Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Commemorating Stonewall and the Gay Liberation Front at Pride


Longtime gay activist Peter Fiske missed the Stonewall riots by a quirk of fate, but continues speaking out against discrimination. Above, Fiske was arrested on May 26 during a protest following the California Supreme Court's decision upholding Prop 8. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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Forty years ago this week, the course of LGBT people's lives changed forever. On Friday night, June 27, 1969, a spontaneous uprising against homophobic police harassment began at the Stonewall Inn in the heart of New York City's West Village. A small news story in the New York Times two days later spread the word internationally. By the following Wednesday night, when a final flare-up by mostly effeminate men again ignited the area near the top of Christopher Street, the Stonewall riots had catalyzed a new wave of LGBT activists in New York City and around the world.

Less than a month after Stonewall, as the riots were called, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender activists founded New York City's Gay Liberation Front. Making connections between the LGBT struggle and transnational efforts against oppression that included the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements, the post-hippy, long-haired, bell-bottomed, stoned out, autumn-of-love activists of the new gay revolution replaced the polite requests of older, more mainstream homophile organizations with non-negotiable ultimatums. "2-4-6-8, Smash the Church, Smash the State," and "Gay Love is Gay Strength," they chanted, as they marched through the streets, chained themselves to barricades, held hands, kissed passionately in public, and staged countless guerrilla theater actions against the heterosexist power structure. Some of this history is recounted by those who made it in Tommi Avicolli Mecca's just-published anthology, Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation (City Lights). [See related story.]

To commemorate the birth of the modern gay liberation movement, Sunday's annual LGBT Pride celebrations in both San Francisco and New York City will include special Stonewall-GLF 40th anniversary contingents. San Francisco's will march second in the parade, behind the Dykes on Bikes. The contingent will include a mix of Stonewall era veterans, early GLFers from around the country, members of early LGBT organizations (Mattachine, Daughters of Bilitis, Society of Individual Rights, the Tavern Guild), and significant others. Led by movement vets marching and dancing with much of the vigor of old, this brazen bunch of "don't you dare call us spunky or we'll be in your face in no time" survivors will revitalize the spirit of resistance and freedom at the heart of San Francisco Pride.

Memories of Stonewall

Former San Francisco Pride board member Peter Fiske was a self-described "flower-child leather hippy – everything the nuns told me not to be" at the time of the Stonewall riots. Raised in Queens and Great Neck on Long Island's north shore, he received a general discharge from the U.S. Army in December 1963 for having an affair with his sergeant. After spending the years that surrounded the Summer of Love in San Francisco, he moved back to the New York area with three friends in December 1968.

Fiske frequented the Stonewall every weekend and some weeknights.

"It was our special place," he explained in an interview that also included GLF vets Avicolli Mecca, Mark Barnes, and Nikos Diaman. "Everyone of interest to someone who was 24 years old went there: hot young men, hot Puerto Ricans and Italians, white, black, leather, a lot of drag. We all got along well together. You could comfortably drop acid on the basement dance floor and stay all night."

Fiske, 64, insists that because of the sense of camaraderie that made Stonewall so special, people were not willing to be quietly thrown out or carted off. They refused to back down once NYPD had entered the premises with the intention of closing the bar.

As fate would have it, on June 25, two days before the Stonewall riots began, Fiske and his family of three male friends left New York for San Francisco. They learned about the rebellion from a copy of the Times they picked up in Joplin, Missouri. Forty years later, he is an active member of the Stonewall Vets, who have a Web site. Fiske is also working with Barnes, Avicolli Mecca, Diaman, and others to organize the GLF 40th Anniversary Facebook page, a Yahoo group site, and the San Francisco Pride contingent.

"If I had been in New York for Stonewall," said Fiske, "I would definitely have been in the front lines." He will certainly be on the front lines during the parade, when he marches at the head of the Stonewall-GLF 40th anniversary contingent that he, Avicolli Mecca, and Barnes advocated to the San Francisco LGBT Pride Celebration Committee.  

On the front lines

Martin Boyce, 65, a lifelong New Yorker who currently works as a chef, vividly recalled the first night of the Stonewall riots.

"I was a 21-year-old 'scare-drag queen,' a queen you know is a boy, who hung on the street with other scare-drag queens who had a toehold on the straight world," he said in a telephone interview. "They were amazingly interesting people, really crazy, fascinating. Every day with them was like South Park. You didn't know what was coming, but it was something you'd talk about for the rest of the week. It was the last hurrah of the hip."

Although he was attending Hunter College at the time, Boyce was getting his "real education" at nights on the street. "We were all rebelling. Christopher Street was our street, not theirs. Our nerve center was that we were all wild," he said.

On June 27, Boyce was sitting on a stoop on Christopher Street with two friends when they heard a commotion.

"We saw some queens trying to get away," he recalled. "We went toward the bar. I saw a policeman pushing someone into a paddy wagon, and saw someone in high heels kick him and send him flying."

