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GAA & the Birth of Gay Liberation

By Arthur Evans

gaa10.jpg - 25.87 K GAA-NY's Baseball Team, 1970
Photo: Courtesy GAY newspaper

Revolutionary energy—described here-- was loosed immediately following the legendary Stonewall uprising. GayToday is honored by this opportunity to publish Arthur Evans' historic first-person Stonewall-era account of what happened to that energy in 1969.

Author of The Critique of Patriarchal Reason, Arthur Evans is one of the few surviving founders of New York City's history-making direct action group, the Gay Activists Alliance.

Jack Nichols, Senior Editor

historyproject.gif - 3.81 K One night in August 1969, my lover, Arthur Bell, and I were walking along Christopher Street in Greenwich Village in New York City. A dense fog had settled over the neighborhood, and the street lamps emanated soft, far-glowing halos. As we moved along, a willowy, long-haired man emerged from the fog, handed us a leaflet, and then silently glided away, a faery-like visitation.

There was nothing ethereal, though, about his leaflet. It proudly proclaimed that a new group had formed, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), the result of a recent riot at a local gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. Arthur and I had read about the riot in the newspaper, but didn't know what to make of it. Our curiosities were piqued, so we decided to visit this new group at its meeting place at a church in the East Village.

Stoned-Out Faggots, and Then Some

The first person we met, standing outside the door of the church, was John-John, or Acid John, as we later learned. He had long blond hair, and wore a flowery shirt with colorful beads. I asked him, somewhat sheepishly, who was inside. He cocked his head, and with a combination of good humor and sassiness blurted out, "A bunch of stoned-out faggots!"

It turned out to be that, and more. For the first time in our lives, Arthur Bell and I met a large number of gay men and lesbians who were proud of being gay, angry at being put down, and determined to do something about it in a big way. Furthermore, they saw gay oppression as part of a bigger picture—the systematic oppression of women, Blacks, students, the poor, and advocates of peace.

It was an exhilarating experience. In the previous year, I had demonstrated for peace at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, fleeing tear-gas-firing police, while Allen Ginsberg intoned "Ommmmm" to the heavens. In the same year, I had also demonstrated at Columbia University, where I was a graduate student in philosophy, after police raided the campus and clubbed hundreds of professors and students. But in all my past demonstrations, going back to 1963, I had never made the connection between my being gay and my participation in demonstrations for peace and Black civil rights.

gaa11.jpg - 10.45 K GAA-NY's Founders
(Arthur Evans, left) 1969

Photo: Courtesy GAA Reunion Newsletter #6
GLF made the connection. We are all oppressed by the same rotten system, GLF proclaimed. The answer is revolution for all. I agreed.

Let a Thousand Flowers Wilt

For a while, the GLF rose bloomed. I helped to create a GLF cell, known informally as the radical study group. Most of the participants later became published authors. At the suggestion of John Lauritsen, one of the first books we discussed was Friedrich Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. I found the book electrifying. It influenced many of my subsequent writings.

Apart from the radical study group, though, I started to become disenchanted with GLF. The group insisted that it had no leaders, yet a few Non-Leaders were clearly calling many of the shots, although no one had elected them to do so. In addition, the same questions were often re-debated and re-decided, with little or no group memory from one meeting to the next. Finally, the group had no program of consistent street activism, only occasional spurts.

A lot of good people had come to GLF. (To this day, some of them remain my dearest friends.) But they seemed to me to be withering on the vine because of the group's gnarly decision-making process. I came to see GLF as a brilliantly flowering plant that had stunted roots.

Matters came to a head when a proposal was made to donate $500 (a big sum then) to the Black Panther Party. Proponents said that such a contribution was needed to show gay solidarity with the Black power struggle. Opponents argued that the Panthers were abusive to women and gay people, and that gay groups should first attend to gay needs.

Related Articles from the GayToday Archive:
GAA Must Be Restored to History

Remembering the Stonewall Era

Review: Stonewall: A Film By Nigel Finch

Related Sites:
Gay History: PBS' Out of the Past
GayToday does not endorse related sites.

The Non-Leaders backed the proposal and carried the day. They did so by labeling their opponents as racist, imperialist, assimilationist, reformist, reactionary, and counter-revolutionary. Apart from the substantive issue at hand, an ugly procedural precedent had thus been established in GLF: the use of ideological name-calling, rather than rational argument, to win people over. One GLF Non-Leader, Jim Fouratt, was especially fond of this style of political discourse and has continued it to this day.

Enter Gay Pride

While this debate was raging, I met two remarkable people, Marty Robinson and Jim Owles. Marty was bright, agitated, articulate, and funny. But mostly he was frustrated. He wanted to get out and hit the streets with demonstrations, again and again. But GLF was absorbed with ideological consciousness-raising. Street activism was not a GLF priority.

Jim Owles was calm, level-headed, and soft-spoken. But he was just as frustrated as Marty. Jim was disgusted by the way the Non-Leaders made GLF lurch back and forth from issue to issue. There was no mechanism for creating sustained programs and seeing that they got carried out effectively.

Both Marty and Jim saw the debate over the Panthers as exposing fatal flaws in GLF: The group was not primarily concerned with gay matters. It was disconnected from the lives of ordinary gay people. It lacked a rational, democratic structure. It didn't do much.

