Lenny Bruce and the LGBT Civil Rights Movement

Sunday Feature

Lenny_BruceLet me paint a picture of a man that was considered to be the “hippest” comic in America 50-55 years ago: Lenny Bruce. The question is not that Lenny was the hippest comedian in America or the world but why he was.

Lenny cut straight through the bullshit of middle America and disposed of polite party talk, the false morality of the time and held up a mirror to the faces of everyone from the man who delivered your milk and cheese (yes, they actually had people who did that back then) to the judges in court and the police officers in the streets.

It was those two later groups that Lenny had his biggest problem with.

Not unlike the early LGBT movement, the police and judges decided that society needed to act like a giant enema and purge the “obscene” poisons from the patrons who paid to see him at the nightclubs even after his reputation was cemented in the public minds. I guess the police and judges knew better than all those “cats” who wanted to pay $2 (a high cover charge back then) to see a man who actually told the truth, right?




Lenny explains the true meaning of "Obscene"

In the case of gay bars of the same period where cops would burst in and arrest everyone for simply being there even when there was nothing sexual going on beyond heavy flirting, just knowing that hideous, grotesque homosexuals could suddenly spring out of the front doors at any moment and begin knocking on the doors of “normal” families so they could invite their children out and once they touched them or even brushed them slightly with their clothing, they would suddenly turn into stark raving queers and faggots who would infect their classmates at school and then there would be an epidemic in the cities across America and possibly the world! The truth was that it was just some average people of a different sexual orientation who wanted to talk with like-minded people and not be fucked with.

It was like some mad conga-line of police that followed Lenny around like a pack of hungry wolves. Due to contracting hepatitis when he served in the United States Navy in World War II, he suffered serious health problems all his life and every time he would get sick and see a doctor and get prescriptions to help his condition, the police would arrest him for having narcotics on top of charging him with public obscenity.

But Lenny never gave up and he managed to be among those of that era who defined what was obscene and what entertainment was, but not without a personal cost to himself. Near the end of his life his routines were mostly just him reading from his various court transcripts because of his various cases across the country and fewer and fewer clubs and personal appearances would book him. There’s not much comedy in a court case.

The world wore Lenny Bruce down until there was nothing left and on August 3, 1966 he was found dead on the bathroom floor of his home in Hollywood, California of a morphine overdose. There was no suicide note so the police classified it as an accidental overdose but if I had to guess after reading his ghost-written autobiography and listening to every record he ever made (most at friends’ houses when their parents weren’t home when I was kid—because he was the comic that everyone loved but no one wanted to admit it so we found his albums under our parents’ beds) I would say that Lenny just didn’t give a shit anymore. Spin the fucking wheel and see where it lands.

The late George Carlin was a disc jockey when he became a fan of Lenny Bruce and when he was in the very early part of his comedy career, playing gigs like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with “clean” comedy, he was present at a nightclub when Lenny Bruce was arrested and when the police asked him for his ID he said he didn’t believe in government issued identification. He was arrested and shared the same back seat with Lenny. Shortly thereafter, his routine changed to the internationally known style he became famous for.


George Carlin's famous "The 7 words you can never say on television"

Harry Hay, Hal Call, Dr. Frank Kameny, Jack Nichols, Dr. Lilli Vincenz, Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen, Harvey Milk, Randy Wicker, The Stonewall Veterans of America, Vito Russo and hundreds more were far ahead of their time. All of them paid the cost of being ahead of their time and each one advanced us to the next level. Where are our heroes of today?

Stephanie DonaldWhen I was in college some 35 years ago I had a tee-shirt that had an abstract negative print of Lenny Bruce’s face with the words, “Lenny Bruce Died for Our Sins!” on it.

How many more LGBT people in this world have to die for our sins before we do something about it?




By Stephanie Donald

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