Despite Everything, Queer Leftists Survived

The history of queer liberation movements is often talked about as distinct from the history of the Left. But in the first half of the twentieth century, queer people were abundant among American radical leftists — decades before the rise of an organized mass movement for gay rights.

Harry Hay, communist, gay rights activist, and cofounder of the Mattachine Society, in 1996. (Rachel Ritchie—KRT/Newscom via Britannica)

Back in October, a mini-viral tweet asked writers, “Give the worst possible elevator pitch for your book.” Aaron S. Lecklider, a professor of American studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, replied, “Queer people actually were national security risks.”

The jokey tweet alludes to a violent history: that of the “Lavender Scare,” the mid-century moral panic in which federal and state officials purged thousands of queer people from government employment on the grounds that “sexual perverts” were “perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists,” as one Republican politician put it in 1950. The Lavender Scare — intimately connected to but ultimately distinct from the McCarthyite “Red Scare” — contributed immensely to hateful popular understandings of queerness as a psychological disease and a danger to “normal” people.

It also led much of the burgeoning gay rights movement to insist that queers were not dangerous — at least, so long as they were clean-cut, white, bourgeois, and conformed to conventional gender norms.

Implicit in this commitment to “respectable queerness” was an erasure of the presence of queer people who did not fit neatly into normative boxes. Post-Stonewall, those who were often marginalized and ignored included the radical queers that threw bottles at Stonewall, founded the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), and fundamentally changed the trajectory of the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But what of the radical queers in the years before the Lavender Scare? Who were they?

Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture, by Aaron Lecklider.

One stab at answering this question is Lecklider’s invigorating new book Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture — the one about how queer people “actually were national security risks.” Indeed, writes Lecklider, in the first half of the twentieth century, “a broad cross-section of sexual dissidents . . . took advantage of their space on the margins of American society to throw themselves into leftist campaigns.”

In other words, queer people were abundant among American radicals decades before the rise of an organized mass movement for gay rights. And while much of the scholarship on queer history “discounts the Old Left due to its perceived homophobia,” Lecklider locates a “counterhistory where possibility, visibility, and resistance converged at the intersection of homosexuality and the Left.”

Lecklider has scoured the archives for relevant records, letters, and diaries. But, as anyone who has attempted queer history can attest, there is a real dearth of traditional archival sources that allow scholars access to queer people’s private lives and inner thoughts. This is doubly true when it comes to queer leftists.

“Chrisesakes, man,” the aging gay communist Harry Hay wrote to a historian in 1974, “who among us Reds was stoopid enough to keep records through TWO Witch-hunts.”

In spite of this documentary challenge, however, Lecklider has supplemented his archival sleuthing with insightful interpretations of “cultural works” — novels, poems, and memoirs — many of which reveal far more of a queer presence on the Left than, say, the official records of the Communist Party. The result is a startling and joyful work of scholarship, a book about revolutionary people that feels revolutionary itself.

Joint Radical Struggle

“It takes two revolutions to make a new world,” wrote a radical journalist in 1927, “one in the sphere of economics and one in the sphere of erotics.” And, indeed, many in the early twentieth century saw the fight against capitalism and the fight against oppressive sexual mores as inextricably linked.

This view emerged, in part, because queers and leftists ended up running into one another so often during these years. This constant proximity bred mutual sympathy and, eventually, solidarity.

Queer people and radicals often found themselves excluded from mainstream society, especially during the Depression, and this led many of them to ride the rails. Others sought refuge in hobo camps and public parks. Radical unionists and utopian freethinkers rubbed shoulders with hustlers and sex workers. Some began to suggest that they might, in fact, be fighting the same forces.

The allure of the Soviet Union likewise attracted both leftists and queers. Many Americans in the 1920s and 1930s imagined the USSR as “livelier and more sexually open” than the United States. Indeed, sodomy had been effectively decriminalized following the Russian Revolution in 1917 and explicitly decriminalized in 1922. Both leftists and queers made pilgrimages to the Soviet Union during these years, seeking better lives, and though “lived realities in the USSR did not always match up with Soviet ideals,” as Lecklider carefully puts it, many Soviet writers and thinkers were far more open-minded than their American counterparts about sexuality. After sodomy was recriminalized in the USSR in the 1930s under Joseph Stalin, a “quiet but significant international response” arose, with several leftist writers denouncing the reversal.

