Book sheds light on history of queer revolutionaries amid anti-communism and homophobia – Santa Cruz Sentinel

Communism and socialism offered alternatives to capitalism and white supremacy for many radical American activists for several decades. But behind the scenes, the Communist Party of America enforced homophobic policies that banned gay, lesbian and transgender members until 1991.

Bettina Aptheker

Bettina Aptheker explores this history in her new book by Routledge, “Communists in Closets: Queering the History 1930s – 1990s”. Aptheker is Emeritus Professor Emeritus in the Department of Women’s Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is also the author of “Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became a Feminist Rebel” (2006) and “The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis” (1976). Aptheker will discuss “Communists in Closets” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at UCSC’s Cowell Ranch Hay Barn, a presentation by UCSC’s Institute of Humanities and Santa Cruz Bookstore. The Sentinel recently spoke with Aptheker about his communist childhood, his departure from the Party and his surveillance by the FBI.

It’s a Red!

Q: “You write, ‘I came out of the closet confidently in 1965 as a communist.'”

A: “Everyone talks about ‘coming out’ as a queer person. So I use this phrase in a fun way. I came out this way because I was running for office at UC Berkeley as a result of the Free Speech Movement and I thought if the students were going to vote for me they should know I was a member of the Communist Party. The headline of the San Francisco Examiner read: “Bettina admits it. It’s a Red!

“I joined the Communist Party when I was 17. It never occurred to me not to join the Communist Party,” Aptheker recalls. “I was brought up in a communist family; my father (Herbert Aptheker) was a very prominent Communist Party member, my mother (Fay Aptheker) was a Party member and labor organizer. As far back as I can remember, social justice, peace and anti-racism were central issues. I believed that socialism was a means to achieve these goals. This has become problematic over time, in terms of the organization of socialism in various countries. But that motivation was just who I was in the world. And the Communist Party was my home, like an extension of my family.

They will never post a lesbian

Q: “The Communist Party of America banned lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people beginning in 1938 when it called them ‘degenerates’ and this policy persisted until 1991. In the 1970s, you was hired to write a book on women’s history for the Party but they refused to publish it because you were a lesbian.

A: “The book was ‘The Legacy of Woman, Essays on Race, Gender, and Class in American History.’ The Communist Party commissioned it through its publisher, International Publishers. At the when this book was ready I was a lesbian and they wouldn’t publish it. I became a lesbian in the late 70s. Like my partner, now wife, Kate Miller said to me, ‘They will never publish a lesbian.’ I realized that if they’re so homophobic, there’s no way to stay in the Communist Party. I was there for 19 years and left in 1981,” Aptheker recalls. book was published by University of Massachusetts Press in 1982. It was also my thesis here in the Department of History of Consciousness at UCSC.”

Q: “During this time, you and many people had to keep being queer a secret. How did you handle this?

A: “Personally, I was negotiating secrecy. I was married to a very good man, but I fell in love with women. During my marriage, I had an affair with a woman in Chicago. The FBI found out, although I thought we were being very discreet. And that led to a series of terrifying events,” Aptheker recalled. “I was trying to hide a secret from my husband. I was also trying to be secret from the FBI, and I was trying to be secret from the Communist Party. Well, that’s a lot of secrets! It’s a lot to try to navigate.

“A Raisin in the Sun”

Q: “Tell me about playwright Lorraine Hansberry. You write about how she internalized homophobia. She wrote, “Lesbianism is a social problem comparable to alcoholism.”

A: “Lorraine Hansberry had internalized homophobia and then got away with it. She was a remarkable black and communist playwright. She was a tremendous genius. His most famous piece is “A Raisin in the Sun”. (1959) This was the first play by an African-American woman performed on Broadway. She was a communist and a lesbian. And, like me, a married lesbian, which is not uncommon.

“When she was a teenager, Lorraine’s father, Carl Hansberry, sought to buy a house in an all-white neighborhood of Chicago and the neighbors objected. There was considerable violence. This area of ​​houses had a covenant that stipulated that the owners would not sell their houses to black families. These alliances were very common in the United States. They also often excluded Jews and other people of color. And Carl Hansberry went on, because he said the vast majority of people in the area had never signed a pact. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and he won the case on very narrow grounds that they didn’t sign it, rather the Supreme Court overturned the idea of ​​covenants.

