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Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States, 1895-1917

By Terence Kissack
AK Press, 2008

It’s June, the sun is out, people are beginning to wear shorts; summer is right around the corner. For members of the GLBT community and their allies it is also pride month. In cities and towns all across the globe people will march, people will dance, people will drink too much and sleep with those they otherwise wouldn’t … it will be a gay time had by all!

Last June marked the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots and the beginning of the modern struggle for queer equality in America. As we watch groups like the Human Rights Campaign battle (sometimes problematically) for gay marriage I think it’s important that we take a look back at the movement before 1969. It is with this in mind that I think everyone, but especially those planning on attending pride events this month, should read Terrence Kissack’s Free Comrades: Anarchism and Homosexuality in the United States 1895-1917. Kissack’s well-researched book makes the case that the American Anarchist movement was the first to actively advocate for queer equality in America. He points out that in Europe during that period, through the developing field of sexology, a growing gay rights movement was forming:

In 1897, the German sexologist and sex radical, Mangnus Hirschfeld formed the scientific-humanitarian committee (SHC), the world’s first homosexual rights organization. The SHC published a journal, sponsored lectures, did outreach to media, clergy, and other professionals, and lobbied for legal reform….In this period there were no political groups organized along the lines of the SHC in the United States.

From the mid 1890’s to the 1920’s, key English-speaking figures of the anarchist movement debated the subject of same-sex passion and its place in the social order. Among Americans they were alone in doing so; no other political movement or notable public figure of the period dealt with the issue of homosexuality. Anarchist sex radicals like John William Lloyd, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Leonard Abbott, and Benjamin R. Tucker published books, wrote articles, and delivered lectures in cities around the country that addressed the subject of same-sex love.

Now before we move forward, we should stop and answer the question, “what is Anarchism?” To most people, Anarchists are punk teenagers who mask up and throw stones at protests. (And there’s truth to that). But there is more to the movement than chaos and rock throwing. As Kissack describes, Anarchism is a serious political theory that has produced hundreds of books, pamphlets, and countless uprisings from Spain to Chicago. Anarchist would describe their theory not so much as disorder, but a different kind of order, an egalitarian world of economic and social equality that sees itself as rid of arbitrary hierarchy. Most anarchists are very open about the fact that they don’t know what the future world will look like, that the revolution that brings anarchism will be more of a ongoing process that an end point. Kissack describes it best I think, when he quotes famed rebel Emma Goldman:

Anarchism … stands for liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.

In terms of queer rights in America, the late 19th and early twentieth century was also the beginning of a greatly oppressive era. It is in this period that homosexuality starts to be classified as a mental disorder, and where we see the beginnings of modern homophobia. The threat of police harassment and arrest was a daily worry; however, amidst all of this, queer men and women found ways of banding together, as Kissack writes:

Of course there were individuals who carved out a place for themselves by claiming social space within cities, and refusing to conform to normative gender and sexual codes. Chauncey’s work on gay life in New York City (as well as work done by others), offers a window on the lives of some of these brave souls. Their “immediate, spontaneous, and personal” struggles are part of what historians Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy and Madeline D. Davis have identified as “pre-political forms of resistance” within gay and lesbian communities. By gathering in small social groups and living a life that visibly contradicted gender-normative behavior, thousands of gay men and lesbians asserted the validity and value of their lives and loves. But the efforts did not result-at least not directly- in the creation of a body of political ideas and rhetoric that engaged the legal, social, and cultural social norms that regulated homosexuality.

Starting with the trial of Oscar Wilde in London, Kissack shows how certain events served as triggers for the Anarchist movement to start talking about homosexuality. The goals of the Anarchists weren’t solely queer liberation, but the liberation of all of humanity from what they saw as an oppressive economic system. Other triggers included the poetry of Walt Whitman, Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, and the small cluster of homosexuals who gravitated around the movement before the start of the First World War.

According to Kissack, a core principle of Anarchism is that people should be free to do as they choose, without fear of intrusion by the state or any other hierarchical structures. It’s no wonder then that the Anarchists would take up the cause of queer rights. The Anarchists felt it was their duty to defend any and all outcasts who were rejected by, as they put it, “modern capitalist society.” 1917 is the proper place to end such an analysis – with America’s entry into the war and the Anarchist opposition to it, the movement was mercilessly crushed by the state. For the next three years the Anarchists Kissack studies shifted into defensive mode as they tried to survive constant raids by the police and the deportation of most of their key agitators. By 1919 almost all the Anarchist mentioned in this book were either in prison or had already been deported from the United States.

