A first person account of the first demonstration of the US Gay Liberation Front against the Village Voice newspaper in New York City in 1969 for their homophobic advertising policy.
The Gay Liberation Front was formed in New York City in the summer of 1969, shortly after the Stonewall Riots. When I went to my first GLF meeting, the group was about three weeks old. I knew immediately that this was what I had been waiting for, and since then my main energies have been spent in the cause of gay liberation.
Beginning in the 50s, with the resources of Widener Library, I had studied the literature on male love (often called "sexual inversion", "homosexuality", and so on): John Addington Symonds, Havelock Ellis, Gide, Donald Webster Cory (Edward Sagarin), Ford and Beach, as well as the writings of the various psychiatric quacks. And in the early 60s I attended meetings of the Boston Demophile Society and the Boston Mattachine. But the Gay Liberation Front was a quantum leap forward. Here was a radical organization -- wild, wooly and wonderful -- ready to fight militantly for homosexual freedom.
For the first couple of months much of my time was spent working on GLF's newspaper, COME OUT!: A NEWSPAPER BY AND FOR THE GAY COMMUNITY. The front page editorial on the first issue of COME OUT! (November 14, 1969) makes it clear that gay people are no longer content merely to be tolerated. It begins:
"COME OUT FOR FREEDOM! COME OUT NOW! POWER TO THE PEOPLE! GAY POWER TO GAY PEOPLE! COME OUT OF THE CLOSET BEFORE THE DOOR IS NAILED SHUT!"
Gay power was portrayed in the following terms:
The first issue of COME OUT "COME OUT will hasten the day when it becomes not only passe, but actual political suicide to speak of further repression of the homosexual. WE ARE COMING OUT IN COMMUNITY, A COMMUNITY THAT NUMBERS IN THE MILLIONS. We shall aggressively promote the use of the very real and potent economic power of Gay people throughout this land in order to further the interests of the homosexual community. We shall convince society at large of the reality of homosexual political power by the active use thereof.
We will not be gay bourgeoisie, searching for the sterile "American dream" of the ivy-covered cottage and the good corporation job, but neither will we tolerate the exclusion of homosexuals from any area of American life."
The first issue of COME OUT! reports on the very first demonstration of the Gay Liberation Front, which was held against the Village Voice on 12 September 12 1969. I remember vividly how the article, "The Summer of Gay Power and the Village Voice Exposed!", was written. The two main authors, Mike Brown and Leo Louis Martello, and I were in Martello's apartment. (Leo was a practicing witch, and kept a boa constructor under the bed.) They were having a fiery argument about something or another, and I was sitting at a typewriter in-between them. Mike would yell in my left ear, Leo would yell in my right ear, and I would bang something on the typewriter, which might be a compromise or even something that I myself wanted to say. Well, after a fair amount of words had gotten down on paper, and some revisions had been made, it began to flow quite nicely, and relations became quite amiable as we could see that progress was being made.
As the article makes clear, there were two main issues in the demonstration: the Voice's bigotry in its descriptions of gay people, and the Voices's censorship of gay ads. I can remember that some GLF members, despite a lot of radical rhetoric and posturing, were afraid to appear in broad daylight on a homosexual picket line. I know that I felt hesitant myself, despite having been in the antiwar movement from 1965 onwards, with my own battle scars from that struggle. As the article indicates, the demonstration was a great success.
After a couple of years, GLF destructed, largely from its own contradictions. Its place was taken by the Gay Activist Alliance, a much more orderly (Roberts Rules of Order) and less radical organization. It is commonly believed that GAA came to an end in the fall of 1974, when a fire destroyed its headquarters, an old firehouse on Wooster Street in Soho. Actually, not only did GAA survive for many more years, but some of its greatest accomplishments came after the fire.
On March 21, 1975, a picket line demonstration was again held against the Village Voice, this time sponsored jointly by the Gay Activist Alliance and Lesbian Feminist Liberation. The issues were essentially the same as they had been back in 1969. GAA and LFL were protesting the Voice's "stereotypical and offensive portrayals of gay people" and the Voice's advertising policy, which rejected many gay ads on the basis of a quota system.
I very much miss both GLF and GAA. Who now will lead demonstrations against the anti-gay bigots in the media, in religion, or in politics?
The Village Voice and its writers have once again shown where their heads are really at, during this past summer of "Gay Power". They've consistently demonstrated their contempt of the Gay Community in their coverage of the long overdue rebellion of another oppressed minority. Their handling of the first Gay Riots in history read like a copy of the New York Daily News. Instead of being concerned about the civil rights of the Gay minority they were preoccupied with the uptight establishment's reactions to the riots. Their demeaning use of derogatory terms for homosexuals and lesbians was a pure demonstration of anti-humanistic liberal sentiment. Howard Smith and other Village Voice writers' concerns for the "harassed" police, rather than for the victims who finally fought back, was aptly pointed out by Kevan Liscoe in a letter to the Village Voice published July 10, 1969.
