Communism and socialism have provided alternatives to capitalism and white supremacy to many radical American activists over several decades. But behind the scenes, the American Communist Party enforced anti-gay policies that banned gay, lesbian, and transgender members until 1991.
Bettina Abker explores this history in her new book from Routledge, Communists in Cabinets: Queering History in the 1930s-1990s. Create a Distinguished 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 Gr Up Up Red, Fight for Free Speech and Become a Feminist Rebel” (2006) and “The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis” (1976). Aftaker will be discussing “Communists in the Closets” at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Cowell Ranch Hay Barn in UCSC, a presentation by UCSC’s Institute for the Humanities and Bookshop Santa Cruz. The Sentinel recently spoke with Aptheker about growing up in communism, leaving the party and being monitored by the FBI.
Q: You write, I came out of the closet confidently in 1965 as a Communist.
A: “Everyone talks about ‘going out’ as a gay person. So, I’m using that phrase in a funny way. I came out that way because I was running for election at UC Berkeley in the wake of the free speech movement and I think if students were to vote for me, they should know That I was a member of the Communist Party. The headline in the San Francisco Examiner said, ‘Bettina admits it. She’s red!’
“I joined the Communist Party when I was 17. It never occurred to me not to join the Communist Party,” Abkar explains. I was raised in a communist family. My father (Herbert Ebtekar) was a very prominent member of the Communist Party and my mother (Faye Ebtekar) was a member of the party and a trade union organizer. For as long as I can remember social justice, peace and the fight against racism have been central issues. I believed that socialism was a means to achieve those goals. That became a problem over time, in terms of how socialism was organized in different countries. But that impulse was just who I am in the world. The Communist Party was my home, as an extension of my family.”
They will never post homosexuality
Q: “The American Communist Party outlawed lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people starting in 1938 when it described them as ‘degenerate’ and this policy continued until 1991. In the 1970s you were hired to write a book on the history of women’s party but they refused to publish it because you were a lesbian.”
A: “The book was A Woman’s Legacy, Essays on Race, Gender, and Class in American History.” The Communist Party commissioned it through its publisher, International Publishers. By the time this book was ready, I was out as a lesbian and they wouldn’t publish it. I came out as a lesbian in the late ’70s. As my partner, now a wife, Kate Miller told me, “They will never publish homosexuality.” I realized that if they were homophobic, there was no way to stay in the Communist Party. I was in it for 19 years and left in 1981,” recalls Ibker. “The book was published by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1982. My dissertation was also here in the University of California’s Department of History of Consciousness.”
Q: During that time, you and a lot of people have had to stay closed off about being gay. How did you manage that? “
A: I personally have been negotiating confidentiality. I was married to a very kind man, but I was falling in love with women. During my marriage, I had an affair with a woman in Chicago. It was discovered by the FBI, although I thought we were dealing with extreme caution. And that led to a terrifying chain of events,” recalls Innovate. I was trying to keep a secret from my husband. I was also trying to be an FBI secret, and I was trying to ditch the Communist Party. Well, that’s a lot of secrets! That’s a lot to try to navigate in it “.
“A Raisin in the Sun”
Q: Tell me about playwright Lauren Hansbury. She writes about how she came to terms with homophobia. She wrote, “Lesbianism is a social problem that can be compared to alcoholism.”
A: “Lauren Hansberry internalized homophobia and later made her way. She was a brilliant black communist playwright. She was a tremendous genius. Her most famous play is A Raisin in the Sun.” (1959) was the first play by an African American woman to perform in Broadway.She was a communist and a lesbian.And gay, a married lesbian, which is common.
When she was a teenager, Lauren’s father, Carl Hansbury, sought to purchase a home in an all-white neighborhood of Chicago and neighbors revolted in opposition. There was great violence. This area of homes had a charter that stated that homeowners would not sell their homes to black families. These vows were very common in the United States. They also often exclude Jews and other people of color. And Karl Hansbury sued, because he said the vast majority of people in the area had never signed a charter. He went all the way to the Supreme Court and won the case on very narrow grounds, that they did not sign it, rather than the Supreme Court overturning the idea of the covenants.
