Zap, You’re Alive!
By Arthur Evans
Today a growing number of upfront gay men and lesbians hold political office. Colleges have gay/lesbian support-groups and offer courses in gay studies. Millions of gays and lesbians have come out of the closets to their parents, spouses, children, and employers.
Thirty years ago, in the period that ended with the Stonewall Riot of 1969, the picture was entirely different. Gay people were regarded as a tiny minority of perverts. Media coverage consisted of
occasional articles about arrests or new medical techniques for "treating the problem." Upfront gay activists were limited to a few brave souls exposing themselves to a chilly public opinion. Most gay people lived furtive lives, with a low sense of self-esteem.
In December 1969 a group of us in New York City decided to explode, once and for all, the great silence that was smothering gay life. We were the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), a new group dedicated to street activism on behalf of gay issues.
We would explode the smothering silence by using "zaps." These were nonviolent, but militant, face-to-face confrontations with homophobes in positions of authority. GAA aggressively followed this strategy for the next four years under its presidents Jim Owles, Rich Wandel, Bruce Voeller, and Morty Manford. The gay world would never be the same.
Cakes and Dolts
Zaps had two intended audiences--our own community and the larger political world. In regard to our own community, zaps often used humor and theater to build up group morale and gay identity.
An example was a zap in the summer of 1971 involving Herman Katz, the City Clerk of New York. Katz had learned that a clergyman was performing "holy unions" for same-sex couples at a Manhattan church. He was upset because his office was responsible for issuing marriage licenses. An upstart clergyman was violating the sanctity of marriage, which it was his duty to protect! In an interview with The New York Post, Katz made unpleasant remarks about gay folks and threatened criminal prosecution of the clergyman.
A few weeks later, about a dozen GAA members, led by Marc Rubin and Pete Fisher, congenially ambled into Katz's office with a coffee wagon and a large wedding cake. It was topped by a male couple and a female couple. We schmoozed with the people waiting in line for their licenses. We gave them printed invitations for a gay wedding reception, about to be held in the City Clerk's office.
Once we were inside the office, I made a bee line for the switchboard and started answering the telephone. The clerical workers didn't seem to mind very much. They hated their jobs, just like everybody else! I advised the callers that the City Clerk's office was only issuing same-sex licenses that day. I told them that if they weren't gay or lesbian, they couldn't get married.
At that point, a large and not very articulate male bureaucrat entered the room. He started shouting uncontrollably. I felt sorry for him. I figured he was upset because he hadn't received an invitation. So I thrust one into his hand, saying, "Here, you want an invitation to our party?"
Alas, he was a party pooper. He called the police, who eventually arrived with guns and clubs, ready to defend the sanctity of marriage. As the cops entered, I yelled out, "Here they come, the agents of institutionalized violence!" They ordered us to leave, cake and all.
Zap and Hype
We left, but we didn't lose. GAA members Randy Wicker and Peter Ogren had videotaped the entire event and later showed it to hundreds of visitors to our headquarters on Wooster Street. The heterosexual oppressors came off looking like heavy-handed dolts. The gay militants came off looking vibrant and witty. Closeted gay people who watched the video were exposed to an image of gay/lesbian verve that they had never before witnessed. It showed them that there was sassiness and humor in community.
As was our common practice, we also made sure that the mass media heard of the zap. We were lucky to have two savvy media pros in GAA, Arthur Bell (my lover at the time) and Ron Gold. Arthur was a publicist for Viking Press and Random House, and later a columnist for the Village Voice. Ron was a former reporter for Variety. The two got us dish on politicians' itineraries and made sure our actions got good play in the press.
Zap and hype, zap and hype. With that two-step, we danced our way into the limelight of public awareness and broke through the taboo of discussing things gay.
A Long-Term Payoff
Our zap of the City Clerk also delivered a longer-term payoff. One person who heard of it and enjoyed it thoroughly was a local politician named David Dinkins. In 1975 he succeeded the doltish Herman Katz as City Clerk. Later, in 1989, Dinkins was elected Mayor of New York City, with strong support from gay and lesbian voters.
