Not long after I posted the Robert Duncan essay on “Homosexuality and Society” on my blog, Allen Young showed up to post a comment:
Dear Louis, One of my gay email friends brought this to my attention. Recent comment on your blog is by Giles Kotcher, a friend of mine from the NY Gay Liberation Front (early 1970s). When I tell friends about my childhood, I sometimes remark about your father’s store and especially the pickles. I think the last time we were in touch was around the time of the “Weatherman” film. Naomi Jaffe, whom you mentioned at that time because she is in the film, has recently joined a rather extreme pro-Palestinian group of Jews who reject the right of Israel to exist. My views are different from hers on this topic, and others. So life goes on. Stay in touch.
I imagine that Allen does not hold my own extreme pro-Palestinian views against me since we have had amiable email exchanges since he got in touch. Both Allen and his cousin Naomi Jaffe figure in the comic book about my life that will be published within the year unless Random House goes out of business.
As will be clear from the mini-memoir by Allen that appears below, he (and Naomi as well) was a red diaper baby in the tiny village next to mine and three years ahead of me in school. Both became leading SDS’ers in the 1960s. Naomi joined the Weatherman and Allen went on to become a theoretician and activist in the gay liberation movement.
In chapter one of the comic book about the unrepentant Marxist, you will find all sorts of interesting anecdotes about the Communist subculture in the Borscht Belt. In addition to the Young and Jaffe family, there was my piano teacher Henrietta Neukreug who like Allen’s parents kept copies of Soviet magazines on her living room coffee table. Sid Caesar, who got started in show business in a nearby hotel, was performing Odets plays there in the 1940s. And so on.
I have a feeling that Allen’s article is a bit tougher on extremists like me than the original talk he gave at a conference on the 1960s at Eastern Connecticut University in 1994 that I attended. Whatever problems I have with his current-day political views, I have nothing but admiration for Allen’s life-long dedication to the cause, his elegant writing style, and his piquant sense of humor (his anecdote about discussing the Butcher Franco in high school lasted with me since I heard it in 1994.)
Red Diaper Baby
By Allen Young
©1994 by Allen Young
My parents were members of the Communist Party (CP), so that makes me a ‘red diaper baby.’ If I had to sum up my political evolution, I could summarize it this way: I started out in the Old Left, became involved with unbridled enthusiasm in the New Left, and now just feel pretty much left out.
Actually, I don’t feel so much ‘left out’ as unwilling and unable to find a label that works for me. There are political ‘causes’ that I care about and I am an avid believer in the concept of democracy, but I am by no means a ‘political junkie’ and I am turned off by zealotry. I still have some radical ideas but I don’t want to be as marginalized as I was earlier in my life. I am a registered Democrat though sometimes disappointed by Democratic office-holders, write letters to my elected officials, and I still vote without fail in every election.
Growing up in a Communist Party household when McCarthyism reigned in America was a challenge. I was, like most children, strongly influenced by my parents’ way of looking at the world. It’s important to note that they did not identify openly as Communists. This was due to a mixture of fear, discretion and party policy. During this historical period of crude repression, ‘rank and file’ members were encouraged to keep their membership secret while CP officers were open. My parents and their friends described themselves most often as ‘progressive’ and on occasion as ‘socialist,’ but I sensed in my childhood that they were pro-Communist, and eventually learned from them that they were actual members. The media used to refer to ‘card-carrying Communists,’ but I neglected to ask them if they ever carried a membership card.
It took some time for me to diverge from my parents’ political views and develop my own. This first occurred in the early 1960s when I left home to go away to college. Only then did I become aware of other left-wing groups and especially a development called the New Left. One of the New Left’s leading thinkers, an iconoclastic Texas-born sociologist and prolific writer named C. Wright Mills, was one of my teachers at Columbia. My political development continued in the late sixties when the New Left took on a more activist form and I dived in with fervor and apparently limitless conviction.
