THE NY GAY LIBERATION FRONT SPEAKS:
FORGOTTEN LGBTQ ACTIONS: 1970
This oral history features members from the New York Gay Liberation Front, the pioneering gay activist group founded in the aftermath of the June 28th, 1969, Stonewall Rebellion. Before Stonewall, gay rights were advanced by homophile organizations, which preached assimilation equals acceptance. They seemingly preferred a supplicant's role rather than reveling in everyone's individuality. The Gay Liberation Front changed that. They coined out of the closets and into the streets. Shortly after their formation, Gay Liberation Fronts sprouted up worldwide and kickstarted a mass movement.
MARTHA SHELLEY started with the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian homophile group. She was too radical for the group and went on to co-found the Gay Liberation Front.
FLAVIA RANDO was an early member of the Gay Liberation Front in New York. She was instrumental in the founding of the Lesbian Herstory archive, which came to fruition because she and others found history “disappearing as quickly as it was being made.”
ELLEN BROIDY proposed the idea of the First Pride March as a representative of the NYU Gay Student Liberation Group.
PERRY BRASS edited the Gay Liberation Front Magazine Come Out!, and went on to co-found the first gay health network on the East Coast, which has since transitioned into Callen-Lorde. Callen-Lorde provides LGBTQ health services to 18,000 people annually in the greater New York area.
MARK SEGAL actually participated in the Stonewall Rebellion. He was pivotal in their Gay Youth Caucus. In 1976, he founded the Philadelphia Gay News, which as of 2022, has a circulation of 25,000 copies printed weekly.
MARK HORN was one of the youngest members of the Gay Liberation Front. He was also involved with their Gay Youth Caucus. He later joined the Gay Activists Alliance, one of the numerous groups that rose out of the Gay Liberation Front.
Ari Shapiro moderating a panel with Mark Segal, Ellen Broidy, Perry Brass, Donna Gottachalk, Allen Young, Karla Jay, Knoebel, and Martha Shelley, 2019.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Martha, can you bring us back to walking around the Village and seeing The Stonewall Rebellion? What did it spark in you?
Martha Shelley: Well, what happened was I was the public spokesperson for Daughters of Bilitis. One of my jobs—I was 25 at the time of Stonewall, and I'd joined Daughters of Bilitis when I was 23. I was young, didn’t know where I was going in life and was one of the few people in the group willing to be out publicly—I had a bunch of crappy little clerical jobs and wasn't worried about losing them. The other members of Daughters of Bilitis were all in the closet.
Anyway, I was with a couple of women who wanted to form a Daughters of Bilitis chapter, and we passed by this bunch of people. It was Saturday night, June 28th, 1969. There was a group of young people who were throwing things at cops. I thought, "Oh, well, you know, another anti-war riot" because I'd been in several of them. I wasn't about to take my tourist friends into that. So, we walked on by. I had no idea that the place we were passing was called The Stonewall Inn.
The following Monday morning, I learned what it was. I immediately called Jean Powers, who was running the Daughters of Bilitis and said, "We’ve got to have a protest march." Well, she was in the closet because of her computer job. She said, "Call Dick Leitsch," the head of the Mattachine Society, “if Mattachine agrees, we'll sponsor it together." So, I called him, and he said I should come to a big meeting that they were having. It was the Thursday night after The Stonewall Riots.
I presented the idea to the membership at the hall they had rented. There were maybe 400 guys, the one woman member of Mattachine, and me. I proposed the march, and everybody said yes. They were all for it. They all raised their hands. A small group of us met again the following Saturday, one week after the Stonewal Riots. The idea was to plan the march, and in our little planning committee, we were all half drunk on beer—it was a hot July afternoon. In that meeting, I’ll never forget, someone said, "Gay Liberation Front." I went, "That's it! That's it! We're the Gay Liberation Front," and that's what we became.
The first march occurred on Sunday, July 27th, one month after the riots. I had been pretty scared the night before. I thought of Dr. King's assassination and how many people hated us. The fear was gone when I arrived in Washington Square Park. I don't know why.
Marty Robinson, who had been in Mattachine, and I led 400 people around Greenwich Village. Then we held a rally in Sheridan Square Park, across the street from Stonewall. Later, some of the marchers said this was the first time they had ever been out in public, out in the sunshine. According to the police report I read some years later, the undercover cops who kept an eye on us estimated that there were 400 marchers. The reporter for The Village Voice said 500. Well, once we'd all gathered for the rally, Marty got up on a drinking fountain and made a short speech. I jumped up next and spoke. I have no idea what we said except at the end when I looked at the crowd and said, "We're not here to start another riot. Let's all go home peacefully. It's over for today, but this is just the beginning. We will be back."
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Did Stonewall kickstart something in you? I mean, you have always talked about how you were radical in the Daughters, but—
MARTHA SHELLEY: I was a radical before then. I had been involved in the Women's Movement, and I had been in a lot of anti-war marches. I was a rebel in school, starting in middle school. They called it junior high school then. So, this was a continuation of my life.
Flavia Rando discussing being stoned in the street from Come Out!, 2022.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Flavia, can you bring us back to attending early Gay Liberation Front meetings? What was your feeling when you walked in the door?
FLAVIA RANDO: In February ‘61, only weeks after turning 18, I packed two suitcases and took the train to live with my lover, also 18, in the Lower East Side. Escapees from compulsory heterosexuality, we shared our poverty with previous waves of refugees. I, a closeted first-generation Sicilian American girl, was now a lesbian and outcast queer. In June '69, after reading about Stonewall, we made a pilgrimage to this great active communal resistance site. The first I had heard of after a decade of living as a lesbian. Shortly afterward, we met Martha Shelley on the 14th Street Crosstown Bus. We heard about the GLF that she and others were organizing—this was probably the most pivotal moment in my life—to continue the work of social revolution. "Were we interested?" Martha asked. My exact words were, "I have been waiting for this all my life," and it was true. I had tried the Daughters of Bilitis, but I was too young. I had tried to join the Mattachine Society and the Corduroy Club—I don't know how many of you know about them.
