The Radical Roots of LGBTQ Activism

Images from the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots, the 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Day March.
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As some in the LGBTQ community were considering the movement in the days following the 1969 Stonewall riots, those who had roots in the anti-war movement, in radical groups, and in organizations that were battling economic inequality saw an opportunity.

“Coming back to the city on Monday, June 30, felt markedly different,” said Ellen Broidy during a panel discussion of former members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) held at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in June of last year. “It was as if lightning had struck.”

While the Mattachine Society of New York (MSNY), the leading LGBTQ group in the city at that time, was calling for calm, those who had experience organizing and protesting with far left groups “understood the possibility and the necessity of turning a moment into a movement,” Broidy said.

The actions these radicals took over the next few years fundamentally altered the LGBTQ movement for decades.

During the 2019 event, panelist Karla Jay said she was in Red Stockings, a radical feminist group; John Knoebel had “very extensive interactions with the Black Panthers;” and Jason Serinus participated in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Venceremos Brigade, a pro-Cuba group that organized trips to Cuba.

“None of us who were in that first brigade, none of us really knew what happened to gay people in Cuba,” Serinus said, referring to the Cuban LGBTQ citizens who were imprisoned by that government.

“My parents were communists with a capital C,” said Allen Young, who was also in the SDS. “I was not. I was part of the New Left.”

The New Left was a broad movement that sought to engage in what today is called intersectionality or a way of analyzing and organizing multiple movements so they are more allied. Stonewall marked a significant change.

“The post-Stonewall movement did something entirely new,” Young said. “We didn’t do it quietly.”

As was and remains common on the left and on the right, among the first actions these new movement members took was to effectively overthrow the existing organizations and to give the LGBTQ movement greater visibility.

While there had been public actions by LGBTQ groups in the New York City since at least 1963, they were sporadic and small. Mattachine had been holding nearly monthly meetings with an impressive list of speakers since 1957. The highest profile actions were the Annual Reminder Days that were pickets that took place at Independence Hall in Philadelphia every 4th of July from 1965 to 1969.

Veterans of the Gay Liberation Front marching as grand marshals in the 2019 WorldPride March.Michael Luongo

At a July 9 MSNY meeting held to discuss previous month’s riots at Stonewall — a meeting that police surveillance estimated was attended by 125 people — Martha Shelley, who would become a GLF member, was in a group tasked with organizing a demonstration to respond to the police actions. That group created the Gay Liberation Front name that borrowed from the National Liberation Front of North Vietnam. Dick Leitsch, the head of MSNY who was proprietary about the movement in New York, burst into the room where the group was meeting.

“He was really upset,” Shelley said in David Carter’s “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” the definitive account of the riots. “He thought we were going to have another organization. There were seven gay organizations in New York, some consisting only of two people and a newsletter. He wanted there to be one organization, with him at the head of it.”

On August 2, some GLF members joined a rally and march produced by the SDS, the Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade Committee, and groups associated with the Workers World Party (WWP), a group that spilt from the Socialist Workers Party in 1959. Their banner had the interlocked female/ female and male/ male symbols that were GLF’s symbol. The NYPD’s political surveillance unit shot a nine-minute film of the protest.

But it was in November of 1969 that the new force in the LGBTQ movement won its most significant victory and the one that has lasted the longest — the annual Pride March. Members attending the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO) in Philadelphia moved and passed a proposal to replace the Annual Reminder Days with a march on the last Saturday in June to commemorate the Stonewall riots.

In October, Broidy, Linda Rhodes, and Fred Sargeant met at Craig Rodwell’s home where they crafted the resolution that Broidy would introduce, according to “The Deviant’s War: The Homosexual vs. The United States of America,” Eric Cervini’s biography of Frank Kameny, the founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington and the original organizer of the Annual Reminder Days. Rodwell and Sargeant are credited with being the primary organizers of the 1970 march. Broidy, Michael Brown, Marty Nixon, Marty Robinson, and Foster Gunnison, who was not a radical, also contributed.

They met for dinner and “within a minute, Craig had a pad and pen ready and we began drafting a resolution,” Broidy said during the GLF event.

The ERCHO gathering was tense and some of the GLF members were aggressive in arguing for the changes they wanted. Kameny had to witness the demise of his event. MSNY abstained on the motion to replace the Annual Reminder Days.

“The reason we went was that we believed the politics of the homophile movement were at a finish,” Jim Fouratt, the longtime LGBTQ activist, told Gay City News last year. “The single issue politics of the homophile movement was rejected by the men and women in the Gay Liberation Front.”

The new, radical voices had quickly broken with the past and announced a new form of activism in the LGBTQ community.

“We were the first organization to have the word ‘gay’ in its name,” Perry Brass said during the 2019 GLF panel.

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