Berkeley and the Fight for an Effeminist, Socially Transformative Gay Identity
(First printed in “Smash the Church, Smash the State, The Early Days of Gay Liberation,” edited by Tommi Avicolli Mecca, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 2009)
By Nicholas Benton
My personal gay revolution began in Berkeley, California, in the tumultuous year leading up to the Stonewall Riots.
Until I moved from a small California coastal town to Berkeley to enter postgraduate seminary in 1966, I was convinced my primary struggle through life was to carry the secret of my gay orientation to the grave. But the civil rights and antiwar ferment I found in Berkeley changed all that.
It motivated me to do the last thing I had expected to do: not only to come out, but to become the first-ever openly gay person seeking ordination in a major Protestant denomination; to co-found the Berkeley Gay Liberation Front; to become the first openly gay speaker officially included at an anti-war rally in San Francisco; and to become a prolific writer on universal gay liberation themes for numerous alternative weeklies in the Bay Area.
Little did I anticipate the social ferment that escalated in Berkeley shortly after I arrived there. The civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements began spilling over into the streets. Marches and demonstrations more than once turned violent. From the Pacific School of Religion’s location on a hill above the University of California, we watched from our classrooms as helicopters dropped tear gas on demonstrators. Often I was a demonstrator on Telegraph Avenue myself. I drove daily from my Oakland home to my classes past long rows of National Guard troops lining the streets.
My seminary colleagues and I, as with growing legions of the general public, were deeply moved and inspired by the influence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. As seminarians, we were particularly struck by his role as a religious leader, inspiring and motivating a huge mass movement for civil rights. Dr. King’s assassination in April 1968 had a profound effect on us all.
It was compounded by the assassination only two months later of Democratic presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy in Los Angeles. Late that night, I saw on live television the unfolding of pandemonium at the Ambassador Hotel as the news of the Kennedy shooting spread in the hall, and someone went to the microphone to shout, “Is there a doctor in the house?”
That summer of 1968, I attended a session at the seminary attached to Northwestern University just north of Chicago, where the Democratic National Convention in August drew thousands of angry anti-war demonstrators who were frustrated by the war and the King and Kennedy assassinations, and where an ugly police riot ensued that the entire nation watched.
In response to all this, I didn’t necessarily think to myself, “I have got to come out,” as my personal contribution to the spirit of the anti-war, pro-civil rights revolution. But when I returned for my third year of seminary that fall, I responded to a flier posted on a bulletin board offering seminarians a few days of exposure to discussions by gay leaders and to the gay scene in San Francisco, just over the Bay Bridge. It was sponsored by the Council for Church and the Homosexual.
I signed up, braced for questions from faculty and fellow students about why I would do that. I can’t imagine anyone suspected I was gay, because I had the misfortune, I think, of being able to hide behind a pretty straight image, having gone through undergraduate college on an athletic scholarship and even getting married. We separated just prior to the summer of 1968, as my desire to turn a new page in my life was becoming stronger and stronger.
At the seminar, I pulled off my “curious seminarian” routine pretty well, I thought. I expressed concern for the usual Biblical prohibitions and so forth. But I think the gaydar of some experienced gay leaders knew better. I met the legendary Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, and other San Francisco gay leaders that I would consort with for years after that, once I came out.
Sadly, that seminar marked the first time I ever knowingly encountered another gay person. The biggest single impact it had on me was not only to see gays as real, intelligent people, but to notice that many were darned cute. More than anything, I confess, that sealed my determination to come out, though cautiously, over the next few months.
Filled with paranoia and dread, I staked out some gay bars in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District before getting up the courage to slip inside for the very first time in March 1969. Once I finally entered the gay world, I was traveling over to the City almost every night.
Graduating seminary with honors in May 1969, I moved to a small efficiency overlooking Powell Street in downtown San Francisco, a half block from Union Square. I watched and heard cable cars below my window every night and day. A few yards away, hustlers, most of them runaways, hung out under the canopy of the St. Francis hotel at Powell and Geary. Up on Sutter Street, the liveliest gay bar in town, the Rendezvous, was packed with stunning young guys every night. There was dancing, but in those days, no touching. The final song played nightly, as the dance floor undulated, was Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
Across the continent, in New York City, the Stonewall Riots began on June 28, 1969, marking the recognized launch of the gay rights movement.
Over the next year, while in postgraduate study at the seminary, I began coming out to a wider and wider circle of friends and classmates, as well as gay activists in Berkeley and San Francisco. My thoughts progressed toward melding the notion of gay liberation, my own liberation included, with the “bigger picture,” the one informed by my theological education.
