This year we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, and formation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) in New York. Next year, we will celebrate the establishment of GLF in London.
GLF was a defining, watershed moment. For the first time, thousands of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people stopped hiding in the closet and suffering in silence. We came out and marched in the streets, proclaiming that we were proud to be LGBT. There were no pleas for tolerance or calls for mere law reform. Our goal was to transform society, to eradicate sexism, homophobia and all oppression.
This defiant, open queer fightback had never happened before in human history. Before four decades ago, lots of LGBT people were ashamed of their sexuality and kept it hidden. They wished they were straight. Some went to quack doctors to get “cured”. Many accepted the bigot’s view that being “queer” was second rate.
In 1967 gay sex had been partly decriminalised in Britain in narrow, limited circumstances. But many forms of consenting, victimless gay behaviour remained illegal. The criminal code still branded gay sex as “unnatural” and “indecent” under laws dating back to the time of King Henry VIII. The Church condemned homosexuality as “immoral” and “sinful” and the medical profession classified us as “sick” and in need of “treatment”. Queers were routinely sacked from their jobs, arrested for kissing in the street, denied custody of their children, and only ever appeared in the news as murderers, spies, traitors and child molesters.
Prior to GLF, the earlier generation of brave gay rights campaigners mostly focused on the limited goal of decriminalisation. Some gay law reform advocates passed as straight, and sought tolerance rather than acceptance. This apologetic, defensive mentality was shot to pieces by GLF. It transformed attitudes towards homosexuality – among both gay and straight people. Inspired by the Black Power slogan “Black is Beautiful”, GLF embraced the battlecry “Gay Is Good!”. Back then, it was absolutely outrageous to suggest there was anything good about being gay.
This challenge to heterosexual supremacism kick-started a still on-going revolution in cultural values. GLF overturned the conventional wisdom on matters of sex and human rights. Its joyous celebration of gayness contradicted the up-tight straight morality that had ruled the world for centuries. The common sense, unquestioned assumption had always been that sex was shameful and that queers were bad, mad and sad.
All that prejudiced nonsense was turned upside down with the advent of GLF in London in 1970. While politicians, doctors, priests and journalists saw homosexuality as a social problem, GLF said the real problem was society’s homophobia. Instead of us having to justify our existence, we forced the gay-haters to justify their bigotry.
Like many others of my generation, GLF changed me for the better – and forever. When I heard about the formation of the Gay Liberation Front, I could not wait to get involved. Within five days of my arrival in London from Australia in 1971, I was at my first GLF meeting. A month later I was helping organise many of its witty, irreverent, defiant protests. Being part of GLF was a profound personal liberation – arguably the most exciting, influential period of my life.
GLF’s unique style of “protest as performance” was not only incredibly effective, but also a lot of fun. Imaginative, daring, humorous, stylish and provocative, our demonstrations were both educative and entertaining. We mocked and ridiculed homophobes with wicked satire, which made many hard-faced straight people laugh and realise the stupidity of bigotry.
A 12 foot papier-mache cucumber was delivered to the offices of Pan Books in protest at the publication of Dr David Reuben’s homophobic sex manual, Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, which claimed that gay men were obsessed with shoving vegetables up their arses. Christian morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse had her Festival of Light rally in Central Hall Westminster invaded by a posse of gay nuns, who proceeded to kiss each other when one of the speakers, Malcolm Muggeridge, disparaged homosexuals, saying “I just don’t like them”. On the night of the Miss World contest at the Royal Albert Hall, GLF’s legendary street theatre group staged an alternative pageant on the pavement outside, starring “Miss Used”, “Miss Conceived” and “Miss Represented”, plus a starving “Miss Bangladesh” and a bloody bandaged “Miss Ulster”.
There were also more serious acts of civil disobedience to confront the perpetrators of discrimination. We organised freedom rides and sit-ins at pubs that refused to serve “poofs” and “dykes”. A lecture by the world acclaimed psychiatrist, Professor Hans Eysenck, was disrupted after he advocated electric-shock aversion therapy to “cure” homosexuality.
As well as its feisty protests, GLF pioneered many of the LGBT community institutions that we now take for granted. It set up the first help-line run by and for LGBT people (which later became Gay Switchboard); the first pro-gay psychiatric counselling service (Icebreakers), and the first gay newspaper (Gay News). These and many other trail-blazing institutions helped shape the LGBT community as we know it today, making a huge positive difference to the lives of LGBT people.
Forty years on, we’ve come a long way baby! As we enjoy ever greater acceptance and human rights, let us also remember with pride that GLF was the fire-cracker that lit the prairie fire for queer fr
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