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Volume 34
Issue 18
 
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Past Out by Liz Highleyman
Who was Carl Wittman?
Carl Wittman, best known for his Gay Manifesto, was active in a wide range of leftist and progressive causes over the course of his short life.

Born Feb. 24, 1943, in Hackensack, N.J., Wittman was a "red diaper baby" of Communist parents. He began having sex with men at age 14. In 1960, he entered Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, where he got involved in student activism. Wittman spent summers doing civil rights work in the South, and joined the national council of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). With Tom Hayden, he co-authored "An Interracial Movement of the Poor" and worked on SDS's Economic Action and Research Projects (ERAP).

Before long, though, Wittman grew disillusioned with the homophobia and machismo of the New Left. He later recalled Hayden announcing that there would be no homosexuality (or marijuana) among those working with the Newark ERAP, leaving Wittman "stunned and terrified." Wittman ended his association with SDS in 1966, the same year he married Mimi Feingold, a close friend from college.

In 1967, Wittman and Feingold moved to San Francisco, where they lived in a commune of antidraft activists. The following year, he began coming out to friends, and the couple drifted apart (they separated in 1969). As Wittman immersed himself in the city's burgeoning Gay scene and psychedelic revolution, his previously separate personal and political lives began to come together. Before turning in his draft card at the Oakland Induction Center in October 1968, he agonized over whether to declare his sexuality, concerned that accepting a deferment due to homosexuality would look like a cop-out or an abandonment of fellow resisters. But, he wrote in his journal, "My being honest about my homosexuality was as much a principle as refusing to fight their dirty wars." Soon thereafter, he wrote an influential article, "Waves of Resistance," for Liberation magazine, looking at how draft resistance was related to gender and sexual politics.

Wittman became involved in Gay rights activism at a time when older homophiles and younger Gay liberationists were clashing over whether to assimilate into mainstream society or to radically oppose it. "It's not a question of getting our share of the pie," he wrote. "The pie is rotten." In May 1969, he began writing Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto. Published by the Red Butterfly Collective in January 1970, it was widely reprinted and distributed across the country.

In his manifesto, Wittman called on Gay men - he said he couldn't speak to the experience of Lesbians - to come out, "stop mimicking straights," and "stop censoring ourselves." He claimed there were both benefits and pitfalls to working with women, blacks, Chicanos, and white radicals. "We can look forward to coalition and mutual support with radical groups if they are able to transcend their anti-Gay and male chauvinist patterns," he wrote, but "we can't compromise or soft-peddle our Gay identity." Wittman derided traditional marriage as a "rotten, oppressive institution," and urged Gays to create different sorts of relationships. In addition, he also rejected the era's sectarian dogma, noting that, "Neither capitalist or socialist countries have treated us as anything other than non grata so far."

In contrast to the "born that way" argument put forth by homophile activists, Wittman believed everyone had the capacity to love both men and women. He issued the call to "free the homosexual in everyone," while also suggesting that "Gays will begin to turn on to women...when women's liberation changes the nature of heterosexual relationships." Few people call themselves Bisexual, he wrote, "because society made such a big stink about homosexuality that we got forced into seeing ourselves as either straight or non-straight." He concluded, "We'll be Gay until everyone has forgotten that it's an issue. Then we'll begin to be complete."

Wittman acquired land in Wolf Creek, Ore. - where leftist Gay men had begun setting up communes - and moved there with his then-lover, Stevens McClave, in 1971. Two years later, he began a long-term relationship with Allan Troxler, a conscientious objector. Both men worked on RFD, a country journal for Gay men, which debuted in 1974 (and still exists today). Wolf Creek later became known as the site of the first Radical Faerie sanctuary.

In Oregon, Wittman got involved in environmental activism and also pursued his long-standing interest in folk dancing. He became an influential teacher, pioneering the development of non-gender-specific English and Scottish country dance. Sun Assembly, a collection of his teachings on dance, was finally published more than a decade after his death.

Wittman and Troxler moved to Durham, N.C., in 1981. Wittman continued his community organizing and environmental work as co-director of the North Carolina Public Interest Research Group. He also helped organize the state's first Gay pride march and co-founded the Durham Lesbian and Gay Health Project, which followed the grassroots model of the 1970s feminist health movement.

When he himself became ill with AIDS in the mid-1980s, Wittman declined hospital treatment; he committed suicide by lethal drug overdose at home among his loved ones on Jan. 22, 1986. Two decades later, many of the same issues that engaged Wittman remain the subject of heated debate within the LGBT community and the progressive movement at large.



Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.
 

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