A Happy Birthday for Gay Liberation
July 2, 1970
They stretched in a line, from Gimbels to Times Square, thousands and thousands and thousands, chanting, waving, screaming — the outrageous and the outraged, splendid in their flaming colors, splendid in their delirious up-front birthday celebration of liberation:
“Say it clear, say it loud; gay is good, gay is proud!”
“Two-four-six-eight; gay is just as good as straight!”
“Out of the closets and into the streets!”
They swept up Sixth Avenue, from Sheridan Square to Central Park, astonishing everything in their way. No one could quite believe it, eyes rolled back in heads, Sunday tourists traded in credulous looks, wondrous faces poked out of air-conditioned cars. My God, are those really homosexuals? Marching? Up Sixth Avenue?
And they were. From New York and Philadelphia and Washington and Baltimore. From Rutgers and Yale (Yale) and NYU. From staid old-line chapters of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, to Gay Activists, to the political radicals of Gay Liberation Front and the radical lesbians from the Lavender Menace. “Together,” they shouted, “together! G-a-y P-o-w-e-r. What does it spell? Gay Power! Again Louder! GAY POWER!”
It was an event, the first mass coordinated event of the gay liberation movement. One year old this week. One year since the Sixth Precinct raided the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, and those insane, freaked-out, sexed-up drag queens went berserk and clawed back, actually fought with police in the streets and rioted, sent cops to the hospital, overturned cars, lit fires, and showed all the closet timmies that enough was enough, that the growing harassment and repression and terror was much too much. Too much bullshit from bar owners and Mafia and police and all the rest of pious straight society that thought gay was simply a huge giggle.
And here they were. Out in the streets again. Not the precious birthday party queers or “Boys in the Band,” not the limp-wristed, pinky-ringed, sad-eyed faggots of uptown chic, but shouting men and women with locked arms and raised fists.
Gay Pride Week began a bit more quietly, with a Wednesday sit-in action at Republican State Committee headquarters by Gay Activists Alliance. GAA is an activist offshoot of GLF, but confines its focus to homosexual questions, equality, and civil rights. It split from GLF when GLF became involved in Black Panther demonstrations. GAA is more militant than Mattachine and more sedate than GLF, which identifies with all oppressed groups, and is somewhat anarchic-freak in style and structure. GAA has worked to put pressure on elected officials to end job discrimination and sodomy laws, and says it might have provided the margin of victory for Bella Abzug, who got a rousing reception at a GAA meeting she addressed.
Seven members of GAA sat in at the Committee’s 12th floor offices on 56th Street, demanding a public response from Governor Rockefeller, while a picket line of several dozen paraded outside to the bewilderment of East Side passersby. There was no satisfactory answer from Rockefeller’s office however — the only Republican official present was a woman, and as a Committee spokesman explained, “I really don’t think this is a … uh … subject that a lady would find … uh … palatable.” That pretty much ended any possibility of dialogue, and the first seven sit-ins of the gay movement were quietly arrested when the Committee’s office closed.
Much of the week’s activity swirled around the Washington Square Methodist Church on West 4th Street, where gay groups provided booths, information desks, first aid, free food, housing, and the opportunity to chat. Signs outside read “Gay Liberarion Front, Come In and Come Out,” and were an obvious treat for Village sightseers who littered and snapped away with their instamatics. (Across the way, however, 4th Street’s sedentary gypsies hardly batted an eye, deeply embroiled in games of chess, goh, and their bustling lampshade commerce.) There were also several dances throughout the city, workshops of Alternate U., and a well-attended Lesbian Center restricted to women.
