New Left and Student Movements

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In June 1962 several dozen white student activists from East Coast and Midwestern colleges gathered in Michigan to discuss their shared concerns about racism, poverty, the nuclear arms race, and the prevailing Cold War culture of complacency. These students, gathering under the aegis of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), issued the Port Huron Statement, in which they outlined their vision for rejuvenating U.S. politics and society through participatory democracy. Focusing on the intertwined problems of racial and economic injustice, SDS members sought to organize a white student movement parallel to the civil rights struggle. They also positioned SDS to serve as the nexus of this New Left in a role comparable to that claimed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organized in 1960 by students from historically black colleges in the Jim Crow South.

The New Left of the 1960s staked out a politics of anti-anticommunism, distinguishing it from the Old Left of the interwar and Cold War decades. Whereas Old Leftists drew upon Marxist-Leninist analyses and models of organizing, New Leftists refused to be drawn into the Cold War communist-anticommunist dichotomy. Instead, they argued that anticommunism distracted citizens from the genuine ills of U.S. society and condemned the reigning corporate liberalism that served the interests of the wealthy rather than the economically disadvantaged.

Along with the questions of race and class that dominated early New Left community projects, student activists addressed local concerns, as when the Free Speech Movement organized in Berkeley in response to attempts by University of California officials to regulate political activity on campus property. As the decade wore on, however, the escalating Vietnam War took precedence for the New Left. Draft resisters organized across the nation, using the famed slogans," Hell No, We Won't Go!" and "Girls Say Yes to Guys Who Say No" (to the draft, that is). Increasingly, movement leaders shifted from condemning the "evils in America" to the "evils of America," SDS historian Kirkpatrick Sale has noted, and began advocating violent means to social change. New Leftists cheered on North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. White students led major rebellions at Columbia University and many other campuses, while rifle-toting black power activists took over the student union at Cornell University in 1969. As anger about the war and other policies of the Johnson and Nixon presidential administrations brought hundreds of thousands of students into the movement, the New Left became increasingly decentralized. SDS eventually disintegrated as a series of Marxist-Leninist factions battled to take control over the organization's national leadership. Nonetheless, New Left organizers continued to address the Vietnam War, racism, and newer concerns such as feminism, the ecology, and gay liberation through the early 1970s.

LGB People in the New Left

Throughout the 1960s, lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals played critical roles in local and national student movement politics. Following the Stonewall Riots, the gay liberation movement's sweeping vision of democratic social transformation and ardent espousal of "coming out" derived directly from its members' experiences in the New Left and from attempting to live out what movement historian Doug Rossinow described as "the politics of authenticity." However, the student movement often offered an uncomfortable home to those men and women for whom authentic living included acting upon one's sexual attraction to the same or both sexes.

Student activists of all sexualities shared similar goals: ending poverty and racism; organizing disenfranchised Americans to assert the power to improve the material conditions of their lives; stopping the Vietnam War; and curbing the excesses of the military-industrial complex. But despite the self-proclaimed radicalism of many heterosexual men in the New Left, they frequently shared the antigay attitudes of the Cold War society in which they grew up. Generally dominating New Left organizations, these men often gay-baited their opponents and cajoled male recruits into proving their masculinity. They frequently organized women in and out of the movement based on whom they were dating at a given moment, effectively dividing New Left women into girlfriends who mimeographed and made coffee on the one hand and desexualized leaders who were essentially accepted as "one of the boys" on the other. Frequently, these men justified their own antigay and antifeminist rhetoric and practices by identifying as authentic revolutionary attitudes the homophobia and misogyny that they perceived as inherent to white working-class, black power, and Third World movements and cultures. Antigay movement cultures were further exacerbated by infiltrators from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and other state and local government authorities, whose agents spread rumors about the sexual orientation of specific activists in order to discredit them. Gay-baiting took its toll upon unknown numbers of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals, compelling some to lie and hide their sexual orientation while driving others from the movement altogether.

Homophobia in the New Left

Carl Wittman's experiences in the New Left illustrate the challenges experienced by LGB movement activists. A pioneering student leader at Swarthmore College, Wittman authored "An Interracial Movement for the Poor?" with Tom Hayden, the lead author of the Port Huron Statement. This document, which became the template for SDS's Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP), outlined the strategy of social movement building through local community organizing around racism and poverty. Wittman and Hayden led the ERAP organizing in Newark, New Jersey, but after Hayden reportedly declared that homosexuals were not welcome on the project, Wittman—then closeted about his sexual orientation—withdrew and launched a similar venture in nearby Hoboken.

