Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Gay Militants

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, February 25, 2008

“We are an army of lovers… And in time we will win and in time the battles will all be fought and won… time will have taken its toll on these lovers and we will no longer be an army of lovers just a community of lovers. But now we must be an army to defend what we love.”

The Gay Militants is a fascinating journal of the year between the Stonewall riots in 1969 and the first Gay Pride parade in 1970. It is 335 pages of beautiful, stumbling, inspired activism. It has been published twice, first in 1971 only a few months after the events it describes, and again in 1995, presumably for the 25th anniversary of the first Pride parade.

RecommendationSpecial Interests
AuthorDonn Teal
Length355 pages
Book Rating8

This is a dense book; it took me over a year to finish it. Teal begins with the bigotry that permeated media reports on gay issues. Even the Village Voice in the heart of Greenwich Village described the Stonewall riot of June 27th and the activism that followed as a “fairy tail”. Teal describes the bar scene at the time that led to the riots, where bar owners were caught between mafia control and police shakedowns. The raids were meant to convince bar owners to increase their payoffs.

While the book itself is not organized chronologically, Teal ends it a year later at the June 28, 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Day parade during the first Gay Pride Week when thousands of people marched to Central Park’s Sheep Meadow in a show of force that amazed even them. Similar events were held in Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

The story of what happened in between those two weekends is an amazing recount of sixties-era politics, involving groups as diverse as women’s liberation and Black Panthers. It is filled with groups I’d never heard of: the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, the “homophile” organizations. Existing organizations were soon joined by fired-up newcomers. One of the problems reading this book is the plethora of acronyms: SIR, GLF, GAA, NACHO, ERCHO, CHF, CFT, MSNY.

The new-born movement’s targets were the media (starting with the Village Voice) and elected politicians. They had a long way to go in both cases. When Gay Activist’s Alliance founder Jim Owles asked mayoral candidate Mario Procaccino “what are you going to do about the oppression of the homosexual?” Procaccino responded (p. 65):

That is one of the many problems that we must face in New York. It is sick rather than criminal, and we must show understanding and compassion for them.

Understandably, “sick rather than criminal” did not rally homosexuals to the Democrats. Gay Power estimated that “homosexuals swung this election for Mayor Lindsay.” This was based on very off-the-cuff calculations, but in Los Angeles Advocate editor-in-chief Dick Michaels had slightly better figures:

The City Councilman Paul Lamport ran for re-election. And he was very ‘bad’ on gays. So in the primary we backed an openly gay candidate who did not have much of a chance of getting the nomination—but we wanted to see how many votes he would get. He wound up getting over three thousand. Then, in the election Lamport ran against a man named Stevenson, and we came out openly against Lamport, backing Stevenson. Lamport lost by roughly three thousand votes.

One of the first major politicians to take a stand was then-congressman Edward Koch. After a March 1970 raid in which 167 were arrested and one man was impaled on a metal fence while trying to escape the police station, Koch wrote a scathing letter to Police Commissioner Howard Leary, ending with “it is not a violation of the law to be homosexual or heterosexual, and the law should never be used to harass either.” (p. 124)

One of the problems with arrests such as those resulting from bar raids was that even though they rarely resulted in a conviction they stayed on a person’s record.

Most bonding companies will not insure anyone who has a criminal record, a “sex-offense” record, or simply one who has been arrested. Naturally, companies dealing in money insist employees be bonded, and if the employee cannot qualify for a bond, he cannot keep his job. (p. 151)

Throughout that year, gay activists walked a tightrope between courting other activists and being diverted away from Gay liberation into general leftist politics that would leave their own concerns behind. As Society for Individual Rights president Larry Littlejohn said, “Police brutality is one issue, no matter whose skull is cracked. We get nowhere going-it-alone.” (p. 110) At the same time, they had to remember that “nobody—capitalist or communist—has treated us as anything other than shit so far.” (p. 113, Carl Wittman)

There were also issues within those other movements. In an August 21 1970 letter to the Black Panthers, Huey P. Newton wrote:

During the past few years, strong movements have developed among women and among homosexuals seeking their liberation. There has been some uncertainty about how to relate to these movements.

Whatever your personal opinions and your insecurities about homosexuality and the various liberation movements among homosexuals and women (and I speak of the homosexuals and women as oppressed groups), we should try to unite with them in a revolutionary fashion. I say “whatever your insecurities are” because, as we very well know sometimes our first instinct is to want to hit a homosexual in the mouth and want a woman to be quiet. We want to hit the homosexual in the mouth because we’re afraid we might be homosexual; and we want to hit the woman or shut her up because we’re afraid that she might castrate us, or take the nuts that we might not have to start with.

Newton went on to say that the gay liberation movement and the women’s liberation movement should have “full participation” at conferences, rallies, and demonstrations.

As ever, women had their own problems. Gay women were often excluded from the women’s movements, despite (or because of) the general use of “lesbian” as an insult to women’s liberationists. According to Martha Shelley (p. 182):

when Women’s Liberation picketed the 1968 Miss America pageant, the most terrible epithet heaped on our straight sisters was ‘lesbian.’ The sisters faced hostile audiences who called them ‘commies,’ ‘tramps,’ ‘bathless,’ etc., and they faced these labels with equanimity; but they broke into tears when they were called lesbians.

Everywhere, though, it came back to police harassment. At the October 8 1970 meeting of the Daughters of Bilitis in New York, the organization had “decided that they were not willing to employ picketing as a tool” but changed their minds within minutes when police entered without permission and issued a summons to their president.

A community of lovers

There is a bit of insight into the philosophical growth of revolutionary movements in the final chapters. Charles Throp wrote (p. 305):

We are an army of lovers… And in time we will win and in time the battles will all be fought and won… time will have taken its toll on these lovers and we will no longer be an army of lovers just a community of lovers. But now we must be an army to defend what we love.

When such movements start, the statement they must come to is “I am”. Simone de Beauvoir said that her first realization had to be “I am a woman”. For W.E.B. Du Bois, it was being black. Because before the revolution society does not see women, black folks, and homosexuals. They see someone who is not a man, someone who is not white, and someone who is not straight. In fact, not human, or at least not a fully functioning human. From the revolution comes the statement “I am”. The question the revolution teaches them to ask is “Why am I?” And from the question comes a philosophy.

The Gay Militants is a fascinating collection of documents, conversations, and stories, told in a historical manner but from a distance of only a few months. If you’re interested in revolutionary politics at the tail end of the sixties, I strongly recommend tracking down a copy.

The Gay Militants

Donn Teal

Recommendation: Special Interests