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Bob Basker: An Activist's Life

A Founding Father of the Midwest
By Jesse G. Monteagudo

I met Bob Basker in 1975, when I was twenty-two years young and he was president of the Alliance for Individual Rights (AIR).

An early attempt to politically mobilize South Florida's closeted and apathetic gay community, AIR had a short and unsuccessful history. It is remembered, if at all, for being one of eleven local groups that got together in July of 1976 to form the Dade County Coalition for the Humanistic Rights of Gays. Not surprisingly, Basker became the Executive Director of the newly-formed Coalition. PL1005-2.gif - 9.36 K Bob Basker (in hat)

Basker was then 57 years old, the same age as my father, though there the similarity ended. Unlike Monteagudo Senior, who was very conservative and anti-Communist, Basker is an old lefty who played a role in virtually every radical movement in the USA from the thirties to the present.

jesse.gif - 9.24 K Jesse Monteagudo As a student of history, and a fledgling activist, I was impressed by Bob Basker's experience, his vast knowledge, and his commitment to the cause. Bob became my friend and my mentor, and it was because of him that I got involved with the Dade County Coalition. To a great extent, my political vision was shaped by my friendship with Bob Basker.

Early Life

Robert Sloane Basker was born September 30, 1918 in East Harlem, the youngest of five brothers. Though he attended Hebrew schools, Bob claims that his real education came from the men he met in subway station bathrooms.

"I met some really nice people," Basker told oral historian Keith Vacha. "It was from spending time visiting them and going back and back and back that I got to learn something about classical music, ballet, and opera. I am the only 'cultured' one in the family, whether it has to do with reading or the arts, and I think it's all because of my association with gay life, when these older men took me home with them."

The 1940s: World War II

Basker's gay activity continued even while serving in the Army during World War Two: "For several years, from '41 to '44, I was stationed in the New York area and then I went overseas to Plymouth, England. ... During the years that I was with my army unit, of the four hundred men in it I must have had sex with a hundred of them. But I never developed a reputation of being gay."

When Basker returned to civilian life, he got a sales management job with the Encyclopedia Britannica, eventually (1952) becoming a district manager in Chicago. Without ever denying or repressing his homosexuality, Basker got married: "My wife knew I was gay before I married her but she knew I wanted a straight, family relationship." The Baskers had three children and, though they eventually divorced, remained friends until her death.

Bob Basker dates his activism to his teenage years, when he was active in the Student Peace Movement (1935). During the sixties, Basker and his wife got involved in the civil rights movement, helping a black family move into all-white Skokie.

"All hell broke loose," Basker recalled. "Our house was firebombed, we had unending obscene phone calls and death threats, and all our bank loans were canceled." Soon after the Skokie incident Basker lost his job with Britannica, had a coronary, and his wife divorced him.

Mattachine Midwest

people1005.gif - 29.52 KIt was around this time (1965) that Bob Basker became a gay activist. As "Bob Sloane", he was the founding president of Mattachine Midwest, an early homophile organization.

The members of Mattachine Midwest, as gays united to attack repression and discrimination, effectively established queer activism in the Windy City. In a recent conversation with me, Basker remembered an incident he calls "The Harvest of the Fruits":

"At one point the Chicago police rounded up a group of people on the streets who they felt were gay; arrested 15 of them. Back then we started an answering service for people to phone in when they were in trouble, and we'd get them a rabbi or a minister or a lawyer or a bondsman; a kind of referral service. And each of week one of us would be the volunteer who would answer the calls for the answering service."

"That Saturday night we heard that a bunch of people were arrested. First, we got them all bonded out. Then on Monday morning we had our attorney, Rolla Klepack, in court, and we had our own stenotypist there and we were prepared for the case. The arresting officer didn't show up and so the judge was going to dismiss the case. But Rolla Klepack said 'No, we want the officer here to explain why these people were arrested,' for this guy had a reputation for entrapment."

"So the judge had a police round up the detective who had arrested them all and asked him, 'why weren't you here?' And, he said, 'those queers would plead guilty anyway.' But they didn't. After that we held conferences with the police department and made sure that this type of round-up would not happen again."