How did ‘nice people’ like my parents, Rae and Louis Young, become Communists, affiliated with a group of people which society hated and scorned during my formative years? Living in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, my parents completed high school, but due to family finances, they had to get jobs and were unable to attend college. Predictably, both became involved in the burgeoning and highly successful labor movement. My father worked as a printer, my mother in the retail clothing trade. Many in the labor movement joined the Communist Party because of its strong commitment, both ideologically and in practical terms, to workers’ rights. Furthermore, the CP took a strong stand against anti-Semitism and against the racist Jim Crow laws in the U.S. south. The party advocated socialized medicine while some of its proposals, most notably social security system, were adopted by the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The CP grew to tens of thousands of members in the 1930s, but by the 1950s the numbers had dwindled. My parents were among those few thousand nationwide who remained steadfast.
One reason for the decline of the CP was the lack of internal democracy in the party. Indeed, my father complained occasionally about the egotistical and autocratic party leaders. Another reason for the party’s decline was its insistence on the Soviet Union under Stalin as a role model. The CP faithful refusd to take seriously reports in the press about Stalin’s crimes; this was seen as ‘the bourgeois press’ trying to undermine the much-admired ‘first socialist nation.’ Soviet foreign policy was especially troublesome, and many left the party after Stalin signed a pact with Hitler. More left after World War II when Communist governments consolidated power, with the help of the Red Army, throughout Eastern Europe. The ranks were thinned further when Khrushchev gave significant revelations of Stalin’s crimes, of the murders of millions. And they left when Hungary was invaded by Red Army troops in 1956. My parents did not leave, however, continuing their membership well into the late 1950s. Although I think they were seriously disillusioned, they did not leave voluntarily but were expelled as the result of bogus charges of racism. Expulsion of people from the CP on various charges was not unusual; as the party weakened, a sort of cannibalization occurred.
While Communism was so vilified by society in the 1950s, what I saw of Communists, as a child, was quite benign. My father was an active member of a farmers cooperative and both of my parents were active in the American Labor Party, considered a front group for the Communist Party (though the term “front group” was essentially a hostile epithet that was rejected by my parents). My mother’s most memorable and admirable activity was a successful campaign to improve the living conditions of migrant African-American laundry workers who cleaned the sheets and towels for the famous resorts of the Catskill Mountains. I grew up with a great sense of pride in the political struggle waged by my parents and their friends. I did not identify their politics as ‘Communist’ but it was all thinly veiled. CP publications were always in our house. There were many meetings and film-showings at party meetings in our home. I quietly perched at the top of the stairs and tried to hear everything. At one meeting, my parents called to me and asked me to look in our (hopelessly outdated) encyclopedia to find out about the height of wheat grown in the United States. Someone was asserting that wheat in the Soviet Union grew taller.
My parents called themselves and their friends “progressives,” a kind of closet terminology that I find irksome, causing me to dislike the use of the term today despite its return to popularity. My pride in my parents was based on their defense of working people, their opposition to racism and fascism, their reverence for peace. Part of the pride resulted from the sense of being different, being special. Some red diaper babies have written about how this “difference” was an unpleasant, sometimes horrible and alienating experience, but for me, it was more thrilling and self-satisfying than scary. There were a few instances where I was hassled; someone once asked me Stalin’s wife’s first name, which of course I did not know. In that incident, what frightened me was the towering older boy was who was questioning me.
Being raised in a Communist Party household had advantages and disadvantages for a curious young man. It was not as ‘cool’ as some people think, for after all my parents were not bohemians or anarchists; in fact, despite all the Marxist-Leninist tracts and dedication to socialism, their values and especially their ambitions for me were quite middle class (or ‘bourgeois,’ as the jargon goes).
I was essentially indoctrinated into left-wing dogma. I was not encouraged to think for myself, and I was not particularly well educated in the more controversial and complex aspects of left-wing politics. I knew ‘Trotskyite’ was an epithet, but I had no idea until I was a college student who Leon Trotsky was or what his followers stood for. In some areas, what I learned was useful at times though harmful in its absolute tone — for example, I was taught to mistrust the U.S. press and government authority. Communists gave a great deal of importance to Negro History Month, and I learned about Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass (not part of any public school curriculum in those days) — but I didn’t learn that Richard Wright, the great Negro novelist, had bitterly broken with the Communist Party. It wasn’t until several years later that I read the accounts by Wright and others in the aptly titled book The God That Failed. I learned a lot of labor history and knew about Joe Hill and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, but it took me years to accept the idea that labor unions might be corrupt or labor leaders self-serving. In social studies class, I was a tiger when it came to defending the faith, though now some of this seems foolish. When my teacher used the term “satellite” to describe Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, I protested vociferously. I remember once referring in class to the leader of Spain as “Butcher Franco,” thinking that “Butcher” was his first name, when in fact it was an epithet I had read in an American Labor Party leaflet.