As we entered the first meeting, those gathered looked up, and I felt something shift. By the time I left, I knew I had found the people I had needed and would work with. Our sense of injustice had been stretched to the breaking point, and we would not back down. Most of us felt we had nothing left to lose. We engaged in the struggle from this standpoint. We are nothing like you. We dedicate ourselves to the possibilities of difference for all. With each demonstration and each occupation of the streets, we remapped our understanding of self and a world that had so brutally contained us, witnessing our lives for survival. We challenged, received knowledge, and became our own teachers. Political meetings, rap sessions, and consciousness-raising became our schools.
Even after 53 years, my quality of relief and our shared sense of purpose remains palpable. So, it was really like a miracle for me to walk into the Gay Liberation Front meetings. It changed my whole world. It taught me who I could be, and I have lifelong friends because of it.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: When you said, "We are nothing like you," what did you mean?
FLAVIA RANDO: Well, I was really referring to the Homophile Movement who wanted to be accepted, wanted to be just like straight people except for this tiny little difference that they loved people of their own gender. We said, “No! No!” We had learned about oppression and the kind of brutality that standardization of human beings can lead to, that only certain kinds are accepted. We learned from the Civil Rights Movement. We learned from the Anti-war Movement. We learned from all those who came before us and from our experience. I mean, I had been stoned literally on the street. Not one stone thrown, but many. We knew that cultivating what we had learned and supporting our group would lead to a discovery, a kind of knowledge that had not been put out before. We didn't even really grasp what we knew. To learn, you have to have someone there with you, at least encouraging you some of the time.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: You were stoned on the street? Can you—
FLAVIA RANDO: It wasn't fun. It was really terrifying, being surrounded as a young woman by street gangs and just people on the street who didn't have anything better to do with themselves and taunted and followed and stoned, practically right in front of the building we lived in. It was terrifying. Finally, our apartment was destroyed, and we had to leave. I always thought that unprotected young women who seemed to really care for each other were not going to survive here. The message was, "You were not going to survive here."
Excerpt from the KCET Los Angeles program, "The Gay Way." Ellen Broidy and other lesbian activists in Los Angeles
discuss their work and experiences as lesbians in the early days of the LGBTQ rights movement, courtesy of Don Kilhefner, 1970.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Ellen, you were involved with NYU's Homophile League. NYU's a massive, respected college, but homosexuality was still psychopathological. What was their response to the group?
ELLEN BROIDY: First, I want to say that I loved when Flavia mentioned Martha approaching her on 14th Street. It just proved that we recruited.
Wandering by NYU during the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, you might be lulled into thinking the university was a bastion of gay pride and the fight for gay liberation; they now support rainbow flags, and the bookstore has whole sections dedicated to LGBTQ merch. My new favorite word, I don't even think it's a word, merch. Had I not known the problematic history of NYU's relationship to our movement, I would've felt an enormous sense of pride in my alma mater. The flags and merch, however, obscure the true story of the relationship between the university and our community. A story that involves insensitivity, bias, and the New York City Police Department. While the university eventually acknowledged its missteps, the casual observer would have no sense of what happened in the summer of 1970. This indirectly led NYU to me coming to terms with its vile treatment of our community.
In June of 1970, the Gay Activists Alliance, a group with roots in the Gay Liberation Front, signed a contract to host a dance in the basement of Weinstein Hall, an undergraduate dorm on University Place. The dance was so successful that the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee contracted with the Weinstein Student Organization to hold three additional dances that summer. The first CSLDC dance was also incident free. However, it took the intercession of a New York civil liberties attorney to convince the school administration to honor the contract.
Anticipating problems, the dance organizers approached the NYU Gay Student Liberation Group to deflect any criticism that this event was not sponsored by an official campus organization. As president at that point of NYU Gay Student Liberation, I signed our group on as a co-sponsor. Then, if you'll pardon the expression, the university had a total shit fit and immediately closed all campus facilities to gay social functions until they could convene a panel of psychologists and ministers to assess the damage the presence of queer people in the Weinstein basement might cause to impressionable undergrads.
After a short demonstration in front of the dorm, the university permitted a small dance party to take place on the evening of August 28th but retained the ban on LGBTQ social functions on any NYU property. In late September, in direct response to the ban, members of Gay Students Liberation took over Weinstein Hall. I walked Uptown to the Gay Liberation Front Sunday meeting at the Church of Holy Apostles and urged my GLF sisters and brothers to leave the meeting and join us. Eager to act, dozens of GLFers accompanied me back to Weinstein, collecting more supporters along the way.
The occupation absolutely outraged the university administration. Who wasn't outraged? The young residents of Weinstein for whom this action became a defining moment of their college experience. GLF did not just occupy the space; they turned it into a classroom by holding workshops on liberation, gay and otherwise, engaging constructively with students who thought this was the most thrilling way possible to start their college careers and encouraging everyone to question authority. Frustrated by our defiance and stunned by the student support for our action, campus officials summoned the dreaded Tactical Police Force to eject us from the building. Confronted by heavily armed riot police, we had little choice but to disperse, but we left our mark. 53 years after the fact, NYU discussed placing a plaque on the dorm commemorating our community's show of strength and complete defiance.
