Despite the ban, queers made important contributions to U.S. Communist movement

Ordinarily a person cited, interviewed and profiled in a book wouldn’t be the appropriate person to review it. But we are not dealing here with an ordinary book, an ordinary author, nor an ordinary reviewer! And what is “appropriate” anyway? Much of this book talks about who and what were considered “appropriate.”

The book under review is Prof. Bettina Aptheker’s new Communists in Closets: Queering the History 1930s–1990s, which explores the history of gay, lesbian, and non-heterosexual people in the Communist Party in the United States. She is Distinguished Professor Emerita, Feminist Studies Department, University of California, Santa Cruz.

Aptheker knows whereof she speaks. The daughter of Party leader and scholar Herbert Aptheker, and erstwhile 17-year member of the Party herself, she adopts what might be called the “new journalism” approach to history, fearlessly fusing her deep archival scholarship with her personal identity and experience. For she too was a closeted member of the Party. Furthermore, growing up in the Aptheker household, she knew many of the subjects under review here as they were regulars in Fay and Herbert Aptheker’s social and intellectual circles.

In another format, that of personal memoir, Aptheker has already surveyed some of this history in her 2006 book Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became a Feminist Rebel. She also wrote The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis (1976 and 1999), about another queer Communist (more on that below).

The ban

The CPUSA banned what we would today call LGBTQ people from membership, beginning in 1938 when it defined them, along with some categories of people, as “degenerates.” It persisted in this policy until 1991, despite the fact that since the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969 almost every major left and progressive movement in the U.S. came around to support the burgeoning gay liberation movement (as it was called then), in many cases quite enthusiastically.

During that half-century of its ban, gays and lesbians who did join the CP were deeply closeted within it. And many, maybe most Communists at the time, also had to keep their Party membership close to the vest. Aptheker focuses much attention on the emotional and psychological pain of hiding these two critically important aspects of such persons’ lives, as there were few places where they could feel and act authentically themselves.

There were the rare exceptions to the policy. One that I know well was the case of composer Marc Blitzstein, whose labor musical The Cradle Will Rock is one of the neon lights of Communist culture in America. He was not quite public with his homosexuality, but it was an open secret that the Party tolerated because of his distinguished contributions, in music, writing, and in Party work. Another pair of exceptions were the couple Anna Rochester, a historian, and her life partner Grace Hutchins, the subject of a 2013 dual biography by Julia M. Allen.

By the late 1930s, Party membership had approached 100,000, and many thousands more moved in its orbit through the Popular Front against fascism, anti-racist organizing, union building, and through its publications. How many of those members and allies were queer can only be guessed, but readers can do their own math.

In spite of the Party’s official line, individual LGBTQ Communists contributed significantly to peace, social justice, civil and gender rights, and Black and Latinx liberation movements. Though many of their names have been absorbed into humus of history, there were a few who laid some of the political and theoretical foundations for lesbian and gay liberation and women’s liberation, and it is these more prominent people that Aptheker points up in her work. Communists in Closets is the product not only of a decade of archival research, correspondence, and interviews, but also of her personal knowledge and history.

The stories she tells educate readers about these high-achieving individuals, and more important offer inspiration to pursue excellence despite any odds society may impose.

Following are the chapter headings of Aptheker’s book:

1. Introduction: What Is Found There: In the Archives and in Life
2. Stonewalled: Gay Liberation and Communist Silence
3. Harry Hay (1912-2002): “Welcome My Dears”: A Communist, Radical Faerie in a Revolutionary Quest
4. Elizabeth (Betty) Boynton Millard (1911-2010): A Passion for Women and a Global Sisterhood
5. Eleanor Flexner (1908-1995): Living the Unnamed: Scholarship, Activism, and a Boston Marriage
6. Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965): Freedom in Mind
7. The Communist Party Ban Ends: Stories of the 1990s and 2000s
8. Afterword: A Labor of Love

Digging into the archives

While attending UC Berkeley, she was an activist in the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs, the youth group of the Communist Party USA. She became a leader in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement during the fall of 1964. | UC Berkeley

