The differences between “gay rights” groups and “gay liberation” groups
from Homosexual Oppression & Liberation by Dennis Altman, 1971, pp. 131-137
To illustrate the difference between the perspective of those whose model is essentially the liberal pressure group and those who adopt a more revolutionary attitude, one might contrast the two major radical gay groups in New York, the civil libertarian Gay Activists Alliance and the revolutionary Gay Liberation Front. The following description, though accurate as of early 1971, has changed considerably since then, but I am concerned to illustrate certain broad points rather than describe or analyse any particular organizations.
The Gay Activists Alliance is a hip, with-it, political pressure group, highly structured organizationally, and proclaiming itself "a militant (though nonviolent) homosexual civil rights movement," and as such it is a logical extension of the Mattachine Society. It has a strong sense of political realities, as befits an organization whose members enjoy politicking. Watching a GAA meeting in progress one feels that the leadership would, in other circumstances, have all been presidents of their student councils. Like the old-line groups, particularly the Washington and New York Mattachine Societies and the Society for Individual Rights, GAA is concerned with questions of tax laws, of fair employment, and elections. GAA, as one might expect from a civil rights organization, has directed considerable energy to getting homosexuals to register to vote and to publicizing candidates' views on the homosexual issue. During the 1970 senatorial campaign, the three major candidates were invited to address GAA. Two of them sent representatives; the third, James Buckley, the Conservative party candidate and ultimate victor, conscious no doubt of all those antifaggot hard hats, refused the invitation.
In its political concerns, GAA is close to the old-line groups: the concept of organizing a homosexual voting bloc is an old one. ([Norman] Mailer claims that when he was approached in the early fifties to write for One, they offered him the possibility of running for Congress with homosexual support.) The same conference meeting of homosexual organizations in 1968 that proclaimed "Gay is Good" also asked that all Congressional candidates should take a stand on homosexual rights. San Francisco's Society for Individual Rights has for several years mobilized homosexual voters, and in 1968 may - for, despite the pretensions of political scientists, one can never prove such things - have aided Alan Cranston to defeat Max Rafferty for the Senate. (Rafferty, then state superintendent of Public Instruction, had proclaimed that he would "oppose any change in the present laws against homosexuality except to make them more severe," and later followed this up with the statement: "I favor letting homosexuals serve in any branch of the government, after they have received proper medical and psychiatric treatment to remedy their sad affliction, and have been pronounced cured by competent medical authorities." These statements were widely publicized by the Society throughout the California gayworld.) The Society for several years has also invited candidates for local offices to attend meetings and in 1970 even gave a testimonial dinner for Willie Brown, a black state assemblyman who has sought to end California's antisodomy laws.
The logical extension of pressure through the ballot box was the 1970 candidature of Dr. Kameny for election to Congress from the District of Columbia. As he received only 2,000 votes, one may say fairly safely that a majority of Washington's homosexuals did not vote gay. However at the I972 Democratic Convention a number of openly gay delegates attended, and pushed – unsuccessfully – for a pro-gay platform. In both Canada and Australia overt homosexuals have also run for political office.
Where the Gay Activists Alliance differs from groups like Mattachine and SIR is in its far greater willingness to engage in direct action, such as the direct confrontation of Lindsay, and an earlier sit-in at Republican Party state headquarters that led to the arrest and subsequent prosecution of a group known as the Rockefeller Five. The organization straddles a wide range of life-styles: a meeting will include both an elegant, fortyish man, hair carefully groomed and a voice modulated in the best tradition of Broadway, reporting on a successful raffle, and a twenty-year-old boy, in denim jeans and jacket announcing plans to confront television figure Dick Cavett or Mayor Lindsay.
Such diversity makes for a large membership, and so do the GAA dances which offer an alternative to the bars and bathhouses and draw very large numbers. (Since late 1971 GAA has had its own building in New York.) At least in part because of GAA pressure, laws have been introduced in New York's State Assembly and City Council to remove discrimination against homosexuals, and there has been a significant change in the attitude of the New York media to homosexuals, which of course affects the whole country. My comparative neglect of such traditional political activity is not meant to suggest that it is unimportant. A proliferation of groups, as sociologists are now coming to see, serves some purpose, and may indeed be a sign of health in a movement. Social movements, after all, serve expressive as well as instrumental ends and must cater to a wide variety of personalities and needs. That no one group can speak for “the homosexual” – one is reminded of Robert Penn Warren’s plaintive question in the title of his book Who Speaks for the Negro? – is less important that the face that different groups can cater for different sorts of homosexuals.
The style of the Gay Liberation Front is totally different. Members of the GLF are no more likely to describe theirs as a civil rights organization than is the Black Panther party. Their meetings, as is true of most in the (white) radical movement, are largely unstructured with a very heavy stress on personal declarations and revolutionary sentiment. Unlike GAA, which has rigid requirements for membership (including attendance at a number of meetings), GLF defines itself as open, unencumbered by structure, and as a movement rather than an organization.
