There’s a myth that I’m sure a lot of us have heard time and time again: that it gets better. Dan Savage started the It Gets Better project in September of 2010 in response to the deluge of suicides by queer youth that year. I was 16 at the time, struggling with my own gender and sexuality, and I vividly remember reading about each suicide that year in the mornings during my high school journalism class. Within a few months a whole spate of celebrities were telling kids like me that hey, it’s hard now, but it gets better! It made me uneasy then, and 11 years later it makes me nauseous.
There is nothing wrong with trying to keep queer kids from killing themselves. Ultimately, this series is dedicated to queer people and organizations who militantly resisted that destruction. It Gets Better, however, took the most bourgeois individualist strategy possible. Here were rich and famous people, people who had more money and resources than most queer people have ever had or will ever have, telling miserable queer teens to just hold on, that someday it would get better. No encouragement to organize, no examples of what fighting for our community actually wins us, just grit your teeth and get through it. Saying “it gets better” was useless then in the face of beatings and threats of violence and is useless now against the numerous attempts across multiple states to deprive trans youth and people of lifesaving healthcare. It is in our hands to make it better.
So in place of Ian Mackellan and Barack Obama’s empty platitudes, I offer queer militants who took power into their own hands and fought back. I offer Kuwasi Balagoon of the Black Liberation Army and Linda Sue Evans, Susan Rosenburg, and Laura Whitehorn of the May 19th Communist Organization. These comrades’ attempts at overthrowing the capitalist-imperialist state and winning freedom for all oppressed peoples were imperfect and there is plenty to criticize, but they are also inspiring and worth studying: not so we might recreate them but so we might learn from them and better organize queer people for revolution.
One of the common slogans in the queer community, attributed to Leslie Feinberg, is simply “I contain multitudes.” Kuwasi Balagoon, born December 22, 1946, lived this slogan to its fullest possible extent. A tenant organizer, Black Panther, simultaneous revolutionary New Afrikan nationalist and anarchist, Black Liberation Army guerrilla, bisexual man, poet and political prisoner, Kuwasi Balagoon lived more multitudes in his short time on Earth than most do in a lifetime. Cut down by an AIDS related illness while incarcerated in 1986, Balagoon joins innumerable other revolutionary queer elders lost to the genocide known as the AIDS crisis, a genocide that is ongoing.
Radicalized in the military in the mid-60s, Balagoon’s first organizing experience came when he and a few other New Afrikan GIs organized a clandestine group called “Da Legislators,” a community defense organization based on “fucking up racists.” Balagoon, stationed mostly in West Germany, would fight racist white GIs rather than Vietnamese freedom fighters. Discharged honorably in 1967, Balagoon became a tenant organizer, participating in numerous rent strikes with the Community Council on Housing. The leader of that organization, Jesse Gray, was a proponent of black guerrilla warfare as a means of revolution and once stated that he needed “one hundred black revolutionaries ready to die.” This, along with his time with a black nationalist religious group called the Yoruba Temple, built Balagoon’s unshakeable revolutionary foundations.
Inspired by Malcolm X, Robert F. Williams. and H. Rap Brown, Balagoon joined the Black Panthers in 1968. He was among the 21 Panthers arrested in February of 1969 known as the Panther 21, and was arrested based on the testimony of a 19 year old Panther woman, Joan Bird, who was beaten by the pigs until she spoke. The mishandling of the Panther 21’s case, as well as the expulsion of Geronimo Ji-Jaga from the Panthers after he was arrested while trying to set up an underground paramilitary arm of the Party in 1971 (which Ji-Jaga always claimed was with Party approval), alienated much of the New York chapter’s membership from the Oakland based leadership and drove Balagoon towards guerrilla war and developing his revolutionary New Afrikan anarchism.
Balagoon went underground and joined the Black Liberation Army. Getting captured and escaping or assisting in his comrade’s escapes numerous times throughout the 70s (before finally being captured in 1982), he was widely considered to be one of the most dedicated soldiers of the BLA. The autonomous and decentralized structure of the BLA suited Balagoon, who had discovered anarchism while in prison and thought that the anti-hierarchical and democratic structure solved the problems of the cults of personality (primarily around Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver) he believed caused so many problems in the Black Panther Party. Balagoon’s anarchism was far from anti-nationalist, however. While advocating for the structure of anarchism and appreciating the early pro-gay stance of Emma Goldman, Balagoon was at this time ideologically aligning himself with the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika, a revolutionary nationalist organization who advocated for the foundation of a New Afrikan state in the historic black homeland currently made up of the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.