The friendly church was unfortunately open game for hungry winos, who put something of a strain on the kitchen staff, and a strain on everyone when they muttered “faggot” on a free full stomach. “Even the Sabrett man on the corner came in and left with two plates of food,” complained one chef. But there were also straights who dropped by just to find out what was going on, and at one point a mass of Tennessee high school students poured downstairs from a church program to hear about gay liberation from a GLF member. “The reason we’re despised as homosexuals,” the GLFer explained, “is because we’re supposed to be effeminate and sissy and weak. We’re supposed to be womanish, and there’s supposed to be something wrong with being womanish. But I’ve been in the navy three years, I’ve played football and been a lifeguard, I’ve done all the John Wayne things society says men are supposed to do, and I’m still a fag. Well, Sunday we’re going to march up Sixth Avenue and you can stare and take pictures and scream fag all you want, and we’ll just say ‘fuck you.’ Because we don’t care any more. We don’t want anybody’s acceptance. We’ve begun to stand up by ourselves.”
And the students looked at the man from GLF, and somehow he didn’t look queer. And they looked around, and there were all these men who really didn’t seem to have anything in common except they must be queer or else why would they be there? Still, it was strange, so many different kinds of queers, even some older men in business suits, men who talked in deep voices, men who looked as tough as anyone regular, men who were smooth and men who were hairy, and when you thought about it, they, the high school students, looked a whole lot more alike than the … what did he say? … the gay people. They’d have to think about that.
On Saturday, a number of gays donned giant sandwich boards reading “I am a homosexual,” and marched around the Village, trying to convince some straights to lend a gay hand and experience a little oppression first-hand. A street action by the Gay Guerrilla Theatre pictured a drag queen in front of a gay bar. The queen gave a $5 bill to the bar owner who gave it to the State Liquor Authority who gave it to the Mafia who gave it to a policeman who clobbered the queen with his nightstick.
Mafia control of gay bars is a continuing source of oppression of homosexuals. Many gays complain of exorbitant cover charges, watered drinks, overcrowding, and the constant threat of raids, terror, and embarrassment. Even the location of gay bars is oppressive, with many tucked in underground haunts and others located in the raunchy Siberia of Leather Land, under the shadow of parked trucks and the West Side Highway. Few gays offer any specifics about Mafia control, but gang influence seems pervasive, with a little help from the SLA, police, and public morality that condemns gays to a forbidden zone.
Sometimes oppression is not so covert. Friday night, four gay men were walking along 14th Street at University Place when they were jumped by four straights from a car. Why? Because they were holding hands. The sin of sins. One of the gays was immediately knocked to the street unconscious — he needed 14 stitches in his head. Another lost two teeth. Three of the four went to the hospital. At the Sixth Precinct, police told the gays that if they wanted to file charges of assault, they would be arrested and counter-charged with harassment. No charges were filed.
And not all oppression is at the hands of the Silent Majority. Friends in the radical movement itself have sometimes turned up less than friendly. One of the first events or Gay Pride Week was a midnight benefit at the Elgin Cinema in support of the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee, the group that organized the week. After the Elgin booked the gay benefit, however, it proceeded to schedule a benefit for the Venceremos Brigade on the same night. The Brigade apparently learned of the prior booking, but went ahead anyway. Thursday night, however, members of GLF showed up at the Elgin, switched off the projector, turned on the lights, and demanded that the Brigade hold its benefit some other night. The Brigade suggested the gays choose some other night, then suggested splitting receipts, both of which GLF rejected. After all, it was Gay Pride Week, not just any Thursday. And as things got tense, reports GLF, the Brigade called the gays faggots and threatened to rape them. Right now, the two groups are trying to work it all out. GLF has demanded that five of 20 persons sent to Cuba be gay. GLF has expressed its political communion with the Cuban revolution on a number of levels, but it refuses to tolerate anyone’s inhumanity toward homosexuals. “Members of the Brigade have the nerve to show us pictures of concentration camps for homosexuals — camps they never saw,” said one GLFer, “and tell us they were just nice health camps, that they were places where homosexuals were being helped to get their thing together. Goddammit, we don’t need to get anything together! They do.”
Even at Sunday’s march, there was a mini-confrontation when an 8th Street Black Panther paper-hawker called out “Get the Panther paper and stop all this foolishness.” Several gays pounced out of the line of march with angry cries of “listen, brother, cut that shit out!” It all ended peaceably with some tense shouts of “Right On!” and “Power to the People!” but it is clear that the radical movement is going to have some of the same problems with gay liberation that it has been having with women’s liberation.
