History has overlooked the Gay Liberation Front’s role in Stonewall … until now

Closeup of a Gay Liberation Front poster urging gays and lesbians to come out
Closeup of a Gay Liberation Front poster urging gays and lesbians to come out Photo: Mark Segal/Peter Hujar

Something very strange happened during last June’s celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.  The LGBT community, especially those of us from Gay Liberation Front New York, realized how the history we created from 1969 to 1971 was being distorted by those who had recorded it. Even LGBT organizations, whose mission is to give resources and information to mainstream media, fell short and had to be corrected by the mainstream media it was supposed to assist.

On an anniversary of this scope, communities begin to look back at their history and also think critically about where they are at present. Right now, our community is struggling with issues of privilege and identity, specifically white-male privilege and class-based identity. It’s often been said that history is written by the powerful, and sometimes those in power embellish or minimize historical facts, or they distort history to purposely maintain a misinterpretation.

Related: 3 years before Stonewall, gay activists protested all over the country on same day

Stonewall was and remains the starting point of a contemporary LGBT movement for equality. Stonewall is our 1776. There were other demonstrations and disturbances before Stonewall, like the Compton’s riot in San Francisco in 1965, a sit-in at Dewey’s restaurant in Philadelphia that same year, even organized demonstrations, but none of them created a sustainable inclusive movement — they all failed to gain momentum. The most famous of them were the marches every July 4th at Independence Hall in Philadelphia from 1965 to 1969, which some historians mistakenly connect to Stonewall and the first Gay Pride March in 1970.

Stonewall wasn’t just a rebellion against the police, it was also a rebellion against gay assimilation

Stonewall and the year that followed up to the First Gay Pride, then called Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day, changed everything and everyone in the LGBT community. It was not simply a revolt against mainstream society, but also against an LGBT leadership that was tone deaf to the counter-cultural and political atmosphere of the 1960’s.

The marches in Philadelphia were the prime example of that deafness. Those of us from Stonewall and Gay Liberation Front were rebelling not only against mainstream society but against those people who marched in Philadelphia because we felt they had all lost touch with our community.

A similar occurrence had happened in the Black Community in the late sixties as well. More radical organizations wanted a new approach to the civil rights movement. They thought of Martin Luther King Jr. as a throwback, and — as detailed in Death of a King by Tavis Smiley — it made his last year on earth a sad one.

Historians who don’t say that Stonewall was a rebellion against the prim-and-proper LGBT movement to that point in time are committing a serious distortion of our history. In doing so they skip what was possibly the most pivotal year of change in our community. They minimize what was the Mount Vesuvius of change in LGBT History: the radicalization of the LGBT movement.

Stonewall didn’t happen in isolation. The country was ripe with change, especially among LGBT youth which found itself left completely out due a lack of leadership among the existing organizations, the same organizations which created those Philadelphia marches that looked more like something from 1950’s black-and-white TV America than anti-war, radical 1969 America. Stonewall gave LGBT youth a voice. Gay Liberation Front, born from the ashes of Stonewall, gave the movement organization in the form of radicalism.

While the old leadership wanted to portray the community as women in dresses and men in suits and ties, those at Stonewall and the founders of Gay Liberation Front dressed in jeans and t-shirts and in drag or what soon would be considered “genderf*ck.”

While the old leadership disdained any public association with trans people, the Gay Liberation Front welcomed them as it did youth and people of color. While those at the Philadelphia marches wanted to fit in with middle class America, those in the Gay Liberation Front wanted to work alongside other marginalized groups fighting for social justice. While those at the Philadelphia marches were polite, those in the Gay Liberation Front were out, loud and in-your-face. The two groups couldn’t have been more different.

How the first Gay Pride march differed from the gay public protests that preceded it

Gay Liberation Front logo
Gay Liberation Front logo Mark Segal

The first Gay Pride was literally and figuratively a break from those Philadelphia marches. It was a celebration of what we had created from the riots one year before. To be very clear, historians have attempted to group those Philadelphia marches with Stonewall and the first Gay Pride, and that’s an absolute misrepresentation of history.  That first Gay Pride, created by Craig Rodwell and Ellen Broidy, was about what we of the Gay Liberation Front had created from the ashes of Stonewall.

