Thanks to author Nell Stark—which seems to be something I say at least once a year—I was privileged recently to answer some questions for a lesbian high school student who was writing a paper about 1960’s gay activists. Below are the young woman’s questions and my attempts to answer. I am very fortunate to be able to reach across generations.
How/why did you get involved in the 1960’s gay rights movement?
“This was a natural progression for me. At age fifteen I went through the Sturm und Drang that accompanied coming out at the time. There was no such thing as public protesting for gay rights within my frame of reference. Protest was an individual act. My girlfriend and I liked to be outrageous, acting out on the subways, kissing in front of Greenwich Village tour buses. I dressed as much like a guy as I could, because those clothes felt right to me, and at the same time I imagined such an act as a vicious slap in the face to those who condemned us. We were actually considered juvenile delinquents by New York law.
“My first official act of protest was to subscribe to and write for ‘The Ladder.’ In the magazine’s editor at the time, Barbara Grier, I found both a mentor and a revolutionary. By the time I started corresponding with Barbara, I had been researching lesbian writers and writing for years. I did not think writing about them of was revolutionary; it needed to be done in order to reach as many lesbians as possible. My goal was to end our isolation and the portrayal of our lives as dismal tragedies.”
What would you say were the goals of the 1960’s movement?
“I was not part of any organized movement until the 1970’s. In the 1960’s a handful of us, who had little or no interaction, staked our literary territory and were grateful that we had an outlet for our work. Jane Rule, Elsa Gidlow, Rita Mae Brown, Martha Shelly, and a number of other women, under many names, wrote poetry, essays, biographical pieces, and fiction about lesbian women. This was a strike against the patriarchy before those words were spoken by the emerging second wave of feminism. I in no way thought of what I did as protest or revolution.”
What did the 1960s movement achieve?
“I believe our written work, especially Barbara Grier’s, helped to form a foundation for both feminist and gay liberation organizations. This nascent literature for, by, and about lesbians saved many lesbian lives by giving strength to lesbian couples and individuals. When every societal door is shut, self-condemnation follows. Alcoholism was rampant in our community. Broken relationships were the norm. The women who dared subscribe to ‘The Ladder,’ (and it was an act of courage to subscribe) saw that they were not abnormal and perverts. All of us were hungry for contact with our kind, for positive images of ourselves in print and elsewhere.”
Would you call the movement a ‘success’ because of what was/was not achieved?
“In terms of the printed word, yes. “The Ladder” was an outgrowth of The Daughters of Bilitis, formed in 1955. The publication “One,” from The Mattachine Society, performed the same function for gay men. Both the organizations and their literary organs were brave pieces of the evolving foundation of the gay rights movement.”
What still needs to be achieved in the current movement?
“So much. We will never erase the all of the hate and fear directed at gay people. Difference is too threatening to many non-gays, especially those who follow religions that demonize us. Being out is the essential basic step to achieving and preserving something like equality. Encouraging and supporting one another, as the Golden Crown Literary Society and lesbian publishers do, for example, are necessary. Legitimizing our right to exist through the legal system will protect us to some extent. Electing supportive non-gays and gays to local and national office is another tool that can protect us in the future. Fighting demagogues every step of the way is a must. We will continue building our culture until it’s so strong our would-be oppressors and executioners can’t begin to tear it down.”
What did people do to protest at that time, and what did you do in particular?
“Protest? That didn’t happen in today’s terms. We met in bars. We had networks of friends. We had certain signals and looks that allowed us to identify one another. We hired one another at work when that was possible and celebrated our anniversaries together privately. Some lesbians married men, had children, never dared come out. Some killed themselves because life was impossible. Some passed as men. We moved to big cities or overseas. We gossiped about famous people who might be like ourselves. We kept huge secrets, our lives were secrets. We slept in separate beds. We protested silently by living our lives and loving other women.”
What kinds of signals did you have to identify one another?
“It’s difficult to go into details about signals because they were so subtle. There was something called “the look” that lesbians exchanged: a meeting of the eyes, a quick almost-smile. Pinkie rings. The word “family,” meaning us. Maybe bringing up a lesbian book or author or a celebrity who was rumored to be gay. Going to gay bars, of course.”
What specific things/events were being protested/objected to?
“By 1969, Stonewall was ostensibly a protest against the ownership of gay bars by heterosexuals and the treatment of their clientele. I believe we’d finally had enough of being regarded as untouchables and of the hypocrisy of supposed non-gay people who availed themselves of our way of love when it suited them. Civil Rights, the anti-war and anti-nukes protests, and Women’s Liberation showed us it was possible to simply erupt. Those of us who were involved in these other movements had experience in organizing and marshalling the power of our anger into productive action. There were huge numbers of insults to our humanity that we protested. The sodomy laws, the laws that forced us to wear certain clothing, the laws against dancing together, and even assembling together, the laws against marriage and adoption and on and on.”
What kinds of people participated?
“As the song says, gentle, angry people. Female and male butches and femmes, drag queens, fey men, and stomping bulldykes. Writers and stevedores, artists and secretaries, physicians and housekeepers, people of color and Caucasians, musicians and beatniks and the clergy and criminals, kids and old people, bar dykes and A-list gay men, the disabled and the able-bodied, transsexuals and non-gay allies.”
Based on your experiences, what advice would you give to new activists today?
“Based on my experiences, I’d just say, give it all you’ve got. Whatever each of us can do makes a difference. At this point in time, overall, we’re very far ahead of where we were back in the 1960s. Most of us can at least be out now, some of us can jump all the way out and do something like run for office. In between are degrees of involvement and innumerable ways to make a difference, from donating money to reading inclusive books to kids to volunteering in an archive to finding and visiting old dykes in nursing homes. And protect ourselves. At the sign of a brick wall, we need to rethink the route rather than slam into it and knock ourselves completely out. We’ve lost too many along the way.”
Do you think the general view on gay rights and the gay rights movement has changed over the years? If so, how?
“I think millions of eyes have been opened by our efforts and millions of others will always stay closed. There are obviously people out there who have built their own careers by trying to keep us down, promoting disdain toward us to keep their religious, political, or financial powers. And they have followers galore. The most important change has been in ourselves. We are saying no to our attackers and staying out. They can’t silence us all and we’re never going away. The paper you are writing for your high school class is yet another protest. All the high school papers together are a massive monument to the young women and men who write them. It’s a monument you are making sure will never be torn down and I thank you for that.”
Copyright Lee Lynch 2017