Extended for the Online Edition of Windy City Times
Gay liberation was a product of its times: Its birth at the end of
the '60s was no accident. By the time street queens and others rioted
outside the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village ( June 27, 1969 ) ,
the groundwork had been laid for one of America's most despised
minorities to get militant.
There had been skirmishes before Stonewall, specifically in
Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Philadelphia in 1965,
it was a sit-in and weeklong picket outside of Dewey's after the
popular 24-hour lunch counter and cafeteria decided it would no
longer serve those who weren't traditionally dressed because they
allegedly drove away other customers. Dewey's eventually changed its
policy. At Cooper's Donuts in Los Angeles in 1959 and Compton's
Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966, the conflicts turned into riots
with the police.
Social change was in the air. By the late '60s, the civil-rights
movement had succeeded in desegregating lunch counters and other
public facilities and in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Black
Panthers, a militant Black-power group, were feeding poor people and
developing a strategy for Black self-empowermentnot to mention
having run-ins with the police.
The women's movement had been reborn from the embers left by the
struggle to gain the vote half a century before. The anti-Vietnam War
movement was beginning to draw huge numbers of protesters into the
streets. Campuses were igniting with student strikes and takeovers of
Stonewall may have started the "gay" movement, but there had been
"homophile" groups struggling to change the public's perception of
queers since 1949 when Harry Hay, a Communist Party union organizer,
brought together the first Mattachine Society. The movement turned
conservative in the face of the anti-Communist witchhunts of the
'50s. The homophile movement of the late '60s didn't have much
relevance for the new generation of young people who were "tuning in
and dropping out." The height of the homophile movement came with the
historic July 4 Independence Hall marches from 1965-69.
Those young folks identified immediately with the fighting that broke
out at Stonewall. Within days, the first Gay Liberation Front was
formed. Its name reflected its radical bent: It was taken from the
National Liberation Front that was fighting the U.S. occupation of Vietnam.
GLF was radically different from the homophile groups. It didn't
operate by Robert's Rules of Order. Decisions were made by consensus.
Anyone could be a member by merely showing up at a meeting.
The philosophy of GLF was also radically different. Whereas the
homophile groups promoted the idea that we were just like everyone
else except for what we did in bed, GLF believed that queers were
special and distinct from straights. We had our own identity and
culture and didn't need to change in order to accommodate anyone. It
was society that needed to change.
GLF believed that it was a part of the struggles of all oppressed
peoples. GLF members made alliances with the Black Panthers and the
Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group with chapters in several
cities, including Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Both groups
embraced GLF. In fact, Panther Chair Huey Newton issued a letter to
his comrades, calling on them to support both the gay and women's
liberation movements. Encouraged by this announcement, GLFers
attended Panther conferences, including one at Temple University in
Philadelphia in 1970.
Like their hippie counterparts, many members of GLF lived in
communes. In San Francisco, there were a lot of queers among the
hundreds of households that functioned as a support network for the
counterculture. GLFers published newspapers, such as Come Out! in New
York and The Gay Dealer in Philadelphia. They pioneered a new form of
drag called genderfuck or radical drag, in which articles of clothing
of both sexes were worn to confuse onlookers. For GLFers, gender was
something to be played with and questioned. It was not a life sentence.
Rock stars, such as David Bowie and the New York Dolls, stole their
androgynous looks from radical dragsters, and made lots of money doing it.
Many GLF members explored polyamorous relationships and frowned upon
traditional pair-bonding ( such as gay or straight marriage ) ,
butch/femme and top/bottom role-playing and societal beauty
standards. They resisted the draft and didn't support gays, or
anyone, in the military. They weren't into reforms such as gay-rights
laws, nor of being members of traditional religions. A popular chant
of the time was "2, 4, 6, 8, smash the church, smash the state." It
embodied the spirit of the gay-liberation movement in those
By far, GLF's most successful strategy was urging queers to simply
come out of the closet. Before long, the new cry could be heard
everywhere: "Out of the closets and into the streets!" Thousands came out.
It wasn't all a bed of roses. Women and people of color split off
from the fledgling movement over gay male sexism and racism. Women
found it easier to struggle with the lesbophobia of the women's
movement. They formed groups such as Radicalesbians and Lesbian
Feminist Liberation. Many lived in collective separatist households
in which men were not welcome.
In New York City, Third World Gay Liberation demanded a voice for
people of color. Black and Puerto Rican queens organized under the
banner of STAR ( Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries ) . Its
two spokespeople, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson, became true stars
of the early struggle.
Within a few years of its creation, GLF would split once more to give
birth to the more traditionally structured ( Robert's Rules,
officers, membership requirements, etc. ) Gay Activists Alliance (
GAA ) , a group that would go on to dominate the LGBT movement for
While GAA members shared many of the same ideals of GLFincluding
opposition to the war, support for women's liberation and, in some
cities, support for the Black PanthersGAA pushed for gay-rights laws
and other political reforms as its primary goal.
GLF may have been short-lived, but its impact was long-lasting.
Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a regular columnist for beyondchron.org and
sometime op-ed contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, is
co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Sailing Beyond Columbus ( Manic D ) and
editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The early years of gay
liberation, which will be published by City Lights Books in June 2009
for the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. His Web site is www.avicollimecca.com .