By Jason Villemez.- On June 30th in New York City, after a weeklong abundance of celebrations, rallies and worldwide media attention, a group of longtime LGBTQ activists marched down Fifth Avenue carrying a banner that read: “Gay Liberation Front: First To March.” Their ages ranged from late-60s to mid-80s. They wore matching t-shirts with their slogan. Some carried photo buttons of friends long departed. And as they walked downtown towards Christopher Street and the Stonewall, onlookers greeted them with thunderous applause, a thank you for the work they began fifty years ago, work that led to the LGBTQ community we know today.
“It was an absolute highlight of my long life,” Ellen Broidy said. “I was especially thrilled to be able to share it with my spouse of 40 years!” Broidy co-created the very first pride parade, called the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, which occurred in June of 1970 and had several thousand participants.
Like Broidy, everyone in the 2019 Gay Liberation Front contingent played a part in the movement that began with a spark and ignited around the world.
GLF were Grand Marshals of the parade, a title they shared with Monica Helms, the creator of the transgender flag, Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, who co-founded UK Black Pride, The Trevor Project, and the cast of the FX television series “Pose.” They were among the first of 695 contingents to march in the largest-ever pride parade in America. For twelve hours, onlookers watched marching bands, politicians, big banks, religious groups, tourism agencies, skincare brands, candy conglomerates, queer motorcycle clubs, healthcare companies, civil rights groups and every other type of organization walk the city in honor of the rebellion—and the people—that jumpstarted the entire equality movement. They all walked, in a sense, to honor groups like Gay Liberation Front.
GLF came together in the weeks following the Stonewall Rebellion as a means of capitalizing on the newfound empowerment and visibility the event had spurred. Members met at churches and the Alternate U. center on West 14th Street. They organized marches, wrote newsletters and hosted fundraiser dances all the while trying to understand, to make real, the possibilities of what a gay community could be. They came from all parts of the country with all different points of view, the latter sometimes a cause for tension in their consensus-run meetings, but overall, the group was a family. Many lived together and helped each other emotionally and financially. They understood the strength in solidarity. They wanted equal rights, basic respect, to be treated with decency.
They wanted those things for others, too. They supported and marched with the Black Panthers, same with the Young Lords and the women’s and anti-war movements. Most of them came of age in the civil rights era and brought with them lessons learned from pacifists and radicals alike. They understood, as has been shown throughout history, that they were greater together than they were apart.
Although the fight for equality was a serious business, it was a joyful one too. Lifelong friendships were made. Birthdays were celebrated, movie marathons attended, late-night conversations had on the stoops of Christopher Street brownstones. They were, as you’d imagine, reminiscent of any group of the young and young-at-heart. They jammed to popular music of the era like the Beatles and the Supremes. They supported each other’s art. They watched out for each other. And, like the headstrong members of bands they idolized, they ultimately went their separate ways.
That GLF New York disbanded relatively early in the struggle for gay civil rights meant that their history was ceded largely to the less radical, more politically correct organizations that came up after them. But although the group ceased activity in 1973, its members continued to rush forward. Michael Lavery co-founded Lambda Legal. Perry Brass was one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic. Rita Mae Brown and Barbara Love were original members of the Lavender Menace. Gay Liberation Front was part-think tank, part-university and part-community hub that fostered a family of like-minded people who decided to change the world.
For the entire month of June, people were reminded of that and much more. On what seemed like every hour of every day, GLF members were on TV, at events, and in print telling the story of Stonewall and the years that followed.
“I think this summer was just the start of people beginning to look seriously at our history,” said Mark Segal, an early member of GLF and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. “Mainstream media wanted to know more about the connection between Stonewall and the first gay pride. We made people realize that the first year after the riots was primarily GLF realigning the whole community, making it intersectional, and making it diversified. That’s what we did back then, and that’s what I hope people took away from all the media and events of Stonewall 50.”
The Thursday before the parade, members of GLF held a standing-room-only panel discussion at the LGBT Community Center on 13th Street. The event was a stark contrast to the corporate-sponsored concerts at Pier 97 (dubbed “Pride Island”) or the glitzy opening ceremony at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center. In the early evening, elders, young people, families and a film crew packed into the nondescript, 3rd-floor auditorium, the same space where funerals have been held for fellow pioneers, many of whom were GLF members themselves.
The panelists spoke about their work with gay immigrants, how they handled police, their experiences in the aftermath of Stonewall. They talked about the 1970 Snake Pit incident, in which police raided the bar and one person, fearing deportation, jumped out a window and was impaled on a fence. These were the real stories of Stonewall direct from those that lived them. For ninety minutes, they gave a history lesson available no place else.