Kevan Liscoe's letter entitled "Scared No More," includes the following comments:
"The Stonewall raid was not the only reason for incidents occurring on that great and glorious weekend. In the last three weeks five gay bars in the Village area that I know of have been hit by the police. Harassment of homosexuals in the Village is one of the oldest stories in the book. It's something we've come to take for granted. Well, the new age has come, and the fags have decided to expose society to another of its faults. Just as the Negroes did in 1960. Homosexuality is a part of life, no more, no less. I witnessed the demonstrations that weekend and the actions by the TPF [Tactical Police Force]. They were all given crack courses in sadism by one of Chicago's finest, I'm sure."
Letter writer Liscoe mentions many senseless brutalities he saw and feels that the straights will not support Gay Power because of the resentments bred into them. He concludes "But when these people practice their whole concept of a new morality, I hope they can stop to dig the fact that we are people with something to fight for. The age of the scared little queens is gone. Hail Aquarius."
Mr. Liscoe's account was far more accurate than the one described below:
An article covering the Stonewall Riots appeared in the July 10, 1969 issue of the Village Voice. The article, entitled "Too Much, My Dear" was written by Walter Troy Spencer. Cloyingly cute and contemptuous, Spencer referred to the Great Faggot Rebellion, "queers" "swishes" and "fags" repeatedly. It's all a big joke. His concern was "One Christopher Street bar operator estimates that a single night of the indirect embargo cost him $500 business" and "More subtly disturbing is the question of what sort of friction this situation may have generated between the Village's Sixth Precinct, the First Division (who made the initial raid without telling the precinct - a standard procedure) and the TPF, who had to be called in when things got out of hand."
Spencer called the Stonewall "anti-democratic" because of its "members only" policy, puts down the "annoyingly flamboyant and aggressive" Christopher Street cruising, calls the riots an "entertaining floor show," and was bothered because "I sure don't want to have to run some gauntlet every night just to quietly slip into my friendly neighborhood saloon." He does admit that "the fags" have been exploited for a long time, "caught in a squeeze" between crooks and cops.
The Village Voice and writer Spencer have shown their true colors: Homosexuals are categorized as "niggers" "spics" "wops" etc. For a supposedly "liberal" newspaper this is the worst kind of hypocrisy and exploitation. Not one mention of the trampling of civil rights, the sustained injustices, the moral bankruptcy, the societal need to always have a scapegoat whether "nigger" or "fag" or "dyke", the total lack of humanism, compassion and decency in their treatment of homosexuals who form a large part of Greenwich Village, Voice subscribers and advertisers. Spencer wrote this article, and the Village Voice published it, because they felt secure that the Gay Community would continue to take it... whoever heard of "fags" fighting back? They were counting on the supposedly homosexual self-contempt to "get away with it." To them the riots were a tragicomic caper, a minor momentary uprising, and then back to "keeping the fags in their place."
Compare and contrast the above to the stated principles of the Village Voice, published in the book The Village Voice Reader, edited by David Wolf and Village Voice publisher Edwin Fancher, pub. 1962. Wolf said that those who started the Voice were left cold by pieties of official Liberalism. They envisioned themselves as the Voice of the displaced, disaffected, dissatisfied and the unhappy. The book contained two sympathetic articles on homosexuality by Seymour Krim and David McReynolds, presenting different points of view. Today the Village Voice is basically a Liberal Establishment newspaper with a pretense of being "hip", with just enough offbeat material to titillate the genitals of would be bohemians and plastic hippies, but always, ALWAYS aiming at their basic prejudices. It's considered "hip" to be both "accepting" and "contemptuous" of homosexuals as evidenced by nearly every story they've published recently dealing with the subject.
In Advertisements for Myself, Norman Mailer described his involvement with the Voice and his subsequent falling out. He contributed seventeen columns reprinted in his book. Mailer finally terminated his association and columns over trivial disagreements, arguments, petty issues, but the real reason was his disagreement and disillusionment over the general policies. Mailer wrote: "For weeks I lost face in drift of bold programs and dull resolutions and all the while my partner and I were coming to see that there were different ideas of how the paper should develop. They wanted it to be successful. I wanted it to be outrageous."
Mailer felt that the paper would grow if it reached an entirely new audience. He felt that the surge of the underground uprising (with the inception of the beats and hipsters and people like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg) would speed up the moral and sexual revolution. His column was a private war on American Journalism. His attitude towards the Village was that it was tight sphinctered, ringed with snobbery, failure, hatred and spleen, and he was going to stick his ideas up the ego of the Village.
