50 Years of Fighting for Justice

Photo by Diana Davies

I haven’t posted in a while, because I’m getting my next book ready for the printer. At the same time, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is coming up, so I was asked to speak about the struggle for gay rights at a panel of the American Bar Association’s litigation conference in New York, and I had to write a speech for that too.  Since some people thought it was pretty good (including my wife Sylvia), here it is:

When I think about life before Stonewall the anger wells up in me. I think about my mother offering to spend the money she’d been saving for my wedding on a psychologist who would fix me. Or offering to pay for a nose job—the theory being that I would look less Jewish and boys would find me more attractive, so I’d be happy to go straight. I think about Judy L., whose mother refused to continue paying her college tuition unless she did have a nose job. She submitted to surgery. It didn’t make her straight.

I think about Gloria W.—and other friends—who were thrown into mental hospitals for the crime of being a lesbian, and given electroshock therapy. It didn’t make them straight either. I think about the women I knew whose children were taken away. About the teenagers who were thrown out of their homes, with no way to earn a living except prostitution.

I’d actually been in therapy before I came out to my mother. Ann, the therapist, said I should be bisexual, because I was cutting half the world out of my dating pool. Of course she was straight and married. She didn’t try to be bisexual, to increase her dating pool, and she didn’t tell her straight patients to do so, either. But in those days, this condescension was considered liberal.

You’ve all heard that gay sex was against the law back then. That the only places for people like us to gather were Mafia-run bars where we could pay premium rates for watered-down drinks and be subject at any time to police raids. That we could suffer public humiliation, that the cops might call our bosses or landlords or parents and have us fired or thrown out of our homes. We were at the mercy of the self-righteous sadists of psychiatry, the legislatures, law enforcement, the clergy, and our own families.

So by the time of Stonewall I and many other gay people were sitting on a smoldering pile of rage. We had seen plenty of examples, in other civil rights contexts, of how to channel that rage. I’d been inspired by the Freedom Rides. In 1963 I read The Feminine Mystique and signed up with the National Organization for Women. In 1964 I got on a bus to Washington for the first of many anti-war marches.

In 1967, at age 23, I joined the Daughters of Bilitis. They saw that I was a good talker and, unlike the mostly closeted members, was willing to represent the organization in public, so they made me public speaker. First assignment was addressing the kids in an abnormal psychology class. Then came a radio show, and then daytime TV.

And then, that hot Saturday night in 1969, came the Stonewall Riot. I’ve told this story many times, how I was passing the Stonewall Inn on that Saturday night and thought it was yet another anti-war demonstration. I had no idea the people throwing rocks at cops were gay until Monday morning, when I read it in the paper. I immediately phoned the head of the Daughters of Bilits. “We need to have a protest march,” I said. She told me to call the head of the gay men’s organization, the Mattachine Society, and make a proposal. “If they agree, we’ll sponsor it jointly.”

A few days later, Mattachine had a big meeting at Town Hall to discuss the events. I made my proposal and the members voted to support it. After the meeting, some of us formed an organizing committee. On July 27, exactly one month after the riots, a couple hundred of us marched around Greenwich Village, and then rallied at Christopher Park, right across from the Stonewall.

That little march was the predecessor of what has since morphed into the gay pride parades. Back then, however, it was the first time most of the participants had dared to show themselves as gay in public, out in the sunshine. And our minuscule organizing committee had already named itself the Gay Liberation Front.

What was different about the Gay Liberation Front? The other groups, like DOB and Mattachine, were single-issue organizations. They were focusing on getting America to accept gays into the mainstream—pleading that we were just like anyone else, with a slight variation. Like being left-handed, they used to say. That we just wanted mainstream jobs, the house in the suburbs with the white picket fence and the barbecue grill in the backyard. And those members who happened to be leftists were expected to keep quiet about their politics—because we wouldn’t want the straight world to think we were a bunch of Communists. Meanwhile, gay members of socialist or feminist organizations were expected to keep their sexual orientation hidden—because they wouldn’t want the world to think the socialist party was just a bunch of queers, or that those feminists were just a bunch of man-hating lesbians.

But we GLFers had no interest in being accepted into the mainstream. We hated the war that ended up murdering around 2.5 million Indochinese—people who had never done anything to harm our country—and killing or wounding around 200,000 U.S. service members. We hated the prevailing racism here at home. We hated the patriarchal system. Instead of pleading for acceptance, we raged against the vast cruelty of our society and demanded—what we still demand—JUSTICE FOR ALL.

We marched against the war, carrying our GLF banners. We formed alliances with the Black Panthers, with the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican liberation group, and with feminist groups and socialist groups. We showed up at their conferences, and even those who were reluctant to accept us came around. And because we made those alliances, we helped to create a vast change in American culture, to the point that we gained the mainstream acceptance that we hadn’t even been looking for. We got the right to gay marriage and to serve in the military.

Now gay rights are under attack again, along with women’s reproductive rights. Blacks are still being imprisoned in disproportionate numbers. Cops beat and murder them with impunity. The U.S. continues to invade countries that have done us no harm, and to kill millions of civilians. And I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of the astronomical increase in economic inequality, and the continuing destruction of the planet by global warming.

We were a small, raggle-taggle bunch of young people. We had no funding, no positions of influence within the system, no careers to lose—and that gave us courage. As has been said, change comes from the bottom, not the top. But there is a dance between the outsiders and the insiders, those who raise hell on the streets and those who respond by taking our demands to court or by running for office. And the fight for justice is far from being over. Every one of us has a contribution to make. What risks will you take, what will you do for the sake of justice when this conference is over?

7 Responses to 50 Years of Fighting for Justice

  1. Esther Newton May 4, 2019 at 7:29 am #

    That’s the way it was. Say it loud, say it proud.

  2. D. Karen Wilkerson May 4, 2019 at 9:19 am #

    Thankyou you, Martha. I was just a few years behind you, but I’m still fighting, too. We cannot give up or give in.

    • Mary McCarthy May 5, 2019 at 6:13 pm #

      Excellent article Martha. I am very proud of you-your persistence, discipline and clarity.

      • Martha May 5, 2019 at 8:38 pm #

        Aw shucks, ma’am!

  3. Barbara J Maggiani May 5, 2019 at 3:32 pm #

    Excellent my friend… Very tight, to the point and great ending! I love how you can get the most important points across so succinctly and end up without alienating the center.

  4. Miriam Frank May 7, 2019 at 7:30 pm #

    Magnificent review of your historic participation, your life in the life and your cheerful direct drive to organize. Blessings as your life continues. Good health and strength. I’ll be away on vacay late May, then back in NYC for the madness of our 50th year as a viable movement. Thank you as always for the inspiration.

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