Morris Kight, Los Angeles, September 22, 1976, and October 2, 1976
Introduction: Morris Kight was a key person in the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front and in the Gay Community Services Center which grew from it and became a key community institution. In the interview he talks a bit about his background, and then discusses his involvement in the antiwar movement of the 1960s, his awareness of the homophile movement, and then his involvement in and the work of GLF. Kight describes the conflicts that erupted between homophile and gay liberation activists, and the decline first of the homophile movement and then of the Los Angeles GLF.
Conversation, not taped:
The conversation was my first with Kight, held at the Gay Community Services Center. It was exploratory in nature with my asking mainly if he would agree to a long, wide-ranging taped interview and getting from him other names of people to interview. Kight also has a propensity to talk, however, and this is the substance of what he said (direct quotes are noted), written up the same afternoon as the conversation:
Though Kight was in contact with the homophile movement in LA during the late 1950s and 1960s, he didn’t join because of basic disagreement with the movement’s goals. According to Kight, the movement was composed almost exclusively of middle and upper middle class whites who were “preoccupied with respectability rather than with achieving respect.” Those involved were mostly “bourgeois, pretentious types” who were “preoccupied with ersatz culture, with bourgeois arts and culture.” Kight did say that despite this disagreement, he did admire them. At least they had a fixed address, were known, did provide help to some people, and that was important.
Kight was a student at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Even back then [1940s?], gay people had a way of finding each other. In the 1950s Kight was involved with folk arts and culture and met many gay people in that way.
He came to LA in 1957 and lived in the Bunker Hill area which was close to the area of ghettoized gays; in 1959 he moved to Westlake Park which was also a gay area. By this time Kight was spending almost all of his time among gays, helping individuals in need, homeless people, those desperate for assistance of any sort. Kight built up a large list of resource people—doctors, lawyers, etc.—whom he contacted to help gays. Kight mentioned parenthetically that he didn’t want to overstate what he was doing then or make it sound earth-shattering.
By the mid 60s, Kight put his gay involvement on the shelf for a while, as he became “distracted” by the Vietnam War. His motive for involvement in the anti-war movement was his “personal moral revulsion to killing.” Kight talked proudly of his commitment to pacifism. Gandhian non-violence (Kight used the word “ahimsa”) profoundly affected him and he added that he was glad that the gay movement had been founded and led by pacifists.
Kight was very active in the Dow Action Committee in LA and from the way he talked, sounded as if he were a founder or at least prime mover on the committee. He brought into it a lot of gay people, claims that the committee was perhaps half gay and said that in many ways it was something of a pre-gay-liberation gay group. He said that a lot of consciousness-raising went on around gay issues on the committee.
Kight was a prime mover of GLF-LA. Though it wasn't the only or even the first GLF (he said it was the fifth, after New York, San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose), Kight described it as unique because from the start there was “built into it social concerns.” By that Kight meant social services for gay people in need. The resource list of people which Kight had been haphazardly building up was now systematized and used via the Gay Survival Committee of GLF-LA. Kight described this as the “prototype” of the Gay Community Services Center.
1940s and 50s—involved in folk arts and theater in Northern New Mexico. Moved to LA in 1958. Association with gay people had been constantly increasing. Decided to “revamp my own personal agenda…should spend more and more time concerned about my own gayness.”
Was staging art exhibits, producing shows, bringing in theatrical companies. Summerhouse Theatre (New Mexico Folk Theatre). Knew there were gay organizations in LA - Mattachine and ONE. Many who came from LA for summer theatre were gay, informed him of what was happening in LA.
Lived in Bunker Hill section of LA—gay section. Bought and sold antiques.
Didn't work with gay organizations: “I didn't feel comfortable about their basic goals and philosophy… I felt they were more interested in respectability than in respect, that there was a good deal of attention to jackets and ties, jackets for the man, skirts for the women; that the goal of respectability was something that I just didn’t identify with... I also didn't feel too comfortable with what I call bourgeois pretense.”
