Gay Democratic Socialist Disruption on Television in 1971
Finley Freibert / University of Louisville

watching tv
Gay disruption on Chicago TV, 1971

Consider the following quote:

Because capitalism in America is proven to be exploitative on a vast and growing scale (the 1% of American families at the top get twice the income of all 20% at the bottom), I advocate making America socialist and redistributing the national wealth equitably. I advocate democratic socialism.[ (( Tip Hillan, “Letter to the Editor,” Vector, February 1972, 7. ))]

The quote seems contemporary.[ (( That is, aside from the exponential increase in the wealth gap represented by this quote’s percentages, which reflected the 1970s. ))] It sounds like someone talking about current economic inequalities exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2007-2009 and continuing to spiral out of control. It uses “the 1%” in the sense that it was employed by the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. It identifies and condemns the grotesque consolidation of wealth by the few at the expense of the rest of us. It sounds like something Bernie Sanders would say.

The quote is from a gay democratic socialist speaking nearly fifty years ago. It is representative of a gay democratic socialist branch of gay liberation that expanded across the US from 1969 to the mid-1970s. While the nuances of the definition of democratic socialism depend on the contexts of its use, its associated rhetoric and emphasis on egalitarianism—precisely antithetical to authoritarian socialism—remain strikingly constant.

Reverberating the critical sentiment in the quote is the above image, a contemporaneous televised moment of chaos.[ (( The presence of sporadic circular banding, blurred movement, rounded rectangular masking, and slight non-rectilinear perspective typical of a convex screen all suggest the image is not a photograph of the scene, but a still capture of a televisual image and meant to be understood as such. ))] In the image, an alleged gay democratic socialist (the bespectacled youth with a mop top) confronts Dr. David Reuben, an author (the central foreground figure) who grossly misrepresented gay men for monetary gain. Thinking through this gay democratic socialist disruption of televisual flow provides a historical avenue for approaching recent considerations of what constitutes a gay politics.

Dr. David Reuben’s bestselling non-fiction book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) was first published in 1969. The book capitalized on the sexual revolution and was intended for the mass market in the vein of popular texts on sexuality from the time.[ (( The focus on pathology and sensationalism in Reuben’s chapter on homosexuality is more in line with the phobic and conformist position of popular psychology. For a differentiation between the popular psychological and sociological mass market genres see Jeffrey Escoffier, American Homo: Community and Perversity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 86–93. ))] Feminists criticized the book for the author’s sexist discussions of women’s bodies and sexualities; gay men criticized it for outrageous speculations on gay male sexual experiences.[ (( Representative reviews in the feminist and gay press respectively include “Amazon’s Eye View,” Sappho 1, no. 5 (1972): 11; E.L. Sutton, “Mailbag: Reuben Peddles Baloney,” Advocate, February 3, 1971, 23. ))] The book’s popularity and Reuben’s frequent presence on talk shows to promote the book were indicative of an emergent monetizable form of self-help that Elena Gorfinkel calls “a developing literature of sex-help” wherein “the private sphere of sexuality could be accessed and become an object of consumption.”[ (( Elena Gorfinkel, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 170. ))] Gay liberation activists were not solely outraged by his false claims about gay life but above all the profit-oriented capitalization on those claims.

Howard Miller and Chicago
Howard Miller and the logo for Howard Miller’s Chicago, 1971.

While Reuben was promoting the book during a taping of Howard Miller’s Chicago on February 14, 1971, a group of approximately fifteen gay activists interrupted him to contest his bizarre and bigoted claims about gay men. Gay activist Murray Edelman escalated the confrontation by storming the stage, demanding that Reuben answer. Edelman was intercepted by security, and the show’s host condemned Edelman as a member of the Red Butterfly, “a group of homosexuals with Marxist influence in politics.”[ (( William B. Kelley, “Gays Protest Reuben ‘Book,’” Mattachine Midwest Newsletter, February 1971, 1. The article went on to state, “Miller’s comment was the first hint that one [Red Butterfly group] might exist in Chicago.” In other words, given that the Red Butterfly was based in New York, even the gay press expressed surprise over the possibility that a new group had formed in Chicago. Indeed, by January 1972 the New York Gay Activists Alliance was listing chapters of Red Butterfly in both Chicago and Delray Beach. ))]

It is unclear if Edelman was actually a Red Butterfly, so it is plausible that Miller’s statement was anti-left red-baiting given Miller’s right wing affiliation.[ (( For the quintessential historical account of the lavender scare see, David K. Johnson, The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004). ))] Yet rather than alleging Edelman was simply a gay communist, Miller’s statement displayed a surprising level of specificity and relative accuracy; the Red Butterfly was a gay Marxist group, which also self-identified as democratic socialist.[ (( See Image 3 for one of several places where the Red Butterfly self-identified as democratic socialist. “Red Butterfly,” Come Out, December 1970, 5. ))] Regardless of whether Edelman was a member of the group, the public identification of the disruption with the Red Butterfly and the action’s political and economic purpose align it with a gay democratic socialist imprint.

