Around the same time when that first gay protest march took place, shortly after the Stonewall riots, we radical members of the traditional homophile organizations and gay members of leftist organizations began to meet at Alternate U., a free school on 14th Street. I brought the name “Gay Liberation Front” to the second meeting and it was adopted unanimously. We were pretty free-wheeling. There was no official membership—you just showed up—and there were no officers. People got together with others of like inclination and made things happen. We organized demonstrations, put on gay dances, and published a newspaper.
Bob Kohler was one of the people working to put on the dances. I remember him lugging in cracked ice and cases of beer, filling barrels with them, and selling the beer for 25¢ a can. That low price drew people away from the Mafia-run bars, which overcharged for watered-down drinks and made patrons pay extra for admission to a windowless inner room where you could slow dance with someone of your own sex. Nobody had to plunk coins in a juke box at Alternate U—you could gyrate for free to rock music on their sound system, under the swirling light of a disco ball, until it was time to stagger home and let the cleanup crew sweep the floor.
We GLF women soon found that mixed dances didn’t work for us. The gay men were involved with each other, oblivious of those few straight men who took advantage of the crowded floors to grope lesbians, so we arranged women-only dance nights. Now we could strip to the waist on hot summer nights, just as the men did. We danced in ecstatic circles, expressing a new sense of community, rather than coupling off.
Several Mafia goons showed up at our first women-only dance, guns in their belts, pretending to be cops. I guess their bosses were worried about losing business. They tried to intimidate the women and, according to Karla Jay, in her book Tales of the Lavender Menace, even punched some of them. I was there, but was dancing my ass off and didn’t even notice the confrontation. Meanwhile, someone had called Bob Kohler and the local precinct. Bob showed up first, pretending to be Alternate U.’s manager, and got rid of the goons before the real cops showed up.
* * *
My passion was the newspaper, Come Out! I wrote opinion pieces and news stories, and typeset copy. My boss, Virginia Admiral, let me use the cold type machines after hours. She let other radical groups do the same, and she herself typeset the mailing list for the Black Panthers. The first edition of our paper appeared on November 14, 1969. We sold it for 35¢. You can read archived issues of the paper on the internet. http://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/come-out-magazine-1969-1972/the-come-out-archive.
Radical and counterculture newspapers proliferated throughout the U.S. during those years. Most were not profitable. I doubt we ever made money. When I hawked copies on the street, I turned over the receipts to finance the next edition.
I’d be standing on a corner in Greenwich Village, in my blue jeans and thrift store suede jacket with a rip in the elbow, yelling “Get your copy of Come Out!, newspaper of the Gay Liberation Front.” One day a well dressed couple pushing a stroller passed by. They gave me that look-at-the-freak stare, so I added a few words to my pitch: “Find out what your kid’s going to be like when he grows up!” They jumped. All right, it was unkind, but I couldn’t help being pleased with myself.
Another day after selling papers for couple of hours I ducked into a coffee shop near New York University. A professor and one of his students had done the same, about three seats farther down the counter. The professor was opining about feminism. In his estimation, more women were entering paid employment these days because society needed a larger work force. Feminist demands had nothing to do with it. We were merely froth on the tide of impersonal macroeconomic forces. I remember getting really angry with him. Arrogant jerk, I thought.
After some consideration, though, I concluded that he may have had a point. There had to be an interplay between the historic demands of the labor movement and women’s movement, and the technological organization and power structure of society. Now it is clear to me that as soon as women were regularly employed outside the home (while still shouldering most of the housework and childcare), the purchasing power of the average worker’s wages inevitably declined until two incomes were needed where one sufficed previously, to pay the rent and feed the children. Impersonal forces? No way. As Warren Buffett famously put it in 2006, “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
* * *
While I was barreling ahead into the newspaper and radical politics, my love life crashed. The Stonewall riots and formation of GLF had freed me from the notion that I should try being bisexual. Meanwhile, however, Allison had taken a new lover.
