Stonewall plus 40: the GLF
The Stonewall Rebellion was very important in giving a decisive push to the American gay and lesbian movement. However, it was not, as the Wikipedia article asserts, “the defining event that marked the start of the gay rights movement in the United States and around the world.” Quite the contrary. The modern American gay rights movement began a generation before in Los Angeles, when Harry Hay and his friends founded the Mattachine Society in 1950. (In Sunday's New York Times, Adam Nagourney, who should know better, repeats this mistake,)
For their part, the Stonewall events had a startling catalytic effect because a number of factors converged to form an almost unique constellation. Opposition to the Vietnam War was intense and growing. The civil rights and women’s movements were well established. In the spring of 1968 Columbia University saw the eruption of two student occupations, the beginning of a student militancy that spread throughout the land. And of course the thriving Counterculture--the Summer of Love had taken place in San Francisco in 1967--encouraged nonconformity of all sorts, including liberal use of psychedelic substances.
Some skeptics maintain that the Stonewall events were blown out of proportion by the media, centered as it was in New York City. This claim is unpersuasive, because there was scant media coverage, except for articles in a local paper, The Village Voice. As Frank Rich notes, the New York Times "covered the riots in tiny, bowdlerized articles, one of them but three paragraphs long, buried successivekly on pagess 33, 22, and 19." Even though the riots went on full swing for three nights, no television station bothered to cover them. The journalist Jerry Lisker published a longish, vicious piece in the New York Daily News, but it appeared only on July 6, well after the events had subsided. Think now of the saturation coverage that we have just experienced with the death of Michael Jackson; at the time Stonewall yielded no such result.
In any case, this year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion. Among the events currently taking place are two conferences on the origins of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), an influential, though short-lived gay organization that sprang up in the immediate wake of the events at the Greenwich Village bar.
In 1969 itself a series of meetings were held during the month after Stonewall, culminating in a large gathering of gay and lesbian radicals and other outspoken people held on July 30 at the Alternative University. The group adopted the moniker Gay Liberation Front, in homage to the Vietnam Liberation Front and the Algerian Liberation Front (FLN). Solidarity with Third World movements was a sentiment that was widely and fervently voiced at the time.
The current GLF commemorations took place at the New York Public Library on June 24 and the Lesbian and Gay Community Center in Greenwich Village on the following evening. Some twenty-five individuals, all members of the group, spoke at these symposia, sharing their reminiscences and understandings of the goals and purposes of the group.
In the last few years several key GLFers have died, but it was good to see so many survivors, most in good health. Their presentations offered a learning experience for the largely younger crowds attending the gatherings.
The views to which most of the original GLFers subscribed have been aptly characterized by a handout distributed on June 25. “GLF believed that the oppression of lesbians and gay men sprang from ‘patriarchy’ (the belief that men should/must dominate women). Patriarchy gave birth to ‘sexism,’ the attitude that people could be treated differently because of their gender. Sexism led directly to homophobia, the irrational fear and disgust straight people had for individuals whose sexual variation was rooted in same-sex attraction and sexual practice. Gender variance and expression were seen as homosexual signifiers. GLF saw capitalism as the heart of racism, which was tied to sexual and homophobia. Only by attacking patriarchy, sexism, and capitalism together could society’s attitudes toward women, minorities, lesbians, gays, and youth be changed.”
Revolution--the word and the concept--was constantly invoked. As a result of this torrent many came to think that a socialist revolution in America was imminent. As every one knows, that did not occur, nor is it likely now. But it is arguable that the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies saw a fundamental transformation in consciousness. Things were very different afterwards than they were before. To be sure, much still needs to be done for gay and lesbian people, but we have taken giant strides.
Back though to the GLF commemorations of this past week. I regret to say that several themes struck by the presenters were misleading.
Even after all these years, few of the participants had taken the trouble to learn the basic facts concerning the history of the American gay movement prior to the eruption of the Stonewall Rebellion. In reality, many of the innovations claimed for GLF had already been undertaken by such early pioneers as Harry Hay, Dorr Legg, Don Slater, Jim Kepner, Dell Martin, Phyllis Lyon, Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, Dick Leitsch, and Robert A. Martin. Most of these figures are profiled in the volume “Before Stonewall,” which I began and which was completed and published by the late Vern Bullough.
Except for John Lauritsen, who gave two excellent presentations, none of the participants at the gatherings just completed seemed to have been aware of that book or any of the other treatments of the formative stages of American gay-movement history. For example, the speakers seem to have regarded the GLF publication Come Out! (first issue: late August 1969) as the first significant gay periodical. In fact it was preceded by a least four other major ones: ONE Magazine, Mattachine Review, The Ladder, and Tangents. One speaker even proffered the strange claim that GLF had originated the Radical Fairy movement. In fact the Radical Fairies were the brainchild of Harry Hay, the actual father of American gay liberation. At the meetings just concluded Hay’s illustrious name was conspicuous by its absence. There is no excuse for this ignorance. At this very point in time a powerful drama on Hay and his partner Rudi Gernreich, “The Temperamentals,” is playing to packed houses on Off-Broadway.
