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Morris Kight
'An Elder of Our Tribe'

Interview by Jack Nichols

Jack Nichols: Long ago, in its February 1, 1971 issue, the Manhattan-based newspaper, GAY, published a 3-page interview with you. At that time you'd become well-known as a pioneering Los Angeles activist, a pillar of The Gay Liberation Front. GAY's headline called you "A Bridge Between Generations" while an earlier photo caption characterized you as "a beacon to today's youth."

On your next birthday you'll be 80. But 30 years and more ago you were in the center of every Los Angeles project and protest. When I visited L.A. in 1975, you were a gracious host and, during an entire week, showed me about the city. We drove from one exciting site to another.

I recall you pointing to where you'd organized a demonstration against Dow Chemical in 1967 because of its manufacture of Agent Orange—and such horrors as napalm, herbicides, and defoliants that were used against the innocent Vietnamese people, still adversely affecting that country today. Looking back on your DOW demonstration, what do you think about now while the United States officially blames Saddam Hussein for manufacturing very similar brews?

mkight2.gif - 20.53 K Morris Kight : Photo by Tom Bianchi Morris Kight: I was forty-eight when I founded the DOW Action Committee, an early-on Lesbian/Gay Liberation activity, since I knew many Lesbian/Gay people and invited them to join me. Some did, most did not. I was called Communist sympathizer, anti-patriotic. Some said: "It is none of our gay business, let the straights fight it out."

I was fifty when I founded The Gay Liberation Front (Los Angeles). I was called an "old man", a Father Figure, a Sugar Daddy without the sugar. Now I am an Older and find many who think that's an achievement. I enjoy being an Elder, and think that our Younger Brothers/Sisters could gain much from inter-generational alliances.

The DOW Action Committee was the first-ever pro-Peace group which goaded DOW, a particular company. I am, and was, a Gandhian Pacifist and the group was founded on these principles. Lesbians and gays learned a new dimension to caring, learned to distribute leaflets, to deal with the media, to deal with the police and spy agencies and to commit civil disobedience. It was then—a training school for radical gay liberation which came three years later. Indeed, some of the veterans of DOW joined me in the Gay Liberation Front.

About Iraq? I am bothered that any country manufactures atom bombs, chemical warfare, and distributes munitions…and it may be that Iraq is doing that. I am sorry that that contributes to the poverty of the Iraqis and to a bellicose stance.

Jack Nichols: You've managed to live out most of your life volunteering your activist services. What sort of financial condition are you in today?

Morris Kight: I was so jealous of the hours that I did not take paying jobs. I worked for only three and a quarter years in paying jobs. I survived by cutting every corner. I paid $35 a month rent from 1957 to 1962, $80 a month for years thereafter. I wore my clothes until they fell apart. The most I paid for a car was $900. I did not solicit any money and financially I was a poverty person, but in actual life rich in achievement.

I now draw Social Security and it pays the rent. My utilities, except telephone, are subsidized by a local business person, I receive a few dollars in consultant fees, and how hard I work to earn that. I get $50 a month as a Human Relations Commissioner. I barely squeak by.

Jack Nichols: I vividly recall—in 1975-- attending my first gay wedding to which you took me—one performed at an auditorium where Aimee Semple McPherson had preached—and where the Reverend Troy Perry, founder of the gay-friendly Metropolitan Community Church performed the wedding. What's really your view on gay marriages and their importance or lack thereof?

Morris Kight: Gay marriages—I dislike, and reject the term. Its too heterosexist, and ditto for lover and significant other that could apply as well to a cat or dog. Domestic Partner, while terribly important sounds legalese. Companion, I love, and use to describe mine. We need to have a national debate on what we want or don't want…and none too soon.

Assemblyman Knight here in California has a ballot initiative on the March ballot on forbidding man/man, woman/woman joinings. What are we waiting for? Not a peep from any of us!

Jack Nichols: At that time you helped conceive the founding of the Gay and Lesbian Center, now the largest and richest in the world. How did this happen? Who were your allies?

Morris Kight: I am so proud of it. First in history, largest in budget and staff. Owns much property. It has to do with the pioneering work I did on Bunker Hill, 1957 to 1961, and Westlake Park, 1961 to 1974. I have training in social service work, communicable disease treatment, counseling. lacenter.gif - 32.68 K L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center
I went around all the gay community, doing hands-on, not-for-fee social services. Special training in public administration—I am a graduate.

All in all I went about 1957 to 1971 doing needs assessment and when I spotted enough others to build on it, did the Center. When I walk in front of it, I sometimes weep tears of joy.

Jack Nichols: What thoughts do you have about the genesis of lesbian and gay liberation?