In November 1969, Jim suggested that we and some other friends think about creating a new group. Jim wanted the group to engage the political system, but without becoming entangled in it. The solution: the group would question candidates for public office, publicize their response, but never endorse any candidate or political party. We would rock the system without becoming a part of it!

Again, Marty wanted the group to personally confront our oppressors, but never resort to violence. The solution: we would use "zaps" (as Marty called them). That is, we would put our noses right in front of the oppressors' noses. With the TV cameras running, we would challenge our antagonists either to arrest us, beat us up, or else engage in constructive dialogue. Whatever their responses, the results would be televised, hopefully electrifying all the closet gays who were glued to their TV screens at home. mrobinson.jpg - 5.08 K
Marty Robinson
Photo: Courtesy GAA Reunion Newsletter #6

We all agreed that the new group should be exclusively devoted to gay and lesbian issues. We had seen GLF tear itself apart too many times over non-gay issues. We had all demonstrated before, of course, in the peace movement, the Black civil-rights movement, and the women's movement. But when we came together and acted in the name of this new group, we would focus solely on gay issues. That didn't mean we would stop having individual lives outside the new group!

Our inspiration for this decision was the history of the 1960s, with its panoply of different groups devoted to various popular issues. After all, if Blacks and women could focus on Black and women's issues, why couldn't gay people focus on gay issues?

To Secure These Rights ...

As Jim talked up the idea, other people in GLF showed an interest in forming a new group. We met a few times to clarify our ideas. I was asked to gather everyone's suggestions together and draft a proposed constitution for the new group, as well as articulate the rationale for its existence. In doing this work, I drew on my practical experiences as a 60s street demonstrator, as well as my studies in political science and philosophy.

The proposed preamble and constitution that emerged rested squarely on the precedents of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. These documents were themselves part of a revolutionary struggle, and one that expressed noble ideals: civil rights, democracy, and the rule of law. True, the U.S. had not always acted in accordance with these ideals, but the ideals remained worthy nonetheless.

Accordingly, my proposed preamble called on the larger society to recognize four basic rights. The new group we were creating would be dedicated to attaining these rights.

The first:

"The right to our own feelings. This is the right to feel attracted to the beauty of members of our own sex and to embrace those feelings as truly our own, free from any question or challenge whatsoever by any other person, institution, or moral authority."

The U.S. constitutional tradition had spoken mostly of the rights of property, the mind, and speech. This new right touched on feelings as well. They are as much of who we are as our possessions and thoughts!

The second:

"The right to love. This is the right to express our feelings in action, the right to make love with anyone, any way, any time, provided only that the action be freely chosen by all the persons concerned."

This right goes beyond merely having feelings. We also should be able to express them in action, just as we can express our opinions in dialogue.

The third:

"The right to our own bodies. This is the right to treat and express our bodies as we will, to nurture them, to display them, to embellish them, solely in the manner we ourselves determine, independent of any external control whatsoever."

This right connects to something the U.S. Constitution hardly mentions, the body. It especially affirms the rights of drag-queens and transsexuals.

The fourth:

"The right to be persons. This is the right freely to express our own individuality under the governance of laws justly made and executed, and to be the bearers of social and political rights which are guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States and the Bill or Rights, enjoined upon all legislative bodies and courts, and grounded in the fact of our common humanity."

This right acknowledges that the holding of private rights is always within the context of a larger legal and social contract. The only way we can be reasonably secure in our individual bodies and feelings is to sustain a lawful, democratic political order for the society at large. From the interaction of these two realms emerges personhood.

Direct Democracy

These, then, were the rights the new group would fight for—the right to our feelings, the right to love, the right to our bodies, the right to be persons. But what about the group's structure?

According to the proposed constitution, the group would be a direct participatory democracy, reminiscent in style of the ancient Greek city-states. Anybody who wanted to, could join the group, provided he or she was minimally active in the group's activities.

Non-paid officers would be elected for a term of one year, and could be removed at any time by a vote of no-confidence (borrowing from the European constitutional model). Proposals for actions by the group would be openly debated on the floor according to reasonable rules of order, and adopted by majority vote.

Identity Precedes Ideology

What was the rationale for these goals and structure? I justified the emphasis on activism over consciousness-raising in terms of the importance of identity over ideology. We were just beginning to create our identity as gay people. How could we push a collective gay ideology for ourselves when our own gay identity was itself only partially born? To do so would put the cart before the horse. stonewall30a.jpg - 9.94 K Marchers at the 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Parade

In philosophy, I had felt that the existentialists were right in insisting that existence precedes essence. Likewise in politics, I felt that identity precedes ideology. In sum: As existence precedes essence, so identity precedes ideology. That meant that in the actual conditions of the real world, GAA must come before GLF.

Solstice 1969

On December 21, 1969 (the winter solstice, as it turns out), about a dozen or so of us met in Arthur Bell's apartment at 1st Avenue and 75th Street in Manhattan. With some minor changes, we approved the preamble and constitution as proposed. We decided to call the new group the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), and elected Jim Owles as our first president. That was an appropriate choice since Jim was the first spark that led to the creation of the new group.

Now we were ready to hit the streets as Marty Robinson wanted.
A subsequent article by Arthur Evans will explore the anatomy of zapping, GAA's principal political tactic.

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