Greg Calvert, another longtime SDS leader, reported the extensive harassment he received as a semi-openly bisexual man in the New Left. Before he joined the staff of the SDS national office in Chicago, Calvert's experiences with homophobia in the campus movement at Iowa State University left him quite wary of taking even more visible positions. Nonetheless, when his then-partner Jane

Adams became the interim SDS national secretary, he followed her to Chicago to take over as editor of the organization's weekly newspaper, New Left Notes, and eventually succeeded Adams as national secretary. Once on the national office staff, Calvert immediately encountered macho, homophobic posturing and frequent "queer" jokes from the male national leadership. As movement infighting steadily escalated, the antigay potshots accelerated accordingly. One woman on the national office staff sought to discredit Calvert by publicly comparing him to Bayard Rustin, the gay civil rights and pacifist organizer who continued to support the Democratic Party despite its position on the Vietnam War. At one regional SDS meeting, an organizer in the Chicago JOIN (Jobs or Income Now) Community Union told the audience— looking at Calvert as he walked down the aisle—that "you've got to realize that poor people and working people aren't ever going to take students seriously. If you came down and tried to organize in our community, folks would think you're nothing but a bunch of faggots" (Calvert, p. 197). This homophobia, combined with the SDS national leadership's new advocacy of violent insurrection, eventually drove Calvert out of SDS altogether. From there, he turned to organizing active-duty servicemen against the war near military bases in Texas and Massachusetts and joined the antinuclear and Central American solidarity movements after the end of the Vietnam War.

Calvert's story was repeated frequently across the New Left as heterosexual men mocked their male rivals as homosexuals, bragged about their prowess with women, and joked about pretending to be gay to avoid the draft. As the modern feminist movement emerged, women who challenged male chauvinism in the New Left risked being slurred as lesbians, though very few women came out as such until after immersing themselves in feminist consciousness-raising groups. Women such as Charlotte Bunch and Leslie Cagan cut their organizing teeth in the New Left before becoming renowned lesbian-feminist activists—though like many of their future feminist sisters, they dated heterosexually during the years of their involvement in the New Left and Bunch even married a male movement comrade. When Amber Hollibaugh, another veteran movement organizer, became romantically involved with one of her female housemates in the Red Family commune in Berkeley, she and her housemate were told that their behavior was unacceptable and were asked to leave the commune.

While most New Leftists brought to the movement the antigay attitudes instilled in them as children of the Cold War 1950s, the trust and candor earned during the ongoing work of discussing, planning, and carrying out social change provided some heterosexual activists with the experiential knowledge necessary to challenge these homophobic assumptions. Helen Garvy (who became the first woman elected to the SDS national leadership) recalled how the importance of gay liberation became tangible to her by watching the difficulties her colleague Carl Wittman had coming out to his Old Left parents. Similar transformations of consciousness took place during the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial following the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Government prosecutor Thomas Foran's relentless gay baiting of the white defendants and defense witness Allen Ginsberg directly prompted Tom Hayden and other movement leaders to reconsider how sexual diversity was integral to their over-arching vision of social transformation.

The New Left and Gay Liberation

As he immersed himself in San Francisco's gay culture in the spring of 1969, Carl Wittman began writing "Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto." In this essay, arguably the seminal theoretical outline of the new gay liberation movement, Wittman applied the lessons learned by New Left organizers to the issues facing lesbians and gay men. Begun before the Stonewall Riots (though published afterwards), Wittman denounced gay male chauvinism; rejected marriage and mimicry of other heterosexual institutions; and condemned discrimination by legal, psychiatric, and government authorities. He called for forming coalitions with the women's, black, and Chicano movements, other white heterosexual radicals, homophiles, and members of the counterculture, and issued a call to "free ourselves: come out everywhere; initiate self defense and political activity; [and] initiate counter community institutions" (Wittman).

In the wake of Stonewall, and as the protest movements of the decade became increasingly decentralized and splintered, LGB New Leftists began organizing gay liberation groups across the United States. In taking the name Gay Liberation Front, GLF members paid homage to Vietnam's National Liberation Front. From then through the early 1970s, GLF activists such as Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a onetime SDS leader in Philadelphia, took part in antiwar demonstrations in New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and elsewhere under banners such as "Gays Unite against the War." In Berkeley, for example, the Gay Liberation Theater debuted during the October 1969 Vietnam Moratorium protests, proclaiming it "queer, unnatural, and perverse" to send soldiers to fight communists in Vietnam while in the U.S. men were tormented, raped, jailed, and murdered for loving their brothers.