This protest on Chicago television was part of a tradition of gay liberationist zaps—confrontational direct action toward a public figure or institution with the aim of generating publicity. Gay zaps and other forms of gay media intervention and advocacy have been well-documented.[ (( Some key texts include Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies (New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1995), 181–245; Stephen Tropiano, The Prime Time Closet: A History of Gays and Lesbians on TV (New York: Applause Books, 2002); Steven Capsuto, Alternate Channels: The Uncensored Story of Gay and Lesbian Images on Radio and Television (New York, NY: Ballantine Books, 2000); Matt Connolly, “Liberating the Screen: Gay and Lesbian Protests of LGBT Cinematic Representation, 1969–1974,” Cinema Journal 57, no. 2 (2018): 66–88. ))] While there has been acknowledgement of the economic interventions of gay zaps with tactics like boycotting, much of the literature centralizes representational concerns as the primary focus of gay media activism of the 1970s. While clearly part of gay liberationists’ quarrel with Reuben was his fabricated claims about gay men, I’d like to adjust the lens on this moment of gay liberation media activism to consider the possibility of socio-economic critique offered by groups like the Red Butterfly.

Rather than read this protest as exclusively a representational quarrel over what constitutes “authentic” gay cultural and sexual practices, what if we view it as a critique of media industries’ collusion with—and embeddedness in—fundamentally inequitable economic infrastructures? A reading of this action as informed by sexuality and political economy is in line with what Heather Berg writes of different yet intersecting contexts of feminist sex-work activism: “the point is not that there is an antipathy between radical sexual and radical anticapitalist politics—the battles are the same: capital despises both workers and sexual minorities who refuse to assimilate to the nuclear family it requires in order to reproduce labor.”[ (( Heather Berg, “Working for Love, Loving for Work: Discourses of Labor in Feminist Sex-Work Activism,” Feminist Studies 40, no. 3 (2014): 711. ))]

gay youth red butterfly pamphlet
A fused layout grid presents the Red Butterfly in solidarity with other key liberation groups, Gay Youth and S.T.A.R.

Congruent with democratic socialist emphases on collectivity and socio-economic critique, Edelman urged that his action should not be recognized because of the publicity that it garnered—i.e., the newspapers that sold it as a front-page story—but rather because it was a call to solidarity as “an action directly out of our felt oppression.”[ (( Murray Edelman, “The ‘Heavy-Set, Bearded Youth’ Responds,” Chicago Gay Alliance Newsletter, February 1971, 11. ))] Edelman later reflected on his motivations for spontaneously storming the stage. During the taping as he silently sat in the studio audience, Edelman envisioned Reuben’s books being sold and with the books’ circulation, he imagined the exposure of millions to Reuben’s ideas.[ (( Ibid. ))]

Edelman’s emphasis on solidarity in opposition to mass market product circulation is key to understanding how the zap was an economic intervention. While there is no doubt that public attention to the gay liberation cause was one objective of zaps, gay direct actions—rooted in the tradition of labor organizing and often themselves referred to as “gay strikes”—were nearly always intended to intervene in the flow of capital.[ (( [1] Examples include the gay strike of May 1969 initiated in the Bay Area to protest the police killing of Frank Bartley in Berkeley, and the National Gay Strike Day planned by the Gay Liberation Front at the 1970 meeting of the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. ))] Producers of the talk show invited members of the University of Chicago Gay Liberation group to the show’s taping of the interview with David Reuben because homosexuality was considered a “lucrative topic.”[ (( James Coates, “Miller Talk Show Ends in a Big Flap,” Chicago Tribune, January 15, 1971, 14. ))] However, upon learning of their invitation, Reuben refused to discuss the subject of homosexuality on the show for fear that it would diminish book sales.[ (( Ibid. ))] Following the confrontation, Reuben walked off the program and cancelled a future guest appearance on WLS. In sum, the Edelman-led zap disrupted both the local promotion of Reuben’s book and threw a wrench in the scheduling of two WLS shows. Further reflecting on the zap, Edelman linked the action to a broader gay liberation campaign in Chicago to prevent all advertising and sale of the book in the area.[ (( Fred Winston, “Gay Lib Member Confronts Sex Book Author on TV,” The Chicago Maroon, January 22, 1971, 4. ))]

Why does this matter?

