Who was Huey Newton? How did he interact with queerness and homophobia in the Black Panthers, and how did this change over time?

Who was Huey Newton? How did he interact with queerness and homophobia in the Black Panthers, and how did this change over time?
Written by Sherwin Shabdar

Those are some big questions, so let’s break it down piece by piece, shall we?
Who was Huey Newton?

This guy.

Huey Newton was a black social activist who was one of the leaders and co-founders of the Black Panther party. He–

Hang on a sec…Who were the Black Panthers?

The Black Panthers were a black revolutionary organization in the Oakland area and beyond in the late 1960’s. The party was founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. They believed that black folks were being underserved and systemically targeted by police, and so Panthers ran community programs such as free breakfasts, as well as armed patrols, for which they became famous. “The Panthers argued that the police patrols were a form of self-defense to defend the ‘black community from racist police oppression and brutality.’” 2

Why do we care what Huey thought?

As the leader of one of the leading black organizations in the late ‘60s, Huey had a tremendous amount of influence on black thought in America. It’s hard to overstate how important the Panthers were in the public mind back then. It’s also important because the change in Huey lets you see the change in the Panthers, culminating in his letter to the other Panthers. We’ll get back to that soon.

What did the Panthers think before Huey’s letter?

It was the belief of Huey, and the rest of the Panthers, that to be a revolutionary and fight back was to be a strong masculine man, not a weak gay man. Anti-gay slurs were common.
Another Panther leader, Eldridge Cleaver, wrote about homosexuality in his famous book, Soul on Ice:
“According to Cleaver’s thinking, the black homosexual is a being whose masculinity has been destroyed and whose manhood has been ‘castrated’ by the
white man… Cleaver stated, ‘Homosexuality is a sickness, just as are baby-rape
or wanting to become head of General Motors.’” 2

Yikes.

Yeah.

But you said there was a change? How did Huey change?

One of the most prominent black intellectuals speaking out against the system at the time was a gay man named James Baldwin. We see even early on that,
“Prior to the emergence of the Gay Liberation Movement and despite Cleaver’s homophobic rhetoric, James Baldwin influenced many members of the Black Panther Party, including Newton.” 2This began Huey’s reconsideration.
Some of the change in the Panthers was also a response to other movements. In 1969, a group of transgender people of color fought back against a violent police raid of their bar. This event, the Stonewall Riots, sparked the Gay Liberation movement, and showed the Panthers that queer folks were also victims of the police, shifting their thoughts a bit more.
By this point in time, many of the Panthers had been jailed from fights with police and other actions, bringing international attention to their situation. To help them, “French writer, activist, and homosexual Jean Genet entered the United States to advocate for imprisoned members of the BPP, including Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale.” 2
Genet stayed in a hotel with several members of the Panthers in preparation for speaking publicly for the Panthers. However, Panthers around him kept using anti-gay slurs, and
“Genet, insulted by the repeated use of homophobic language by the BPP, then began to scream in French and knock over objects in the room.” 2
Genet explained and educated the Panthers why their language set him off:
“Genet expressed his dismay and asked the minister of defense, ‘How would you feel being called a ‘n******’? How do you think I feel hearing these words?’” 5
Genet’s reaction sparked reflection in Huey, and so Huey wrote a letter to the Panthers in their newspaper.

This is the letter?

Yup! I’m going to mostly let Huey speak for himself here. He writes:

“Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion. I say ” whatever your insecurities are” because as we very well know, sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth, and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit a homosexual in the mouth because we are afraid that we might be homosexual; and we want to hit the women or shut her up because we are afraid that she might castrate us…
But whatever the case is, we know that homosexuality is a fact that exists, and we must understand it in its purest form: that is, a person should have the freedom to use his body in whatever way he wants.
We should be careful about using those terms that might turn our friends off. The terms “faggot” and “punk” should be deleted from our vocabulary, and especially we should not attach names normally designed for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people, such as Nixon or Mitchell. Homosexuals are not enemies of the people.”1

Huey calls for the Panthers to change how they talk about gay folks and women, to challenge their own insecurities that cause them to fear gay folks and women, and to unite together and work together. This was huge. As historians have noted,“With Newton’s public stance, the Black Panther Part became the first major national black organization to embrace gay rights.” 4

And I’m sure that letter cleared everything up, right?

Yeah, it’s never that easy. As one Panther later reflected, “’The women really did not have a problem with it, but the men were not down. One man said to me something like, ‘I can’t believe Huey wrote that. I’m not getting f**** in the ass.’” 2
However, in the words of another Panther, “while there was an internal backlash against the letter, Newton’s intervention led to teach-ins within the party on the issue of homosexuality.” 2
With time, the Panthers adjusted to these new ideas, although not without the occasional fistfight.

Fistfight?

The Queens branch of the Panthers had an openly gay member, who was generally accepted by the others as “committed to the cause.” However,
“A Panther relatively new to the chapter confronted the gay member with pejorative remarks at the office, and a fistfight broke out between the two. The offending Panther was soundly beaten, and it was the last time that homophobic remarks were made at the office.” 5
Huey also addressed lingering homophobia in the Panthers when publicly responding to the earlier words of Eldridge Cleaver about homosexuality in 1973, saying:

“If only this failed revolutionist had realized and accepted the fact that there is some masculinity in every female and some femininity in every male, perhaps his energies could have been put to better use than constantly convincing himself that he is everyone’s superstud. How confused and tortured he must be to equate homosexuality, baby-rape, and the desire to become the head of General Motors. But Cleaver’s imagination is not healthy… He is no Baldwin, no Genet.” 2

That’s a hell of a takedown.

It’s got that Huey Newton fire to it: his statements, especially his letter, had an unquestionably huge impact, backed by a genuine belief. In the words of historian Alycee Lane, “the historical significance of Newton’s letter should not be underestimated: ‘It was the first time any non-gay black organization whether the mainstream, like the NAACP, or radical like Ron Karenga’s Us—recognized the oppression of homophobia; connected that oppression to the plight of black people; and attempted—based on that connection—to build coalitions openly with lesbians and gay men.’” 3
The Panthers brought this together at their 1970 convention in Philadelphia, where “The event began with a crowd of gay people ‘chanting and clapping rhythmically: ‘Gay, gay power to the gay, gay people! Power to the people! Black, black power to the black, black people!’” 2 Two movements came together in solidarity, for revolution.

Notes
1 Byrd, Rudolph P., and Beverly. Guy-Sheftall. Traps : African American Men on Gender and Sexuality. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001. Print.

2 Porter, Ronald K. “CHAPTER THIRTY-FOUR: A Rainbow in Black: The Gay Politics of the Black Panther Party.” Counterpoints, vol. 367, 2012, 364–375.

3 Jones, Charles E. The Black Panther Party (reconsidered). Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1998, Print. 35-40.

4 Bloom, Joshua, and Waldo E. Martin. Black against Empire : The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013. 306.

5 Ogbar, Jeffrey Ogbonna Green. Black Power : Radical Politics and African American Identity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. Print. Reconfiguring American political history; Reconfiguring American political history. 101-105.

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