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9ES.2 “A Black Panther’s View: Huey P. Newton on Gay, Women’s Liberation.”
Huey P. Newton, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, on Aug. 15, 1970, on Gay and Women’s Rights.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was a major civil rights organization that existed during the 1960s and 1970s. Huey Newton founded the Black Panthers in 196 in Oakland with several college friends who were frustrated by the slow pace of other black civil rights organizations. Newton and the Black Panthers were heavily influenced by the “Black Power” philosophy of Malcolm X, although they did not share Malcolm X’s religious views. Newton was the first major black leader to suggest that black activists should form coalitions and alliances with gay activists. During the 1960s, most black civil rights organizations had either ignored the plight of gay people or condemned gay people as unworthy of equal rights. Newton, a self-proclaimed revolutionary, believed that gay and black people shared many of the same forms of injustice, such as job discrimination and police harassment. Newton also reached out to women’s rights activists, which was unusual for male black activists in the 1960s.
Newton’s reaching out to gay rights organizations (referred to at the time as “gay liberation” groups) broke with previous black civil rights leaders who tended to ignore or malign gay people. In seeking acceptance from white society, most black leaders in the 1960s sought to portray black Americans as family-oriented and sexually “normal.” Newton’s interest in the newly emerging gay groups is connected to his concept of himself as a revolutionary, someone who seeks sweeping, bold changes in society rather that small, incremental improvements. This document offers an opportunity to discuss different activist strategies, and the benefits of radicalism versus more moderate approaches to civil rights. Teachers should note that 1970 was one year after the famous Stonewall riots,” a series of protests in New York City in 1969 that helped motivate and galvanize gay men and lesbians to engage in high levels of political activism. Before Stonewall, there were only a few dozen gay rights organizations in the United States, but just a year later in 1970 there were nearly one thousand. Newton’s interest in connecting with gay activists thus signals the growing visibility of gay activism as a major social movement in the early 1970s. Newton’s tone in the document suggests that there were significant degrees of homophobia in his organization at the time. Teachers may want to mention that the Black Panthers adopted a very “macho” public image, wearing leather jackets and carrying shotguns openly in public. Some Black Panthers considered such masculinity incompatible with homosexuality. Another Black Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver, for example, was openly homophobic in his book Soul on Ice. We cannot be sure how successful Newton’s efforts were in convincing his fellow Panthers to accept white gay activists as brothers in revolutionary struggle, but the fact that he made the plea in the first place was significant and pointed to later years when black and gay activists would work more readily to align their movements. As other documents in this lesson show, however, this was never a simple process.
During the past few years strong movements have developed among women and among homosexuals seeking their liberation. There has been some uncertainty about how to relate to these movements.
Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion. I say “whatever your insecurities are” because as we very well know, sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid that we might be homosexual; and we want to hit the woman or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us or take the nuts that we might not have to start with.
We must gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people. We must not use the racist attitude that the White racists use against our people because they are Black and poor. Many times the poorest White person is the most racist because he is afraid that he might lose something, or discover something that he does not have. So you’re some kind of a threat to him. This kind of psychology is in operation when we view oppressed people and we are angry with them because of their particular kind of behavior, or their particular kind of deviation from the established norm.
Remember, we have not established a revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing it. I do not remember our ever constituting any value that said that a revolutionary must say offensive things towards homosexuals, or that a revolutionary should make sure that women do not speak out about their own particular kind of oppression. As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite: we say that we recognize the women’s right to be free. We have not said much about the homosexual at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppressed people in the society.