While I was committed to my parents’ political views and did not squelch my own radicalism, it is also true that McCarthyism and the Cold War ‘Red Scare’ were threatening to me and to my parents. My mother was foreign born and had to get a lawyer to help her obtain documentation requested by the government, so that she could avoid deportation. My parents burned many of the pamphlets they owned, much of it CP literature praising the Soviet Union. I remember being frightened and upset at this book-burning. They were horrified and saddened by the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and they raised money to free Morton Sobell, who was sentenced to 30 years in a Federal prison for a related conspiracy charge. I became friends with Michael Meeropol, the son of the Rosenbergs, in 1958 when I was a freshman at Columbia and, by coincidence, his adoptive parents living in Manhattan were neighbors of family friends. This was only five years after his parents’ execution.
The friendship of other red diaper babies was important during my youth. We were a special community, and we banded together against a hostile outside world. We rarely, if ever, expressed doubts about our parents’ political views. We were kids, for sure, but we were different from other kids because we knew so much about politics and what we knew was in such stark contradiction to the majority viewpoint. I remember once, at age 10 or 11, hiding behind a hedge along Riverside Drive in New York City with my friend Michael Lessac. We were usually good boys, but this time, to entertain ourselves, we had water pistols and were squirting people who walked by. But when a black woman walked by, neither of us squirted. Later, we had a discussion about which was the right thing to do: show our belief in equality by squirting the black woman the same way we squirted white people, or refrain from squirting because we knew she was a victim of racism. You could say our decision to not squirt was an early version of affirmative action.
When I left home and arrived at Columbia University in the fall of 1958, my political outlook began to shift but one would be hard put to say I was in rebellion against my parents’ views. The process of change was more subtle than that. The New Left began in the late 1950s with British pacifists who objected to Soviet nuclear program as much as to the Western nuclear program. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, there were various new publications expressing the ideas of the New Left, magazines like Studies on the Left (Madison, Wisc.), New University Thought in Chicago and Root and Branch in Berkeley, all of which I read. The policies of the Soviet Union were beginning to be questioned, especially the militarism and the lack of democracy, also the specific brutality and the anti-Semitism of the Stalinist regime. Stalin had been a heroic figure for my parents in the 1940s and even up to his death in 1953, but now things were starting to change. Away from home, I met other kinds of socialists, those who supported Norman Thomas (the so-called right wing socialists or social democrats), the Trotskyists, and others. I went to meetings and heard speeches by a variety of people: Norman Thomas, Bayard Rustin, Mike Harrington, Eleanor Roosevelt, Benjamin Davis (a leader of the CP). None of the other groups in the Old Left appealed to me, however, even though they were actively recruiting (unlike the CP, which was laying low). The anti-communism of these groups bothered me, and some of the people seemed a little nutty. I’m convinced that people who are very needy psychologically, some even mentally disturbed, gravitate toward certain political and religious groups. In this regard, leftist sects are not unlike religious cults.
In 1959, Fidel Castro and the guerrillas he led came to power in Cuba, and this was a watershed event for me. Here was a real independent revolutionary, someone challenging capitalism and the United States but not subservient to the Soviet Union and clearly not dogmatic. The Cuban revolution also had an element of irreverence and fun to it. My professor, C. Wright Mills, visited Cuba and returned to write a strongly pro-Castro book, Listen Yankee. Mills, through his lectures and his other major books, White Collar, Power Elite, The Causes of World War III, had a profound influence on me. Like Fidel sporting a beard, Mills rode a motorcycle and refused to wear a jacket and tie, the only professor I knew who rebelled in this way. I met some dynamic individuals on the Columbia campus who became outspoken defenders of the Cuban Revolution, among them the economist James O’Connor (then an instructor at Barnard, where he had a reputation for dating college girls) and Electa Rodriguez, a Mexican-born Spanish teacher who was smart and beautiful. The CP was lukewarm at best toward Castro, who was supported by the Cuban Partido Socialista Popular (as the Cuban Communists were called) only when his insurrection was about to succeed.
