Toward a Gay Community
July 1, 1971
Happy birthday, gay liberation, happy birthday to you! The baby is two years old and the song is sung by Martha Shelley and Allen Young and Judy from New York’s defunct Gay Liberation Front, under a Christopher Street banner, a stone’s throw from the old Stonewall Inn, so long ago and far away. Helping along with the celebration are about 6000 birthday guests. They’ve come from Toronto and Washington and Hartford and Columbus and Amherst and all five boroughs and flood Christopher Street from Sheridan Square almost to the river, Sunday under a cloudless pansexual sky. Early gay liberation faces — Jerry Hooze and Craig Rodwell and Marty Nixon — have come out for the celebration. Young serious politicos. wearing granny glasses and toting knapsacks, buss the likes of Eben Clark and Jean De Vente. “Happy birthday. Isn’t it beautiful?” “Beautiful, just beautiful.” Happy birthday, happy birthday, happy birthday.
Sylvia of STAR is there — and Marsha and Bebe and Natasha. Yellow balloons on long strings are printed GAY and tied to wrists and headbands. Occasionally one breaks away and flies up, up, over, liberated, free, and gone. Jill Johnston is there. She gives me a bear hug and says “Sometimes I wish I were a male homosexual,” as Pete Fisher and Marc Rubin pass by, arm in arm, caressing. Kate Millett arrives. “This is a very beautiful day,” she says. “A very important day. It’s fantastic, this whole sense of freedom and euphoria. I feel a sense of common identity with everyone here. It’s a strong feeling and happy and fine.”
Media, media everywhere. Global Village with a crew of four, and the Life and Newsweek reporters who’ve been following us around these many weeks, and radio and TV networks, and amateur camera buffs shooting away at the crowd and at each other. Out of the closets, into the media, and into your living room. America, beware!
The big parade starts. A marshal shouts, “Keep behind the Christopher Street Liberation sign!” Somewhere back there, a contingent from Perth Amboy totes a sheet spray-painted and stenciled: “A dream is a dream, reality is real, open the door, to the way that we feel.” I see a Gay Jewish Revolution banner and the Gay Activists Alliance lambda and all those lambda shirts.
As the march progresses up Sixth Avenue, past Foam Rubber City, past the flower and plant block, the up-front banners move farther behind and the three city blocks of marchers become nine city blocks. By 34th Street, we’re up to 15. There are no incidents. Some sidewalk observers heed the call and join us. At a 42nd Street construction site, three hardhats make ha-ha gestures. At 45th Street, an observer remarks, “I’m getting to feel like a real creep here with my husband and baby. I’m getting to feel abnormal.” Near the Statler Hilton a group of young women sing “I enjoy being a dyke.” “Join us, join us,” shout the marchers to the bellhops and hotel guests. “Beyond the moon is Lesbos,” says a frizzle-haired woman to a passing hooker. “This is a flexatone — the first gay musical instrument,” says a flexatonist striking his pocket-sized instrument. Two, four, six, eight, organize and liberate.
The parade enters Central Park. Michael, in a Billie Burke-Wizard of Oz outfit with additional silver cardboard wings, tells the cameramen, “I’m just showing the straight people what a good fairy is.” Miss Philadelphia does a belly dance near the zoo entrance. “I’m here because it’s my day,” she says, “and I want to be beautiful” and the beads and tassles shake, and click, click go the cameras.
We enter Sheep Meadow. An army of 200 or 300 more gay people enter from another pathway. We climb a hill. From a vantage point I see hundreds upon hundreds of shirtless men, braless women, give me a G, give me an A, give me a Y. They float, they dance, arms interwoven with arms, fists in the air. The Christopher Street banner lies limp on the grass. No one walks over it. The man next to me is crying.
Small vignettes are played on the grass. The woman with daisies in her hair is plucking out a baroque something on a guitar. An Indian headband falls off someone’s head and a stranger picks it up and gets a kiss in return. Five naked men pass by and one says. “Why don’t you take off your shorts? Don’t be embarrassed, don’t be shy.” Tarot cards are read. And Jim Owles says, “I’ve never seen so many beautiful faces in my life.”