Aptheker pursued the lives of these prominent individuals in their archival collections at various institutions, and also at the CPUSA archives at NYU’s Tamiment Library. She discovered, to her great surprise, that the files on Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964), a Chairwoman of the CPUSA, were sealed. Why? Because early in her life, she had lived for ten years in Portland, Ore., with a well-known open lesbian, Dr. Mari Equi (1872-1952), in a relationship that was obviously very intimate though exactly how physical we can only speculate. The Party did not want it to “come out” that one of its most famous leaders, a truly historical figure in American labor and civil rights history, the dedicatee of the iconic labor song “The Rebel Girl,” might have been a lesbian. Aptheker discusses Flynn extensively (pp. 67-75) in the “Stonewalled” chapter.

Aptheker also sought entrée into the closed records of the Party’s Control Commission, which had jurisdiction over discipline and expulsion of members. It took a decision by the then-National Chair of the Party, Sam Webb, to allow her access to these files on the condition that she not name names. What she found among the papers were decades’ worth of letters and complaints from Party members protesting its backwardness on the gay question, noting how it was discouraging recruitment, and urging it to reconsider its position, few of which, if any, were ever answered.

Harry and Betty

Chapters 3-6, as noted above, go into the lives of four individuals. They constitute the real heart of the book and poignantly illustrate the peculiar crux their lives represented—seeking to find both personal and global liberation through the emancipatory vision of communism while being thwarted and constrained in their own lives not only by the larger prejudices of society but by their own comrades’ scorn.

Harry Hay has been much discussed, but the main attribute of Aptheker’s contribution is her deep delve into Hay’s extensive oral history deposited at the San Francisco Public Library. She is keenly alert to Hay’s weaknesses in understanding feminist theory, although she holds back the skepticism one might expect from an academic concerning his really outlandish insistence on a kind of gay separatism and exoticism. Hay in his latter years was crestfallen to discover that most LGBTQ people are not ipso facto revolutionary, most wanting as normal a life, including jobs, security, and in many cases children, as others have. Their dream for freedom did not demand to isolate themselves as permanent exceptions to established social values, but to be successfully integrated into them.

As well as I knew Betty Millard—I considered her a kind of second mother—I learned a great deal from Aptheker’s chapter on her, as I did also from Elisabeth Armstrong’s essay on Betty in Faith in the Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party USA. My own angle of friendship with her was not wide enough at the time to encompass her true historical importance. Betty’s papers went to the Smith College Library, and I am thrilled that they are being put to good use by a new generation of scholars. There is actually a lacuna in that collection, because a few years before she died, going through her papers, she found her thick file of correspondence with me, starting when I was 12, and sent it out to me in its entirety, thinking (correctly) that I might find it useful someday for my own autobiographical purposes. That correspondence is now with the bulk of my own papers at the One Archives in Los Angeles.

A summer day at Betty’s farm in Dutchess County, N.Y., 1976. Eric Gordon on the left with his then-lover Michael Jospe standing, Elizabeth Moos (seated left) and Betty Millard. | Courtesy of Eric Gordon

The height of Betty’s career came in the late 1940s and early 1950s as the representative in Europe of the Congress of American Women, the U.S. affiliate to the Women’s International Democratic Federation. Aptheker details some fascinating differences in approach between her and Claudia Jones as the issue of intersectionality played out within the Party and Marxist theory. Later, until the mid-1950s, she edited a Party publication called Latin America Today, and it was that passionate cause and her excitement about radical and revolutionary developments south of the U.S. that inspired me to major in Latin American Studies at college. At her farm in Dutchess County, N.Y., which I visited often and helped to physically maintain with my usual stint of bushwhacking, I often leafed through her complete collection of the magazine. I deeply regret I could not accept her offer of it to me, for now, as Aptheker confirms, these are extremely rare, most issues no longer extant, so it seems.

Aptheker relies on journals Betty kept to track her depression—even a mental breakdown at one point—over the lack of a safe place to express her lesbianism, and relates many incidents of how her life overlapped with other lesbians hiding within the Party. Only late in life did the emergence of a bold, free, uncloseted lesbianism bring her the personal peace she had sought all along, and our mini-biographer tells this story beautifully.