There was no magic moment that turned me into a New Leftist; it was a gradual process that led me to change my views. I like to say that I began to think for myself. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that I began to listen to ideas other than the ones presented by my parents and their friends and the left-wing periodicals that came into my childhood home.
I developed decidedly critical ideas about the Soviet Union, realizing that it was not democratic, also seeing its leaders as stodgy and boring, and also concerned about the Soviets’ lack of support for Cuba and for armed revolution elsewhere in Latin America. The Old Left was quick to label the New Left as infantile leftist or adventurist or to dismiss it as ideologically weak, while I and my new friends considered the Old Left to be, well, old and tired and boring and increasingly irrelevant and dishonest. My political activities in the period from 1958-64, when I was in college and graduate school, ranged from the Youth March for Integrated Schools (1958), picketing Woolworth store at 110th Street and Broadway because Woolworth lunch counters in the south refused to integrate, writing and passing out leaflets for the Student Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (to warn of the danger of strontium 90, the result of fallout from above-ground tests). I canceled my subscription to the National Guardian when the newspaper made excuses for the Soviet testing, but I quietly returned to the paper because I was so used to it and did not have a good alternative. I was decidedly not attracted to ordinary liberal politics because it was too sedate and not committed to radical change. I was ready for the New Left, but it really wasn’t quite off the ground at this point. I was part of a group called ACTION at Columbia, comparable to other campus activist groups in the early 1960s — many of us were red diaper babies, but our focus was the campus. I was the editor of the Columbia Daily Spectator and used that position to promote some radical ideas. Spectator ran my editorial on the Sobell case, which was attacked by Prof. Daniel Bell, a liberal sociologist who not coincidentally hated C. Wright Mills.
My career development at this point was greatly influenced by the turn of events in Cuba. I took my existing interest in journalism a step further and decided I wanted to become a foreign correspondent specializing in Latin America. I had already fulfilled my college’s foreign language requirement, but decided to study a new language: Spanish. I also decided to obtain a master’s degree in Latin American Studies, choosing an institute at Stanford University in California which had obtained a lot of publicity for exposing secret CIA training camps for Cuban exiles in Guatemala. At Stanford, I studied yet another foreign language, Portuguese, the language of Brazil.
I was in California at Stanford in October 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis and I was one of three speakers (along with Peter Eisenberg and Saul Landau) at a public forum to criticize President Kennedy because I felt Castro was justified in doing what he needed to do to stop a U.S. invasion. That was a scary moment — the three of us were all Jewish and we had to endure anti-Semitic taunts. While at Stanford, I studied Marxist economics with Paul Baran, and made friends with other leftists including Marvin and Barbara Garson and Landau. I also began to get in touch with the cultural changes that were taking place, and among the people I met was Ronnie Davis, leader of the San Francisco Mime Troupe (founded in 1959).
My first public action on Vietnam came early in the war — on May 2, 1964, when I attended a demonstration against U.S. intervention in Vietnam. I surely would not have known about this small demonstration if I were not in touch with the left in New York. I was at this time a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, working on my second masters degree. This May 2 action took at the intersection of 110th Street and Central Park West and was sponsored by an obscure Maoist group, soon to be called the May 2 movement in honor of this event. My gut reaction against the war was a reflection of my Old Left allegiances, but my understanding of the war deepened when I read a 1964 pamphlet by the New Left journalist Robert Scheer, entitled ‘How the U.S. Got Involved in Vietnam’ and published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.
I spent three years in Latin America, 1964 to 1967, the first year as a Fulbright scholar to Brazil. A crucial point in my personal life was the curious dichotomy between my radical ideas and my mainstream ambitions for my personal life. At the point of my departure from the U.S. for Rio de Janeiro, I vaguely assumed I would get married and have children, even though I knew my inclinations and most of my experiences were homosexual. Similarly, though my inclinations were toward socialist revolution, I assumed I deserved a Fulbright scholarship (administered, after all, by the U.S. Department of State), and I also assumed I would have a career as a foreign correspondent, preferably for The New York Times. Looking back on this phase of my life, I see a basic contradiction in the message I got from my parents: on the one hand, I was supposed to admire socialist heroes and values; on the other hand, seek a successful middle class professional life. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, precisely because they felt a doctor could be a radical while a journalist would be deprived of freedom of expression.