When the Hansberry family moved into this house, the neighbors got up and someone threw a large brick through the living room window, missing Lorraine’s head by inches. She was just a child at the time. This is the basis of ‘Raisin in the Sun’.

“Lorraine Hansberry has finally arrived in Greenwich Village. She got a job at Freedom, a weekly news paper published by Paul Robeson and edited by a black communist, Louis Burnham. Her life was spent among a cohort of brilliant black and communist intellectuals and artists, including WEB Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois and Dorothy Burnham. Later, she was part of a black communist women’s group called Sojourners for Truth and Justice. Towards the end of her life, she fell in love with a woman named Dorothy Secules and they were lovers,” Aptheker told the Sentinel.

“The last piece Hansberry worked on was called ‘Le Blanc’. It was about the liberation of Africa. One of the characters is a homosexual who unequivocally supports the liberation of Africa and takes up arms. His brother is in a way the leader of the revolutionary group. It’s a powerful game. It was produced in 1970 by her husband Bob Nemiroff five years after his death, about a year after Stonewall. It received good reviews but none of the critics said a word about this queer African man leading this revolution! Nobody. It’s as if it had been erased!

Anti-American House

Q: “One thing that emerges from your book is the FBI surveillance of Communists and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.”

A: “In 1941, the United States Congress passed the Smith Act, making it a crime to be a member of an organization that sought to overthrow the United States government. Then, in 1951, there was the McCarran Act, also known as the Homeland Security Act. It was therefore a crime to be a member of a whole range of organizations deemed subversive, starting with the ACLU.

“There were hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Not only were communists called in, but gays and lesbians were fired by the thousands from their public service jobs. This idea of ​​“degeneracy” at the heart of the party’s homophobic attitudes made it very difficult for people. I write about a number of people who were charged under the Smith Act, such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Claudia Jones, who were active members of the Communist Party’s Women’s Commission,” Aptheker said.

“The Party put up huge resistance to these HUAC lawsuits, but at the same time, the Party was also interrogating people internally; “Have you ever had a sexual affair as a gay or a lesbian? If you answered “yes”, they expelled you. Many were under FBI surveillance, facing interrogation by HUAC and fired from their jobs. It was a parody. I quote a member of the Communist Party who was asked to speak to various female comrades and ask them if they were having lesbian affairs with other women. And if they did, he was told to ask them to leave the party. It really is a crazy story.

Telephones tapped

Q: “You write: ‘I have shared the personal history of FBI surveillance, since my childhood.'”

A: “Our family has been under surveillance forever. I can’t remember a time when we weren’t. I came home from school and called my mother, who was at work. She asked if the mail had arrived and I answered “yes”, but I was asked to say “there was nothing important”. I was also told never to mention a name on the phone. It’s because the phones were tapped. So you are a little child and you are learning these things. It took me years to get over that and be able to say a name over the phone!

Free Angela Davis

Q: “You write about Angela Davis, who studied Marxism with your father.”

A: “I did an interview with Angela Davis because I knew she was in a lesbian relationship. Since 1999 she has been in a relationship with Gina Dent. Angela says she is someone for whom “sexuality is a change. It can change at different times in life. She also said that we must constantly expand the sense of freedom. There is no figure more emblematic of the communist movement than Angela Davis. And she’s weird. She says she has no problem with the word queer, but prefers to be known as an anti-racist abolitionist. And an important part of our movement is that people can identify how they want.

Q: “What is the potential for ending capitalism?”

A: “Are human beings only propelled by the profit and greed that capitalism feeds? Or is there another way to organize society and undermine our dependence on coal and oil? We need to visualize socialism or some kind of system where people’s well-being and a country’s wealth are distributed fairly, where racism is overthrown, misogyny is over, homophobia no longer exists. This all ties into the prison abolition movement,” Aptheker says. “The recent labor movement has some potential with its class consciousness to combine with movements for anti-racism and reproductive freedom. We need this kind of movement.

Listen to this interview with Bettina Aptheker Thursday noon on Transformation Highway with John Malkin on KZSC 88.1 FM / kzsc.org.

Thelma J. Longworth