Additionally, leftists and queers were both forced to battle obscenity laws in the United States. Unsurprisingly, government censors policed the language and activities of those promoting transgressive sexual behavior, but these same officials also ruthlessly targeted Communists and labor radicals. As a result, notes Lecklider, many leftist editors ended up fighting against instances of censorship “regardless of whether they targeted sexual content or radical politics.” Further, in an attempt to subvert, mock, and resist the constant censorship and surveillance of speech, many leftist writers and editors began adopting a “camp style” that embraced sexual deviance and attracted “thrill-seeking readers,” including queers.

Labor unions, shop floors, and sex work all represented sites where leftists learned about homosexuality and queers joined in radical struggle. Many places of labor — especially in the maritime industry, where so many men lived and worked closely together — led to political-sexual alliances.

The San Francisco–based Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, for instance, developed a reputation that it was “a third red, a third black, and a third queer,” as one member recalled; its own members sometimes called it “Marine Cocksuckers and Fruits,” and its publications portrayed smiling interracial gay couples.

Members of the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union.

Prostitution, too, “connected working-class communities with sexual transgression,” Lecklider continues, at a time when “homosexuality was intimately connected with sex work.” In fact, in his famous mid-century studies of sexuality, Alfred Kinsey noted that the “lowest classes had the most incidents of homosexuality.” Leftist writers came to view “male hustling” as the workers controlling their own means of production, and capitalism as the true “perversion.”

Lecklider pays particular attention to the ways that some leftists “repurposed resistance to American capitalist institutions and racist structures to advance a radical position on homosexuality.” Many black Communists compared the discrimination they faced on account of their race to the hatred they or others endured because of their sexuality.

John Pittman, for instance, wrote that “both race prejudice and the prejudice against homosexuals are bolstered and maintained by social taboo and the law . . . Both prejudices make life in this world a living hell for men and women whose only crime is that of being DIFFERENT from the majority.” This view occasionally forced organizations like the Communist Party to defend queer rights, especially as the institutional left strove to be on the vanguard of the fight against racial oppression.

Lecklider also devotes considerable analysis to the radicalism of queer women in the early twentieth century. In spite of their marginalization within the institutional left, many women did join groups like the Communist Party, with some even assuming positions of leadership. A number of these women took advantage of the Left’s iconographic celebration of female strength to explore and exult in their own butchness. Others used lesbian bars to build solidarity with working-class patrons.

Lecklider focuses in particular on the (often coded) explorations of lesbian desire by leftist female writers of the time, including Carson McCullers, Pauli Murray, and Jo Sinclair. Some queer women even viewed their transgressive romantic attachments through the lens of their politics — Lecklider notes two apparently queer women who signed their notes to each other with “I love you” written in Russian.

In sum, a small but thriving collection of queer leftists were active in the years before World War II, and a larger number of interactions brought queers and leftists together during this time. To be clear, some degree of homophobia was constant on the American left during the early twentieth century, as reflected in official party policies and in art and writing from the time. “The relationship between homosexuality and the Left was never easy,” Lecklider writes. Nonetheless, he continues, the Left cannot be “defined entirely by homophobia.”

Detaching From a Radical History

As the twentieth century continued, the relationship between queerness and the Left morphed repeatedly.

First came the rise of anti-fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. In many ways, this presented new opportunities for queer-Left alliances. Eager to portray themselves as radically inclusive (in contrast to fascists), leaders of many leftist spaces became more open to queer presence and advocacy. The rise of the “Popular Front” — an imperative that led the Communist Party to align with less radical groups on the Left, putting difference aside in an effort to prioritize defeating the Nazi threat — enabled queers to take advantage of the celebration of diversity and demand inclusion, especially as the Nazis’ particular hatred of homosexuals became widely known. The Spanish Civil War represented a seminal moment in which many on the Left formed bonds of homosocial intimacy in the trenches that occasionally became sexual.

