Exclusive for Morris Kight Blog
Post-Stonewall gay liberation was an exciting time. The activists who made it happen were unique visionaries, some would call them illusionists, as it was an outrageous idea that they could change long-held status quos for gays and lesbians. It required many strong egos, eccentrics and hard-working activists, to shift the equilibrium of civil liberties for homosexuals. This biography is not been written to glorify Morris Kight, and yet at times it might simply because the facts speak for themselves. Whatever the disputes, and there are many, despite how many people his out-of-control self-importance alienated Morris Kight was definitely in the delivery room, if not on the table, for the birth of gay liberation. In this telling of this important history, Kight is central.
This particular slice of the Kight and early gay liberation story is from 1973, a pivotal year in the endurance and indelibility of the annual gay pride celebration. The first Gay Pride Parade in 1970, Christopher Street West, was able to happen after a belabored battle between LAPD and gay leaders. An eleventh hour California Supreme Court decision ordered the police commissioner to issue a parade permit citing the “constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression.” The victory was sweet and yet it wasn't the only threat to a gay parade. From the beginning, parade organizers and participants knew there were risks of violence. Kight received death threats right up to the morning of the parade. Unlike what we see today, the first gay parade was very quiet. The marchers convened on McCadden Place in Hollywood, marched north and turned east onto Hollywood Boulevard. As they turned the corner, they had no idea what was waiting for them. Spectators lined both sides of the boulevard and everyone who was there had a very different reason for being there. LAPD was prepared for a riot with overhead helicopters.
Instead, the parade helped to kick open the proverbial closet doors on America and out sprung a new force to be recognized. Two parades later, the cohesive quiet of the first parade had turned into a cacophony of different values and perspectives—within the nascent gay community.
The Kight Affect
The Authorized Biography of a Gay Liberationist
The Authorized Biography of a Gay Liberationist
© All rights reserved, not for reprinting without permission
Gay Pride 1973
The success of the first Gay Pride parade in 1970 in Los Angeles spawned a new culture in America and Gay Pride was slowly taking off across the country. In Los Angeles, each parade was more outlandish than the previous, pushing all mainstream lines of what was considered to be appropriate public behavior. By 1971, sponsors of the parade were already complaining about the content and threatened to pull financial support.
By 1972, Kight was already, at times, claiming full credit for conceiving the idea for and founding the parade. As a member of the Christopher Street-West Planning Committee, he outlined the purpose of the parade and upcoming festivities and had all sixteen members of the committee sign the document and distribute it to the community.
“What exactly is Gay Pride? It is no secret that our community is quite diversified when it comes to politics, religion, lifestyle, etc. Thus, Gay Pride will mean many things to many people. But out of our great diversity and creativity, we are putting together an event which belongs to ALL gay people. In doing so, we are learning more about each other and generating an awareness of what pride and unity means to all of us as gay brothers and sisters.”
The nudity and “colorful” banners and signage in the 1972 parade pushed all lines of what many in the gay circles thought was in “good taste.” The giant Vaseline jar from the original parade was joined by a float made out of wire and paper-mâché, shaped to look like a long Chinese dragon with a penis head. Called “The Cockapillar,” it ejaculated white fluid as it weaved down Hollywood Boulevard. Some homosexuals expressed concern about the image they were portraying to “straight” society, as they wanted to be respectable. The more radical parade participants didn’t relate to “respectable” and argued that subduing the parade content wouldn’t necessarily garner them more respect. They felt justified that they were countering oppression by being as flamboyant as they pleased.
It did no good. In 1973, gay bathhouse owners formed a coalition and lobbied complaints about the vulgarity of the parade. The consensus was that it left the gay community open to harsh criticism from the neighborhood and the media. Censorship was discussed and Morris Kight, to some people’s dismay, did not oppose it. He claimed that he was “annoyed with critics of the parade within the gay community.” Everyone in the community and on the parade planning committee was at odds with each other and Kight was no exception.