By the summer of 1970, some friends and I officially formed the Berkeley chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, and I worked with a collective that was starting the Gay Sunshine newspaper. I had the honor of writing the first editorial ever for that newspaper, published in August 1970, titled, “Who Needs It?”
It sounded what was my signature theme at the time, that indeed, gay liberation was part of the larger struggle of human beings for liberation, in solidarity with the civil rights, anti-war, feminist and Third World liberation struggles. Gay Sunshine will represent, I wrote, “those who understand themselves as oppressed — politically oppressed by an oppressor that not only is down on homosexuality, but equally down on all things that are not white, straight, middle class, pro-establishment….It should harken to a greater cause — the cause of human liberation, of which homosexual liberation is just one aspect — and on that level take its stand.”
“If homosexuality is really nothing different than something like left-handedness, then the creation of a paper for homosexuals makes no more sense than a newspaper for lefthanders.” I acknowledged that “a gay newspaper would be a powerful tool in the homosexual fight for equal rights, as it would be a catalyst that could call forth…political potential.”
In proposing the sociocultural revolution embedded in the very notion of gay liberation, I wrote in the October 1970 edition of Gay Sunshine: “Sex between persons of the same sex is the cultural antithesis to the most fundamental proposition of the whole Western capitalistic mentality, which is derived from the one fundamental act, the ‘missionary position’ (male atop female) sexual intercourse.”
“The ‘missionary position,’ penis in vagina for the explicit purpose of the creation of offspring, is the first presupposition of everything Western culture represents. From it are derived the concepts of purposeful existence, patriarchy, capitalism, nationalism, imperialism, fascism. From it come the thought patterns of active/passive, dominant/submissive, I/you, we/they, top/bottom, greater/lesser, win/lose and on and on and on….An absolute antithesis of this presupposition is an orgasmic sexual act between persons of the same sex.”
That fall, a surprise financial gift from an aunt enabled me to rent an apartment directly across Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue from the White Horse Inn, which was the only gay bar in Berkeley, and was very low key. A picket line had been thrown up in front of the bar by some gay radical brothers and sisters, protesting the fact that long-haired, hippie-type gays were not welcome in the bar and that touching was, naturally in that day, also prohibited.
With help from friends, I had the idea to turn my $130-a-month apartment into what I called “The People’s Alternative,” and it became just that. Demonstrators in the picket line across the street were invited in. There was virtually no furniture but lots of cheap wine and a boom box.
For over two months in the fall of 1970, my “People’s Alternative” became a magnet for fun gay organizing activities of all types. Often it was filled far beyond capacity, including one night when everyone who’d attended the first-ever officially sanctioned gay dance at the university a half mile away, poured in after the dance ended. Gay religious services were held there. I was ordained into an obscure sect there. Famous older gay icons held forth there. It was no Studio 54, but pretty damn lively. In mid-November, the landlord found out about all this, and I was swiftly and unceremoniously evicted.
In November 1970, I and another openly gay seminarian were invited onto a panel with two faculty members, one conservative and one more liberal, to discuss the new gay movement at the Pacific School of Religion (PSR). More than 400 students from PSR and other neighboring seminaries turned it into a standing-room-only event, one of the best attended general assemblies ever held at the school. I brought the house down with my declaration that the Bible commands us to be “both fruitful and to multiply.”
One of my fellow seminarians, Bill Johnson, chose the occasion to stand up and “come out” in the middle of the meeting. He was met with wild applause and numerous group hugs. Sadly, I looked out and saw another seminarian, with whom I’d had a brief relationship months earlier, who chose to remain in his closet, and perhaps to this day.
One Sunday, at a United Church of Christ church in San Francisco, a sermon was delivered by its pastor, an older man who’d confessed to me that he was gay. The sermon was intended to be compassionate, but with the title, “People Unlike Ourselves,” it was offensive. During the coffee hour discussion afterward, I went to the microphone and angrily denounced the apologetic tone of the sermon. While not “outing” the minister, I declared my resignation from the church and the termination of my ordination process.
(The United Church of Christ went on later, in 1972, to ordain my seminary classmate, Bill Johnson, making him the first openly gay person to be ordained by a mainstream Protestant denomination. I’ve long since re-joined the UCC, whose history dates to the Mayflower, the Abolitionist movement, the Underground Railroad and the founding of scores of institutions of higher education for freed slaves after the Civil War. In 2005 its ruling national body became the first representing a major Protestant denomination to vote to fully support gay marriage).
