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The Passing of a Gay Generation 

Morris Kight, 1919–2003

Thursday, Jan 23 2003
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“I‘m sure we are going to get our freedom, I see it everywhere,” said gay activist and organizer Morris Kight in 1971, long before anyone else could even comprehend the mainstreaming of gay life that would take place over the next 30 years. Kight, a longtime L.A. resident, died in his sleep over the weekend at the age of 83. Chances are if you’ve heard of any L.A. gay political or social-service organization -- the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center, Christopher Street West (which puts on West Hollywood‘s gay-pride parade) or the Stonewall Democratic Club, to name just a few -- Kight had a hand in its founding and mission statement.

Los Angeles has always been derided as a political backwater full of silent Hollywood closet cases when it comes to its place in gay history. Myopic historians cite the New York City Stonewall Riots in 1969 as the birthplace of modern gay protest, and point to San Francisco in the late ’70s and early ‘80s as the epicenter of AIDS activism. But for decades before Stonewall, men and women like Kight were laying the groundwork for what was to come, when they argued that the gay-rights movement was part of the progressive movement, something most socialists, integrationists and labor leaders didn’t want to hear.

“He put together those social institutions that were important and vital, and could be replicated,” said Bob Dallmeyer, a longtime friend and fellow activist. “He built the concept of a gay community.” A native of Texas, Kight often described himself as the classic Eleanor Roosevelt--inspired social activist, forming the Dow Action Committee in 1967 to fight the big chemical company‘s manufacture of napalm. In 1969 he organized the Gay Liberation Front, at a time when even talk of such things got you arrested, or at least roughed up by the cops. It was Kight and his Front that led the boisterous 1970 protests at West Hollywood’s Barney‘s Beanery, which for years had a sign warning: “Fagots -- Keep Out!” Although the debate over the sign went on for another 15 years, Barney’s finally removed it, and Kight hung a copy in his living room. What made Kight different from the growing handful of gay protesters was his concept of providing his newly minted “gay community” vital health and legal services it couldn‘t get elsewhere.

In 1971 he co-founded the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Community Services Center, which, besides becoming the largest center of its kind in the world, was the first organization with the word gay in its name to receive federal tax-exempt status. Today the center, with its $33 million annual budget, serves thousands of people a year, providing everything from legal advice to employment training.

Kight’s death comes just months after the passing of his fellow Los Angeles activist and sometime rival Harry Hay, who in 1950 formed the Mattachine Society, which is considered the first organized brotherhood of gay men in modern times. Hay, who was thrown out of the Communist Party for being gay, and booted from Mattachine because he was a Red, went on to found the gay consciousness-raising group the Radical Faeries.

Like many rabble-rousers with big dreams and egos to match, Hay and Kight often crossed swords despite their political similarities. “They were the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis of the gay movement,” said out novelist Felice Picano, who wrote an essay on Kight in Before Stonewall: Activists for Gay and Lesbian Rights in Historical Context, and knew both men. “Harry Hay was from union politics and motivated the gay movement politically. Morris believed without taking care of each other it didn‘t make a difference how liberated we were.” The differences between the two became more stark as they got older.

Kight realized his dream when he became part of the mainstream, serving on the L.A. County Human Relations Commission for more than 20 years, and was on a first-name basis with City Council members and U.S. senators alike. Hay, ever the union protester, railed against what he considered the assimilation and corporate sellout of the gay movement, and even demonstrated against the L.A. Pride Parade a few years back.

“That’s not our job, to win over them by being like them,” Hay told a young, closeted Jackie Goldberg about the straight world when they both worked with the anti-war group Women‘s Strike for Peace more than a decade ago. But Hay and Kight knew they were fighting the same fight, and wanted to make the world an easier place for a young gay person to make his or her way. “We are sworn that no boy or girl, approaching the maelstrom of deviation, need make that crossing alone, afraid, and in the dark, ever again,” wrote Hay as part of the Mattachine pledge in 1950.

Two decades later, Kight said almost the same thing: “I realize we are not home yet. We have a long way to go . . . Everyone who’s denied a job, I weep for. Everyone who is driven from their homes by a misunderstanding family, I have to offer my love to.”

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