Thursday, October 4, 2007

The Black Civil Rights, Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements

LGBT Black History Month logoOn 21 August 1970, Huey Newton, co-founder and leader of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense published an article in “The Black Panther” newsletter. It was titled A Letter from Huey Newton to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements and was the first pro-gay pronouncement to come from the black civil rights movement.

Newton had founded the Black Panther Party for Self Defense with Bobby Seale in October 1966. From his law studies at college, Newton was well-versed in the California penal code and state law regarding weapons, and was thus able to persuade a number of African-Americans to exercise their legal right to openly bear arms (as concealed firearms were illegal). Black Panthers bearing rifles and shotguns began patrolling areas where the Oakland police were said to commit racially-motivated crimes against the community's black citizens. Newton and Seale were also responsible for writing the Black Panther Party Platform and Program, derived largely from Newton’s Maoist influences. Newton was instrumental in the creation of programs for the provision of a free breakfasts for children, sickle-cell disease tests, free food and free clothing.

In early 1970, at a rally in support of Panther leader Bobby Seale who had been jailed, Jim Fouratt, one of the founders of the GLF, called on radical Civil Rights activists to stop using their usual homophobic rhetoric and to confront their bias against gay people. The French writer Jean Genet was also present at this meeting and made the same objections as Fouratt's. Edmund White, Genet's biographer, claims that it was Genet's comments which prompted Newton's open letter in August 1970.

Black Panther Party logoProminent figures of the Civil Rights movement such as James Baldwin, Langston Hughes or Bayard Rustin had found themselves austracised because of their sexuality. The effects of Newton's letter, despite its historical importance and symbolic significance, were slow to come and not as momentous as could have been hoped.

A few days later, on 5 September 1970, Male and female members of the GLF attended the Panther-sponsored Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. They returned with mixed feelings about the event. The women particularly felt they had not been taken seriously. Significantly, Newton made no mention in his plenary address of either gay or women's liberation.

A Letter from Huey Newton to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements

During the past few years strong movements have developed among women and among homosexuals seeking their liberation. There has been some uncertainty about how to relate to these movements.

Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion. I say " whatever your insecurities are" because as we very well know, sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth, and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid that we might be homosexual; and we want to hit the women or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not have to start with.

We must gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people. We must not use the racist attitude that the White racists use against our people because they are Black and poor. Many times the poorest White person is the most racist because he is afraid that he might lose something, or discover something that he does not have. So you're some kind of a threat to him. This kind of psychology is in operation when we view oppressed people and we are angry with them because of their particular kind of behavior, or their particular kind of deviation from the established norm.

Remember, we have not established a revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing it. I do not remember our ever constituting any value that said that a revolutionary must say offensive things towards homosexuals, or that a revolutionary should make sure that women do not speak out about their own particular kind of oppression. As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite: we say that we recognize the women's right to be free. We have not said much about the homosexual at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppresed people in the society.

And what made them homosexual? Perhaps it's a phenomenon that I don't understand entirely. Some people say that it is the decadence of capitalism. I don't know if that is the case; I rather doubt it. But whatever the case is, we know that homosexuality is a fact that exists, and we must understand it in its purest form: that is, a person should have the freedom to use his body in whatever way he wants.

That is not endorsing things in homosexuality that we wouldn't view as revolutionary. But there is nothing to say that a homosexual cannot also be a revolutionary. And maybe I'm now injecting some of my prejudice by saying that "even a homosexual can be a revolutionary." Quite the contrary, maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.

When we have revolutionary conferences, rallies, and demonstrations, there should be full participation of the gay liberation movement and the women's liberation movement. Some groups might be more revolutionary than others. We should not use the actions of a few to say that they are all reactionary or counterrevolutionary, because they are not.

We should deal with the factions just as we deal with any other group or party that claims to be revolutionary. We should try to judge, somehow, whether they are operating in a sincere revolutionary fashion and from a really oppressed situation. (And we will grant that if they are women they are probably oppressed.) If they do things that are unrevolutionary or counterrevolutionary, then criticize that action. If we feel that the group in spirit means to be revolutionary in practice, but they make mistakes in interpretation of the revolutionary philosophy, or they do not understand the dialectics of the social forces in operation, we should criticize that and not criticize them because they are women trying to be free. And the same is true for homosexuals. We should never say a whole movement is dishonest when in fact they are trying to be honest. They are just making honest mistakes. Friends are allowed to make mistakes. The enemy is not allowed to make mistakes because his whole existence is a mistake, and we suffer from it. But the women's liberation front and gay liberation front are our friends, they are our potential allies, and we need as many allies as possible.

We should be willing to discuss the insecurities that many people have about homosexuality. When I say "insecurities," I mean the fear that they are some kind of threat to our manhood. I can understand this fear. Because of the long conditioning process which builds insecurity in the American male, homosexuality might produce certain hang-ups in us. I have hang-ups myself about male homosexuality. But on the other hand, I have no hang-up about female homosexuality. And that is a phenomenon in itself. I think it is probably because male homosexuality is a threat to me and female homosexuality is not.

We should be careful about using those terms that might turn our friends off. The terms "faggot" and "punk" should be deleted from our vocabulary, and especially we should not attach names normally designed for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people, such as Nixon or Mitchell. Homosexuals are not enemies of the people.

We should try to form a working coalition with the gay liberation and women's liberation groups. We must always handle social forces in the most appropriate manner.
See Also:
* The "Letter From Huey" by Rawley Grau - PlanetOut
* Black Gay and Lesbian Movements
in the United States

* Huey Newton on Wikipedia
* Black Panther Party on Wikipedia

* No Easy Answers: Bayard Rustin And The Civil Rights Movement, Calvin Craig Miller, Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2005

1 comment:

Paul Patrick said...

Just think what might have been - and what could be if we were able to work together, yo listen and learn, to speak honestly and to make the alliances we know are possible.