A Truly Queer History
Tommi Avicolli Mecca draws together witnesses from an age of liberation
A review of SMASH THE CHURCH, SMASH THE STATE! THE EARLY YEARS OF GAY LIBERATION, edited by Tommi Avicolli Mecca, City Lights Books, 303 pages; $18.95
Myth has it that the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village were the first open queer rebellion against discrimination. Not so. In 1965, the first queer sit-ins on record took place at a late-night Philadelphia coffee shop and lunch counter called Dewey's, which was a popular hangout for young gays and lesbians, and particularly drag queens and others with gender-variant attire. The establishment had begun refusing service to this LGBT clientele.
As an April 25 protest rally took place outside Dewey's, more than 150 patrons were turned away by management. But four teens resisted efforts to force them out and were arrested, later convicted on charges of disorderly conduct. In the ensuing weeks, Dewey's patrons and others from Philadelphia's gay community set up an informational picket line protesting the lunch counter's treatment of gender-variant youth. On May 2, activists staged another sit-in, and the police were again called, but this time made no arrests. The restaurant backed down, and promised "an immediate cessation of all indiscriminate denials of service."
In August 1966, there was a riot at Compton's Cafeteria, a 24-hour San Francisco eatery popular with drag queens and other gender-benders (this was long before the word "transgendered" was in use), hustlers (many of them members of Vanguard, the first organization for queer youth on record, founded some months earlier), runaway teens, and cruising gays. The Compton's management had begun calling police to roust this non-conformist clientele, and one night a drag queen precipitated the riot by throwing a cup of coffee into the face of a cop who was trying to drag her away. Plates, trays, cups, and silverware were soon hurtling through the air, police paddy wagons arrived, and street fighting broke out. Some of the 60 or so rioting drag queens hit the cops with their heavy purses, a police car was vandalized, and a newspaper stand was burned down. The Compton's Riot eventually led to the appointment of the first police liaison to the gay community, and the establishment of the first known transsexual support group in the US.
These are just two of the many nuggets of little-known or forgotten queer history to be found in "Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation," the new anthology edited by Tommi Avicolli Mecca, himself a veteran of the earliest gay liberation struggles, and today an activist, gender-bending performance artist, and writer well-known to San Francisco queers.
By the time of the Stonewall riots in June 1969, rebellion and radicalism were in the air. The country had been riven in two by the mass agitation against the war in Vietnam. The multiracial civil rights movement was being replaced by the Black Power movement, the Black Panthers had been born four years earlier, and America's cities had exploded in urban riots by the black underclass. Feminists had begun to articulate their own liberationist ideology and burn their bras. Stonewall and the militant gay liberation movement to which it gave birth arose out of this '60s turbulence, and cannot be properly understood separated from this context.
If the first night of the Stonewall riots was spontaneous, and led principally by drag queens like the legendary Sylvia Rivera, a street hustler who always claimed she'd thrown the first beer bottle at the cops, the ensuing nights of protest benefited from some more consciously activist participation. As Mark Segal, who for 32 years has been the publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, puts it in his contribution to this anthology, "Marty Robinson recruited me into the 'activist group,' a subgroup of Mattachine New York. If there were organizers of the demonstrations on the nights following the [first] Stonewall riot, it was us. After the first incident in which cops raided the bar, Marty had the brilliant idea to have us write in chalk on Christopher Street, 'Stonewall Tomorrow Night.' For three more nights, we gathered and protested."
What made Stonewall the much-evoked milestone in queer activist history that it's become was that it was followed in the ensuing weeks by the launch of a concrete and militant political organization, the Gay Liberation Front, into which Robinson and his Mattachine action group merged. Many of the 37 men and women who participated in the founding meeting of GLF, and others who later joined, were youthful veterans of other '60s struggles, and GLF's radical politics were multi-issue. Within two years, imitators of the New York GLF had launched some 300 independent Gay Liberation Front cells across the country. At GLF demonstrations, one frequently heard the chant "2-4-6-8, Smash the Church, Smash the State!" -- hence the title of Avicolli Mecca's collection of articles, largely first-person reminiscences of the earliest and most radical wave of gay liberation struggles, the bulk of them specifically written for this volume.
As Nick Benton, a founder of the Berkeley Gay Liberation Front and of its offshoot, the seminal queer newspaper Gay Sunshine, writes, for him and his fellow GLF activists "gay liberation was part of the larger struggle of human beings for liberation, in solidarity with the civil rights, anti-war, feminist, and Third World liberation struggles." The first editorial of Gay Sunshine proclaimed that gay liberation would represent "those who understand themselves as oppressed -- politically oppressed by an oppressor that not only is down on homosexuality, but equally down on all things that are not white, straight, middle class, pro-establishment... It should harken to a greater cause -- the cause of human liberation, of which homosexual liberation is just one aspect -- and on that level take its stand."
GLF supported the Black Panthers -- and were rewarded with a much-publicized "Open Letter to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters" by the Panthers' charismatic theoretician, Huey Newton, reproduced in this anthology, proclaiming that homosexuals "might be the most oppressed people in the world," and adding that "we should be careful about using those terms that might turn our friends off. The terms 'faggot' and 'punk' should be deleted from our vocabulary, and especially we should not attach names normally designed for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people, like Nixon."
Early gay liberation saw itself as a cultural paradigm shift from the stultifying atmosphere of the Nixon years. As the first editorial in the New York GLF's newspaper, ComeOut!, proclaimed, "We will not be gay bourgeoisie, searching for the sterile 'American dream' of the ivy-covered cottage and the good corporation job, but neither will we tolerate the exclusion of homosexuals from any area of American life."
The personal testimonies collected for "Smash the Church, Smash the State!", augmented by manifestos and documents of that early period and biographical sketches of important movement figures, help recreate those heady, joyously rambunctious days of "sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll" as queers, influenced by the hippies, Yippies, and Zippies, built their own radical wing of the prevailing youth counterculture, and created their own influential publications -- like Boston's Fag Rag, in which a notorious Charlie Shively article proclaimed "Cocksucking As an Act of Revolution."
There are numerous contributions by women who tired of the male domination of GLF and founded groups like RadicalLesbians, RedStockings, and Dyketactics. There are also accounts both of radical gay liberation's earliest and often campy direct actions and of the factional fights that eventually destroyed GLF and led to its replacement by the much larger -- and single-issue -- Gay Activists Alliance, which emerged just six months after Stonewall.
Avicolli Mecca has not abandoned the anarchic radicalism of those early days. He writes in his introduction, "In many ways, the new millennium gay movement is the antithesis of the early '70s gay liberation. It cavorts with politicians who may be good on gay issues, but not on concerns affecting other disenfranchised communities. It is in bed with the Democratic Party establishment that gave carte blanche to George Bush to wage two illegal and immoral wars in the Middle East. It courts corporate support for its gala events, even its pride parades, which used to be protest marches and celebrations of the Stonewall Riots. Now those marches seem more of a market than a movement."
On this 40th anniversary of Stonewall, that's a critique that deserves to be heard.
A complete collection of the Gay Liberation Front's newspaper, ComeOut!, has just been posted on the excellent OutHistory website, founded by pioneering gay historian Jonathan Ned Katz, along with a collection of the original police reports on the Stonewall riot. Tommy Avicolli Mecca's web site is at avicollimecca.com/. Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/.