Three days prior to the march, I spotted Bob Kohler in front of The Voice office. Kohler is one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front. He’s quieted down lately, seldom seen at marches, no longer a fixture outside the late Women’s House of Detention with bis dog and his pamphlets. He’s kvetching less and looking better.
“I lived, ate, slept, shit gay liberation for two years,” he said. “I was leading a closed, incestuous existence. A few months ago, I just dropped out. Now I’m getting myself back into the mainstream and putting my body where my mouth was. You can talk gay lib forever and picket until you’re blue in the face, but the time has come for me to relate to the department store clerks, the sanitation people, the workers of the world who don’t know ‘movement,’ to try to raise their consciousness.
“I no longer feel the need for an organization as a crutch. Gay Liberation Front in New York, as it had been set up, is no longer in existence. It was used as a springboard from which other organizations and collectives were formed. We have a Gay Activists Alliance now, but for anyone to hang on to an organization is wrong. I’d like to see the movement use its sixth sense like an animal and kick its young out when they’re ready and push them into something better. Encourage people to leave the great father and go into the world and relate.”
Gay Activists Alliance, with its constitution and its structure and its committees that range from Theatre to Municipal Government, is about the most popular of the gay groups in New York. Originally set up as an activist organization, it still specializes in political zaps, but has lately broadened its scope to encompass the social and sociological aspects of gay liberation. Its members are primarily white, young, middle-class males, gung ho enthusiasts, politically middle to radical middle. GAA is into reform within the system, fuck the slow motion methods, it’s been too long, we’ve had it already, gay power, gay identity, now.
Far more conservative are the Mattachine Society and West Side Discussion Groups, both primarily male, both “service” organizations. There are campus groups, like Gay People of Columbia, and spin-off groups, like Gay Youth, for the under-21s, and the Beyond family, a consciousness-raising group made up of a dozen past and present GAA members. There are radical groups like STAR (the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries) and the Gay Revolution Party, which believes that the root of oppression is in the structure of sexual castes — the dominant male and the woman his possession — and that liberation depends on the breaking down of the caste system and the smashing of sexism.
Gay women’s groups span the political spectrum. Gay Women’s Liberation Front believes the gay revolution is part of the revolution of all oppressed people. The key to Radical Lesbians is living new radical life styles and finding new ways to relating to women. Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) functions as an umbrella organization. It recently had two palace revolutions. It’s re-inventing itself in an effort to end a hierarchy of power and is now made up of a series or nine or 10 collectives with two coordinators.
The DOB Center on Prince Street is now called the Lesbian Center and serves the entire lesbian political structure. The center has a lesbian school where courses are given by members of all three groups on carpentry and creative writing and collective theatre and dog training, among other things.
Sidney Abbott, writer, active in the gay women’s movement, says that as a result of the re-structuring “young women who were conservative are relating to the radical women and loosening up and getting more progressive. For instance, some radical lesbian women at recent dances stripped from the waist up and danced around in a circle hora style. The purpose of this was to affirm the beauty of being lesbian women. It’s a profound statement about feelings about self, if you take into mind that all women basically don’t like their bodies — their bodies are supposed to be dirty and objects of comments by men. It’s doubly true to lesbians. Even beautiful lesbians find their bodies too fat, too thin, ugly. The positive dance statement was understood by the older women. Last Saturday some of them took off their bras too and joined in. It’s a whole new spirit. The joke going around now is that we think we’re so great we may want to reproduce. GAA may have to start a sperm bank for the women so that we groovy people can make even groovier people.”
The feeling of pride, the methods and means of achieving it, the development of a gay identity, varies from group to group, from individual to individual. Many of the older professionals who regularly attend the West Side Discussion Group’s Wednesday meetings feel a camaraderie exchanging pleasantries at the social hour that follows the discussion. There’s an x-ray ambience over coffee and fig newtons generally missing at the “sex object” haunts, the bars, the baths, the dark corners. The coffee klatsch exchanges about “taste” during the gay pride march and poor Lawrence of Arabia would send a gay activist screaming to his nearest firehouse. But to the doctor and lawyer who are not yet ready to risk a TV close-up with a picket sign, West Side is a push out of the closet, a step from consciousness zero to consciousness one.