“It was great that there was such a diversity of ages in the audience,” said GLF member John Knoebel, who told the crowd about his meeting with Black Panther leader Huey Newton. “There were people who’d been with us fifty years ago, but there were also a great many young people who seemed to be soaking it up like a sponge. There’s a segment of today’s LGBTQ youth that really wants to learn their history and feel that they don’t get it in their schools.”
Passing on the history of Stonewall was an important part of the 50th anniversary celebrations. One of the lesser-known events that occurred during Pride week was an intergenerational gathering between members of GLF and students from across the country.
The two groups met in a classroom and shared stories about their lives. The teenagers learned about the group Radicalesbians; the pioneers learned acronyms like TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist). The teenagers asked the pioneers about heroes like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, about what it was like to live in a time they knew only secondhand. The pioneers were eager to know how young queer people define themselves today.
Both sides came away from the discussion with mutual respect and an appreciation for the history still being made. Some members of GLF were at the first night of Riots on June 28, 1969; some joined the second, third and fourth nights. But it’s the work that they did as a group in the weeks and months that followed, holding protests and dances, providing medical alerts and legal advice, leafleting on the street, that took the momentum of Stonewall and ensured that it wouldn’t be another flash in the pan protest, another night of rage that subsided by morning.
GLF ultimately disbanded because the group splintered off into factions with separate priorities. Fifty years later, that forge-your-own-path mentality presented itself again. On Pride Day, some members chose to forgo being Grand Marshalls in the official parade (organized by the nonprofit Heritage of Pride) and participate in the alternative Queer Liberation March, which used the same route as the first pride march, starting at the Stonewall Inn and ending at Central Park.
The march, created by the Reclaim Pride Coalition as a grassroots effort free of corporate floats and police, culminated in a rally reminiscent of the 1970s, with speakers including Larry Kramer, Masha Gessen, and Martha Shelley.
Shelley, one of the founders of GLF, addressed a similarly energized crowd fifty years ago at the culmination of a July 1969 protest march. She and activist Marty Robinson stood on the Christopher Park water fountain, across the street from the Stonewall, and spoke to 400 people “who on that day had shown the courage to appear as openly gay in the sunshine instead of hiding their faces.”
In 2019, the crowd of 45-thousand in Central Park numbered far greater than the 400 at Christopher Park, a testament to the cultural and political shift spurred by the early activists. Shelley shared with them some of the successful strategies that GLF used to make those advances happen.
“I just hoped that what I had to say would reach some of them, be remembered and acted upon when they got home—to continue the fight, and to make alliances with other progressive groups.”
Cities across the world commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. Berlin, Taipei, Tel Aviv. But it’s fitting that the largest occurred in New York, where it began. Five million visitors packed the city. All week long people made pilgrimages to the Stonewall, now a national historic monument and feature of school field trips, hoping to catch some of the verve that circled the air so long ago, to feel the joy that seeped into the veins of those who took a stand. By the time the parade kicked off on Sunday, the crowd—and the people they cheered—felt the gravity of the moment.
Mark Horn walked the route with his fellow Gay Liberation Front members, holding one side of the banner as he has done in many New York pride parades. He marveled at how much participation has grown from the first march in 1970. Walking in those first pride parades meant seeing many familiar faces, people who had the courage back then to “come out of the closets and into the streets.” Today, with millions marching and in the crowd, it’s more difficult to spot people you recognize. This is especially true for early activists like Horn, who endured the death of many in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“As I walked with my GLF friends, I was both happy and sad. I felt the loss of so many friends and lovers to the HIV crisis. But I was buoyed by the crowd. The entire route, when people saw our sign, the applause got louder, and you could hear people calling out ‘Thank you!’ over and over. I marched with a broken heart that was filled with the gratitude and love of the crowd.”
Members of Gay Liberation Front, and all activists from that time period, are growing older. Their numbers are dwindling. It’s an unavoidable fact. Jerry Hoose, who organized GLF’s reunion for the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, passed away in 2015. Same with Sidney Abbott, who worked with the National Organization for Women to establish the NOW Task Force on Sexuality and Lesbianism. Angela Douglas, Arthur Evans, Bertha Harris, all gone.
The ability to paint a full, contextual picture of what Stonewall was, what GLF was, and what the movement was, is rapidly diminishing. This 50th Anniversary year, with all the stories recounted and all the people honored, showed an incredibly wide, though ultimately incomplete swath of that history.
Near the end of the parade, when the GLF contingent approached the Stonewall, they stopped to take a photo in front of where it all began, the place where they took the rage of an enough-is-enough moment and changed the world. Police tried to usher them along, commanding them to keep walking. The parade had many more groups to go, after all. But they stood their ground and soaked it all in. And what they said to the officers recalls that night in June, 1969: This is our place, and we’re not going anywhere.