Kight’s ideology as a pacifist did not make him passive. He fought hard for reconciliation but there was no end to the in-fighting despite his and many others best efforts toward a resolution. There was no progress toward even having a committee agreement, much less a celebration in the streets. The constant debating and scattered leadership not only threatened the continuation of the Gay Pride parade, it also weakened the organizational strength of the broader gay movement as everyone was focused on this single issue—parade content. Kight grew weary of the internal conflicts within the movement and blamed the problems on the “blunting of the parade’s political focus.” Eventually, he became impatient, threw his arms up in the air, feigning boredom with petty differences and dismissing any possibility of a cohesive effort. He was ready to move on to the next great challenge on the road to gay liberation. He was deciding if he would dismiss Christopher Street West all together and put aside the idea of any future parades. He could easily walk away from this particular activity—as he had done a dozen times before when he tired of something— because he didn’t feel that any one event completely represented the entire movement. He was frustrated by all the people spinning their wheels trying to solve this one problem. As early as 1971 Kight wrote to Foster Gunnison:
“Christopher Street-West— In retrospect I realize it was a great show. I am sorry that major media decided to black us out. But millions were informed of it in various ways, and the time and money spent was right on. We did the whole [’71 parade] with $1100 and had money left. So I am pleased. As for 1972 I do not know. I will not run it again. I am tired of it now, and feel that fresh blood is necessary to keep it going. Enough, I created it, and coordinated it two years. Many worked, much good came of it.”
Jim Kepner’s notes in When Did Gays Start: “I served on Christopher Street West committee for the first seven years, helping incorporate the group after Morris Kight (not for print) sabotaged it in its third year.”
The 1973 Los Angeles parade was indeed cancelled and not due to Kight’s sabotage.
Kight and Barbara Gittings were invited to come to New York City for the last weekend of June in 1973, to serve as the co-Grand Marshalls of New York’s Gay Pride Parade. The cancellation of the Los Angeles parade freed Kight to go. He was to spend the weekend being feted as the personal guest of honor of many of the east coast gay royalty: Dick Leitsch, Morty Manford, Vito Russo, Bruce Voeller and others.
On June 23, 1973—after the New York Gay Pride Parade was completed, author, activist, film historian Vito Russo introduced Kight as the second keynote speaker at the Gay Pride rally in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village, referring to Morris as:
“The man who founded the GLF of Los Angeles, the president of the board of directors of the Gay Community Services in Los Angeles, and was in the peace movement before most of us were born. He is the silver thread, as he calls it, from southern Los Angeles to New York City, and he comes bringing us love. As [author] John Francis Hunter calls him—the dean of the Gay Liberation Movement, Morris Kight.”
Kight stood to address what had to be the largest crowd of homosexuals he had ever faced—close to 50,000. He adjusted his cadence for the New York audience. His tempo was a bit more hurried than usual and his enunciation was less patrician—more proletarian.
“Brothers and sisters, I bring you greetings of love… There was in this demonstration a picket sign which I think is classic, one of the best I have ever seen in my life. ‘Don’t pretend to be somebody else. Be yourself.’”
He then dutifully publicly thanked his hosts and sent regards from prominent west coast activists.
“If I did all the things in New York that I was assigned to do, I would have to stay a year. I’ll come back. Dick Michaels, the publisher of the Advocate, asked me especially to bring you his warm personal greetings. The sisters who run the Lesbian Tide Collective asked me to do the same thing. Just before I left Los Angeles, the last person that I saw other than my closest coworkers at the Gay Community Services Center, was Reverend Troy Perry, who asked me to bring you his greetings. A great many other people said, ‘look up old so and so, or so and so, I used to know him real well.’ I don’t have time to do that. So, if somebody in Southern California says, ‘Did Morris say hello?’ Please say, ‘Yes, he looked me up and said hello.’ OK? All right.
Once he finished all the back-slapping, he got to the crux of his speech and hit every consonant hard while dragging every vowel.
“Now, let’s talk. . .
“At this time every year throughout America, there are held graduation exercises. And they always talk about promises. They are going to promise you a lot of things—the universe, dominion, progress, domination over women, over blacks, over Chicanos, over us, over children—domination, domination. And I call it the great bullshit revelation of June each year.
“So that’s not what we are talking about. We are talking about not dominating. We are talking about sharing and loving and caring. So we have a promise that we should make one another. Other minorities have had those that promise them things. [African-American abolitionist and women's rights activist] Sojourner Truth said to black women, ‘That white man over there says that women must be lifted into a carriage.’”