Just as many movement radicals are more readily attuned to racism than sexism, more willing to preach black liberation than cope with their own male chauvinism, so the gay movement has added a whole other dimension to the struggle, for some the logical extension of women’s lib. Women’s lib has begun to expose the plastic role mitosis of our society, the diseased polarities of male and female. More and more that analysis has led into an exploration of homosexuality as a realm where traditional sex roles are more easily jettisoned. (“Women’s liberation is a lesbian plot!” announced the Lavender Menace.) Many women have found it impossible to relate to men in a non-sexist manner, and have begun to re-discover their identity and sensuality through sisterhood. (There is nothing sacred about homosexuality, of course, male or female. Many gays play the same butch-femme role-games with the same arbitrary sex coordinates.)
For men, of course, radical brotherhood is with other peoples, Third World peoples, blacks, chicanos. We, as men, objectify our brotherhood because we can’t hug and kiss in the streets, because we are taught that sex is male and affection is female, and to be affectionate with another man is womanish. (One man alone is a man, but two men together equals a woman.) So we slap each other on the back and jab at each other’s shoulders — don’t touch too long.
The black experience is safely compartmentalized; we’re not about to change color or culture. But there is nothing stopping the heterosexual going gay. Who is a latent homosexual? That is the threat posed by gay liberation. It is a challenge to all our macho chauvinism, a challenge to shed our protective skin and open up ail the insides. The implications of gay liberation are not that everyone is gay, or that everyone should be gay (“you can’t knit a homosexual,” said one GLFer), or even that everyone must have a gay experience. The implications are that we must begin to cope with our own non-sexist loves and affections, and not let our sexual preferences distort and color our entire emotional life. To that extent gay liberation is not a problem, but perhaps the most profoundly revolutionary movement we are in touch with.
Ideally, bisexuality is the pot of gold. But practically, there appear to be few honest bisexuals. Many male homosexuals who do have affairs with women, or are married and have affairs with men, often are simply clinging to the respectability and rewards of the heterosexual life, unwilling to accept the full impact of being gay. For straights, it is tempting to use bisexuality as a prophylactic in confronting the threat of the gay movement. Exclusive homosexuality, after all, is just as repressive and dehumanizing as exclusive heterosexuality. Even if there is some significant biological reality to bisexuality, however, it is clear that politically that logic belongs to an era when integration was the yellow brick road. As long as gays are oppressed, as long as they are beaten on 14th Street and quarantined in underground bars, as long as they are told they are less than complete, less than normal, less than human, then the first step in gay liberation must follow that of black liberation: black is beautiful, gay is good. And maybe when we can see through the screens of our own fears and frailties, maybe then we can begin to talk about integration and bisexuality.
Certainly Sunday’s march was a monumental step. Not everyone was quite ready for it. As the crowds began to swell around Sheridan Square, one man was pacing back and forth and muttering, “It’s too soon, it’s soon.” A Christopher Street resident told an interviewer, “Mankind is falling apart. It’s like the Roman era. Everything is decadent.” An irate older woman was having a fit because the assemblage was disrupting her 1 o’clock mass. Startled onlookers were doing triple takes at the spectacle, men kissing men in the street, women kissing women, everyone holding hands, and the crayoned signs of the Lavender Menace reading “We are the dykes your mother warned you about,” “Sappho was a right-on woman,” “Everything you think we are, WE ARE!”
Among the marchers themselves, the majority were young, political, and freak. It was clear that the quiet West Enders still wanted to keep their homosexuality private, still saw their sex life non-politically, and were hesitant to share it with the cameras, tourists, employers, and families.
For sheer power of analysis, however, the day’s award must go to a burly-looking straight with a football helmet and letter jersey, interviewed for TV in Sheep Meadow. “What do you make of all this?” he was asked. “Well, I’m from Alabama,” he explained, “and at home you back into ’em everywhere. But it sure is something to see ’em all united. Hell, it sure is something.”