REVIEW: Sexual Politics, Sexual Violence, and the Communist Left: “Complexities and Contradictions”

Sexual Politics, Sexual Violence, and the Communist Left:
“Complexities and Contradictions”

New York University, 19 September 2011

Bettina Aptheker’s engaging talk “Sexual Politics, Sexual Violence, and the Communist Left,” organized by NYU’s Department of Teaching and Learning and co-sponsored by the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality (CSGS), showcased both her incredible history of activism, and her continued scholarly commitment to issues of human rights. Aptheker, who is a frequent visiting scholar at NYU, described the impetus for and development of her new research project to an attentive seminar-style gathering of 25, and shared some of her initial findings through her archival work with NYU’s Tamiment Library.

Aptheker’s current research emerged in the wake of controversy surrounding her memoir, Intimate Politics: How I Grew Up Red, Fought For Freedom, And Became A Feminist Rebel, which was published in 2006. The memoir “weaves the personal and political through a feminist lens, and tells the story of childhood sexual abuse, the consequences of later experiences of sexual violence, FBI surveillance, police violence, and imprisonment,” as well as issues of Jewish and lesbian identity. As she joked, “it’s very light reading.”

Aptheker described responses to the memoir as, fittingly, both personal and political. Some readers considered Aptheker’s description of years of abuse at the hands of her well-known and respected father, Herbert Aptheker, to be untrue, opportunistic or irrelevant, and internet-wide debates—from articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, to radical left messageboards and forums—were waged over the extent to which Aptheker’s revelations should affect her father’s legacy. At the same time, in letters, phone calls and in person, hundreds of people thanked Aptheker for articulating the violence and discrimination she had experienced within the Communist Party, as her experiences resonated with their own and their loved ones’. This spectrum of responses suggested to Aptheker the necessity for the left to take up these common but rarely discussed issues, including childhood sexual and physical abuse, neglect, domestic violence, and homophobia, as important “political and human rights issues.”

While she acknowledged the difficulty of admitting the possibility of such disturbing violences within an organization ostensibly dedicated to human rights, Aptheker argued that there is “very little understanding [in the Party] of the ways different kinds of oppression, such as class, race, gender, and sexuality, are interconnected.” These issues, “so often disdained and abandoned by the left,” have shaped the direction of her research into the official policies and disciplinary actions in the history of the Communist Party, particularly in relation to the Party’s explicitly homophobic history, and a contemporary atmosphere in which queer communist identity is “more tolerated than celebrated.”

In addition to the Tamiment collection, which houses the sealed files of the Party’s disciplinary committees, she is using the NYPL’s LGBT Archives, the Mazer Lesbian Archives, and the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives. Her current line of analytic inquiry into these archives is on the question of personal and political effects of closeting, and particularly the “double, maybe triple closeting” required for some queer party members, who were required both to deny their sexuality within the party, and deny their party involvement to the broader political arena. She described this experience, with which she is intimately familiar, as “very difficult to maintain… filled with painful contradictions and denials,” and “rife with terrible pressures, fears and suffering.”

In tracing the historical shifts over time of the Party’s official and unofficial policies on the treatment of its gay and lesbian members, including such prominent figures as Bertha C. Reynolds and Harry Hay, Aptheker is helping a whole history of queer communism to come out of the archival closet, in an effort to “contribute to a useful social, personal, psychological, and political historiography”—a tall order, but one that Aptheker is certainly well-equipped to fill.

–Julia DeLeon

Julia DeLeon is a PhD student in Performance Studies at NYU.