Kight quickly shifted gears, turned on his southern drawl and created an energetic rhetoric.
“‘Nobody ever lifted me into a carriage, and ain’t I a woman?’ Marcus Garvey said, ‘Liberty and justice for all…Well, they must be talking about white folks because us black folks never had no liberty and justice.’”
His speech resumed its original inflection and came around to make the correlation between abolitionists and gay liberations.
“Unfortunately, nobody promised us anything, except misery and destruction and genocide. We have been promised a life of death and destruction and despair. Until this generation, in which we have joined together to promise one another that should never happen again.
“In that context, we must remember Dachau, Belzec, Pilsen, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, in which a million of our brothers and sisters were scooped up off the streets of Europe and taken to that place and there submitted to the ultimate solution to gayness—incinerated, and turned into soap.”
He paused to place an emphasis on the next line: “Never again [a-gan]. Never again
[a-gan] will we allow this to happen.”
“In memory of two hundred of our brothers and sisters burned to death at Salem, not because they were witches but because they were part of us.
“In memory of that one million incinerated at Buchenwald. In memory of each and every one of these, we say ‘No more genocide.’
“Never again will you be allowed to take our children from us. You will not be allowed to take our dignity. You will not be allowed to take our lives. You will not be allowed to deny us a home, a job. And we demand that you give us the room that we want. Not to be part of your society. I do not wish to work at the White House because I don’t want to be a thief. I don’t want to work at the Pentagon because I don’t want to be a murderer.”
The crowd ate it up, and he shouted over their cheers.
“I don’t want to work at the National Institute for Mental Health because I don’t want to treat dissidents and gays as if they were sick.
“I want to make a world in which we say, ‘No more can you do that.’ The mental health industry must get off our backs. The Church must reform itself. The nuclear family must give way. All of this society must give us room, room, room. And you have taken it for yourselves.
“And thus, as long as there is a breath of life in Barbara Gittings and me, any one of you, we will not allow it.
“So, let’s do what Barbara says. Let’s practice an exercise in love. Touch. Feel. Talk to somebody. Kiss somebody. Caress somebody. Enfold somebody into your love. Pass the enormous amount of electric energy that you have in you to someone else. Pass it. Pass it. Share it. Don’t give it away to strangers. Give it to your own people. Give it to gay people. That energy should be passing through us, all of us collectively. All over this land we’re moving, we’re marching, we’re changing.
“Brothers and sisters, I bring you nothing in the world but total, mad love.”
Kight gave the New Yorkers a double-scoop of pure, irresistible hippie love on top of gay pride. Vito Russo articulated the crowd’s reaction when he shouted, “Thank you, Morris. We love you.”
After the parade and the rally, on a binge of all-nighters, Kight was the guest of honor at a dinner hosted by a group of long-time pacifists, board of directors types, the parade committee, and a number of other gay and lesbian leaders at a lesbian hangout in the Village called Mona’s Roost. He was having the time of his life and soaked up every watt of the spotlight while holding court. He was around people he could converse with, rather than have to argue with. The New York activists seemed so much more mature, in Kight’s eyes, than their west coast counterparts. There was no fighting, no backbiting—at least not around a visiting VIP. And Kight enjoyed the VIP treatment.
Kight later described his New York trip to Paul Cain (1994):
“It had been such a high-energy day. Of course, it had been the largest demonstration ever. Everything had been absolutely correct. It was thrilling. It was the perfect day. And so we ate and drank. And we drank a lot. And along about two o’clock, Igal Roodenko—a gay man, pacifist, now dead of old age from a heart attack—Igal said to me, ‘We need to get out of here. We need to get you out of here.’”
They left the party together, and Kight found himself heading with Igal up to 72nd Street, “to the most strange apartment I’ve ever been in my lifetime. It was three stories tall. And elegant, the most elegant I’d ever been in. It had a two-story bed. A bed that was built up with a rack of books and a rack for fish tanks, and then a sleeping pad here and a sleeping pad there, and so on, and so forth. I went up all through this bed.
