BY ANDY HUMM | “On June 26, 1969, the thought of a gay community center or even a gay community would have been impossible,” said Jerry Hoose, moderating a forum sponsored by SAGE, Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders, on the emergence of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) shortly after that date. “But on the night of June 27, 1969, things changed.”
The 1969 Stonewall Rebellion is commemorated around the world, but this forum focused on the activists who recognized its significance immediately, founded the radical GLF in its aftermath, and went on to be key organizers of the first Christopher Street Liberation Day march one year later.
“On June 26, 1969, the thought of a gay community center or even a gay community would have been impossible.”
“I don't glorify the Stonewall,” Hoose said at the June 26 forum held at the LGBT Community Center. “It was an unpleasant bar. It's what happened to us there when we decided we would not longer be treated like garbage” that is important. In introducing a panel of veterans from GLF – some of whom also worked with the slightly later Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) – Hoose said, “These are the people to whom I give credit for where we are today.”
Poet Fran Winant described the pre-Stonewall era. “People were extraordinarily frightened,” she said, “even just walking down the street in the Village. No one could hold hands. On weekends, there were police on the corners and you felt you were under armed guard.”
She recalled a time when, for two women to go out together, they had to bring along two men as escorts – a situation some of her acquaintances not only did not see as oppressive, but felt had the benefit of allowing them to go out with more friends.
“The history of radical movements is the history of the cooptation of radical movements,” she said. “But you have to be radical first,” and that's what GLF was for her. “It was a spark of energy. It had to be radical at that moment. We held a place while that spark went around the world.
Mark Segal, the longtime publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, credits GLF with sustaining his work even today, though it only lasted three years. “It taught me how to have pride and to be arrogant,” he said, citing his experiences busting into Walter Cronkite's CBS News studio in the middle of a broadcast for a gay protest in 1973 and later chaining himself to the Liberty Bell. At 18 in GLF, he co-founded Gay Youth of New York.
Author Perry Brass joined GLF in November of 1969 at age 22. “I was overjoyed at the idea that gay people were fighting back,” he said. “I'd already been out for five years.”
Brass said the group brought the gay movement back to “Harry's Hay's radical vision” for the Mattachine Society in 1950, before it purged its Communist members. “We declared that it was society itself that was sick,” Brass said.
Therapist and photographer Ellen Shumsky, who like many of her comrades in GLF had been active in the anti-war movement, talked about seeing the fires of the Stonewall Rebellion just before leaving the country, calling them “the most freeing thing I'd ever seen.” She joined GLF in September of 1969 and “discovered I could speak out and lead,” eventually spinning off Radical Lesbians from the male-dominated group.
Author John Lauritsen called his first year in GLF “the most intense of my life.” He said the group was styled on the National Liberation Front or Vietcong, with whom the US was at war at the time. He remembered that “so much of GLF was theoretical discussion that continued at the Silver Dollar restaurant.”
The group also operated by consensus so that everyone's voice counted and would be heard. GLF conducted consciousness-raising groups and had cells dealing with everything from planning street actions to putting out publications.
The activism of attorney Mike Lavery, who went on to become a founder of Lambda Legal, dates back to 1962.
“I came to GLF trying to decide where things should go [after Stonewall] and couldn't figure out what the plan was,” he said. “I didn't like people pushing you into their plans.” Lavery also worked with the Gay Activists Alliance, which, unlike GLF, was focused on the single issue of gay liberation, partly because of his friendship with Marty Robinson, who died in 1992, and Jim Owles, who died the following year.
“Everyone has an agenda,” Lavery said. “Even I had an agenda not to have an agenda.”
“We were a diverse looking group of people,” activist Jim Fouratt said of GLF, citing academics, former nuns, street people, and drag queens amongst their ranks.
“We called on people to come out,” he said. “The most powerful bond of oppression was within us.”
Fouratt was one of a small band of activists who posed for a famous “Come Out!” poster that is still an icon today.
John Knoebel read a statement from Steve Dansky, who wrote, “GLF was a work of art and established us as a people.” For his own part, Knoebel recalled, “We had a chairperson of the month whose job it was to keep order by banging a baseball bat.”
He said he was gay-bashed in 1970 right on 14th Street and marched on Christopher Street Liberation Day in June all bandaged up.
“It was small and straggly,” he said of the first anniversary march, “but when we got to the Sheep's Meadow and we got to the top of the hill, people turned around and there were thousands of us. It was incredible. I never saw so many gay people in my whole life – four or five thousand. That was a feeling I will never forget.”
Hoose later showed what is believed to be the only existing film of the first march, an event he and his friend Bob Kohler, who died in 2007, agreed was more like a “run” because marchers were hustling up one lane of Sixth Avenue under death threats. The effort, however, moved the community “from the shadows to the sunlight,” he said. Hoose credited Craig Rodwell, who founded the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in 1967 and died in 1993, with coming up with the idea for the march.
The forum continued the debates on a range of old issues in the community from the origins of Stonewall – “We didn't give a damn about Judy Garland,” said Segal – to the differences between GLF and GAA.
Arnie Kantrowitz, a GAA vet, said, “We were angry that GLF had paralyzed itself with [things like] whether they could use Huey Newton's name.” He also said that GAA eventually had meetings of 500 people for whom consensus was impossible.
But all agreed that GLF was the essential spark that fired the critical post-Stonewall movement and that is still alive not just in the Mount Rushmore of gay and lesbian activists who held forth in this forum, but in countless acts of LGBT defiance from Moscow to New Delhi.