Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Truly Queer History

Truly Queer History


Tommi Avicolli Mecca draws together witnesses from an age of liberation


By Doug Ireland

Gay City News

June 27, 2009




     Tommi Avicolli Mecca, City Lights Books,

     303 pages; $18.95


Myth has it that the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn in

Greenwich Village were the first open queer rebellion

against discrimination. Not so. In 1965, the first

queer sit-ins on record took place at a late-night

Philadelphia coffee shop and lunch counter called

Dewey's, which was a popular hangout for young gays and

lesbians, and particularly drag queens and others with

gender-variant attire. The establishment had begun

refusing service to this LGBT clientele.


As an April 25 protest rally took place outside

Dewey's, more than 150 patrons were turned away by

management. But four teens resisted efforts to force

them out and were arrested, later convicted on charges

of disorderly conduct. In the ensuing weeks, Dewey's

patrons and others from Philadelphia's gay community

set up an informational picket line protesting the

lunch counter's treatment of gender-variant youth. On

May 2, activists staged another sit-in, and the police

were again called, but this time made no arrests. The

restaurant backed down, and promised "an immediate

cessation of all indiscriminate denials of service."


In August 1966, there was a riot at Compton's

Cafeteria, a 24-hour San Francisco eatery popular with

drag queens and other gender-benders (this was long

before the word "transgendered" was in use), hustlers

(many of them members of Vanguard, the first

organization for queer youth on record, founded some

months earlier), runaway teens, and cruising gays. The

Compton's management had begun calling police to roust

this non-conformist clientele, and one night a drag

queen precipitated the riot by throwing a cup of coffee

into the face of a cop who was trying to drag her away.

Plates, trays, cups, and silverware were soon hurtling

through the air, police paddy wagons arrived, and

street fighting broke out. Some of the 60 or so rioting

drag queens hit the cops with their heavy purses, a

police car was vandalized, and a newspaper stand was

burned down. The Compton's Riot eventually led to the

appointment of the first police liaison to the gay

community, and the establishment of the first known

transsexual support group in the US.


These are just two of the many nuggets of little-known

or forgotten queer history to be found in "Smash the

Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay

Liberation," the new anthology edited by Tommi Avicolli

Mecca, himself a veteran of the earliest gay liberation

struggles, and today an activist, gender-bending

performance artist, and writer well-known to San Francisco queers.


By the time of the Stonewall riots in June 1969,

rebellion and radicalism were in the air. The country

had been riven in two by the mass agitation against the

war in Vietnam. The multiracial civil rights movement

was being replaced by the Black Power movement, the

Black Panthers had been born four years earlier, and

America's cities had exploded in urban riots by the

black underclass. Feminists had begun to articulate

their own liberationist ideology and burn their bras.

Stonewall and the militant gay liberation movement to

which it gave birth arose out of this '60s turbulence,

and cannot be properly understood separated from this context.


If the first night of the Stonewall riots was

spontaneous, and led principally by drag queens like

the legendary Sylvia Rivera, a street hustler who

always claimed she'd thrown the first beer bottle at

the cops, the ensuing nights of protest benefited from

some more consciously activist participation. As Mark

Segal, who for 32 years has been the publisher of the

Philadelphia Gay News, puts it in his contribution to

this anthology, "Marty Robinson recruited me into the

'activist group,' a subgroup of Mattachine New York. If

there were organizers of the demonstrations on the

nights following the [first] Stonewall riot, it was us.

After the first incident in which cops raided the bar,

Marty had the brilliant idea to have us write in chalk

on Christopher Street, 'Stonewall Tomorrow Night.' For

three more nights, we gathered and protested."


What made Stonewall the much-evoked milestone in queer

activist history that it's become was that it was

followed in the ensuing weeks by the launch of a

concrete and militant political organization, the Gay

Liberation Front, into which Robinson and his

Mattachine action group merged. Many of the 37 men and

women who participated in the founding meeting of GLF,

and others who later joined, were youthful veterans of

other '60s struggles, and GLF's radical politics were

multi-issue. Within two years, imitators of the New

York GLF had launched some 300 independent Gay

Liberation Front cells across the country. At GLF

demonstrations, one frequently heard the chant

"2-4-6-8, Smash the Church, Smash the State!" -- hence

the title of Avicolli Mecca's collection of articles,

largely first-person reminiscences of the earliest and

most radical wave of gay liberation struggles, the bulk

of them specifically written for this volume.


As Nick Benton, a founder of the Berkeley Gay

Liberation Front and of its offshoot, the seminal queer

newspaper Gay Sunshine, writes, for him and his fellow

GLF activists "gay liberation was part of the larger

struggle of human beings for liberation, in solidarity

with the civil rights, anti-war, feminist, and Third

World liberation struggles." The first editorial of Gay

Sunshine proclaimed that gay liberation would represent

"those who understand themselves as oppressed --

politically oppressed by an oppressor that not only is

down on homosexuality, but equally down on all things

that are not white, straight, middle class, pro-

establishment... It should harken to a greater cause --

the cause of human liberation, of which homosexual

liberation is just one aspect -- and on that level take its stand."


GLF supported the Black Panthers -- and were rewarded

with a much-publicized "Open Letter to the

Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters" by the Panthers'

charismatic theoretician, Huey Newton, reproduced in

this anthology, proclaiming that homosexuals "might be

the most oppressed people in the world," and adding

that "we should be careful about using those terms that

might turn our friends off. The terms 'faggot' and

'punk' should be deleted from our vocabulary, and

especially we should not attach names normally designed

for homosexuals to men who are enemies of the people, like Nixon."


Early gay liberation saw itself as a cultural paradigm

shift from the stultifying atmosphere of the Nixon

years. As the first editorial in the New York GLF's

newspaper, ComeOut!, proclaimed, "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 personal testimonies collected for "Smash the

Church, Smash the State!", augmented by manifestos and

documents of that early period and biographical

sketches of important movement figures, help recreate

those heady, joyously rambunctious days of "sex, drugs,

and rock 'n roll" as queers, influenced by the hippies,

Yippies, and Zippies, built their own radical wing of

the prevailing youth counterculture, and created their

own influential publications -- like Boston's Fag Rag,

in which a notorious Charlie Shively article proclaimed

"??????????? As an Act of Revolution."


There are numerous contributions by women who tired of

the male domination of GLF and founded groups like

RadicalLesbians, RedStockings, and Dyketactics. There

are also accounts both of radical gay liberation's

earliest and often campy direct actions and of the

factional fights that eventually destroyed GLF and led

to its replacement by the much larger -- and single-

issue -- Gay Activists Alliance, which emerged just six

months after Stonewall.


Avicolli Mecca has not abandoned the anarchic

radicalism of those early days. He writes in his

introduction, "In many ways, the new millennium gay

movement is the antithesis of the early '70s gay

liberation. It cavorts with politicians who may be good

on gay issues, but not on concerns affecting other

disenfranchised communities. It is in bed with the

Democratic Party establishment that gave carte blanche

to George Bush to wage two illegal and immoral wars in

the Middle East. It courts corporate support for its

gala events, even its pride parades, which used to be

protest marches and celebrations of the Stonewall

Riots. Now those marches seem more of a market than a movement."


On this 40th anniversary of Stonewall, that's a

critique that deserves to be heard.


A complete collection of the Gay Liberation Front's

newspaper, ComeOut!, has just been posted on the

excellent OutHistory website, founded by pioneering gay

historian Jonathan Ned Katz, along with a collection of

the original police reports on the Stonewall riot.

Tommy Avicolli Mecca's web site is at Doug Ireland can be reached through

his blog, DIRELAND, at


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