When the Hansberry family moved into this house, neighbors got up and someone threw a large brick through the living room window, missing Lauren’s head by an inch. She was just a child at the time. This is the basis of “A Raisin in the Sun”.
Lauren Hansbury eventually made it to Greenwich Village. She got a job at Freedom, a weekly news magazine published by Paul Robson and edited by black communist Lewis Burnham. Her life hid in a group of brilliant black intellectuals, communists, and artists including W.E.B. Du Bois and Shirley Graham Du Bois and Dorothy Burnham. She was later part of a group of black common women 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 in love,” Create told Sentinel.
“The last play Hansberry was working on was called ‘Le Blanc.’ It was about African liberation. Among the characters is a gay man who is unequivocal in his support for the liberation of Africa and is holding a gun. His brother is kind of a leader of the revolutionary group. It’s a powerful play. It was produced in 1970 by her husband Bob Nemeroff five years after her death, about a year after Stonewall. It got good reviews but none of the critics said a word about this strange African man leading this revolution! Nobody. It seems It’s as if it has been erased!”
Question: “One thing that travels through your book is the FBI’s surveillance of the Communists and hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
A: In 1941, the US Congress passed the Smith Act, making it a crime to be a member of an organization that sought to overthrow the US government. Then, in 1951, there was the McCarran Act, also known as the Homeland Security Act. This made it a crime to be a member of a whole host of organizations considered subversive, starting with the ACLU.
“There were hearings before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Not only were communists subpoenaed, but thousands of gays and lesbians were fired from their civil service jobs. The idea of “dissolution” at the heart of anti-gay attitudes in the party made it difficult I am writing about a number of people who have been indicted under the Smith Act such as Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Claudia Jones, who were active members of the Communist Party’s Women’s Committee,” said Ibker.
“The party had shown tremendous resistance to the HUAC prosecutions but at the same time, the party was all about interrogating people internally; “Have you ever had a sexual affair as a gay man or lesbian?” If you said “yes” they kicked you out. Many of them were under office watch Federal investigation, and they face interrogation by HUAC and dismissal from their jobs. It was a farce. I quote a member of the Communist Party who was asked to speak to several female comrades and asked if they had affair with other women. And if they did, she was told to ask them Leave the party. It really is a crazy date.”
phones that listen
Q: “You write, ‘I have shared a personal history of FBI surveillance, starting from my childhood. “
A: Our family has been under surveillance forever. I don’t remember a time when we weren’t. I would come home from school and call my mom who was at work. She would ask if the mail would come and I would say ‘yes’, but was instructed to say, ‘there was nothing of any consequence’. I was also instructed to never mention a name on the phone. This is because phones have been bugged. So, you’re a little kid and you get to know these things. It took me years to get over this and be able to say a name on the phone! “
Edit Angela Davis
Q: You write about Angela Davis, who studied Marxism with your father.
A: “I interviewed Angela Davis because I knew she was in a gay relationship. Since 1999, she has been in a relationship with Gina Dent. Angela says she is a person who ‘sex is change.’ It can change at different times in one’s life. She said Also, we must continually expand the meaning of freedom. This is both personal and political.” “There is no more famous figure in the communist movement than Angela Davis. She is eccentric. She says she has no problem with the word queer, but prefers to be known as an anti-racist. And an important part of our movement is for people to get to know what they want.”
Q: What is the probability of ending capitalism?
A: Are human beings motivated solely by profit and greed that capitalism fuels? Or is there another way to organize society and undermine our dependence on coal and oil? We need to envision socialism or some kind of system in which people’s welfare and the wealth of a country are distributed equally, where racism is overturned, misogyny ends, and homophobia no longer exists. All this is connected to the abolitionist movement,” says Ibtekar. “The recent trade union movement has some potential with its class consciousness, to unite with the anti-racism and reproductive freedom movements. We need that kind of movement.”
Listen to this interview with Bettina Aptheker Thursday afternoon on Transformation Highway with John Malkin on KZSC 88.1 FM/kzsc.org.