In 1993, this same David Dinkins signed an executive order enabling same-sex couples to register as unmarried "domestic partners" with the City Clerk's office. His order enabled gays and lesbians to enjoy some of the benefits that straights just take for granted, especially medical insurance benefits. Our zap 22 years before was the first step in the long road to winning this victory.
Know Your Neighbor
Zaps were not just morale builders for our community. They also generated immediate political payoffs. An example was a zap we conducted in June 1970 against Saul Sharison, chairman of the General Welfare Committee of the New York City Council.
Sharison had refused to hold hearings on a bill we wanted--a simple measure that would outlaw discrimination against gay people in employment and housing. In fact, Sharison's committee hadn't considered any bills at all for nine months. After many meetings with his staff, it became obvious to us that Sharison wasn't going to budge and that our bill would die.
Sharison apparently hadn't heard of the feminist principle that the personal is the political. He didn't realize that the politics he was playing were about to have as big an impact on his personal life as they already had on ours.
GAA members Marc Rubin and Pete Fisher did some personal investigating of Sharison. They discovered that he lived in a luxury high-rise apartment building on East 10th Street, which covered a whole city block. By chance, the building was about a half-hour's walk from GAA headquarters, which was then in a run-down, throw-away neighborhood (although it's since been yuppified).
Marc and Pete also discovered that Sharison got an extra $20,000 a year as a committee chairman. Yet he had convened only two meetings of his committee during his whole term! Sharison was, in Marc Rubin's immortal words, "a useless shit."
Pete took this dish and worked it up into a beautifully ironic leaflet entitled "Know Your Neighbor." He and Marc dutifully handed it out in front of Sharison's building, to all his neighbors. Now they all knew what kind of a low-life was living in their building!
A Stroll by 1,000 People
As mentioned, Sharison's building was not far from our headquarters. It was a big old firehouse that we had refurbished and made into a community center. The ground floor could accommodate over a thousand people, and we held dances there on the weekends.
On a Saturday night in June 1970, we stopped the music at 1:30 a.m. We explained to the crowd that we were going to stroll over to Saul Sharison's luxury apartment building and give him a show of gay/lesbian pride. We urged the crowd to be quiet as we walked the distance to Sharison's, but to let loose once we got there.
We opened the huge rolling doors that covered an entire wall, and a thousand of us poured out onto the street. I thought of the ancient Israelites crossing the Red Sea!
When we got to Sharison's at 2:00 a.m., we raised a joyful noise unto the goddess. You can imagine the scene--screaming, shouting, blowing whistles, banging on walls, wailing police sirens, search lights scanning the crowd, the whole bit. We could see lights going on in apartments all over the front side of the building. Seven of us (including Pete Fisher, Marc Rubin, and myself) managed to get through the front door and hold a sit-in in the opulent lobby, where we were arrested.
The wealthy tenants who lived in the building were furious. After all, they lived where they did in order to get away from people like us. But there was nothing they could do to GAA. So they turned their wrath on Saul Sharison instead. He was deluged with phone calls from his neighbors, who started a petition drive to have him evicted as an undesirable tenant. Now he, too, knew what it was like to lack housing protection.
A Call from Saul
Within a few days, GAA got a phone call from Sharison's staff. His committee would meet and begin to hold public hearings on our bill. Who would we like to testify?
Sharison made this concession not because he liked us or because we were polite and well dressed. He got off his duff because we would have made his life miserable if he hadn't. His response confirmed an old adage from another Saul, Saul Alinksy: politics is the art of getting people do the right thing for the wrong reasons.
It took a long time to get our bill passed in New York. It didn't happen until 16 years later, in 1986. The opposition was fierce--from the Roman Catholic archdiocese, the Orthodox rabbinate, the Protestant fundamentalists, the police, and the fire department. Even the Non-Leaders of the Gay Liberation Front were opposed (especially Jim Fouratt). They derided the whole idea as "reformist" and "assimilationist." But in the end the bill passed. The first step of all was holding public hearings on the issue, which our zap of Sharison had made possible.
