Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 38 / 21 September 2017
 

The legacy of
the Gay Liberation Front

Pride


Bay Area gay liberation pioneers Gary Alinder, Jim Fishman, Tom Brougham and Leland Traiman share a laugh as they recall their early activism. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
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In August 1969, a month after they founded New York's Gay Liberation Front, some of its members published a defining statement of the organization in the Rat, a publication of the Students for a Democratic Society.

"We are a revolutionary group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished," they began. "We reject society's attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature. We are stepping outside these roles and simplistic myths. We are going to be who we are. At the same time, we are creating new social forms and relations, that is relations based upon brotherhood, cooperation, human love, and uninhibited sexuality. Babylon has forced us to commit ourselves to one thing ... revolution."

Around the same time, Allen Young, a former SDS activist, future author (with Karla Jay) of several definitive books on the gay movement, and soon-to-be member of New York's 17th Street gay political collective where this writer also lived, wrote, "Gay is good for all of us. The artificial categories 'heterosexual' and 'homosexual' have been laid on us by a sexist society. ... As gays, we demand an end to the gender programming which starts when we are born. ... The family ... is the primary means by which this restricted sexuality is created and enforced. ... Our understanding of sexism is premised on the idea that in a free society everyone will be gay."

If these statements suggest a new form of identity politics in which the new left slogan, "the personal is political," took on a distinct lavender tint, you're on target. One of the central ways GLFers forged their new identities as adamantly out gays was in small consciousness raising groups. Sitting in circles, members discussed their backgrounds, beliefs, and what they had in common. One week they'd discuss participation in sports, another week fathers or siblings, and the next if they preferred dolls over toy soldiers or girls rather than boys as friends in the first grade. Slowly people began to explode myths, e.g. the homosexual is the offspring of a dominant mother and emotionally reticent father (although some of us were), and formulate a new gay, unapologetic identity.

Perry Brass, 62, who published the final three issues of New York GLF's Come Out newspaper, asserts that GLF believed that consciousness could change the world.

"First you had to be awake and conscious of other people and other oppressed people," he said. "That's why we had the conscious-raising groups. GLF looked at gay oppression through the same radical lens that feminists had used, and in doing so completely changed our view of what it meant to be gay."

"Gay was something only we could define, not our oppressors," he added. "Instead of answering our oppressors, as the earlier Mattachine did when they worked so hard to disprove that gays were sick, we ignored the psychiatrists, the church, and the military. They were irrelevant to us. This kind of consciousness spread very quickly, because so many people wanted to feel liberated. With our radical interpretation of 'gayness,' the psychiatrists, the priests, the law, and their own once closeted minions started coming over to us. Thus the American Psychiatric Association ends its designation of homosexuality as an illness less than four full years after GLF was founded."

Meanwhile, on the West Coast ...

Early West Coast activist Pat Brown, 64, now living in La Jolla, cited a major action in San Francisco that preceded Stonewall by three months. In March 1969, Leo Laurence, a news editor at KGO-TV and editor of Vector , the magazine of San Francisco mainstream homophile organization, the Society for Individual Freedom, became incensed when an innocent photo the now-defunct Berkeley Barb published of him with his arm around his friend Dale Whittington got Whittington fired for being gay from States Steamship. After SIR opposed Laurence's proposal to form a picket line in front of the company headquarters in the financial district, Laurence split from SIR to form the Committee for Homosexual Freedom.

"When Empress Jose [Sarria] and Charles Pierce supported the picketing," said Brown, "the old queens from SIR came over but said we should all wear suits and ties. I said, 'Chinga, sua madre !' So we picketed in bellbottoms and shorts and sang the theme song from Hair about sodomy and fellatio. Because the Barb, which reported the incident, was sold in New York City, some New Yorkers were aware of our new wave of activism before Stonewall."

After GLF began in New York, some members of CHF formed a San Francisco GLF. On October 31, 1969, GLF picketed the old San Francisco Examiner because, in Brown's words, one of their columnists had written nasty articles about "the scum that hung out at gay bars." After agent provocateurs intervened, the police tactical squad moved in and broke demonstrators' teeth and ribs. The resultant press coverage broke the gay press boycott in the state.

Other early West Coast actions included the first gay event at Pauley Ballroom at U.C. Berkeley, jointly sponsored by Students for Gay Power and the Berkeley Free Clinic. Peter Fiske, 64, one of the organizers of the Stonewall-GLF 40th anniversary contingent in this Sunday's Pride parade, recalls the first SF Pride March down Polk Street to Aquatic Park to celebrate the first anniversary of Stonewall.

Tom Brougham, 66, one of the founders of U.C. Berkeley's student group, recalled that what were essentially gay rap groups were happening at Stanford University prior to 1967.