The consciousness of homosexuals into a pre-Vietnam war life style could be further heightened by the passage of the fair employment bill sponsored by City Councilmen Burden and Clingan and Scholnick and Weiss, supporting the right of fair employment and fair housing for New York’s estimated 800,000 homosexuals. Discrimination on the basis of one’s private consensual sexual orientation would be illegal. The bill has recently been supported by John Lindsay; it’s also supported by Percy Sutton and Bella Abzug and a strong majority of city councilmen and by a number of important citizens and organizations. But it’s been stagnating in the General Welfare Committee since January — Thomas J. Cuite, vice-chairman and majority leader of the City Council, will not allow the bill to be released.
Richie Amato, head of Gay Activists Alliance Fair Employment Committee (he was Richie X until yesterday — he came out on television in celebration of Gay Pride Week), claims “Cuite promised that if we’d get councilmen outside of Manhattan to support the bill, it would be voted on. We did, and nothlng happened. He said we needed support from each borough. We got the support. Still nothing. Cuite’s decided single-handedly to block the bill. As far as I’m concerned, the democratic process is a fraud, and I’m speaking as a Democratic committeeman.”
All of this past week there’s been pamphleting in the City Hall area to bring attention to the bill. On Thursday night there was a silent candlelight march from the Lesbian and GAA centers to City Hall. On Friday there was more pamphleting, more picketing. At 2 p. m. that day several GAA members tried to enter City Hall to lobby. They were stopped. A melee followed. There was pushing and shoving and the police set up a barrier at the top of the front door steps. There were gay power and justice chants and nine arrests were made. Almost methodically, and perhaps more than coincidentally, four of the nine arrested from a crowd of approximately 80 protesters were four of the five elected GAA officers. Jim Owles, president, was the first pulled in. He had a 3:30 appointment with the Knapp Commission, where he was to report on rumored raids of gay bars scheduled for the weekend. He couldn’t keep the appointment, since he was handcuffed to a chair. Arnie Kantowitz, vice-president, and Steve Krotz, secretary, two of the less vociferous demonstrators, were picked from the crowd. Arthur Evans, the new delegate at large, and five other people were also arrested, all for disorderly conduct. They were taken to a room in the basement of City Hall, kept there for an hour, then transferred to the Fifth Precinct, and four hours later released on vera summonses. Cuite wasn’t around for any of this, nor was the Mayor. I talked to Michael Dontzin, the Mayor’s counsel, however, who assured me that the Mayor urged the passage of the bill but has no control over the calendar of the legislature and suggested that GAA work more on the Council to get the bill passed. Head against a stone wall time. One can only wonder again how much further we have to go to push past the trumped-up excuses — and cant.
Straight-jacket laws, “Fortune and Men’s Eyes” (the boys in the band in jail), and staggered consciousness degrees notwithstanding, there’s a hell of a lot going for the homosexual this year, year 2, going on year 3, Stonewall A. D. The rather recently rented GAA Firehouse is a gay community center from which a gay community and a gay culture are quickly developing. It’s a four-story late 1800s job, located on Wooster Street in the SoHo district. In addition to the general meetings that drag out every Thursday evening, there’s committee work done throughout the week, symposiums, sensitivity workshops, and the Saturday night liberation dances, a heaven cross between Woodstock Nation and Dante’s Inferno.
At the Saturday dance a week before Gay Pride Week, the joint was jumping with some women and hundreds and hundreds of men, swaying their bodies, stamping their feet, spouting movement talk and little nothings that could hardly be heard over the amplifying system that blared acid rock. Four floors of new free. The main dance takes place on the ground floor. In the basement, the air is cooler, the place less packed, the dancing less intensified. Tins of beer in iced garbage cans stand free form, and lambda-shirted attendants beckon one and all to help themselves free of charge. The second floor is laid out with bridge tables and chairs and there’s a coffee nook at the side of the room, a “collapse” area away from the dance floor, a place to chat and dig. On the third floor, a video tape indoctrines a spellbound audience with a showing of the March to Albany for Fair Employment.