Saul Sharison was a good liberal, as were many of the targets of our zaps. Some people criticized us for going after the liberals. "Why alienate our friends?" they asked. "If we turn off the liberals, who will support us?" This was especially the view of New York's conservative Mattachine Society, although they later rethought the matter.
Marty Robinson, the chief architect of zapping, argued that we should go after the liberals precisely because they claimed to be our friends. They said the right things, Marty pointed out, but failed when it was time to deliver the goods. What kind of a friend is that?
Many liberals are hypocrites, Marty felt. Their liberalism is a kind of trophy that they like to show off in order to prove their educational status. Anyway, you never accomplish anything in politics by being dependent on someone's good will. You get ahead by creating power.
Marty was nothing if not a realist. He summed up his realism with two phrases: "climbing up the liberals" and "politicians--use 'em or abuse 'em." He meant that the only way for us to get ahead was to dare to climb up the body politic, first going for the toes (the liberals), whether they liked it or not.
The Biggest Toe
The biggest toe we went for was John Lindsay, New York's liberal Republican mayor. Educated, suave, handsome, and rich, he had been the Congressman from New York's swank and soooo-liberal Silk Stocking District before winning election as mayor.
Unfortunately, though, Lindsay's liberalism didn't extend to controlling the city's rabidly anti-gay police force in its never-ending attacks on us. Individual complaints had been made to his office. Polite demonstrations had been held. All to no avail. So we decided to zap him every time he appeared in public.
A Night at the Opera
A memorable zap of Lindsay occurred on the opening night of the 1970 season of the Metropolitan Opera. As was customary, the mayor was to enter the cavernous lobby of Lincoln Center at the last minute. The well-heeled patrons held glittering poses on the lofty staircase waiting for the grand entry.
We, too, were in the lobby, disguised in suit-and-time drag. Some of us even wore tuxedoes, including GAA's Mr. Natural, Eric Thorndale. (Even so, though, Eric decided to go barefoot, for the sake of sartorial balance.)
The large glass doors opened, and in stepped his Honor, along with Mary, his wife, both smiling graciously as if they were a duke and duchess. At that moment we surged forth from the crowd, blocked the two in their tracks, and shouted at the top of our lungs, "END POLICE HARASSMENT!" and "GAY POWER!"
The police, confused by our bourgeois drag, hesitated for a few seconds, allowing our chants to swell and echo off the walls, while the spectators gazed at this spectacle with amazement. Then the police jumped in, shoving, pushing, and dragging us (some by the hair). They threw us out the door and down the outside steps, but without arresting anyone.
As a result of the zap, the curtain was delayed for the opera. In the next day's New York Times, the opera critic noted the delay in his review. This was the first time I ever recalled seeing the New York Times make any mention of the new gay activism. And we got it through an opera review!
Two in a Row
A few days after this spectacle, we zapped Lindsay again. We discovered that his wife was sponsoring a benefit performance of the new play Two by Two for one of her charities. Once again, we found ourselves milling around in a lobby wearing bourgeois drag and sipping cocktails, just like the well-heeled liberals.
When the mayor and his wife entered, the scene at the opera repeated itself, but with a difference. Mrs. Lindsay lost her temper and suddenly lunged at the demonstrators, kicking several in the shins, and punching me in the chest. His Honor kept his cool while in the lobby, but when the two entered the auditorium, he lashed out at his wife for her uncool reaction.
We were delighted that we had turned a political issue into a personal quarrel between the mayor and his wife. It meant that we were breaking down the barrier between the political and personal, a barrier that always protects the oppressors.
A few days later, GAA got a phone call from Richard Aurelio, New York's Deputy Mayor. Could we come down to City Hall to discuss what was bothering us? We met with Aurelio and the top brass of the police department. They agreed to exile Inspector Seymour Pine, who had been instigating much of the recent anti-gay harassment, to a remote post in Brooklyn. It was about time, too. Pine was the captain in charge of the 6th Precinct (Greenwich Village) when their boys had raided the Stonewall Inn on June 27, 1969, provoking the famed riot of that night.