Here, as in other features, GLF has borrowed consciously from the women's liberation movement. There is a strong feeling in both movements that traditional rules of debate and procedure tend both to polarize opinion and to preclude the shyer and less verbally agile from full participation. Thus devices are adopted like choosing chairmen or women by lot, rotating discussion around the room so that no one may speak twice until everyone has been heard, avoiding any formal motions in favor of a search for consensus, etc. GLF meetings, as a result, are often something of a cross between a Quaker meeting and an informal rap session, infuriating to those who want to " get things done" but important in raising the level of self-awareness and acceptance of those with less experience and less self-confidence. Or, at least, this is the theory. In some cases, I suspect that the very lack of structure gives an enormous advantage to a few charismatic figures who are able to dominate the meeting as totally as in any rigorous debate-by-the-rules gathering.
Both the Gay Activists Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front are open to men and women and both of them, GAA in particular, are predominantly male. Each contains a small number of blacks and Spanish-Americans, each has a few transvestites and transexuals. ("No member may be discriminated against because of personal appearance, style or behavior or sexual taste" reads the GAA manifesto, and in both groups there is a very conscious effort to avoid stigmatizing anyone for whatever their thing may be.) But inevitably the Liberation Front, though less than the Activists Alliance, seems to be dominated by gay men of a certain type-white, middle-class, educated, closer to straight movement types than to the homosexual of the popular imagination-and this has led to a number of breakaway groups. Women, youth, Third World, and transvestite organizations have all been set up, part of gay liberation as a movement but distinct from the GLF. At a time when people are becoming aware of the many ways in which they can suffer oppression, there seems almost a competition as to which group can identify itself as the most oppressed. Is the transvestite who is harassed for wearing_ women's clothes more oppressed than the black lesbian? The need to explore multiple oppression is expressed in this statement by a group of Third World gays. "We, as Third World gay people suffer a triple oppression: 1) We are oppressed as people because our humanity is routinely devoured by the carnivorous system of capitalism; 2) We are oppressed as Third World people by the economically inherent racism of white American society; 3) We are oppressed by the sexism of the white society and the verbal and physical abuse of masculinity-deprived Third World males."
Yet if there is a proliferation of groups that adopt a liberation perspective there is also a common sensitivity and a number of common activities. One of the more interesting activities that grew
out of the movement was Gay Night at Alternate University - the now defunct successor to the Free Universities of a few years ago which was established to provide revolutionary education: "We must create and expand revolutionary values, visions of alternate structures, and analyses of history and existence. And as our understanding changes, we must change ourselves. As everywhere else, in our workshops and classes we must combat elitism, sexism, racism, and liberalism – and fear (from the 1970 fall prospectus). Along with the classes on organic foods and revolutionary Cuba, on self-defence, squatter movements, Marxism and social practice, Gay Night provided a time for gay men and women to come together, to pool experience, knowledge, and wounds, and to develop a new sensibility and community, a concern far less pronounced in the civil libertarian focus of the Gay Activists Alliance.
One Friday night at Alternate University: in one side room a few transvestites are rapping with a group of gay men and women, trying to discover the essence of their own experience. Diane, who had previously been Roger, is dressed in burlesque style in a short, submini frock of black net, buttocks rounded by black lace pants, face heavily powdered and eyes lovingly formed. He insists that he is passing as a woman, to which the gay women, women's-liberation-clad in heavy slacks and shirts, respond indignantly that he is in fact only acting out the male fantasy of what a woman is. In the main room a short girl in black slacks is briefing a group on first aid during demonstrations: "If there's heavy bleeding," she says, "stop it, and worry about infection later."
Back in the transvestite classroom, Sylvia, one of the leaders of the street transvestites, is explaining a decision to have "the" operation. "But what," expostulates Dusty-a tall lean boy with wild Afro hair who has played opposite Jackie Curtis in an Andy Warhol movie - "what does cutting your penis off change? Isn't the whole thing all in your head?" And in another room the Third World gay people having completed their discussion, a discussion gets under way on roles, led – dominated - by Pat, a (genital) woman with two kids who likes to play at being a man.
This, then, is part of gay liberation. And if a Fellini or a Warhol might make it grotesque in film, there is a deadly seriousness to it, a straining to comprehend other people's experiences and fantasies and fears, as when a tall black, who until now had been irritating everyone by uncalled-for wisecracks, talks of his/her problem as a hermaphrodite with no clear concept of which sex to identify with, raising problems whose dimensions one can scarcely grasp. There are wounds opened in such exchanges that have rarely been opened before, but there is as well a real feeling for each other, a common sense of belonging and identity.
The Gay Liberation Front has also been identified with the commune movement, and this sets it apart from the more conventional life-styles of GAA members. While the traditional homophile groups are seeking to institute homosexual marriages - in Los Angeles, the Reverend Troy Perry, the Billy Graham of the homophile movement, is in fact performing such marriages and two women in Kentucky fought a court case to have such a marriage recognized the kids in Gay Liberation Front, like their counterparts in the rest of the movement, are searching for new forms of communal living, rejecting the traditional one-to-one relationship as selfish and constricting. The Gay Activists Alliance seeks to find acceptance in present society; the gay liberationists are committed to a transformation of that society.