In Brazil, I benefited from friendships I had made with some Brazilian student radicals who trusted me because they knew I was a student of Marxist economist Paul Baran. Professor Baran was widely known and respected in Latin America, though he was vilified by Stanford alumni and virtually ignored by the U.S. economic profession. In Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay and Argentina, I traveled widely and met people of many political stripes, but I was closest to independent leftists. I identified as a New Leftist and as a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, and that enabled me to overcome the widespread anti-American prejudice I found throughout the region. Of course, there were exceptions, people who couldn’t tolerate any norteamericano, people who may even have thought I was an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency.
At one point, I got myself into trouble when I spoke against the Vietnam War at a rally sponsored by a Communist youth group at the University of Chile. Ralph Dungan, U.S. ambassador to Chile (Kennedy appointee), called me and another American, Peter Roman, into his office to express his outrage at us for speaking out against U.S. policy at a rally sponsored by Communist students. He said we should go home and run for Congress rather than criticize our own country. He threatened us with deportation and frankly he scared both of us, not into silence exactly, but he scared us for sure. I was on a scholarship and effectively dodging the draft, and I was afraid I would be drafted if my scholarship were canceled! In 1965, while in Chile, I also launched the international “Committee of Americans Abroad For An Honorable Foreign Policy.’ I had hoped to obtain enough signatures and money to buy an ad in the New York Times to express the point of view that U.S. military action in Vietnam was making people around the world hate the United States, but unfortunately my effort was not successful. I later obtained my file from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, wherein an informant described this effort as ‘recognizable Communist propaganda.’
I kept in touch with events in the U.S. by subscribing to the National Guardian and to New Left Notes, the newsletter of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). In Brazil, my sexual expression as a gay man became a big part of my life (I was in the stage of self-acceptance for the first time), and I also danced a lot, smoked a lot of pot, sun-bathed on the beach, and traveled widely, taking in everything I could, expanding my horizons. During this time, I had many articles published in the New York TImes and the Christian Science Monitor, and a few in European left-wing magazines such as the International Socialist Journal and New Left Review.
When I returned to the U.S. in the summer of 1967, I hunted for a job on both the East and West Coasts. I was in San Francisco for the famous Summer of Love, and I remember feeling rather confused. I smoked pot, but I wasn’t a hippie. I visited the Haight-Ashbury with a curious look in my eye, but I wasn’t a tourist with a camera. I saw hippies asking for money from mid-Westerners with cameras, much as I had seen Indians in Guatemala ask me for money to take their picture. You know that line from the Bob Dylan song, “Something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Well, the truth is, I was no Mr. Jones. I had a pretty good idea that the hippies were rebelling against the status quo, and like me, they were for peace and they smoked pot. However, I also was in California to interview for a job at the Los Angeles Times, and my career ambitions and mentality made me pretty straight compared to the spaced out freaks on the streets of the Haight-Ashbury.
After landing a job as a reporter for the Washington Post, I was back on a fast track in my career. But the year was 1967. It was the year of “Battle of Algiers,” a movie about the commitment of radical, armed revolutionaries, also the year that Che Guevara died fighting in the jungles of Bolivia, the year the movement against the war in Vietnam achieved major advances especially the march on the Pentagon in October, and the year that the underground press spawned its own Liberation News Service. Uncomfortable in my role as a reporter for the establishment media, and increasingly aware of the limitations placed on me because I was gay (still secretly, at this time), I quit the Washington Post and began to work full-time in the underground press. I also became active as a member of Students for a Democratic Society and encouraged my friends to become involved in SDS, which I saw as leading the movement through its unfocused mixture of activism and vague leftist ideology.
My Old Left background motivated me in a couple of crucial areas. First, I did not feel comfortable with the pacifists who had an ideological bent against armed struggle and therefore did not entirely approve of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. I followed Lenin’s maxim that the ruling class would not give up power without a fight, though I was never quite sure how I could be a warrior in such a fight because many of my instincts were indeed pacifistic — that is, I hated violence and was somewhat cowardly. Second, I wanted to influence others toward a “complete” ideological program that involved socialist values, anti-racist principles, in other words, an all-purpose movement toward radical change and social justice.
