1st Edition

Communists in Closets Queering the History 1930s–1990s

By Bettina Aptheker Copyright 2023
    270 Pages 16 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    270 Pages 16 B/W Illustrations
    by Routledge

    Communists in Closets: Queering the History 1930s–1990s explores the history of gay, lesbian, and non-heterosexual people in the Communist Party in the United States.

    The Communist Party banned lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people from membership beginning in 1938 when it cast them off as "degenerates." It persisted in this policy until 1991. During this 60-year ban, gays and lesbians who did join the Communist Party were deeply closeted within it, as well as in their public lives as both queer and Communist. By the late 1930s, the Communist Party had a membership approaching 100,000 and tens of thousands more people moved in its orbit through the Popular Front against fascism, anti-racist organizing, especially in the south, and its widely read cultural magazine, The New Masses. Based on a decade of archival research, correspondence, and interviews, Bettina Aptheker explores this history, also pulling from her own experience as a closeted lesbian in the Communist Party in the 1960s and ‘70s. Ironically, and in spite of this homophobia, individual Communists laid some of the political and theoretical foundations for lesbian and gay liberation and women’s liberation, and contributed significantly to peace, social justice, civil rights, and Black and Latinx liberation movements.

    This book will be of interest to students, scholars, and general readers in political history, gender studies, and the history of sexuality.

    1. Introduction - What is Found There: In the Archives & in Life  2. Stonewalled: Gay Liberation & Communist Silence  3. Harry Hay (1912-2002): "Welcome My Dears": A Communist, Radical Faerie in a Revolutionary Quest  4. Elizabeth (Betty) Boynton Millard (1911-2010): A Passion for Women & Global Sisterhood  5. Eleanor Flexner (1908-1995): Living the Unnamed: Scholar, Activist & A Boston Marriage  6. Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965): Freedom in Mind  7. The Communist Party Ban Ends: Stories from the 1990s-2000s  8. Afterword: A Labor of Love


    Bettina Aptheker is Distinguished Professor Emerita, Feminist Studies Department, University of California, Santa Cruz, USA. She is the author of: Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought for Free Speech and Became A Feminist Rebel (2006); and The Morning Breaks: The Trial of Angela Davis (1976; second edition 1999).

    "Bettina Aptheker's personal history of gay and lesbian people and the Communist Party is essential and transformative in enlightening our understanding of gay, Black, and women's liberation visions in America. She shows how queer desires for freedom were so expansive, that they were propelled by both the party's political visions of justice and the cruelties of its organizational prejudices to create entirely new liberation formations. Aptheker traces the invention of Gay Liberation in America, the first Women's Studies class, the founding of Parents of gays solidarity organizations, lesbian music, and the first play by a Black woman on Broadway - all sprouting from queer Communist origins. This is a book that makes connections and fills gaps, defies stigma and defies historical silence."

    Sarah Schulman, author of Let the Record Show: A History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993 (2021)

    "This book is at once a deeply personal portrait of Bettina Aptheker and her struggles as a gay woman in the Communist movement, but also a generous, appreciative and carefully historicized portrait of the many others who were gay, feminist, and Communist. The chapter on Lorraine Hansberry is especially enriched by Aptheker’s triple vision."

    Mary Helen Washington, Distinguished University Professor, English, University of Maryland, College Park, author of, The Other Blacklist: The African American Literary and Cultural Left of the 1950s.

    "Through vivid personal reminiscences and extensive archival research, Aptheker draws out the hidden histories of gay and lesbian participation in American communist movements, even as the Party remained hostile to that possibility. From pre-Stonewall labor and social welfare causes to the origins of gay liberation and beyond, she reveals, queer communists played key roles on the Left. Her biographical approach provides rich texture for understanding how both famous and previously unknown activists navigated the tensions between their political and sexual identities, and how they influenced American history and culture."

    Estelle Freedman, Edgar E, Robinson Professor in United States History, Emerit, Stanford University, co-author of Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America

    "In this revelatory study, Bettina Aptheker gives us a superb model of lesbian-feminist scholarship, distinguished by rigorous use of archival materials and written from the heart. Succeeding generations will find here the historical foundations upon which to build new, more inclusive, movements for social justice."

