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books The Red and the Queer

Reviewer Wald praises this book's "grace," for the way its author "puts into conversation the deeply intertwined histories of what he calls 'straight, gay, or otherwise queer' people and the radical anti-capitalist movement."

Love's Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture
Aaron Lecklider
University of California Press
ISBN: 9780520395589

Aaron Lecklider’s dazzling and disarming book is nothing less than the excavation of a crime scene. In sleuth-like fashion, the author has tracked down overwhelming evidence of a disquieting cover-up of the sizable presence of sexual dissidents within the mid-twentieth century Communist Left.

Pithy and provocative, Love’s Next Meeting is the culmination of Lecklider’s years long deep dive into the question of why sexual dissidents were attracted to the Old Left even though the Left officially rejected them.

The scope and exact character of this interaction between the two pariah identities — Red and Queer — has been long shrouded in mystery and mythology. All the same, his ensuing analysis is rendered in vivid prose that interlaces extraordinary archival research, inventive readings of neglected literary texts, and a panoply of astute conceptual insights.

Undeniably, homosexuality’s relation to Communism is a tough subject to address at any time, but especially in this 21st century moment when a new Far Left’s desired alliance of sexual dissidents and radicalism has become Ron DeSantis’s worst nightmare.

In Florida and in many parts of the United States, gender non-conformists are up against not only harassment, vandalism, and assault, but a growing onslaught of bills banning transition care, limiting participation in competitive sports, dictating which bathrooms can and can’t be used, restricting drag shows, and preventing schools from acknowledging students’ identities.

And even though there may be a boomlet of talk in liberal circles about Bernie Sanders- style socialism, fearmongering about Marxism remains sufficiently entrenched from the Cold War so that labeling someone a “Communist” is the equivalent of spewing a hate epithet to much of the population.

Even so, there is probably no one better suited than Lecklider to tackle unapologetically and courageously what MAGA Republicans and others might see as a toxic combination of outlaw identities.

A cultural historian and professor of American Studies at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, and the author of an earlier volume about outsider intellectuals called Inventing the Egghead (2013), Lecklider has written a consistently intelligent and engaging book that is worthy of its subject.

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With grace, wit and no small amount of taboo-skewering, he puts into conversation the deeply intertwined histories of what he calls “straight, gay, or otherwise queer” people (6) and the radical anti-capitalist movement. Optimistically, his achievement offers a foreglow of a more inclusive future for the study of the Far Left, one that is more accurate while also upholding the principles of queer pride, freedom, and acceptance.

Sexual Dissidence and the Left

I’m not entirely certain how one reviews a book that introduces scores of names of individuals and organizations probably unfamiliar to the general reader. Moving progressively through at least four decades, with sections devoted to broad arenas such as labor, literature, antifascism, and the Cold War, Lecklider gleefully seizes and spins our political imagination as he repeatedly demonstrates how allegedly “deviant” sexual identities propel one toward social justice activism.

The eight chapters of the book are also a considered and sometimes unexpected commentary on the history of U.S. Communism. Here Lecklider frequently shines a revelatory light on various phases and policies of the CP-USA, as well as the party’s membership composition and the artistic practices it inspired.

To be sure, some of this information is not entirely breaking news. Since the late 1980s, at a minimum, feminist scholars have discussed radical women writers, lesbian and straight, such as Josephine Herbst and Agnes Smedley.

There are also specialists in African American literature who have treated gay and bisexual pro-Communists such as Claude McKay and Langston Hughes, and biographers have discussed Harry Hay (a former Communist turned founder of the homophile movement) and Anna Rochester (a Communist intellectual who was the life partner of labor researcher Grace Hutchins). These and other scholars have often aimed at “Queering the Left,” the goal of which is to denaturalize conventional gender classifications to show them as socially and historically fashioned.

