Gay rights in the Communist press: Recollections of a seminal article
Eric Gordon's original article, "Gay rights: An issue for the left," from the April 17, 1990 edition of People's Daily World, along with some of his various letters to the editor concerning LGBTQ issues over the course of the 1980s. | People's World Archive

I am told by our Managing Editor C.J. Atkins, who enjoys rummaging around in the history of Communist Party publications, that the opinion piece republished below, 28 years ago this week after its first appearance in People’s Daily World, was the first head-on article—apart from the occasional letter to the editor or incidental mention in other writing—in the history of the party press to address the subject of gay rights.

I’m glad he uncovered it and reminded me of it. At the time I wrote it, I knew it was an opening salvo in what I hoped would be a vigorous debate in the PDW and in the Communist Party. Indeed, the editor of the paper at that time, Barry Cohen, knew that too and specifically invited me to contribute this piece.

My name had appeared as a writer in PDW quite a few times before. For those with a very long memory, I submitted my cultural criticism in the late 1970s and early 1980s to arts editor Adelaide Bean. I thoroughly enjoyed popping by the paper’s 23rd Street office in New York City to deliver my manuscripts (long before email!) and shoot the breeze with her. She was aware that I had just started what would turn out to be a decade-long project to write the first biography of one-time Communist composer Marc Blitzstein, in whose circles she traveled in the 1940s, and possibly earlier. She vouched for my legitimacy as a writer, supplying introductions to others in the party who either knew Blitzstein or might have some information of use to a biographer.

Silence in the ’80s

As the 1980s unfolded, the decade I lived in New York City, the LGBTQ movement grew by leaps and bounds, in part because of the overt discrimination heightened by the AIDS crisis. Yet on issue after issue, concerning the passage of new protective laws, the hateful statements and referenda promoted by politicians, preachers, and public officials, or the refusal of the Reagan administration to deal with the infectious epidemic, the Communist Party kept its silence.

By then, ten and eventually twenty years after the Stonewall Rebellion—heralded as the official launch of the LGBTQ movement—virtually every other organization and movement on the left had long since declared its solidarity with gay and lesbian people’s struggles. Other than a couple of truly insignificant sectarian grouplets that still believed homosexuality was an indication of bourgeois decadence, the only outlier was the CPUSA. It’s apparent that even within the CP there were leaders who shared that belief as well.

During those years, as a sometimes contributor and a fairly constant reader of the paper, I wrote letter after letter to the editor protesting their silence on such critical issues, including basic non-discrimination laws being considered by the New York City Council, where the CP was still strong and where its support for passage might have made a difference. Time and time again my letters were occasionally published, but consistently ignored.

In January of 1990, I was shocked to read the PDW’s reportage on the inauguration of David Dinkins as New York City mayor. The ceremonies surrounding that historic event included a multicultural festival of the arts. The only group that performed to welcome the city’s first Black mayor that the PDW failed to mention in its report of the day was the 150-member NYC Gay Men’s Chorus, in which I sang. That was no oversight. It was an intentional exclusion and a disruption of the solidarity the wider left had been struggling to bring into being, and which produced that magnificent electoral result. I wrote a letter to the editor about that, too; it appeared in the letters column, but with no response or mea culpa.

The winds of perestroika?

I was surprised a couple of months later when Barry Cohen called and invited me to write this piece on gay rights. The winds of perestroika were finally blowing along West 23rd Street! I have since learned that internally the LGBTQ question had been heatedly debated within the CP, but I was not privy to such discussions. Until now, when clearly some fresh air was invited into the room.

I can only surmise that the close relationship between the Communist parties of the USA and the USSR had long inhibited a more frank and positive discussion of these issues.

I approached writing this article with an awesome sense of making history, adopting a tone I might have used with my grandparents unfamiliar with this whole new way of thinking. I did not mention how backward the CP had been for so many years (21 now since Stonewall!), nor how isolated it was on the left over this issue. Nor did I speculate on how many potential adherents to the party the CP might have lost over the years by maintaining their antiquated reluctance to embrace LGBTQ rights. (At the time, as my article shows, the word “gay” was meant to include the whole range of what we now think of as LGBTQ.)

Nor did I speak of the gay party members who had been thrown out for their homosexuality—nor of others who were retained (such as Blitzstein) if their names added sufficient luster to the party roster. I did, however, appeal to the early Bolshevik openness to sexual orientation, thinking that might resonate with some readers, and, without naming Stalin, educated my readers about the backtracking on sexual expression from the 1930s on.

Instead, I patiently laid out why, in the trajectory of the civil and human rights that the CPUSA had long stood for, LGBTQ demands were logically and correctly to be included as part of its commitment to what the party would come to call “Bill of Rights socialism.”

In the immediate aftermath of this publication, I was approached by the PDW writer and editor Margrit Pittman to write something about recent progress on gay rights in the German Democratic Republic. I had been pen-pals with a gay GDR Communist Party (SED) member for about twenty years by then and was well apprised of developments along that front in the GDR. I felt these were not much to crow about—far too little and far too late—and declined to write such a piece and appear as a champion of the GDR on this issue.