“And then the host said, ‘Now, because you’re a nice gay man, I want to introduce you to my secret place.’ And so we went down to the Hudson River, to the Boat Basin—a Greek-Roman revival building, perfectly round, Greek columns outside, and a fountain inside. And he knew a secret way to get in, and so we went in. At three o’clock in the morning, we were in this place, with the fountain splattering, smoking grass, and being terribly gay and fantasizing. And then we went back to his apartment about five o’clock in the morning. I said, ‘I’ve just got to get some rest. I’ve just got to get home to Morty [Manford].’ And so I went into the Tube and went back to the Village.”
Kight made his way to the apartment where he had been staying during his trip, and Manford greeted him, saying:
“Oh, thank heavens you’re here! The phone has rung all night! They’re searching for you. People at the Center and your friends have been calling to say there’s been a fire in New Orleans. We don’t know if it’s a gay bar or not, but it sounds gay to us.”
A popular second-story gay hangout called the Upstairs Lounge, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, was destroyed by a sudden blaze during peak business when the place was packed. Arson was immediately suspected. Most of the fatalities happened because the fire had come from the one and only door that led to a stairway to the ground floor and people were trapped by fire bars on the windows of the second-story bar. The few survivors did so by squeezing through the fire bars and jumping onto the sidewalk.
Manford suggested that Kight re-route himself to go through New Orleans on his way back to Los Angeles. Kight invited Manford to join him, and before they had really decided what to do, they were both at the airport, boarding a flight to New Orleans.
Kight: “I notified the press that I was coming. When I got to Atlanta, the press was at the airport and I said it was a national day of mourning and they interviewed me, and so on. And then I went on to New Orleans and Troy [Perry] was there, along with some other people.”
There is no record of any media waiting at the airport to greet them. They did hold a press conference at the local Marriott Hotel and Kight, identified as “president of the Gay Community Services Center and reputed founder of the Gay Liberation Front,” was quoted in the Times-Picayune, describing the Upstairs Lounge fire as:
“The worst single tragedy to befall the gay community since Nazi Germany." Even though an investigating detective told the press, “There are hints of a firebombing,” when pushed by a reporter as to whether the fire was arson, Kight carefully deferred judgment: “We feel it is incumbent on us to depend on the New Orleans police to decide that.’”
Major players in the country’s gay activism immediately convened in New Orleans and each activist brought a different muscle to the effort. Resources being what they were, Reverend Perry remembered, “We all slept in the same room and there were four of us… things that you shouldn’t have to do. . . Here again, Morris was right. He said, ‘Troy, you have more power than you know. If you tell people to send us money, they will pay for these hotel rooms.’ So I got on the phone. Once I got the pledge of the money, I immediately went down and got another room and we stayed at the Marriott, a brand new hotel.”
Up to that point in American history, the blaze at the Upstairs Lounge was the largest bar fire ever, and it made national news for exactly twenty-four hours. Reverend Perry remembers: “The Police Department called a press conference and said they found out it was a gay bar. They said, ‘It was only thieves and queers, and they don’t carry ID.’ Once they found out it was a gay bar, we didn’t exist.”
Kight: “Twenty-nine people had burned to death. And we had to counsel their families, all whom were finding out for the first time that [their loved ones] were gay… Lots of people were in hospitals. We had to visit them.”
Perry: “Two of my church members died in the fire, including my pastor’s assistant, Mitch Mitchell, burned to death.”
As reported in the local news in 1973, the fire was out in eighteen minutes with “bodies jammed like logs against the front windows.” By the next day, the final count was thirty-two dead and numerous serious injuries. Charred bodies were stacked in the city morgue, many unclaimed. Kight: “We stayed for a week, burying the dead.”
Perry: “I called Clay Shaw to get permission, if I needed it, to hold a memorial service if I could not find a church. Morris and Morty Manford came in – and then I brought in two other clergy, [including] one who worked for Social Security, so we’d know how to deal with the bodies.”
In the meantime, Perry explained, “Morris again was working his way with the media. We were all interviewed. We all knew how to talk. They got more than they knew what to do with. We attacked the Police Department right off the bat.”