I almost got expelled. I was threatened because I was the one name they had. I went and sat very politely in the dean's office. We talked it through. He told me everything that was wrong with me, and I continued with my education. Patience, of course. We started the group on our own and then found a wonderful man who unfortunately succumbed to AIDS named Fred Malkemes, who taught at The American Language Institute. He stepped forward and said he would be the faculty sponsor for your group, which gave us a mailbox, allowed us to book rooms for meetings, and allowed us to exist. So, in some ways, it was a bunch of brave and slightly foolish young people and one extraordinarily brave faculty member who stepped forward and said, "I'm with you."
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Why did NYU consider y'all a threat?
ELLEN BROIDY: Because everybody considered us a threat at that point. There were serious psychologists and ministers trying to figure out whether we would irreparably harm some kid from Ohio. I trust that we did, and they're better off for it.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Did you feel psychopathological for a while?
ELLEN BROIDY: No, never. Never. I should also add something. I indicated that the Gay Activists Alliance was an offshoot of the Gay Liberation Front, as was STAR, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera formed STAR in the Weinstein basement during the takeover and occupation. So, lots of good came from sitting in that dark basement.
Perry Brass with Melahn Cristalle at a fundraiser for The LGBTQ History Project by unknown, 2022.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Perry, do you mind talking about some of the actions, being on the street, fighting?
PERRY BRASS: Well, first, I have to say this is so wonderful. I am so heartened and moved by everything I've heard. During my three years in the Gay Liberation Front, I was involved in many actions. Actions were our term for confronting the dominant, homophobic, racist, and/or sexist power. It could be picketing The Village Voice because they refused to run the word gay in a GLF ad, an action against a gay bar that refused to admit trans people, a protest against the Catholic Church, a homophobic college, or a total police confrontation, which happened a lot.
On a hot August night in 1970 in the West Village, after marching in a picket line into Times Square against police harassment of gay men in bars, GLF men and women were forced to hurry on foot Downtown. On 8th Street near Bleecker Street, swarms of cops with nightsticks were cracking the skulls of several GLF brothers, some of whom were black. Big riot lines were set up, and a complete theater of confrontation happened. Several GLF brothers fought back to protect each other. Bob Bland scissor kicked a cop in the head who was grabbing one of us. Our blood was on the street. Several of my GLF brothers smeared it onto their faces and then marched down Christopher Street with it on them.
A year later, in late April 1971, I was in Washington, D.C., for the famous May Day Demonstrations. 150,000 demonstrators descended on D.C. for a weekend to shut down the Capital of the US, an idea conceived by Rennie Davis in the Vietnam Moratorium Committee. The Vietnam War was going full blast, slaughtering thousands of Vietnamese and hundreds of GIs daily. A tent city was set up in West Potomac Park with us divided into legions from every state and group: a feminist legion, a lesbian legion, and a gay legion.
This was the first complete gathering of the gay male tribe, 150 gay men from GLFs all over the country coordinating with the Vietnam Moratorium Committee. The next morning, we were routed out of our tents at 4:00 AM, and the Capitol Police and the National Guard were going to arrest us. Three times during the day before the May Day shutdown, we found shelter in churches and local homes. It cost the US government a million dollars a minute to stay in Vietnam. If we could shut down Washington for a full day, imagine how much the government would lose and how many fewer bombs would be dropped on Vietnam.
About a dozen gay men and I were posted at a central commuter bridge along with hundreds of protesters. We stopped rush hour traffic for about an hour, and then the cops stormed in. Tear gas, body shields—buses were waiting to arrest us. Queer men were used to resisting cops. We could outrun them and then disappear into the first crowd we found. I did this several times during the day, joining other protesters when I could. The feeling was tense and pessimistic. An army of cops and national guardsmen swooped down on us. I heard several times from straight protesters, "That faggot Rennie Davis is going to get us killed," referring to many gay rumors about Rennie Davis.
I decided then that I could not get arrested. I was dirt poor with no money for a lawyer and a string of court appearances in Washington. I managed to find my way to the buses chartered back to New York. A couple of other GLF brothers were on the bus. Mostly, we slept. We'd been up before dawn with constant running, evading the cops, and there was nothing to eat. Tom Finley, one of my closest GLF brothers, was arrested. The D.C. cops made sure that an arrest would cost him hundreds of dollars, the equivalent of close to $10,000 now, from fines and numerous court appearances in D.C.
I returned to New York, happy that GLF had taken part in what became known as Gay Mayday. The Gay Liberation Front was now nationally known. My brothers and sisters from all over the country had proven valor against the immense force of the US government imposing war on us. I felt so happy—I was part of my own family and tribe. I will say this, the brief description of those two major actions, which are now quite forgotten, barely describes the intensity of our feelings for what we were doing at that time.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: What gave you the audacity, Perry?
PERRY BRASS: Rage. It was very much like what Flavia said. It was basically this idea that we had been—the homophobic oppression that all of us went through as kids and teenagers and then as young adults was so horrible. As Mark Segal says, Stonewall was the match, but GLF was the fire. We were in this combustible situation, and the combustion spread so fast to so many of us and our brothers and sisters because they had all experienced the same level of horrifying oppression.
The worst thing for many of us was realizing what we'd been through, and also to have to go through the complacency of so much of the gay and lesbian community who simply had this, as Flavia said, attitude like, "Well, this is just a small part of our life. We won't make waves. We'll hope that we will be tolerated." That’s not what GLF wanted. We did not want to be tolerated, we wanted pure equality, and we also wanted to be celebrated. We wanted our gayness and our queerness, whatever the word is, we wanted to celebrate it. This was a part of our most innate being. Authenticity was very important in GLF. It was a whole mindset, and we shared it.
Mark Segal disrupted a live CBS newscast protest CBS shows' degrading portrayals of and references to gay people, 1973.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Mark Segal, you participated in numerous media zaps. Can you put in 2022 terms what a zap is?
