The struggle for queer rights hasn’t been a smooth ride—but as a 19-year-old Italian American in South Philly running around in halter top and platform shoes in 1970, I wouldn’t have expected it to be!
None of us who participated in gay liberation protests in the early 70s expected an easy path—but we also didn’t think that 40 years later some of the most important issues we raised would be ignored by the very movement we created.
It all started outside the Stonewall Inn, a West Village gay bar, in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. Cops didn’t get their regular payoff from the owners, so they raided the joint. The street queens who had nothing to lose didn’t go along with the plan. They tossed high heels and other objects at the men in blue, and one of the most famous and colorful riots of the sexual liberation era followed.
It wasn’t the first time that those who lived on the outskirts of the Straight American Dream expressed dissatisfaction with business as usual. There had been skirmishes as early as 1959. That night at the Stonewall, though, things didn’t return to normal, as they always had in the past.
Three days of unrest and rioting gave birth to the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). GLF’s membership wasn’t the well-mannered ladies and gentlemen from the “homophile” organizations who, since 1949, had pleaded gently for acceptance, and who made sure to dress “appropriately” when marching or demonstrating.
GLFers came from the rank and file of the civil rights, antiwar, feminist and hippie movements. They were jeans-and-t-shirt-clad shit-kickers who didn’t take “No” for an answer. They made coalitions with the Black Panthers and radical feminists. Forget marriage or gays in the military. Like their straight leftist counterparts, they longed for a revolution that would liberate all oppressed peoples, and smash the church and state.
Compromise wasn’t an idea they recognized.
With skills learned from dodging tear gas and even bullets at antiwar sit-ins and demos on campuses across America, we pulled off stunts like invading and disrupting TV newscasts to protest the media’s blackout on coverage of our activities. Our in-your-face tactics helped to force the American Psychiatric Association to drop homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses after we seized control of its annual meeting. We ended the barbaric practice of aversion therapy on gay men, and celebrated coming-out as a gay rite of passage.
But as with so many movements of that time, the radical agenda didn’t last. By the late 70s, a more mainstream movement had emerged. Gay rights bills were pushed through legislatures, inroads made with certain Protestant denominations, support gained from the Democratic Party. By the time AIDS hit the headlines in the early 80s, a moderate gay establishment was entrenched in most big cities. The collectively-run, Socialist-oriented newspapers of GLF had turned into private ownership enterprises. The communes were gone and gay ghettos such as the Castro were gentrifying. And the new GLBT leadership didn’t acknowledge that the successes that had paved the way for its new campaigns were built on multi-issue coalitions and an agenda that incorporated the voices of many.
As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the birth of gay liberation, it’s obvious that four decades of LGBT struggle has given us a lot, such as gay marriage in four states.
But the new LGBT leadership often abandons multi-issue coalitions and an agenda that stressed social as well as economic justice. In order to attract advertisers, gay publishers perpetuate the myth of a gay middle-class with limitless disposable income, and the needs of our working class, poor and homeless are largely ignored.
A May 2009 study, “Poverty in the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Community,” from UCLA’s Williams Institute proves the falseness of that myth. It’s no surprise: 20-40% of homeless kids in America are queer, and in the Bay Area, 75% of transgenders are not employed full-time. In San Francisco, 40% of gay men with AIDS are unstably housed or homeless.
Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign, the country’s leading national queer organization, ignores homelessness and poverty altogether, and wants Congress to pass a federal gay rights bill that doesn’t include transgenders, the group that needs protection the most.
Forty years later, I don’t regret the bumpy ride, but I do wish that the values we stood for—social and economic justice for all—had become an integral part of a movement that is now obsessed with merely taking that trip down the aisle.
TOMMI AVICOLLI MECCA, a former member of GLF/Temple University, is editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which has just been published by City Lights Books.