I met Morris Kight (1919-2003) in 1978. That year, Kight came to Miami to serve as grand marshal in the annual Pride parade. Since the Pride committee did not have money to entertain its guests, I ended up driving Kight, his Co-Grand Marshal Rev. Lucia Chappelle, and Pride Chair Rev. Joseph Gilbert to Fort Lauderdale, where my lover Stephen Jerome made dinner. Alas, dinner with “the most famous gay in America” (Gilbert’s phrase) was a disaster due to Jerome’s inability to keep his mouth shut, which only managed to drive the great man out of the room.
During the early decades of the LGBTQ movement (1950-1980), our community was headed by a remarkable group of leaders; men and women who combined great courage, determination and more than a touch of narcissism. One needed a large amount of self-esteem to represent the gay community at a time when homosexuality was thought by most to be a mental illness, a sin and a crime, and when most queers hid in the closet. High among those individuals was Morris Kight. In 1957 the Texas-born Kight moved to Los Angeles, where he made a name for himself by assisting gay youth with financial, health or legal problems. In the 1960s he played a leadership role opposing the Vietnam War and, after Stonewall, fighting for gay liberation. Kight’s resume is quite remarkable. He founded or co-founded the Gay Liberation Front of Los Angeles (1969); Christopher Street West (L.A.’s Pride Committee) (1970); the Gay Community Services Center of Los Angeles (1971); and Asian/Pacific Lesbian/Gays (1980), just to name a few. Indeed, one could write a history of the LGBTQ movement in Los Angeles during the second half of the last century around the activities of Morris Kight. A personality as vast as Kight was deserves a biography, and he finally has one.
Mary Ann Cherry, who knew Kight during his last decade of life, has written a fascinating life of one our greatest leaders. “Morris Kight: Humanist, Liberationist, Fantabulist – A Story of Gay Rights and Gay Wrongs” (Process Media Publication $22.95) is to L.A. what Randy Shilts’ “The Mayor of Castro Street” was to San Francisco, only Castro’s history ended abruptly in 1978 when its subject Harvey Milk was assassinated. Kight’s story moves forward, from the dark days of anti-gay violence and police brutality against lesbians and homosexuals to the “heroic age” of queer liberation (1969-73) to the AIDS epidemic and beyond. All the great names are here: Harry Hay, Jim Kepner, Don Slater, Troy Perry, Pat Rocco, Joseph Hansen, Don Kilhefner, Jon Platania; and even Milk makes a cameo appearance. Above all there was Kight; always convinced of his own greatness and that of the community that he loved.
“Kight,” based on interviews with his friends and foes living or dead, is clearly a labor of love. Though Cherry obviously admires Kight, she is careful to note the great man’s faults, primarily his “boundless ego.” Cherry calls him a “fantabulist,” which the dictionary defines as “a person who benignly imagines or invents wonderful, but untrue, aspects of their character or history.” Kight’s narcissism was a turn-off for many people, especially lesser figures like Advocate publisher David Goodstein. However, if anyone in the movement had a right to be vain, it was Kight. Younger activists who came out after Stonewall admired the avuncular Mr. Kight, who was fighting the good fight when they were still in their diapers. The LGBTQ community showered him with well-deserved honors, most notably a Chinese magnolia tree that the City of West Hollywood dedicated to “the Venerable Morris Kight.” The plaque is still there, for all to see.