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Breaking the Left’s Gay Taboo

Just over five years ago an article I had scanned from the July 20, 1947 PM newspaper titled “Utopia in the Catskills” appeared in CounterPunch. PM was a leftist newspaper that published between 1940 and 1948 and as such found Woodridge, my little village in the Catskills, as noteworthy as some on the left find Rojava. Reporter Croswell Bowen was impressed with the co-op movement that for all I know was more advanced than Rojava:

Actually, Woodridge is unique among the neighboring communities, because it possesses five highly successful consumer co-operatives, owned and operated by their members. Three of the five comprise one large intercounty co-operative association. All five are loosely connected with national co-operative groups which furnish over a billion dollars in services and goods to more than 2,500,000 member-owners throughout the United States each year. In practice, the Woodridge co-ops follow along the lines of the Rochdale pioneers.

Among those photographed in the article was one Lou Young, who was chairman of the board of the Inter-County Farmers Co-operative Association and is shown feeding some white roosters. His son Allen was six years old at the time and would soon begin doing chores on the family poultry farm in Glen Wild, a village even tinier than mine. Among his tasks was gathering egg yolks and whites into a gallon jar that would be sold to a local baker in Woodridge, renowned for their challah (the bread Jews ate on Friday nights) as was my father for the kosher dill pickles he made and sold at his fruit store.

When Allen was 12 years old, he accidentally dropped a gallon jar of egg contents in the back of his father’s pick-up truck and felt guilty over the loss of income. In his stunning new biography Left, Gay and Green: a Writer’s Life, Allen vividly recalls his father’s reaction:

It was surely my fault that the jar fell and broke, but I have no recollection of my father getting angry with me. Perhaps, despite all of our family’s financial problems (and the monetary loss associated with the gallon of eggs), be saw the humor in that odd gooey cascade of yellow yolks and shiny albumen (the technical word for egg whites).

I suspect his father’s generosity of spirit might have had something to do with his membership in the Communist Party. Whatever its political failings, the party attracted people who put other people before profits.

Within a few years, McCarthyism had become viral in American society, even in my “utopia”. Just four years younger than Allen, I have vivid recollections of the malicious gossip directed against the Youngs. In the mid-50s, there were two major taboos: Communism and “race-mixing”, even in a village like Woodridge that had been a bastion of New Deal support. In junior high school, there were classmates who whispered about the Youngs. Not only were they Reds, they also had parties at their house where Blacks and whites would dance together. It was almost if their house was a witch’s coven.

The other major taboo back then was homosexuality. By the time he was dropping those eggs, Allen had no doubts that he was attracted to men. Despite his father’s socialist values and his open-mindedness, he never accepted Allen’s sexual orientation. Given the prejudices directed at Reds, Blacks and gays back then, it is a testament to Allen’s strength of character that he soldiered on and became a great success as a writer on the left.

In the comic book memoir I did with Harvey Pekar (and torpedoed by his widow Joyce Brabner), I wrote about the Youngs and the small cadre of Communists who were based in the poultry farms of Glen Wild. Among them was Naomi Jaffee, who like Allen would become an SDS leader. Naomi made the big mistake of becoming part of the Weather Underground while Allen knew from the start that she, Mark Rudd, et al had lost their minds after discovering that their non-violent actions had not ended the war. To some extent, this might be attributed to the distance Allen felt from the machismo culture of the men in SDS, who like the Black Panthers viewed gay people as counter-revolutionary.

As implied by the title, Allen deals with three phases of his life. The left refers to his emergence as a key journalist of the left through the auspices of Liberation News Service, a radical version of Associated Press that fed articles to leftist newspapers around the country informing them about pending actions and providing analysis about the antiwar movement, campus rebellions, and the Black struggle.

As for the gay phase, Allen found the Stonewall rebellion as liberating as many gays and lesbians did. It inspired him to come out of the closet without worrying about what either his peers or parents thought. He and co-author Karla Jay wrote the anthology Out of the Closets: Voices of Gay Liberation in 1972 that had the same kind of impact on the gay movement that Barry Commoner’s The Closing Circle had on the burgeoning environmentalist movement.