This column was written during the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, wherein popular candidates included a gay man and a democratic socialist. Through his policies as a mayor the gay candidate enacted class war against the homeless and working classes. He has also red-baited the democratic socialist and enthusiastically displayed contempt for postwar activism. Concurrently, everyday people actively confronting their own conditions of impoverishment, such as graduate students in the University of California system, have been fired from their jobs and threatened with deportation. It is also a time when political affiliation with democratic socialism can lead to disciplinary career actions, such as for David Wright of ABC News, or even one’s personal information being cataloged on a public blacklist intended to incite harassment.

While certainly there have been conservative groups across the gay political spectrum, socialism has been a formative component to gay activist cultures and historiography.[ (( Numerous folks have contributed to the progressive historiography of gay politics including John D’Emilio, Lisa Duggan, Jeffrey Escoffier, Jonathan Ned Katz, Gayle Rubin, and Barbara Smith, among numerous others. For a general overview see, Jeffrey Escoffier, “Left-Wing Homosexuality: Emancipation, Sexual Liberation, and Identity Politics,” New Politics, Summer 2008, 38–43. ))] Revisiting televised gay democratic socialist outrage underscores how central socio-economic considerations have been to the gay liberation project.[ (( While liberationists diverged from the conservative ethic of sexual identity privacy generally ascribed to the earlier homophile movement, the dual commitment of both groups to socialist critique provides a throughline from the early communist-inspired homophile cells, into the gay Marxism of the Red Butterfly, and through to the intersectional, anti-racist, and internationalist coalitions expansively documented by Emily K. Hobson. Emily K. Hobson, Lavender and Red: Liberation and Solidarity in the Gay and Lesbian Left (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016). For a key analysis of the radical left tendencies of early homophile groups, see Martin Meeker, “Behind the Mask of Respectability: Reconsidering the Mattachine Society and Male Homophile Practice, 1950s and 1960s,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 10, no. 1 (2001): 78–116. ))] Reflecting on where gay politics has been can help us imagine an equitable horizon for its future.

Image Credits:

  1. Gay
    disruption on Chicago TV, 1971 (clipping from Mattachine Midwest Newsletter,
    February 1971, 18.)
  2. Howard
    Miller and the logo for Howard Miller’s Chicago, 1971 (author’s screen
  3. A
    fused layout grid presents the Red Butterfly in solidarity with other key
    liberation groups, Gay Youth and S.T.A.R. (clipping from Come Out,
    December 1970, 5.)


A Public Records Request Rabbit Hole in the Study of Nontheatrical Distribution
Finley Freibert / Independent Scholar

Clipping from San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12.

In June 2017, as I was researching the history of Californian gay media industries I came across a curious article in a January 1961 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle. Entitled “Police Seize Suspect, Homosexual Movies,” the article detailed the arrest of an individual named John Samuel Bridges whose station wagon was loaded with films apparently intended for distribution to gay male consumers.[ (( “Police Seize Suspect, Homosexual Movies.” San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12. ))] The report noted there was evidence that sailors stationed at Treasure Island appeared in the films, a fascinating historical revelation given the island’s important place in San Francisco’s LGBTQ+ history. The Golden Gate International Exposition on Treasure Island featured popular amusements on its so-called “Gayway” that pushed the envelope on sexual propriety in the postwar era.[ (( Donna J. Graves and Shayne E. Watson, Citywide Historical Context Statement for LGBTQ History in San Francisco, October 2015, Planning Department, City and County of San Francisco, CA, 55. ))] Treasure Island was also the location of a notorious military brig where gay men of the navy were incarcerated and abused before being discharged.[ (( Allan Bérubé, Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 149-50, 221; Joan Crowell, Fort Dix Stockade: Our Prison Camp Next Door (New York: Links, 1974), 137; Susan Stryker and Jim van Buskirk, Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996), 30. ))] According to the Chronicle article, Bridges was involved with both the making and distribution of these movies, and officers allegedly recovered a list of potential gay customers.

