Back To The Streets


“There’s been nothing like this since Stonewall!” That was the first exultant assertion in the “speak-out” portion of a Wednesday night meeting called to follow up on the October 19 political funeral for Matthew Shepard–in which more than 5000 people streamed into the streets, only to be assailed by riot police ramming billy clubs, horses, and motor scooters into the crowd. More than 200 participants in that action, some not long out of jail, crammed into West 13th Street’s Lure Bar for the meeting. Some were exhilarated first-time demonstrators; some were veterans of Stonewall; some were longtime activists who had seen nightsticks and horses’ hooves fly toward their faces more times than they cared to count over the 29 years since the famed rebellion at the downtown dive.

Yet no one dismissed the young man’s statement as hyperbolic or ahistorical, though many knew it was both, because at the same time, it expressed a galvanizing emotional truth many felt–or desperately wanted to feel. Most significant queer event since Stonewall or not, the unanticipated outpouring for the Shepard march held out some hope that radical queer activism might surge forth once again.

The rush into the streets–and the cops’ rough response–led some observers to expect furious queers to swell the ranks at Thursday’s annual march against police brutality. While hundreds of queers did come out, the event was a hard draw, as it is organized by fringe groups seldom welcoming to gays. Moreover, it was antigay violence that brought thousands to the streets on the 19th. According to the Anti-Violence Project, antigay bias attacks are up 81 percent in New York this year.

“We had developed a false sense of security,” explains Suzy Lee Korn, one of the funeral organizers. “We have Ellen on TV and people got the idea that it’s okay to be gay in this culture. But it’s not. The murder of Matthew Shepard and the violence here shatter that illusion.”

“It’s a matter of getting our voice back,” adds SharonAnn Lynch, another of the young but seasoned activists who launched the idea for the funeral barely a week before it took place. “Our movement has bureaucratic, acronymed organizations claiming to speak for us, but we haven’t had the street presence to push and balance those groups in a long time.”

Even as some 120 demonstrators were being arrested in midtown Manhattan, in Washington, the Human Rights Campaign–the $13 million a year gay rights lobbying group–was voting to endorse Senator Alfonse D’Amato. Meanwhile, the group’s call for a “faith and family” march on Washington in April 2000 had alienated grassroots gays. “They argue for gay rights by telling straight people we’re just like them,” says another of the funeral planners, Eustacia Smith. “But people’s civil rights shouldn’t depend on being just like everybody else.”

This split between assimilationist and liberationist visions is as old as the gay movement itself, but in the rightward shift of recent years, the assimilationist side has become dominant. Still, activists like the funeral planners have kept the radical flame alive, enabling it to flare up last week.

All the initiators have years of political experience behind them. Kara Davis, 28, cut her teeth in the sanctuary movement in her home state of Arizona; Joneil Adriano, 24, was suspended when he wore an anti­Pete Wilson T-shirt to his San Jose high school the day the governor visited; SharonAnn Lynch, 29, was impassioned by antiracism efforts in the south; and so on. Coming out catapulted them into ACT UP, the Lesbian Avengers, the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization, or other queer groups. And now, as Smith says, “I have a hard time understanding how someone could not be an activist. It’s hard to accept that it takes something like the murder of Matthew Shepard to motivate people.”

Many of these organizers were among the 20 folks who chained themselves together on Fifth Avenue to block Giuliani’s participation in the gay pride parade last June. Just last month, they quickly produced a 470-person march through Park Slope to protest a spate of queer bashings in Brooklyn. “We were riding high on our success with the Brooklyn march when we heard about Matthew Shepard,” says Lynch. “We needed to do something.”

Using contact lists from former actions, they put out a call for an organizing meeting the Wednesday before the political funeral, and some 30 savvy comrades turned up to take on a range of tasks. They tapped their own networks to mobilize marshals and other staff for the march. Untold faxes, phone calls, e-mails, and wheat pastings later, the organizers were overwhelmed by a response 10 times larger than they’d anticipated.

Something else they hadn’t expected was the NYPD’s destructive tactics. Every summer some 10,000 raging revelers march down Fifth Avenue for the unpermitted Dyke March, and the cops help prevent danger or nuisance by opening a lane or two of the street. That’s what organizers expected on Monday when the crowd surpassed numbers that could remain on the sidewalk. But the police wouldn’t even discuss an accommodation.

What’s more, the elaborate, safety-ensuring system of marshals, legal observers, and police negotiators that the activists had learned to build over the years was not respected by the NYPD. Indeed, it was swiftly demolished. The two designated negotiators and, soon after, the marshals were arrested, leaving the march with no leadership or direction. The chaos that resulted in some sectors was scary and dangerous, particularly for first-timers who’d only wanted to grieve. Others were, simply, radicalized. “But,” asks Davis, “will they stay riled up?”

At the very least, the attendance of hundreds on Wednesday–and on Sunday, at a meeting to help shape an antihomophobia contingent in Saturday’s Halloween parade–suggest some possibility for a reinvigorated movement. The even tougher question is what to rile people up for.

The Matthew Shepard march made no specific demands; that’s not the aim of political funerals. But as open meetings begin on November 5 to build something out of the energy surge, activists will have to hash out some agenda if they are to cohere.

Some support hate-crime legislation; others reject law-and-order solutions–especially when they involve the death penalty–and favor focusing on educating kids to reject homophobia. Some want to see centralized, broad-based movement-building; others think a loosely
connected network of disparate
direct-action groups makes more sense. And amid all the wrangling, there are the sectarian parties to contend with, eating up time with rhetorical digressions and trying to hijack the proceedings for their own recruitment.

Still, October 19’s organizers say they were heartened to see new faces at the Lure last Wednesday night, and no doubt they joined in the cheering as attendees rose from the crowd to announce the birth of a new movement. But as activists gain distance on their success, some are beginning to question whether it represented, instead, a singular explosive flash. “Monday reminds me of the outpouring in 1986 after the Supreme Court’s antisodomy ruling,” says longtime lesbian activist Maxine Wolfe. “We acted on a moment more than coalescing around a concept. It took a year before anything took off after that.” She adds, “But it gives me hope.”

The Halloween parade contingent against homophobia will meet on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at Grand Street and Sixth Avenue; a pre-action meeting will be held at noon at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, 1 Little West 12th Street.

One of four articles in our Matthew Shepard: Beyond the Fence feature.