INTERVIEW with BETTINA APTHEKER by John Malkin about “Communists in Closets”
(October 19, 2022)
COMMUNISTS IN CLOSETS: Interview with BETTINA APTHEKER
By John Malkin
Communism and Socialism offered alternatives to capitalism and white supremacy for many radical American activists over multiple decades. But behind the scenes, the U.S. Communist Party enforced homophobic policies that banned gay, lesbian and transgender members until 1991. Bettina Aptheker explores this history in her new book from Routledge; Communistsin Closets: Queering the History 1930’s – 1990’s. Aptheker is Distinguished Professor Emerita in the Feminist Studies Department at the University of California Santa Cruz. She’s also 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 had a book release event for Communists in Closets on Tuesday, October 25 at the Cowell Ranch Hay Barn at UCSC, a presentation by The Humanities Institute at UCSC and Bookshop Santa Cruz. This interview was originally broadcast on Transformation Highway with John Malkin on KZSC 88.1 FM and published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on October 19, 2022.
SHE’S A RED!
Q: “You write, “I came out of the closet with confidence in 1965 as a Communist.””
A: “Everyone talks about “coming out” as a queer person. So, I’m using this phrase in a funny way. I came out that way because I was running for election at UC Berkeley in the aftermath of the Free Speech Movement and I thought if students were going to vote for me, they should know I was a member of the Communist Party. The headline in the San Francisco Examiner said, “Bettina admits it. She’s a Red!”
I joined the Communist Party when I was seventeen. It never occurred to me not to join the Communist Party,” reflects Aptheker. “I was raised in a Communist family; my father was a very prominent member of the Communist Party (Herbert Aptheker) my mother was in the Party and a union organizer. (Fay Aptheker) For as long as I can remember social justice, peace and anti-racism were central issues. I believed that Socialism was a way to achieve those goals. That became problematic as time went on, in terms of how Socialism was organized in various countries. But that motivation was just who I was in the world. And the Communist Party was my home, as an extension of my family.”
THEY’LL NEVER PUBLISH A LESBIAN
Q: “The U.S. Communist Party banned lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people beginning in 1938 when it cast them off as “degenerates” and this policy persisted until 1991. In the ‘70s you were contracted 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 Woman’s Legacy, Essays on Race, Sex and Class in American History. The Communist Party commissioned it through their publisher, International Publishers. By the time that 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 wife, Kate Miller said to me, “They’ll never publish a lesbian.” I realized that if they’re so homophobic, there’s no way to remain in the Communist Party. I was in it for nineteen years and left in 1981,” Aptheker recalls. “The book was published by University of Massachusetts Press in 1982. It was also my dissertation here in the UCSC History of Consciousness Department.”
Q: “During that time, you and many people had to remain closeted about being queer. How did you manage that?”
A: “Personally, I was negotiating secrecy. I was married to a very good man, but I was falling in love with women. In the course of my marriage, I had one affair with a woman in Chicago. The FBI discovered it, even though I thought we were being very discreet. And this led to a terrifying series of events,” Aptheker recalls. “I was trying to keep 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! That’s a lot to try to navigate.”
RAISIN IN THE SUN
Q: “Tell me about the 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 later worked her way through it. She was a remarkable Black, Communist playwright. She was a tremendous genius. Her most famous play is “A Raisin in the Sun.” (1959) It was the first play by an African American woman performed on Broadway. She was a Communist and a lesbian. And, like myself, 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 in Chicago and the neighbors rose up in opposition. There was considerable violence. This area of homes had a covenant which said that homeowners would not sell their homes to Black families. Those covenants were very common in the United States. They also often excluded Jewish people and other people of color. And Carl Hansberry sued, because he said the vast majority of people in the area never signed a covenant. It went all the way to the Supreme Court and he won the case on very narrow grounds, that they hadn’t signed it, rather than the Supreme Court overturning the idea of the covenants.
When the Hansberry family moved into this house, the neighbors rose up and someone threw a big brick through the window of the living room, missing Lorraine’s head by inches. She was just a child at the time. This is the foundation for “Raisin in the Sun.”
Lorraine Hansberry eventually came to Greenwich Village. She got a job at Freedom, a weekly news journal published by Paul Robeson and edited by a Black Communist, Louis Burnham. Her life was ensconced in a cohort of brilliant Black, Communist intelligencia and artists including W. E. B. Du Bois, Shirley Graham Du Bois and Dorothy Burnham. She later was part of a group of Black Communist women called Sojourners for Truth and Justice. Toward the end of her life, she did fall in love with a woman named Dorothy Secules and they were lovers,” Aptheker said..
“The last play Hansberry was working on was called “Le Blanc.” It was about African liberation. One of the characters is a gay man who is unequivocal in his support of African liberation and he takes up arms. His brother is sort of the leader of the revolutionary group. It’s a powerful play. It was produced in 1970 by her husband Bob Nemiroff five years after her death, about a year after Stonewall. It got good reviews but none of the critics said a word about this queer African man leading this revolution! Nobody. It’s like it was erased!”
HOUSE UNAMERICAN ACTIVITIES COMMITTEE
Q: “One thing weaving through your book is FBI surveillance of Communists and the hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
A: “In 1941, the Congress of the United States passed the Smith Act, making it a crime to be a member of an organization that sought the overthrow of the United States government. Then, in 1951 there was the McCarran Act, also known as the Internal Security Act. This made it 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, but gay and lesbian people were fired from their civil service jobs by the thousands. 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 like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Claudia Jones, who were active members of the Communist Party’s Women’s Commission,” said Aptheker.
“The Party put up tremendous resistance to these HUAC trials but at the same time, the Party was also going around questioning people internally; “Did you ever have a sexual liaison as a gay man or a lesbian?” If you said “Yes” they expelled you. Many were under FBI surveillance, facing questioning by HUAC and being fired from their jobs. It was a travesty. I quote a member of the Communist Party who was asked to talk to various women comrades and ask them if they had lesbian liaisons with other women. And if they did, she was told to ask them to leave the party. It’s really an insane history.”
THE PHONES WERE TAPPED
Q: “You write, “I shared the personal history of FBI surveillance, beginning in my childhood.””
A: “Our family was under surveillance forever. I don’t remember a time when we weren’t. I’d come home from school and call my mother, who was at work. She would ask if the mail came and I would say “yes,” but I was instructed to say, “there was nothing of any consequence.” I was also instructed to never, ever mention a name on the telephone. That’s because the phones were tapped. So, you’re a little kid and you learn about these things. It took me years to overcome this and be able to say a name on the telephone!”
FREE ANGELA DAVIS
Q: “You write about Angela Davis, who studied Marxism with you father.”
A: “I did an interview with Angela Davis because I knew she was in a lesbian relationship. Since 1999, she’s been in a relationship with Gina Dent. Angela says she’s someone for whom, “sexuality is change.” It can change at different times in one’s life. She also said that we have to constantly expand the meaning of freedom. That’s both personal and political,” Aptheker said. “There’s no more iconic figure in the Communist movement than Angela Davis. And she’s queer. She says she doesn’t have any problem with the word queer, but she prefers to be known as an anti-racist abolitionist. And an important part of our movement is that people get to identify how they wish.”
Q: “What’s the potential for ending capitalism?”
A: “Are human beings only propelled by 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 in which the welfare of people and the wealth of a country is distributed equally, where racism is overturned, misogyny is ended, homophobia no longer exists. This is all tied in with the prison abolition movement,” states Aptheker. “The recent union movement has some potential with its class-consciousness, to combine with movements for anti-racism and reproductive freedom. We need that kind of movement.”