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Gay Liberation is the name used to describe the radical lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered movement of the late 1960s and early to mid 1970s in North America, Western Europe, and Australia and New Zealand. The phrase is somewhat synonymous with the contemporary gay rights movement and broader LGBT social movements, but following the academic use, this article is about movements of a particular historical period that shared similar goals and strategies.
Specifically, the word 'gay' was preferred to previous designations such as homosexual or homophile; some saw 'gay' as a rejection of the false dichotomy heterosexual/homosexual. Lesbians and gays were urged to "come out", publicly revealing their sexuality to family, friends and colleagues as a form of activism, and to counter shame with gay pride. Coming out and Pride parades have remained an important part of modern LGBT movements, and the visibility of lesbian and gay communities has continued to grow.
Gay Lib is also known for its links to the counterculture of the time, and for the Gay Liberationists' intent to transform fundamental institutions of society such as gender and the family. In order to achieve such liberation, consciousness raising and direct action were employed. By the late 1970s, the radicalism of Gay Liberation was eclipsed by a return to a more formal movement that espoused gay and lesbian civil rights.
Origins and history of movement
Although the Stonewall riots in 1969 in New York are popularly remembered as the spark that produced a new movement, the origins predate this iconic event. Certainly, militant resistance to police bar-raids was nothing new — as early as 1725, customers fought off a police raid at a London homosexual/transgender molly house. Organised movements, particularly in Western Europe, have been active since the 19th century, producing publications, forming social groups and campaigning for social and legal reform. The movements of the period immediately preceding Gay Lib, from the end of World War II to the late 1960s, are known collectively as the Homophile movement. The homophile movement has been described as "politically conservative", although their calls for social acceptance of same-sex love and transsexuality were seen as radical fringe views by the dominant culture of the time.
Early 1960s New York, under the Wagner administration, was beset with harassment against the gay community, particularly by the NYPD. Homosexuals were seen as the subject of a drive to rid the city of undesirables. Subsequently, only the mafia had the power and financial resources to run gay bars and clubs. By 1965, influenced by Frank Kameny’s addresses in the early 1960s, Dick Leitsch, the president of the New York Mattachine Society, advocated direct action, and the group staged the first public homosexual demonstrations and picket lines in the 1960s. Frank Kameny, founder of Mattachine Washington in 1961, had advocated militant action reminiscent of the black civil rights campaign, whilst also arguing for the morality of homosexuality. The State Liquor Authority of New York State did not allow homosexuals to be served in licensed bars in the state under penalty of revocation of the bar's license to operate. This denial of public accommodation had been confirmed by a court decision in the early 1940s. A legal study, commissioned by Mattachine New York on the city’s alcohol beverage law concluded that there was no law that prohibited homosexuals gathering in bars but that there was a law that prohibited disorderly behaviour in bars, which the SLA had been interpreting as homosexual behaviour. Leitsch, then, announced to the press that three members of Mattachine New York would turn up at a restaurant on the lower east side, announce their homosexuality and upon refusal of service make a complaint to the SLA. This came to be known as the ‘Sip In’ and only succeeded at the third attempt in the Julius Bar in Greenwich Village. The ‘Sip In’, though, did gain extensive media attention and the resultant legal action against the SLA eventually prevented them from revoking licenses on the basis of homosexual solicitation in 1967. In the years before 1969 the organization also was effective in getting New York City to change its policy of police entrapment of gay men, and to rescind its hiring practices designed to screen out gay people. The significance of the new John Lindsay administration and the use of the media by Mattachine New York should not be underestimated in ending police entrapment though. Lindsay would later gain a reputation for placing much focus on quelling social troubles in the city and his mayorship coinciding with the end of entrapment should be seen as significant. By late 1967, a New York group called the Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN), essentially a one-man operation on the part of Craig Rodwell, was already espousing the slogans "Gay Power" and "Gay is Good" in its publication HYMNAL.
The 1960s was a time of social upheaval in the West, and the Sexual revolution and counterculture influenced changes in the homosexual subculture, which in the U.S. included bookshops, publicly sold newspapers and magazines and a community center. It was during this time that Los Angeles saw its first big gay movement. In 1967, the night of New Years, several plain clothed police officers infultrated the Black Cat Tavern. After arresting several patrons for kissing to celebrate the occasion, the self-unidentified police officers began beating several of the patrons and ultimately arrested 16 more bar attendees which included 3 bartenders. This created a riot in the immediate area, ultimately bringing about a more civil demonstration of over 200 attendees several days later protesting the raids. The protest was met by squadrons of armed policemen. It was from this event that the publication The Advocate and organization Metropolitan Community Church (lead by Pastor Troy Perry) was born.