Aerial view of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge, 1959, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

This incident is notable for a number of reasons. Gay nontheatrical distribution is generally an under-researched field that could uniquely contribute to ongoing debates in nontheatrical film history.[ (( “Nontheatrical” is an industry term covering a wide range of production-distribution modes—including educational, private, institutional, nonprofit, adult, and amateur film among others—outside of public-facing for-profit exhibition industries. The Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Scholarly Interest Group on Nontheatrical Film and Media was founded in 2007. Since the 2000s journal special issues and books have expanded the field internationally. For examples see, Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson, eds., Useful Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Allyson Nadia Field, Marsha Gordon, and Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, eds., Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019); Dan Streible, Martina Roepke, and Anke Mebold, eds., Film History Special Issue 19, no. 4 (2007). ))] The date, 1961, precedes the famed advent of West Coast gay theater policies, namely the operations of the Haight in San Francisco starting in 1964 and the Park in Los Angeles commencing in 1968. Given the date and description, Bridges’ movies would have been either physique posing films or hardcore stag films, reproduced on small-gauge and distributed to nontheatrical gay consumers. As Elena Gorfinkel has detailed of the larger industry, small-gauge nontheatrical producers and distributors were industrially at odds with the 35mm theatrical adult film industry, who attempted to distance their work from small-gauge workers and also bar such workers from entry into the adult film trade organization.[ (( Elena Gorfinkel, Lewd Looks: American Sexploitation Cinema in the 1960s (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 89-95. ))] Thomas Waugh estimates that in comparison to the massive gay photography industry, the much smaller international market for gay nontheatrical film “allowed at most a dozen producers in 1960.”[ (( Thomas Waugh, Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 255. ))] This estimate—and the allegation that Bridges’ car was packed with gay films—potentially places Bridges among the ranks of Bob Mizer and Dick Fontaine, the most prolific gay film producer-distributors in the state (and perhaps the country) before 1968. Furthermore, histories of the production and distribution of nontheatrical (and theatrical) gay films in San Francisco often begin with discussions of J. Brian or Hal Call, but include little information on the period before 1967.[ (( Besides Waugh’s important book on the subject, other key histories include Jeffrey Escoffier, Bigger than Life: The History of Gay Porn Cinema from Beefcake to Hardcore (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2009); Lucas Hilderbrand, “The Uncut Version: The Mattachine Society’s Pornographic Epilogue,” Sexualities 19, no. 4 (2016): 449–64; Ryan Powell, Coming Together: The Cinematic Elaboration of Gay Male Life, 1945-1979 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019). ))] Finally, given the difficulty of recovering distribution history due to gay nontheatrical films’ clandestine circulation, records produced by an in-transit arrest could include significant revelations.

For these reasons,
I was fascinated to know more about this incident. Searches through available
historical newspaper digital archives turned up no other results on either
Bridges or the outcome of his arrest. Because of this scarcity of information,
I decided to file a public records request with the San Francisco Police
Department (SFPD) to see if a police report or other ephemera pertaining to
this incident might still exist. California Government Code §6254 (f) (1) provides that
under certain circumstances law enforcement bodies must make public:

The full name and occupation of every individual arrested by the agency, the individual’s physical description including date of birth, color of eyes and hair, sex, height and weight, the time and date of arrest, the time and date of booking, the location of the arrest, the factual circumstances surrounding the arrest, the amount of bail set, the time and manner of release or the location where the individual is currently being held, and all charges the individual is being held upon, including any outstanding warrants from other jurisdictions and parole or probation holds.[ (( “Cal. Government Code  §6254,” California Legislative Information, accessed November 1, 2018, ))]

On October 9, 2018, I submitted a
request to the SFPD for all the above listed information relating to John
Samuel Bridges’ arrest on January 20, 1961.

On October 10, I received a response from SFPD asserting that the information I requested would not be disclosed because it was criminal history information protected from public disclosure under Penal Code §11105.[ (( Lt. Waaland, letter to author, October 10, 2018, San Francisco, CA to Irvine, CA, Reference # P005835-100918. ))] I found that response confusing because an almost identical request to the Los Angeles Police Department for 1970s records received a response that did not refuse record disclosure, stating that “in order for Records and Identification to even try to search for arrest reports that old, they need the booking numbers.”[ (( LAPD Discovery Section, CPRA Unit, email to author, October 10, 2018. ))] Because of this discrepancy, I decided to look further into the SFPD’s reasoning for refusing to disclose records in the case of Bridges.