Yet the fight against fascism and the rise of the Popular Front also committed the Left to “gentler forms of coalition building,” in contrast to earlier, more revolutionary calls to overthrow capitalism. By abandoning their demand for a total rejection of the American state, many on the Left also abandoned their more radical critiques of the American status quo — a status quo that included legalized homophobia.

Further, as Lecklider argues, the Popular Front led to a discourse that “framed homosexuality in the language of human rights and tolerance and reconceived American history as a teleological march of progress,” which in turn moved the emerging gay rights movement away from the more steadfast “opposition to racial capitalism that had for decades informed the relationship between homosexuality and the Left.”

The Cold War cemented this shift. While many of the earliest queer rights organizations, including ONE Inc., the Mattachine Society, and Knights of the Clock, had leftist or Communist founders, the fear engendered by the Lavender Scare led these organizations to declare themselves fervently anti-communist and expel their more radical founders. Facing a state that declared that queers were national security threats — which many had, in fact, been — these organizations insisted they were not.

As Lecklider notes, this led to a homophile movement “detached from its radical history and overly invested in normativity and whiteness.” Sex workers, militant labor activists, black Communists — all were excluded. “Homosexuals needed to prove themselves to be good capitalists and model citizens in order to secure protection under law,” Lecklider dryly writes.

Whereas members had spent the homophile groups’ early years drawing parallels between homosexuals and “the Negro, Mexican, and Jewish Peoples” — waging fights on behalf of queers of color and battling legal restrictions on interracial same-sex couples — soon these groups turned away from this sort of activism, even toning down their critiques of the police.

The consequences were politically and personally devastating. One of Mattachine’s exiled leftist founders committed suicide. Many others destroyed their personal papers. Meanwhile, the Communist Party officially expelled gay members “because of their presumed openness to blackmail as state repression increased.”

Nonetheless, Lecklider concludes, some queer leftists did manage to remain outspoken during the Cold War. When, for instance, the activity of the organized Left began to dovetail more with the civil rights movement, several queer Black leftists became some of the sharpest and most prominent critics of the American state and empire, including Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry. Their work helped keep the flame of queer leftism burning until the 1960s, when “thunderous waves of uprisings and protest” more firmly united queers and the Left in the gay liberation movement.

Hope, Despite It All

Although it is an excellent work of history, it would be a mistake to classify Love’s Next Meeting as simply a historical work. To do so would serve to underestimate the book’s boldest intervention: injecting some hope into too-often dismal histories — and, by extension, into our desolate present.

Considering the bleakness of so much of its subject matter, Love’s Next Meeting is a strikingly optimistic book. No matter how isolated or marginalized his protagonists, Lecklider makes sure to note their resistance or resilience; no matter how depressing the trajectory of liberatory movements, Lecklider makes space for those who could reframe their own dispossession “as a site of solidarity working toward revolution.”

Lecklider is, of course, careful to note the constancy of leftist homophobia, and the relative rarity of explicit pro-queer political commitments from the institutional Left. Nonetheless, he appears to delight in the intriguing insinuations, the myriad connections, and the remarkable overlaps that, together, gesture to a far more robust Left-queer alliance than most scholars have recognized.

Although few sources survive to document queer-Left collaboration within the lumpenproletariat, Lecklider nonetheless devotes space and energy to the revolutionary activities of sex workers, hobos, immigrants, and other marginalized members of American society. Although the sources that do remain disproportionately contain the voices of the literate and the literary, and those living in urban spaces (especially in the north), Lecklider still manages to read many traditional texts in highly innovative ways, unearthing thrilling possibilities from deep in the archive.

Perhaps the quality that best embodies Lecklider’s hopeful intervention is his unabashed joy that the story of queer leftists survived — in the archive and in cultural texts — at all. “For even with gaps and redactions and fires and excisions and smears and hearings and expulsions and narrative displacements,” he concludes, queers on the Left were “never truly alone.”