Lecklider certainly builds on, and acknowledges, this earlier work, but his own broader agenda is somewhat different and announced early in the book:

“It is my hope that careful consideration of the sexual and political deviance of the Left in American culture will demystify the attraction of the Left for many sexual dissidents, suggest the complexity of the relationship between homosexuality and the Left before sexual liberation [the 1960s], and reframe the politics of sexuality in moments when repression has been too often made into the whole story.” (14)

In terms of “reframing,” he articulates an ostensible contradiction at the heart of this revisionist project, one that I find to be an effective lens by which to grasp an extremely complex phenomenon that can’t be captured by a single paradigm.

On the one hand, “The relationship between homosexuality and the Left was never easy. The vigorous opposition to homosexuality in American culture was often recapitulated on the Left, and at times leftists seemed to take a special interest in marginalizing homosexuals.”

Then, on the other hand, “neither…the Left — or even the Communist Party — [was] defined entirely by cultural conservatism. Efforts to politicize homosexuality and envision homosexuals as part of a radical community disrupt notions of the Left as overly invested in disciplining gay men and women.” (114)

This book ought to be the last nail in the coffin of “straightwashing” — obscuring history by making queer people appear heterosexual. Writing lucidly, and mostly avoiding specialized jargon, Lecklider is so far ahead of the curve on research and rethinking that Love’s Next Meeting can be said to establish a brand-new perspective for investigation.

Beyond Reductive Class Analysis

The volume kicks off with a singular narrative about Edward Melcarth (1914-72), an artist who was proudly homosexual and a member of the CP-USA from 1944 to 1948. Yet Lecklider is soon constructing the service roads to his main argument through a sequence of composite groupings of large numbers of actors and events.

One complicating factor to keep in mind: Even though Lecklider prioritizes Communism and homosexuals, other kinds of Marxists (especially Trotskyists) and sexual non-conformists come into play. Sometimes both political and sexual identifications are imprecise due to partial information or uncertain terminology, especially since there are many kinds of “Communist” identity and the exact definition of “queer” is variable across time and circumstances.

In his first chapter, Lecklider probes biographies and writings that reveal lived experiences of individuals. Among the most illuminating discussions is that of the romantic and political relationship between poets John Malcolm Brinnin (1916-1998), famous as author of Dylan Thomas in America (1955), and Kimon Friar (1911-1993), best-known for his translation of Nicos Kazantzakis’s The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1958).

Both were members of the Young Communist League at the University of Michigan in the late 1930s, and their personal correspondence, to my knowledge never previously analyzed, documents their commitment to living homosexual lives while devoted to socialist commitment.

In Chapter 2, Lecklider shows how sexual politics inflected the Left beyond reductive class analysis to address issues such as free love, birth control, obscenity laws, and prostitution. This narrative begins with an “Anti-Obscenity Ball” hosted by the CP-USA’s magazine New Masses in 1927, and goes on to examine various cartoons and columns in the publication, along with a satirical book called Whither, Whither, After Sex, What? (1930), to which several Communists contributed.

Following a discussion of figures such as Modern Quarterly editor V. F. Calverton (George Goetz, 1900-1940), and the race and sex dynamics of the Scottsboro Case (the Alabama frame-up of Black youth on false rape charges in 1931), Lecklider concludes: “Though the Left did not offer a consistently articulated politics around sexuality, neither was the subject of sex verboten in leftist print culture.” (74)

The section of the book on the treatment of homosexuality in Left publications commences with the rather astonishing early 1930s publication San Francisco Spokesman (later, The Spokesman). Edited by John Pittman (1906-1993), a lifelong Communist journalist, this African American newspaper issued a defense of homosexuality that was powerful and fiery.

Nevertheless, the prevailing treatment in Left magazines was quite different, a practice that “routinely produced work that cast homosexuals as reactionary and caricatured political enemies by depicting them as homosexuals.” (79) Lecklider shows us a number of Communist cartoons that are disconcertingly homophobic.

