Blogs > Cliopatria > Doug Ireland: Review of Terence Kissack's Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895-1917

Sep 5, 2008 12:34 am


Doug Ireland: Review of Terence Kissack's Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895-1917



[Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/.]

It may come as a surprise even to gay activists well-read in their history that, more than a half-century before the 1950 founding of the Mattachine Society as the first, lasting modern association of homosexual liberationists, there was a strong and vibrant discourse in America which unfailingly defended the right to same-sex love.

It came not from homosexual intellectuals, but from American anarchists.

In the just-published "Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895-1917," Terence Kissack, the former executive director of San Francisco's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society, has given us the first book-length study of this little-known phenomenon. The work is a vital and important addition to gay historiography

It was thanks to American anarchist writers and propagandists that the defense of homosexuality developed in Europe by the likes of Karl Ulrichs and Magnus Hirschfeld in Germany and Edward Carpenter and John Addington Symonds in England crossed the Atlantic to these shores - at a time when no other political movement or notable public figure in the US dealt with the issue of same-sex eroticism and love.

"The anarchist sex radicals," Kissack writes, "were interested in the ethical, social, and cultural place of homosexuality within society, because that question lies at the nexus of individual freedom and state power."

The towering figure of American anarchism, Emma Goldman, was an extremely charismatic public speaker who lectured to large audiences all over the United States, reaching, she estimated, some 50,000 to 75,000 people a year. And quite frequently she spoke about homosexuality, repeatedly devoting whole lectures to the subject.

A contemporary account of one of those Goldman lectures on homosexuality reported: "Every person who came to the lecture possessing contempt and disgust for the homo-sexualists [sic] and who upheld the attitude of the authorities that those given to this particular form of sex expression should be hounded down and persecuted, went away with a broad and sympathetic understanding of the question and a conviction that in matters of personal life, freedom should reign."

The reason that Goldman and other anarchist figures began to include a defense of same-sex love in their discourse toward the end of the 19th century was that "homosexuality had become a focus of surveillance and regulation by police and other authorities... convictions for the crime of sodomy jumped and medical journals began to feature articles on the subject..."

After homosexuality was linked to Charles Guiteau, the disgruntled political aspirant who assassinated President James Garfield in 1881, the "conflation of crime, insanity, and homosexuality [especially in the medical discourse] reflected the commonly held belief that sexual attraction - much less activity - between members of the same sex was a danger to the moral and social order."

The trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde in Britain in 1895, Kissack recounts, "was a wake-up call for anarchists [which] prompted the anarchists to engage in an examination of the social, moral, and legal place of same-sex desire... The efforts of Goldman and other anarchists on Wilde's behalf constitute the first articulation of a politics of homosexuality in the United States."

Wilde had connections to anarchism before his trial. Following the death sentences given to the eight anarchist agitators for the eight-hour work day who were convicted on trumped up-charges in the Chicago Haymarket bombing of 1886, Wilde signed a petition to the governor of Illinois demanding clemency for them (two eventually had their sentences commuted as a result).

In 1893, Wilde responded to a poll of writers and artists by the French journal L'Ermitage asking their political views by saying, "I am an artist and an anarchist." A year later Wilde repeated his claim. "We are all of us more or less Socialists now-a-days," he said, adding: "I think I am rather more...I am something of an Anarchist."

In his first play, "Vera; or The Nihilists," Wilde quotes the pamphlet "Catechism of the Revolutionist" by the anarchists Mikhail Bakunin and Sergei Nechaev, who were widely rumored to have had a homosexual relationship.

Indeed, Wilde's critiques of Marx - who had used homosexuality to have Bakunin thrown out of the First International - were very similar to those of Bakunin. Opposing state ownership of the means of production, Wilde wrote that, "If the Socialism is Authoritarian; if there are governments armed with economic power as they are now with political power; if, in a word, we have to face Industrial Tyrannies, then the last state of man will be worse than the first," words which today, after the fall of Communism, seem rather prescient.

Goldman, who insisted that Wilde's trial and conviction were a "great injustice," found Wilde's book "The Soul of Man Under Socialism" to be "pure Anarchy," and said that his play "Lady Windermere's Fan" expressed "the revolutionary spirit in modern drama."

