Days after the Stonewall riots, the Mattachine Society of New York, the largest homosexual organization in the city, tried to make the most of the sense of power released by them. As it was, the younger generation of mostly Baby Boomers had little patience for the tactics and politics of their homophile elders, many of whom came to age in the early 1950s.
The homophile movement, which preceded the paradigm shift that occurred on Christopher Street, believed that social acceptance of homosexuality could only come slowly by changing the opinion of society. The assistance of medical and legal experts from the straight world was seen as essential for society to accept change. The generation that came of age in the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements had little tolerance for what seemed to the the antiquated conventions and convictions of the older homophile leaders.
Michael Brown, a young gay activist of the New Left, after reading “The Hairpin Drop Heard Around the World,” written by Mattachine Executive Director Dick Leitsch, contacted Leitsch and with his support created the Mattachine’s Community Action Committee as a response to the clashes with the police on Christopher Street.
The first meeting of the Community Action Committee was held on July 9, 1969, and the second meeting a week later. Between the two meetings a young activist and committee member named Marty Robinson initiated protest “hangouts” in Greenwich Village where groups of homosexuals would congregate at some spot. When the police responded to tell them to move along, the protesters declared it was their right to assemble peacefully and refused to move.
A confrontational reaction by the police was held in check by New York City Mayor John Lindsay. He was running for re-election and was not anxious to have any more issues for his opponents to criticize his running of the city. Actually, it was Mayor Lindsay’s campaign drive to clean up the morals of New York City that initiated the riots at the Stonewall Inn bar in the first place.
The second Community Action Committee met at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Waverly Place where it quickly became apparent that the “generation gap” between the older homophiles and the younger New Left Gays was explosive. Many in the audience had been participants in the riots and beaten by the police while none of the Mattachine leaders had been. Leitsch opened the meeting by trying to set a conciliatory moderate tone. He told the mostly young audience that while police brutality must be protested, “homosexuals must retain the favor of the Establishment, especially those who make and change the laws.”
He made the same homophile argument that acceptance would come slowly, and only “by educating the straight community with grace and good humor.” In response a young gay man jumped up and yelled “We don’t want acceptance, God damn it! We want respect! Demand it!” He went on saying, “We’re through hiding in dark bars behind Mafia doormen. We’re going to go where straights go and do anything with each other they do and if they don’t like it, well fuck them! Straights don’t have to be ashamed of anything sexy they happen to feel like doing in public and neither do we! We’re through cringing and begging like a lot of nervous old nellies at Cherry Grove!”
The extreme outburst and perceived rudeness of the long-haired man shocked Mattachine assistant Madolin Cervantes, a heterosexual woman who had devoted her life to homosexual equality. Ruffled, she tried to redirect the meeting back to the congenial posturing by saying, “Well, now I think that what we ought to have is a vigil in a park. Carry candles, perhaps I think we should be firm, but just as amicable and sweet as…” But before she could finish her sentence, New Left activist Jim Fourett called out, “Sweet!? Sweet Bullshit!”
Agitated, Fourett then stood and bellowed, “There’s the stereotype homo again, man! … bullshit! That’s the role society has been forcing these queens to play, and they just sit and accept it. We got to radicalize, man! Why? Because as long as we accept getting fired from jobs because we are gay, or not being hired at all, or being treated like second-class citizens, we’re going to remain neurotic and screwed up! Be proud of what you are, man! And if it takes riots or even guns to show them what we are, well that’s the only language that the pigs understand!” Fourett’s remarks resonated with the audience and nearly shut the meeting down by their thunderous “wild applause.”
Lietsch, calling for order, tried to reassert control of the meeting, but Fourett kept shutting him down. “All of the oppressed have to unite! The system keeps us all weak by keeping us separate. We’ve got to work together with all the New Left.” At this, Leitcsh had had enough, and clearly flustered began screaming for order. He was ignored and the meeting broke up.
After this divisive second meeting, it was obvious that those gay youth who grew up with the mantra “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” an attack phrase against the United States’ establishment, were not to be placated by the worn-out platitudes of homophile leaders.
The last meeting of the Mattachine Society’s Committee Action Committee was held July 23, again at St. John’s, but was poorly attended. Committee member Marty Robinson was criticized for the lack of attendance from having spent his time trying to get straights of the Village interested in the plight of homosexuals at the expense of keeping other committee members informed. Also, after the heated exchange at the previous meeting, there was also a perception by young activists that the leaders of the Mattachine Society lacked an interest in continuing the group nor in hearing their views.
A group of New Left activists, however, were busy on their own after having rejected the ways of the homophile elders. They formed a new committee and rechristened their group the Gay Liberation Front. A key difference between the homophile movement and Gay Liberationists was the openly use of the word “gay” for homosexual men and women. Gay had been avoided by the previous generation of homophiles in favor of often cryptic, inoffensive names like Mattachine, Bilitis and Janus. Gay was now in your face and shoved down your throat.
On July 24, 1969, a leaflet posted all over the village read “Do You Think Homosexuals Are Revolting? You Bet Your Sweet Ass We Are.” It was the first announcement of the formation of the new Gay Liberation Front. Additionally the flier stated, “We’re going to make a place for ourselves in the revolutionary movement. We challenge the myths that we are screwing up this society.”
The name chosen for the new movement was based on the designation preferred by the Vietcong and other anti-imperialist leftist organizations. By using the word Front, the organizers saw it not as an exclusive gay organization but as a movement that brought all gay organizations under its banner. The symbol for the Gay Liberation Front was a clenched raised fist.
The core activists of GLF organized marches on Time Magazine and The Village Voice, fundraising dances, consciousness-raising groups, and radical study groups. They published their own newspaper, Come Out!, and quickly became the new gay mass political movement on both coasts and, by October, even in Utah. Although many activists moved on to create more focused organizations, GLF transformed the consciousness of everyone it touched, including me.