Morris Kight, 83; Gay Rights Pioneer in the Southland

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.

"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.

For the last several decades, he made Los Angeles and later, Hollywood, his home. Always theatrical, Kight found his way to the spotlight quickly.

"Though he'd only become an activist two years earlier, by 1971 Morris Kight was omnipresent in Los Angeles' Gay Liberation Front," reported "Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate History of the Gay and Lesbian Movement," a 1994 chronicle published by the Advocate, the nation's largest gay newspaper.

"A political wheeler-dealer par excellence ... Kight had a genius for publicity," the Advocate reported. "Although some denounced him as a 'media freak,' he became an oft-quoted and much-photographed spokesman for gay liberation."

He lived frugally, supporting himself from the early 1950s on with proceeds of twice-yearly yard sales at which he sold restored antiques and collectibles.

He claimed to be the first in the Los Angeles area to throw a yard sale. But with his slightly affected speaking style, he noted: "I sold brass, silver, china, silverware; I was great at weavings. I accumulated many dealers, and customers like Liberace, a gay pianist who was a great collector. I'd keep track of what they liked and when I got something I would call them up. And enough money came in from that to pay the lights, rent and gas and car travel. I didn't earn enough out of it to pay income taxes, so that was never an issue."

Out of that eccentric income came the 3,000-piece Morris Kight Collection, a trove of fine art, art produced by gays and lesbians and collectibles such as political posters that chronicle the evolution of the homosexual rights movement. He recently arranged for the collection to be donated to the One Institute at USC.

What once was a rhythmic cadence in speaking was lost after Kight suffered a series of five strokes in nine years, which ultimately left him relying on a walker.

But physical challenges never slowed Kight for long.

"I've known Morris as long as I've been on the board of the organization, about five years," Sharon Donning, a leader of Christopher Street West, said in 1999.

"But I've known about him my whole life. I admire Morris because he's the one who got it all started in L.A. ... And we wouldn't be here without him, basically."

Kight is survived by his life partner of 25 years, Roy Zucheran; two daughters, Carol Kight of Claremont and Angela Bonin of Texas; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is scheduled at 1 p.m. Feb. 1 at Metropolitan Community Church, 8714 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood.

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.
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