Morris Kight: Activist Statesman of L.A.'s Gay Community

Times Staff Writer

It’s early afternoon and Morris Kight is touring an AIDS hospice on a quiet street in West Los Angeles. The hospice is really a cheery little bungalow with shining hardwood floors, an immaculate kitchen, a large sunny backyard full of colorful flowers and neatly trimmed shrubs. But in the three side bedrooms, five people are dying of AIDS.

When Ron Wolff, the hospice’s executive director, introduces him to a patient named Joey, Kight hurries up to take his hand: “Hi, Joey.”

Joey is too close to death to do more than give a hoarse croak. His limbs are shriveled, his face black, his skin shrunken against his skull. From his eyes to his chin, his face is a open sore.

His family has just come in from out of town to see Joey. And now, stunned and aghast, they sit in the foyer crying.

Kight comforts them, too, then retires to the living room to talk to Wolff. Although Kight is no stranger to AIDS--he says he knows more than 500 people who have died from it--the sight of such a pathetic case has left him close to tears. “I don’t want to patronize you,” he tells Wolff, “but I am in awe of what you do.”


“I hope you don’t think I’m patronizing you,” Wolff replies, “but this is an important day for me because I get a chance to meet a legend in the community.”

For the last 30 years, Morris Kight has been a noisy fixture among Southern California gays, counseling people, holding protests, giving speeches, organizing institutions, fighting homophobia and defending gay rights.

To many of his friends and supporters, he is, at age 68, the “grand old man of the gay movement,” “the elder statesman of the gay community,” “a national treasure” and a worthy candidate for the Nobel Prize.

But to his enemies, he’s a “silly old man” who takes undue credit for other people’s work and whose legendary status exists mainly in his own mind.

Kight is not an easy person to forget. With his aristocratically flared nose, pink cheeks, lank white hair and baroque manner of speech, he has the air of a Southern gentleman of independent means. He calls people “sir” and “dear lady.” He refers to common thugs as “brigands” and junkmen as “ironmongers.” In conversation, he has a delicate way of soothing his hair with his fingertips.

He has uncommonly good manners. He’s unusually sensitive to the needs of other people and revels in small courtesies--buying a boutonniere for a dinner guest or calling impending visitors to offer advice on parking. Erudite to a fault, he has an astonishingly agile memory for names and places (including their correct spellings), some from 50 years ago.

When it comes to dealing with the press, he’s a grand master, and if asked a question he doesn’t want to answer, he’ll simply answer another one, albeit with great sincerity and conviction. “I have no apologies to make,” he says, “for I am a fiercely political person.”

For the last 11 years Kight has lived in Hollywood on McCadden Place, just south of Sunset Boulevard in a big old open barn of a house full of small noisy dogs, assorted cats and a 14-foot dining room table from a Paramount board room.

Although his neighborhood has a dangerous feel--all parking on this part of McCadden and neighboring streets has been banned for years to curb drug trafficking--Kight always leaves the front door wide open during the day.

“I want to indicate through example that I’m not afraid,” he says. “I don’t have any draperies or shades on the windows. I never have in any house I’ve ever lived in. Gays like openness. It’s a metaphor.”

At numerous functions over the years, politicians such as Mayor Bradley, Sam Yorty, Bella Abzug, Zev Yaroslavsky, Gray Davis, Chip Carter and Gore Vidal have all come to McCadden Place to pay their respects.

But such functions are much less frequent nowadays, and the room has a dusty, unused look. “It is not the place where the power in the community is anymore,” says Jim Kepner, longtime gay activist and founder of the International Gay and Lesbian Archives.

Which is not to say that Kight necessarily has lost influence in an absolute sense.

“He took the leadership on gay issues long before most people were comfortable coming out of the closet,” West Hollywood Councilman Steve Schulte says.

Because of Kight’s work, the gay movement now is “diverse,” including not just the “progressive” left where Kight started but also “gay Republicans and mainstream political gays,” says Schulte, who adds that if Kight no longer is at the center of the movement, it’s only because no one is.

Kight says his most important contributions to the movement are attitudes and ideas.

“I have elevated the mood,” he says. “I have made it OK to be gay and proud to be lesbian. I have inculcated the idea of community.” Most important of all, he asserts that he has for gays “made it fashionable to be gay.”

When Kight first arrived in Los Angeles in 1957, he lived on South Hope Street in a cottage with a big porch, lots of land, a native walnut tree, geraniums, fern palms and bougainvillea.