Also in the fall of 1970, I began writing for the Berkeley Barb. I came with a lot of journalistic experience, having been the editor of my high school and college papers and a full-time writer for my hometown paper before entering the seminary.
I began writing mostly about gay issues at first, but later I became, on and off virtually its principal writer, covering stories on all topics until January 1973. I wrote articles on gay events and themes almost every week. During one stretch, I wrote a seven-part series on “The Gay Scene in San Francisco,” which described bar life and street life with a lot of not-so-pretty accounts of alienation and discrmination based on age, attractiveness and so forth. Two of them, “The Same Old Game” and “David,” were later published among a compendium of essays in Len Richmond and Gary Noguera’s The Gay Liberation Book (Ramparts, 1973). A third essay of mine published in that book critiqued the so-called “men’s liberation movement” and was called “Don’t Call Me Brother.”
The barely adequate income derived from writing and doing page layout for the Barb came under first at one point from some of my gay radical counterparts, who showed up one day to challenge me to leave. They didn’t like that I had a job and many of them didn’t. Some of them felt that true radicalism involved makingf the state pay for your livelihood by qualifying for welfare. I told my boss Barb founder Max Scherr, that I no intention of bending to their pressure.
By the summer of 1971, a friend, Jim Rankin, and I developed the notion of the social paradigm shift that we felt gay liberation represented. We saw the movement allied with radical feminism as an effort to end war and oppression by transforming male-dominated society. To this end, we argued against those who saw gay liberation as only sexual freedom, or even as strictly a fight for legal rights. Many of my articles in the Berkeley Barb promoted the notion that, fully actualized, gay liberation had the potential to be socially transformative. We had exchanges with the likes of San Francisco’s legendary Harvey Milk and Berkeley’s gay poet in residence, Allen Ginsberg.
My friend and I decided to launch our own newspaper to further advance this perspective. We called it The Effeminist and with specially prepared statements on fliers, a small circle of us leafleted a number of San Francisco gay community meetings where Milk began launching his career to become an openly gay member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
We who were The Effeminist challenged his “equal rights only” focus with our cultural paradigm-shift theme. He wouldn’t take up our challenge to help transform the movement, but repeatedly affirmed our right to our views while steadfastly maintaining his own narrow focus.
In the case of Ginsberg, The Effeminist took him to task for having confessed in print to masturbatory fantasies involving really young guys. We leafleted at one of his readings in Berkeley, calling his confession “sexism, homosexual oppression that makes it impossible for us to be gay.” He became my polemical punching bag on more than a few occasions in the effort to differentiate his typical notion of “gay” as merely lusty sexual attraction from our view of “gay” as the basis for a profound social paradigm shift.
But in the fall of 1972, I said good-bye to that intense phase of my life at a three-day gay issues confab, the Southwest Regional Conference on Gay Organizations, in Sacramento. I had a major role in a number of seminars where I tried to get across by effeminist way of looking at things.
Ten days later, George McGovern was defeated in the landslide reelection of Richard Nixon. Burned out, I quit my job at the Berkeley Barb in January 1973, and I decided to be more of a socialist activist than a gay liberationist. I wrote a more-of-less exit essay for a San Francisco gay publication titled, “Socialism or Homosexuality,” denouncing what I saw as the prevalent understanding of homosexuality as “predatory” in nature, mirroring the values of the dominant American culture, and not transformative as I’d felt it should be.
The incredible thing about those days was the sense that one’s ideas and activism were at the cutting edge of the new direction that the overall culture was taken. We felt that sense, and I was certainly not unfounded.
Nicholas F. (Nick) Benton, an honor graduate of the Pacific School of Religion in 1969, was cofounder of the Berkeley Gay Liberation Front in 1970. In 1991, he founded the weekly Falls Church News-Press (www.fcnp.com) in the northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. and after 18 years it is widely recognized as the most progressive newspaper in Virginia. As its openly gay owner and editor, Benton has served twice as president of the local Chamber of Commerce, been named Falls Church’s “Pillar of the Community” twice and “Business Person of the Year” once, and had his newspaper named “Business of the Year” twice.
In another essay in the book, entitled “The Effeminist Moment,” author Steven F. Dansky wrote this about the effeminist current in the early post-Stonewall gay movement:
The year was 1970…During that year following the Stonewall Rebellion…several clusters of antisexist men, mostly in New York City and Berkeley, began to formulate pro-feminist theory that they termed effeminism…the effeminist movement of antisexist men was more accurately a moment in a historical frame than a political movement. A moment, as opposed to a movement because because effeminism was often dismissed as “extremist” or “violence prone,” and effeminists were characterized as making “frothing denunciations” (Gay Sunshine newspaper 1973). As a result, effeminism attracted controversy rather than magnetizing followers….
