Queers didn’t always salivate at the sound of a wedding bell. I know, because I was there. Well, the truth is that I was around the corner from Christopher Street on the nights of the Stonewall Riots, but I was too afraid to join in. Rioting did not daunt me: I’d been beaten before in civil rights and antiwar demonstrations. No, I was scared of the brash and noisy queens who reigned in Sheridan Square. Back then, my gay life was hidden underground. Not well-hidden—I had gotten caught only a month before while having sex in a subway bathroom on the Lexington Ave line of the IRT. I worked as a subway messenger boy for a film company that made Twinkies commercials. The kindly young officer let me off with a warning, since I was cute and ingenuous (and white). But I could not muster the self-acceptance to play a part in the very un-hidden urban theater of fierce fairy boys and muscular dykes. Additional terror loomed two blocks away on Cornelia, where leftist friends shared an apartment; if they saw me fraternizing with the fags and the drags, wouldn’t they reject me? Many an evening that summer I visited the lefties, purloined a novel like Nausea out of the bookstore and read on a bench in the Square. I’d walk over from my apartment-hovel on E 6th Street after my day job and my psychedelic gig doing light shows at the Fillmore East. I wasn’t like the street queens; I saw myself as an artist, exploring higher states of consciousness; needless to say, my acid trips lacked a certain panache—I was strapped in tight to avoid blurting out my queer desires.
You, readers, are asked to indulge this autobiography combined with a history of the state and the country; I began as a WASP, unhappy and lonely in my small Michigan town, largely because I thought my sexuality made me incommensurably, unapproachably different from my peers. I escaped to the University of Chicago in October 1964, my 18th birthday. Early college days were an orgy of sexless love and the sublimation of my desire into political action. As Vietnam loomed larger and larger, I dropped out of school, burned my draft card in a fit of conscientious objection and self-righteousness, and lit out for South Carolina on a mission to help register black voters.
There, I became a queer in deed: to the sound of “Unchained Melody,” picture me and a black GI on leave from Vietnam, in his car in the moonlight, windows steamy, ducking as headlights swept past; we could be beaten or killed for what we were doing. Picture, as I am sure you can, white civil rights organizers like me, believing things could change, appealing to the Feds, going over the heads of local and state bosses. A functioning liberal consensus about “Negro rights” still obtained in those days, though of course it excluded the homo nature of this particular black/white encounter. Then picture the dismay felt by white radicals like me, who longed to be recognized and reassured by black people, when Black Power organizers told us that our responsibility was to fight racism among our own. I asked myself: who were my own? Most whites were becoming increasingly indifferent or hostile to black liberation militance, and homos were not considered paragons of moral redemption by anyone. The voter registration project ended when our local sponsor had a heart attack and crashed through a cigar case. I left the racist South for an imaginary New York where freedom reigned, bringing this narrative back to where it started.
It is enough, I think, to say that in New York, though I retained my radical desire, I learned the trick of cultivating hip alienation from the society I saw as too complex to take on. My attitude came from Kafka: “there is infinite hope but not for us.” Capitulating to an unease and ugliness that I could not muster the strength to fight, I became scared and anxious. I left New York on June 29, 1969, skulking away on the second (or third?) night of Stonewall Riots.
In San Francisco, I joined the gathering clump of refugees from straight America who were turning each other into hippie commie dykes and fags. In 1969-70, in the milieu of anti-war, communitarian, acid-enlightened gay liberation, the spectacular performances of the Cockettes revealed the most ecstatic vision for all of us, a fabulous ritual revelation that this hellish world could be redeemed. Eastern wisdom said that nirvana and samsara were identical, and our discrimination-ridden ego minds were our only obstacle to paradise now.
As I shuttled from coast to coast in ‘69 and ‘70, dealing in imported aids to consciousness-expansion, I was torn between rival worldviews. I saw that the most radical fags and dykes in NY used self-presentation with an arch and cynical bravura that found a readymade receptor in Andy Warhol’s eye, hungry for hopelessness. The opposition--my leftist friends--were developing the idea that if they brought the war home to the streets of the US, American society would be riven apart and the war machine would topple. In SF, psychedelic freaks were inviting all souls into acts of queer transcendence, happiness untrammeled by bring-down restrictions like war--or rehearsal. NY demanded an accomplished showmanship, an inheritance of the two thousand years of homo drama in European high culture which valued completeness and required a blasé vacuity as the preferred modality of theatricality, defiance in the face of absurdity and despair. In SF, enough LSD could evaporate despair in the cosmic laughter of the magic theater, not unlike what we read in Herman Hesse.
