Serena Freewomyn

Black LGBT History: The Black Panthers on Gay Rights

Filed By Serena Freewomyn | February 10, 2008 8:32 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics
Tags: Black History Month, Gay Liberation, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Plack Panthers

I'm a big fan of The Black Panthers. If I had been around in the 60's, I would have been a Panther. (Or so I like to think.)

Many people like to criticize the Black Panthers by saying that they were racist, sexist, and/or homophobic. But this is just an attempt to delegitimize one of the most revolutionary organizations this country has ever known. White people especially hold onto these claims and ignore the many social programs that the Panthers provided: health care, free breakfasts for kids, clothing distributions, police patrols . . . the list goes on. This post is not going to be a summary of all the things that the Panthers did for their community. This post is meant as a response to those who would slander the Black Panthers with charges of homophobia and sexism.

In his book We Want Freedom: A Life in the Black Panther Party, Mumia Abu-Jamal deals specifically with the issue of sexism within The Black Panther Party.

The great African American educator and civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955), a major force in the Black women's club movement in the 1920's and 30's, called on women to "go to the front and take our rightful place; fight our battles and claim our victories." Women tried to do this in the heyday of the Black Liberation movement, as well as during the Civil Rights movement, with varying degrees of success. In these movements, women generally were relegated to subordinate roles and were virtually invisible within the hierarchy of the organizations, even though they provided the bulk of memberships and labor. . . .

It is with a focus on these macho and misongynist attitudes that much of the popular press has examined the role of Black women in the Black Panther Party. in The Shadow of the Panther, Hugh Pearson, who had no discernable background in the Black Liberation movement, and therefore no firsthand knowledge of what he wrote, damned the Black Panther Party's "routine" mistreatment of women as both wide-ranging and "flagrant." Peterson relied on three BPP insiders, "those who would never forgive Huey for what he did to the party," and on "nonblacks who had been affiliated with Newton and the party," whom he found to be the "easiest" sources for him to interview. It is not surprising that he comes to flawed conclusions upon these limited and biased sources. . . .

While it may be proper to be sharply critical of the Black Liberation movement generally, it is also proper to give credit where credit is due. For the undeniable truth is that the Black Panther Party, for ideological reasons and for reasons of sheer survival, gave the women of the BPP far more opportunities to lead and to influence the organization than any of its contemporaries, in white or Black radical formations. . . .

And point seven of the BPP 8 Points of Attention in the Party's rules states, "Do not take liberties with women," showing an awareness that sexual misconduct must be confronted within the Party. Kathleen Cleaver writes, "In 1970 the Black Panther Party took a formal position on the liberation of women. Did the U.S. Congress make any statement on the liberation of women? . . . Did the Oakland police issue a position against gender discrimination?" (p. 159-162)

The Panthers didn't just talk the talk in regards to gender equality, they walked the walk. Women were in key leadership positions at all levels of the organization. The most prominant ones, of course, were Tarika Lewis, Kathleen Cleaver, Ericka Huggins, and Angela Davis.

Abu-Jamal goes onto say that:

This is not to suggest, but any means, that sexism was not a serious problem in the Party, nor that it did not hamper Party growth, development, and maturation. What is clear, however, is that sexism did not exist in a vacuum. As a prominent feature of the dominant social order, how could it not exist in a social, political formation that was drawn from that order, albeit from that order's subaltern strata? (p. 165)

Just as sexism must be viewed within the broader social context of the time, we have to examine homophobia from the same lens. To echo Abu-Jamal, homophobia was and is a part of the dominant social order. How, then, can we expect that the rank and file members of the BPP could emerge spotless from that environment? The fact is, however, that Huey Newton did take a stand in favor of gay rights in 1970 when he issued "A Letter from Huey Newton to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements" in the BPP's newspaper.