Miami's Gay Activist's Alliance

Shortly after that, Basker moved to Miami, where Britannica offered him a management position, and then to Cuba, where his ex-wife and their children lived at the time. "I made my living in Cuba teaching English as a second language, at the John Reed School of Languages," Basker told me. "I loved living in Cuba and was popular with both revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The School would retire to the countryside for producto voluntario (voluntary labor). But I couldn't cut cane because of my heart condition. So I worked in the Capitolio proof-reading and correcting from Spanish to English the pamphlets sent to Expo '67 in Montreal."

"In any case, when the School came back from producto voluntario, I found out that two teachers were dismissed for being homosexual. When I heard about it I was enraged and felt I had to do something about it. So I gathered together several of the teachers and went down to our teacher's union and said, 'look, we are paying 20 centavos a month in our union book and we are members and we heard that these teachers were fired without due process. And as union members they should have a trial or some kind of process before they are fired.' And the teacher's trade union told us that they can't do anything about it. And I pounded the table and insisted they must do something about it."

"Two weeks later, the two women were reinstated, again without any due process. Up until then, I did not plan on leaving Cuba but then I figured that they would consider me a conflictivo (troublemaker). And I thought, well, I'll plan on leaving the country. So it took me a couple of months to get the documentation and I arranged for a trip back to Canada via a Russian ship.

"Two days before my departure, I got a wire from the Ministry of Education transferring me from the School I was teaching, where I was a honored teacher, to a sort of junior high school in a small town several hours' bus ride outside of Havana. So the system was finally catching up with me."

Back in Miami, Bob became active in South Florida's emerging gay movement. As president of Mattachine Midwest, Basker corresponded with Richard Inman, Florida's one-man Mattachine Society.

In 1971 Basker helped start Miami's Gay Activist Alliance, which was instrumental in overturning local laws against cross-dressing and drag shows. He became a real estate broker, and helped establish a youth hall for runaway kids through the Metropolitan Community Church of Fort Lauderdale (now the Sunshine Cathedral).

In 1973, along with Frank Arango and Jay Freier - and with "the financial and emotional support of Jack Campbell" - Basker founded the Alliance for Individual Rights (AIR): "I was elected President but I was in no position to continue the work. All the meetings were on the evenings because the other members wanted to go to the beach on Saturdays. "When I suggested I be replaced there was no other person to take my place." Though the AIR was short-lived, it helped establish the Dade County Coalition for the Humanistic Rights of Gays, later the Dade County Coalition for Human Rights (DCCHR).

In Quiet Fire, Keith Vacha's oral history, Basker recalled his work with the DCCHR: "I declined the chair but was prevailed upon to stay as Convenor, and eventually gained the title of Coordinator. At this time I was getting deeply into debt since all this politicking had become full-time with no pay. Eventually they started to pay me $100 a week, then changed it to $300 a week when they changed my title to Executive Director."

"Our coalition screened candidates, sent out questionnaires, made endorsements, and passed out ninety thousand endorsement leaflets at bars and baths. When the smoke had cleared, seventy-five percent of our endorsed candidates had won. At the same time we lobbied before the Dade Fair Housing and Employment Appeals Board, the mayor, and the county commissioners to amend the discrimination ordinance to add the words 'affectional and sexual preference' to the existing categories that couldn't be discriminated against.

"The Dade Commission voted unanimously in favor on the first reading, but six weeks later, on the second reading, there was a furor. Anita Bryant was part of the furor, along with Phyllis Schafly. A lot of right-wing people came into town with their Bibles and filled the hearing room before eight o'clock in the morning. I tried to hold the line, and we lost several votes, but we still won, five to three. That's when Anita Bryant held the press conference and started the movement she called 'Save Our Children.' Eventually she gained so much support that the anti-discrimination law was repealed."

One of the problems the DCCHR had was trying to represent, and fight for the rights of, a community that, as I mentioned before, was mostly closeted and apathetic. Another problem was the fact that the Coalition was not organized to wage a political campaign.