After the wagon left, the crowd formed a semi-circle around the police. "Everyone expected us to stop, but we forced them into the bar," Boyce said. "After they padlocked the door, one of the scare-queens ripped out a car meter and started ramming the door. Then this queen put lighter fluid on the door and lit it up."

Soon after that, reinforcements arrived, and the riot was on for real.

"People would not back down," he recalled. "It was a shifting crowd, with small arenas of pocketed violence where the cops were confronted. It was like musical chairs, kaleidoscopic, spiraling in and out of control. Some queens even attacked cabs and hit busses, but were careful not injure anyone."

Boyce, who soon caused a crisis at Hunter College when he insisted on gay themes for all his term papers, returned to the street the next two nights to participate in far more planned, self-conscious provocation.

"Sex is the most democratic thing in the world," he said of the commonality that brought people together. "Our collective memories extended back in time to Leonardo and Michelangelo, to Greece and Rome when we were once free, and we were fighting from that place. If we drag queens lit the torch, the more middle-class A-gays came along to carry it. We're the wings of the same dove. It's all about human rights. I'm so proud of gay people."

From around the corner to GLF

Perry Brass, 62, an early member of New York GLF who assembled the final three issues of GLF's Come Out newspaper in his Hell's Kitchen apartment, is a feted writer and poet who currently runs Belhue Press. He's also one of the GLF vets planning New York's Stonewall-GLF 40 Pride contingent.

Brass has very different memories of the Stonewall Inn.

"It was a Mafia toilet bar that attracted a younger crowd that had an identity all their own," he recalled by phone. "You were met at the door by a Mafia goon who made sure you bought a lousy, watered-down drink and paid a $3 cover charge (when rent was $70 per month) before you could descend to the basement and dance in the inch of water on the floor."

On the night of June 27, Brass was around the corner at Junius', the "more acceptable" bar in the Village, when the riots began. Most of the ruckus was over by the time he arrived.

"The significance of the riots," he said, "was that before Stonewall, homosexuality was totally secret and distasteful. Even the two main organizations, Mattachine and Daughters of Bilitis, were, with one or two exceptions, very secretive. To do anything in a totally public way other than Mattachine's once-a-year Day of Remembrance in Philadelphia was forbidden. After Stonewall, that was totally blown out of the water. Suddenly there was a realization that there could be a public gay movement that could reach out to the larger community and invite them in."

Martha Shelley, 65, a lesbian writer who migrated from New York to San Francisco and most recently to Portland, is one of the organizers of the SF Stonewall-GLF 40 contingent. She was in New York City on her way to a hot date when she saw some young guys throwing things at cops. It wasn't until Sunday evening or Monday, when she read the newspaper accounts, that she understood what had taken place.

"As soon as I realized what was happening," she explained on phone, "I called Jean Powers, who was running Daughters of Bilitis, and said we had to have a protest march. She called Mattachine about co-sponsoring. I next headed to Mattachine's town hall meeting to make the proposal. Mattachine's head, Dick Leitsch, wasn't terribly enthusiastic, but said to put it to the membership."

As the public spokeswoman for DOB, who at one point fought off accusations of being a communist, Shelley was accustomed to addressing large groups of men. Facing maybe 400 males and one or two women, she received an enthusiastic yes to her proposal.

She then huddled with a group of people to organize the protest. When they continued meeting the following afternoon, the name Gay Liberation Front was born.

"I don't recall if I said it, even though everyone ascribed it to me," she recalled. "All I remember is that when I heard it, I yelled out, 'That's it! We're the Gay Liberation Front.'"

GLF began to meet weekly at Alternate U. at 6th Avenue and 14th Street. Thanks in part to an ad in the Village Voice , the protest march attracted 2,000, far greater than she expected. GLF was up and running. As word spread, chapters began spontaneously in cities across the country. Many in the group, especially those who had been involved in Students for a Democratic Society and other new left organizations, took a multi-issue approach, connecting gay liberation with the liberation of all people worldwide from oppression.

Barnes, 59, who participated in early GLF on the West Coast, recalls that the group didn't just fight for legal recognition.

"We fought for sexual liberation as a revolutionary act," he said. "With GLF a whole generation of 'sexual deviants' came forward – many at great personal expense – to say it is not going to be like this ever again. We were saying that to be accepted, you don't have to act like straight people."

Indeed, Avicolli Mecca recalled that many male members of Philadelphia GLF considered cocksucking an act of freedom.

Roughly two years after New York GLF began, the rebellious, anarchistic nature of its members; increasingly divisive debates about forming alliances with other oppressed groups and devoting energy to a host of national and international issues; and the oppressive sexism of the men toward their sisters led the organization to splinter into lesbian separatist groups such as Radicalesbians and militant, single-issue groups such as the Gay Activist Alliance (co-founded by current San Francisco resident Arthur Evans).

Nonetheless, GLF's boundless optimism and inclusiveness continued to inspire activists worldwide, and resurfaced in aspects of the Harvey Milk electoral campaign, ACT UP, and Queer Nation.

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