In those days, it wasn’t “very gay to be gay. It was a blind horror.”

As a way to help, Kight passed the word in the city that he hoped to be of service to gays and lesbians on a “non-judgmental, non-threatening basis,” whereupon, “they started coming to me in droves--hundreds of people coming and going. And the number increased: someone is in jail; someone is threatening suicide; somebody has a dead companion in their house and wondering what to do with the body. . . .

“It’s a real problem,” Kight says, “if you don’t know how to dispose of the dead.”

Considered Radical Once

Although Kight is eminently respectable today--he’s quoted constantly in the press on gay issues and is the president of the County Commission on Human Relations--in the ‘60s, he was considered a radical activist. He participated in the civil rights and anti-war movements. His constituency included drag queens, hustlers and street people--"the sort of people that respectable gays sniffed at,” activist Kepner says.

What was harder to dismiss was his genius for publicity. Kight had an “inventiveness and rashness and campiness” that was effective in demonstrations, Kepner says, adding, “I swear he could smell” the news media.

Some gays consider Kight an egomaniac. “If there is a TV camera at a demonstration,” gay activist John O’Brien says, “he will dart out of line, run and try to get in front of it. He is obsessed with being on camera. He puts out news releases to promote himself. He goes out of his way to get awards. He says he was active in the movement for 50 years.” But people who were active 50 years ago say they “never heard of him.”

In person, O’Brien says, Kight may come across as a “nice sweet old man,” but “if you turn your back you might find a knife in it.”

‘They’re Jealous’

In Kight’s opinion, such critics are overcome by their own envy: “They wish they had the same sense of risk, daring and chutzpah.” And they’re jealous that they haven’t done as much with their lives as he has with his.

Some people resent Kight, says lesbian activist and long-time ally Ivy Bottini, “because when he sees something (that needs to be done) he goes out and does it. . . . He doesn’t need a crowd to tell him he’s right.”

To Susan McGreivy, a Los Angeles gay-rights lawyer, people who try to demean Kight’s contributions are ignorant and probably “haven’t been in the movement very long, either. There is no doubt that at one point Morris Kight was at the center of the gay universe. . . . Ever since I can remember, he has gotten up at 7 a.m., spending the day jaw-boning, talking people out of money, urging people to take a stand, making his home the center--and all for the greater good of the community.

“This is the man,” says McGreivy, who confronted a meeting of the California Psychological Assn. “with a sign saying, ‘Gays are not sick.’ . . .If he had never done anything else in his whole life, he’d deserve our gratitude for that alone.

“If he had been born straight he’d probably be the senior senator from California today.”

By Kight’s account, his decision to devote himself full time to gay liberation was practically a mystical revelation. In November, 1969, having spent two years trying to stop Dow Chemical Co. from making napalm for Vietnam, he was invited to speak at an anti-war rally at the polo grounds in San Francisco.

Kight, then 50, recalls standing on the speakers’ platform looking out over a crowd of 350,000 people. And when he saw all the “young, bright, healthy, scrubbed, see-your-dentist-twice-a-year people opposing the war,” it dawned on him that the anti-war movement didn’t need his help. “Let the 350,000 do it.”

He caught a bus to the downtown airline terminal in San Francisco, bought a $12 ticket on a PSA flight back to Los Angeles and cleared his desk of all other projects in favor of what thereafter would be his main mission in life--gay liberation.

“And the rest,” he says, “is history.”

For the first meeting of the Gay Liberation Front, 18 people showed up. “Everyone wanted to do something,” Kight says. For its initial project, the group decided to get rid of the “FAGGOT STAY OUT” sign hanging over the bar in Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood. “It was ignominy,” Kight says. In January, 1970, the group began holding shop-ins, change-ins and sit-ins until management agreed to take down the sign (which now hangs over the bar alcove in Kight’s living room).

Those early years were “magical,” says Kight, who set up what he says was the only hot line for out-of-the-closet gays west of the Mississippi. As many as 350 people a day called, mainly for help and reassurance they weren’t alone.

In two years, he says, he helped organize 175 protests and demonstrations. The police, in turn, he says, raided his house three times looking for subversive mailing lists. Many in the gay community were terrified. “People were saying, ‘He is embarrassing us all with those radical ideas,’ ” Kight says. “ ‘He is going to get us killed. We’ll all be killed. This fool is killing us.’ ”

Organized a Parade

Matters reached a fever pitch in summer 1970, when in response to a challenge from a group of New York gays, Kight organized a gay pride parade to commemorate the Stonewall riot, an incident in which gays attacked police for harassing a gay bar.

