Smash the Church
recalls more than Stonewall
by Liz Highleyman
The Stonewall riots of June 1969 – commemorating their 40th anniversary this month – are often regarded as the spark that ignited the LGBT movement. But Stonewall was only one piece of a larger picture, in terms of both the gay movement's evolution and broader cultural changes.
Just as the earlier U.S. homophile movement – centered on groups such as the Mattachine Society (founded in 1951) and the Daughters of Bilitis (started in 1955) – reflected the climate of repression and cultural conservatism of its era, the gay liberation movement embodied the spirit of rebellion and experimentation that took society by storm in the 1960s and early 1970s.
West Coast vanguard
Well before New York City stole the spotlight with Stonewall, events were taking place in California that can be seen as early manifestations of the new wave. In San Francisco, drag queens and young hustlers rioted in response to police harassment at Compton's Cafeteria in the Tenderloin. Raids of Los Angeles gay bars in 1967 and 1968 led to a series of confrontations, including one in which patrons pelted a police station with flowers. Taking their cue from the hippie "be-ins," young queers held the first "gay-in" in Griffith Park in March 1968.
Within the gay milieu, as in society at large, young LGBT people found themselves increasingly at odds with their elders. In early 1969, for example, San Francisco's Society for Individual Rights ousted its young newsletter editor, Leo Laurence, after he called for a homosexual revolution and appeared in a shirtless embrace with his lover on the cover of a leftist newspaper.
Even the leather/SM scene, long known for its respect for authority and protocol, gave way to a kind of "hippie leather," in the words of Gayle Rubin, as people grew their hair, took psychedelic drugs, and formed new groups such as San Francisco's Koalas (started in 1967).
In their own words
Tommi Avicolli Mecca's new anthology, Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation offers a fascinating look at the rise of gay liberation and its place in the era's radical panoply.
While several recent books – including David Carter's Stonewall , Lillian Faderman and Stuart Timmons's Gay L.A., and Marc Stein's City Of Sisterly And Brotherly Loves – have uncovered new research and provided fresh insights about gay life in the 1960s and 1970s, Avicolli Mecca's collection is unique in bringing together first-person accounts from people who lived the life and some of the key manifestos that inspired them.
Reflecting Avicolli Mecca's own experience, several essays recall the movement in the New York/Philadelphia area and gay men's groups such as Radicalqueens and the Effeminists that embraced androgyny and sought to redefine masculinity (albeit with sometimes shockingly retro views of transgenderism).
But other demographics and regions are amply represented as well. Tom Ammiano, now a California assemblyman, describes coming out as a gay teacher in San Francisco, a city with "a percolating, self-empowering gay movement." In an interview with Avicolli Mecca, Rumi Missabu talks about his time with the radical theater group, the Cockettes. Mark Freeman provides the most local color, with his tale of working with the Food Conspiracy (which evolved into Rainbow Grocery), doing draft counseling at Dolores and 18th ("a corner no one went to"), and meeting Harvey Milk at the Sutro Baths on Folsom Street.
Dennis Brumm relates his tentative steps into activism at Iowa State University; the campus gay group's most theatrical action, he recalls, was a protest against the Campus Crusade for Christ featuring "a very stoned Jesus carrying a cross." From across the pond, Richard Bolingbroke tells of getting high in a London jail after being arrested with a group of gay men wearing nuns' habits and wielding large cucumbers.
Women in the anthology include Martha Shelley, whose activism evolved from polite dress-code pickets at Philadelphia Independence Hall to a leading role within the male-dominated New York Gay Liberation Front. Others, including Bay Area Reporter columnist Victoria Brownworth, Barbara Ruth, and Paola Bachetta preferred lesbian-feminist activism with groups such as Radicalesbians and Dyketactics, and their pieces include "personal is political" reminiscences of nude consciousness-raising groups and writing poetry on walls with menstrual blood.
Then and now
At a book launch event at the San Francisco Public Library on June 3 and a second panel discussion on June 6, Smash the Church contributors and their contemporaries pondered the gay lib movement as it was then and how it differs from current LGBT activism (a topic also addressed in the last two essays in the book, by Don Kilhefner and Merle Woo).
As one who came of age as an activist in the 1980s, several things are striking about the zeitgeist of the preceding era. Gay lib was widely regarded as part of a larger cultural upheaval. It wasn't just that various identity-based groups worked together as allies (and indeed, there were plenty of rifts along lines of gender, race, and class), but there was a sense that everyone was part of a single overarching movement for social change.
Queer activists embraced the anti-war movement, even though gay men were not subject to the draft; similarly, abortion was a key issue even though "gold star" dykes seldom got pregnant. " Our struggles were so many that I cannot name them all in several pages," writes Bachetta.
Another striking aspect was the ubiquity of drugs. In their pieces – and at the panel discussion – several contributors described the role marijuana and psychedelics played in expanding consciousness, facilitating sexual adventure, and spurring activism.
Perhaps most remarkable is the youthful idealism that permeated both gay lib and the broader political and cultural movement – the confidence that they really could change the world.
"We demanded freedom from society's attempts to define and limit human sexuality. We called for dominion over one's own body, through sexual freedom without regard to orientation, through freedom to use birth control and abortion, and through freedom to ingest the drugs of one's choice," writes Shelley. "Our youth gave us the courage of certainty, but left us blind to complexities that would unfold in the course of time."
Indeed, the book's major drawback is its rose-colored view of the past, with little discussion of problems such as the adoption of Marxism/Maoism (despite its antipathy to homosexuality), the "political correctness" and policing of identity boundaries that sent the succeeding generation screaming away from activism, and the excesses of drug use that engendered a prohibitionist backlash.
At both forums, panelists decried the current LGBT movement's shift toward a single-minded focus on same-sex marriage. "How fortunate for our opponents if that's all we want," exclaimed poet Dajenya, who uses only one name, in a new piece written especially for the occasion.
"This book represents a snapshot of that moment in time when queers weren't obsessed with tying the knot or picking up a rifle to go off and fight 'terrorists,'" Avicolli Mecca writes in his introduction. "Revolution was in the air. We truly believed that a united front with all oppressed peoples would help us create a better world, one built on inclusion and an equal distribution of wealth and resources."
Smash the Church raises the question of what do today's young activists have to replace the mind-expanding spark of psychedelic drugs and the heady sense of infinite possibility? Lacking a radical counterculture, queers who chose not to join the mainstream don't have much of an alternative.
While Avicolli Mecca and others criticize LGBT people today for "assimilating" into the heteronormative establishment, the gay movement has always reflected larger social trends. When the world seemed to be on the cusp of revolution in 1969, queers were right there, too. As the pendulum swung back toward more conservative political and economic values, the LGBT community made a similar shift. Thus, the progressive queer movement Avicolli Mecca and his contributors envision seems unlikely to arise in the absence of broader social and cultural change.
For more on Stonewall and the Gay Liberation Front, see the articles in the Pride section and online. Disclosure: Smash the Church, Smash the State includes two biographical sketches by Liz Highleyman.