MARK SEGAL: I'd say for people who are young out there, while I'm listening—first off, I want to say what a joy it is to listen to my fellow GLF sisters and brothers. I'm enjoying this immensely. I think for your generation, August, I don't think you all get the complexity of where we are coming from. The fact we all have differences of opinion is just amazing. The one commonality we all have is—for instance, I was born in 1951, which means that I was brought up in the 1950s and the 1960s. During the 1950s and 1960s, LGBT people were considered immoral, illegal, unemployable, and psychologically disturbed. We were invisible.
They didn't mention us on TV. They didn't mention us on the radio. We weren't in the magazines or newspapers. There was no internet. There were no cell phones. We were totally invisible. For someone growing up like me who knew that they were gay, it was just obvious that I was to keep quiet; otherwise, I would lose family, and friends, have no future, or, as Flavia said, maybe even be stoned. It was all a possibility. Your generation, for the most part, in some places, grows up without that fear. Although inside of me, I knew that I was okay—how was it that I was okay, and the rest of society was saying I wasn’t? I couldn't quite understand that. So, of course, I would go to the library, and there might be five books on homosexuality. If you found the book, you would find the word homosexual. I didn't like that word. I really hated that word, but again, it also told me that I was psychologically disturbed. Again, I didn't think so.
On my 18th birthday, I escaped to where I thought there might be gay people, New York. May 10th, 1969, was my day to be free. I moved to New York with no job and no school waiting for me. I was homeless, and I moved into the YMCA. On that very first night, I went looking for my gay people, for my community, because I knew they were there. There was no neon sign saying, "This way to the gay people." Once I found Christopher Street, it was nirvana. What does an 18-year-old do? You hang out with your friends, and I began to do that every night—hang out from the pier all the way to Grand Street, walking up and down. My early friends were Jerry Hoose and Bob Kohler.
What did we do at 18 years old? What did we want to do? Just like today, you want to dance your ass off. So, most nights, you'd find yourself inside Stonewall. Why Stonewall? It was the only place you could dance because dancing was illegal. Congregating was illegal. Holding hands was illegal. Kissing was illegal. Serving a homosexual a drink, you lost your license. That's why Stonewall was illegal. It allowed all of those things to happen. So, the night, that famous night, I guess I should say, the lights blinked on and off. I said, "What's going on?” The person next to me was very calm and said, "Oh, it’s just another raid."
Well, I'd never—I'd only been in New York for six weeks. This was different from what they told me the raids were like. In this particular one, the police came barging in, broke up the bar, threw bottles around, and literally slammed people up against the wall. Most of the work was done against what today we would call the trans community, or people in drag, or stereotypical older men who looked like they might have been prosperous. They asked them to take out their money and took it from them. My reaction, being frightened to death, was, "Oh my God, what's going on here? Maybe we should call the police."
It was the police who were doing it. Instantly, I realized how low in society they thought of us. Well, eventually, we got outside. After the police had done everything they wanted to do, they wanted to leave. Well, about 50-75 of us, at the most, were outside and circled around the door. People threw whatever they had on them, coins in their pockets, a can, and the police felt they couldn't leave that building. To me, in hindsight, what I remember now, or think of in that moment, is that for the first time, we were imprisoning the police. Up until that point, they had always imprisoned us.
Before Stonewall, I had met Marty Robinson. That night Marty came up to me with a piece of chalk and said, “Write on the walls and the streets, ‘tomorrow to go to Stonewall.’'” The next day at Stonewall, Marty and others spoke from the steps of The Stonewall.
Eventually, he and Martha got together and created that march from Washington Square to Stonewall. That was illegal. In fact, everything we did was illegal in those days. You know what? The ashes of Stonewall became Gay Liberation Front. What we were going to do from that point on was be out loud. That was our total goal, to be out loud and proud. We did two incredible things at that first meeting, and in every meeting after, we discussed self-identity. We were no longer going to be called that word on the shelf, homosexual. We were whatever we wanted to be. I wanted to be a gay man. Others wanted to be a lesbian. Some people wanted to be a dyke. It didn't matter.
We respected self-identity for the first time. We not only accepted it, but we also took pride in it, which was very important. We also went about creating a community where there was no community before. We created gay youth organizations, gay trans organizations, and legal and medical committees. People often ask, "How many days was Stonewall?" I've heard three, four, five, six. No. Stonewall was 365 days. It went from that very first day up until that first Pride March. The reality of it is we created a community, which was so important. August, you asked about the word homophile and what I call the old gay rights movement. That old gay rights movement had one demonstration a year, every year. Brave people showed up in Philadelphia on July 4th, 1965-1969. They marched outside Independence Hall. Women had to be in dresses. Men had to be in suits and ties. I didn't fit in. Martha definitely didn't fit in. Most of us did not. No youth was allowed because, God forbid, they were afraid of breaking the morals of a minor.
When Ellen and others in the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee organized that first march, according to what figure you want to use, after that first incredible year of what we did, which I call the first magical year, we had anywhere between 3,000 and 15,000 people in that first march. So, what does that mean? Number one, the 3,000 figure comes from the FBI. The 15,000 figure comes from The New York Times. Pick either one you want to use. Also, remember, we had Christopher Street West that year and another 10,000 people. In one year, our organization, the Gay Liberation Front, took the gay rights struggle from a mere 40 people to tens of thousands of people in the street in one year. Let me add one more thing. We were, by far, in all the years since 1969, the most dysfunctional organization that ever existed. I am so proud of that.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: I just want to follow up on something you brought up. You mentioned my generation. What do you say to the people my age and who are younger, who can't say the word gay in school, who live in towns of 10 people and don't know that it exists, who're forced to go to conversion therapy, or their parents beat them up?