Outside the Firehouse, there’s a line from here to Radio City. Two attendants at the door are not allowing anyone in because no one is coming out. Kissing is hello at the Firehouse, a handshake taboo, dancing the liberation connection. The firehouse dance that evening bit into the take of two of the three Village bars I visited. A bartender at Danny’s said their business was down 75 per cent from normal on Saturdays since the GAA dances began. An assistant manager at the Stud said their business was off 20 to 40 per cent. A bartender at the Triangle said “we don’t get the crowd that goes to those dances. The dances don’t affect us. Nothing GAA does affects us.” None of these bars, incidentally, are dance bars.
A fashion show took place at the Firehouse during Gay Pride Week. It was put together by Ron Diamond who emceed in a top hat with pink plumes, sequined butterflies, open white fluff shirt, and shorts. Ron’s message, repeated over and over by the men and women models who paraded down the Firehouse steps and posed on a makeshift stage in rhumba outfits and bird of paradise feathers and leather and chiffon and satin and lace, is that gay people are now expressing their inner feelings in costumes that are an extension of the inner self. We are no longer hiding behind the jackets and ties and prissy dresses of the ’50s. If we care to be outrageous in our unisex clothes, in our role reversal outfits, in our see-through caftans and little foxes, right on. If battery-lighted earrings are what we like, flash those lights. If a batman cape from the Pampas suits our fancy, spread those wings. If studs and leather are our scene, flaunt our scene. Ron claims it’s too bad we have to wear clothes at all, we’re beautiful without them. But since we wear them, wear what we feel. What we feel is what we are.
This week also included a drama titled “Requiem” put on by the Theatre Group. It had to do with the crucifixion of Christ and it was performed earnestly and some good wine and cookies were served as part of the proceedings and it ended with a gay power chant that spelled out JESUS (give me a J, give me an E … ).
“What, if anything, can the arts do for gay liberation?” was the question posed by the moderator at a roundtable rap attended by Jill Johnston and Stuart Byron and yours truly from The Voice and Merle Miller who confessed in the Times and Jean-Claude van Itallie who wrote “America, Hurrah!” and Charles Ludlam, Jeff Duncan, Gordon Merrick, and John Button. The answer was bounced around a dozen different ways and the discussion fragmented into a dozen different discussions. When a homosexual artist makes it big in a heterosexual society, he makes it big as a heterosexual. Why the camouflage? Merle Miller said, “It would have been an immense help to me as a kid to know that Tchaikovsky was gay. Had I known that, it could conceivably have changed my life.” Out of the closets and into the arts. Charles Ludlam said “homosexuals have a responsibility to sabotage seriousness,” and shortly after disrobed, and he might as well have lighted a cigarette since no one paid any mind to the action. Jon-Jon, a movement staple, zapped the symposium for saying too many words and said the demonstrations as art forms are beautiful and that the transvestites and the street people are the real gay artists. Jeff Duncan said, “I can’t come out in my heart until the social structure is broadened.” Miller said, “The reason for coming out is essentially personal. To me, it’s leading your life fully so your art can be full.” The moderator said, “We’re degenerating,” and Ludlam said, “If we don’t degenerate, who will?”
The man who heads the Culture Committee said, “Building a gay community is important. We discover as we do it that the guilt has been lifted, and we find loneliness there. The loneliness will disappear when we finally become a community.”
The community will come. It will spring forth from the Lesbian Center and from the Firehouse and from the dozens of parlor discussions and coffee klatsches and tete-a-tetes on park benches and shout-outs at committee meetings. The community will emanate self-respect and self-pride, those little things we want from gay liberation which ultimately come from ourselves.
Coming out is a beginning. Changing straight-jacket laws is a beginning. Zapping is a beginning. Marching to Sheep Meadow is a beginning. Dancing our way to liberation is a beginning. But only a part of it. Consciousness-raising is another part. The day is coming when all of the parts will fit together and our history and experiences will be different from what they are now. Soon? Maybe. There are a hell of a lot of us working on it.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on June 25, 2020