Fighting on All Fronts

Gays protesting the Vietnam War (photo from NY Public Library)

The Gay Liberation Front broke with its forebears in two ways. First, we didn’t give a rat’s rear end about being respectable. We didn’t want to move up in a system of hierarchical cruelties, we wanted to overturn it. Second, we made common cause with others fighting the corrupt and oppressive system.

Like many members of GLF, I participated in a wide range of social justice actions in 1969 and 1970.

In September 1969 I was part of the second feminist demonstration against the Miss America pageant. The first demonstration, held during the previous year, had disrupted the pageant, at least briefly, by unfurling a women’s liberation banner. The second was a flop. Two women had purchased tickets to the show. I don’t know what they planned to do if they succeeded in entering the convention center, but they had come up with an absurd plan to disguise themselves in home-made nun costumes. Why would nuns want to attend a beauty contest? A large Irish security guard stopped them at the door and turned them away. He seemed amused.

We reconnoitered on the boardwalk. Robin Morgan, one of the organizers of the action, called a press conference and announced, apparently making it up as she went along, that we had called off our plan to disrupt the pageant because one of the contestants was secretly on our side. The pageant officials had discovered this, and were holding the woman hostage and threatening her. With violence? jail?—Robin didn’t make that clear.

Once the reporters left, I confronted Robin. “But that was a lie!”

“History is a bunch of lies made up by men,” she replied. “Let it be our lies for a change.”

That didn’t go down well with me. I didn’t sign up with the women’s movement, or GLF, to fight for a bunch of lies.

In October 1969, the The New York Times reported, over half a million people protested in DC in the Moratorium against the War. Smaller demonstrations took place all around the U.S. In New York City, one arm of the protest marched across the Brooklyn Bridge to a rally on Wall Street. A GLF contingent was part of another gathering of 40,000 in Bryant Park, in the heart of midtown Manhattan. https://www.sciencesource.com/archive/Anti-war-Protest–NYC–1969-SS2495257.html In my mind’s eye I can still see our little band holding a banner aloft.

The next day, liberal columnist Pete Hamill wrote about the event, and described us as “the slim-waisted creeps of the Gay Liberation Front.” Such was the bigotry generally accepted at the time. Later, to his credit, Hamill apologized. “The kind of people who gravitate to tabloids—people like me, without great formal education—knew very little about the subject…We had no idea.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1996/06/03/a-straight-and-narrow-path/81603f23-f6f9-4af8-b51e-7460da05678a/

In April of that year, 21 members of the Black Panther Party had been arrested, with bail set at $100,000 apiece. For the next ten months, “the jailed Panthers were held in solitary confinement with lights on 24 hours a day and denied reading materials, recreational facilities and family visitation. Several were not given mattresses and the two female Panthers were limited to four sheets of toilet paper per day.” https://rozsixties.unl.edu/items/show/208 New Left groups, churches, and rich and famous individuals like Leonard Bernstein worked to raise the $2.1 million in bail money. In November, after much heated debate, GLF agreed to donate $500 to the fund. You can read about the arguments here. https://epgn.com/2016/10/05/the-black-panthers-and-the-gay-liberation-front-did-black-lives-matter-then-too/

On November 1, delegates from gay and lesbian groups met at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO) in Philadelphia. Three women, including myself, attended as representatives of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), although I was also in GLF. At one point, the GLF delegation offered various proposals to the Conference members, calling for support of such progressive/radical groups as the striking grape workers and the Panther 21. We (okay, I was behind this as well) also offered a platform based on the right to control one’s own body. That subsumed the right to sex with other consenting adults, the right to not have your ass drafted and shipped to Vietnam, the right to ingest the drugs of your choice, and the rights to contraception and abortion.

The last item provoked a ferocious attack by Craig Schoonmaker of Homosexuals Intransigent, in which he denounced abortion as murder. I thought perhaps he was coming from a Catholic background. Later I found that he truly hated women. https://medium.com/@talbertario/pride-and-prejudice-the-craig-schoonmaker-story-122c8a4c1339 The response from the DOB representatives was equally ferocious. I knew from private conversations that one of them had been raped and impregnated, and procured an abortion at a time when it was illegal and dangerous. After this exchange, and likely because of it, ERCHO voted overwhelmingly to accept the GLF platform.

However, the most important proposal came from Ellen Broidy and Craig Rodwell: to hold a march on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. That march took place on June 28, 1970, and morphed into the annual Gay Pride parade.

On December 4, the Chicago police murdered two Panthers, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, shooting over 90 times into the apartment where the men slept. https://www.zinnedproject.org/materials/assassination-of-fred-hampton When I heard the news I was terrified. They could do that to any of us, I thought. Afraid to stay alone, I spent the next night at the apartment of GLFers Lois Hart and Suzanne Bevier. Their presence comforted me.

During Christmas week GLF held a vigil outside the Women’s House of Detention for the two women imprisoned as part of the Panther group, Joan Bird and Angela Davis. (Davis was not, in fact, a Panther). I had a late night shift for the vigil, and it was very cold. At the end of my shift a couple who lived in the area invited some of us to their townhouse to warm up. They were obviously wealthy liberals, with leftist posters on their walls. They fed us things we could never afford to buy. That wheel of brie on the table must have been a foot and a half in diameter.*

On December 7, thirteen representatives of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican liberation group, went to the First Spanish Methodist Church in East Harlem to request space for a children’s breakfast program. The  minister called the police who beat the 13 and arrested them on charges of “inciting to riot.” On December 28, the Young Lords took over and occupied the church for the next 10 days, using the premises for the breakfast program, a free clinic staffed by a sympathetic doctor and medical students, classes, film showings, and a New Year’s mass by a radical priest. As a representative of GLF I visited the church and the Young Lords office a couple of times. They were aware of the Stonewall riots and were already in support. Jon, another GLFer, was working with the Young Lords, as were two women’s liberation activists and a representative of the United Farm Workers. My full-page article reporting on this action appeared in the next issue of Come Out! http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/come-out-magazine-1969-1972/the-come-out-archive

In January 1970 GLF confronted the Mafia in Gianni’s Bar. I wrote about this in my previous post, but since then I have done additional research on the incident and have revised the post. https://ebisupublications.com/we-are-the-gay-liberation-front/

In January 1970 a collective of women had approached RAT, a newspaper that was politically left but extremely sexist, as were so many “underground” papers at that time. The women had presented the guys with the idea of producing a feminist issue, presumably to show how it could be done, and in February I was invited to join them as the radical lesbian in the group. Once we had our hands on the paper, though, we refused to give it back. In my next post I’ll write more about RAT newspaper and that period in my life.

 

* The trial took eight months. In May 1971, after what had been the longest and costliest trial in NY history, the Panthers were acquitted of all charges. The taxpayer footed the bill, and the cops and the FBI continued to target the Panthers.

3 Responses to Fighting on All Fronts

  1. Connie O Byrne October 7, 2020 at 7:26 am #

    Again I want to express my heartfelt appreciation for the history you’ve been sharing. You are probably the only one who was part of this history that has been making a concerted effort to both document and share our history.
    Again, thank you from deep in my heart

  2. Martha Shelley October 7, 2020 at 10:39 am #

    Thank you! Though I believe others have done so as well, like Karla Jay and Mark Segal.

  3. Perry Brass October 7, 2020 at 7:07 pm #

    This is really great, Martha. It brings this period of our lives back to life, which needs to happen. Please continue with it. You were such a part of everything, and working with you on Come Out! was one of the great experiences of my life.

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