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Morris Kight, 83; Gay Rights Pioneer in the Southland

January 20, 2003|Nancy Wride | Times Staff Writer

Morris Kight, a pioneering leader in Southern California's gay rights movement, died Sunday morning. He was 83.

Kight, who served for more than 20 years on the Los Angeles Human Rights Commission as its most senior member until his retirement last year, died in his sleep at a hospice in Los Angeles.

He was hospitalized in early December in declining health with a variety of ailments, including liver cancer, heart problems and eventually pneumonia. His health was further compromised by a series of strokes suffered late in life.

The co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Community Service Center of L.A. (now called the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center), Kight also was a key organizer of the West Coast's first gay pride parade and celebration in 1970, which effectively galvanized the modern gay rights movement in Los Angeles. The parade has drawn nearly 500,000 people in recent years.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 22, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 299 words Type of Material: Correction
Kight obituary -- The obituary of activist Morris Kight in Monday's California section stated he was a longtime member of the Los Angeles Human Rights Commission. In fact, he was on the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

"Morris invented a great deal of what we think of as the gay community in Southern California," said Miki Jackson, a gay and lesbian-rights activist who also is a consultant for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation. "He had tremendous vision and imagination and great drive to make his visions a reality."

With his wide straw hat and portly stoop, Kight cut a striking figure at gay rights parades, civic protests and vigils honoring hate crime victims -- events that he led or actively supported over the decades.

One of the best known was a weeks-long 1970 demonstration outside Barney's Beanery, the well-known West Hollywood bar, which had a bar sign reading "Faggots Stay Out!"

After three weeks of protests, employees surrendered the offending sign. Despite promises, a new sign appeared, and was removed in 1985. As a constant reminder of the need for vigilance, a framed copy of the sign hung over Kight's sofa in the modest West Hollywood apartment he shared with his beloved cats.

Years later, Kight would tell a USC film student profiling him that his favorite picket sign outside Barney's Beanery was "Beans for Queens."

Widely viewed by human rights activists as a key figure in the West Coast fight to end discrimination against homosexuals, Kight was less well known to gays unconnected with politics.

"Morris comes from an era where to be openly gay, you were putting your physical safety on the line," Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky told The Times some years ago.

"People today forget that.... In those days, you were risking your well-being. You were risking harassment, you were risking arrest, you were risking getting beaten up by hate-mongers. And the law enforcement community didn't think twice about hassling gays."

"He was fearless," Yaroslavsky said.

The AIDS epidemic claimed many Kight peers who otherwise might have passed on the history of the movement to younger generations, several activists noted.

"AIDS was a holocaust in our community," said Nancy Cohen, a friend of Kight and a former member of the West Hollywood Lesbian and Gay Advisory Board, "and when I see our community, so many people of my generation don't know who Morris is. If we didn't have Morris and a handful of others like him, we wouldn't be where we are today. He has paved the way for people to feel comfortable in their own skin."

Kight's human rights activism predated his work in what was a fledgling gay rights movement, and later in life he proudly displayed photographs of himself with civil rights leaders such as farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez.

When homosexual patrons of the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in New York City refused police orders to leave in 1969, the modern gay rights movement was effectively launched.

At the time, Kight was best known for leading a campaign against Dow Chemical and the napalm it manufactured for use during the Vietnam War.

A friend involved in the New York uprising challenged Kight, then 50, to make a similar stand on the West Coast, and Kight and a few others started what became the annual gay pride parade and festival. It might be hard to imagine that leading such a parade back then could endanger their lives, but death threats were lodged. The band of gay rights protesters marched through the streets anyway.

"The first entry was a lesbian on horseback," Kight told a Times reporter not long ago. "Where they got that horse I have no idea -- then a man with a big 'Homosexuals for Reagan' banner."

The parade is the largest west of the Mississippi River, and the third largest in the nation.

Both events have been organized every year by Christopher Street West, a nonprofit organization Kight helped launch.

He also founded the Stonewall Democratic Club, a gay and lesbian political party, in October 1975.

"In the gay and lesbian community," former West Hollywood Mayor John Heilman once observed, only half joking, "Morris has started so many organizations, we sometimes joke that he probably invented sex, chocolate, disco music and almost everything else."

Kight was born in Texas, but his activism evolved and matured elsewhere.

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