THE GAY LIBERATION FRONT
Michela Griffo repairing her loft in New York City by unknown, 1972.
Michela Griffo is an artist and activist born in Rochester, New York. She left her familial home at 16 and graduated from the University of Michigan. By age 23, she had earned a master's degree in photography from the Pratt Institute in New York.
I first met Michela when she attended a fundraiser for The LGBTQ History Project. I asked her why she did not pay the modest $10 suggested entry donation. She said, “Excuse me, I was in the Gay Liberation Front, and I got the gay bars out of the Mafia’s hands.” My jaw almost hit the floor. If she had said she threw the first brick, I might have asked her to pay the cover, but I did not even consider asking her. Right on, girl! You get in for free.
Initially, she did not know who I was. She was there to support Gay Liberation Fronter Perry Brass, who was reading a poem. When I told her about The LGBTQ History Project, she smiled and said, “Oh my gosh, that’s you? I love your newsletters.” About six months later, I found her business card and nearly banged my head against the wall: Why have I not interviewed her yet?
When we finally connected, it was such a trip. It was at her apartment, which doubles as her art studio. Michela is one of the radical activists from the golden age of activism when things actually got done. She speaks a million miles per minute and has her lines down pat. She knows what she wants to say and how she wants to say it. A lot of her views do not align with modern understandings of sex and gender. This became clear when I moderated a panel she was on. I like to mention this because, to The LGBTQ History Project, this is not a disqualifier. We acknowledge and bow in honor of the people who fought on the frontlines of civil rights. We always treat them with the respect they deserve.
In 1969, Michela's life took a significant turn when her planned heterosexual marriage ended due to religious differences. This event marked a pivotal moment as she embarked on a different path, eventually finding love with Agneta Frieberg, an Eileen Ford model. As Michela embraced her identity, she became an early member of the National Organization for Women, the Gay Liberation Front, Radicalesbians, and the Redstockings. Through her involvement in these organizations, she advocated for women's rights and LGBTQ+ liberation.
Michela's artistic endeavors gained recognition with her poster for the first Gay Pride march in 1970. It read, “I am your worst fear. I am your best fantasy.” You can fetishize lesbians, but be warned! Despite grappling with alcoholism and drug addiction, her artistic pursuits flourished during the 1970s and 1980s.
After she overcame her addiction, she furthered her education and obtained a master's degree in social work from New York University. In addition to her professional pursuits, Michela is dedicated to Remote Area Medical, an organization that addresses medical needs in underserved communities.
—August Bernadicou, Executive Director of The LGBTQ History Project
“I came from a violent, alcoholic home that colored my whole life. Every one of my first cousins is a drug addict or an alcoholic. It is just a family disease. Because my father was a surgeon, painkillers were everywhere, and he became addicted to them. My mother was a nurse. Whenever we had a feeling, my mom would tell us that we shouldn't feel that way, and she'd give us a pill. I have no idea what those pills were.
When I share the story of my addiction in recovery, I always say that my addiction began when I was 12. When I was a kid, I tried to kill my father because I believed that was the only way I could stop the sexual abuse. I saw a knife on the kitchen table. The only thing that kept me from being in Bedford Hills correctional facilities for the rest of my life was that when I picked up that knife, my mother started screaming. My older brother was a captain of the wrestling team at his Jesuit high school—he grabbed that knife out of my hand. I ended up in the psych ward of the hospital where my father practiced medicine and my uncle was on the board of directors.
I poured my heart out to a psychiatrist because I thought psychiatrists were supposed to help me. I told him everything I could remember. He listened for about an hour, then told me it's normal for little girls to make up stories about their fathers. Then he put this yellow capsule in my hand, and I asked him what it was. What I heard him reply was, ‘Numb at all.’ It was a Nembutal, but I thought he said, 'Numb at all.' I took that Nembutal. The name I had heard was fitting.
Michela Griffo around age 7 by unknown, circa 1955.
When I found the Gay Liberation Front, I felt like I had found my people. We were all like a family. We were all weirdos. When I walked into the meeting room for the first time, there were men in dresses and women in chains and leather. Some women looked like they just came from a Wall Street office. We all had the same focus, which was to be free. No one is free until we're all free.
I risked my life. Do you realize the people marching in that first Gay Pride march risked their lives? It was not a joke to us. We risked our lives to say, 'We are here.' The Mafia put a gun to my head. Literally. It wasn't the guys that closed the Mafia bars after Stonewall. It was the lesbians.
We were out there picketing, and the Gay Liberation Front decided that Flavia Rando and I, because we were Italian, would stand outside, picket, and hand out leaflets to the women leaving the Mafia-run lesbian bars like Kooky’s and Gianni’s. We stood outside and told people to come to the dances the Gay Liberation Front women hosted at Alternate U. Of course, some women were stupid enough to leave the leaflet in the bar. The mafia saw the leaflet and came running out. I stood up and said, "Non toccarmi, Io sono sangue" ("I'm blood, don't touch me"). I could've been Carlo Gambino's niece for all they knew. They had no idea. Non toccarmi, Io sono sangue is not traditional Italian. It's like, I'm really blood.
The women's dances were private. After a while, the Mafia noticed that their bars were emptier and emptier on Saturday nights. We were all dancing away at Alternate U. There must have been 200 women, and music was blaring.
Flavia Rando and Michaela Griffo by Ellen Shumsky, March 13, 1971.
I was standing by the entrance with the cashbox. I had a sign that said $2.00 for beer, etc. There was a long stairway coming up to the second floor where we were. The door opened, and the first thing I saw was the guns. I slammed the cash box, turned around, and passed it to Donna Gottschalk. I told her to put it in a garbage bag and ‘go down the back stairs as fast as you can.’
The mobsters came over to me. I was cool as a cucumber. The music had stopped, and the women were terrified. I said, 'Can I help you, gentlemen?' They said, 'Well, where's our money? You are taking money from us.' I told them sorry, that we don't charge anything, and that the dances are free. 'You're welcome to come and stay and dance if you want.'
They were not getting anywhere, so they got angry. One of the mobsters put a gun to my head in front of everybody. He said, 'If you don't stop this, we're going to kill you.' I said, 'Then you better shoot me right here because we're not going anywhere.' I was in front of everyone!
Then, they made a big mistake. They went over to Martha Shelley, who looked like a little cherubic angel, and asked her, 'Do you know who we are?' Martha said, 'No, and I don't care. Do you know who we are? We're the Gay Liberation Front, and we're gonna put you out of business.' They walked away, and I yelled in Italian, 'Next time, send your sisters.'"