Another dubious claim was that there was no gay community before GLF had forcefully inserted itself. In fact there was a very lively gay bar scene; gay quarters were thriving in a number of American cities; and advocacy organizations had taken root, working vigorously for gay rights. At the forefront of the last were the chapters of the Mattachine Society.
Those things being so, many doubt--as well they may--that even now a gay community exists. Not surprisingly, that goal remains as elusive as ever in the age of that strange collage GLBTQ.
As a point of personal disclosure I should note that I had been a member of New York Mattachine (MSNY) since 1967, two years before Stonewall. I was in Europe in June of 1969 so I did not witness the events personally. However, many conversations and much cross-checking have confirmed that David Carter’s 2004 “Stonewall” monograph is a generally reliable guide.
In my view, the most serious problem with most of the GLFers, then and now, is their absolute privileging of personal experience, overriding any general truths. This notion flies in the face of all that we know about cultural advance. For human knowledge to survive as a coherent body we must all engage in a process of sifting and testing the evidence. Yet according to the GLF credo this task is superfluous and even harmful, for the only real truth lies in Subjectivity, sovereign and unchallengeable.
In the presentations of the last few days all the reminiscences were taken as a matter of course to be of equal value, even though some individuals had clearly edited and remolded events and impressions in their minds. A series of studies by academic psychologists has shown that that is the way human memory works, as it gradually interweaves true recollections with truncations, enhancements, and other embroidery of various kinds.
Subjectivity was the thing then. Yet having entered the boiling cauldron of what was GLF, though, one could not expect to emerge with the same personal attitudes that one had on going in. “Consciousness raising” was mandatory. The experience was supposed to be profoundly transformative, so that a New Person emerged. Some of the lessons administered in this process were unpleasant, even harshly punitive. This was particularly true for men, who were constantly abjured to abandon their perceived “sexism” and humbly to seek pardon for their supposed complicity in the “patriarchy.” Despite the explanation offered above, I never quite learned what the patriarchy was. Yet there was one thing we all knew for certain about that abomination: patriarchy was evil! This reign of this odious monster must not be allowed to stand. In its stead, the overarching goal was to advance to a beatific utopia “after patriarchy.”
Somewhat suprisingly, many gay men embraced the humiliations to which they were subjected with enthusiasm--wry to be sure, but the enthusiasm was there. Why was this so? The concept of abjection, which has become better understood over the years, offers some help. What was undoubtedly true, though, was the most gay men--however "liberated"--retained powerful residues of internalized self-contempt. These negative feelings originated in the homophobia that was universal over time. Through a process of psychic conversion this negativity about one's orientation was turned into a negativity about one's gender.
To be sure, the era was afflicted by pervasive discrimination against women. Even today, the effects of this societal patterning have not be effaced. Still, one could struggle for women's equality without having to make public displays of self-contempt. That is what, in my judgment, the supposedly cleansing practice of consciousness raising required.
Some defended the policy of public male contrition as a strategy for retaining the allegiance of the relatively few women who had joined GLF and other gay liberation groups at the time. If this was the reason, it did not work, as many lesbians seceded to form other organizations. These groups, which I won’t attempt to characterize now, were generally termed Lesbian-Separatist. The corresponding idea of Male Separatism was, however, absolutely taboo.
In keeping with their general leftist orientation, GLF participants offered active support to the Black Panthers, the Young Lords (a New York Puerto Rican group), and other liberation movements. Efforts to link up with NOW, the national women’s organization, were for a time blocked by Betty Friedan, who had trumpeted her strident warnings about the so-called lavender menace. The most decisive setback, however, occurred in Cuba, where GLF sent a brigade to help with the harvest of sugar cane. In this endeavor they were met with intense homophobia from both North Americans and Cubans. To his great credit the GLFer Allen Young published a book about state-sponsored homophobia in Castro’s Cuba. Gradually the GLFers learned the lesson that solidarity is meaningless without mutual respect.
In the course of the year 1971 GLF gradually withered away, as most participants shifted to other organizations or dropped out. Hundreds of people had attended the meetings and an immense amount of useful publicity had been generated. GLFers were in the forefront of planning New York’s first gay march, an annual tradition that began in June 1970, one year after the Stonewall Rebellion.
According to all reports the meetings were characterized by constant exuberance, sometimes mounting into a frightful din in which it was hard to discern anyone’s views. This hurley-burley was fostered by the principle, adopted at an early meeting. that all decisions were to be reached not by majority vote, but by unanimity. This principle of absolute consensus may have stemmed from the Quakers, passing through the intermediary of the women’s movement--I am not sure. But it was common in Counterculture and left-leaning organizations of the time. As a response to their frustration with the prevailing anarchy, a number of key GLFers split off in December 1969 to form the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), which had a regular structure, including observance of Robert’s Rules of Order.
Despite its problems, the exuberant GLF model proved wildly influential at first. By December 1970 at least 52 Gay Liberation groups had been formed throughout the country. Others sprang up abroad. At the same time, however, the New York organization had begun its decline. It is indisputable, however, that the energy, determination, and daring of GLFers served to seed much of what followed.