Transformed by those transcontinental trips, I ended up in a Gay Liberation Front commune in Chicago. I voted in an attractive shirtwaist dress for Dr. Benjamin Spock in the 1972 presidential election, but it was only a gesture: our GLF viewpoint was to oppose the government in its entirety. The capitalist American regime could tolerate even queer behavior, as long as people could pay for it. For the rest--at home or abroad, straight or queer--no democracy, no rights, no pursuit of happiness, no life.
The Gay Liberation Front named itself after the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, and was consciously dedicated to the overthrow of the American imperial system. It had a political view that world capitalism, dominated by the US military/industrial complex, was not something to reform or ameliorate, but rather to destroy and replace with a system of equality and justice. We were moved by pictures of Vietnamese liberation fighters holding hands and by Madame Binh, the fierce negotiator at the Paris peace talks. We also emulated the Cubans, who we thought were creating new men and women in revolutionary struggle.
In this stance, as we now know, was a racist romantic notion of other cultures as more vital, more open, more in touch with their bodies. But by hopefully naming ourselves a Liberation Front we manifested our identification with worldwide forces that challenged the consumerist stranglehold of capitalism on all of our bodies. We chanted, “Dykes and Fags Want Everything!” “All Power to All the People!” “Power to the Imagination!”
I thought, like the Weather Underground, that “All of the United Airlines Astrojets, all of the Holiday Inns, all of Hertz’s automobiles, your television set, car and wardrobe already belong, to a large degree, to the people of the rest of the world.” This wasn’t just indignation, it was a political strategy that struggled to create a world beyond the nightmare of US politics. In the view of many of us, the US was (and is) an imperial nation run for the profit of gigantic corporations, an entity that had long outlived its democratic ideals. We saw, in examining our own oppression, that the global capitalist system functions through conquest and exploitation, and can only maintain itself through oppression both outside and inside US borders. This led to a conclusion that dismantling the US was crucial if we wanted to right the imbalance that was destroying the planet and the lives of people in every country.
You can thank Chicago GLF for playing a key role in confronting the American Medical and American Psychiatric Associations about their designation of queerness as pathology. Personally, I remember best a demonstration against the beating and killing of a black drag queen by the Chicago Police Department. Ortez Alderson, a gay black man who had just been released from federal prison after he and others threw their own blood on draft records, insisted we take up that case. He burned me with his anger and his generous expectation that I could and would step outside the comfort zone of white privilege (Ortez’s traits later made him a leader in fighting AIDS.) We came to understand that our gay rights would be nothing but privileges for the well-to-do unless we acted for the most vulnerable, most easily victimized queers. Long-time lesbian lawyer Renee Hanover, who had struggled for years already as an advocate of union and leftist communities in Chicago, was one of the maybe twenty of us in the freezing sleet on Chicago Avenue that day.
I must admit that during the time of the Chicago GLF men’s collective I was pretty slow to understand what feminism was about, even though I learned quickly to say the right things. It wasn’t until I began to work in a childcare co-op that the reality sank and stank in. I was tired after doing traditional women’s jobs for only a few hours a day; what must life be like for women who did those jobs all their lives? Women connected to Jane, an underground network that helped women get abortions--illegal then in Illinois -- ran the co-op. Many talks about young women whose lives would have been ruined if they had been forced to raise a child alone taught me and my co-worker/semi-boyfriend what “our bodies, our selves” meant for women and helped us locate our own queer oppression in our bodies as well.
Anti-war activity was more of an outlet for our hilarity and popularity, since everybody by then knew there was something really wrong in Vietnam. I remember a great mobilization (in SF again for a second time in 1972) when Tanye Vitasche carried a sign saying “Cum Homo Troops and Lesby Friends.” Later that same day Tanye and I, with Michael Bumblebee (fresh from reporting the news from the American Indian Movement occupation at Wounded Knee), took the stage in Egyptian drag as extras in “Aida” at the SF Opera. We disrupted the show for an hour with a sign saying, “Dykes and Fags Support the Vietnamese Peace Plan.” The crowd was highly indignant, and the High Priest of Egypt broke Michael's jaw during a chase up the flies backstage. Michael told me that blow changed his orientation from oral to anal sex, since he wasn’t going to let mere wires in his jaw deter his liberatory practices.
