Wednesday, June 22, 2011
A personal note to the reader: There are too many words, too many words to describe one man and his life—that’s what I’ve been wrestling with lately. And that’s why you haven’t heard from me. I’m doing my due-diligence on the Morris Kight story as far as research goes and to give the man a proper analysis. I’m doing the writing and it will get done. There is just so much. That is why he makes for a good subject.
Well, I have to get some of this stuff off my desk, so to speak. In that effort, I will share with you some of the Kight stories – some anecdotes that I’ve found particularly interesting. The Gay Liberation Front, for me, created some of the most exciting stories, perhaps because it was a time that was ripe with cultural and political revolution. The GLF is where all the forces for a better country collided—and not always in harmony. The Black Rights movement, the women’s movement, the anti-war movement, the farm worker’s labor movement, the nascent ecology movement, all happened on the heels of hippie love and a sexual revolution with students uprising over everything, and J. Edgar worked overtime. It seems, with the benefit of hindsight, that the country was geared up for gay liberation. I also like the GLF tales because they accomplished a lot—on many different levels. The GLF folks, to me, were true revolutionaries. So many changes were happening at the same time—culturally and civically that people couldn’t keep up. It was their demonstrations, large calls-to-action and some small, personal behaviors (at the time, it was radical to hold hands in public), that enabled the GLF to introduce mainstream America to homosexuals—and first impressions counted.
At some point in between the time of my last phone call with Morris Kight, which was the day before he died in January 2003, and where I sit today I realized and came to accept that this book can not please everyone. Morris Kight didn’t please everyone and he didn’t care. I am more sensitive than he, but I accept this for what it is.
In the early gay movement, demonstrations were called zaps. Today, I have chosen to tell you about one of the many zaps, a questionably more successful GLF demonstration that ultimately put the gay liberation movement at America’s dinner table, via the evening news.
Morris Kight: Gay Liberationist
© All rights reserved, not for reprinting without permission
Brother Don had a Dream
“Brother Don has a Dream,” so went the headline of the two-page press release, which appeared in its entirety in the Los Angeles Free Press on August 14, 1970. Don Jackson wrote: "I have a recurring daydream. I imagine a place where gay people can be free."
A sparsely settled, rural area in the Sierra Mountains in Northern California on the Nevada border, Alpine County had a population of slightly more than 400 with 384 eligible voters in the June 1970 election. Jackson first proposed the idea in December 1969 at the Gay Symposium at Sherwood Forest in Berkeley. He reasoned that lesbian and gay folk could quickly become a majority, govern themselves, and “be free at last.” Jackson envisioned a Gay Colony as a "quicker way to freedom."
Kight immediately opposed the entire idea saying that it smacked of "cultural nationalism," separatism, and would reinforce stereotypes posed by the oppressor culture, “I thought they were all crazy. We can’t do that, we can’t go into the country. We’d starve to death. I pooh-poohed it. I didn’t say that publicly. It was just my private thing.” In December 1969 the discussion digressed and pretty much everyone in power at the Gay Symposium agreed that the plan carried the strong possibility of creating a new gay ghetto "rather than breaking down walls."
Don Jackson and many of his friends were fed-up with the oppression from the establishment, they all wanted to go away and just be gay. They still thought it was a good idea. Jackson discreetly proceeded with his plan for a Gay Mecca with a gay government. Less than a year later, Kight was still frustrated by the lack of mainstream media coverage given to the gay movement, despite the GLF’s ethos of “a zap a day.” He rethought his reaction to the Alpine scheme and recognized the potential publicity value.
Kight: “I thought, wait a minute, Don Jackson has a capital idea and we must capitalize on it. So I brought together Jon Vincent Platania, Stanley Williams, and Don Kilhefner. The four of us met over at 1501 North Hoover, next door to KCET-TV and I said, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s take over Alpine County, but don’t. Let’s agree among ourselves that we’ll fake it. That we’re going to be serious, we’ll stare into the camera and we’ll say that we’re taking over Alpine County, we’re creating dah dee dah dah dah.’ And so we held a press conference.” (1989, IMRU for KPFK)
The carefully crafted two-page, single-spaced press release cited “a county in California where 200 gays would constitute a majority of registered voters,” and that 479 homosexuals had already signed up to move to Alpine County. After the required 90-day residency, their plan was to demand a special election, vote out all the elected officials and occupy every office, including judge, sheriff, and supervisors—with homosexuals. “After the elections, they would make use of the $2 million the county receives annually from state and federal sources.”