Allen did eventually won his mother and sister’s support. It is a shame that his father never had the opportunity to read his son’s autobiography that is a testament to living according to one’s principles. If the left had Allen’s capability to change its behavior on the basis of common sense and respect for human values, we’d be in much better shape today.

The final phase of Allen’s long journey was colored green. In the early 70s, he and a group of gay men on the left decided to build an environmentally sustainable commune in the backwoods of Western Massachusetts that reminds me of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond project even though Allen seems to have disavowed such a connection in the concluding chapters on the Butterworth Farm. From my perspective as a Trotskyist in the 1970s, the “back to the land movement” was highly suspect. There was just too much of the “hippie” element for me to accept. Looking back at this period through the hindsight afforded me by reading Allen’s book, I understand that this was a movement that was almost inevitable given the failure of the left to make headway in American society. With all the alienation and outright bigotry this country dishes out, now coming to a head under the Trump regime, it makes perfect sense why people would want to create a loving and supportive community. That being said, Allen is honest enough to write about the contradictions of life at Butterworth Farm that had a lot to do, in my opinion, with the clash between communal ideals and property-owning reality. It is an affliction that can be seen in the very small experiments like Butterworth and those like Mondragon on a grand scale.

Honesty is the operative word in this autobiography. Written with the kind of Olympian detachment advanced years affords, you get confessional moments throughout the many years of his life as a writer he recounts. Despite being Communists, the Youngs placed the same hopes in their son that other Jewish parents had, namely that their children would make it as professionals. Unlike me, whose aspirations were fairly modest, Allen knew early on that he wanted to become a journalist at a prestigious newspaper.

From the minute he arrived at Columbia University in 1958, he set his sights on writing for the Spectator, the student newspaper. He eventually became the newspaper’s editor and a big man on campus as he puts it with a certain degree of self-mockery. After graduating Columbia, he went to Stanford to complete a masters degree in what amounted to Latin American studies as preparation for a job as a foreign correspondent. After some time spent in Latin America to absorb the continent’s realities, he enrolled in the Columbia Journalism School, a launching pad for a job at the New York Times or other big-time newspapers.

His dream came true when he landed a position at the Washington Post in 1967 during the height of the anti-war movement. For most people, this would be the culmination of “making it”, as Norman Podhoretz titled his repellent memoir. But for Allen, “making it” meant making a revolution, something that his employer would look upon dimly. So to protect himself against victimization, he became a closeted leftist as well as a closeted homosexual. For me, this chapter is worth the price of the book.

A motion picture played a significant role in my decision to leave the Washington Post and devote myself to the New Left movement as a writer-activist. The movie was The Battle of Algiers, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo of Italy, and just released in 1967. Already working at the Post, but uncertain if I belonged there, I saw the film on a visit to New York. I was with my fellow red diaper babies Jonah Raskin and Eric Foner, who were also sympathetic to the ongoing anti-colonial movement but who were both pursuing careers as college teachers. Focusing on the anti-colonial uprising against the French in Algeria, the movie’s main character is a young Algerian named Ali who joins the armed revolutionary movement. There was something about the decisive commitment of Ali that motivated me to step away from my establishment career and into a growing movement for peace and social change.

The name Jonah Raskin should be familiar to CounterPunch readers as a regular contributor. He, Eric Foner, Abbie Hoffman, Andrew Kopkind, Michael Klare, and our mutual friend Michael Meeropol are among those he counted as friends and comrades over the years. Reading how he and they moved against the corporate war-making machine a half-century ago would be most instructive for young people today trying to figure out how to struggle against ruling class injustice today. Beyond the experiences and wisdom of a life on the left he shares in the pages of this autobiography, you get a stylistic elegance that sets a high bar for anybody trying to write a memoir about life on the left. Let’s put it this way. I was probably better off working on a comic book. My next step is figuring out how to get the damned thing published.