Judy Grahn, the great lesbian poet, was once asked what she might regret about her pioneering work as artist and activist. She said she regretted all the women she had not been able to sleep with and to love. You can’t help--in these days when we duck stones thrown by those who have been washed by the blood of the lamb, those without sin—being struck by the enormous generosity of Grahn’s statement and by her confidence that her queer loving was a contribution she could make to the lives of oppressed women. Some might nervously titter at this, as if Grahn were mistakenly making something grand out of the trivial, narrow queer sexual connection in the context of wider political issues of violence against women, etc. But by making our queerest erotic responses visible, in sexuality and in resistance to war, racism, economic deprivation—in all aspects of the struggle for a better world-- we can contribute to the liberation of everyone.
From Chicago, our GLF commune traveled a lot. We met the FLH in Montreal, the Front du Liberation Homosexuel—named after the FLQ where Q meant Quebecois. The FLQ had declared themselves “the white niggers of North America,” impoverished and excluded like the Catholics in Northern Ireland, pariahs in their own country. The FLH tried to bring queer sensibility to the Quebecois patriotic movement. Montreal now speaks Quebecois French and has a very vibrant lgbt population. Can we claim the outcome as their and our success?
What happened, then, to the militant men and women and the political presence of GLF? Well, liberatory sexuality--bedding everyone and assuming they were friends--was drawn into commodity culture. Friendship networks sedimented into strata of race, class, and gender; homo hangouts coalesced into LGBT institutions; marches became parades. Before we had time to mature, then came AIDS.
I got a call one night in ‘82 or ‘83; it was a former boyfriend/comrade from the GLF collective. Crying over the phone, he asked “Why me? I never did anything bad!” My queer loving turned suddenly, prematurely adult. It is hard now to even remember love as anything except what made it possible to change shitty bedpans and listen to parents trash our lovers as they languished at the end of their queer lives. Real caring came by way of the friends we made on the dance floors or in the slings. Some of my friends died beautifully, surrounded by songs and lovers, some fearfully, in desperation, alone. It didn’t matter: they died.
I was lucky, I don’t know why; I tested HIV positive in 1986 when the test first came out, but haven’t really been seriously sick. The outburst that burned with anger and grief in ACT UP undoubtedly helped my immune system. The AIDS activist movement--people with AIDS and their lesbian, gay and tranny friends--stretched our vision of liberation to include fighting for medical treatment and sometimes a renewed struggle against race, gender, and economic discrimination. What we accomplished in a few years shook up the whole system of medical care worldwide. What couldn’t be accomplished, what we had a hard time even noticing in our emergency operations, was that global economic and political priorities were not changed just because a few lousy drugs were doled out to those who could afford them.
After two decade of harrowing losses, it’s not a surprise that gay men would ask for the same rights as married people: those who witnessed the deaths of hundreds of friends and lovers understandably want to protect themselves. What is sad is that survivors of the epidemic started thinking that if we were only more normal—reproducing and marrying like straight people--we’d be protected. They are right in a way, because when the law becomes feudal (or fascist, perhaps), those who succeed at appearing normal can enclose themselves in fortified towers and fend off the barbarian invasions of the poor and oppressed. The murders of trannies and queers who can’t hide, who can’t get into the gated communities, reveal the truth behind the illusion: so-called "rights" are conveniences granted only to the people who play by the rules. Global capitalism -- invading Iraq for oil power, making dinner reservations while New Orleans drowns, decrying torture of women in the Middle East while casting US women into the inferno of AIDS and unplanned childbirth -- includes no commitment to universal human rights.
I know, dear reader, that this reminiscence is seriously at risk for simplification: you, sans doute, can see past any camp irony to the complex issues of power, hierarchies of gender, race, class, sexuality. Take this offering, then, as an exhortation to mindful queers that we should re-examine our own desires and acknowledge that we have settled for too little. For a time, we won the culture wars. To our dismay, like others who have gone all too quickly through the crucible of change, we now know that revolution is momentary. Cataclysm from Birmingham to Beijing, Havana to Hanoi, brought down old colonial structures and threatened the stability of white, Western male power in the family and every other institution. If we are canny and courageous enough, we can win again. The Zapatistas in Mexico say, “Revolution is an Eternal Dream.” That’s what the Gay Liberation Front said in 1969, remember?