Kissack details how, after his trial, Wilde became "a totemic figure" for the anarchists, and at a time when the American productions of Wilde's plays were closed down and forbidden and his books pulled from library shelves, anarchist journals reprinted his texts and poems.

Goldman reprinted Wilde's "De Profundis" in one of the first issues of her magazine Mother Earth, and in a letter to Hirschfeld, the German homosexual rights activist whom she'd befriended, wrote that "the entire persecution and sentencing of Wilde struck me as an act of cruel injustice and repulsive hypocrisy on the part of the society which condemned this man," adding that "as an anarchist my place has always been on the side of the persecuted."

This statement, Kissack notes, reflected one of several approaches in American anarchist thinking on homosexuality. Benjamin R. Tucker, the well-known individualist anarchist who was the editor and publisher of the anarchist magazine Liberty, "framed his politics of homosexuality as an abstract discussion of individual rights, rather than a defense of persons who were homosexuals. He made no reference to identity, either individual or community-based." Goldman, on the other hand, who spent time with many homosexuals, "spoke of [them] as a persecuted minority like others, deserving better treatment."

Kissack devotes a chapter to Alexander Berkman and his "Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist," published in 1912. Berkman's book is an account of the 14 years he spent in prison for having committed, at age 21, a failed assassination attempt on Henry Clay Frick, the manager of Andrew Carnegie's steel empire.

Kissack notes that "homosexual desire, in all its manifestations, is a key theme of 'Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist,'" which was one of the best-selling anarchist books and one widely reviewed in the mainstream press. "It documents, not just the coercive sexual culture of prisons - rape and prostitution - but also the consensual loves that exist behind bars."

The book "contains an entire chapter devoted to the moral, ethical, and social place of same-sex desire...[Berkman] presents love between inmates as a form of resistance to the spirit-crushing environment of prison...It is one of the most important political texts dealing with homosexuality to have been written by an American before the 1950s."

Having read Berkman's book, that's an assessment I can heartily endorse.

In his book, Berkman - who put an excerpt from Wilde's "Ballad of Reading Gaol" on its frontispiece - described his aversion to homosexuality when he entered prison, and his rejections of advances by inmates who wanted him to be their "kid." But Berkman's attitude was transformed over time by several romantic attachments he developed to young men while he was incarcerated, and by the end he was grappling toward an ethics of homosexuality.

After his release from prison, Berkman went on the lecture circuit with a talk on "Homosexuality and Sex Life in Prison" which was, Kissack writes, "an appeal for tolerance and better understanding of the diverse expressions of erotic desire... Berkman's homosexual politics reflected his pragmatic view of the ethics of sexual desire. In his lectures he contended, 'You can't suppress the unsuppressible,' and that to make a crime out of erotic desire was - and he knew this from personal experience in prison - cruel and bound to fail. You cannot regulate the fundamental human need for emotional and physical affection. This position reflected basic anarchist doctrine, as well as Berkman's experience behind bars."

Emma Goldman is today an icon of the feminist movement, and Berkman's name survives in American history because of his failed assassination attempt. But in "Free Comrades," Kissack also rescues from obscurity such forgotten American anarchist sex radicals as Tucker, John William Lloyd, Leonard Abbott, and others, and carefully and judiciously examines their variegated critiques of established attitudes toward same-sex relations.

The American anarchist movement never recovered from its persecution during and after World War I, which it opposed, and the arrest and jailing or deportation of many of its key figures, including Goldman and Berkman, during the so-called Palmer Raids carried out against thousands of suspected radical leftists by the federal government from 1919 to 1921. Kissack devotes a final chapter to tracing the remnants of the anarchist movement after this debacle and the influence of its radical sex politics in later years, right up to today.

"Free Comrades," which is impressive in its command of the anarchist literature of the time and of the political context within which the events it recounts took place, is meticulously sourced and footnoted, and contains an invaluable bibliography for those who wish to explore further this forgotten but significant slice of the history of homosexuality.

Kissack's book is published by AK Press, a small anarchist collective in San Francisco that brings out about 20 books a year, and so unfortunately is unlikely to be readily available in bookstores. That's a pity, for it belongs on the bookshelf of any serious student of gay or left history. But "Free Comrades" can be ordered directly, at a cost of $17.95 plus shipping, from AK Press, 674-A 23rd Street, Oakland, California 94612, or via the publisher's web site, http://www.akpress.org/.



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