Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Gay Activists Alliance

Now that we've lost the battle with Proposition 8, and others as well, I've noticed a lot of talk over the Internet about getting back to the kind of gay militancy that existed in the seventies and eighties. It's being said that the polite approach of modern-gay GLBT groups just isn't working, despite the fact that such groups have undoubtedly done much good.

When I was in New York's Gay Activists Alliance -- I ran the media committee for several years through various regimes (I even pretty much ran it when I was ousted once) -- no one in the gay movement received a salary (except maybe some people in the budding National Gay Task Force), and there were no fancy cocktail parties. [That's me above on the left just before GAA days -- the enemy, time, in us all, as Tennessee Williams put it in Sweet Bird of Youth. I've often said that being a gay activist made all my hair fall out!]

Activists in those days were not professional gays; they were dedicated human rights advocates who cared so damn much about making a difference that they neglected careers, love lives, went hungry, pretty much turned their whole lives over to their dedication to Gay Liberation. (Well we did get laid now and then, and I remember many companionable nights in Boots and Saddle and elsewhere. And it's not true that activists have no sense of humor --we actually laughed quite a bit. )

Don't get me wrong. I think it's great that today's gay activists can actually make a living at doing what we all did for free back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth (at least that's how some of today's activists make us older people feel). But when you're doing it for a living, maybe the dedication isn't quite as pervasive, maybe after all it just becomes a job.

The Gay Activists Alliance was the country's first militant Gay Rights group. When I say "militant," I do not mean violent. We were not terrorists or zanies (although there were a couple of zany members). I'm not suggesting today that we get so angry that we start lobbing bombs. But I believe that the militant approach of GAA is needed more than ever. Maybe it will be "ordinary" gay men and lesbians and not the "professional gays,"who will undoubtedly make the difference.

I have fond memories of GAA (and a few bitter ones), and I'm intensely proud of my activities with the outfit. Many in the group saw the media committee -- and there were a great, dedicated bunch of people on the committee -- as simply the part of the group that would get out the news about GAA's activities. I saw it differently, rechristening it the media image committee. I felt that the way gays were portrayed in books, movies, plays and on television could make a big difference in how we were perceived, as people then and now learn a lot (often a lot of wrong things) from popular culture. Years later the group GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) basically started out from the same idea and ran with it.

Some of the other members were unimpressed."Who watches television?" they'd say. Millions of people, I'd rejoinder. One episode of All in the Family could educate more people (rightly or wrongly) than a hundred zaps or a thousand picketers. Monitoring our image was to me and others an extremely important thing to do. We organized protests against homophobic movies such as Cruising, Windows and A Different Story. The press releases we sent out about the films were quoted in reviews and elsewhere in the New York Times and other papers. We communicated and met with producers of various TV shows and magazines that presented homophobic portrayals and material, and tried to educate authors, performers and others that there was much more to the gay experience than shame, negation, "perversity," murder, and suicide.

Not that I didn't enjoy the "zaps" or actions that we held. Infiltrating a meeting of the homophobic cult the Aesthetic Realists (who married off self-hating lesbians to self-hating gay men, a forerunner of today's "ex-gays") and passing out pro-gay literature to the members and observers. Disrupting a lecture given by "S.O.B.," the trio of homophobic psychiatrists Socarides, Ovesy and Bieber, who made a living by convincing gay men they were "sick"and needed (to pay thousands) to be treated. Again we passed out leaflets with the truth printed on them. And there were plenty of other zaps, pickets, and actions.

I was not in GAA from the first, so I missed the famous "firehouse" era and the pioneer activists who were active at the time (most of whom had "burnt out"by the time I joined a few years later). GAA was a rag tag bunch with a slovenly Lower East Side HQ when I first joined up, but by the time Anita Bryant had reared her ugly head with her "Save Our Children" campaign(which posited the moronic theory that gay men had to molest and recruit children to get more "members") in the late seventies, GAA membership had swelled to over 300 men and women. Not all members had the time to devote to the group or the movement, and it wasn't long before AIDS activism became the number one concern and GAA eventually disbanded in favor of groups such as ACT UP.

GAA -- or at least its brand of in-your-face activism -- is sorely needed today. I'm not saying gays should run around ranting uncontrollably or without a game plan, but should employ intelligent actions as GAA did to get the maximum effect. To tell people we just won't put up with homophobia anymore. When a comic tells a fag joke on TV -- and yes comics still do this, although they generally are smart enough not to actually use the word "fag" -- their next live appearance should be picketed. GAA never let homophobic wise guys put down gays without calling them on it.

There was the New York Post or News columnist Bill Reel, who was constantly making "fag" and "fairy" remarks in his column. He wouldn't return phone calls, so I sent him a letter telling him to come down to GAA HQ -- by this time we were in a big building on 9th avenue and 14th street -- and call me and the other members names to our faces. I told him exactly when and where we held our meetings. Not only did he never show up (not that I expected him to, since homophobes, like bullies, tend to be cowards), but he never even answered the letter. (A few years later, when New York was in a grip of a rise in crime due to a crack epidemic, he wrote in a Long Island paper how he never came into Manhattan anymore because he was too scared to get mugged. What a complete wuss. Even my middle-aged mother came into Manhattan to attend the theater or Lincoln Center! Not that women of any age can't be brave.)

The polite "cocktail party" activists have done as much as they can --or want to. Peaceful but firm protests by angry "ordinary" gays who are sick of waiting for their full rights can only complement the efforts of these "professional" gays with their inflated six figure salaries.

Much more on GAA in future posts. For now I'll recall a number of my GAA colleagues. I don't remember the names of all of them after these many years, but I certainly remember Fred Goldhaber and R. Paul Martin (who were both on the media committee); Brian O'Dell; Art Gursh; Joe Kennedy ("I'm a real man who likes real men") whom I rather idolized for a time and who organized some of GAA's most noteworthy zaps; David Thorstaad, who was president when I first joined ("I'm actually bisexual you know") and was quite a character; Seth Lawrence; David Wynyard ("I am ipso facto president of GAA"); my old pal Frank Richter (at least he and I co-produced and co-hosted a WBAI radio show with Wynyard and GAA member David Pike); the inestimable Larry Quirk; the lovable Wally Hoffmann; Tony Dolce; Bobby Drew; and others that I distinctly recall but whose names have become foggy in my memory. My apologies!


John Bisceglia said...

Sign me up. I am willing to put my life and limb on the line, but I'd rather do it in the company of others who are willing to take the same risk.

I am frustrated by "protests" - I want a revolt. Non-violent, but pushing the limits of civil disobedience.

Bill Samuels said...

I think you've got the right idea there! I like what you have to say on your blog, too. Best, Bill

davidwynyard said...

Thank you.

Love, david

P.S. "gay" is not a noun.

Bill Samuels said...

I'll keep that in mind, David!

Best, Bill