We must gain security in ourselves and therefore have respect and feelings for all oppressed people. . . . Remember, we have not established a revolutionary value system; we are only in the process of establishing it. I do not remember our ever constituting any value that said that a revolutionary must say offensive things towards homosexuals, or that a revolutionary should make sure that women do not speak out about their own particular kind of oppression. As a matter of fact, it is just the opposite: we say that we recognize the women's right to be free. We have not said much about the homosexual at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppresed people in the society. . . .

When we have revolutionary conferences, rallies, and demonstrations, there should be full participation of the gay liberation movement and the women's liberation movement. Some groups might be more revolutionary than others. We should not use the actions of a few to say that they are all reactionary or counterrevolutionary, because they are not.

To repeat Kathleen Cleaver's question, did Congress issue a statement on gay rights? Did any of the other New Left/radical organizations of the time issue a statement on gay rights? No, they didn't.

The Black Panthers were by no means perfect. But they offered the best alternative to the Status Quo and I am positive that if the FBI hadn't spent so much time making members distrust each other with their COINTELPRO tactics, the BPP could have done even more amazing things. Which is exactly why the government had to destroy the movement. Because it was revolutionary.

For more info on The Black Panthers, check out Mumia Abu-Jamal's We Want Freedom. And if you're in the Phoenix area, come listen to Black Panther David Hilliard speak to get the information firsthand. He will be at Arizona State University's Tempe Campus on February 11th at 12 PM at the University Club and at the ASU Downtown Campus at 4:30 PM in the Residential Commons. On February 12th he will be on the ASU Polytechnic Campus at 12 PM in the Student Union Cooley Ballroom. All three sessions are free and open to the public and will include a Q&A session.

Bobby Seale will be speaking on February 20th at 7 PM at Phoenix College’s Bulpitt Auditorium, located at 1222 West Thomas Road in Phoenix. Admission is free and open to the public.

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This was a really fascinating and enlightening look at the Black Panthers, Serena. I never knew some of this stuff! Thanks!

Sure thing, Waymon. Like I said. I love the Panthers. It's a scandal that we don't learn about them in our history classes (unless, oc fourse, it's to say they were angry, gun-toting racists).

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | February 10, 2008 3:22 PM

I wonder if any former Black Panthers are lesbian or gay. That would really rock people's worlds hearing that a Black Panther was gay.

If you haven't, you should certainly read Elaine Brown's "A Taste of Power." When Huey fled to Cuba, he left her in charge of the Party, and being a woman in charge left her open to all sorts of accusations that she was a lesbian from some of her threatened male counterparts. There is still quite a split between those former members from the east coast branches of the Party and those from the west coast, going back to when Eldridge Cleaver denounced the leadership of the Party while doing a radio show with them as a fugitive in Algeria, for giving up the armed struggle and concentrating on the survival programs like the school in Oakland, the food and medical programs.

For a somewhat balanced view, Assata Shakur's book should be read as well, where she gives the reasons why she left the party.
One thing that strikes me (and I've read ALL the so-called "Panther books") is how traumatized so many of the members were/are by their experiences, certainly the police repression and Cointelpro, but also by the personal betrayals from their supposed comrades (much, but not all instigated by Cointelpro.)

But despite all of that, Huey's words quoted above, remain an inspiration throughout these decades. He was a flawed man, but as a thinker and a revolutionary, no one matches him today.

Michael Bedwell | February 10, 2008 4:30 PM

Revisionist drool.

Since I lived through the times of the panthers, I have always heard more on their violence and criminal actions, rather than the good that they did in the communities. Of course the news was part of the establishment status quo, so there you go.

It is nice to see the other side of the coin, and learn more about this facinating movement. All we ever heard about is the bank robberies, and the killings, the fear that the government presented concerning this "terrorist" organization.

Keep up the good work Serena. It is good that we see the truths about this part of our history come out.