After reading the Penal Code section cited by SFPD, I believed the information I saught may have been misunderstood as “criminal history information,” a specific phrase in the Penal Code §11105 defined as a compilation of data from an individual’s overall criminal record.[ (( “Penal Code  §11105,” California Legislative Information, accessed October 11, 2018, ))] Because of this possible misunderstanding, I submitted a second request on October 12 specifying that I did not want a compilation of criminal history on Bridges, but only arrest information on the June 20, 1961 incident. The second request for disclosure was denied by SFPD on October 18, with a different rationale. This time the response stated that due to an appellate court decision in 1993, the California Public Records Act “only requires the Department to provide information relating to current or ‘contemporaneous’ police activity.”[ (( Sgt. Sullivan, letter to author, October 18, 2018, San Francisco, CA to Irvine, CA, Reference # P005874-101218, 2. The appellate case cited was County of Los Angeles v. Superior Court (Kusar) 18 Cal.App.4th 588 (1993). ))] Confused by this second unsuccessful public records request that cited a 25-year-old case, I searched and found a later 2015 appellate court decision that appeared to contradict the “current” argument in the 1993 case cited by the SFPD. The 2015 decision I found stated, “Section 6254, subdivision (f)(2) must be read according to its plain terms, and these terms do not include an express time limitation on production of only ‘contemporaneous’ or ‘current’ records.”[ (( Fredericks v. Superior Court, 233 Cal.App.4th 209 (2015), 531. ))]

With this finding, on November 2, 2018, I submitted a petition for review of my two public records requests to the Supervisor of Records at the San Francisco Office of the City Attorney.[ (( F. Freibert, “Request to Review a CPRA Withholding of Records,” email to B. Russi, November 2, 2018. ))] In my petition I cited the 2015 decision, included copies of my original requests, and attached the SFPD responses. On December 3, 2018, I received a response from the Supervisor of Records that provided an interpretation and detailed legislative history of the “contemporaneous” and “current” §6254 language in the Fredericks and Kusar decisions.[ (( B. Russi, “Re: Petition to Supervisor of Records,” email to author, December 3, 2018, Reference ID: n:\govern\as2018\0100505\01321866.doc. ))] In the response, the Supervisor of Records ultimately affirmed the SFPD’s refusal to disclose records on Bridges.

This process
proved to be a learning experience, but it also speaks to the larger subject of
the viability of accessing public records for historical research. At present,
completing historical research using federal public records requests (via the
Freedom of Information Act) can be feasible. However, my experiences attest to
a current lack of feasibility in using California Public Records Act requests
to research historical arrests by city police departments in Los Angeles and
San Francisco.

Sailors on Treasure Island, 1950, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

In the year following my unsuccessful public records requests, I’ve uncovered additional information that reveals a larger picture of John Bridges’ business operations. Beyond transporting nontheatrical gay movies, the original article noted that Bridges produced several other adult films confiscated the previous day from small-gauge entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurs apparently had some business connection with Bridges, but had previously founded a studio for “legitimate” nontheatrical endeavors (one individual later explicitly identified himself as an “educational film maker”).[ (( “S.F. Cops Smash Lewd Film Ring,” San Francisco Chronicle, January 20, 1961, 3; Novella O’Hara, “Question Man,” San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, 1968, 13. ))] However, when the studio went bankrupt they transitioned to the production of nontheatrical adult films. I am hopeful that pursuing further leads will result in developments on this unique case of clandestine gay-oriented nontheatrical distribution. Distribution remains a crucial yet exceptionally difficult sector to investigate, but media industry studies scholars continue to propose and apply creative approaches to researching distribution that emphasize critical, archival, and interview-based methods.[ (( Recent inspiring examples include: Peter Alilunas, Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016); Lynn Comella, Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017); Kevin Heffernan, “Seen as a Business: Adult Film’s Historical Framework and Foundations,” in New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law, ed. Lynn Comella and Shira Tarrant (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2015), 37–56; Alisa Perren, “Rethinking Distribution for the Future of Media Industry Studies,” Cinema Journal 52, no. 3 (2013): 165–71. ))]

Image Credits:

  1. Clipping from San Francisco Chronicle, January 21, 1961, 12.
  2. Aerial view of Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge, 1959, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.
  3. Sailors on Treasure Island, 1950, Courtesy San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.