Eleanor and Lorraine

Eleanor Flexner was a new name to me. I hadn’t tied it to her book Century of Struggle: The Woman’s Rights Movement in the United States. Flexner also wrote a biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of the 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Flexner was a scholar of the theater and also a member of the Congress of American Women. In the late 1940s she formed a lasting romantic partnership with Helen Terry, a relationship that buoyed them both through the difficult McCarthy years and later, even though they could not declare themselves publicly. She taught a course on women’s history at the Party’s Jefferson School and she, along with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, was enormously influenced by Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal book The Second Sex.

For her magnum opus, that opened up great new vistas for the whole field of women’s studies, Flexner was able in the 1950s to interview many of the surviving luminaries from the suffrage and labor movements of a century before. And although for obvious reasons she could not put it into print at the time, she learned of the strong lesbian component in earlier phases of the women’s rights movement.

“I felt an immense well of sorrow for Eleanor’s last years,” Aptheker sums up so elegiacally, “for this suffering, and for the sheer cruelty of homophobic persecutions that had shaped her life, from both within the Party and the dominant culture. Through her writings she gave so much to women and stood in such steadfast opposition to racism and class inequities, and yet she could find no way toward wholeness for herself.”

The chapter on Lorraine Hansberry, known primarily for her groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun, is nothing less than stunning, as a piece of research and writing. Her early loss at the age of 34 is still felt. Aptheker believes her most important play was Les Blancs, produced by her husband and protector Bob Nemiroff after her death. She was still in her intellectual and artistic prime when she was felled by an aggressive cancer.

“Fourteen years my senior, Lorraine Hansberry was encouraged, nurtured, and mentored by Black Communist artists and a collective of Black Communist intellectuals and activists[,] many of whom were fixtures of my childhood, though I never met Hansberry herself.” Aptheker thus sets the tone for a uniquely intimate portrait of the artist. Hansberry has become part of the American theater canon. Many high school students are familiar with her work; she has been written about extensively. But none of her biographers had plunged into the radical worlds of her Communist relationships, nor into her all but public lesbianism.

Aptheker opens those pages of her life, and it is inspiring to see how generational change had already started—not in the Party itself, but in the larger culture. Toward the end of her life her last projects featured positive lesbian and gay male characters, and she should rightfully be regarded as a forerunner in that movement.

In 1953, Hansberry was chosen to be the editor of the Labor Youth League’s magazine New Challenge, with offices at 799 Broadway. That building, now demolished, also housed other radical offices, including Labor Research Associates, headed by Grace Hutchins and Anna Rochester, and Latin America Today, edited by Millard. “Surely, I thought, they all knew each other! I could just imagine them cruising into each other’s offices for a chat. I wondered if Lorraine knew that they were all lesbians! Probably not, the closets were so deep.”


And with that, Aptheker proceeds into the post-ban generation—how the ban gradually phased out, with short pen portraits of queer Communists who have, as their predecessors never could, found a welcome home in the Party. She recaps here the story of an early gay rights activist Dale Mitchell, who long since drifted away from the Party, profiles Party member activist-writer Lowell B. Denny III, living in Hawaii, writes about Rodney Barnette and Sadie Barnette in the Bay Area, and Angela Davis, not now a Party member, whose same-gender domestic relationship has been known for years, though her focus has never been on queer liberation as such. At a 2018 museum exhibition opening of “Angela Davis OUTspoken,” at the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society in San Francisco, which featured artifacts from her long activist career, the African-American archivist “Lisbet Tellefsen said she had asked Angela how she felt about the word queer. Angela responded, ‘I am fine with queer, but I prefer anti-racist and anti-capitalist as self-identifiers.’” (This is the chapter where I am also profiled.)