MARK SEGAL: Number one, your generation is lucky enough to have the internet. Anyone could just look up gay, homosexual, whatever, and have a breadth of information that was not available to any of us. We didn't have that.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Isn’t it a double-edged sword? We describe the flip side as cyberbullying.
MARK SEGAL: Yeah. As I think it was Ellen or Flavia said, I think it was Ellen, that anytime they wanted to talk about homosexuality, I'll use their word, a word I despise—they would bring in a bunch of psychologists and ministers. Well, today, you don't have just that. If you turn on the TV and there's a discussion of LGBT people, thanks to visibility, we have made it impossible for them to be the only people on the panel.
LGBT people must be on the panel. I learned from GLF that visibility was important, which caused me to participate in the disruptions of all the TV shows. Instead of reaching 5,000 people or 10,000 people with a demonstration or disruption, I wanted to reach millions of people. Even if they disliked me, I didn't give a fuck. I disrupted TV. I disrupted Walter Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America." I was disliked for that. Guess what? They had to talk about it.
That talk brings education, discussion brings education, and it will eventually lead to equality. I wanted to end invisibility and bring light to the world. I think that was all done, and that all started with me learning visibility in Gay Liberation Front. Everybody in this group here has gone on to create other things. You could literally map the organization throughout our community today to GLF.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Were you going to say something in the middle of that, Mark?
Mark Horn: I was just going to say that—Mark was saying, "They don't invite ministers or psychologists anymore." Well, they might, but those ministers and psychologists today might be out and gay and proud.
PERRY BRASS: I want to say that, also to answer this question that August had—I want to tell them that they’re not alone. That was something that was very important to us, that simply, you're not alone.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: That's great advice.
MARTHA SHELLEY: I would also like to say something in terms of the next generation. A certain political party in this country is doing its best to bring us back to the 1950s or perhaps the 1850s. So, nothing is guaranteed. In every generation, you have to keep fighting for your rights. You have to keep defending them.
We Resist sign at the Queer Liberation March in New York City by Jeffrey Keefer, 2019.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Mark Horn, you did zaps, threw stones, and protested in the streets. What do you think the most effective way to protest is now?
MARK HORN: Oh goodness, the most effective way to protest? Good grief. I would look at the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement, which came out of the Civil Rights Movement and had two wings. The GLF learned from this lesson as well. You had Martin Luther King and his world, and they had a march on Washington. You had the Homophile Movement because they were dressed in suits and said, "We're just like you. We want our rights just like everybody else." Then you had the Black Panthers, who were much more militant and much more in people's faces. While these two groups look like they are in conflict, they are actually not. They provide strength to each other. The powers that be are more willing to talk to the less aggressive because they're the good ones, right?
The reality is that all of the strength and the change comes out of the militants' side. So, these two sides need each other. So, within the gay movement today, you have groups like the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, which is about as establishment as you can get. Then you have people who are on the streets shouting. You now have The Queer March, the alternative march, in New York City, which was formed because the Pride March is entirely too corporate. I'd say ACT UP and Queer Nation were in our tradition. Today there is a group, Rise and Resist, which seems like it grew out of the GLF community in that tradition. I think you need both sides. I met members of the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Youth at an anti-war demonstration because I was an anti-war activist and a young civil rights activist.
I participated in occupations at NYU. Shortly after the killings at Kent State, students all over the city descended on NYU, and they took over the entire campus, shutting down basically every university in New York City and around the country. It was that kind of direct action that stopped everything. As Mark was saying, it forced people to have a conversation. It forced things to be discussed in the news. Mark's genius was that he went right to the news because they often would interpret things in ways that were not necessarily what we wanted to say.
I met Mark and the other members of GLF at anti-war demonstrations. To me, it was important. I got involved immediately and was thrilled because I was looking for people my age. I was 18 then and went to my first Gay Youth meeting shortly after that. It was everything that I was looking for in the movement because it was multi-racial and multi-ethnic. Young people were living on the streets because they were throwaways and runaways. There were people from wealthy families. Members were the full spectrum of gender identity and expression. This was mind-blowing for a lower-middle-class kid from Brooklyn, but it was wonderful.
All of a sudden, I had a breadth of friends, some of whom are still my friends; today, 50, 60 years later, at this point, and I'm very grateful for that. We’ve gone through an extraordinary amount of reincarnations of this movement in all different ways and shapes. As Ellen mentioned, out of Weinstein came STAR, but there were lots of other subcells within the Gay Liberation Front. There was not only Gay Youth and STAR. Some of the Gay Youth members were members of that subcell because some members had very different expressions of gender or sexuality. There was a Third World Gay Revolution which was black and Latino members. We worked with several of these groups because we really ran the full range of people.
I think what may have been my favorite group was The Red Butterfly, the Marxists. They were quite something. There was also the Aquarius Cell. Going back to what we were saying before about illegal dancing, the Aquarius Cell, in some ways, was the most radical because this group held the GLF dances. It was very dangerous to have a gay and lesbian dance because it was illegal, and the police could come and bust it up. You couldn't have two same-sex people dancing together. It was factual—with the law, you couldn't do it. If you did, you were threatening the monopoly of the mob, the mafia, and the organized crime elements that made their money off us.
This was an interlock. Nobody has said this here, but the reason Stonewall was raided by a different police group, not the 6th Precinct down in the Village, was because the mob paid off the 6th Precinct not to be raided, or they would come in. It would just be for show, and nobody would be arrested, right? What happened was a different group came in and busted things up. There was a lesbian dance, which the mob came and tried to close down because it threatened their monopoly on making money. The GLF, the radical lesbian sisters, stood up and stared them down. It continues to amaze me that this went off without any violence. All of these other people here on this screen—I was a kid—all these people are my heroes, and they inspired me to go out.
