The Gay liberation movement of the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s urged lesbians and gay men to “come out“, publicly revealing their sexuality to family, friends and colleagues as a form of activism, and to counter shame with gay pride. Coming out and Pride parades have remained an important part of modern LGBT movements, and the visibility of lesbian and gay communities has continued to grow. The movement involved the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in North America, Western Europe, and Australia and New Zealand.
The phrase gay liberation is somewhat synonymous with the contemporary gay rights movement and broader LGBT social movements, but following the academic use, this article is about movements of a particular historical period that shared similar goals and strategies. Specifically, the word ‘gay’ was preferred to previous designations such as homosexual or homophile; some saw ‘gay’ as a rejection of the false dichotomy heterosexual/homosexual.
Gay lib is also known for its links to the counterculture of the time, and for the Gay liberationists’ intent to transform fundamental institutions of society such as gender and thefamily. In order to achieve such liberation, consciousness raising and direct action were employed. By the late 1970s, the radicalism of Gay liberation was eclipsed by a return to a more formal movement that espoused gay and lesbian civil rights.
Origins and history of movement
Although the Stonewall riots in 1969 in New York are popularly remembered as the spark that produced a new movement, the origins predate this iconic event. Certainly, militant resistance to police bar-raids was nothing new — as early as 1725, customers fought off a police raid at a London homosexual/transgender molly house. Organised movements, particularly in Western Europe, have been active since the 19th century, producing publications, forming social groups and campaigning for social and legal reform. The movements of the period immediately preceding Gay lib, from the end of World War II to the late 1960s, are known collectively as the Homophile movement. The homophile movement has been described as “politically conservative”, although their calls for social acceptance of same-sex love and transsexuality were seen as radical fringe views by the dominant culture of the time.
Early 1960s New York, under the Wagner administration, was beset with harassment against the gay community, particularly by the NYPD. Homosexuals were seen as the subject of a drive to rid the city of undesirables. Subsequently, only the Mafia had the power and financial resources to run gay bars and clubs. By 1965, influenced by Frank Kameny’s addresses in the early 1960s, Dick Leitsch, the president of the New York Mattachine Society, advocated direct action, and the group staged the first public homosexualdemonstrations and picket lines in the 1960s. Kameny, founder of Mattachine Washington in 1961, had advocated militant action reminiscent of the black civil rights campaign, while also arguing for the morality of homosexuality.
The New York State Liquor Authority did not allow homosexuals to be served in licensed bars in the state under penalty of revocation of the bar’s license to operate. This denial of public accommodation had been confirmed by a court decision in the early 1940s. A legal study, commissioned by Mattachine New York on the city’s alcohol beverage law concluded there was no law prohibiting homosexuals gathering in bars but did prohibit disorderly behaviour in bars, which the SLA had been interpreting as homosexual behaviour. Leitsch announced to the press three members of Mattachine New York would turn up at a restaurant on the lower east side, announce their homosexuality and upon refusal of service make a complaint to the SLA. This came to be known as the “Sip In” and only succeeded at the third attempt[clarification needed] in the Julius Bar (New York City) in Greenwich Village. The “Sip In”, though, did gain extensive media attention and the resultant legal action against the SLA eventually prevented them from revoking licenses on the basis of homosexual solicitation in 1967.
In the years before 1969, the organization also was effective in getting New York City to change its policy of police entrapment of gay men, and to rescind its hiring practices designed to screen out gay people. The significance of the new John Lindsay administration and the use of the media by Mattachine New York should not be underestimated in ending police entrapment though. Lindsay would later gain a reputation for placing much focus on quelling social troubles in the city and his mayorship coinciding with the end of entrapment should be seen as significant. By late 1967, a New York group called the Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN), essentially a one-man operation on the part of Craig Rodwell, was already espousing the slogans “Gay Power” and “Gay is Good” in its publication HYMNAL.
The 1960s was a time of social upheaval in the West, and the sexual revolution and counterculture influenced changes in the homosexual subculture, which in the U.S. included bookshops, publicly sold newspapers and magazines, and a community center. It was during this time that Los Angeles saw its first big gay movement. In 1967, the night of New Years, several plainclothes police officers infiltrated the Black Cat Tavern. After arresting several patrons for kissing to celebrate the occasion, the officers began beating several patrons and ultimately arrested 16 more bar attendees which included 3 bartenders. This created a riot in the immediate area, ultimately bringing about a more civil demonstration of over 200 attendees several days later protesting the raids. The protest was met by squadrons of armed policemen. It was from this event that the publicationThe Advocate and organization Metropolitan Community Church (led by Pastor Troy Perry) was born.