Perhaps that is a fitting way for Aptheker to end the book, with an affirmation of the Communist Party’s continued existence, its ongoing role in helping to shape at least a sector of the American left and labor movement, its imperative to struggle with and overcome the sins of its past. Although plenty of LGBTQ people are comfortable in today’s CPUSA, they implicitly are of the same mind—that the main driver of history is class struggle. The main contradiction in the world is not male vs. female, nor gay vs. straight, nor between and amongst people of different nationalities, color or faith. Their eye remains fixed on the central, defining class issue, with all its ramifications on the global stage. At the same time, they, like all other oppressed groups, want to be accepted and acknowledged for the particular insight and contributions they are able to provide.

Some qualifications

My profound appreciation for Aptheker’s book does not come without some qualifications.

Publishers these days apparently don’t have enough pride in their product to hire competent copy editors. For even the most meticulous writers sometimes make mistakes. Sadly, Communists in Closets is studded throughout with typos, misspellings, grammatical flaws and other such distractions, even when citing well-known names such as Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Marie-Claude Vaillant-Couturier, Kate Millett, Kurt Weill, Hanns Eisler, Anne Frank, or New York’s Waverly Place—even the very word “feministm” (p. 6).

Shoddy fact-checking is another weak spot in the book. Aptheker refers more than once to Party offices on W. 26th St. in New York, instead of W. 23rd St., claims the famous queer resort of Provincetown is in Rhode Island (probably confusing it with Providence—or did she mean Providence?), says Ronald Reagan was already in the White House by 1980, claims that “both” Sacco and Vanzetti were “family men,” whereas Vanzetti was single and not much is clear about his sexuality, and she gets the date of their execution wrong; and she gives a wrong year for the Supreme Court decision on same-gender marriage. In her four-plus pages on Marc Blitzstein as a queer Communist, each page is riddled with mistakes. And in one and a half pages on me as one of the Party’s post-ban open queers, she garbled a number of points that she culled from a long telephone interview, including the year and city of my bar mitzvah!

Readers, and future researchers and students, rely on their sources to be factually correct. It’s a shame they have to be so wary here.

Several omissions are worthy of note as well. It shocked me that Aptheker did not cite Stuart Timmons’s magnificent biography The Trouble with Harry Hay. As for my own 605-page first biography of Marc Blitzstein, she could have mined the People’s Daily World review of that book (“Composer devoted genius to America’s workers,” Dec. 1, 1989) as a telling indication of the Party’s homophobic bias: “Less would definitely have been more; in a forest of trivia that includes items better suited to a gossip column, it’s hard to make out the trees,” wrote Pat Hickerson. “Gordon also diminishes Blitzstein by piling on details about his lovers, his wife’s death, his drinking and his own death at the hands of three sailors. These facts are no more relevant to Blitzstein’s music than the fact that Beethoven beat his servants.”

Another topic she does not raise is that of Stalin’s conservative restoration of the 1930s that pushed back into the closet the emancipatory post-Czarist reforms of the 1917 Revolution. The anti-gay laws persisted in the USSR right to the end, and I believe it is fair to speculate that if she dates the repeal of the ban in the CPUSA to 1991, the year the USSR fell, there is more than a possibility that the ban, created in 1938, was an echo of the backsliding on homosexuality in the USSR, and that its retention may well have been in reverence to the USSR, which at times provided financial support to the CPUSA. These are not, I think, idle speculations.

Left historians who revel in the anticipatory work of Harry Hay and others of his generation rarely are traveling on the same track as other, less partisan LGBTQ historians, who cite whole bodies of work in England, Germany and elsewhere that made similar points, and much earlier—that gay people were a sexual subset of the general population, with specific targeted laws and sanctions, and should be viewed as an oppressed group. The recent experience (to Hay and his generation) of the relative openness of gay life in Weimar Germany, for example, or the existence of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Institute of Sexual Research and related organizations and movements, or the organized campaign to abolish the infamous German Paragraph 175, seem, inexplicably to me, to be a blind spot. Could all of our heralded American forebears have been so ignorant of these developments?

Bettina Aptheker
Communists in Closets: Queering the History 1930s–1990s
New York: Routledge, Sept. 9, 2022
270 pp., 16 B/W illustrations
ISBN 9781032035840


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.