Dangerous Liaisons

An important new book chronicles the long and intimate relationship between queerness and socialist politics.

Review of Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture by Aaron Lecklider (University of California Press, 2021).

In his second inaugural address, President Barack Obama appealed to our forebears from “Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall” as leading characters in a liberal version of American exceptionalist pageantry. Readers of this publication are no doubt familiar with how the popular image of Dr. King has reduced him to a kumbaya-droning cartoon, and how the black freedom struggle has been emptied of its radicalism. The same thing happened to the feminist struggle, and now it is happening to struggle for gay and queer rights. The price we pay for a select few blacks, women, and queers to ascend and assimilate into the U.S. ruling class means that communal skeletons have to be kept in the closet lest people become reminded of the radicals, revolutionaries, and outcasts that actually kept that rainbow-colored flame burning all these decades.

Aaron Lecklider’s book Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture is a superb reminder of this history. Other scholars have written about the subversive radicalism that was actually at the heart of the Stonewall uprising and the struggle against A.I.D.S. before marriage equality swooped into the spotlight and set the agenda for the L.G.B.T. establishment. Lecklider reminds us that decades before Stonewall, radical left-wing politics and queerness intersected even then back when cross-dressing, two men dancing, and “sodomy” itself was against the law. For many Communists, socialists, anarchists, and others between 1920 and 1960, their queerness and their politics mutually reinforced each other.

Lecklider’s book concerns itself with how struggles against censorship laws and other puritanical measures not only brought sexual and political dissidence in conversation with one another. It also details how this process gave rise to a sexual culture and literature on the left, and challenges the long-held assumption that the pre-Cold War “Old Left” was opposed to homosexuality. Other left-wing scholars have critiqued these assumptions, but none have been able to undergird their contentions with the wealth of primary sources that Lecklider has fortunately uncovered in the archives. In doing so, his research reinforces the contention that the pendulum of left-wing sex politics swung from a generally more libertine position to something more repressive because of the influence of Stalinism. In her 2009 book Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics, and Theory of L.G.B.T. Liberation, Sherry Wolf takes the authoritarian legacies of Stalin and Mao to task, arguing that “the genuine Marxist tradition has stood squarely in favor of sexual liberation” even as “most states claiming the socialist moniker in the twentieth century have failed to deliver any real alternative to the sexual repression of capitalist societies.” Peter Drucker takes a like-minded position in his 2015 book Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism, where he argues that “Early Communism, at least for a time, was appealing for many sexual radicals.” The Bolsheviks decriminalized sodomy and denounced legalized homophobia as a czarist-era holdover. However, there still existed undercurrents of anti-gay prejudice in Soviet society, which culminated in the recriminalization of sodomy in 1933.

Time and again, Lecklider details just how interconnected gays, lesbians, and political radicals were in twentieth century workplaces. He elucidates the idea of the workplace being a “sexed environment,” be that workplace the homosocial world of the maritime industries or on the dimmed streets of a red-light district. Lecklider considers the relative queerness of certain occupations, writing, “the association of tailors and clothiers, like poets, professors, and actors, with homosexuality was deeply engrained in American culture.” He quotes the socialist sexologist Havelock Ellis, who once said that queerness “is more frequent among literary and artistic people, and in the dramatic profession it is often found. It is also specially common among hairdressers, waiters, and waitresses.” Alfred Kinsey’s more renowned studies of sexuality reached similar conclusions regarding the prevalence of homosexuality among America’s lower classes, grounded in the fact that “sex was a vehicle for class mobility.”

Such a convergence of economic roles with sexual practices was particularly evident in the prevalence of gay sex work, which according to Lecklider shaped “the sexual geography of urban spaces” and “long attracted the attention of vice agents.” But sex work was far from the only occupation coded as queer. As Lecklider makes clear in his assessment of the Marine Cooks and Stewards Association of the Pacific (MCS), the “‘feminine’” nature of the occupations gay seamen were assigned to in these “cramped sleeping quarters and pockets of privacy at sea…faciliated erotic intimacies” and provided queer men with an added dimension of visibility, giving birth to still-current terms like “cruising.” He also notes the queerness of entertainment workplaces like speakeasies, which were often targeted by vice squads “in part because their mode of nightlife was perceived as too close to sex work” and other salacious illegalities.

While Lecklider correctly notes these connections, he tends not to analyze how and why certain occupations or workplaces became so identified with queerness in the first place. The idea that certain occupations and workplaces are more queer than others is largely left untheorized in the book. Nevertheless, Lecklider does provide a wealth of evidence on the racial politics and diversity of unions like the MCS. In doing so, he also contextualizes how the increasingly radical and Communist-influenced politics of San Francisco’s growing African-American community, disproportionately poorer and proletarianized, converged with the wider, majority-white left as well as sexual dissidence. He quotes an MCS worker who poignantly exclaims, “If you were in the Marine Cooks and Stewards, you were automatically gay. So fuck you!―we didn’t pay any attention to that.”