"We were sort of waiting for Stonewall to happen," he said.

"The first time I heard the term Gay Liberation Front, the name just rocked me," Brougham said. "I didn't know if it was real or a joke. There were so many fronts out there. But after I joined, for me personally, it was an explosion. One minute I knew a few people in a few places, and days later I was in front of the White Horse picketing and chanting with 40 or 50 people. The next few months were baptism by total immersion."

Nick Benton, who helped co-found Berkeley Gay Liberation, currently publishes the Falls Church News outside Washington, D.C. Early on, he wrote the first editorial for the first issue of Gay Sunshine, and later became the Barb's main contributor.

When the owners of the White Horse insisted that patrons couldn't touch each other, Benton turned his one-bedroom apartment across the street into the "People's Alternative." Lesbians and gays showed up every night of the week for the next few months until the landlord shut it down.

"GLF completely changed my life," said Benton, who asked that his age not be used. "I went from being a totally freaked out closeted kid from a smaller California town who had a baseball scholarship to a Christian College and felt he needed to take his gayness to his grave, to someone radicalized by the civil rights and anti-war movements. Then I began to claim my individual rights as a gay effeminist. As soon as I came out, I was in it on all fours. It saved my life. I would not have been worth a damn as a human being had I not gone through this transformation myself."

When Gary Alinder moved to Berkeley from New York right after Stonewall, he read in the Barb that the late Constantine Berlandt, former editor of the Daily Cal , was recruiting for a gay guerrilla theater group. From that group, he, Berlandt, and maybe eight others formed Berkeley GLF.

"I came out dramatically," Alinder, 65, said. "I was looking for a different version of being gay than the Boys in the Band, but couldn't quite figure it out in the intimidating New York scene. There was something about Berkeley and the Bay Area scene that enabled me to be gay and come out through politics."

Soon, Alinder and Berlandt started GLF's Gay Sunshine newspaper, which published four or five editions before Winston Leyland took it over. "We were very consciously trying to meld the political left with the hip left," Alinder said. "Some of the people who participated in Berkeley GLF were hippies, and we all identified to some extent with that. The New York people were more politically radical, while we were more culturally radical."

Leland Traiman, 57, who later founded the Rainbow Flag Health Services Sperm Bank, remembers that tension between men and women in GLF spawned consciousness-raising groups about sexism. He recalls a meeting where one queen blared out, "I just love having women at meetings because they're so decorative." A lesbian in room responded, "Honey, if you want a decoration, get yourself a Christmas tree."

Consciousness-raising, Berkeley style

Jim Fishman, 58, now a therapist practicing in the East Bay, remembers consulting a therapist at the University of Rochester about his homosexuality. Fishman was so alienated by the Boys in the Band mentality of the gays he encountered – the stereotypical self-hating, back-biting alcoholic queens depicted in the movie – that he wanted to become straight. Still closeted when he transferred to U.C. Berkeley in the fall of 1970, he happened upon Berkeley GLF after seeing notices for gay dances and a gay coffee house.

Fishman found his first GLF meeting "electrifying." He recalled that GLF had a whole integrated philosophy of pushing for social change and revolutionary ideas. The group had also closely aligned itself with women and the women's movement. When women were being carded and excluded from the White Horse, Berkeley GLF picketed and shut the place down.

After the action, while dancing in Benton's People's Alternative apartment across from the White Horse, Fishman remembers a lesbian yelling out, "We are fucking beautiful!"

"It was magical," he said. "Berkeley GLF was like 100 pounds of weight lifted off my shoulders that I didn't even know I had been carrying. For the first time, I really felt like I was home."

At his first GLF meeting, Fishman learned that Michael Silverstein (who later committed suicide) was starting a consciousness-raising group in his apartment. Seven men joined. At the same time that New York GLFers were forming political collectives, he and others founded the Roger Casement Collective on Oakland's Harrison Street. Fishman, Silverstein, and Brougham wrote articles for Gay Sunshine, and spoke at high schools and colleges. They also attended San Francisco performances by the Cockettes, and wore crazy clothes. Fishman even took part in a gay men's problem solving group in San Francisco that did an action at the Stud challenging male machismo. The flier they handed out, "What does it take to be a Stud?" questioned the traditional male roles gay men were aping.

"Coming to terms with being gay informed my values for the rest of my life," Fishman said. "I turned to a community of gay men as family rather than living this secretive life filled with self-hate – I could walk in the daylight and be gay and be proud. It gave me a tremendous sense of purpose and energy."

There will be a reunion of Stonewall/Gay Liberation Front members Saturday, June 27 from 3 to 5 p.m. at the GLBT Historical Society, 657 Mission Street, Suite 300.






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