One of the best examples in the book of the widespread acceptance of homosexuality within Anarchist circles happens in 1912, when William Durant was hired to teach at the Ferrer Center in New York (an Anarchist school and community center) Part of his job was to deliver a series of lectures, one of which was on homosexuality, as Kissack describes:

Durant’s talk on “homosexualism” did not elicit a particularly strong reaction from the Ferrer Center audience. No one moved to excommunicate the eager new faculty member for bringing up the subject of same-sex love. By contrast, Durant’s other presentations sparked lively discussions. Following Durant’s talk on “Sex and Religion,” for example, his audience asked “hundreds” of questions” of him, but when it came to the lecture on “homosexualism,” the Ferrer Center audience had relatively little to say…the fact that two people of the same sex might love each other and seek to express that love through sex was not, apparently, remarkable.

This is not to say that the whole Anarchist movement supported the issue of same sex equality; the beginning of the movement in America took a decidedly anti-queer tone. Emma Goldman constantly said that she was fighting the “respectability within our ranks.” Even Peter Kropotkin, one of the leading Anarchist thinkers of the time and the author of such movement bibles as The Conquest of Bread and Mutual Aid was opposed to homosexuality. Throughout her career, Goldman fought with her own comrades about the role sexual freedom should play, not just for queer people but for everyone. Out of all the Anarchist of the day, it is Goldman who champions the cause of queer equality most fervently, and as a result she is mentioned throughout Kissack’s book. Her impassioned defense of same sex love sometimes caused frustration among her more traditional comrades:

From the perspective of her anarchist critics, Goldman was wasting critical resources speaking on topics of secondary importance…“Anarchism,” in their view, “was already enough misunderstood, and anarchist considered depraved; it was inadvisable to add to the misconception by taking up perverted sex-forms.”

Emma Goldman at Union Square, NYC 1916

The Anarchists who argued the validity of same sex love saw themselves as sex radicals and read the leading works of sexology that were being published in Europe. They subscribed to the idea of free love (what we would today call Polyamory) Benjamin Tucker, an Anarchist from Boston, summed it up best when he describes in his journal Liberty (in an orientation-neutral tone, one should note) the ideas of free love:

Anarchists acknowledge and defend the right of any man and woman, or any men and women, to love each other for as long or as short a time as they can, will, or may. To them legal marriage and legal divorce are equal absurdities. They look forward to a time when every individual, whether man or woman, shall be self supporting, and when each shall have an independent home of his or her own, whether it be a separate house or rooms in a house with others; when the love relations between these independent individuals shall be as varied as are individual inclinations and attractions.

What makes this so radical for its time is that Tucker is stressing the need for economic freedom for all people in relationships, that each person should be self-supporting – that to have sexual freedom one must have economic freedom.

It is with the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde that the Anarchists flew into an impassioned defense, not just of Wilde himself but of the lifestyle for which he was being persecuted. They wrote essays condemning the conviction, and perhaps even more importantly, at a time when theatres were closing Wilde’s shows and publishers closing their doors to his writings, they reprinted his works so as to make sure that he would still be read:

American anarchist refused to allow Wilde’s works to be censored. To express solidarity with Wilde and to protest the wide-spread suppression of his work, the anarchist journal Lucifer the Light-Bearer reprinted selections of Wilde’s writing during and after his trial. Excerpts of his work had already appeared in the magazine, but in the context of the trial they took on a new importance.

Upon Wilde’s release from prison in May of 1897, several journals also published The Ballad of Reading Gaol. In the opening pages of Berkman’s prison memoir, there are a few stanzas of the same poem, a sign that Wilde and his work were well respected, even emblematic, within the Anarchist community.

It’s when Free Comrades moves into the discussion of Berkman and his writings that it really picks up steam. Alexander Berkman came to infamy when he shot industrialist Henry Clay Frick, during the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892. Frick survived, and Berkman spent fourteen years in a Pennsylvanian prison. When released, Berkman wrote about his experiences behind bars in which he talks about his own feelings for his fellow inmates:

By far the most remarkable account of love among prisoners provided by Berkman in his memoirs are those that describe his own affection for a number of young men. The first of Berkman’s romantic friends is named Johnny Davis. Davis is a young man of noticeable physical beauty…Berkman titled the chapter where he describes his relationship with Davis, “Love’s Dungeon Flower,” a reference both to the nature of the two men’s feelings for each other and to Davis’s radiance compared to the drab interior of the prison.

Publishers would only consider the manuscript if its explicit discussions of homosexual sex were removed. Berkman refused and instead sought publication through Goldman’s Mother Earth Publishing Company. What makes this the most interesting part of the book is Berkman’s analysis of the relationships within prison. When one thinks of sex in prison one thinks immediately of rape; prison sex is often viewed in a horrific and negative context. And the assumption is based on fact: rape is huge problem in not just American prisons but in all prisons, and it has been since people started incarcerating other people. Berkman himself witnesses and condemns these acts, called “kid love” due to older inmates going after younger males. Berkman criticizes the extreme hierarchy of prison life in which submissive inmates are forced to be at the beck and call of the more dominant ones. But almost with the same breath, he talks about the loving consensual relationships that develop between inmates as a form of survival, including the intensely erotic relationships that he himself experiences.