Few areas in the U.S. saw a more diverse mix of subcultures than Greenwich Village, which was host to the gay street youth. A group of young, effeminate runaways, shunned by their families, society, and the gay community, they reflected the countercultural movement more than any other homosexual group. Refusing to hide their homosexuality, they were brutalised, rebellious tearaways who took drugs, fought, shoplifted and hustled older gay men in order to survive. Their age, behaviour, feminine attire and conduct left them isolated from the rest of the gay scene, but living close to the streets, they made the perfect warriors for the imminent Stonewall Riots. These emerging social possibilities, combined with the new social movements such as Black Power, women’s liberation, and the student insurrection of May 1968 in France, heralded a new era of radicalism. After the Stonewall riots in New York City in late June 1969 many within the emerging gay liberation movement in the U.S. saw themselves as connected with the New Left rather than the established homophile groups of the time. The words “gay Liberation” echoed “women’s liberation”; the Gay Liberation Front consciously took its name from the National Liberation Fronts ofVietnam and Algeria; and the slogan “Gay Power”, as a defiant answer to the rights-oriented homophile movement, was inspired by Black Power, which was a response to the civil rights movement.
In the fall of 1965, Adrian Ravarour and Billy Garrison founded Vanguard, an LGBT gay liberation youth organization in San Francisco, California. At first Ravarour began organizing on the street, and he asked the LGBT youth if they would demonstrate for equality to end discrimination. Then Ravarour was introduced to Billy Garrison and they developed two proposals. Ravarour and Garrison held their first meetings at El Rosa Hotel with Joel Williams and Dixie Joseph Russo. Then, Ravarour asked Reverend Laird Sutton for the use of the Intersection venue where Ravarour was on staff. Reverend Sutton declined, but recommended that they seek Glide Methodist Church’s facilities; however Glide informed them that non-affiliated outside groups required sponsorship of a Glide member, so Garrison gained Phyllis Lyon as their sponsor for their use of Glide’s community meeting room for several months. At the public meetings Garrison proposed that the community air their differences to resolve problems and to live in peace, whereas Ravarour proposed civil rights actions to demonstrate for acceptance, equality and an end of discrimination. But, the first two town hall meetings ended in violence by non-gays, so the kids adopted Ravarour’s plan. The Vanguard meetings continued at Glide for months as Ravarour entrained the LGBT youth in principles of Rousseau’s Social Contract, Payne’s Rights of Man, The Bill of Rights, and Dr. King’s civil rights movement – so the youth would gain a philosophy to act from and to become a force of its own. Vanguard advertized coming elections and newcomer JP Maurat was elected president who edited the Vanguard newsletter and was their spokesman. In April and May 1966 Vanguard members swept the streets, demonstrated against businesses and the Golden Gate Theater that had discriminated against them. Some conservative congregants were opposed to Vanguard meeting at Glide, and to mitigate relations, Reverend Ed Hansen from Glide’s Urban Ministry program attended several Vanguard meetings as an observer and occasional adviser. The last week of May 1966, the Reverend Hansen brought an offer from Glide to sponsor and fund Vanguard.
By June 1966, Vanguard accepted Glide’s offer of sponsorship and Glide encouraged Vanguard to apply for non-profit organizational status. Thus, Vanguard became Vanguard Incorporated, and it expanded its membership and sought EOC funding. In July, the Reverend Larry Mamiya replaced Reverend Hansen as the new youth minister of the Urban Ministry Program and he became a weekly adviser to Vanguard, and then Reverend Mamiya initiated the popular weekly same-sex dance Socials that created a sense of community throughout the LGBT youth of San Francisco. In July, Vanguard picketed Compton’s Cafeteria because a Vanguard member was refused service and told to leave. In August, discrimination against Vanguard members caused both 1) the Doggie Diner Sit-In when Dixie Joseph Russo was refused service, and 2) the Compton’s Cafeteria riot when a cashier insulted Vanguard members. Winter 1966-67, Glide and Vanguard’s president JP Maurat split apart and Maurat withdrew Vanguard from Glide without a membership vote. The Vanguard members did not want to disassociate from Glide’s affiliation and support because Glide had been a nourishing safe haven that had allowed them to organize and develop faster than they could have done without its assistance; and they appreciated its ministers and had bonded with Reverends Hansen and Mamiya, and were grateful to Reverend Mamiya who had founded the dance Socials and then, founded the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic.
Consequently, by January 1967, Glide and the Vanguard members had set upon new directions. Ravarour renamed the Vanguard group as the Gay and Lesbian Center, and Glide began a new Vanguard program, which it called the Hospitality House, that exists today. The Gay and Lesbian Center acknowledged this history, and it existed until the mid-1970s at 330 Grove Street until the Black Panthers seized the building. It was years before another Gay and Lesbian Center was founded in San Francisco. (Noteworthy, Vanguard Magazine became an independent LGBT zine for a dozen years under Keith who had joined Vanguard in September 1966 and was elected editor.)
