The Nice Ways Always Fail

A Black Lives Matter protest

Change doesn’t come about because the oppressed dress up in nice suits and ask politely. It doesn’t come peacefully, via reasoned argument, sociological studies, or letters to the editor—although those means are part of the process. Change requires loud demonstrations, illegal occupations of government offices, rebellions, and sometimes revolutions or civil wars. I know. I have been part of such changes.

In 1967, I joined the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the only lesbian organization in the United States. We and the various gay men’s organizations tried to influence liberal legislators and clergy through dialog and letters. We published our little magazines. Those few of us willing to be out in public represented our organizations in the mass media. In addition to radio and TV appearances, I spoke as an openly gay person in abnormal psychology classes, trying to explain why we weren’t “abnormal.”

Every July 4th, starting in 1965, a few of us went to Independence Hall in Philadelphia for the Annual Reminder. The men wore jackets and ties, the women dresses. We walked quietly in a circle with picket signs asking for equal rights, while straight tourists stared at us as though we were on display at the zoo.

Nothing changed. The psychiatric establishment defined homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered.” Gay people were often committed to psychiatric hospitals and subjected to electroshock or other forms of torture to “cure” us. Same-sex relations were against the law in all states except Illinois, which had forgotten to criminalize us when they rewrote their penal code. Dancing with a member of your own sex was illegal. The gay bars—which were the only places we could meet, aside from organizations like DOB—were all Mafia-owned. They served watered-down drinks at inflated prices and paid protection to the police. Even then, cops regularly busted our bars. They’d arrest us and then inform our employers, landlords, and relatives. Many of us lost our jobs and homes and were cut off from our families.

This only began to change with the Stonewall Riot, on June 28, 1969. Mayor Lindsay was running for reelection, and the cops were ordered to “clean up the city” for his campaign. They tried to bust the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar—but this time, the people fought back, threw beer cans and bottles, slashed the tires on a police car, broke windows, and attempted to set fire to the building. A few cops suffered minor injuries.

The riots went on night after night through July 3rd. But unlike the two previous gay riots in the United States, one in Los Angeles and one in San Francisco, the Stonewall uprising didn’t just end and that was that. Immediately after the riots, some of us formed the Gay Liberation Front and later, the Gay Activists Alliance and Radicalesbians. We demonstrated—and not politely. We barged in on city council meetings. We crashed conventions, like those of the American Psychiatric Association and the National Organization for Women.

It wasn’t easy, and the opposition wasn’t all right-wing. Those gays who desperately wanted to show the straight world that we were nice, ordinary, middle-class people, that all we wanted was a nice, middle class job and a house in the suburbs, were horrified by our tactics. A “liberal” journalist with an investment in his macho image decried our participation in an antiwar demonstration, referring to us as “the slim-waisted creeps of the Gay Liberation Front.” Prominent feminists were terrified that with greater visibility for lesbians, the women’s movement would be dismissed as a bunch of man-hating dykes. But over time, instead of politely asking for change, we continued to demonstrate and make demands—and often won.

In 1981, doctors began noticing clusters of Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis pneumonia in gay men. Those would later be diagnosed as AIDS. As it spread through the community, we told our elected “representatives” that we needed help—we needed money for research, treatment facilities, and protection from discrimination. There was no response. They didn’t care that we were dying. We had no importance. Most of the voting public had no awareness of AIDS. If they had even heard of it, they thought of it as some obscure disease that affected queers and druggies in some other place. When it began spreading through the Black community, there was still nothing from the politicians. It was only when there were riots, when ACT UP began disrupting traffic and breaking things, that AIDS even showed up on people’s TV screens. We told the politicians that if they didn’t do something about AIDS we’d keep stopping commuter traffic and upsetting their constituents. That was when AIDS became a visible issue and our governing bodies began, just began, to respond to it.

Black Lives Matter is facing that same widespread reproach for demonstrations that are not quiet and polite. The current wave—no, tsunami—of protests against the police murder of George Floyd and countless other Black people is being met with a fire hose of criticism from right- and left-wing pundits, politicians, and all-too-comfortable white citizens of every kind. If only the demonstrators would shut up and go home, we’re told, those in charge will ensure that justice is done. We’ve heard that same line for decades, if not centuries.

In 1857, Frederick Douglass made a speech about the rebellion of slave rebellions in the West Indies, and their subsequent emancipation: “I am aware that the insurrectionary movements of the slaves were held by many to be prejudicial to their cause… Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground… Who would be free, themselves must strike the blow.”

Of course the authorities will ensure justice. Just as they always have, for African-Americans and other minorities, since the founding of this country, through the Civil War, through the civil rights movement, and now during the age of mass incarceration.

Malvina Reynold’s song—written in 1964, during the civil rights movement of that time —says it pretty well:

It isn’t nice to block the doorway,
It isn’t nice to go to jail,
There are nicer ways to do it,
But the nice ways always fail.
It isn’t nice, it isn’t nice,
You told us once, you told us twice,
But if that is Freedom’s price,
We don’t mind.

2 Responses to The Nice Ways Always Fail

  1. Perry Brass June 6, 2020 at 9:28 pm #

    As usual, Martha, this is wonderful. It really puts it on the line. Black Lives Matter reminds me of the slogan: “If you think gays are revolting, you’re right.” What really matters is confronting the psychological “baggage” that most people are scared of confronting: they want to make things “comfortable.” Change does not come from comfort. We learned that.

  2. Martha Shelley June 6, 2020 at 9:40 pm #

    Thanks, Perry!

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