Editors' Note: Guest blogger Warren J. Blumenfeld is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
This post was written in anticipation of the 45th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising.
My Early Years
I was born in 1947 during the so-called "McCarthy Era" -- a conservative time, a time when difference of any sort was viewed with suspicion. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, a brash young senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, sternly warned that "Communists [often thought of as Jews in the public imagination] corrupt the minds and sexual perverts [homosexuals] corrupt the bodies of good upstanding Americans," and he proceeded to have gays and lesbians officially banned from any government service. To McCarthy, Jews, homosexuals, and Communists were interchangeable.
For lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* (LGBT) Americans during this era, police frequently raided their bars, which were usually Mafia-owned; the U.S. Postal Service monitored LGBT organizations and even published the names of their mailing lists in local newspapers; and people regularly lost their jobs after being "exposed" as queer. LGBT people were often involuntarily committed to mental institutions by relatives or by the state for long periods of time solely on the basis of their sexual feelings or gender expressions. Some were forced to undergo painful electro-shock treatments; some were even lobotomized to alter or diminish their sexual urges and gender expressions. The process involved the removal of a section of the brain (the frontal lobe), which controls executive functions, emotions, and affect.
Before my second birthday, my parents suspected that I might be gay, or to use the terminology of the day, "homosexual." Shy, withdrawn, I preferred to spend most of my time alone. My parents sent me to a child psychologist in 1951, when I was only four years old, until I reached my thirteenth birthday -- with the express purpose of making sure that I did not grow up "homosexual."
During each session at the psychologist's office, I took off my coat and placed it on the hook behind the door. The psychologist then asked me if there was anything in particular that I wanted to discuss. I invariably said "no." Since I did not understand why I was there in the first place, I surely did not trust him enough to talk candidly with him. For the next 50 minutes, the psychologist and I built model airplanes, cars, boats, and trains -- so-called age-appropriate "boy-type toys." It was obvious that the psychologist confused issues of gender expression with sexuality, believing that he could prevent homosexuality by my learning "masculine" behaviors.
In private sessions with my parents, he told them that he wanted me to concentrate on behaviors and activities associated with males, while of course avoiding those associated with females. He instructed my parents to assign me the household chores of taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn (even though we lived in an apartment building and we did not have a lawn), and not washing or drying the dishes. Also, I was forbidden to play with dolls or to cook. And -- as if this all was not enough -- he advised my parents to sign me up for a little league team, which, despite my hatred for the sport, I joined for two summers.
For most of my years in school, I was continually beaten up and attacked by my peers, who perceived me as someone who was "different." Names like "queer," "little girl," and "fag" targeted me like the big red dodge ball my classmates furiously hurled at one another on the schoolyard. I would not -- and could not -- conform to the gender roles that my family and peers so clearly expected of me, and I regularly paid the price.
The Birth of the Gay Liberation Front
Looking back to the Middle Ages, governments and citizens often rounded up men accused of same-sex eroticism (then called "fairies"), bound and tossed them on the ground like kindling, and unceremoniously set them ablaze. Their burning bodies ignited women accused of witchcraft whom people tied just above them. (This is, of course, where we get the word "faggot" - a word that originally referred to a bundle of wood used to start a fire.)
Many years later, the reverse would be true. Catching the spark of feminist thought and theory -- which questioned and challenged traditional gender constructions, the inherent inequalities between the sexes, and the enormously corrosive effects of heteronormativity -- fairies also joined together and exploded conventional notions of gender, most notably definitions of masculinity. Radically queer groups emerged to disrupt the very foundations of American constructions of gender and sexuality.
There are moments in history when conditions come together to create the impetus for great social change. Many historians and activists place the beginning of the modern movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans* equality at the Stonewall Inn, a small bar frequented by trans* people, lesbians, bisexuals, gay men, students, and others of all races located at 53 Christopher Street in New York City's Greenwich Village.