Although we got some movement out of Lindsay on police matters, he wouldn't publicly support our anti-discrimination bill. And after all our work to get Saul Sharison to hold hearings! Privately, Lindsay's aides told us over and over, "The mayor has never been on the wrong side of a civil-rights issue." But publicly, there was a big silence.
We knew we couldn't pass the bill without public support from the mayor, so we decided to go after him again. As it turned out, Lindsay set himself up for what proved to be our most spectacular zap ever.
In late 1971, the mayor announced to the world his delusional ambition of becoming the Republican nominee for President of the United States. Now we understood why he hadn't given us public support. The party of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford would never make a fag lover its nominee for president.
The Good Witch Strikes
A few months later, in early 1972, Lindsay decided to promote his presidential candidacy in a big way. He would host a rally for himself at New York's huge Radio City Music Hall. In order to fill the house and make money, he put all city employees on notice: they were expected to buy a ticket to this event, attend, and applaud.
We planned to attend, too, but not to applaud. Our wily publicist Ron Gold managed to finagle tickets for the event from friends of his in the projectionists' union.
When His Honor arrived, he had to enter by a back door because of a noisy demonstration out front by GAA. But he hadn't given us the slip, after all. Unknown to Lindsay, GAA members Morty Manford, Ernest Cohen, and Corona Rivera (then known as Cora Perotta) were ready. They were quietly sitting high up the balcony, waiting for their cue.
All in the house had taken their seats. The mayor emerged from behind the curtain and confidently strode forth to the podium to speak. For a moment, there was total silence. Suddenly, Morty and Corona ran down to balcony railing and shouted full blast, "WHY DON'T YOU SUPPORT GAY RIGHTS?!"
Because of the excellent acoustics at Radio City Music Hall, their cry filled the entire auditorium, as all heads turned to the balcony. Police surged down the balcony steps to drag Morty and Corona away, but they couldn't. The two had handcuffed themselves to the railing, and continued shouting.
At the same time, Ernest Cohen rushed to the railing and let fly a shower of thousands of leaflets, explaining the reason for the zap. They floated benignly down like the missive snow flakes of Glinda, the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. The now-wakened crew below eagerly snapped them up.
Lindsay, furious and speechless, stomped off the stage. The house lights dimmed, and the projectionist began showing a canned film about His Honor's life. His many guests, cajoled to attend, had a good laugh at their ungenerous host's expense.
This zap alone did not derail Lindsay's presidential plans, but it helped. For that, the entire country should be grateful to GAA, because this sophisticated, well-heeled liberal later became a born-again Christian.
Trouble in Long Island
Although effective in building up community morale and generating immediate political payoffs, zaps could be dangerous. An example was an incident that occurred in Suffolk County, Long Island.
The Suffolk County police, with headquarters in Happauge, Long Island, had authority over Fire Island. They liked to harass people who visited gay-favored beaches on the island. In addition, two drunk cops had raided a lesbian bar in Coram, Long Island, and beaten the manager.
We had been trying for some time to get George Aspland, the Suffolk County District Attorney, to investigate the police for their criminal attacks. But he wouldn't act. So we decided to go en masse to Aspland's office in Happauge and make a citizen's arrest of him, charging him with malfeasance in office.
In late November 1971, we rented a bus and set out for Happauge. We hoped to gain entry into his office under the pretense of delivering some affidavits about police brutality. What we didn't know was that an informer had infiltrated our planning meeting for the zap (held by GAA's executive committee in the basement of the firehouse) and tipped off Aspland.
Our bus pulled into the street in front of the county hall, the doors opened, and we all ran as fast as we could up the stairs toward the front door. It felt as though we were paratroopers jumping out of a plane onto enemy terrain. At the same moment, we heard a police siren go off (not a good sign).
We managed to get through the front door of the building and into a small reception room adjacent to the DA's office. Its door was locked. From behind a small open window in the adjacent room a cop identified himself as Lt. Calley. A second bad omen, I thought to myself, since another Lt. Calley had recently been in the news for committing atrocities against civilians in the Vietnam War. Our Lt. Calley said he would take the affidavits.
