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Al Martinez

L.A. Gay Rights Icon Loud, Proud, Moving On

July 22, 2002|Al Martinez

Clearly, Morris Kight was in a hurry.

He wanted to get through the ritual, even though it was a day when honors were being heaped upon him as a retiring member of the L.A. County Human Relations Commission.

He fidgeted, made mumbled references to moving on and rose to lean on his walker midway through a laudatory talk by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky to indicate that Yaroslavsky should wind it up.

It was, in some ways, characteristic of the man who has been in the forefront of the gay liberation movement for almost half a century. Speak out. Get it done. Hit the streets. Move on.

But no one was listening to Kight this time. Those who had gathered on the eighth floor of the county administration building were not to be denied. Kight was retiring after 22 years, and by God, they were going to honor him whether he liked it or not.

Later, a tree would be planted in his honor in a small park in West Hollywood, a city in which so much of Kight's work had been done. But for now, members of the commission, friends, supporters and co-activists in the gay community wanted to thank him for standing tall when it was neither popular nor safe to do so.

They wanted everyone to know that Kight, almost 83, was a hero of the gay rights movement in L.A., and Kight wanted everyone to know it too. No stranger to publicity, he had telephoned me to be there, and I hesitated not a moment.

Why not celebrate a man who through deed and effort had demanded a place in the sun for a group of people defiled and murdered by religions and governments throughout human history? Why not be there?

"Kight," as someone at the meeting pointed out, "was always there."

Felled by a series of strokes, he is frail and must use a walker to get around these days. And yet, there remains a patrician authority in his voice, a crisp, articulate degree of command that will not be silenced. He was, as someone has said, "the liberator," and in some ways, he still is.

Texas born, Kight knew almost from the beginning that he was "different." His father, a blue-collar worker at many jobs, knew it too. "He brought me a present once when I was 4," Kight recalls. "It was an embroidery set. Then he kissed me and said he knew something about me. He just sensed it, and he wanted to make it easier for me."

His mother was less forgiving. She maintained her silence throughout her life but left behind notes that burned with hatred toward homosexuals. Kight read them only after her death, and destroyed them.

"She'd have been happier," he said to me in a voice oddly muted, "if she had loved me."

It was Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., in 1955 that "radicalized" Kight. He came to L.A. because, inspired by Parks' courage, he felt the time was right for a nonviolent movement on behalf of gays, and this was the place where it should begin.

"I never denied or concealed my gayness," he said, peering out from large, horn-rimmed glasses. His thinning hair is white and his skin pale. "I just eased out the closet door in stages. But I never pretended to be anything I wasn't."

Once here, he says, he founded the Gay and Lesbian Resistance in 1957, one of the first organizations of its kind in the country. For nine years he conducted training classes every Sunday afternoon that taught gays how to react in the face of insults and brutality. Twelve years later, he was instrumental in establishing the Gay Liberation Front in L.A., only the third such organization in the nation.

For all those years, Kight has offered leadership to the uncertain, pride to the demeaned and comfort to the dying. In 1970, he and others marched through Hollywood to honor the first anniversary of the so-called Stonewall Uprising in New York. It was the start of the Gay and Lesbian Pride celebration and parade here.

And it galvanized a population that for too long had been almost invisible.

Critics have called Kight theatrical and egotistical, but leaders must always possess those traits. Theatrics are necessary to gather a crowd, and self-assurance is required to convince others to follow a path of resistance they might otherwise avoid, or liberation will never be achieved.

"Morris comes from an era where, to be openly gay, you were putting your physical safety on the line," Yaroslavsky once told an interviewer, adding: "When the history of civil liberties is written, he'll be there."

"It has been exciting," Kight says as we talk in a corner of the room where the Human Relations Commission is about to begin its first meeting without him in more than two decades. There is a prevailing sadness to the event, a sense that an important era is ending.

Kight is made an honorary commissioner, and then he's halfway out the door by the time the commission is called to order to begin its formal meeting without him. Walker or no walker, he moves away from the meeting room as quickly as he can. It's time to step out, to get going, to move on.

"That was the past," he says, in a tone meant to categorize his honored yesterdays. "There are still things to do in the future."

And the liberator moves determinedly down the hall toward the elevator.

*

Al Martinez's columns appear Mondays and Thursdays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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