Few areas in the U.S. saw a more diverse mix of subcultures than Greenwich Village, which was host to the gay street youth. A group of young, effeminate runaways, shunned by their families, society and the gay community, they reflected the countercultural movement more than any other homosexual group. Refusing to hide their homosexuality, they were brutalised, rebellious tearaways who took drugs, fought, shoplifted and hustled older gay men in order to survive. Their age, behaviour, feminine attire and conduct left them isolated from the rest of the gay scene, but living close to the streets, they made the perfect warriors for the imminent Stonewall Riots. These emerging social possibilities, combined with the new social movements such as Black Power, Women's Liberation, and the student insurrection of May 1968 in France, heralded a new era of radicalism. After the Stonewall riots in New York City in late June 1969 many within the emerging Gay Liberation movement in the U.S. saw themselves as connected with the New Left rather than the established homophile groups of the time. The words "Gay Liberation" echoed "Women's Liberation"; the Gay Liberation Front consciously took its name from the National Liberation Fronts of Vietnam and Algeria; and the slogan "Gay Power", as a defiant answer to the rights-oriented homophile movement, was inspired by Black Power, which was a response to the civil rights movement.
On March 28, 1969 in San Francisco, Leo Laurence (the editor of Vector, magazine of the United States' largest homophile organization, the Society for Individual Rights) called for "the Homosexual Revolution of 1969," exhorting gay men and lesbians to Join the Black Panthers and other left-wing groups and to "come out" en masse. Laurence was expelled from the organization in May for characterizing members as "timid" and "middle-class, uptight, bitchy old queens."
He then co-founded a militant group, the Committee for Homosexual Freedom, with Gale Whittington—a young man who had been fired from States Steamship Company for being openly gay, after his photo appeared in the Berkley Barb, next to the headline "HOMOS, DON'T HIDE IT!", the revolutionary article by Leo Laurence. The same month Carl Wittman, a member of CHF, began writing Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto, which would later be described as "the bible of Gay Liberation". It was first published in the San Francisco Free Press and distributed nation-wide, all the way to New York City, as was the Berkeley Barb with Leo's stories on CHF's Gay Guerilla militant initiatives.
In June 1969, when a group of patrons of the racially mixed Stonewall Inn resisted a police raid, the ensuing riots provided the galvanizing event that gay activists could take advantage of. A month after the event, on July 31, the Gay Liberation Front was formed, and the name of their magazine, "Come Out!", was an indication of their political program. By the end of the year, there were over a dozen like-minded groups around the United States.
Their broad agenda included opposition to consumerism, militarism, racism, and sexism, but was primarily focused on "sexual liberation". The GLF's statement of purpose explained:
"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. We reject society's attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature."
In December 1969 the Gay Liberation Front voted a cash donation to the Black Panthers, some of whose leaders had expressed the most virulent homophobic sentiments. Prominent GLF members were also strong supporters of Fidel Castro's regime, which was rounding up gay people and putting them in detention camps. These actions cost GLF, a numerically small group, popular support in New York City, and some of its members left to form the Gay Activists' Alliance. The GLF virtually disappeared from the New York City political scene after the first Stonewall commemoration parade in 1970.
By the summer of 1970, groups in at least eight American cities were sufficiently organized to schedule simultaneous events commemorating the Stonewall riots for the last Sunday in June. The events varied from a highly political march of three to five thousand in New York and thousands more at parades in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. While groups using the Gay Liberation Front name appeared around the U.S., in New York that organization was replaced totally by the Gay Activist Alliance. Groups with a "Gay Lib" approach began to spring up around the world, such as Campaign Against Moral Persecution (CAMP, Inc.) in Australia and the British Gay Liberation Front. The lesbian group Lavender Menace was also formed in the U.S in response to both the male domination of other Gay Lib groups and the anti-lesbian sentiment in the Women's Movement. Lesbianism was advocated as a feminist choice for women, and the first currents of lesbian separatism began to emerge.
In August of the same year, Huey Newton, the leader of the Black Panthers, publicly expressed his support for the Gay Liberation, contrary to previous statements by Panther leaders, and Women's Liberation movements.
Although a short-lived group, the Comite Pederastique de la Sorbonne, had meetings during the student uprising of May 1968, the real public debut of the modern gay liberation movement in France occurred on 10 March 1971, when a group of lesbians from the Front Homosexuel d'Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR) disrupted a live radio broadcast entitled “Homosexuality, This Painful Problem”. The expert guests, including a Catholic priest, were suddenly interrupted by a group of lesbians from the audience, yelling, "It's not true, we're not suffering! Down with the heterocops!" The protesters stormed the stage, one young woman taking hold of the priest’s head and pounding it repeatedly against the table. The control room quickly cut off the microphones and switched to recorded music.
- Carter, David, 2004. Stonewall:The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution.
- Speaking Out
- Timeline of Homosexual History, 1961 to 1979
- The Tangent Group: Press Release regarding the 1966 raid on the Balck Cat bar
- The Tangent Group: Press Release regarding the 1966 raid on the Balck Cat bar
- L.A., 1/1/67: the Black Cat riots. | The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide (March, 2006)
- Speaking Out
- Letters from Camp Rehoboth - September 14, 2007 - PAST Out
- Shelley, Martha, 1970. Gay is Good.
- Carter, David, 2004. Stonewall:The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution.
- Sibalis, Michael. 2005. Gay Liberation Comes to France: The Front Homosexuel d’Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR), Published in 'French History and Civilization. Papers from the George Rudé Seminar. Volume 1.' PDF link
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