The Red Butterfly - John Lauritsen

John Lauritsen in 1969
John Lauritsen 1969

A first person account of involvement in and the activity of The Red Butterfly, a socialist "cell" within the US Gay Liberation Front 1969-1971.

Submitted by Steven. on July 4, 2016

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 Red Butterfly produced four mimeographed pamphlets:

• The first pamphlet, Gay Liberation, published on 13 February 1970, went through five printings, each of 1000 copies.

• The second pamphlet, published in 1970, was a reprinting of Carl Wittman's A Gay Manifesto, with comments by The Red Butterfly.

• The third pamphlet, published in 1970, was Gay Oppression: A Radical Analysis.

• 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”.

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.

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.