And that first year, create we did. The first Gay Youth organization, GYNY; the first trans organization, STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries); the first LGBT Community Center on West 3rd Street; the first demonstrations against media and police; and a continual public presence as we took back our streets.

We appeared on TV and spoke on radio and Gay Youth even spoke in high schools. We attended antiwar marches and leafleted almost every night. We held public meetings and we held dances in a time when it was illegal to do so, and we advertised them to show our resistance and to dare the police, the politicians and organized crime to stop us.

This was not simply a movement; it was an entire community being created, and that is what we celebrated on that first anniversary: resistance and building community where there was none before. While those people who marched in Philadelphia were brave to do so, they failed to create a movement, an identity or an inclusive community. The Gay liberation Front did.

Even though we didn’t know it at the time, Stonewall was the start of Gay Liberation Front. The people who wrote on the streets and walls that first night, the people who created the second, third and fourth nights, were the founders of Gay Liberation Front. The people who spoke from the steps of Stonewall were the founders of the Gay Liberation Front. The people who did the leafleting and that first march 3 weeks later were the founders of the Gay Liberation Front.

Stonewall was not one night, or two or six. Stonewall was one year, a year of building a community and a sustainable movement. There were people at Stonewall who passed by, people who craning their necks from around the corner watching, people who tossed a stone and ran since the police chased people up and down the street, but the spirit of resistance that gave birth to the new movement was all the Gay Liberation front. We didn’t leave Stonewall after one night.

It’s often stated that we were so radical that we were dysfunctional. That statement couldn’t be more true.  Gay Liberation Front had no permanent chairperson. A stick was tossed at the beginning of the meeting and whoever caught it was the chair. We had no Roberts Rules of Order and no officers. Everything had to be decided by consensus, and we debated every issue passionately in order to define ourselves because we refused to allow society to define us any longer.

We debated everything, including masculinity and white privilege, though that wasn’t the term used at the time. We fought hard amongst ourselves. We even took in stride the ever present shadow of the FBI and NYPD undercover agents. You often heard one member say to another, speak into the coffee can, since we knew we were bugged or had informants, and it turns out we were correct.

So who threw that first brick at Stonewall?

The idea that whoever threw the first brick started the movement is a strong one, and if that’s the criteria, then the person who threw the first brick was a trans person at the Compton’s Riots in San Francisco.

In the case of Stonewall, popular culture wants to believe it was either Sylvia Rivera or Marsha P. Johnson throwing the brick. Marsha has stated on the record that she didn’t arrive until 2 a.m., long after the rioting had started. Sylvia has also jokingly said, “Maybe I threw the second brick.”

But what people don’t realize is that Sylvia and Marsha did something much more important than simply toss a brick and be part of a crowd in a riot. They created a sustainable organization where there had been none before, the worlds first trans organization, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, which was a committee of the Gay Liberation Front, formed during the GLF occupation of NYU’s Weinstein Hall. 

It was Gay Liberation Front’s LGBT Community Center that became STAR’S first home for homeless trans people, and Marsha and Sylvia did it without public funds, training or programs. They created Star House, funded by contributions from the GLF and GY, and with the GLF members doing carpentry and electric work to make their new home habitable. In doing so, the GLF began to create and shape a community that would offer resources for its most disenfranchised.

There was no segment of society that didn’t feel the GLF’s presence that first year after Stonewall. With demonstrations, disruptions and sit-ins, we fought back against media silence, police oppression and the disdain of universities. We did so by creating a grassroots-inclusive and community-wide campaign.

We would no longer accept a segregated or isolated movement. So we joined forces and marched to free Angela Davis, a black activist. We marched with the Young Lords, who fought against oppression of the Latino community, and the women of Gay Liberation Front were also major voices in the women’s movement.