Kight individually helped people get out of jail, find housing, provide assistance with food and clothing, and with just listening. Very few were doing this. Soon lots of people knew Kight; phone number was widely circulated, often receiving calls for help.
Did feel the work of Mattachine and ONE was important—they were a “valuable resource”—but not Kight’s approach. Describes his work as “underground gay liberation.” Little awareness of the homophile movement among the gay people he helped.
Claims he made his first antiwar speech in 1962. “Horror and revulsion” against the war. He and gay friends get involved in antiwar movement. He had had a long association with pacifism. “It comes from my gayness.”
(Proctor, Texas—born Nov 1919—dirt roads, no electricity)
“A stranger in my own home, a visitor in the village, not part of it… always alienated.”
1936: first read Gandhi—ahimsa and satyagraha—got very involved in it. “Any form of killing is revulsive to me.”
Dow Action Committee:
Kight in Washington DC October 21, 1967 for national mobilization—Member of Southern California Mobilization Committee Against War in Vietnam—on steering committee. Dow Committee organized soon after that by Kight and others. Many of his gay friends involved. “a pre-gay-liberation kind of gay liberationist organization.” Supported the goals of the Committee to Fight Exclusion…
Spoke at Society for Individual Rights in San Francisco, May ’67—talked about many of the movements going on—antiwar, hippies, etc. Many were “horrified… I believe I got no converts.”
“I was beginning to build up some resentment against the antiwar movement in that it had revealed a civilized kind of but surely oppressive homophobia… the Dow Action Committee… had an exceedingly difficult time carving out a rightful place for itself in the national coalition of antiwar activists because people were saying ‘after all, you know the DAC is filled with those kinds of people… that meant gays.”
E.g., reported to Kight that Socialist Workers Party people would not let him appear in any public way.
Kight says that DAC received really good media coverage.
Involvement in gay movement: “I didn't think that concern for gay people was going to come so much from the movement, the antiwar movement, the social change movements…”
November 15, 1969—massive antiwar demonstration in San Francisco.
“The gay people were an enormous contingent and they were dancing in the streets… linking arms and dancing…”
Claims he was one of the speakers on the platform.
Senator Wayne Morse was lead speaker—spoke against the Vietcong flags in the crowd.
“I looked down and there were lots of gay people terribly proud that I was a speaker because, you know, it had never happened before and they were waving, they identified with that, they were all around the platform... and I said no more, that's it, I must go home.” Leaves platform and rushes back to LA. Decides to resign from Dow Action and work on gay concerns.
Don Jackson—“for fear that I didn't mean it he went out and called the Los Angeles Free Press… and had us put in the calendar for an organizing meeting... So we brought together a meeting of 16 people and what a meeting it was.” December 12 1969: voted to call it GLF; to be radical in its stance, participatory, unstructured.
Kight, before this, had been in touch with the new gay militants in LA and the Bay Area. Mentions PRIDE, Mike Kinghorn, Jim Kepner, Dick Michaels — “what they were doing was gay liberationist.” Mentions Black Cat demonstration—“a very thrilling demonstration which was enormously exciting.”
Committee on Homosexual Freedom in San Francisco in April 1969—“their documents were exciting.” “While it didn't last very long, it had a powerful influence upon the psyche of gay people in California, really powerful because it was the subject of much discussion.” Knew Leo Laurence, was in touch, stayed with Kight when he was in LA.
Claims a friend called him from New York the second night of Stonewall.
Early GLF-LA: Jackson, Ralph Schaffer (now dead), Stu Szikak (?), Betsy Shomler (?).
First three meetings “very despairing because almost everyone was brand new to radicalism.” People thought Kight was “some kind of flaming communist.” Each meeting larger and larger.
“So many people came from so many different places that there was no esprit de corps... So I came to the next meeting” proposing action, a dance and a demonstration against Barney’s Beanery—“Faggots Stay Out” sign.
