THE RED BUTTERFLY
Some time in the fall of 1969, at a
meeting of the New York Gay Liberation Front (GLF), people
who called themselves the “June 28 cell” pushed
through a series of motions: GLF henceforth would have no structure, but a “structureless structure”.
Decisions would no longer be made by voting, but only by consensus.
(Since GLF kept no membership roster, anyone who attended a meeting
could consider himself or herself a member of GLF, and could speak in
its name.) Further, GLF would consist of totally independent
cells, and everyone should join one. Anyone could form a cell, of any
kind whatsoever, which could then act under the GLF banner. What these
decisions meant in practice was that GLF would be controlled by those
who were best at behind-the-scenes manipulation and at shouting down opponents in meetings.
As the last of these motions was
approved, John O'Brien turned to me and said, “You have just
witnessed the death of GLF.” His words were
prophetic. The “structureless structure” led to
chaos, the inability to make decisions in an orderly and democratic
manner; it meant that GLF could never be a viable political
organization. GLF died two years later, in 1971.
Since everyone had to belong to a cell,
I and a few co-thinkers formed our own cell, a Marxist cell, which we
rather whimsically named The Red Butterfly. The announcement of our
cell caused instant anxiety, and we were accused of advocating
violence. Our activities, however, were more cerebral. In a way, The
Red Butterfly constituted a radical intelligentsia within GLF,
concerned with developing theory of gay liberation and linking it to
other movements for social change. Our members included graduate
students, scholars, artists, poets, workers, and a scientist. In time
we linked with radical gay liberationists around the world.
Red Butterfly members were unbeholden to
any particular political group or ideology. Indeed, much of our joy in
those vibrant years came from debates, with each other or outsiders.
Our group reading consisted of such works as The German
Ideology and Theses
On Feurbach by Marx and Engels, Theory of Capitalist
Development by Sweezy, Eros and Civilization by Marcuse, Patterns of
Sexual Behavior by Ford and Beach, Homosexual Behavior Among Males by
Churchill, and Mass Psychology of Fascism by Reich. We were not slavish
adherents of the Marxist classics: on one occasion an older member had
us all in tears from laughter, as he pointed out the absurdities in
Engels' Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
The Red Butterfly's greatest achievement
was our intervention in a huge antiwar conference. On 14-15 February
1970, over three thousand student activists met at the Student
Mobilization Committee (SMC) conference in Cleveland, to plan
nationwide campus strikes and rallies on April 15. A few of us drove
there and set up a table with the GLF banner, GLF buttons, and our
just-published first pamphlet. For two days we were mobbed, as everyone
wanted to know about the new movement. We scheduled a gay liberation
workshop, and the response was overwhelming. Emotions ran high, as
dozens of activists came out of the closet. At the end of the
conference our proposal was read, asking for the Conference's long
overdue support of its Gay Sisters and Brothers; thousands voted for it
and only seven voted against it.
The 23 February 1970 issue of the Harvard Crimson reprinted Carl Wittman's “Gay Manifesto”,
illustrated with a photo of two Red Butterfly members, John O'Brien and
John Lauritsen, taken at the Cleveland conference. For top of article click here. For bottom of article, with photo of O'Brien and Lauritsen click here. For enlarged photo of O'Brien and Lauritsen, in front of the Gay Liberation Front banner, click here.
The Red Butterfly produced four
• The first pamphlet, Gay
published on 13 February 1970, went through five
printings, each of 1000 copies. To read the first printing as a scanned PDF document click here. To read the fifth printing, which was
slightly expanded from the first, (large file = 31 mb.) click here.
• The second pamphlet,
published in 1970, was a reprinting of Carl Wittman's A Gay Manifesto,
with comments by The Red Butterfly. To read it in HTML click here. To read it as
a scanned PDF document click here.
• The third pamphlet, published
in 1970, was Gay Oppression: A Radical Analysis. To read it in HTML
click here. To read it as a scanned PDF document click here.
• The fourth pamphlet was my
translation of a 1928 speech by the German philosopher, Kurt Hiller:
“Appeal to the Second International Congress for Sexual
Reform for the Benefit of an Oppressed Variety of Human
Being”. To read it as a scanned PDF document click here. (To read my
revised translation of the Hiller speech, with a new introduction,
On the weekend of 5 September 1970, The
Red Butterfly and other GLF members went to Philadelphia to attend the
Black Panther Party's “Revolutionary People's Constitutional
Convention Planning Session”. At this event, a Gay Caucus
issued a series of demands — which sounded radical, but were
half-baked and thoughtless. On the spur of the moment we issued a
critique of the “gay demands”. We were immediately
denounced; some of the Gay Caucus members said we should be assaulted,
and one man no-one had seen before said we should be killed, to show
the Panthers the gay movement could deal with its own traitors.
Back in New York, ostracized but
undaunted, we prepared a position paper, Critique of the “Gay
Demands”, which we took to the second of the Black Panther
conventions, held in Washington, D.C. on 27-29 November 1970. To read
the position paper as a scanned PDF document click here.
I have refrained from giving names of
Red Butterfly members, some of whom are no longer alive. These events
took place over forty years ago. Most of us, as we grow older, also
grow more conservative; we acquire more caution, more common sense.
Re-reading the Red Butterfly documents, I see things I no longer
believe, and certainly sentences that I would re-write, but on the
whole, I am proud of them. Some of our writing may seem crude now, but
we were explorers, sailing on uncharted seas. The Red Butterfly's
legacy was its influence on gay liberationists around the world, and on
other movements for social change. Our ideas live on.
— John Lauritsen, Boston 2011.