Published writings about homosexuality in prison, penned by Communist victims of the state such as Benjamin Gitlow (1891-1965), took a distance from homosexuality while also offering “an opportunity to explore the social context of deviance.” (92)

Turning to the homosexual presence as perceived in unions and among sex workers, Lecklider starts by exploring “The connection between occupational lives and queer identities….” (116) First and foremost are the maritime industries, which “incubated radical labor organizations that acknowledged sexual dissidents among their rank and file.” (118)

This time the argument is illustrated by remarkable cartoons (often by Communist Pele deLappe, 1916-2007) that sympathetically depict both “queer solidarity and…male femininity.” (127) Lecklider’s discussion of sex work once again shows a dual character to the Left-wing response, acknowledging the economic motivations of those involved in the trade while characterizing  it as “debased and exploitative.” (118)

The discussions of “the woman question” in Chapter 5 and the production of “proletarian literature” (especially by writers of color) in Chapter 6 take us back to familiar sites for the examination of radical gender politics. In the former area, Lecklider argues that the rebel politics of the CP-USA “attracted women who imagined their sexual dissidence as consistent with, and even essential to, revolutionary struggle.” (151)

In treating the literary Left, he focuses on what he calls the “Queer Radicalism” of Knock on Any Door (1947) by Willard Motley (1909-1965) and the “Proletarian Burlesque” in The Hanging on Union Square (1935) by H. T. Tsiang (1899-1971). From divergent perspectives, these novels “revealed how sexual dissidents could resist the state, threaten capitalism, and offer alternative avenues for pursuing queer pleasure and intimacy.” (230)

Finally, there are two closing chapters about the impact and legacy of the Popular Front. The first, subtitled “Queer Antifascism,” addresses how the anti-fascist movement allowed sexual dissidents to see themselves as key players in the democratization of the United States.

The last, subtitled “Deviant Politics in the Cold War,” shows how both Communism and sexual dissidents were relegated back to the sidelines after World War II with the help of the homophile movement. The Mattachine Society (founded in 1950 as a national gay rights organization), for example, aimed to normalize itself by purging former Communists and militants in an effort to gain equal rights for “respectable” citizens.

A brief “Coda” is then attached, reminding the reader of John Malcolm Brinnin’s 1942 poem “Waiting,” from which Lecklider’s book borrows a line for its title: “Of love’s next meeting in a threatened space.” (242)

Lecklider describes his discovery of an envelope among Brinnin’s private papers at the University of Delaware Library that contained a feather sent from his lover, Kimon Friar, 85 years earlier.

For Brinnin, the phrase about “love’s next meeting” in “Waiting” probably epitomized the dream of a shared future among comrades, sexual desire fused with political liberation. In examining the still-decomposing feather, which has a “pungent stench,” Lecklider identifies the now-smelly plumage with the fate of that same utopian hope:

“Exposed to the air, its stark physicality, its fleshy reminder that it had once been attached to something that lived and breathed, reveals a complicated story of faith and loss; promise and betrayal; closeness and distance; fall and lift.  It is, like the men who exchanged it, riddled with contradiction.” (297)

Ghost of Homophobia Past

After finishing this book, no one should be able to approach Communism and the Left with a presupposition of invisibility regarding queer activists, or the view that pro-Communist literature was limited to some occasional stereotypical representations of gay life.

At the same time, one is unlikely to forget sickening displays of prejudice that Lecklider cites, such as dictator Joseph Stalin’s labeling of the views of Scottish gay Communist Harry Whyte (1907-1960), who claimed that homosexuals could be good comrades, those of “an idiot and a degenerate.” (79)

Regretfully, despite impressive sites of homosexual acceptance by Leftists, as in the maritime industries, CP-USA members were not about to hit the dance floor of the annual New Masses ball singing “Glad to be Gay.”

Nonetheless, the effort to cover as much previously uncharted ground as Lecklider attempts in Love’s Next Meeting presents challenges that even the most sophisticated scholar can have difficulty in sorting out.

For the most part, I find Love’s Next Meeting measured and persuasive, but none of us have the perfect solution when facing a situation where a massive amount of material must be squeezed into a constricted space. Too often Lecklider gives us only snippets of intricate lives, episodes, and political topics that can lend themselves to misunderstandings or a variety of interpretations.