After Mark Segal left, I became the chair of Gay Youth, and we went out and spoke at high schools around the city. We leafleted in front of high schools. When I was 16, I tried to join Mattachine. As was mentioned, this would've been dangerous for them because they would be corrupting the morals of a minor. This is what people talk about even today. They talk about grooming, right? Well, some 16-year-olds want to be with whom they choose. So, we went and stood in front of high schools and gave out leaflets about GLF and Gay Youth and how it was okay. You were not sick, and you were not damned; you should come to a meeting, and you should dance and celebrate who you are. I am so grateful to all these other people on the screen who gave me the courage to do that. I'm grateful that here we are today, all these years later, all alive and still fighting, and, I hope, giving inspiration to the young people around the country to continue this fight.
Birmingham Gay Liberation marching in Kings Heath/Moseley by Itsmoseley, 1975.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: What can you all share about creating a mass movement? Flavia, do you want to go first?
FLAVIA RANDO: Well, you must figure out how to do it. You learn as you go. You reach out to everyone. Everyone is welcome. That's the part of GLF I also loved. We kept talking about members, but everybody in the room had a voice. There was no criteria for membership. If you came to a meeting once and had something important to say—we all could learn from that and bring it forward even if you never came again for whatever reason. There really is no way to make a mass movement beforehand. If you try to follow some pattern, there's inspiration in the world. You have to be willing to do anything to bring your voice to the world. So many activists follow GLF's footsteps worldwide, taking the same risks we took 50 years ago. So, it's not all settled yet. Maybe that's why I think GLF became a mass movement because people were so ready. They were so ready.
ELLEN BROIDY: I think one thing that GLF did that really made it stand out from the Homophile Movement, or however you wish to characterize them, is that we believed in intersectionality before that was an academic concept. We believed in coalition building. We knew that we could not do this on our own. We had no desire to do it on our own. It was like we didn't want a piece of the pie. We literally wanted to destroy the bakery and start all over again.
PERRY BRASS: Yes!
ELLEN BROIDY: I think that really made us stand out. It was more mobilization than mass movement if you can differentiate between those concepts.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Ellen, when did this kick in? Was it when you were marching for the first Pride March? When did you realize that this movement had been created?
ELLEN BROIDY: At the first GLF meeting I ever attended, which was probably in August of '69, the conversation was never just about us. It was about the need for revolution. Unfortunately, it makes me cry because that's not what was achieved. As Martha said, we're looking back at returning to the 1850s. We were about revolution, not reform. It came well before the first march. Actually, the second march, the 1970 march, was animated by the spirit of what had gone on the previous year.
PERRY BRASS: We thought globally, that was another GLF thing that I—it always amazed me, we really did think globally. We used this term, the planet—what were we doing for the planet? I remember, in GLF, when I first heard that, I was floored. I didn't expect that we would go from gay to the planet. So, we really did think in those terms.
MARTHA SHELLEY: We reached out to the Panthers. We reached out to the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican Liberation Group in New York. We went to the National Organization for Women, which was terrified of being called lesbians. They were terrified of being considered a bunch of men-hating dykes, and we changed their policy. We went to one of their conferences and took it over. Also, people around the country heard about what we were doing, and they formed GLF chapters all over the country. We were also very much influenced by the Anti-war Movement. We were aware of what was going on in Vietnam. We were aware of the Civil Rights Movement. We'd grown up with that. We couldn't not think about the connectivity of all of the struggles that were going on in this country and around the world.
MARK HORN: In Gay Youth, I remember the day we got a letter from a group in Lexington, Kentucky, that they were—it was only five kids, but they'd started their own Gay Youth group there. They wrote to us in New York to ask what we did and for advice. We read the letter in the meeting, and I have to tell you, it was electric. We felt like what we were doing in this city inspired people and other young people around the country. How did they know about us? There was a story in Life magazine. Pre-internet, remember. So, Life magazine was a big thing. It was in households all over the country. There was a sort of a 1971 Year In Review, and one of the things in that Year In Review story was a sort of an overview of the Gay and Lesbian Liberation Movement.
There's a photograph of me in that article. My mother said to me when I came out, "Just don't get your face in the papers." So, I made it certain that I sat on the side where the photographer was to get my face. The fact that there was an early demonstration because The Village Voice wouldn't even use the word gay or run ads, and we put ads in the back of The Village Voice every week saying that Gay Youth met at this place. We also put the phone number of whoever was president. At one point, it was Mark. At another point, it was me. My mother used to answer the phone, and some scared kid in the middle of the country would say, "Is this Gay Youth?" She’d say, "Hold on, I'll get him." This is what we did. It was slow, but the timing was right. As Mark said, it was a match that lit the kindling waiting to burn.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: When you were answering those phone calls, is there anything that you know now that you wish you would've known then when you were speaking to these children at risk?
MARK HORN: I was also aware. We had many members of Gay Youth who were living on the streets. One of the things I really worked hard to do was find places for these kids. Occasionally my mother would take somebody in for a week or two until they could find something. My mother was a saint. I counseled these kids to do everything they could when they felt that they were in danger. They felt they had to be secretive until they could get someplace or have someone to speak to and feel free to reveal themselves. Because there were so many kids who came to New York hoping that this would be their free place, and they had very bad experiences on the street.
There wasn't anything like the Hetrick-Martin Institute at that point. There weren't any sort of social service organizations that were helping gay, lesbian, and gender non-conforming young people to find them a place to live. We only had so much in the way of resources. The Gay Youth treasury was $300, which we loaned once to STAR so they could have a dance to fund their house. They got a house to get gender non-conforming people off the streets because they were the most in danger. They actually provided some organized housing for a little while for that group.
Screenshot from Come Out!, 2022.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: We have talked about the interconnectivity of gay liberation across the world. Ellen, you were in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara for a while during the first wave of gay liberation. Were you in communication with the people in New York? How did you all know it was happening?