The GLF involvement at antiwar demonstrations spoke to the broad vision of social transformation that queer New Leftists brought to the nascent gay liberation movement. Similarly, impressed by Cuba's advances in education, housing, health, and other material conditions of living since the 1959 Revolution, numerous GLF activists took part on the Venceremos Brigades. On these, delegations of young Americans were originally organized by SDS to defy the anticommunist ban on travel to Cuba, otherwise pro-Cuban gay liberation activists condemned the work camps established by Castro's government for male homosexuals and other dissidents. In response, Brigade organizers charged the GLF activists with belonging to an anti-Cuban "cultural imperialist offensive" and finally instituted what amounted to a "don't ask, don't tell" policy demanding that gay participants remain silent about their sexuality.

Such battles over the place of gays and lesbians in the making of a revolutionary society repeated themselves throughout the already contentious final years of the New Left. Those Marxist-Leninist organizations such as Progressive Labor that relied upon recruiting members from the student movements adhered to Stalinist definitions of morality that dismissed homosexuality, and thus rejected gay liberation, as the products of bourgeois capitalist society that would disappear after the triumph of communism. Early in the 1970s, when Amber Hollibaugh helped activists from the armed revolutionary wing of the movement elude authorities, these fugitives turned and lectured her on the alleged capitalist decadence of her lesbianism. Hollibaugh's parents, who had joined a Maoist cell in Vancouver, were even expelled from the group for having a lesbian daughter.

Black Panther leaders, to whom many white radicals looked for role models, divided over the question of homosexuality. In his 1968 book, Soul on Ice, Eldridge Cleaver venomously attacked James Baldwin and other black gay men "acquiescing in this racial death-wish…bending over and touching their toes for the white man" (p. 102). In 1970, however, Black Panther Party leader Huey Newton declared his support for the gay liberation movement, and exhorted his comrades to reject their antigay attitudes and eliminate words such as "faggot" and "punk" from their everyday vocabularies.

Lesbians also struggled with the hostility of some of their heterosexual sisters in the women's liberation movement. Betty Friedan of the National Organization for Women raised the specter of a "lavender menace" threatening that movement. Meanwhile, Amber Hollibaugh and Charlotte Bunch helped organize a 1971 conference in Toronto designed to bring together U.S. and Canadian women with their counterparts from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In the planning for this conference, pacifist and radical women battled over whether the agenda should include lesbian issues, with some anti-imperialist women claiming that participants were imposing decadent bourgeois Western values on the Southeast Asian women by raising the question of lesbianism.

Early accounts of the New Left dated the demise of the movement to 1969, when the armed revolutionaries of the Weathermen faction seized control of the SDS national leadership. This chronology, however, obscures what was actually the rapid expansion of antiwar, feminist, environmental, gay liberation, and black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Native American power organizing well into the 1970s, long after SDS's collapse. While lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals often struggled to reconcile their political and personal identities through the 1960s, they embraced the feminist philosophy that "the personal is political" and applied this insight to their subsequent political organizing. The dedication of gay liberation and lesbian-feminist activists, and LGBT/queer activists in later decades, to multi-issue social justice organizing can be traced directly to the experiences of LGB activists working against war, racism, and poverty in the 1960s.


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Hollibaugh, Amber L. My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2000.

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Kissack, Terence. "Freaking Fag Revolutionaries: New York's Gay Liberation Front, 1969–1971." Radical History Review 62 (1995): 104–134.

Lekus, Ian. "Losing Our Kids: Queer Perspectives on the Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial." In The New Left Revisited. Edited By John McMillian and Paul Buhle. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.

Rossinow, Doug. The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism, Christianity, and the New Left in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. SDS. New York: Random House, 1973.

Wittman, Carl. "A Gay Manifesto." In Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation. Edited by Karla Jay and Allen Young. New York: Douglas, 1972.

Ian Lekus

see alsoanarchism, socialism, and communism; antiwar, pacifist, and peace movements; colleges and universities; gay liberation front; kuromiya, kyoshi; lesbian feminism; wittman, carl.

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New Left and Student Movements

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New Left and Student Movements