I asked him about the disposition of previous complaints concerning the police. He refused to answer and started to shut the window. I blocked the closing of the window with my hand and shouted as loudly as I could, "DON'T SLAM THIS WINDOW IN OUR FACES! WE HAVE A RIGHT TO KNOW THE STATUS OF THIS INVESTIGATION!"
At that moment, the door to the DA's office suddenly opened, and six or seven plainclothes police came rushing in, wildly swinging blackjacks.
I was lucky. I just got pushed to the floor in the shoving match. Others didn't fare so well. Many ended up with cuts and bruises, two gay men had their noses broken, and one lesbian suffered a broken rib that punctured her lung.
We were pushed and shoved outside, down the steps. Three people were arrested. One was beaten in his cell and told that if he didn't stop "this gay lib business," he would be found dead with a planted gun.
The Folks Next Door
We were down, but not out. As it happened, the Suffolk County Legislature was meeting in a building next door. Also, they had only recently been discussing charges of police brutality in the county. We charged into their meeting (some of our people still had blood streaming down their faces) and denounced the police for their attack.
The legislators were horrified. Later that day, H.L. Dennison, the County Executive, issued a statement saying the police commissioner had been lying to him about the extent of police brutality in the county and that an investigation would be launched. In addition, two legal observers from the ACLU had been beaten by police while photographing the event. They telegrammed the Department of Justice in Washington, demanding an FBI probe.
Of course no help would come from the FBI. Those were the days when Pres. Nixon was using the FBI to sabotage groups like ours. Nonetheless, our zap was a success. It generated a tremendous amount of publicity in Long Island about gay/lesbian issues. The long silence there was broken.
The upshot: local gay and lesbian residents started coming out of the closet, organizing politically, and having an impact on local elections. The genie of gay power was out of the bottle in Long Island, and nobody could force it back in.
The Big Wake-Up
The zaps mentioned above are just a small sample of GAA's repertoire of occupations and disruptions. Some targets of other occupations: Republican Party headquarters, Harper's Magazine, Fidelifacts (a private investigatory agency), the New York City Taxi Commission, St. Patrick's Cathedral, The New York Daily News, and the Board of Education.
Some targets of other disruptions: gubernatorial candidate Arthur Goldberg and presidential candidate Edmund Muskie, Arthur Godfrey, Dick Cavette, the American Psychiatric Association, and New York's "Inner Circle," at whose banquet Jim Owles and Morty Manford were savagely beaten.
In addition to zaps, we also held many demonstrations of a more conventional nature, not involving occupations or disruptions. And, of course, we had ongoing behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts directed at politicians at every level of government and at the mass media.
Our zaps, demonstrations, and lobbying attained a magnitude and a degree of cunning previously unknown in the history of the gay/lesbian movement. Within a few years, we had completely transformed gay life in New York City.
We also inspired the creation of hundreds of similar groups throughout the United States in the 70s. Later, in the 80s and 90s, our zaps became a model for AIDS activists.
Our role-modeling impact on other groups didn't just happen, but was due to persistent propaganda efforts. The spearhead on the national level was our National Gay Movement Committee, first chaired by Pete Fisher, and later by Rich Wandel. Locally, the spearhead was our Agit-Prop Committee, the brainchild of Eric Thorndale. (Agit-Prop = Agitation-Propaganda.) And, as noted early, we relied heavily on our wily media people, Arthur Bell and Ron Gold.
Let Us Raise a Standard
In the mid 60s, before GAA was founded, I used to go to Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village during the warm summers, sit on a favorite park bench, and read. The handsome arch dedicated to George Washington was always in view, rising majestically above the scene below. At the top was an inscription of one of Washington's sayings: "Let us raise a standard to which the wise and the honest may repair."
I often thought of that inscription later, first when we created GAA in 1969, and then when we hit the streets with our zaps in the 70s. In the end, beyond all the noise and frenzy of our public confrontations, we were doing something rather simple: raising a standard for the gay and lesbian community, inviting those who were ready, to come forward, step across the line, and join us.
Marty Robinson summed it up in more prosaic words: "Set a good bad example." That was a liberating idea. It was also part of an old American tradition going back to George Washington.
A subsequent article by Arthur Evans will explore the cultural activities of GAA.