How completely the Voice was untouched by Mailer's concept of the moral and sexual revolution can be demonstrated by examining their Classified Advertising policy towards the Gay Community.
In the August 7th issue of the Voice, members of Gay Liberation Front placed an ad in the Public Notices section of classifieds. The substance of the ad dealt with requests for articles, photographs, art work, etc. for COME OUT. The lead-in to the ad read "Gay Power to Gay People." Our friendly community monopoly newspaper accepted the ad with payment in full and then before printing simply deleted "Gay Power to Gay People" without the knowledge or consent of G.L.F.
At the regular Sunday meeting of G.L.F., general outrage was expressed at the assumed right of the Voice to censor classified ads. The feasibility of an action against the Village Voice was discussed and dismissed on the basis of insufficient evidence. GLF, however, felt that the Village Voice had committed itself to a morally bankrupt policy. Classified ads represent a community service, and are not the newspaper's main income source. Therefore, it should follow that classifieds should be verbally expressive of individuals who are paying for the service.
We decided at this point to submit another ad using the word "Gay". The opportunity presented itself again in the issue of September 4. GLF then used the VV Bulletin Board to advertise a dance for Friday night, September 5th, using the lead-in -- Gay Community Dance. Again the ad was accepted when and as presented. Next day the person who placed the ad received a call from VV which explained that it was the policy of VV to refrain from printing obscure words in classifieds and VV thought "Gay" was obscene. When questioned why anyone would consider such a word obscene, the Voice said that the staff had decided "Gay" could be equated with "fuck" and other four-letter words, and that either the ad would have to be changed or the ad could not be printed. Since "homosexual" was also not acceptable, and since GLF wanted the ad for the dance placed, we accepted their only admissible substitute, "homophile" (which is a genteel bastard word not included in most dictionaries). The Village Voice also promised a written explanation of their opposition to the words "Gay" and "homosexual." GLF "deviously" planned to utilize this explanation as the basis for a civil rights suit (Civil Rights Law of 1964: denial of rights of free speech by a public or quasi-public institution). But true to tradition, the Voice promised more than it delivered, and we never received such a written explanation.
Undeterred, GLF began proceedings with our lawyers for suit in Federal Court. At this point we finally met Ed Fancher, when we were forced to deliver a letter stating our proposed action to his home (since Mr. Fancher was never available in his office). At this time we asked to speak to him about the Voice Classified policy. He refused to discuss the issue with us (as he had once before by phone) and mumbled that we should not have done such an outrageous thing as to have come to his place of residence, while he politely but firmly closed the door in our faces.
While GLF considers itself open to reason, it also reserves the right to take appropriate action based on the reality of a given situation. Clearly, we felt Fancher had closed the door on dialogue. At the general meeting of September 7th, a course of action was decided, a course of action which included a picket line and other street actions.
The day Gay Power laid itself on the line for the first time started at 9 a.m. on September 12, 1969, with much communal coffee and even more communal confusion. Ed Fancher arrived at 10 a.m., received a proclamation of our grievances, and promptly disappeared through the door into VV bureaucracy.
At 4:30 p.m., during the peak of the demonstration, a member of GLF submitted a classified ad saying "The Gay Liberation Front sends love to all Gay men and women in the homosexual community." The picture outside the Voice was characterized by a chanting picket line, a supply of 5000 leaflets being rapidly exhausted, and large numbers of people signing the petition charging the Voice with discrimination.
At this point, Howard Smith emerged from the door of the Village Voice (to boos from the crowd) and requested three representatives from GLF to "meet with Mr. Fancher". Once inside and upstairs, the representatives encountered a cry of outrage that GLF has chosen the Village Voice as a target (sooo liberal we are). The suggestion was made that we negotiate the three points in dispute 1) changing classified ads without knowledge or consent of purchaser, 2) use of the words "Gay" and "homosexual" in classifieds, and 3) the contemptuous attitude of the Village Voice toward the Gay Community. GLF explained that the two issues involving classified ad policy were not negotiable and that the substance of the paper should be of legitimate concern to a responsible publisher. Ed Fancher replied that the Village Voice exercised no censorship of its articles, and that if a writer wanted to say derogatory things about faggots, he could not in good conscience stop him. Fancher also said that we had no right to tamper with "freedom of the press."
This GLF accepted with the absolute understanding that Gay Power has the right to return and oppose anything the Village Voice staff chooses to include in the paper. On the Classified Ads policy he conceded completely. He said that not only would the Voice not alter Ads after payment, but that in Classified Ads the words "Gay" and "homosexual" per se were no longer issues. One of the GLF representatives in the upstairs office stepped to the window facing Seventh Avenue and flashed the V for Victory sign to the waiting crowd below. WE HAD WON!