November 19, 1919– Morris Kight:
“Let’s practice an exercise in love. Touch. Feel. Talk to somebody. Kiss somebody. Caress somebody. Enfold somebody into your love. Pass the enormous amount of electric energy that you have in you to someone else. Pass it. Pass it. Share it. Don’t give it away to strangers. Give it to your own people. Give it to gay people. That energy should be passing through us, all of us collectively. All over this land we’re moving, we’re marching, we’re changing. Brothers & sisters, I bring you nothing in the world but total, mad love.”
45 years ago, Christopher Street West, which oversees the LA Gay Pride Parade, was co-founded by gay rights pioneer Morris Kight, who also started up the Gay Liberation Front in LA in 1969, & the LA Gay & Lesbian Center in 1971, when it was known as the Gay Community Services Center, before the L or B or T or Q even existed.
Born in in Comanche County, Texas, Kight knew almost from the beginning what it was like to be the victim of hatred. His father found some sort of understanding of his gayness, but his mother was bitter & contrary until she died. After her death, Kight found letters she had written expressing her hatred toward homosexuals. Kight:
“She’d have been so much happier, if she had loved me.”
When he was 21 years old, Kight moved to New Mexico. Along with a group of other gay people, he worked on Adlai Stevenson’s 1952 Presidential campaign. He became afire with a passion for political activism, championing civil rights, & labor rights.
When Kight arrived in LA in 1958 he was almost 40 years old. He had been working for social justice causes since the early 1940s, but suddenly he found himself dealing with the brutality of the LA Police Department’s treatment of gay people in an era where the police regularly raided gay bars & violently harassed faggots & drag queens.
Kight named Eleanor Roosevelt as an influence on his values & his activism. That activism was moved to take action against Dow Chemical, protesting weapons manufacturing during the Vietnam War.
Kight gave his focus to working for Equal Rights for gay people, but he remained a dedicated civil rights proponent with deep ties to the Peace & Non-violence movements. Kight followed a Gandhian position of Pacifism. He took a personal oath of poverty, living on very little money. Kight truly wished for:
“All people to live an open & free life without fear of persecution.”
Kight was a relentless organizer & protester. He was one of the founders of the radical Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in 1969. By 1971, there were over 350 GLF chapters in the USA. He won all sorts of battles, but his greatest achievement was probably the founding of the Gay Community Services Center in 1971, an era when gay people still needed to be extremely cautious about living a life outside of the closet.
The Center was initially housed in 2, eventually 3, ramshackle Queen Ann style buildings on Wilshire Boulevard. Right after the opening, Kight was standing on the front porch of the main building admiring his homemade sign: Gay Community Services Center. One volunteer said: “Morris, you are going to get us all killed with that sign.” Kight countered:“Well, dear, then don’t stand under the sign.”
Kight lived a simple life. He claimed to be the first person in LA to hold a yard sale & his eccentric twice-yearly sales became not just his sole income but also help fund his causes:
“I sold brass, silver, china, silverware; I was great at weavings. I accumulated many dealers, & customers like Liberace. I’d keep track of what they liked & when I got something I would call them up. & enough money came in from that to pay the lights, rent & gas & car travel. I didn’t earn enough out of it to pay income taxes, so that was never an issue.”
Kight helped create some of the Gay Rights Movement’s most visible efforts, including: The LA Gay Pride March, The 1987 Second National March on Washington For Lesbian & Gay Rights, & The Morris Kight Collection, an archive with thousands of artifacts chronicling the beginning of gay, lesbian, bisexual & transgender civil rights, & art by gay men & lesbians, plus memorabilia including posters & photographs documenting the struggle for equal rights. The collection is now housed at USC. He also formed the Stonewall Democratic Club of California.
“I’m sure we are going to get our freedom. I see it everywhere: In the marketplace, in the stores, in the homes, in dealing with families, in the kind of attention we get from radio, television & the newspapers. Still, I realize we’re not home yet. We have a long way to go. There are 1,750 arrests in LA each month. I weep for each of them. Everyone who’s denied a job, I weep for. Everyone who is driven from their homes by a misunderstanding family, I have to offer my love to.”
One of Kight’s most celebrated protests was against Barney’s Beanery, a restaurant in West Hollywood. The place had a sign above bar that said: “Fagots Stay Out”, with the saying printed on their matchbook covers also. Kight & The Reverend Troy Perry organized over 100 activists outside, sending the protesters in to the eatery to occasionally order coffee & take up tables. The protest was initially successful with the owner eventually handing over the sign to Kight in front of news cameras. But, the owner replaced the sign, where it remained until West Hollywood’s first gay mayor, Valerie Terrigno, demanded that it be removed when the city council passed an anti-discrimination ordinance. In 2005, a new owner apologized to the community & began hosting a monthly lunch for gay street kids. Kight:
“That sign was a great catalyst for the gay movement. In spring of 1970 we did a change-in, making a nuisance by continually asking for change, a sit-it where we sat in the restaurant for hours without ordering anything more than a cup of coffee, boycott & picket. It took all that to persuade the owner to surrender us the sign & to never discriminate again in employment or service.”
Morris did get that sign & it is now featured in the Morris Kight Collection. Today WeHo has an ordinance prohibited such signs.
One of the most effective Gay Rights leaders in history, Kight spent his final days at Carl Bean House Of Los Angeles, a guest of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, one of the many agencies he nurtured & supported.
“People today forget that in those days, you were risking your well-being. You were risking harassment, you were risking arrest, you were risking getting beaten up by hate-mongers. & the law enforcement community didn’t think twice about hassling gays.”
Kight made his exit from this world in 2003 at 83 years old, leaving the planet a better place. He left behind what we used to call a “life partner” of 25 years, Roy Zucheran. Wouldn’t Kight be astounded with what has been accomplished for his cause in the past 10 years?