Jon Platania: “People were just homophobic enough to believe and fear it. We made flyers saying, “Come to Alpine County, the new Gay Mecca.”
Harry Kaplan: “There was a great debate going on at the time about whether we should try to separate ourselves as homosexuals from the oppressive rule of straight society and form our own social unit both politically and geographically.”
Years later, Kight still laughed when recalling his press conference to say, “That the Gay Liberation Front of Los Angeles has met and has voted among ourselves (unanimously, we might add), to take over Alpine County. Very quickly we have recruited pioneers all ready to move and very quickly we expect to move there and establish homes, a university, the first American Lesbian and Gay university where we will teach gay studies. We expect to have farms and ranches and craft shops and we expect to be a citadel of intellectual and activist activity of the part of the lesbian gay community. The following morning there was NBC, with one of their famous reporters standing on a piece of land in Alpine County saying, ‘I’m standing on the land which has been bought by the Gay Liberation Front. It is here where they are going to build their homes.’ And I thought, ‘Good grief, if he can tell that big a lie, I feel less of a liar than him.’ So then, we just held a daily press conference.”
It was a media coup. By mid-October 1970 the United Press International (UPI) and Associated Press (AP) picked up the story which drew national attention. Over a hundred local and city newspapers and radio stations covered the Alpine County story, including the one outlet whose refusal to report about gay liberation irritated Kight the most-- the Los Angeles Times.
“Gay Front move worries Alpine County,” was one headline. Genuine concern from the Alpine-powers-that-were-in-office was expressed. “Naturally,” the chairman of the board of supervisors was quoted, “We’ll do anything and everything we can to prevent anyone taking over our county.” According to the Bedford Gazette in Pennsylvania Alpine County’s “top elected officials” said that “residents will resist a possible political takeover by the Gay Liberation Front.” A week later, after a few behind closed door meetings with city officials and a legal affairs secretary to Governor Ronald Reagan, the same officials were quoted in a different Pennsylvania newspaper (Lebanon Daily News), “There is no way to prevent hundreds of homosexuals from becoming residents and laying the groundwork for a political takeover. If these people come up and abide by the laws there’s nothing we can do to prevent them from becoming residents.”
Gays and straights were taking the scam seriously. Many lesbians and gays began to organize around it, making plans to uproot their lives and relocate to the region where summers are ninety days and the snow falls twenty-five feet deep.
Howard Fox: “Alpine County, which is really a god forsaken place, not too far from Lake Tahoe, it’s a ski resort at times, it’s just freezing and no place anybody gay would want to live. But we carried forth with this whole sham. And Morris was giving press reports about how ‘the penetration of Alpine County had commenced.’”
The momentum of the scheme was buoyed by the comedy. Kight’s natural humor helped to relieve tension as well as get attention.
Carolyn Weathers: “We, the gays and lesbians were going take over Alpine County. We were going to be like the pioneers in the covered wagons. And of course, there was all this brouhaha…we, the Gay Liberation Front were running around [handing out] these buttons saying ‘Alpine County or Bust.’ People took it up as a great idea. There'd be a guy at GLF sewing blankets and quilts and people were sending food supplies and all this for when we took over Alpine County. [My sister] Brenda thought that actually it was never meant to be, in other words, it was just agitation propaganda to get attention and to further the cause. They never intended for us to really do it, but it got its own momentum. That doesn’t mean it wasn't a great idea. Many people took it seriously.”
Gay people were quitting their jobs, putting their homes on the market and getting ready to put down deposits on property in Alpine County.
Del Whan: “Morris cooked up the takeover scheme of Alpine County as a publicity stunt, agit-prop to get the media attention and bring GLF to public attention. Many gay people took the plan to set up a Gay County seriously, however, and were very upset when they eventually realized that Morris was just making waves to stir up public attention for gay civil rights.”
Meanwhile, the Berkeley and San Francisco gay libbers, where Don Jackson was based, were fully engaged in promoting the takeover of Alpine. A long time activist known as Mother Boats, Vice President of Sexual Freedom League, was promoting the Alpine Liberation Front in the Bay Area at meetings and with a series of editorials in the Berkeley Barb. No one from Los Angeles told their Northern California counterparts that it was an agitprop joke. Jeff Poland and Don Jackson kept in almost daily contact with Kight.
