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Martha Shelley

Martha Shelley survived the gay assimilation movement and kickstarted gay liberation. She was a founder of the pioneering liberation group, the Gay Liberation Front. With the Gay Liberation Front, she contributed to Come Out! magazine which gave a face to post-Stonewall gays. Later, Martha was a member of the Radicalesbians. Their manifesto, The Woman-Identified Woman, remains provocative and challenges feminists to reconsider their understanding of lesbians and lesbianism. It begins, "What is a lesbian? A lesbian is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion." Nearly fifty years later, this remains Martha Shelley's motto.

"When I was 23 years old, I joined an early assimilation group, the Daughters of Bilitis, because I wanted to meet women like myself. I was useless at bars, I couldn't connect with people and I didn't dress right. When I joined the Daughters of Bilitis, I started connecting with lesbians because I could talk—that's one talent I have, the ability to talk in public. By this time, I had already been politicized. I was not an assimilationist like the other members of the Daughters of Bilitis. Since I was 19 years old, I had been protesting and marching against the Vietnam War. I was moved by the Civil Rights Movement. Before the Gay Liberation Front, I had a poster of Martin Luther King above my desk. I was radical. I wasn't looking at the Daughters of Bilitis as a way of assimilating.

Martha Shelley

The people like me in the Daughters of Bilitis and Mattachine were restless. The minute we had the Stonewall Riots, it was our chance to say, yes, we can form a gay organization that is as radical as the Black Panthers or any other non-assimilationist group. We wanted to overthrow the system, not assimilate into it. The first night of the Stonewall Riots I walked by and thought it was an anti-war demonstration that had gone somewhat wild. I didn’t find out it was a gay thing until I read the newspaper the following week. Once I read about Stonewall, I called the head of Mattachine, Dick Leitsch, and the Daughters of Bilitis. I said we have to organize a protest march. Dick said that the Mattachines and the Daughters of Bilitis were in agreement and would jointly sponsor a march. Paul also said that the Mattachines were having a big meeting at the Town Hall theater and that I should come. Paul didn’t sound terribly enthusiastic.

I went to Town Hall and it was filled with 400 gay men. There were two women there, Madeleine Cervantes, who was the only woman member of the Mattachine Society, and me. In those days, people used to call a woman like Madeline a ‘fag hag.’ I was sitting next to Bob Kohler who at this time was around 40 years old, double my age. At the meeting, I proposed the idea for the first protest march after Stonewall. I wasn't sure how people would react. I looked around and there was a forest of hands up in the air in support of the march. All of the members agreed. At the end of the Mattachine meeting, Dick said that those who wanted to organize the march should meet in the corner of the room. We did so and then arranged to meet again at Mattachine Society headquarters on Saturday.

So, the following Saturday afternoon we met at the Mattachine Society’s headquarters. We sat around and drank beer. I don't even think we were planning an organization, but when someone uttered the words "Gay Liberation Front," that became the reality. It seemed completely spontaneous. I remember I pounded my hands on the table and yelled, 'That’s it, that’s it, the Gay Liberation Front!' Who came up with the name for the group, whose lips from it originated, I don't know. We all supported the National Liberation Front in the Vietnam War because they were fighting against the United State’s invasion. It naturally came to us—the Gay Liberation Front just spontaneously came out. Of course, there was a connection: that's what we were doing, we were defending ourselves from the U.S.’ invasion in the same way that we thought our fellow, heroic Vietnamese brothers and sisters were. I brought the name from that first meeting with me to a meeting at Alternate U on 14th Street where those of us who were radical gays met. All of us agreed that we wanted to be called the Gay Liberation Front. That’s when we formed our coalition. After we met and named our group, a bunch of us started organizing the first protest march. My job was to call the police and ask if we needed a permit. The last people on earth I wanted to talk to were the police who spent a bunch of time beating up on gay people. I certainly was not going to tell them exactly what we needed, but I called them up, and I asked, 'Do you need a permit for a march?' They said, only if you're going to have sound equipment. I thought, no problem. In the past, I led chants on union picket lines during strikes—I knew my voice could carry. 400 people showed up, which was considerable in those days. We marched through the Village to Christopher Street Park."


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