Morris Kight: Prohibition, 1918 to 1933, the state dominating our affairs. World War II, men were thrown into homo-social environments and loving it. The McCarthy era—he was hard on us. He was called The Queer that Made Milwaukee Famous. Rosa Park, December, 1955. The Beat rebellion, 1957 to 1962: Jack Kerouac knew Allen Ginsberg, a gay man who was their poet laureate. The anti-war movement, 1965 to 1973. The Summer of Love, Haight-Ashbery, San Francisco, 1967. And the workings of Gandhian Pacifism.

Jack Nichols: On Monday, November 16, 1998, the City Council of West Hollywood— some call it "the gay city"—presented you a Lifetime Achievement Award on the unanimous recommendation of the Gay and Lesbian Advisory Council. How does it feel to be what some call "a Grand Old Man of Gay Liberation?"

Morris Kight: My 79th birthday. The City Council of West Hollywood did a biggie. Speeches, speeches, a standing ovation. Two cakes! A private dinner on Tuesday. Flowers and gifts on Thursday, the actual day. United Teachers of Los Angeles, Lesbian and Gay Issues, had me in for a speech, gave me a plaque, had a dinner and a cake!

Jack Nichols: When you're called such things as "a Grand Old Man" or a "Pioneer" how do these terms strike you? How do you see life from a vantage point in your 79th year?

Morris Kight: I enjoy being an ELDER of our tribe. That is something new for us. A new class of wise old women/men who are a witness for our past of horror and veterans of our new life.

There are a mere handful left of the pre-liberation gays/lesbians prior to 1969.

Jack Nichols: When you think back on your foundings of organizations and your activist life, what are you most proud of?

Morris Kight: The Gay and Lesbian Center, the Van Ness Recovery House and the Morris Kight Collection.

Jack Nichols: What are you next most proud of?

Morris Kight: The above rank first, first, first.

Jack Nichols: One of the things I'll never forget about you was your ability to quote aloud from a favorite last century hero of mine, the Silver Tongued Infidel, Robert G. Ingersoll. I forever recommend his works—his orations-- as essentials in the war against religious fundamentalism. What does Ingersoll represent to you?

ringersol.jpg - 7.09 K Robert Ingersoll Morris Kight: Ingersoll said: "Death must come at last to one and all." Sheer poetry. "He was by form, poetry and music moved to tears." Wow! I want that recited at my funeral. I am a humanist, and so proud to be. I do not feel challenged by organized religion. In some cases it is helpful, and often is harmful.

Jack Nichols: Have you done any writing –any keeping of records about your exciting life? Others could so easily learn from it.

Morris Kight: I am shorted on my reminiscences. I did not keep a log. How horrible! Was jealous of the hours. Did not keep a diary---jealous of the hours.

I produced thousands of letters, documents, position papers, calls. Eighty-five percent of my voluminous papers went to Dorr Legg, ONE Institute, International Gay and Lesbian Archives and Don Slater's Homosexual Information Center. All three are dead and their papers are in storage, and I hear no credible or believable report on their coming out.

I have found a way: I intend to dictate into a tape recorder, Fed Ex it to a professional transcriber. We have a budget for that. Then it will be sent back and corrected, edited, and then one more re-write and I will publish. I even have a name for it, but intend to keep it a secret until the day.

Jack Nichols: I've heard something about a Morris Kight Collection. What will that comprise and how is it being put together?

Morris Kight: Pieces of art. Photographs. Posters. Paintings. And on and on. It is in storage and that is awful. Plans are to put together a community-wide Task Force who will find a building, build a staff, and put together the funding and the world will be a better place.

Jack Nichols: In 1985 our paths crossed again in Ft. Lauderdale. I recall your introducing me to your Florida audience and you were in the process of founding something or other. What was it?

Morris Kight: I went to Ft. Lauderdale in October, 1985 to found an international celebration of the Stonewall Rebellion, Stonewall 25 and thus in New York, 25 years later we did a biggie in Central Park. I am so proud of that founding!

Jack Nichols: How do you feel about the progress that's been made on lesbian and gay issues since 1970?

Morris Kight: We are a changed people. No longer hating ourselves. We are light years ahead—in 28 years. But we have miles to go before we sleep.

Jack Nichols: You've been called a "visionary". What kind of vision do you see?

Morris Kight: We can close the gap and become full persons, but we must avoid the horror of assimilation. It is killing us. We must be together. We must do the dance together.

Jack Nichols: Thank you Morris, for giving such a precious gift--your helpful friendship—to all people far and wide. Thank you for your invaluable contributions and insights. Indeed, you're an Elder I've always admired and loved, a courtly activist and a truly gentle man.

© 1997-98 BEI