Jackson was thrilled that Kight had taken up his cause and he got caught up in the hoopla. He was genuinely excited and inspired by the possibility of a Gay Colony. He wrote to Kight almost daily with his updates and latest ideas, “Events have changed my concept of what Alpine will be. It has grown into a bigger issue than just Gay Lib or even just Gays. Now, I visualize it as a liberated territory, a bastion of liberty in the statist sea, based on the basic libertarian doctrine that a person has a right to do anything he wishes so long as he doesn’t harm anyone else…I think the name of our organization should be ‘the Alpine Liberation Front.’ It is better than Alpine Mobilization Committee. I visualize it growing into a national organization.” And “I know it will be a big strain on you, but the Alpine Mobilization may be the biggest accomplishment of your life.”
The scheme was quickly getting out of control. Kight was having a ball and couldn’t let it just slip away without one more final push. He was quoted in the news constantly:
“Morris Kight told newsmen Wednesday about a dozen of the GLF members would be on the steps of the [Alpine County] courthouse. ‘On Friday we hope to meet with the power structure—the sheriff, the chairman of the board and postmistress. Our goal is to have 600 located in the county by June 28, 1971.’ Kight said the GLF owns a small tract of land in the area and has options on other property. ‘The Washoe Indians have a private alliance with us,’ he said, ‘and we have a 5-to-20 year plan to preserve the environment of Alpine County.’”
Mother Boats in Berkeley Barb: “Gay Liberation is somewhat embarrassed at their omission of the Washoes from their plans to liberate Alpine. A ‘faulty intelligence report,’ based on typically racist establishment records, caused the mistake.”
Jeff Poland of the Berkeley groups wrote a note to Kight regarding the above: “Dear Morris—We haven’t actually contacted any Indian groups yet (Boats too busy with nude Halloween dance), but this clipping should show them [the Native Americans] how we feel.”
A note to ‘the file’ in Kight’s handwriting, dated November 12, 1970: “With tongue-in-cheek [heavily underlined]: Do you think the splendid (future) success of the Alpine County project will cause the U.S. government to send all gay people to Alpine County as a ‘reservation?’”
Years later, Kight to Bob Dallmeyer:
“Thanksgiving Day 1970, June Hurrle, Steve Morrison Beckwith [and Rob Gibson] wanted to have a holiday in the country, so they thought they’d go to Alpine County. So they packed picnic lunches and we sent gifts for the natives. There is an Indian family in Alpine County and we sent gifts from gay people, ‘giving to our spiritual brothers and sisters’ gifts.”
A caravan of GLF members from Los Angeles made its way to Alpine County. Two men and a woman from the GLF-LA who posed for photographs in front of the Alpine courthouse were introduced as an advance party to “scout conditions for a planned takeover.” (Times Reporter, Dover, Ohio).
Kight made sure everything was in their favor. Timing the trip to Alpine for Thanksgiving weekend was not coincidental. Holidays are traditionally ‘slow news days,’ and there was a better chance for coverage. In addition to exercising his media savvy, Kight’s natural radar for infiltrators went off.
Kight to Dallmeyer: “In the meantime, we had been infiltrated by an FBI agent, who thought we might really be about to take over the government and he wanted to go along. I said, ‘You’re welcome to, we welcome everybody. I tell you what you do, there is a pay phone on the main drag in Markleeville [main town in Alpine]. You go there and commandeer the phone, and we’ll use that as our method of communicating with our troops.’’
In retelling the story, Kight over-dramatized the set up. He was not physically in Alpine County but navigated two major events that same weekend from his home phone—coordinating all efforts with the media. [This was the same weekend that a contingent from the LA GLF drove to Washington DC to represent gay liberation at The Black Panthers People’s Revolutionary Constitutional Convention).
Kight: “So here was this FBI agent with the phone, ‘Hi, NBC, just a moment here is Mister Morris Kight,’ and for three days he was there staffing the phone. And we were using his good offices, FBI has more and better equipment than we have, they have more trucks and everything than we have. Then Steve, June, and Rob had their picnic lunch on the steps of the Alpine County courthouse, munching away.”