Serena, if you'd been around in the 60's, there is no way you could have been a Panther -- they refused to admit women until 1971. Even after women were let in and assumed important roles, the sexism lingered. One scholar on the subject, Robyn C. Spencer, noted:

A lot of male Black Panthers expected sexual favors from Panther women, [believing that] women’s bodies should be localized and allocated to males as rewards
When speaking of the informal dating rules for the organization that allowed men to date outside of the group but not women, she says:

Again there was the gender-based assumption: Women might be pulled out of the party by males who would resist and complain about their party commitment
While Spencer's work is inline with the purpose of this post, she never-the-less highlights the Party's shortcomings. As the Party's Wikipedia explains, "Its final leader was Elaine Brown, a longtime Panther and the first and last woman to lead it where she addressed issues of sexism within the party..."

On homophobia, Rawley Grau, writing for, notes

The promise of Newton's statement was not immediately borne out. Both male and female GLF-ers later attended the Panther-sponsored Revolutionary People's Constitutional Convention. Although the gay men were generally positive about the event, the lesbians found the experience disheartening and felt that women's issues were not being taken seriously. Significantly, Newton made no mention in his plenary address of either gay or women's liberation.

Still, the historic nature of the "Letter from Huey" should not be discounted. As lesbian writer Jewelle Gomez has noted, "The importance of Newton's statement lay not in the groundswell of support that it failed to promote, but in its simple recognition that alliances must be formed if social justice is to be attained."
The letter was certainly revolutionary in its attempt, but did not wipe out homophobia as you suggest.

We can all agree that the Establishment has gone to great lengths to discredit and malign the Black Panthers. That does not however mean that what they said is unequivocally false. The Panther's opposition may not have known or cared about whether or not sexism or homophobia actually existed, but we cannot set the record straight by writing off these accusations with token examples of women in leadership (it proves very little) or with a single letter. The truth of the matter is that many of the Panthers were sexist homophobes; it's not slander to say that. That doesn't mean they weren't on the forefront of change in these areas, as they were, but we must remain objective in exploring history. If you want to explore sexism in the Panthers, I would suggest reading the black feminist theory of the 70's, not a male member of the Party.
MauraHennessey | February 10, 2008 11:50 PM

I anjoyed the post and thank you for it. I am not quite willing to take all of it's assertions at face value, but I do agree with Ms. Bethune's idea that women needed to be in the fight, at the forefront. I admire the Mujeres Libres of Spain for much the same reason. If you are not familiar with them, it is worth the search and the read.

"The truth of the matter is that many of the Panthers were sexist homophobes;"

Gee, just change a word or two, and you have the Republicans.

Even from our perspective in the first decade of the 2000's, the Black Panthers still appear to be a complex mixture of moral gray areas that lighten, darken and swirl --- so that I doubt that anyone will ever be able to characterize them accurately in a sentence or two. Even as they worked to accelerate the historical flux of change, they were constantly and dramatically in flux themselves.

The quote about homosexuality from Huey Newton that I have heard most repeatedly is something like, "A man who manages to resist his homosexual urges deserves not to be called a homosexual." This quote addresses the question whether homosexuality is a set of activities that one engages in, or is it a set of internal feelings that one experiences in the privacy of one's own cranium? --- and this question is germane to this day. On the other hand, Newton's quote seems to evoke admiration for the gay man's closet ... and in this sense, it is merely a more humane form of the traditional oppression.

My question is this: Other than historical accuracy, to what extent do we today care? Probably not all that much: Other than history itself, there is very little in present Black America that can be traced directly back to the Panthers. Specifically, we continue to have problems of homophobia in the American black population, especially the conservative "Black church", and this is hardly because of or in spite of the Black Panthers, whatever their mixture of positions were.

Nothing here is to say that Serena or anyone else shouldn't be an aficionado of BPP history, if she or he so chooses. History is forever fascinating in its nuances, and certainly no less so during this amazing chapter of America's history.

Actually, AJ, you can see the BPP legacy in organizations like Copwatch, which continues the practice of policing the police that the Panthers starters. Food Not Bombs is also a part of that legacy. They get food donations from stores and restaurants and redistribute that food to the community.

There have always been gays in the black community, that is no secret. The issue is how the community has dealt with gay individuals. As a young boy I can recall a couple of friends from elementary school who we all suspected of being gay but never said anything. One of them has since died from AIDS ten years ago.

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