The book A Soldier’s Story, comprised of Balagoon’s writings and poetry and of pieces by those who knew him, states:
“Balagoon’s identity as a New Afrikan anarchist set him ideologically apart from Black Marxist-Leninists and revolutionary nationalists who had the objective of seizing state power from the white power structure of U.S. capitalism and imperialism. But he still desired a land for Black people to achieve self-determination and space to build a society based on antiauthoritarianism and freedom. His continued support for New Afrikan politics also distinguished him from the majority of the anarchist movement in the United States, many of whom opposed any form of nationalism” (New Afrikan Anarchism).
This is a far cry from the white anarchists of today, many of whom frequently parrot imperialist rhetoric when it comes to revolutionary nationalism (comparing the Indigenous Land Back movement to Zionism, for example). Balagoon was a dedicated anti-imperialist and revolutionary New Afrikan nationalist and anarchist. Anarchists of the oppressed nations are comrades, and are frequently the most militant and active revolutionaries on the left compared to revisionist Marxist-Leninists or settler leftists of all stripes. Kuwasi Balagoon once said, “by not engaging in mass organizing and delivering war to the oppressors, we become anarchists in name only” (New Afrikan Anarchism). This is a critical lesson for all revolutionaries, anarchist, Maoist, revolutionary nationalist etc.
So where does Balagoon’s bisexuality fit into all of this? His comrades at the time largely didn’t discuss it with him, considering it his private business. Many of the official revolutionary obituaries after his death in prison in 1986 made no mention of it, nor did they mention that he died of an AIDS related illness. Balagoon was reported to have numerous gay relationships, and his consistent partner was a trans woman (there are only a few sources on this that use outdated terminology, but regardless this relationship would’ve been considered highly taboo at the time) named Chicky.
A Soldier’s Story states, “Was Kuwasi a gender rebel? Yes. He wasn’t caught up in people’s bourgeois ways of looking at things. He had his own way of looking at things” (Kuwasi: A Virtual Roundtable of Love and Reflection). This refusal to abide by bourgeois heterosexual norms in the face of both a heteronormative empire and the largely heteronormative liberation movement of the time, especially by a revolutionary urban guerrilla, is important. The different liberation struggles of the last century are often thought of as separate or only tenuously connected. Revolutionaries know today that one cannot meaningfully be a partisan for queer liberation without opposing capitalism-imperialism and white supremacy, but our revolutionary predecessors frequently learned this the hard way. Kuwasi Balagoon exemplified this truth in his identity, his thought, and his praxis, and proved to be decades ahead of the curve in refusing to separate the different aspects of himself.
The AIDS crisis hangs over the queer community like a storm cloud, coloring our politics and the way we move and interact with each other. Even in the first world where the crisis is largely considered to have passed and AIDS is no longer a death sentence (provided one has enough money for treatment), young queers are all the worse off for our near-universal lack of elders. Any queer person who was out in the 1980s can speak to the crushing number of people they lost, including the most revolutionary and militant activists of the time. Many of the revolutionary queers of the 60s and 70s never had the opportunity to grow conservative with age, as by the 80s or early 90s a huge number of them had died. The people who made it through appear to be more conservative in their politics, more critical of gay liberation, more eager to collaborate with and assimilate into empire than our dearly departed radical elders.
Kuwasi Balagoon is one brightly shining example of what we lost through the calculated government neglect of the AIDS crisis. For myself, speculations about what our current generation of faeries would look like if our elders were here are filled with grief. I can only hope that through learning about figures like Kuwasi Balagoon we can further commit ourselves to destroying capitalism-imperialism and freeing all prisoners. Balagoon is gone but we can still fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, Aziz Abdul, Kevin Rashid Johnson, Sundiata Acoli, Veronza Bowers, Rev. Joy Powell, and numerous others. The struggle for collective liberation is far from over and we, if we learn our history and take inspiration from people like Kuwasi Balagoon, have a decisive part to play.
The May 19th Communist Organization
Born out of the ashes of the Weather Underground, the May 19th Communist Organization (M19) was a white women-led revolutionary anti-imperialist armed struggle group founded in 1978. Motivated by a desire to rid the movement of the racist and patriarchal attitudes that had plagued Weather, M19 named itself after the shared birthday of Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh and worked in close contact with the Black Liberation Army for their entire existence. Believing that the revolution in amerika would take the form of “a people’s war to free the land of New Afrika,” M19 wanted to take the best of Weather’s former cadre and commit fully to guerrilla warfare, rather than simple armed protest, while at the same time organizing above ground mass organizations to combat white supremacy, including the well known John Brown Anti-Klan Committee.