“If there's anything you must do to hold people’s attention, it’s do something. Do something – even if it’s wrong, or contradictory, or controversial, do it.”
Demonstration—mid January 1970 — “people were frightened out of their wits” – only Dow Action Committee people had experience in demonstrations. DAC people important for a time, but GLF grew very fast, soon only a small percentage.
GLF: “Its foremost radicalism was its own definition of radical. No people can liberate themselves unless they engage in radical action because unless you find the root cause of your oppression you can't get at it… in our case it was important to go back and so meetings were definitions of the root: the church, the state, the mental health industry, the schools and universities, the law, the police. As we engaged in debate and discussion …we got closer and closer to what we thought were the roots – the emergence of the nation state and the emergence of the nuclear family and so then we went after those.”
Lots and lots of debate. Demonstrated in front of Blessed Sacrament Church, Catholic. “It was a radical organization, enormously radical”.
Claims there was almost no divisiveness in GLF after early meetings—welded together.
Describes the nature of the unity as “existential”—no one could believe the church, the mental health industry. “That enormous therapy that gay liberation was, that exciting therapy, that was going on internally.”
Barney's Beanery: “an enormous victory of precious little significance.”
Other GLF actions: claims 65 street actions in first six months. Picketed lots of different churches – Congregational, Episcopal, synagogues. French consul; Spanish consulate.
Meetings of professionals—psychiatrists at Baltimore hotel; behavior modification—Dr. Feldman. Did research on him. Describes the demonstration:
Dispersed throughout the room. When first slide of gay person appears, Steve Morrison and Kight jump up—“This shit has got to stop.” 60 march onto the stage, seize microphone, turn up light—“This meeting has been reordered. We will not talk about genocide…and behavior modification. We will talk about gay liberation. So we invite you to stay.” 200 police outside. Wire services tipped off by GLF and were there. Kight challenges the psychiatrists to arrest them.
GLF-LA relationship to MCC and Troy Perry: “an absolutely splendid relationship.” Even though Perry was pro-war, Kight had known Perry, was on friendly terms with him. Worked together on demonstrations—candlelight march down Hollywood Blvd.—worked as equals.
Kight claimed he conceptualized Christopher Street West, 1970, and immediately brought it to Perry – two organizations were primarily responsible - “a meld of GLF and the church”
“it was a mutually supportive relationship in general which worked to our everlasting benefit.”
CSW, 1970 (Christopher Street West)—a "ceremony,” needed by oppressed people.
Heard in a form letter in May ’70 about plans for New York Christopher Street Parade.
Kight and Perry work together planning and organizing. Had 44 days to do all the planning. LA regulation requiring 40 day notice for parade permit. Calls GLF meeting, gets approval. Also support of other activists. “a genuine coalition… meetings were enormous.”
“A mere handful of women involved in the Gay Liberation Front… their needs were not being spoken to.” Daughters of Bilitis growing rapidly—had a storefront on S. Vermont Avenue.
An all-women’s demonstration against the “daddy tank” in Sybil Brand Institute—lesbian unit in women’s prison.
North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, August 1970: good deal of discussion about whether to go or support it. Decided that Kight should go, attempt to be peacemaker between right and left. NACHO did not consult with GLF about planning of the conference.
By the time Kight got to San Francisco, it had been decided to make a token gesture to GLF—Kight invited to be first speaker, though not listed in the program. Kight gave a conciliatory speech—“I tried not to offend… and indicate a real lot of love and to talk about that something was changing and changing very fast and that those who could feel comfortable with that change might enjoy it.” Received a long standing ovation.
“I made a mistake in connection with that talk that morning. I should have been more honest.” Should have told them what was really happening, should have told them to suspend their agenda, invite GLF in, have an open conversation, but didn’t. Kight couldn’t stay for rest of conference—claims he had to go back to LA for a suit against LAPD—and wasn’t there for disruption of conference by radicals.
