A Radical Voice Rekindles the Spirit of June 1969

Martha Shelly speaks, while Community Board 2 chair Tobi Bergman and Congressmember Jerry Nadler look on. | DONNA ACETO

Martha Shelly speaks, while Community Board 2 chair Tobi Bergman and Congressmember Jerry Nadler look on. | DONNA ACETO

Remarks from Martha Shelley, a participant in the Stonewall Rebellion and a founder of the Gay Liberation Front, at the September 20 press conference announcing plans to press for creation of a national park anchored on the vicinity of the Christopher Street bar at the heart of the action in June 1969:

I’m Martha Shelley and I was one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front. We’re at the Stonewall Inn today because of the riot that took place around these premises back in 1969. Before then, gay people had to keep the most central part of our souls hidden in shame, and now we might have a national park celebrating our struggles. This is terribly important, because we need to know our history, not have it tamed down and prettified, the way they try to do to Martin Luther King, or even erased as though we never existed. So here's some of that history.

The Stonewall Riot wasn't the first of its kind. The first occurred in 1966, at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. What’s special about the Stonewall Riot is that some of us seized the opportunity to form the Gay Liberation Front. Up to 1969, the existing gay organizations were assimilationist. They aimed to convince America that all gays wanted was acceptance into middle-class society. They pleaded. They were well-dressed and polite. And they got almost nowhere.

GLF was a coalition of radical gays from those mainstream organizations, gay radicals from socialist organizations, and street queens and dykes who'd never been organized before. We made alliances with other groups that shared our dreams of a just society, like the Black Panthers and the women's liberation movement.

At one point, we put together a list of demands. These included the right to control your own body, which meant freedom to engage in consensual sexuality, reproductive rights for women, freedom to get high, and freedom not to have your ass drafted and shipped to Vietnam. Our demands included an end to racist oppression. They included economic justice.

We are here today because the in-your-face tactics of groups like GLF, Gay Activists Alliance, and ACT UP succeeded, at least to a certain extent. We have same-sex marriage. Now we can volunteer to have our openly gay asses blown up in the Middle East. America may be on the road to ending the drug war. BUT –– every day we read about the cops murdering another unarmed black or Hispanic person and getting away with it. Our jails and prisons have become a vast gulag for poor minorities. Abortion rights are being slashed and women are still treated like baby-making machines. Economic inequality is astronomically worse: ordinary workers have lost their jobs, their homes, and their pensions, while CEO pay is somewhere between 700 percent and 1000 percent greater today than it was in 1969. And the filthy rich — I do mean filthy — want to keep us burning fossil fuels, so they can pile up more money while the whole planet goes down.

Let’s pause for a moment today, because we need to celebrate our victories. But only for a moment. And then let’s all of us — especially you young people — get out in the streets and organize.

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