Three lesbian women, Linda Sue Evans, Susan Rosenberg, and Laura Whitehorn were amongst the leaders of M19. Hailing from middle class white (and in Whitehorn and Rosenberg’s cases, Jewish) families from across the country, Evans, Rosenberg and Whitehorn began their political lives in Students for a Democratic Society in the 1960s. Radicalized through their interactions with the Black Panthers and through the anti-war movement, Evans, Rosenberg, and Whitehorn came to believe in the necessity of revolutionary armed struggle (Whitehorn first held a gun while helping the Black Panthers defend their Chicago headquarters from the pigs while still in SDS) and all sided with the Weather Underground when SDS split in 1969.
Unfortunately for these aspiring revolutionaries, Weather was not waging an actual war on capitalism-imperialism. The WUO, as Tani and Sera point out in their seminal work on militant anti-imperialism False Nationalism, False Internationalism, was not at all interested in the reality of people’s war but was only interested in symbolic armed action, civic protest with bombs. Tani and Sera point out that:
“Great care was taken that no imperialist police, soldiers or officers were killed. No extensive damage or disruption of overall settler life was done. The WUO bombings were symbolic military actions, deliberately having neither military nor economic effect. They were media propaganda actions, each one selected to both hopefully radicalize the mass movement and to show the WUO’s leading role.” (Birth of Euro-Amerikan Anti-Imperialism)
Evans, Rosenberg and Whitehorn were keenly aware of this dynamic, and they were even more aware of the persistent racism, homphobia and misogyny within Weather. Whitehorn, in an interview with the podcast Millenials Are Killing Capitalism, recounts the horror she felt when she proposed breaking a New Afrikan comrade free from a county jail only to be rebuffed because of the heat such an action would bring down on the nearly all white WUO. Here was an organization that described itself as a vehicle for revolutionary war whose leadership was afraid to face repression or death in the name of liberation. Weather vacillated through the 70s from revolutionary anti-imperialist to advocating hippie “freak” culture and outlaw lifestyles to fully embracing above ground legal organizing with the founding of the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee and then finally fading away.
Believing that Weather had fully embraced white chauvinism and was overcome with misogyny and homophobia, Evans, Rosenberg, and Whitehorn regrouped the New York chapter of Prairie Fire into the May 19th Communist Organization in 1978. From the beginning the group allied itself with and worked closely alongside the Black Liberation Army. It was a joint action by these two groups that liberated BLA member Assata Shakur from prison in 1979, Puerto Rican freedom fighter William Morales in 1980, expropriated banks and bombed the US senate, an Israeli Aircraft Industries building, and the apartheid South African consulate.
Alongside their underground work, the members of May 19th built above ground mass organizations to try and inject some life into the flagging mass movement. The most successful of these efforts was the John Brown Anti-Klan Committee. Founded in 1978 to confront a resurgent Klan, JBAK surged in popularity and membership after the murder of five Communist Workers Party cadre in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979 by Klan and police forces acting in tandem. Unlike many New Communist Movement organizations that were still kicking in the late 70s, JBAK saw kindred spirits in the early punk youth movement rather than mere degenerate lumpen. It was through the combined nascent anti-authoritarianism of the punk scene and the experience of seasoned revolutionary anti-imperialist communists that JBAK was able to engage the masses in anti-Klan actions, even outlasting its mother organization by five years (Millenials Are Killing Capitalism Episode 49: The John Brown Anti-Klan Committee with Hilary Moore and James Tracy).
Despite this relative success, the comrades in M19 could not translate mass legal action into further guerrilla action. Facing increased repression after an armored car robbery resulted in the deaths of two pigs and a security guard, along with their own limitations as organizers and revolutionaries, the popularity of JBAK did not end the isolation of May 19th. No mechanism to draw the most committed militants into the military underground and no revolutionary party formation at all ensured that these comrades, admirable as their efforts were, were rapidly approaching a dead end after 1981.
By this point the mass revolutionary movement that had developed in the 60s and radicalized our three protagonists had faded away. The kind of armed protest that Weather employed was no longer viable, if it ever was to begin with. While the Black Liberation Army and the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika had always understood what war meant and had produced, as the saying goes, coffins on both sides, the settler anti-imperialists had by and large (with the exception of the George Jackson Brigade and the United Freedom Front) hesitated at this step, and by 1978 when M19 finally committed themselves to waging war it was too late. The base for such action amongst settlers had vanished.