GLBT people of the time weren’t oblivious to the Anarchist support, and some gravitated towards the movement as a result; helping with lecture tours, and distribution of movement literature. Two that are mentioned prominently in Kissack’s book are Margaret Anderson and her lover Harriet Dean, who through their involvement with the movement began publishing a small arts journal The Little Review:

Anderson and Dean gravitated towards anarchism because it promised psychological, social and sexual freedom. “Anarchism,” exclaimed Anderson, “was the ideal expression for my ideas of freedom and justice.”

Another interesting story Kissack reports is that of a transgendered man who was influenced by Goldman and her lectures.

There is a fascinating story of…. Alberta Lucille Hart though born a woman in 1892, Hart chose to live life as a man. Anarchism played a role in this dramatic process of personal transformation. Hart struggled with his identity and his relationships….The lectures and subsequent investigations into anarchism gave added impetus for Hart’s decision to live his life as he saw fit.

In his conclusion Kissack spends some time pondering the thoughts and relevancies that the modern Anarchist movement has on the current struggle for queer equality. Though it’s not the point of the book, it would have been nice to see more development in this chapter, as the debate is sorely lacking within the GLBT community. Kissack is a perceptive writer on that community:

When in 1989 the Stonewall Gay Democratic Club chose “Absolute Sovereignty of the Human Body” as its theme for the annual GLBT Pride Parade, one could easily hear a strong echo of the language of individualist anarchism…But, of course, the Stonewall Gay democrats were affiliated with the Democratic Party; they were most assuredly not anarchist no matter how much they might sound like them. The pull of the contemporary gay and lesbian movement’s liberal political culture acts to tame whatever revolutionary impulse remains in the anarchists text and ideas that still circulate in the movement.

In fact just as Free Comrades was being published in 2008, a group of Anarchist queers in Chicago formed Bash Back! In the three years since, chapters have sprung up in cities from Minneapolis to Denver. The groups are all decentralized; anyone, anywhere, can form a Bash Back! Collective, provided that they adhere to the collectives principles. The group’s actions have been extremely controversial and have caused outrage within the mainstream gay rights movement. Actions which range from the storming of an evangelist church in Michigan that preached the sinfulness of homosexuality, to the defacing and picketing the HRC building in D.C, in the belief that the HRC has become something of a gay elite by selling out the community, taking money from and pandering too corporations (Budweiser being the cooperate sponsor of Pride events, as one example among many).

The Anarchist view of military service is perhaps a given: they’re staunchly opposed to imperialism and war, and soldiers in general. Anarchists today would be in favor of keeping Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in effect in the U.S. Armed Forces, if only to hamper recruiting. And surely the most interesting topic for a modern comparison is the issue of marriage. Anarchists then and now are mostly opposed to marriage, as Kissack points out:

The anarchists were among the institution’s most fervent critics. Women, the anarchist claimed, were the main victims of the tyranny of the marriage bed…Voltairine de Cleyre described the married woman as “a bonded slave, who takes her masters name, her master’s bread, her master’s commands, and serves her master’s passions; who passes through the ordeal of pregnancy and the throes of travail at his dictation-not at her desires.”

Perhaps a good comparison would be the female Anarchists take on the suffragist movement of their day. As Anarchists they held that giving the vote to women was missing the point. In their minds it wouldn’t bring any real results in the struggle for social and economic justice – a greater more expansive change would be needed. Kissack holds that the same is true with the Anarchist critiques of the modern queer rights movement. Anarchists would condemn as bigots anyone who would try to deny civil rights to another. But surely the right to stand up and publicly marry the person you love is a civil right, in addition to being an extremely empowering act. However, those same Anarchists also look critically at a civil rights struggle that seems to be focused almost solely around marriage and military service. No doubt such Anarchists would suggest we need to expand beyond these two issues. Perhaps Benjamin Tucker said it best, that sexual freedom is not really free unless it is linked with economic freedom.

So whether you spend one day of this month marching with friends and loved ones, or you choose instead to stay inside with the air-conditioning on, you should take a look back at a forgotten chapter of our history, when an unpopular philosophy championed an unpopular cause and said that everyone everywhere should be free. And the next time you’re at a protest and see a band of scruffy-looking anarchists, instead of turning the other way you may smile at them and think: onward, comrade.

Kevin Mullins is a playwright based in Boston.