At approximately 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969, New York City police officers conducted a routine raid on the bar on the grounds that the owners had been selling alcohol without a license. Feeling they had been harassed far too long, people challenged police officers on that morning (and with varying intensity over the next five nights) by flinging bottles, rocks, bricks, and trash cans, and using parking meters as battering rams.
In reality, even before these historic events at the Stonewall Inn, a little-known action preceded Stonewall by nearly three years, and should more likely be considered as the founding event for the modern LGBT movement. In August 1966, at Gene Compton's Cafeteria in San Francisco's Tenderloin District, trans* people and gay sex workers joined together to fight police harassment and oppression.
Police, conducting one of their numerous raids, entered Compton's and began physically harassing the clientele. This time, however, people fought back by hurling coffee at the officers and heaving cups, dishes, and trays around the cafeteria. Police retreated outside as customers smashed windows. Over the course of the next night, people gathered to picket the cafeteria, which refused to allow trans* people back inside.
Out of the ashes of Compton's Cafeteria and the Stonewall Inn, people -- primarily young people -- formed a number of militant groups. One of the first was the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). GLF was not a formalized organization per se, but rather a series of small groups across the U.S. and other countries. GLF meetings took place in people's living rooms, basements in houses of worship, and storefronts. Members insisted on the freedom to explore new ways of living as part of a radical project of social transformation.
At a meeting at the Alternative University in New York City, the name "Gay Liberation Front" was very deliberately and consciously chosen: "Gay" as a self-selected term rather than one imposed by society; "Liberation" suggesting freedom from constraint; and "Front," a common radical term for a militant vanguard or coalition. The name also suggested identification with the Viet Cong's National Liberation Front in Vietnam. The group adopted a set of principles emphasizing coalition-building with other disenfranchised groups -- women, minoritized ethnicities, people of color, working-class people, young people, elders, people with disabilities -- as a way of dismantling the unfettered corporate capitalist economic system and larger social structures they considered inherently oppressive.
During the early 1970s, I was founder and first director of the National Gay Students Center (a clearinghouse for the establishment and networking of the newly developing LGBT college and university student organizations nationwide), and an active member of Gay Liberation Front in Washington D.C., which formed the leading edge of a movement rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Our first meetings were held at Grace Church, the Washington Free Clinic in Georgetown, and All Souls Church on 16th Street, until we managed to rent a brownstone on S Street to establish a men's Gay Liberation Front living collective. Meetings provided a space for gays, lesbians, bisexual women and men, and trans* people to come together and put into practice what feminists had taught us: that the "personal is the political."
We laughed and we cried together. We shared our ideas and most intimate secrets. We dreamed our dreams and laid out plans for a world free from all the deadly forms of oppression. And somewhere along our journey, we began inventing new ways of relating to one another. For the men, we came realize how we had been stifled as males growing up in a culture that taught us to hate the woman within -- that taught us that if we were to be considered worthy, we must be athletic, independent, assertive, domineering, and competitive. Most of all, we rejected the idea that to truly be men, we must bury our emotions deep within the recesses of our souls.
One event in particular that stands out in my mind that we played a pivotal role in organizing was "Gay May Day," part of the overall "May Day" demonstrations to literally shut down the U.S. government in Washington, D.C. The date was May 1, 1971, and we were protesting U.S. involvement in what we considered an illegal and immoral invasion into Vietnam. The police arrested thousands of demonstrators that day and held them at Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy Stadium.
On the second day of the protests, eight of us from GLF-DC walked hand-in-hand down the street on our way toward the South Vietnamese Embassy, enduring homophobic taunts from local police officers who eventually arrested us and forced us to spend a number of hours in stifling hot and crowded underground two-person cells. In our feistiness and our pride, we passed the hours in song, in affectionate embrace, and in expressing our love to each other.
I am so excited that the wonderful Rainbow History Project and the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. are co-sponsoring a panel discussion about the early years of the Gay Liberation Front of D.C. The event will be held on Saturday, June 7 at 11:00 a.m. at the Historical Society of Washington; 801 K Street NW. Attend if you can, and connect with an exciting time in LGBT history.
Gay Liberation Front of D.C. photo via rainbowhistory.org.