Kight seems to think that the GLF/NACHO split could have been resolved if there had been touchy/feely: “They could even at the second day have brought amity by saying ‘Halt. Stop it. Nobody else is going to make any speeches. We’re going to get in touch. We’re all going to just sit and feel one another. We’re going to cuddle one another. We’re just going to be gay, we’re not even going to do anything, we’re going to know, and if they had only done that, things could still have been brought off.”
NACHO officials decide to call police. That act killed off NACHO. Names of those who decided were known—their stature forever diminished, except for one.
Collapse of GLF: “The real reason why Gay Liberation Front of Los Angeles passed was because it passed its usefulness.”
January 1971 meeting of GLF, attended largely by “principals,” who at the time were Tony de Rosa, Stanley Williams, Steve Morrison, Howard Fox, Bill Beasley, Brenda Weathers, Don Kilhefner, John Platania. “I said, ‘I think we’ve passed our usefulness and I think we ought to start giving a lot of thought to whether we should disband or not.’… Pandemonium broke loose.”
By June 1971, GLF-LA had indeed passed its usefulness and was “immobilized.”
WHY: “Gay liberation had started out to achieve certain things and one of them was to define the root cause of oppression, and we were absolutely convinced that by that time gay liberation had defined that. We had found the institutions for the maintenance of that oppression and thought we had identified the source of it which we believed was the rise of the nation state, nationalism and the reverence for the nuclear family. Now if we had found the source of gay oppression then you don’t need to redefine that over and over and over. You simply need to commence to cure the manifestations of that.”
Lots—millions—of gays really believed they were sick and inferior:
“Gay liberation had found that wasn’t true, that that was a lie. And so there had been mass therapy… GLF-LA was so much media-conscious, constantly media, media, media, media, and that was done not because we were passionate ego-maniacs but because we felt that one moved many.”—i.e., that one demonstration covered by TV affects many gays.
“GLF-LA had an unusual component in it which I believe no other GLF in the whole country had, of direct personal services on a one-to-one basis to lesbians and gay men—non-judgmental, non-threatening and non-exclusionary. And that service was never very showy... [But] as the services component of GLF grew, it became the operative.”
When GLF dissolved, the services continued—Gay Community Services Center the “inheritor” of GLF—an entirely new entity, but does grow from it—it became the place where many GLF people went. Others went into the church. Some tried to get GLF off the ground again. Others pursued their new evolved gay lib identity. “When it passed its usefulness, it passed its usefulness. I do not mourn it; I think it was proper.”
Why Kight moved over to GCSC from GLF:
“It fitted a whole lot of my own personal philosophy”—anarcho syndicalist. “I felt that the Gay Community Services Center was a representation of anarcho syndicalism… It really could be called The Order of St. Matthew 25… It’s nonviolent in its stance… I identified totally with the notion of the creation of the Gay Community Services Center.”
Believes he serves the function of “peacemaker” at the center—“I think I’m needed.”
“I have been a kind of an ideologue, an inventor of new dreams and new fantasies, and then able to go and dot the ‘i's and cross the t’s to cause that to happen... I have all my life been a founder over and over and over.”
Stonewall Democratic Club: bum raps socialists and Marxists—no more to be gotten from the—the Social Security Act was all they had to contribute. “I don’t think gay people have so very much to gain now from being involved with continuing socialist movements.” Also socialists have treated gays brutally.
“I think also that gay people are gaining right now enormously from populism and there is a growing populist movement inside the Democratic Party… and the Democratic Party, after August 1968, has gradually experimented with populism and is becoming more and more alert to populist ideas…and I think the Democratic Party has the makings inside it somewhere for the germination of a new idea…”
Involved in creation of the Stonewall Democratic Club. Howard Fox the prime mover of it.
“At this time in our history we’re going to move more people inside the Democratic Party than we are elsewhere and surely that’s reformist and that used to be an ugly word. I don’t think it is anymore…. and we’re getting things from the Democratic Party… and hopefully the Party will respond to gay people and there’s some evidence that it is.”