Marion Youers—English by birth—was a textbook editor recently reassigned by her employer from Paris to New York. She showed up at DOB looking for congenial company. Allison, as I mentioned in a prior post, was a technical writer. Marion was 40, Allison was 43, and I was a mere 25—“a good kid,” as Allison later described me to Marion. Besides having common intellectual interests, they were both from strongly religious families. Allison was raised fundamentalist Christian, and Marion’s grandfather was an Anglican minister. Both had discarded belief in any deity while retaining a strong moral sense—but these inclinations had taken them in opposite directions politically. Allison had become a Goldwater Republican, Marion a member of the Communist Party. By the time they got together, however, they were both disillusioned with those organizations.
When those two formed an exclusive relationship, I was wounded. Still under the influence of the Sullivanian non-monogamy doctrine, I hadn’t realized how much I’d become attached to Allison. I said some hurtful things and she stopped speaking to me for months.
Marion didn’t break off our friendship while Allison and I were on the outs, and in fact was very supportive of my political activities. We met in secret during her lunch break in midtown, and she recommended books. I dutifully slogged through Leonard Schapiro’s magnum opus, The Communist Party of the Soviet Union, reading a few pages in bed every night until my eyes fell shut and the book fell out of my hands. The anarchist Bakunin was more to my liking.
I once asked Marion why she’d joined the Communists. She said that at the time she believed communism was the only way to ensure that, eventually, everyone would have enough to eat. This resonated with me. Once, when I’d tried to talk politics with my mother, who’d gone hungry in her youth, she said, “I don’t know anything about that. All I know is what every mother knows, that every child should have enough to eat.”
Marion was still a member when she arrived in the U.S., and in fact belonged to a secret cell. It would have been dangerous for her to quit suddenly. What she did instead, over the next couple of years, was to start asking questions when given an assignment, and eventually they stopped calling her and dropped her altogether.
Meanwhile Jean Powers of DOB had become horrified by my leftward turn. She insisted that I meet with her, Marion, and Allison at the DOB office, where she interrogated me about my beliefs. As I reported in a previous post, Jean had been hounded out of government work during the McCarthy period as they suspected her of being gay, but she still was a Republican. I think at heart all she wanted was to be accepted into the mainstream, both as a lesbian and as a good, patriotic American. And now I, the person she’d picked to be public speaker for DOB, was turning into a Red.
I defended myself, saying I certainly wasn’t joining any party or subordinating myself to its hierarchy. The others defended me as well. Occasionally Marion and I exchanged brief, amused glances. Jean would never have imagined that the proper-looking Englishwoman with the Maggie Smith R.P. accent was the real Communist in the room! Jean did, however, accept our explanations, and we remained friends.
* * *
Some weeks later there was an incident at Gianni’s, a popular lesbian bar just north of the Village, when a couple of straight businessmen came in for drinks and saw two women dancing together. One of them tried to cut in but was rejected. He punched the butchier-looking woman, knocking her to the floor, and then left. The low-level Mafia guys, who owned the place and were supposed to provide security in exchange for their overpriced drinks, did nothing.
As soon as the news reached GLF, about 15 of us, men and women, marched on the bar. We selected some fast tunes on the juke box and danced in circles but did not order drinks. Once again I was selected as spokesperson. Knees shaking, I went up to the owner and his partner. As I remember they were about a head and a half taller than me, and wore black pin-stripe suits. Cinematic memories of Al Capone, machine guns, and the St. Valentine’s Day massacre flickered in the back of my mind. Later I realized that they must have been having frightening visions as well, of smashed furniture and liquor bottles, of thousands of dollars in uninsured damages.
After I’d finished chewing them out for not protecting the women who provided their livelihood, the taller one frowned down at me. “Do you know who I am?” he said.
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” I shot back. “We are the Gay Liberation Front!” And I turned and walked back to the dance floor.