ELLEN BROIDY: I left New York in 1971 and moved to Los Angeles. By that time, there was quite an active Gay Liberation Front in LA. I had been in Los Angeles the year before, right after the first Pride March, and spoke to lots of groups of people, as did Karla Jay at that point. They had lots of questions for us. We were in close communication. I think about it now, with no internet. It's amazing how quickly we became connected and stayed connected. We knew what was going on; we knew what was happening. Of course, it was the rise of the LGBT press, which actually—there's a lot to be said for paper.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Flavia, were you going to say something?
FLAVIA RANDO: Yes. I wanted to add that I was fortunate enough to be in Europe in 1972. In every city I went to, Copenhagen and London, Amsterdam, etc., there was a GLF. I remember a meeting in Copenhagen—I tried to attend as many meetings as possible. People would say, "Okay, now, tell us all about it." It seemed I was the New York speaker. What GLF in New York had done had meant so much to everybody across Europe and across Western Europe. I think it's important to know that people across—that people had taken heart from GLF, and they were ready. They were absolutely ready. It wasn't about building a mass movement, but it was just that spark that was all that people needed.
MARTHA SHELLEY: Besides the newspaper, we also had telephones. We could talk to people across the country. Then, in 1972, I was asked to do a lesbian radio program, and I did that for two years on WBAI in New York, which could be picked up around the country. We didn't die because we didn't have the internet. We did have the radio. We had our newspapers. When push comes to shove, we could make a phone call.
MARK HORN: In 1974, I went down to North Carolina to graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and became involved in founding the LGBT group on that campus. Within three years, they held something called the first Southeastern Gay Conference, which had people from colleges and from cities all across the southeast of the United States. People got together as a sort of gay, queer, lesbian, and trans academic information exchange. For this to happen in the south at that time, you might think this was shocking, but there it was, and people dared to stand up. Was it easy? No. Was there a lot of pushback? I experienced pushback in North Carolina much worse than what I experienced in New York. As a Yankee, I certainly stood out. I was not welcome to be the spokesperson, but that's good. It was the local people who took the lead, and that was terrific.
PERRY BRASS: What GLF did was give people the vocabulary that was really needed. You had to have the words to put these ideas into movement. Also, people were often just waiting for permission. I also remember going down to Atlanta during that period—Atlanta actually had a GLF by about 1972. They had a great alternative newspaper called The Great Speckled Bird, which was the kind of the hip newspaper that had a very gay slant to it. The cops were horrifying in Atlanta, as in many other Southern cities. Being gay and dealing with the cops down there was a horrible situation. At least it meant you weren't alone. That was our message.
MARK SEGAL: Number one, I think it was Martha who said it, we used the phone a lot. In those days, and I'm not kidding you, they charged for long-distance calls, and I couldn't afford them. Even though we were doing that, we still had to—I remember going to D.C. to start their Gay Youth branch. Tony Russomanno, who was part of our New York gay group, was going to school in Detroit, and he started the Detroit Gay Youth. It was all about visibility. So, in 1973, when I would do those TV zaps that would get me on other talk shows—again, we could talk to and reach people, but we also reached our own gay community.
In 1973, I got a call inviting me to speak—the first time I ever spoke at a university was at the University of Iowa, Southern Iowa, I think is what it's called. They were paying the tab. They weren't ready for anyone radical like me. The one thing I know about that now, which I absolutely love, is that it was the first time that any gay person spoke in Iowa. I didn't know this at the time, which I read just a few years ago. They were celebrating that. Kenneth Bunch was in the audience as a student there. He went on to be one of the founders of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco. So, I just love that one. It's my favorite thing about reaching out and how each of us can say we had some help in creating a continual LGBT movement.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Something I always wondered was if you all ever had any experiences of government infiltration or saboteurs. Perry, do you want to go first?
PERRY BRASS: Well, that was always with us. Many of us felt that we had our phones tapped. In fact, we used to joke about this, and I remember saying to GLF people, "Well, we better say something worthwhile because the phone is being tapped." At one time, since the GLF newspaper Come Out!, the last three issues were published from my apartment, I got a call from a man who identified himself as from the New York City Police Department. He asked me, "Do you know anything about the newspaper Come Out!?" I said, "No." He said, "Do you know where it's published?" I said, "No." He said, "Do you know where it's printed?" I said, "No." Then he said, "I guess I'm not going to get anywhere with you, right?" I said, "Yes, you're right."
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Martha?
MARTHA SHELLEY: Well, I had an experience with what you might call an agent provocateur. In addition to working on Come Out!, I also worked on Rat newspaper when women took it over. Different groups of women represented different, very radical factions within the Women's Movement. There were a couple of women from the Weather Underground. Well, I made it a point not to get close to them because I thought if I knew anything about them, I didn't want any information that anybody could worm out of me. Also, I wasn't into blowing up things at that point. Still, I'm not really. One day, this guy invited me to his apartment to talk about radical action. He showed me this rifle that he had, and he wanted to do something about putting poison in people's cigarettes so that when they smoked, they would die, like cyanide or something like that. The first thing that came into my mind was, "Agent, agent, I'm outta here,” and I was out of there.
One of my neighbors came to me and said that the FBI had been there asking questions about me. She was a Ukrainian refugee and said, "I didn't tell 'em nothing." I believed her because she knew better than to tell the secret police where she came from. She also didn't know anything about me except that I commiserated with her after the death of her cat. Yes, the cops were clearly looking at us, keeping an eye on us. Of course, there was that one agent, and there were other agents who got involved with the women at the Rat newspaper who ended up serving prison time.