I immersed myself full-time in SDS and LNS, living at first off money I had saved from scholarship and freelance journalism while in Latin America; later helping to developing a system of subsistence salaries for LNS staff ($35 a week salary plus meals bought with LNS money). LNS, by the way, raised a significant amount of money from left-wing sectors of Protestant churches. In retrospect, I think these Christians saw us as good-hearted young idealists working against war, while I think we saw them as an easy mark for money. We were lucky to get their money, and, as I think about it now, I regret that I didn’t interact more honestly with these good church people. I wonder why they were so generous to us; they must have read the LNS packets with occasionally crude rhetoric (calling cops “pigs” and glorifying violence in the Third World). I also regret not interacting more honestly with the Black Panthers, who hung around LNS from time to time because we had printing presses and did work for them at virtually no cost. We at LNS were proud to have the Panthers on our premises because they validated our politics; in fact, we knew little of them except as cardboard political figures, and I had liberal friends who had much deeper relationships with black people.
I saw myself as propaganda specialist for the New Left, even arguing that “propaganda” should be seen as something good, that is, propagating ideas and information that were being hidden by the establishment media, and encouraging people to demonstrate and take action — like the term ‘agitprop’ used in the Old Left. I served as a kind of press attaché at some national SDS meetings. There was a ‘giddy joy’ (a term used by my LNS colleague Nina Sabaroff) to a lot of what we did, but much of it was deadly serious. I don’t think I had a reputation for having a great sense of humor, but I do remember, somehow, a lot of laughs and fun and silliness. Communal living, travel and street actions helped to create a big part of this camaraderie.
An aside: four years of college, two years of graduate school, three years in Latin America, and three years of intensive involvement in the New Left — this adds up to 12 years of practically no television viewing. I don’t do well when people comment about “Gilligan’s Island” or “Leave it to Beaver.”
I went to many SDS meetings in New York and all over the United States — plus dozens of demonstrations. On two occasions in the late 1960s, I was arrested, once at Columbia University with 800 others during the April 1968 occupation, once on a New York City subway station platform when I intervened, with a friend, on behalf of a black man who was being unjustly arrested by a white police officer. I had many other opportunities to be arrested, at demonstrations where some people engaged in civil disobedience, but I declined to go through that again, doubting its value. I wasn’t particular sympathetic to the Catholic leftists who were constantly engaging in civil disobedience and getting themselves jailed. Later, in the 1970s, I was prepared to be arrested during a demonstration at the Seabrook, N.H., Nuclear Power Plant, but a deal was struck with the authorities and there were no arrests. In1980, I was arrested one more time — the charge was growing marijuana.
I once heard someone say, perhaps in the early 1970s, that the New Left was pretty much the same thing as the Old Left. We may have smoked pot and absorbed new issues, such as feminism and even gay liberation, but the dogmatism and the rigidity was reminiscent of Stalinism. I also heard people say, often, that my Marxism was “just like religion,” a charge that I absolutely hated, since I was so resolute in my atheism. But today I believe that leftists like myself were indeed a lot like religious zealots, with our union songs akin to hymns, our political chants reminiscent of prayers and our leftwing tracts not unlike the Bible.
Today, I no longer consider myself a Marxist or even a leftist. In 1969, I loved calling myself a “revolutionary communist,” but I don’t believe in either revolution or communism and I can’t think of any label I’m entirely comfortable with. Libertarians tend to be overly ideological in their views and liberals tend to be too predictable, while conservatives tend to be mean-spirited. So I muddle through and try to be a good person, while avoiding the notion, once so dear to me, that life should be organized around a movement to change the world. I still believe in the need for change, but I don’t make it my mission in life. I have a house and garden and a circle of friends. I am enrolled in the Democratic Party, and I belong to the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Massachusetts Audubon Society. I do not regret the collapse of the Soviet Union, even though it has been a difficult adjustment for the people of Eastern Europe. I do not trust the people who still admire Fidel Castro or the Cuban Revolution, simply because I think there is no basis in fact for this admiration. While I am uncomfortable when people say that the U.S. “is the greatest country in the world,” I do admire a lot about this country, especially our Constitution. While I flirted with the idea of armed struggle and violent revolution for a while, I am glad my better instincts kept me out of the Weatherman faction of SDS (where many of my friends ended up). Confession time: I threw mud at mounted police during Nixon’s Counter-inaugural. That same night, outside the ball where Spiro Agnew was being feted, I ran toward a cop who had just arrested one of my co-demonstrators — I pulled with all my might to successfully free the demonstrator and I kicked the cop. Instead of armed struggle, I call it ‘legged struggle.’ I also practiced target shooting with a .22 for a while. That was the extent of my involvement with violence.