Howard Fox: “Because it was Thanksgiving Day there was no news, so the networks sent crews to photograph them live from Alpine County. This story made news for weeks and weeks throughout the world. Time Magazine wanted to interview us…We told them that we are doing what Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew have told us to do—that if you are unhappy with the system, use your votes to bring about change. And we were doing this by peaceful means. This was the American way. It was wonderful.”
An entire GLF business meeting was dedicated to the Alpine County takeover. Kepner has copious notes including detailed short-term and long-term outlined plans. They had plans for sponsors (“Ask First Unitarian Church to sponsor this and ask other liberal churches to cosponsor it as a Gay organization.”), Legal defense, election coalition strategy, and they even asked themselves: “What are our legal & moral responsibilities to people already there?”
Letter to Kight from Craig Hansen (Oct 22, 1970): “Alpine County takeover has really caused a ruckus. Why? GLF has done a lot of crazy things which deserved news before and received the silent treatment from the Establishment media. I believe the reason is that we have threatened straight America. We are taking over! We3 could take all the gay bars in town, and nothing would be said; but take a county with 300 people and straight America goes outa mind! If GLF wants news it has the tool. Anything which looks like a threat to straight society will get news. P.S. Alpine County is very cold in the winter. There may be places in Nevada or elsewhere with even fewer people and a nicer climate.”
This was by far Kight's biggest and most public rouse. Kight was quickly earning a reputation as a practical joker, a bit of a con man, and also as someone who could get things done.
A mid-November report in a Placerville, California newspaper said that “The ‘gay people’ simply haven’t reckoned with what they might run into if they go through with their plans. The Alpine county people, including the members of the Indian tribes, don’t look upon the idea with much favor and they are preparing to cope with it, calmly, coolly and with determination.”
At some point, Kight contacted the Alpine County sheriff, once again introducing himself as a representative of the Gay Liberation Front. Kight suggested they conduct a town meeting to create “a truce session with the county’s residents.” The sheriff outright rejected the offer.
By mid-December, weather in the high Sierras was quite harsh and no one from Southern California, GLF or otherwise, would be found in Alpine County after the temperatures slid down to 15 degrees. “The windy weather,” the sheriff pointed out in newspaper interviews, “was not conducive to visitors.” The sheriff felt “the gays have been defeated and repelled.” He added, “They have no organization in Los Angeles but a few leaders making a few bucks off a few suckers,” adding that the leaders of the Front were “known radicals.” The sheriff acknowledged that there might be another “offense in the spring,” and “It would take millions of dollars to even house them here.” And a final jab from the sheriff: “There’s deep white snow on the ground and the icicles are two feet long—Alpine County is a virtual fairyland, but not the kind they want.”
Eventually confusion overshadowed excitement. In December 1970, Kight received a three-page typed letter from his friend Reverend Itkin asking, in the nicest terms possible, “out of the spirit of warmest friendship for you,” for ideological clarity on why Kight chose to support the Alpine County project, reminding him that, “Cultural nationalism, by its very nature, is counter-revolutionary.” Itkin was understandably concerned because originally Kight was vocally opposed to the entire idea. “We were,” Itkin wrote, “at that [previous] time, in perfect agreement.”
An anonymous letter to Kight (November 1970) from someone called “A Soul Brother,” began, “If the GLF was actually serious about founding a homosexual nation in Alpine County, why in hell did it release the story to the news media in October, months before effective legal action would be taken?” The letter writer goes on to say, “The Gays have opened a Pandora’s Box for every minority in the country…If the move has only propaganda value, and could never be practical, then it has great value indeed. If, however, it is practical, and a voting majority could be supported there by outside funds from gays all over the U.S…then the strategy has been handled abominably. The poor slobs in Alpine County, and millions of straights everywhere are convinced that this sinister, powerful, well-organized underground is as threatening as the Mafia or the Communist Party…It makes me laugh.”
Kight: “Then it was time to blow the bubble. We announced that our forces had grown too large and Alpine County simply wouldn’t hold us and we were moving on to somewhere else. And we gradually killed the story off.”
He made up a story that “real estate agents returned deposits on property when they discovered that the prospective buyers were homosexuals.”
Within days, UPI and AP were reporting Alpine County’s “Victory over homosexuals.” Mid-December mainstream news headlines began to read: “Gay Front Delaying Invasion,” quoting Kight, “‘We’ll have to take the real estate agents to court on a civil liberties issue just like the blacks did in the South—because we’re an ethnic minority, too.’ Kight, 51, a former hotel operator who says he ‘dropped out’ 10 years ago to organize against sexism, poverty and racism, said the planned migration to Alpine will attract about 1,070 ‘pioneers.’