ELLEN BROIDY: We occasionally went to court when people we knew had gotten in trouble and were arrested. More than once, you could recognize somebody standing in the back who was "with us" but not with us. It was an informant, a police agent. They were on their side of the room. So, they were around. I remember coming home from school one day, and our Ukrainian landlady, who lived on the first-floor apartment and spent all her time looking out the window, saying, "The cops were here again. The FBI was here again." You'd go upstairs, and the apartment had been broken into. So, it came with the territory.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Were you ever scared? Did you stop being scared? Was there a point where you're like, this is just how it's got to be?
MARK SEGAL: We were young and immortal at that point. We just thought we could do anything, and we thought we had to do everything. It literally was our passion in life. I think for most of us, it still is. It burns clear. I learned that from my grandmother, Fannie Weinstein. Her family had come to this country because they had fled Russia. She was a suffragette in the '20s. When I was 13, she took me to my first civil rights demonstration. So, for me, this was just natural. I think it's in my DNA. It seems like it's in every one of our DNA.
ELLEN BROIDY: Let me just add here. Yes. There were moments. You admitted to being scared that night at Stonewall, Mark. I was scared when we stepped off the curb for the first march.
MARK SEGAL: Really?
ELLEN BROIDY: Not knowing whether the people on the sidelines were there to support us or to harm us. Knowing we could not rely on the police to be between them and us—we overcame the fear. The fear wasn't enough to stop us from doing what we were doing. For myself, I have to admit, yeah, it was there. I was young, I was foolish, I was foolhardy, I was brave, I was scared. I was all of those things. I was intersectionality all in myself.
MARK SEGAL: We trusted you as our leader to lead us then. We didn't know you were scared.
PERRY BRASS: She was very good at hiding it. Many of us, I think, were good at hiding it.
FLAVIA RANDO: Those of us who were out before the movement had learned to live with fear. We were afraid all the time. We had to just live with that. The fear of stepping out at the first march—that was a very small part of the emotion—the exhilaration of being able to do that, of being able to march with others. That meant everything.
MARTHA SHELLEY: I was afraid before that first protest march right after Stonewall. Then, once I was there, I stopped being afraid. I think one of the things that's motivated me really all my life has been my family, who were first-generation refugees from Eastern Europe. My mother escaped before the Holocaust. I always thought: What if I had been born in Germany and had been German, not Jewish—would I have had—if I'd been Jewish, I wouldn't have had much choice. Fight or die. Fight or die. If I'd been German and had the choice, would I have had the courage to stand up against the regime? That’s motivated me all my life, and I live up to that.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Beautiful. That leads to my final question, and I'll start with you, Mark Segal, if that's okay. Why does gay LGBTQ history matter?
MARK SEGAL: Oh my God. I think it matters today because—I hope that during this, you realize the most important work to me is visibility, that we as a community are visible. After all, that's the only thing that's going to change society. They want to take us back to the 1850s. We were invisible in 1850. If you don't believe that's true, all you have to do is take a look at the "Don't Say Gay" bill in Florida, which is now being introduced into the Congress of the United States. If what we expect happens three weeks from now, and if by any chance there is a red wave, that bill will pass the Senate and the House and go to the president's desk, which—
FLAVIA RANDO: No, it won't. Don't say that.
MARK SEGAL: Well, I try to—
FLAVIA RANDO: I know. I'm sorry. That was a completely unscripted, unedited emotional response.
MARK SEGAL: Yeah. I mean, I'm trying to be a realist with what I expect will happen and how you—you can only think of how you're going to react if you plan to react to a negative. That's where my head is at the moment and what I would do in that case. So, we're there right now. It is time to react. It is time to become creative again. If we don't stand up and make our voices loud—they are attacking us with the "Don't Say Gay" bill. I don't know how many of you have read it. I mean, that's not its name. It comes from something else, but the reality of it is we are disrupting the morals of minors. That's what that bill says. By the way, it's only been active for this school year, and already teachers have been dismissed.
PERRY BRASS: Exactly. GLF was against complacency, one of the hardest things to fight. So, it's a rich and living history to answer August's question. It fights that complacency.
ELLEN BROIDY: The other problem is that people without a history can be written off as non-people.
PERRY BRASS: Beautiful, beautiful, Ellen.
ELLEN BROIDY: We have a history, we have culture, we make contributions, and we won't disappear. The more people know of our history and that we have a history, the harder it will be to disappear. They’re trying really hard. They're trying really, really hard.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Martha, what do you want people to learn from your story?
MARTHA SHELLEY: I think about several things. One, you have to fight, and you have to fight in every generation. When those of us who are Jewish say the Passover, we recognize that in every generation, a new pharaoh arises to oppress us, which means in every generation, you have to fight back. Two, we have to connect, which the Gay Liberation Front did. We have to connect with the struggles of other people around the world. Right now, one of the things that has been moving me has been the struggles of women in Iran. The most important struggles today are not our struggles or their struggles. It's the fight for the survival of the planet because if we let the planet burn up, there's not going to be a human race, and none of our rights will mean a damn thing if we're all dead. So, those three things.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Mark Horn, what do you want 16-year-olds to learn from your story?
MARK HORN: You can have a good life, a happy life, a long life, with friends that will be with you all your life, who are your lesbian and gay brothers and sisters.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Flavia, do you want to answer any of the questions I just threw out?
FLAVIA RANDO: They're very difficult, and they've been beautifully answered already. No matter how narrow your life is as a child, you can still look beyond it and do good work for yourself and especially for others. I second everything that everyone has already said.
AUGUST BERNADICOU: Perry, any closing reflections?
PERRY BRASS: I have the reflection that I have always had with my GLF sisters and brothers, which is what we went through together was so formative to our lives that we'll never forget it. It just pierces our hearts, and that's the message we want to bring out to the world. I mean, liberating ourselves and liberating the world was what it was all about, and it still pierces our hearts.