Some of the most riveting parts of the book consider the Popular Front and the swashbuckling, sexually dissident members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, American volunteers who went to Spain to fight in the civil war. According to Lecklider, the turn to the Popular Front “replaced revolutionary calls to overthrow capitalism and decolonize the Black Belt with gentler forms of coalition building” alongside liberals and even centrists in a common fight against fascism. In his view, it was this adoption of “radical inclusivity” that “opened the Left to a form of democratic pluralism that could be instrumentalized to foreground homosexuals as part of America’s national fabric.” In 1934, Communist sympathizer Edward Dahlberg published Those Who Perish, a novel full of sexually dissident straight and gay characters working in a Jewish community center in New Jersey, earning him the status of being “the first writer to publish a novel concerning the rise of the Third Reich.” Dahlberg himself was arrested by the Nazi S.S. during a 1933 visit to Germany, an experience that sparked the idea for the novel. The gay Spanish poet Federico García Lorca, murdered by fascists at the outbreak of the civil war in 1936, was particularly cherished by U..S. gay and black literati like Langston Hughes and Allen Ginsburg. Ginsberg wrote in his poem “Death to Van Gogh’s Ear!”, “Franco murdered Lorca the fairy son of Whitman,” thereby connecting radical queer and left-wing politics across both space and time. Lecklider uncovers a wealth of evidence of gay and bisexual men amongst the ranks of the anti-fascist Spanish Republicans. One of them was an American simply named “Donald H.,” who delayed marriage to a woman back home by joining the Spanish Republican army while travelling in Europe, which “allowed him to experience the same-sex intimacy that fonfimed his burgeoning bisexuality.” Another example is the “Dolly Sisters,” David Gillis Kelly and Jack Mail, Young Communists and Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers who “were rarely found away from each other’s company.” After their service in Spain they opened a floral shop together on Madison Avenue in Manhattan.

The domestic politics of the Cold War targeted the Left and queers alike. McCarthyism’s twin was the less well-known but equally destructive “Lavender Scare.” Anti-Communism and state-sponsored homophobia were intimately linked after the war. The 1952 McCarran-Walter Act, for example, excluded immigrants from naturalization or citizenship if they were found to be gay or Communist. In the midst of this repressive miasma “homophile” groups such as ONE, Inc. drifted towards the political center, so much so that by 1959 they assured prospective members that they were “‘not an underground conspiracy to overthrow the government,” and were “in no way connected with communism.’” After the presumed lovers William Martin and Bernon Mitchell fled to the Soviet Union in 1960, ONE, Inc. editors declared that “Communism and homosexuality are contradictory and inimical.”

This was a far cry from the politics envisioned by pioneering gay activists at the beginning of the decade like Harry Hay. In 1948, Hay started Bachelors for Wallce after attending a pro-Henry Wallace event that was apparently disproportionately attended by gays. Hay’s group “established a blueprint for building the homophile movement, which kicked into high gear with the formation of groups such as Mattachine; ONE, Inc; and the Knights of the Clock–all founded over a span of three years.” The Mattachine Society, which began as a discussion group of gay men with personal histories in the Communist Party, cast homosexuals as a social minority in solidarity with minorites, offering solidarity to blacks, Chicanos, and Jews, but in a way that implicitly constructed homosexuals as a white minority. To their credit, however, Mattachine also protested against the 1950 arrest, shooting, and beating of five Mexican-American boys in the Echo Park section of Los Angeles, which was long considered to be “a hotbed of Communist and homosexual activity.” Other organizations like Knights of the Clock, founded around 1950 by Merton Bird and W. Dorr Legg, were “addressed primarily to interracial homosexual couples, both male and female. The organization would hope to be of assistance in finding housing for such couples, not at that time an easy thing to do; finding employment and other more generalized kinds of assistance.” Lecklider makes clear that the 1950s marked a turning point as homophile organizations and publications such as ONE, Inc. drifted from past histories of trailblazing, proletarian queers who were also deeply committed to radical socialist politics to a politics “overly invested in normativity and whiteness.”

It is evident throughout Love’s Next Meeting just how much archival scouring it took to produce this work of over three-hundred pages. Any historian of queer sexualities and identities can tell you how hard it is to find records of queer people in the past, especially in the pre-Stonewall and A.I.D.S. days. We don’t leave behind children as evidence of our love-making. Letters, diaries, and other relevant records are often burned or silenced away in attics and basements by bigoted relatives after our deaths, desperate to avoid the stigma of being the blood-kin of deviants who sinfully practiced “the love that dare not speak its name.” Such things as a heart-wrenching love letter to a G.I. you served with in Europe would be turned to ashes the day before one’s straight-and-narrow wedding. Internalizing shame for decades compelled many to commit such acts of psychic self-mutilation, tragically. So queer scholars don’t have access to many of the traditional sources that others in the academy would typically have access to.

Considering the fact that the American government in the Cold War period viewed queers as traitorous sex perverts undermining the fight against Communism, it makes sense that queer leftists in particular wouldn’t leave behind a record of their lives, which would risk damaging the reputations and livelihoods of themselves or surviving loved ones. Queer people then and now don’t have the luxury of learning about our cultural lineages and traditions from our elders and parents, from our teachers, let alone Sunday school. Gays, lesbians, and transgender people more often than not have to actively seek out communities from whom we can learn to be queer. Such community-building has become much easier with the decriminalization of sodomy and legalization of same-sex marriage in this century, despite the ravages H.I.V./A.I.D.S. wrought on the gay community in the 1980s and 1990s, when tens of thousands of gay men perished. As the British Academy’s Dr. Dana Rosenfeld’s research found, “​​In the U.S.A., by 1995, one gay man in nine had been diagnosed with A.I.D.S., one in fifteen had died, and 10% of the 1,600,000 men aged 25-44 who identified as gay had died  – a literal decimation of this cohort of gay men born 1951-1970.” Long-lost memories of lesbian Communist labor activists and gay couples fighting Franco have been rescued by the valiant efforts Aaron Lecklider put into this book. Future generations of young queer socialists, their friends and their lovers, will have him to stan.