On March 28, 1969 in San Francisco, Leo Laurence (the editor of Vector, magazine of the United States’ largest homophile organization, the Society for Individual Rights) called for “the Homosexual Revolution of 1969,” exhorting gay men and lesbians to Join the Black Panthers and other left-wing groups and to “come out” en masse. Laurence was expelled from the organization in May for characterizing members as “timid” and “middle-class, uptight, bitchy old queens.”
He then co-founded a militant group, the Committee for Homosexual Freedom, with Gale Whittington–a young man who had been fired from States Steamship Company for being openly gay, after his photo appeared in the Berkley Barb, next to the headline “HOMOS, DON’T HIDE IT!”, the revolutionary article by Leo Laurence. The same month Carl Wittman, a member of CHF, began writing Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto, which would later be described as “the bible of Gay Liberation”. It was first published in the San Francisco Free Press and distributed nation-wide, all the way to New York City, as was the Berkeley Barb with Leo’s stories on CHF’s Gay Guerilla militant initiatives.
The GLF’s statement of purpose explained:
“We are a revolutionary group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society’s attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature.”
In December 1969 the Gay Liberation Front voted a cash donation to the Black Panthers, some of whose leaders had expressed the most virulent homophobic sentiments. Prominent GLF members were also strong supporters of Fidel Castro’s regime. These actions cost GLF, a numerically small group, popular support in New York City, and some of its members left to form the Gay Activists’ Alliance. The GLF virtually disappeared from the New York City political scene after the first Stonewall commemoration parade in 1970.
Mark Segal, a member of GLF from 1969–71, continues to push gay rights in various venues. Many refer to Segal as the dean of American gay journalism. As a pioneer of the local gay press movement, he was one of the founders and former president of both The National Gay Press Association and the National Gay Newspaper Guild. He also is the founder and publisher of the award winning Philadelphia Gay News which recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. As a young gay activist, Segal understood the power of media. In 1973 Segal disrupted the CBS evening news with Walter Cronkite, an event covered in newspapers across the country and viewed by 60% of American households, many seeing or hearing about homosexuality for the first time. Before the networks agreed to put a stop to censorship and bias in the news division, Segal went on to disrupt The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, and Barbara Walters on the Today show. The trade newspaper Variety claimed that Segal had cost the industry $750,000 in production, tape delays and lost advertising revenue. Aside from publishing, Segal has also reported on gay life from far reaching places as Lebanon, Cuba, and East Berlin during the fall of the Berlin Wall. He and Bob Ross, former publisher of San Francisco’s Bar Area Reporter represented the gay press and lectured in Moscow and St. Petersburg at Russia’s first openly gay conference, referred to as Russia’s Stonewall. He recently coordinated a network of local gay publications nationally to celebrate October as gay history month, with a combined print run reaching over a half million people. His determination to gain acceptance and respect for the gay press can be summed up by his 15 year battle to gain membership in the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association one of the nation’s oldest and most respected organizations for daily and weekly newspapers. The 15 year battled ended after the Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette joined forces and called for PGN’s membership. Today Segal sits on the Board of Directors of PNA. In 2005, he produced Philadelphia’s official July 4 concert for a crowd estimated at 500,000 people. The star-studded show featured Sir Elton John, Pattie Labelle, Brian Adams, and Rufus Wainwright. On a recent anniversary of PGN an editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer stated “Segal and PGN continue to step up admirably to the challenge set for newspapers by H.L. Menchen. “To afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted.”
By the summer of 1970, groups in at least eight American cities were sufficiently organized to schedule simultaneous events commemorating the Stonewall riots for the last Sunday in June. The events varied from a highly political march of three to five thousand in New York and thousands more at parades in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. While groups using the Gay Liberation Front name appeared around the U.S., in New York that organization was replaced totally by the Gay Activist Alliance. Groups with a “Gay Lib” approach began to spring up around the world, such as Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP, Inc.) in Australia and the British Gay Liberation Front. The lesbian groupLavender Menace was also formed in the U.S in response to both the male domination of other Gay Lib groups and the anti-lesbian sentiment in the Women’s Movement. Lesbianism was advocated as a feminist choice for women, and the first currents of lesbian separatism began to emerge.
In August of the same year, Huey Newton, the leader of the Black Panthers, publicly expressed his support for the Gay liberation, contrary to previous statements by Panther leaders and Women’s liberation movements.
Although a short-lived group, the Comite Pederastique de la Sorbonne, had meetings during the student uprising of May 1968, the real public debut of the modern gay liberation movement in France occurred on 10 March 1971, when a group of lesbians from the Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR) disrupted a live radio broadcast entitled “Homosexuality, This Painful Problem”. The expert guests, including a Catholic priest, were suddenly interrupted by a group of lesbians from the audience, yelling, “It’s not true, we’re not suffering! Down with the heterocops!” The protesters stormed the stage, one young woman taking hold of the priest’s head and pounding it repeatedly against the table. The control room quickly cut off the microphones and switched to recorded music.