The crucial years in my political evolution away from leftwing hardliner were 1969-71, including the birth of the gay liberation movement and two trips I took to Cuba. In Cuba, I discovered (not in a well-lit moment, but gradually, with thought) that the revolution I loved so dearly was built on lies, repression and tyranny. The focal point for me was the persecution of gay men and lesbians in the Castro regime, but there was much more than that. The highly touted literacy campaign was a joke considering the powerful propaganda machine maintained by the government, featuring a lack of freedom of the press and the rote educational system where few questions could be asked, no doubts expressed.
In 1969 and 1970, I was part of a committee that formed the original SDS brigade, had my picture taken in the cane fields which appeared on a poster advertising the Venceremos Brigade, a group of Americans who went to Cuba to cut sugar cane in solidarity with Cuban workers, and I signed checks as the treasurer of the Venceremos Brigade organization.
All that changed quickly and I began to write and speak about the persecution of gay people in Cuba, which had adopted a Stalinist line and was engaged in serious repression of not only homosexuals, but also the Cuban variation of hippies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, black nationalists, Trostkyists and dissidents of all stripes.
My experience with gay liberation was exhilarating. I began to live with other gay men, and I made many gay friends, male and female, around the country. I was struck at the variety of people I met in the gay movement, especially the diversity in regard to race and class — more diversity than in the New Left, which was essentially a white middle-class intellectual or student phenomenon. As a gay activist, I participated in and helped organize many marches and demonstrations, and initially these were more frightening, psychologically at least, than anything I had done as an Old Leftist or a New Leftist. As an author and editor, I helped spread the word about gay oppression and liberation. Partly under the influence of psychedelic drugs that helped me get in touch with my love of nature, and partly in response to dogmatic tendencies emerging in the gay and lesbian movement, I left New York City and relocated in rural Massachusetts. There, I continue to spend some of my time in an activist frame of mind, but I have had a more ordinary life as a reporter and assistant editor of the Athol Daily News (circulation around 5,500) and later, the director of community relations for the 30-bed Athol Memorial Hospital.
From my upbringing in the Old Left, to my experience and adventures in the New Left and gay liberation, and finally to a more sedate life in a rural community — I look back and see more continuity than contradiction. I retain an ethical system of caring for and sharing with my fellow human beings that is at the core of socialism.
However, I realize stifling dogmatism or political correctness in today’s society, even within so-called progressive circles, reflect Old Left values, and these are inimical to me. Communist Party theoreticians had answers for everything, but now I am on the side of those who admit there may not be answers. I remember clearly that these same CP dogmatists spread the line that homosexuality was related to bourgeois decadence and could not be tolerated in a revolutionary society. These commissars analyzed each and every play, movie and painting to decide whether or not it served the interest of the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. Time and again, they were so sure of themselves. They intellectualized every move and every moment. Today, I don’t have to immerse myself in dogma. I’m more concerned about living in harmony with nature and being kind to friends, neighbors and family, than I am with feeling part of a self-congratulatory political movement.
The above essay is based on:
“Red Diaper Baby: From a Jewish Chicken Farm in the Catskillls, to the Cane Fields of Cuba, to the First Gay Protests in New York City”
Paper presented at the conference on the Sixties sponsored by Vietnam Generation, Inc. Eastern Connecticut State University, Danbury CT, Nov. 5, 1994.
(Allen Young, Liberation News Service, 1967-70; Gay Liberation Front, 1970-71.)
Copyright © 1994 by Allen Young