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FLAVIA RANDO

NEW YORK CITY GAY LIBERATION FRONT


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Flavia Rando and Michaela Griffo by Ellen Shumsky, March 13, 1971.

Yes, we are temporarily back to featuring the New York City Gay Liberation Front. I am pulling from my vast archive as I continue to interview people from non-urban communities. Up next is Flavia Rando. She packs a punch. I first learned about her when I moderated a panel that featured the board of the newly founded Gay Liberation Front Foundation, which seeks to keep the spirit of the New York City Gay Liberation Front alive.


Flavia was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She was an early member of the New York City Gay Liberation Front, the pioneering activist group founded in the aftermath of the June 28, 1969, Stonewall Rebellion, the event that kickstarted gay liberation around the world.


One of the actions Flavia participated in was getting the queer bars out of the Mafia's hands. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Mafia controlled nearly all of the queer bars. They would pay off the police so the establishments illegally serving homosexuals could remain open.


Because of her Italian heritage, Flavia (and others, like Michela Griffo) stood outside, picketed, and distributed leaflets to women at Mafia-run lesbian bars like Kooky’s and Gianni’s. They informed people about the dances hosted by the Gay Liberation Front women at Alternate U. By creating a safe space outside of bars for lesbians to congregate, hopefully, the Mafia would get the hint.


In one instance, the Mafia showed up to one of their dances at the Alternate U. Michela stood up and proclaimed, "Non toccarmi, Io sono sangue" ("I'm blood, don't touch me"). To the mafia, she could have been Carlo Gambino's niece. This phrase is not typical Italian; it conveys a deep personal connection, akin to saying, "I'm really blood."


In 1970, Flavia joined the Radicalesbians. The group was short-lived, but their impact endures. The group published a manifesto titled “The Woman-Identified Woman,” which in part proclaims, “a lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion.” Heavy and true!


The group received inspiration from Betty Friedan, then leader of the National Organization for Women, who referred to lesbians as a "lavender menace" to the women's movement. With this slogan in mind, the Radicalesbians created now famous shirts that said “Lavender Menace” and zapped the Second Congress to Unite Women on May 1, 1970. Rat Subterranean News recalled: "The lights went out, people heard running, laughter, a rebel yell here and there, and when the lights were turned back on, those same 300 women found themselves in the hands of the LAVENDER MENACE."


— August Bernadicou, Executive Director of The LGBTQ History Project



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Flavia Rando and Michela Griffo by unknown, 2019.

“In February 1961, 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 in Manhattan. 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 Gay Liberation Front that she and others were organizing—this was probably the most pivotal moment in my life—to continue the work of social revolution. Martha asked if we were interested in joining. 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 those groups.

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 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.


When I say, ‘We are nothing like you,’ I am referring to the earlier homophile movement, whose members wanted to be accepted and wanted to be just like straight people except for the 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. 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 in imminent danger. The message was clear: we were not going to survive there.


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.


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, encouraging you at least some of the time.


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. 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.”

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