Kight: “The police were making the most terrible statements. The Fire Marshall was making homophobic statements, such as, ‘We will never know who they were because gay people don’t carry identification.’ And we were holding a quick press conference to correct them.”
National coverage ended one day after the fire, and local coverage quickly went from carrying the full story to a cursory mention on the evening news, and then moved into blatant malice. The print and TV news repeatedly showed one particularly gruesome photograph, taken from outside the building, of fire victims melted into the fire bars with limbs hanging out. The gay activists made repeated phone calls to the local newspapers, TV, and radio stations to complain that the news was “reporting” distasteful gags and pejorative statements from anti-gay locals rather than reporting news of the tragedy.
Reverend Perry: “We kept talking about what we were going to do. Morris mostly wanted to demonstrate. We all held a press conference and said, ‘Those were human beings.’ The bodies were so burned the FBI had to use skulls [for identification.] The bodies were completely cremated, and everything was burned up, including their ID’s. Their rings were melted into the floor. These were people with real names, with families. Well, the police tried to backpedal, but it was too late—it was amazing how we turned them around.”
Kight: “The Fire Marshall of New Orleans Parish called me and said, ‘We saw your press conference, and you’re absolutely right. We did say terrible things. We will meet with you anywhere you want. You set the location, and we will meet with you to adjust our differences.’ [And we said,] ‘Fine, let’s meet.’ And we adjusted it.”
Some of the New Orleans press criticized the out-of-towners as carpetbaggers, coming in to take over. From the Marriott press conference, the Times-Picayune reported: “They [‘the homosexual movement leaders’] all stressed that they are not in New Orleans to attempt to solve the tragedy, but to help those who need it.”
Kight: “One of them came and said, [in a Southern accent] ‘Mistah Kight, we must meet with you. You must meet with the people from this city. You’re out there, holding press conferences to say all these radical things. We’re unused to radicalism. You have to bear in mind that many of the people who burned to death in the fire are sons and daughters of distinguished old Southern families.’”
Kight recognized those southern ways and he perceived the locals as being financially unhelpful and internally impoverished.
Kight: “I fantasized about creating a National New Orleans Memorial Fund to raise money and contribute it to a Trust . . . and of all the money raised for the National New Orleans Memorial Fund, none came from New Orleans. None. They didn’t want to hear it. They didn’t want to deal with it. We were an embarrassment to them.”
There was a fund opened at Security Pacific Bank for the purpose of providing assistance to the survivors. It didn’t raise much capital for the year that it existed—there was enough to send assistance to a few people. Kight resented the locals for meddling in his good deeds.
“I am convinced that we were absolutely correct and right. And moreover, we used mountains of tact in dealing with those who were not supportive of us.”
In 2003 the City of New Orleans commemorated the tragedy and victims. Troy Perry was invited to participate, “Morris would’ve been very proud. I went back thirty years after the fire, and the city has now dedicated a plaque in the street with all the names of the people who burned in the fire.”
Investigators ultimately determined that the fire which killed thirty-two people was started with lighter fluid on the steps that led to the entrance on the second floor. Three victims, all white males, remain unidentified to this day.
Reverend Perry: “It affected us all – it affected Morris Kight in that he knew we were in a real struggle and fight now. People could murder [gay] people and get away with it, and that is exactly what happened. Thirty-two people had been murdered; somebody had thrown retardant up that staircase and set it on fire – that’s what happened.”
The only suspect—and the only person who was arrested in relation to the attack—was a customer of the Upstairs Lounge who had been thrown out of the bar earlier in the night for unruly behavior. On his way out of the bar, Rogder Dale Nunez, was overheard threatening to “burn you all out.” He was never convicted of the crime, but he did confess on at least four occasions while drunk and said that he didn't realize the damage he would cause. Nunez, full of remorse, killed himself a year later.
Reverend Perry had difficulty finding a Christian Church that would allow the out-of-town guests the use of a church for a memorial service for the victims of the fire. Perry remembered saying at the time: “Let’s wash the Christians’ hands on this.” They finally found that the local Methodist Church was supportive, agreeing to let them have a service in their cathedral.
As Reverend Perry, Morty Manford, John Gill, and Paul Britton prepared for the service, “Morris flew back to LA, for he felt like he had to get back home.”