    Julia M. Allen, professor emerita of English, Sonoma State University, author of Passionate Commitments: The Lives of Anna Rochester and Grace Hutchins.

    "With Communists in Closets Bettina Aptheker has given us a work that is bound to be a classic in the history of the American Left. Combining intricate historical detective work with analytical rigor and a biographer's skill in individual storytelling, Aptheker reveals the hidden history of gay and lesbian radicals who had remained closeted as members of America's homophobic Communist Party and Communist Left. Aptheker's deep knowledge of the CP, her sensitivity to and understanding of the LGBT experience, combine with her brilliant archival work to make this history not merely comprehensible but profoundly moving and memorable." 

    Robert Cohen, Professor of Social Studies, Steinhardt Affiliated Professor, History Department, New York University, and co-author of Rethinking America’s Past: Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, 2021

    "With this important book, Bettina Aptheker takes us on an amazing journey of heart and history.Closeted and secreted for generations, advocates of socialism, anarchism communism -- and LGBTQ folks were hidden from history.  Filled with stunning new information, countless surprises, bold connections, Bettina's life and research enhances our understanding of some of the most creative and interesting lives of our long-denied culture. This is a delightful book needed now and for the future."

    Blanche Wiesen Cook, John Jay College & Graduate Center, CUNY, author of ELEANOR ROOSEVELT, vols I, II, III among other works

    "Bettina Aptheker's Communists in Closets is an insightful history of the lived experiences of queer Communists in the United States. While her archival digs into the lives of Harry Hay, Lorraine Hansberry, Betty Millard, and many more would be reason enough to devour this book, readers will be delighted to find Aptheker's own story woven throughout the narrative, lending an important first-person perspective to her rich biographical archaeology. Written with good humor and a keen sense of what might have been, Aptheker reminds readers of the complicated pressures that shaped the lives and politics of queer Communists in the twentieth century -- and how they responded with grace, courage, and perseverance."

    Aaron Lecklider, Professor, American Studies, College of Liberal Arts, University of Massachusetts, Boston, author of Love’s Next Meeting: The Forgotten History of Homosexuality and the Left in American Culture.

    "Deeply personal and thoroughly researched, Bettina Aptheker's ground-breaking book opens the closet door to the rich queer history of the U.S. Communist Party. Through portraits of dynamic leftists—Black and white—such as early gay rights activist Henry 'Harry' Hay, Communist Party activists Elizabeth (Betty) Millard and Eleanor Flexner, and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, Communists in Closets provides a new model for historical writing on the U.S. Left and LGBTQ movements."

    Erik S. McDuffie, Associate Professor, African American Studies, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, author of Sojourning for Freedom: Black Women, American Communism, and the Making of Black Left Feminism

    "Combining personal recollections with impressive archival research, Aptheker has reconstructed the lives of inspiring social justice activists whose true selves remained hidden due to pervasive homophobia. Communists in Closets deeply enriches our understanding of the history of the Communist left and of LGBTQ life in the United States."

    John D’Emilio, Professor Emeritus, History; Gender & Women’s Studies, University of Illinois, Chicago, author of Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood: Coming of Age in the Sixties

    "Aptheker says that writing this book was a 'labor of love'. In this spirit, her book urges all the Left not to limit our understanding of the LGBTQ movement to rights and reforms, but rather to appreciate the 'skill, ingenuity, grit, and sometimes considerable humor, the marshalled courage' that has been manifest in the LGBTQ movement. Ultimately Aptheker’s book suggests that the LGBTQ liberation experience should be an integral part of how we think about changing the world."

    Martha SonnenbergNew Politics

    "It was refreshing and delightful reading about 20th century gay and lesbian political and cultural activists that I had never ever heard about previously and my admiration for these ancestors grew the more I read. For a change, it was not just about the privileged ones and celebrities, the glitterati and literati. It’s mostly about ordinary gay and lesbian people with strong social consciences that guided their embodied political and social justice work from early to late in the 20th century in the United States and internationally."

    Don KilhefnerLA Progressive