Homo History: Emma Goldman

3.10.2010

By Noah Michelson

Photo: By Komow and Landa from the Emma Goldman archive

A century ago, feminist anarchist Emma Goldman published Anarchism And Other Essays, and began publicly speaking about gay rights. Goldman’s defense of gays started early: when in Paris in 1900, she was meant to dine with Oscar Wilde, but had a prior appointment. Later, talking to the host of the evening she missed out on, Goldman reported (in her autobiography):

“I told the doctor of the indignation I had felt at the conviction of Oscar Wilde. I had pleaded his case against the miserable hypocrites who had sent him to his doom. ‘You!’ the doctor exclaimed in astonishment, ‘Why, you must have been a mere youngster then [she was 26 at the time of Wilde’s trial]. How did you dare come out in public for Oscar Wilde in puritan America?’ ‘Nonsense!’ I replied; ‘No daring is required to protest against a great injustice.’ The doctor smiled dubiously. ‘Injustice?’ he repeated; ‘It wasn't exactly that from the legal point of view, though it may have been from the psychological.’ The rest of the afternoon we were engaged in a battle royal about inversion, perversion, and the question of sex variation. He had given much thought to the matter, but he was not free in his approach, and I suspected that he was somewhat scandalized that I, a young woman, should speak without reservations on such tabooed subjects.”

Later, on a speaking tour in Portland, Oregon, Goldman says: “My tour this year met with no police interference until we reached Portland, Oregon, although the subjects I treated were anything but tame: anti-war topics, the fight for Caplan and Schmidt, freedom in love, birth-control, and the problem most tabooed in polite society, homosexuality.”

Goldman found resistance to her pro-gay stance even in the anarchist movement: “Anarchism was already enough misunderstood, and anarchists considered depraved; it was inadvisable to add to the misconceptions by taking up perverted sex-forms, they argued.”

Goldman’s passions ran deep: Russian-born, she came to the U.S. in 1885, speaking on anarchist philosophy, women’s rights and social issues. She was jailed for “inciting to riot” and telling people about birth control, and later again for opposing the 1917 draft, then was deported to Russia, leaving there in disgust at the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution, and living variously in England, France and Canada. She died in 1940, never having met Oscar Wilde.

Of all her causes, her defense of the rights of homosexuals was the most radical for the time: “It is a tragedy, I feel, that people of a different sexual type are caught in a world which shows so little understanding for homosexuals and is so crassly indifferent to the various gradations and variations of gender and their great significance in life.”

Previously > Need To Know: Lay Low

Tags: Popnography
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