We made sure to speak to the straight community as often as we could, and allied with as many who would have us. One of my fondest memories as a member of Gay Youth was going to speak at Oceanside Senior High School with Tony Russamono and Doug Carver. The school newspaper, The Spider Press (a copy which is now among the Smithsonian’s papers) wrote the front page headline: “Gay Activist Lecture: They are not Neurotic.”

Gay Liberation Front poster
Gay Liberation Front poster Mark Segal/Peter Hujar

How the spirit of the Gay Liberation Front spread (and eventually split)

In 1970, the people who had marched in Philadelphia from 1965 to 1969 wanted to do the same old thing again. But those of us in New York wanted no part of it. We didn’t want the status quo. We wanted to resist the status quo, and that is what we marched for. This was a gay liberation march, not a plea for acceptance. The title said it all: “Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day March” (GSGLD march). That proposal was presented by Ellen Broidy a member of the Gay Liberation Front along with Craig Rodwell and Fred Sargeant. Gay Pride was Born.

With the close of that first year between Stonewall and CSGLD, there was now a community in place, and it wasn’t just in New York.

Chapters of the Gay Liberation Front popped up in most major cities, as did Gay Youth organizations. In Los Angeles they created a west cost version of the CSGLD march committee, and as far as London the new movement was felt.

That break from those Philadelphia marches was now complete and a new movement had been born. From less than 100 marching in Philadelphia in 1969, the Gay Liberation Front had inspired a national movement now in the tens of thousands across the country in just one year.

During the life of the Gay Liberation Front, we fought the former leadership of our community. The closeted LGBT middle class wanted nothing to do with us since our motto, as the famous poster stated, was “COME OUT.” At that time, 99% of our community was not ready to come out — we were.

Nevertheless, we had our disagreements. Infighting in the organization caused a split and created the Gay Activists Alliance, which became popular with historians since it went back to those respectable looking homosexuals that they preferred represent our community and which were overwhelmingly white men.

They didn’t want those of us in the Gay Liberation Front who were drag, youth, street kids and every shade of radicalism. Want to see the difference between Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activists Alliance? Simply Google a photo of Gay Activist Alliance meetings and note the ocean of cisgender white men. Sadly, the Gay Liberation Front’s inclusive community was not to be seen again for a long time. Our community returned once again to assimilation.

The Gay Liberation Front planted seeds that continue growing even today

But here is the simple fact: the Gay Liberation Front built the community and equality movement we have today. From its earliest achievements from creating the nation’s first gay youth organization, trans organizations, and the first Gay Pride, GLF members went on to become the founders of PFLAG and Lambda Legal.

They founded the Callen-Lorde Clinic, an episodic care program housing the nation’s first community-based HIV clinic, and The Rainbow Book Fair, the longest-running LGBT book fair and largest LGBT book event in the country. They founded the Gay Press Association, the nation’s first LGBT media organization. They were builders of the first official federally funded affordable housing for LGBT seniors and the first to work with elected officials to create LGBT liaison commissions in state and city government.

A meeting of the Gay Liberation Front
A meeting of the Gay Liberation Front Mark Segal

Our members stormed live TV shows to end our community’s invisibility long before Ellen Degeneres or Will and Grace. We went on to organize the first international Gay Youth Conference, the first national LGBT University Student Conference. Members of Gay Youth went on to be founding members of the House of Extravaganza. Identity House, one of the first LGBT peer counseling organizations, counts among its co-founders a GLF member.

Identity House and debates on Phil Donahue by GLF members were a major factor that led to the American Psychological Association changing its nomenclature which pathologized same-sex attraction. Others in GLF were and still are the leading writers on sexual politics, and another member was a leader of The Advocate and Out for 33 years.

There is one thing stands above all else: All of us were out. All of us were unafraid to be brave and define ourselves how we wanted. All of us were steadfast in wading through the unknown and piecing together what we felt we deserved as a community. Gay Liberation Front laid the foundation for what we as a community are today.

There has never been another organization in the LGBT community that has successfully met its core goals so well. We created a community where there was none before. We showed the world that LGBT people get to tell our own story, and this year the members of Gay Liberation Front claimed their rightful place in the story of our community.

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