“‘The earliest possible date for the migration will be sometime next spring if the courts clear the way for homosexuals to purchase Alpine County property,’ Kight said.”
In the spring of 1971, UPI reported, in usual Kight humor: “New site eyed by Gay Front,” naming Bankhead Springs, a 224-acre town just east of San Diego, as the new target for the Gay Liberation Front. The article said that real estate inquires were made by “the homosexual group,” and that if the purchases happened, “the town would be exclusively for homosexuals. It would be called Mt. Love and would be divided into 1,000 quarter-acre lots.”
As late as August and September 1971, newspaper reports continued across the country regarding the Gay Liberation Invasion of Alpine County. “Markleeville has only about 125 people and they bristled with some old powder-and-ball anger and resolution when the ‘invasion’ was threatened.” Several committees were formed and plots and plans were put into place to ward off the takeover, and several offers from all over the world were received to help on the “gay” problem, but officials from Alpine County credited the “carnivorous mosquitoes (so large they sometimes bark)” and the harsh winters as the final discouragement to the Front people. The county’s sheriff said “the mosquitoes attacked some naked Front people and hippies with vigor at the surrounding lakes and streams, and the cold penetrated deep in the bones of the unwanted visitors.”
A huge publicity success for the gay movement, it did not boost Kight’s standing among his peers. Kight didn’t want to risk ruining the scheme if he let Jackson in on his real intention to use Alpine County solely as an agitation and propaganda tool. Jackson had been sending Kight typed letters all along, keeping the Bay Area press alerted as Kight instructed, often stroking the older man’s ego: “I gave the Chronicle your phone number. The people giving interviews should be rotated. The young longhairs are best for relating to the younger Gay Lib types, but you do some of the interviews to give dignity to the project. Your name won’t have to appear in the press very many more times before you are listed in ‘Who’s Who.’ When the actual invasion occurs there are going to be around 300 reporters and photographers to add on to the immigrants.”
Their relationship never recovered from the betrayal that Jackson experienced when Kight backed away from the Alpine dream. It achieved what Kight set out to achieve—worldwide coverage of gay liberation. In mid-1971, Kight wrote: “A vast number of stations have all but ignored our existence, except the recent ‘Alpine County’ news story which was covered well.” Gay liberation could no longer be ignored by the establishment and it was slowly becoming a topic of conversation in American homes.
Platania: “That is what makes Morris the ultimate trickster. He was a man of spirit, politically sophisticated, outraged, outrageous, and maligned.”
People not familiar with his abstract thinking could easily confuse his antics as mean-spirited or self serving. Certainly, many of his detractors were quick to note, and often, that Kight received as much press attention as gay liberation. The confusion continued for years: was it a joke, was it a genuine effort that backfired; was it a joke on gay people or a joke by gay people? What was clear to all the critics was that Morris Kight’s name appeared in every press release. What wasn’t clear to the common observer was that until Kight became involved, there were no press releases-- he initiated writing press releases for the cause. He crafted a strategy and drove it like an eighteen wheeler truck to bring gay liberation into the consciousness of America. It wasn’t always delicate. Other leaders of the movement partook in the sham, yet all responsibility for the collapse of Don Jackson’s dream was placed heavily and solely on Kight. The wide and unprecedented media coverage wasn’t always appreciated for the great triumph that it indeed was for the movement.
Even though it sealed his reputation as being stubborn and self-aggrandizing, Kight saw the Alpine County zap as a huge success. New York activists were appropriately impressed with the amount of attention it garnered; Alpine County received far wider press coverage than the rebellion at the Stonewall Inn. The crazy idea stirred discussions about civil liberties and the constitutional rights of homosexuals. Whatever his intentions, for better or for worse, the Alpine County demonstration would follow him for the rest of his life—for better and for worse. Years later, regarding a completely different disagreement, Jim Kepner wrote “[Kight] almost singlehandedly scuttled the Alpine dream (perhaps too impractical from the start) even while strutting before the press and TV cameras as its leader.”
In typical Kight manner and following his advice to all the younger members of the GLF, he never responded to the criticism.
Morris Kight: Gay Liberationist
© All rights reserved, not for reprinting without permission