Evans, Rosenberg, and Whitehorn, along with the rest of M19, were arrested throughout the 1980s. Immediately they became, along with Bo Brown of the George Jackson Brigade and their comrade Marilyn Buck, rallying points for the militant lesbian section of the women’s movement. The mainstream women and lesbian movements had not yet fully been routed into reformist electoral strategy. The slaughter of the AIDS crisis was escalating day by day and Evans, Rosenberg, and Whitehorn didn’t hesitate to wage struggle against the deliberate murder of prisoners with AIDS by the prison administration. The more militant lesbian movement flocked to these comrades by the thousands, interviewing them for gay newspapers, reading their statements at international womens day demonstrations, and demanding their freedom.
It was this movement, perhaps most notably the work of the bay area Out Of Control organization (which will assuredly be the focus of a future installation in this series) that kept these three sisters alive through their time in prison. Rosenberg, along with Puerto Rican freedom fighter Alejandrina Torres and fellow white revolutionary anti-imperialist Silvia Beraldini, were housed in an experimental isolation unit known as the High Security Unit in Lexington, Kentucky. Subjected to isolation and repeated sexual abuse by the guards, shutting down this unit became the primary focus of the lesbian prison solidarity movement in the 1980s. Ultimately the HSU only operated for two years as the combined force of the anti-imperialist movement, the nascent prison abolitionist movement, and the left wing of the women’s movement in amerika came together to shut it down.
The pressure put on the government by these movements needed a release. Bill Clinton, bowing to pressure from these combined forces in the late 90s pardoned 16 Puerto Rican nationalist militants, and pardoned Evans, Rosenberg, and Whitehorn on his final day in office, to much controversy. What slick Willy didn’t do was pardon a single black revolutionary. No members of the Black Liberation Army, the Black Panthers, or the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika were released. The white movement, satisfied with this partial victory and succumbing to its own antiBlackness, did what white movements do: the intermediate elements disappeared while the advanced found their support drastically cut and themselves increasingly isolated.
Today, Evans, Rosenberg, and Whitehorn continue to work in different arenas. Rosenberg renounced armed struggle in the 1990s, over a dozen years in prison taking their toll. The woman who was once labeled “the most dangerous woman in amerika” by the alternative press had had enough. Today she sits on the board of the Black Lives Matter organization, denounced by the right as a terrorist and broadly ingnored by a new generation of leftists increasingly separated from NGO politics.
Linda Sue Evans and Laura Whitehorn have not denounced armed struggle and both have spent the years since their release fighting for the freedom of all political prisoners and the abolition of prisons in the so-called USA. While Evans tends to stay below the radar, Whitehorn has spoken publicly as a member of Release Aging People in Prison, an organization founded by former political prisoners to free their predominately black comrades who are still incarcerated. This is what it means to spend your life trying to betray whiteness. The fight doesn’t stop in prison or after you’re released, it continues until we win or we’re crushed completely. While the patriarchal white left seems content to continuously rediscover John Brown, they spend very little time studying the handful of white people who more recently put their money where their mouths were and paid the price for it. Proclaiming fealty to a religious zealot who lived and died by decent political convictions in 1859 has yet to translate into actual action by the patriarchal white left today. These three sisters, whatever their shortcomings were and are, made that attempt and continue to make that attempt. Learn or get out of the way.
As gay pride month comes and goes and the pandemic begins to wane there is a renewed discussion around the history of pride and what pride should be. I am hopeful that Faerie Fire can represent the humble addition of those of us trying to pull our community out of the clutches of empire and into revolutionary struggle. The corporate pandering and celebrity worship that plagues our community must be done away with, cast aside while we clean house in preparation for joining our oppressed siblings in the fight against what gay revolutionaries used to call “this wretched straight society,” what we call the capitalist settler state.
While I am the sole author of this series for the moment, herstory/history is not the dead past but a collective process, and one that we currently inhabit and make through our work. Everything discussed in part one and part two of Faerie Fire was a topic of conversation in organizing I was active in, conversations with comrades that turned into late night study sessions over too much coffee. As such, if any readers of this series have thoughts, criticisms, ideas, corrections, questions, death threats or anything else they can send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. This is not Professional History, there are no academics involved, no writing grants or egos, your participation is desired and required to do the necessary work of reclaiming our past and building our revolutionary future.