Then, within months, a traumatic split occurred in the CPUSA, over leadership style and some of the issues brought to the surface in the whole glasnost/perestroika era. Barry Cohen was out as editor, and for the time being, the LGBTQ issue seemed to get buried once more.

Again, I was not a party member and was not aware of exactly how it came about that in time the CPUSA came around on the LGBTQ question. By 2001 though, at its 27th convention, the party passed its first resolution announcing it was part of the movement for LGBT rights. At the same meeting, it amended its constitution “to address the needs of the LGBT population as an oppressed group” and said the latter was a part of the coalition that will one day lead the United States to socialism. A few years later, on the sidelines of New York’s 2004 pride parade, party leader Sam Webb told the press, “Our official participation is long overdue…. For years, our party has to an extent neglected the LGBT movement. However, we are changing that.”

Today, I am happy to report that the party is fully open to LGBTQ members and responsive on our issues. And far from writing angry letters to the editor, I am now on the People’s World editorial board myself! And I’m not alone on the staff either.

All things in good time….


Gay rights: An issue for the left

Eric A. Gordon

People’s Daily World; April 17, 1990

The eminent anti-fascist psychologist Wilhelm Reich observed that the sexual repression of a people is often a prelude and partner to authoritarian political repression. The Bolsheviks understood this principle. At the stroke of a pen in the first weeks of the Revolution, the Soviets wiped off the books all the old czarist laws against homosexuality and abortion.

In Hitler’s Germany, gays were systematically rounded up and sent to the concentration camps: Their very existence undermined Aryan ideology promoting properly “masculine” men and “feminine” women. In 1934, as part of the tightening-up of Soviet society, every republic in the USSR was forced to reinstate the anti-homosexual law—five years in jail for consensual gay sex. Abortion was restricted at the same time.

Here in the United States in the witch-hunt era, Joe McCarthy went after gay people; along with suspected Communists, thousands were fired from government jobs. In the Soviet Union today, there is talk once again of abolishing the anti-homosexual law. (In fact, it is seldom enforced anymore.) In some of the socialist countries, homosexuality is no crime (though it still is in others). Many Communist Parties in Western Europe have openly gay members and advocate pro-gay positions.

Among Western countries, it is the United States where the most virulent hatred and fear of homosexuals flourish. Gays are the only groups in American society against whom there are actual laws or policies on the books. Half of our states have “sodomy” laws, which in many cases also infringe upon heterosexuals’ privacy rights. Criminalization of sexual behavior stigmatizes the estimated 10 percent of the population that is homosexual, in that gays and lesbians are ostracized, disinherited, and targeted for abuse. In the fold of many religious communities, gays are no more welcome. Many “runaway” kids are in fact expelled from their homes because they are gay—so much for the argument that gays are out to “destroy” family life!

This oppression has intensified in the AIDS era, symbolized by the dramatic increase in acts of violence against gay men and women. But many people committed to the progressive agenda in this country support gay issues not just out of a liberal spirit of tolerance (“what consenting adults do behind closed doors is not society’s business”), nor merely because they don’t like seeing people physically attacked. They identify with the basic demands of gay liberation because they see that the changes the gay movement is seeking affect and benefit all of society. To start with, an end to oppression of gays would also end attacks on those perceived to be gay.

Like the feminist movement, the gay movement seeks to break down traditional sex-role typing. Important legal battles have been fought to include same-sex partners on leases, to ensure hospital visitation rights, protect relationships of gay parents with their children, in short, to introduce into our system a legal redefinition of the “family” corresponding to the social changes that have already taken place.

Irrespective of the role the U.S. military plays in the world today, the mandatory exclusion of homosexuals is basically an offense to civil rights. The struggle to overturn this discrimination goes on. Restrictive immigration law is another area where the interests of homosexuals and the left coincide. The many cases of AIDS discrimination that have been won in employment, housing, insurance, and access to public service have also benefited all other people with real or perceived disabilities.

The AIDS movement, led by the militancy of ACT UP, is calling for increased government attention to this spreading epidemic. It is but one small step for these well-organized forces to ally with those groups supporting health care as a basic right. To overlook this angry, mostly young constituency is to pass over the strong lavender component of the Rainbow Alliance.

Surely these changes are part of constructing the “new human” that socialists have always talked about. For this very reason, conservative fundamentalists and the political right wing have placed opposition to all these gay demands—along with their anti-abortion doctrine—at the center of their program. They show no true reverence for life; and they are not simply opposed to certain sexual acts on moral grounds. Their real agenda is repression against everyone—so much more easily instituted under a universal system of sexual terror whereby men conform out of fears about their masculinity, and women are reduced to biological slaves. The military, which relies on the myth of the male superhero, above all requires such control.

In October 1987, an estimated 600,000 men and women marched on Washington for gay and lesbian rights. It was the largest rally for civil rights in U.S. history. This movement, with a viable press and a many-sided organizational life, is out for visibility and recognition. For the whole human being requires rounded validation in society. There is no validity in denying people their personal or collective dignity.

Those who fear gays as “role models” need to be reminded that some 10 percent is going to be gay no matter what. Shouldn’t we want such a significant percentage of the population to grow up as healthy, self-respecting, contributing members of society? Indeed, isn’t the struggle for gay and lesbian liberation integral to the struggle for socialism?


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski.

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