Gay Liberation Front: The radical beginnings of the Gay movement
Gay Liberation Front: The radical beginnings of the Gay movement
by Tommi Avicolli Mecca - Special to the SGN

Gay liberation was a product of its times; its birth at the end of the '60s was no accident. By the time street queens and others rioted outside the Stonewall bar in Greenwich Village (June 27, 1969), the groundwork had been laid for one of America's most despised minorities to get militant.

There had been skirmishes before Stonewall, specifically in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco. In Philadelphia in 1965, it was a sit-in and weeklong picket outside of Dewey's after the popular 24-hour lunch counter and cafeteria decided it would no longer serve those who weren't traditionally dressed because they allegedly drove away other customers. Dewey's eventually changed its policy. At Cooper's Donuts in Los Angeles in 1959 and Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco in 1966, the conflicts turned into riots with the police.

Social change was in the air. By the late '60s, the civil-rights movement had succeeded in desegregating lunch counters and other public facilities and in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The Black Panthers, a militant black-power group, were feeding poor people and developing a strategy for black self-empowerment - not to mention having run-ins with the police.

The women's movement had been reborn from the embers left by the struggle to gain the vote half a century before. The anti-Vietnam War movement was beginning to draw huge numbers of protesters into the streets. Campuses were igniting with student strikes and takeovers of administration offices.

Stonewall may have started the "Gay" movement, but there had been "homophile" groups struggling to change the public's perception of Queers since 1949 when Harry Hay, a Communist Party union organizer, brought together the first Mattachine Society. The movement turned conservative in the face of the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the '50s. The homophile movement of the late '60s didn't have much relevance for the new generation of young people who were "tuning in and dropping out." The height of the homophile movement came with the historic July 4 Independence Hall marches from 1965-69.

Those young folks identified immediately with the fighting that broke out at Stonewall. Within days, the first Gay Liberation Front was formed. Its name reflected its radical bent: It was taken from the National Liberation Front that was fighting the U.S. occupation of Vietnam.

GLF was radically different from the homophile groups. It didn't operate by Robert's Rules of Order. Decisions were made by consensus. Anyone could be a member by merely showing up at a meeting.

The philosophy of GLF was also radically different. Whereas the homophile groups promoted the idea that we were just like everyone else except for what we did in bed, GLF believed that Queers were special and distinct from straights. We had our own identity and culture and didn't need to change in order to accommodate anyone. It was society that needed to change.

GLF believed that it was a part of the struggles of all oppressed peoples. GLF members made alliances with the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican activist group with chapters in several cities, including Chicago, New York and Philadelphia. Both groups embraced GLF. In fact, Panther Chair Huey Newton issued a letter to his comrades, calling on them to support both the Gay and women's liberation movements. Encouraged by this announcement, GLFers attended Panther conferences, including one at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1970.

Like their hippie counterparts, many GLFers lived in communes. In San Francisco, there were a lot of Queers among the hundreds of households that functioned as a support network for the counterculture. GLFers published newspapers, such as Come Out! in New York and The Gay Dealer in Philadelphia. They pioneered a new form of drag called genderfuck or radical drag, in which articles of clothing of both sexes were worn to confuse onlookers. For GLFers, gender was something to be played with and questioned. It was not a life sentence.

Rock stars, such as David Bowie and the New York Dolls, stole their androgynous looks from radical dragsters, and made lots of money doing it.

Many GLFers explored polyamorous relationships and frowned upon traditional pair-bonding (such as Gay or straight marriage), butch/femme and top/bottom role-playing and societal beauty standards. They resisted the draft and didn't support Gays, or anyone, in the military. They weren't into reforms such as Gay-rights laws, nor of being members of traditional religions. A popular chant of the time was "two, four, six, eight, smash the church, smash the state." It embodied the spirit of the Gay-liberation movement in those post-Stonewall days.

By far, GLF's most successful strategy was urging Queers to simply come out of the closet. Before long, the new cry could be heard everywhere: "Out of the closets and into the streets!" Thousands came out.

It wasn't all a bed of roses. Women and people of color split off from the fledgling movement over Gay male sexism and racism. Women found it easier to struggle with the Lesbophobia of the women's movement. They formed groups such as Radicalesbians and Lesbian Feminist Liberation. Many lived in collective separatist households in which men were not welcome.

In New York City, Third World Gay Liberation demanded a voice for people of color. Black and Puerto Rican queens organized under the banner of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). Its two spokespeople, Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson, became true stars of the early struggle.

Within a few years of its creation, GLF would split once more to give birth to the more traditionally structured (Robert's Rules, officers, membership requirements, etc.) Gay Activists Alliance, a group that would go on to dominate the LGBT movement for several years.

While GAA members shared many of the same ideals of GLF - including opposition to the war, support for women's liberation and, in some cities, support for the Black Panthers - GAA as an organization pushed for gay-rights laws and other political reforms as its primary goal.

GLF may have been short-lived, but its impact was long-lasting.

Tommi Avicolli Mecca, a regular columnist for beyondchron.org and sometimes op-ed contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Sailing Beyond Columbus (Manic D) and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The early years of Gay liberation, which will be published by City Lights Books in June 2009 for the 40th anniversary of Stonewall. His website is www.avicollimecca.com.