Kight had no use for religious ceremony and made no apology for not participating in a church ritual. He cried in New Orleans and going back to Los Angeles, he continued to grieve in his own way. He ruminated, let the situation settle in, and asked himself some pertinent questions to figure out the best way to help his community recover from the tragedy.
In a private condolence letter to Reverend J. E. Paul Breton, on the loss of his pastor’s assistant from MCC in Washington DC who died in the fire, Kight was especially sentimental: “New Orleans was a unique experience for me. I shared some of it with Morty when we talked a long time on the phone and became very emotional. It has affected my life. Idea to dust off and present to you. I am only awaiting that to dust off… [sic] for the highly evolved there is no death, but only spirit everlasting. And [recently deceased MCC pastor Bill Larson] was all that.”
The New Orleans fire was a genuine turning point in Kight’s life and activism. In 1994, he explained it with his usual lemons-to-lemonade responsiveness: “It was a shattering experience. We were unbelievably inspired. We were unbelievably brave. We were pushed beyond ourselves.”
Before he left Los Angeles to go to New York, Kight had been indifferent about a gay parade and about the necessity for an organization dedicated to making a parade. He was prepared to abandon the idea of an annual gay celebration all together and refocus his attention on something new. If no one else wanted to quarterback the event, he was just as pleased to see it fade away. He liked to create new things for gays to flock to and be gay and widen the avenue for gay liberation. He was a peripatetic activist; he’d flit from crisis to crisis. He liked to identify a need, cite a solution, make some phone calls and organize something; he’d then create jargon, write a few press releases and once he saw it taking off and was assured that competent people were in place to see it through, he’d move on. He’d leave it for others to carry through or not. He’d say, “Let’s move on” to the next challenge or instigation. He was still a bit impetuous, immature in his focus, but his efforts were always to keep things moving and to keep “gay” in the public consciousness.
Kight changed in New Orleans. On the flight back to Los Angeles, for the first time, Kight longed for tradition, he wanted a bit of a routine. He wanted stability. He appreciated what ritual brought to a community and he wanted that for his community. He acknowledged the gay community that did not exist in 1958 and he looked deeper into the purpose of this community. He wanted to inculcate a celebration of gay into the mainstream consciousness. He craved the feeling that he had on June 28, 1970 when he and a couple hundred other gay and lesbian brothers and sisters broke all tradition and walked down Hollywood Boulevard as out as a clean sheet flapping in the wild wind. He remembered how exhilarating and truly liberating that felt. He vowed not to let the gay pride fade away and promised to never miss another hometown Gay Pride parade. It mattered not what the content of the parade was—just as long as it was gay, big and colorful. It needed to be a regular event that happened every year, just like Christmas and Halloween and the Fourth of July. Gay Pride was to become its own institution.
He also never again talked about uprooting and moving to San Francisco or any other place because by that time, Los Angeles had become as much of a home as he’d ever had.
The following year, Christopher Street West had a new steering committee, and Pat Rocco became the first official president. Rocco, Rob Cole, and David Glascock went through the parade permit process and again met the objections of Police Chief Ed Davis, who criticized the “unsavory” content of the 1972 parade. They prevailed in 1974 and have never missed another year since.
By 1975, it was clear—the commemoration of Stonewall had superseded the actual event at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 in historical importance and political impact. In 1976, the gay pride celebration became a week-long festival, closer to the Mardi Gras atmosphere that Kight had originally envisioned, culminating with a Gay Pride Parade. In 1976, Pat Rocco set up a circus tent, brought in circus animals, including elephants (and fleas no doubt), and gave his old friend Kight the Ringmaster a baton and microphone. In 1977, Kight served as the first official Grand Marshal of the parade, a role filled by Harvey Milk in 1978.
In the aftermath of the fire, as the media embers died out, details of the disaster still continued to spread through the unobvious gay communities across the country, mostly by word of mouth and underground presses. The long-term response to the New Orleans fire was a swell of new Gay Pride events around the nation and eventually worldwide
Kight never did miss another hometown Gay Pride Parade.
-Mary Ann Cherry
© All rights reserved, not for reprinting without permission