Not everyone thought the parade was a good idea. Police Chief Ed Davis “argued that it would be just as responsible to let thieves and robbers have a parade,” Kepner says. And in any case, “it would cost a lot of money and blood to protect us which they didn’t want to do.”

Actually, Davis was right about one thing: On the morning of the parade, Kight says he received eight separate death threats. “One of them,” Kight says, “said, ‘Is it OK if I kill you?’

“ ‘Oh, not today,’ I said. ‘I’m very busy today. I have to put on a parade. Tomorrow would be much better. How about Monday? Tuesday. Call Wednesday. Ta-ta.’ ”

Nowadays, Kight says, it’s hard to remember how rampant homophobia was. But in 1971, when Kight and Don Kilhefner, another activist from the Gay Liberation Front, founded the Gay Community Services Center in an old clapboard Victorian at 1640 Wilshire Blvd., it promptly became a tourist attraction.

The tour buses stopped outside, Kight says, “and here were all the tourists taking pictures through the windows, which they took home to Des Moines and Indianapolis and showing them to their families: ‘You don’t know what they are into in Los Angeles. They are really degenerate. They are really degraded. They have a Gay Community Services Center.’

“And then started the calls from around the country--'My aunt was at your place recently.’ We’d spend a couple of hours with them on the phone. And in a couple of days, they’d show up with their luggage. True, true, true. They’d show up with their luggage.”

As the years passed, Kight carried his efforts from the streets to the halls of power--often with surprising success. In September, 1973, says Doug Sarff, former news editor of the Gay Advocate, LAPD sent young vice police into Griffith Park to arrest gay males on the trails.

Before they were through, “They arrested 37 people as fire hazards,” Sarff says. (The suspects, Kight says, included one interracial heterosexual couple sunning themselves on a rock.)

Despite the ridiculousness of the charges, Sarff says, many gays were so terrified they hired expensive lawyers, none of whom were needed. Before the hearing, Kight had cut a deal with the prosecutor and the judge to let all the defendants off with a $10 fine. Meantime, he played the courtroom like an old violin. “He had a seat in front of the bench,” Sarff says, “and every so often he’d stand up and make a speech.”

The judge, who just wanted the circus out of his courtroom, proposed a fine of $200 a person, prompting Kight to jump up and say, “Judge, that wasn’t the deal we made!”

The judge capitulated, Sarff says, and what had formerly been bad melodrama now turned into farce: “People were dancing across the courtroom waiving their $10 bills to pay the bailiff.”

On a warm Tuesday on the 11th floor of the Hall of Records, Kight presides over the biweekly meeting of the County Human Relations Commission. In contrast to the political T-shirts he usually wears, today he is in a tan suit and blue shirt.

As chairman, Kight is smooth, efficient, polished and professional in keeping events moving swiftly.

On this day, the group has visiting dignitaries--two members of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights--who want the commission to endorse a forum they have planned in the city later this fall. Kight is not enthusiastic about the request because he privately contends the Civil Rights Commission under President Reagan has been deplorably right-wing.

“Are you searching for ideas?” Kight asks innocently. “Let me toss in a few if I may.”

A Few Suggestions

In rapid order, he denounces a plan by Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Harold Ezell to seize cars of those who hire casual labor off the streets. He complains that “as a feminist” he doesn’t see much “in the way of gender parity” in the proposed forum’s speaker list. He urges support for proposed national AIDS anti-discrimination legislation. And he talks about the “searing” devastation of white racism in the black community.

He closes by noting that the tight deadline will make it impossible for his commission to endorse the Civil Rights group on such short notice, but that they had the commission’s best wishes for the success of their project.

No sooner have the federal commissioners walked out the door than Kight turns to his group’s other members. “Let’s debrief ourselves. Did we achieve anything?”

“I think so,” says Roger Ragan, staff assistant director. “I was pleasantly surprised at the names on the list.”

Kight takes exception. The phrase crypto-fascists on the march comes up. Kight concludes the meeting by observing that the commission will keep its word to support the forum and send observers. “But we’re not going to beat the bushes for them.”

Besides, he asks, “why did they just come out here the last few days? We’ve been here 40 years.”