The First Gay Protest March

The Second Gay Pride March NYC 1970. There are no photos of the first.

As soon as I saw the news about the Stonewall Riots, I phoned Jean Powers, who ran the NYC Daughters of Bilitis chapter, and told her that we had to have a protest march. She suggested that I call the Mattachine Society, the gay men’s organization. “If they agree, we can jointly sponsor it.” I immediately called Dick Leitsch, president of Mattachine. He didn’t sound enthusiastic, but said they were having a meeting to discuss the riots, and that I should attend and suggest a march.

In my memory, the meeting took place Thursday evening, July 1, at a hall that sat 400 people. David Carter, in his excellent book Stonewall, says it was on Friday, July 9, and that 100 people attended. According to contemporary coverage in The Ladder, the meeting took place at Freedom House. I haven’t been able to determine the seating capacity. Carter also says that I had recently resigned from my position at DOB, which is incorrect. As one of the few gay people willing to be out in public back then, I’d represented DOB in college classes and on radio and TV, but that wasn’t an official position like president or treasurer, and I never did resign from it.

The hall was packed when I arrived, with however many hundred gay men. Dick Leitsch was up on the stage, along with the one female member of Mattachine, civil liberties advocate Madolin Cervantes. I found a seat next to Bob Kohler, a tall man who looked to be in his early 40s. He spoke passionately about the street queens, many of whom had fought at Stonewall—young men who’d been kicked out of their families, who were too obviously queer and/or without job skills and/or underage, who survived by panhandling, theft, and prostitution, and by living on junk food. Well before the riots, Kohler had been in the habit of walking the neighborhood with his little dog. He’d befriended these youths, often buying them a decent meal or helping them find shelter or social services.

Leitsch called on me next. I proposed the march, and he asked for a vote. A forest of hands went up. “Whoever wants to organize the march, go to that corner”—he pointed—“at the end of the meeting.” A few of us did, including Bob Kohler and Marty Robinson, a brilliant young man who at that time was a member of the Mattachine Action Committee. We agreed to get together again on Saturday afternoon at Mattachine HQ.

Saturday came, a hot July day. Our little group sat around the big table in the conference room drinking cold beer. The door was open, and we could see Leitsch standing at the mimeo machine in the front office. We set a date for the march—Sunday, July 27—and assigned tasks. Mine was to call the police and ask if we needed a permit for a march. Then one guy uttered the words, “Gay Liberation Front.”

I whooped with joy and pounded the table, shouting, “That’s it! That’s it! We’re the Gay Liberation Front!” Then I noticed blood on my palm and realized that I’d been slamming it into the pop top of a beer can—but I was feeling no pain.

Dick Leitsch rushed into the conference room. He was clearly upset and angry. Were we forming a new gay organization, right under his nose and in his own offices—one that would take members away from Mattachine? Well of course we were, but I lied, “Oh no, not at all! That’s just the name of our march committee.”

I guess Leitsch had my number, because the next time I stopped by the Mattachine office he was conversing with another guy in the front room. Only the three of us were present.  Dick commented, loudly enough for me to hear, about how bad women smelled. I have to give him credit for all the good work he did on behalf of gays, but we were not destined to be best friends.

*          *          *

The last people in the world I wanted to talk to were the police. Naturally I didn’t tell them the purpose of our gathering. It was a big relief when the cop who answered the phone said we only needed a permit if we were going to have a sound system. I couldn’t imagine that we’d have a huge crowd, and knew—after leading chants on the picket line, during the caseworkers’ strike—that my voice could carry for a block.

DOB and Mattachine did sponsor the march, as agreed, taking out a display ad in the Village Voice. When the day arrived we assembled in Washington Square Park. How many showed up? I thought we had about 200. David Carter says it was 500. This year—2020—a NY newspaper reporter who covers the police checked their archives. The undercover cops in the crowd had estimated 400. We chanted, “Give me a G…an A…a Y…” According to various reports, some of us wore lavender arm bands. I don’t remember that at all, nor do I remember the speeches that Marty Robinson and I made. The Ladder quoted me as having said: “The time has come for us to walk in the sunshine. We don’t have to ask permission to do it. Here we are!” The article also reported that Marty urged us to organize voting blocs and petition the government.

We marched around the Village, ending at Christopher Park, across from the Stonewall. Marty jumped up on the water fountain and spoke again, and then I had another turn. After a few words I asked the people to disperse peacefully, saying that today’s events were over. “But this isn’t the end. WE WILL BE BACK!”

And we were.

To be continued…

6 Responses to The First Gay Protest March

  1. Michael Bedwell September 6, 2020 at 9:59 pm #

    FACT CHECK. Three years before Ms. Shelley claims was “the first gay protest march,” on April 21, 1966, gays et al. in Washington DC marched from the White House to the Pentagon to protest the ban on gays in the military. It was one of the protests in a number of cities during the first nationally coordinated day of demonstrations for gay rights. After leading the DC march, Frank Kameny flew to New York City for a protest rally there. In San Francisco there was a picket and large rally in front of the Federal Building led by Del Martin and others, and Los Angeles had the first gay protest motorcade.

    Thank you.

  2. Anne Charles September 7, 2020 at 6:35 am #

    What an inspiring piece! Thank you.

  3. Connie O Byrne September 7, 2020 at 10:56 am #

    As always, you’ve given so many of us who weren’t there another, deeper look, at our history. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. It’s important.

  4. Martin A Rosenthal September 8, 2020 at 1:52 pm #

    It’s fascinating to read about this history. Thank you Martha!

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