What happened to the remarkable John Pittman — did he sustain his fight for homosexual rights and dignity during his decades in the CP-USA (including a stint in Moscow), or succumb to the prevailing attitudes?

When and why did Brinnin and Friar leave the Communist movement, and how did their politics (and relationship) evolve after the 1930s? Sometimes the meaning of one’s writings or views at a particular moment, or the character of one’s political commitment and understanding of one’s own sexuality, becomes clarified in the context of fuller biographical details.

In the case of H. T. Tsiang, the rather rosy and unproblematic description of this mega-eccentric’s relations with the CP-USA is only possible by Lecklider’s omitting reference to the public denunciation of Tsiang in the editorial section of the New Masses (“Between Ourselves”) on 27 August 1935. At that time, it was declared that Tsiang was “not much of a writer,” “his career as a Revolutionary is such as to hinder more than help,” and that he was “unwanted at radical gatherings.”

Left Alternatives

A clearer perspective on CP-USA cultural practice might be gained by comparisons with other Marxist tendencies, but the references to Trotskyism seem to be slipshod.

One example is the original and thoughtful discussion of an “intersectional critique of race and sexuality that placed Black homosexuality at its center” (101) in “Just Boys,” a story published in a 1934 collection by fiction writer James T. Farrell (1904-79). Lecklider explains that “Farrell’s work did not adhere as close to an official Communist Party position on race as did Pittman’s — [because] Farrell was, like Claude McKay, a Trotskyist.” (101)

Farrell had, of course, read Trotsky — like Mike Gold and other Communists — but he was pro-Communist when he wrote that story and for several years to come. Farrell continued to contribute to the New Masses and Daily Worker, only switching allegiance to the politics of Trotskyism when the Moscow Trials began in 1936.

In McKay’s case, there is no evidence of Trotskyist affiliation or activism, or even that much in the way of ideological agreement, although he had expressed considerable admiration for Trotsky a decade earlier (as reflected in his 1937 memoir, A Long Way from Home) and eventually became anti-Stalin.

The point here is not the minor one of misdating, since errors of this type can be found in any large scholarly book. The question implied is whether and how “Trotskyism” might have provided a different and perhaps even superior perspective in literature addressing the race/gender nexus.

Apropos Farrell, this would require a comparison of his writings before and after his Trotskyist political evolution, a difficult task in light of his extreme productivity, uncertainty as to when particular manuscripts were initially composed, and the change in his subject matter after leaving Chicago for New York.

Another approach to ascertaining an alternative attitude to homosexuality might be to compare reviews of the same books with queer subject matter that were published in the Communist and Trotskyist press. This would enable one to note distinctions between the two political movements’ approaches to gender.

To take up this latter option, one might note that both the Communist New Masses (17 June 1947) and Trotskyist Militant (5 June 1948) reviewed Willard Motley’s Knock on Any Door in a friendly manner, possibly because Motley collaborated with both movements. The two reviews were by competent literary experts, James Light, later a specialist on Nathanael West, and Paul Schapiro [a pseudonym for Paul Siegel], an eminent Shakespearian scholar.

As it turns out, references to homosexuality are invisible in each of the publications, and the name of Owen (the protagonist Nick Romano’s male lover) is never mentioned. Light does make a reference to Nick Romano’s “jackrolling” (without specifying that the target of this mugging was gay men), but Schapiro only cites Nick’s failed marriage, stating that his impotence was the result of visiting cheap prostitutes.

My guess is that the two political movements were not dramatically far apart in their conventional thinking and blind spots on this subject, although one might expect more from the Trotskyists as they did not have to follow the increasingly reactionary Soviet line on homosexuals. According to Lecklider “the Communists banned ‘degenerates’ as early as 1938, and later specifically named ‘homosexuality’ as a grounds for disciplinary action.” (270)

Lecklider also identifies Max Eastman (1883-1969) as a Trotskyist, which is more or less accurate apart from organizational affiliation, but he then seems confused about the subject of Eastman’s well-known Artists in Uniform (1934). This is a study of repression of the arts under Stalin, as made clear by its subtitle, A Study in Literature and Bureaucracy.