The Coalition tried to clean house in April, when it imported a team of professionals led by Ethan Geto, then Special Assistant to Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams. Bob Basker was lost in the shuffle, kicked upstairs to a newly-created and mostly-ceremonial post of community liaison. "A sophisticated New York firm came down and sold us a bill of goods - that Geto had to have total control," he wailed.

Whether Geto & Co. actually made things worse is debatable, though I doubt the DCCHR could have done anything to turn the tide. In any case, following the election debacle, Basker decided that it was time for a change. He moved (1978) to San Francisco.

San Francisco & The American Legion

PL1005.gif - 33.09 K Basker photographed with fellow pre-Stonewall West Coast activist Harry Hay (front) When Bob Basker moved to the west coast, he went back to work for Britannica. But the move did not end his activist career. He became involved with the Alice B. Toklas, Harvey Milk and Stonewall Gay Democratic Clubs.

As a veteran of the Second World War, he was a co-founder, with Paul Hardmann, of the Alexander Hamilton Post #448 of the American Legion (1983).

"When we applied for a charter we were turned down," Basker told me. "They didn't want our kind in the American Legion. So we went back and threatened to have them kicked out of City property for discrimination. So they changed their mind and they issued us a charter. But they constantly kept discriminating against us in different ways. So several years ago, Paul Hardmann, on behalf of the Post, put in a complaint to the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. After two years of examination the Human Rights Commission came out with a finding that the American Legion was guilty."

"The American Legion didn't seem to want to make any changes, even though they were found guilty. So our Post took the American Legion to federal court. But early this year, before the case came to trial, the American Legion settled out of court for undisclosed financial benefits to the Post and assurance that they would discontinue their discrimination against gays, women, Latinos, blacks and so forth." This victory was too late for Paul Hardmann, who had recently died.

Basker is proud of his activism: "I am on the board of the California Legislative Council for Older Americans. I am on the board of the Alexander Hamilton Post #448 of the American Legion. I am on the board of the San Francisco branch of the NAACP. And I am on the Board of the San Francisco In-Home Supportive Services Public Authority." A life-long feminist, Basker was for decades a member of the National Organization for Women, and was instrumental in getting the Lesbian Task Force of NOW to be one of the founders of the DCCHR. "

At one of the meetings of the Lesbian Task Force they awarded me a certificate as a 'honorary lesbian'. And the reason I bring this up is that several weeks ago, at the Seventh Annual Luncheon of the San Francisco NOW, they established a new award, The Male Ally Award, and they gave it to Bob Basker. So I have an association with feminism from that time till now."

Bob Basker turned eighty on September 30. "The Encyclopedia Britannica closed all its field operations. So as a result, my income was cut substantially and the only income money I had was Social Security and more than half of that goes for rent.

"So I got a job with Terence Hallinan, the District Attorney for San Francisco and a very good friend of the movement. It's a clerical job, but I am held in great esteem and respect. And I've been there for a year and a half." But with age comes health problems, and Basker hasn't been well since his coronary in the sixties. "The last day I worked for them was June 1. I had an operation June 2 and I've been invalidated since then. I had been back to the hospital several times ever since. But I am beginning to recover."

Bob Basker is not the type who would let health problems get in the way of his activism. This month he will return to South Florida, where he will appear at the Stonewall Library and Archives's annual Heritage of Pride program. For Basker, the trip will be a "homecoming" to a community to which he had contributed so much.

For South Florida's lesbian and gay community members, most of who were not born or out when Basker lived here, Basker's trip will be an opportunity to meet one of our pioneers. For me personally, his trip will allow me to get back together, after many years' separation, with an old and valued friend.
In addition to my telephone conversation with Bob Basker, this article owes much to Basker's recollections in Quiet Fire: Memoirs of Older Gay Men, by Keith Vacha (The Crossing Press, 1985). I also relied upon my own recollections, "Anita and I: An Activists' Memoir", which appeared in TWN, October 29, 1997.

© 1997-98 BEI