that appeared in the decades before the 1960s.

That’s because the powerful effects of McCarthyism continue to shape which stories get told and whose lives are remembered. The radical LGBTQ political tradition, both its rise and fall, is a history we can take pride in, but one that might require us to take stock as well.