Instead, Love’s Next Meeting treats the book as an attack on “political writing” (27), a work advocating “manly writing” and “a tough realism” associated with Communist Mike Gold (1894-1967) — “that confronted social problems with open eyes and curled fists” (225). Ultimately, Lecklider declares Eastman “a champion of proletarian literature” (248), surely a misnomer for this romanticist author of Colors of Life: Poems and Songs and Sonnets (1918) and the novel Venture (1927).

Lecklider’s approach of homing in on snippets of biographies and history with a sharp gaze on gender has the virtue of dispensing important insights even without telling the whole story. Yet some things are missed, or at least unclear.

The portrait of Willard Motley is fluent and engrossing, but he concludes that “Motley’s novel [Knock on Any Door] departs from some of the proletarian literature that dominated the 1930s by omitting a Communist revolution or a labor strike.” (208) On the one hand, I can’t recall any radical fiction of the era depicting a Communist revolution; on the other, a labor strike is clearly part of the highly significant climax of Knock on Any Door.

The last pages alternate between the scenes of Nick Romano’s execution by the state and those of those of his old reform school friend Tommy being beaten by antiunion thugs precisely for his attempt to organize a strike. This juxtaposition actually confirms Lecklider’s overall argument.

Rethinking the Future

The minor blemishes cited above are handily outweighed by Lecklider’s success in establishing an overwhelming foundation for a more inclusive history. Other matters raised by limitations in Love’s Next Meeting will need to be a component of ongoing discussions by the present and next generations of scholars.

For instance, Lecklider takes his distance from Stalin’s Soviet Union several times but not very informatively for non-specialists, and sometimes he can rely on sarcastic asides.

One instance comes after quoting the 1940 New Masses statement of Communist writer Ruth McKenney (1911-72) that “women [in the Soviet Union] have been unconditionally and completely emancipated.” Lecklider then quips: “To write, perchance to dream….” (154)

What might be more helpful, three decades after 1989, would be a substantially clearer perspective on what the social formation known as the USSR actually had been, and why it went so awry. We are told that the circumstances faced by the Bolsheviks in the decades after the Revolution were tough, but to what degree were dreams such as McKenney’s actually preposterous illusions, or understandable errors of judgment in light of contingent circumstances?

Were the actors in this book living a total lie in this regard, or were they feeding off an optimism closer to a half-truth? And what might this genre of political misapprehension tell us about the ingredients required for a more effective and long-lasting Red-Queer alliance?

There is also the need for researchers to undertake additional in-depth and critical interrogations of the kinds of identities and motives held by many of the individuals presented in this book, especially since gender expression and self-identity could be different in each decade.

To take one example, we could use more elaboration than Leckider provides about the motives of Communists in same-sex relations who publicly repudiated other queers in vile terms. Anna Rochester, for instance, came forward to offer discrediting testimony against former Soviet intelligence agent Whittaker Chambers (1901-61) to the effect that he was a “homosexual pervert” (43); and CP-USA leader (and eventual chairwoman) Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964) wrote in her memoirs that in prison “the disgusting lesbian performances were unbearable.” (89)

Were these cynical attempts to prove their party loyalty by presenting the CP-USA line on “degenerates,” or were these two women genuinely muddled in some sense as to the reality of their own sexual orientation? Could it be that, like may cisgender people then and even now, they lacked a clear-eyed understanding of their own erotic needs and drives?  One suspects a complex web of motives that is not always provided in Love’s Next Meeting.

Still, at least we now understand much better how little we have understood aspects of the history of radicalism. Lecklider’s compelling journey into yesterday surely holds promising implications for scholarship to come; if Love’s Next Meeting doesn’t reinvigorate interest in further research into sexuality and the Left, nothing will.

Far-reaching as well may be the germaneness of this book for those of us on the activist Left: A rethinking the past can also assist in rethinking the future.