‘You’re the only one who could have written this book’: Bettina Aptheker on ‘Communists in Closets’

UC Santa Cruz professor emerita Bettina Aptheker
UC Santa Cruz professor emerita Bettina Aptheker has just released a new history of closeted queer people in the American Communist Party in the 20th century.

UC Santa Cruz professor emerita Bettina Aptheker’s new book delves into the homophobia of the American Communist Party and its repression of LGBTQ members — of which she was one. She’ll talk about “Communists in Closets” and her experience Tuesday at the Cowell Ranch Hay Barn at UCSC.

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For all its myriad political and ideological failures, you might think that at least the Communist Party of the U.S.A. would be less subject to bigotry and repression than, say, the John Birch Society.

Nope, not really. At least when it comes to the lives of LGBTQ people, the Communist Party’s record isn’t any better than any other 20th-century political organization in which homophobia was a baked-in and unspoken tenet.

That’s the message behind Bettina Aptheker’s new book, “Communists in Closets: Queering the History, 1930s-1990s” (Routledge).

Aptheker, 78, is one of Santa Cruz’s most prominent and respected historical political figures, especially on the campus of UC Santa Cruz, where she taught feminist studies for more than four decades and established herself as one of the primary feminist scholars on the West Coast.

She also knows a thing or two about the American version of the Communist Party, and even more about its repression of gays and lesbians. In fact, she lived it.

Aptheker — who will talk about her new book on Tuesday at Cowell Ranch Hay Barn on the UCSC campus — was a member of the American Communist Party for 19 years, in the teeth of the Cold War, from 1962 to 1981. She also came from a communist family; her father, Herbert Aptheker, was a communist, and one of America’s most influential Marxist historians in the 1940s and ’50s.

Bettina Aptheker's new book, "Communists in Closets."
(Via Bookshop Santa Cruz)

During her time in the Communist Party, Aptheker said she was closeted and struggling to come to grips with her identity as a lesbian. Her book is a scholarly history of others who lived as she did, party activists who were closeted, at least to the party’s hierarchy and often to their own families and spouses. Indeed, Aptheker herself was married to a man for many years, with whom she had two children.

“The Communist Party banned gay members for almost 60 years,” she said, “which is really counterintuitive, if it’s supposed to be this revolutionary organization. But they were so backward on this question, and very vociferous about it.”

Knee-jerk homophobia was part of the party’s ideology, even though gays and lesbians in the civil service were being purged by the U.S. government. Aptheker said that when it comes to LGBTQ, the communists’ thinking was no different than far-right McCarthyites’ thinking.

“The rationale (the Communist Party) used, besides the ideas that homosexuals were degenerates and so forth, was that if the FBI found out you were gay or lesbian, you could be blackmailed and you could become a spy,” she said. “At the same time, the government rationale was that if the Soviets found out that you were gay or lesbian, they could blackmail you into become spies for them. It was the exact same rationale across the spectrum.”

According to Aptheker’s history, the Communist Party didn’t lift the ban on LGBT membership until 1991, the same year the Soviet Union dissolved. “The collapse of the Soviet Union,” she said, “split the Communist Party apart. And there was a horrible convention [that year]. And there were a bunch of people, including [famed activist and UCSC professor] Angela Davis, my father, and my ex-husband that formed a committee on democracy, peace and socialism that admitted gays and lesbians, anybody really, who agreed with the basic idea of peace and socialism. So at that time, the ban was lifted. But the party didn’t pass a resolution acknowledging gays and lesbians until 2005.”

Aptheker’s own coming-out story to her parents mirrors many similar stories from that generation. Despite her family’s reputation for progressive thinking when it comes to acknowledging and protecting minority or threatened populations, they still had deep hesitations about coming to terms about any sexuality outside the heterosexual norm. In 1979, Aptheker met her future spouse and life partner, Kate Miller, in Santa Cruz, a time that was close to the end of her almost 20-year membership in the Communist Party. (The couple, married in 2013, are still together after 44 years.) Aptheker introduced Kate to her mother, who “figured it out,” said Aptheker, but didn’t say anything until Bettina’s young son, who knew about his mother’s orientation, blurted something out to his grandmother.

Bettina Aptheker, 78, professor emerita at UC Santa Cruz
Bettina Aptheker, 78, chronicles her coming out as gay to her parents in the late 1970s when the whole family was part of the Communist Party of the USA. “We had a great conversation,” she said about coming out to her mother, “and some of it was very funny.”
(Via Nolan Calisch)

“He came home and he was very nervous,” remembered Aptheker, “And he [said], ‘It just sort of fell out.’ And I just kissed him and said to him, ‘Thank goodness,’ because it opened the door to finally have a conversation with her. And so I did, and we had a great conversation and some of it was very funny. It’s in the book.”

Her famous father was a different story. He might have been sympathetic, but the two never had the conversation she enjoyed with her mother. “He never used the word ‘lesbian.’ He never said anything to me about it,” Bettina Aptheker said. “Every once in a while, he’d say, ‘You should look up so-and-so,’ and he’d give me the name of somebody in the party. Later, I’d find out she was a [closeted] lesbian. I don’t know how he knew those things.”

However much it leans on Aptheker’s personal story, “Communists in Closets” is not a memoir, she said. It’s more a series of small biographies of often unacknowledged LGBTQ people who were instrumental in the Communist Party and 20th-century progressive movements generally. Among them, for example, is Betty Millard, a writer and activist from a wealthy conservative family who became editor of the Marxist magazine New Masses. Aptheker discovered Millard’s story when a friend/former student at Smith College in Massachusetts called Aptheker to inform her of the existence of an archive of material on Millard’s life. The person who gave the archive to Smith College was Millard’s niece Olivia, whom Aptheker then vowed to find, to interview her about her aunt.

Aptheker tried to get a message to Olivia Millard, but for months could not connect. “So I didn’t hear, I didn’t hear, I didn’t hear. Then, all of a sudden, one night, I get a phone message from Olivia Millard,” she said. “By this time, I had almost forgotten the name, and I was just hysterical trying to make my little flip phone work. Anyway, it turns out she lives in Watsonville.”

Aptheker said that while researching and writing the book, she was conscientious not to expose people’s personal lives without strong evidence. She left the Communist Party in the early 1980s, not because of its stance on LGBT issues, but because the party’s women’s commission objected that a book she was writing at the time about women’s history was “too feminist.”

As for the new book, it took her a decade to write it. She said there was one fine book on the Communist Party that touched on a similar subject, but the book’s author, said Aptheker, “didn’t understand anything about internalized homophobia, because I don’t think she was gay. I mean, a lot of people have said to me, ‘You’re the only one who could have written this book,’ because I lived through it.”

Bettina Aptheker will talk about her new book, “Communists in Closets: Queering the History, 1930s-1990s,” on Tuesday, at 7 p.m. at the Cowell Ranch Hay Barn. Admission is free, but registration is required. The event is presented by Bookshop Santa Cruz and the Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz.

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