National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science, No. 34, This Week: How I Know What I Know, My Gay Pioneer Days

I was deeply involved in the early days of the modern gay liberation movement in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1969 and 1973. A graduate seminary student in Berkeley, I witnessed events in the Bay Area beginning in 1966 which lead up to and followed the Stonewall Riots in faraway New York in June 1969. Soon after earning a Masters with honors that same year, I became the co-founder of the Berkeley, Calif., chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, wrote the editorial for the first-ever edition of the Gay Sunshine newspaper, was selected by my gay colleagues to become the first-ever officially-invited gay movement representative to speak at a major anti-war rally, and became the most prolific and high-profile writer on the gay movement in the area, contributing almost weekly to the Berkeley Barb, the Berkeley Tribe, Gay Sunshine and the San Francisco Kalendar. I also did my own newspaper, The Effeminist.

I was deeply involved in the early days of the modern gay liberation movement in the San Francisco Bay Area between 1969 and 1973. A graduate seminary student in Berkeley, I witnessed events in the Bay Area beginning in 1966 which lead up to and followed the Stonewall Riots in faraway New York in June 1969.

Soon after earning a Masters with honors that same year, I became the co-founder of the Berkeley, Calif., chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, wrote the editorial for the first-ever edition of the Gay Sunshine newspaper, was selected by my gay colleagues to become the first-ever officially-invited gay movement representative to speak at a major anti-war rally, and became the most prolific and high-profile writer on the gay movement in the area, contributing almost weekly to the Berkeley Barb, the Berkeley Tribe, Gay Sunshine and the San Francisco Kalendar. I also did my own newspaper, The Effeminist.

I knew and interacted with all the Bay Area region’s gay activists of that turbulent era, including Larry Littlejohn, Phyllis Lyon, Del Martin, Konstantin Berlandt, Leo Lawrence, Gary Alinder, Carl Whitman, Mike Silverstein, Michael Itkin, Winston Leyland, Smedley Ambler, Jim “Elijah” Rankin, Don Jackson, Rick Stokes, Ray Broshears, Jim Kepner, Allen Ginsberg, Jim Foster, Harvey Milk (somewhat later) and many more. The same went for non-gay allies like Max Scherer, Willie Brown and Cecil Williams.

I brought to my efforts a unique vantage point as a graduate seminarian, steeped in the study of social, moral and philosophical currents historically and of those days. One of my first major gay writings was a tract entitled, God and My Gay Soul (1970).

Among other things, my perspective enabled me to identify divergent social forces of that era. There were three, each with a radically different view of morality:

First, the raw right-wing “military industrial complex” establishment reactionaries, who defined morality as obedience to the status quo as they defined it, a white male dominated paradigm which included the systematic suppression of women and minorities, including gays.

Second, an increasingly muscular and effective student-racial minority-feminist-labor movement inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King with enormous contributions from gay giants Eleanor Roosevelt and Tennessee Williams. I identified strongly with that. For it, morality was associated with social and economic justice and fairness. Riding this current in the 1960s was the early gay movement, led by pioneers like my current friends Frank Kameny, Lilli Vincenz and Nancy Davis.

Third, a “third way” which, as it later was revealed in Congressional investigations, was a covert flank of the right-wing establishment, posed as a radical, hedonistic “drugs, sex and rock-and-roll” counterculture. It was disguised to infiltrate and misguide the progressive movement, and it had a particularly profound impact on gay liberation efforts. The morality of that current was “anti-morality.” Anything that imposed itself as a burden of responsibility or obligation to others was seen as the enemy of unbridled pleasure-seeking.

That “third way” soon swept over the gay movement like a tsunami, dominating the 1970s as major urban centers became like cesspools for indiscriminate sex, spreading venereal disease and creating a context for the spread of the HIV virus beginning in the mid-1970s.

In particular, students coming back to their colleges and universities in the fall of 1971 seemed to have been overtaken by this trend that summer, with everybody suddenly deciding to be gay whether they actually were or not, and frequent, indiscriminate sex becoming the norm, not the exception.

By 1973, all this drove me out of the gay movement. As one of the highest-profile champions of the cause in the region, I “resigned,” so to speak, in an article entitled, Homosexuality Vs. Socialism, contending that the gay movement had come under the sway of such mindless hedonism and commodity-modeled exploitation of human flesh that I would follow a socialist path, as best I could, instead.

My parting shot was a tract I wrote, still available on Amazon, entitled, Sexism, Racism and White Faggots in Sodomist Amerika (1972). Re-reading a copy recently, I was surprised how, though matured through on-going study and insights, my views remain much the same after all this time, even if my language now is less radical and angry.

Still, my work came years before Larry Kramer’s prophetic Faggots (1978) and the beginning realization of the AIDS epidemic (1981).

To this day, the “third way” current continues to heavily influence the gay movement, including through the influences of Ayn Rand, Michel Foucault, the Koch Brothers’ Cato Institute and the radical libertarians of the Tea Party, and more.

As for myself, upon taking up a socialist cause in 1974 – as ineffectual and misguided in its own way as it may have been – I was abruptly written out of the gay movement and its history. By 1974, a second edition of the Ramparts Press’ Gay Liberation Book had removed all three of my articles (I had more than any other contributor in the first edition).

(To be continued).