The term effeminism had a twofold function. First, it designated those men who supported the women’s movement. Second, the term effeminism connoted the societal ostracizing of men considered to be effeminate…During the summer of 1971, Nick Benton and Jim Rankin published two editions of The Effeminist newspaper in Berkeley, selling it one Telegraph Avenue and distributing it to independent bookstores. Of effeminism, Benton later said the following:
“Our concept of effeminism was not so much to flaunt effeminate behavior, but to affirm our solidarity as gay men with the feminist movement. We saw ourselves creating a flank of the feminist movement among males, especially gay males, seeing that oppressive features of the male chauvinist and dominated society that the most progressive feminists were seeking to undermine and redefine were also the root of the oppression of gay men.”…..
Jill Johnston wrote in 1972 in the Village Voice: “Effeminists are the first western male revolutionaries. The first men to confess the inappropriateness of their manhood and to withdraw from the classic male demand of support from the female.” Martin Duberman reviewed effeminist writing in a 1972 New York Times book review: “While revolutionary effeminism may seem adventurist, violence prone and opaque…it is formulating basic questions on gender.”
…In 1973, the New York effeminists published the “Effeminist Manifesto” in Double-F: A Magazine of Effeminism.”
4 THINGS GAY ACTIVIST NICK BENTON IS CREDITED WITH DOING IN EMILY K. HOBSON’S “LAVENDER & RED, LIBERATION AND SOLIDARITY IN THE GAY & LESBIAN LEFT” (University of California Press, 2016), with citations.
Though not warranting a lot of ink in this 309 page work, Nicholas “Nick” Benton is credited with four significant contributions to the early Post-Stonewall Era Gay Liberation movement in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is acknowledged as 1. the host of the People’s Alternative unofficial gay space in an apartment that he rented across the street from the White Horse gay bar protests, 2. a pivotal leader in turning the Berkeley Gay Liberation Front against a 1970 Alpine County migration initiative, 3. the first gay liberation representative to be an official speaker at a major San Francisco anti-Vietnam War rally, and 4. the founder of the Effeminist movement.
In that 1969-72 era, Benton, an honor graduate (M.Div.) of the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, Calif. was also a regular gay correspondent for the Berkeley Barb counterculture weekly, the co-founder of the Berkeley, Calif., Gay Liberation Front, the co-founder/editor of The Effeminist newspaper, and a gay delegate to the November 1970 “Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention” in Washington, D.C., among other things.
1. “….Gay liberationists built another home base a few miles away in North Oakland through the ‘People’s Alternative,’ a recurring dance party hosted at the apartment of activist Nick Benton. Echoing rhetoric from the San Francisco GLF, Benton and others termed the People’s Alternative a direct substitute for the ‘gay ghetto’ – especially the nearby gay bar the White Horse Inn, which refused to distribute Gay Sunshine and barred same-sex couples from kissing or holding hands. In September 1970 GLF members picketed the White Horse…” p. 29-30 (Citation, “Boycott,” Berkeley Tribe, Sept. 18-25, 1970).
2. “In November 1970, the Berkeley GLF formally opposed the Alpine project, rejecting it in a two-thirds vote that the national gay magazine The Advocate termed ‘the first major split…of the west coast gay liberation movement…Activist Nick Benton termed the project ‘racist, sexist, impractical and counter-revolutionary nationalist.’ He and others argued that Alpine threatened to reproduce the ‘gay ghetto,’ establishing another site of isolation and exploitation rather than a transformed society.” p. 38 (Citation: Nick Benton, “Alpine Put Down,” Berkeley Tribe Oct. 30-Nov. 6, 1970, also printed as a letter to the editor in the San Francisco Chronicle).
3. “In October 1970, Benton became the first gay liberationist speaker at a major antiwar demonstration,” p. 209. (Citation: Justin David Suran, “Coming Out Against the War: Anti-Militarism and the Politicization of Homosexuality in the Era or Vietnam,” American Quarterly 33:3 (2001), p. 453, 466, 473.)
4. “Benton also founded a short-lived gay liberation group called the Effeminists, which, among other proposals, held that antigay discrimination operated as a form of imperialism and that gay men ought to reject penetration of all kinds as anti-egalitarian.” (Citations: The Effeminist No. 2 c. 1969-70, page 1, Benton, “Sexism, Racism and White Faggots in Sodomist Amerika,” page 4, and “Gay is the Most” Gay Sunshine No. 2, October 1970.)