Sunday, November 13, 2011

Perry Brass: Lost Gay New York: Who Would You List as the Greatest Gay Activists?

Perry Brass talks about LGBT History at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, Oct, 2011

Something interesting happened in the wonderfully closed, back-biting, infighting, but definitely useful world of gay historians and politicos. It began when CLAGS, the Center for Gay and Lesbian Studies at CUNY (City U. of New York) announced that it was sponsoring a major conference, Sept. 27 -30, 2012 in New York on the life and work of Harry Hary, on the centennial of his birth. I had heard about this conference a few weeks before it was announced, and was of course ebulliant. To me, you cannot overstate the contribution of Harry Hay to what is now the vast, diverse lgbt movement. What Harry had to say was significant: out of the personal dreams, stories, consciousness, and yearnings of every single one of us can come a movement toward our own liberation--it is singular, personal, and we can't do it alone. 

The announcement, though, came right on the heels of another historic event: the death on Oct. 11, 2011--National Coming Out Day--of Frank Kameny, which made the front page of the New York Times (a paper which up to about 20 years ago could not use the word "gay" in it). But Frank Kameny, a life-long curmugeon, professional cranky old man, totally stubborn as all get up, who single-handedly took on the Federal government back when it fired him for being gay in 1958, was now being sited as, literally, the "Father of the Gay Movement."

It. The Whole Deal. 

This was unfortunate, although not completely out of left field. One of the problems of our movement has been a lack of visibility in the form of leaders. In the 1950s, there were no visible queer leaders aside from a few, a bare inkling, of people in the arts who for whatever reason had nothing to lose by being open. Often they were European culture figures like Jean Cocteau, fairly exotic and flamboyant, but in this country to be even vaguely open and a "face"--it just didn't happen. We did have Gore Vidal whose professional life was destroyed for about a decade after he published, in 1948, The City and the Pillar, a book that became as national code word for "queer," and that went on to sell a whopping 2,000,000 copies. We had Allen Ginsberg, but he could hardly be taken that seriously (again "exotic and flamboyant") and Tennessee Williams ("Broadway's Sex Poet," said Time Magazine)--and after that, if you dared showed your face in public, you were hung out for the vultures to get you. 

So, the word got out among some queer historians--it might be time to start figuring who was the "most important lgbt activists in history." And Paul D. Cain, who, as he put it, had been studying the subject for a decade, and had published in 2002, Leading the Parade, Conversations with America's Most Influential Lesbians and Gay Men (with an intro by Jack Nicols; U. of Michigan Press, $45) decided to venture out there into the WWW ether with a list of the 10 most important gay activists of--well, all time is a hard one. But here's Paul's list. 

1.  Frank Kameny
2.  Harry Hay
3.  Harvey Milk
4.  Troy Perry
5.  Del Martin/Phyllis Lyon
6.  Barney Frank
7.  Gerry Studds
8.  Larry Kramer
9.  Leonard Matlovich
10.  Barbara Gittings

This of course was a pretty eccentric list, and so a lot of people jumped on him for it, although as Cain put it, it's only a list and everyone can come up with one of his/her own. And there is always the question: is Frank Kameny the most important gay activist in history? And what exactly is gay activism (using the older word "gay" as a cover-all for any "non-straight" categorization)? You have the activism of going on picket lines and demonstrations, which reach a certain number of people, and the activism of simply being visible, but media-rific, so that . . . millions of people see and know who you are.

We also have the questions, when did you come around, and how did you change things? So, someone who came around in 1969 or 1970 or 71, after the Stonewall Explosion (the Big Bang of lgbt liberation) had a much better chanc of catching the national media eye than someone who was there in 1956 when you could not breathe the word "homosexual" except in a clinical setting without getting your eyebrows singed. But there were people willing to get them singed, and these people need to be recognized, highly. 

So, do we put Gerry Studds, who was forced out of the closet but became the first elected public official to be that way, on this list (I'd met Studds, and found him to be pretty bland, but presentable--and not someone to frighten any horses); ditto for Barney Frank, or even Leonard Matlovich, who was a significant media figure (again, cover of Time), but hardly a gay activist who consistently worked to change things. Harvey Milk on the other hand did change things, or, did he simply gain from the changes that others had made before him--but, being no dummy, learned how to use them? (Again, I knew Harvey, and he was no dummy!) 

Paul Cain actually told us that he had compiled a list of 100 activists, and just as a list it has some interesting additions in it--although so far I have not seen the entire list. But it contains names like Martina Navratiliova, Andy Warhol of course ("St. Andy" as he is known to a new generation of Goth/Pop-hearted club kids), and lots of other usual suspects. Paul did challenge me to my own list, and so I came up with my own--with 15 names in fact, with annotation of the names. Here they are. And of course, you are free to hate them too (I hope you won't: they are, as a breed, a good lot), and come up with your own list. 

(The whole darned list idea, by the way, always brings up a lot of bile: Anthony Tomassini, the music critic for the Times did one for the "10 Greatest Composers of the Twentieth Century" and decided that Richard Strauss was the greatest composer of that period. God, did the feathers fly!)

A note about Perry Brass's list:

I decided to name people who put their lives and fate above media recognition: in other words, they were activists rather than media figures. They were also doing it at time when "queer" was not fashionable, in fact, it could basically get you killed. It still can, in the wrong circumstances, as so many people can tell you, but we are in a different world than we were 40 or 50+ years ago at the onset of what became the modern LGBT movement. I have also annotated each listing. 

Harry Hay—for obvious reasons at this point. 

Hal Call (Harold Leyland)—horrifically controversial character, president of the Mattachine Society after Harry Hay was ousted; "Call" was probably the first real queer face to be seen on national TV; he also bridged that place between gay liberation and gay erotica, by founding several pivotal gay presses back in the 1950s. 

Allen Ginsberg—first gay public personality for millions of people all over the world; he was ousted from Cuba for being openly gay, and confronted Castro on Castro's anti-gay policies. He was also the immediately recognizable queer face in the Peace Movement, even though it was a closet filled with them. 

Barbara Gittings—long time gay activist, and one of the few women within the second generation of Mattachine's inner circle. 

Jack Nichols—with Frank Kameny, he formed the "Mattachine Society of Washington" which had two members and was a front for their activism. Nichols was 18 years old when he became involved with the Gay Movement; he stayed in it for a lifetime, and later tried to merge Gay Liberation with Men's Liberation and Human Liberation. 

Frank Kameny—a lifelong gay activist, but one who basically disappeared after Stonewall.  

Martha Shelley—pivotal woman and theorist in the emerging lgbt liberation movement, late 60s, early 70s; was originally in Mattachine. 

Ralph Hall—very early gay theorist and street organizer in the Gay Liberation Front. Hall was on the front lines of gay activism from Stonewall on. 

Marty Robinson—early member of Gay Activists Alliance who became the new face of Gay activism when he went on the David Susskind show in 1970 and declared himself a "gay hard hat" since he worked as a carpenter.  Marty's activism spanned from the Gay Liberation front to Act Up. 

Michael Brown—early, fearless organizer in the Gay Liberation Front, came out of the labor and peace movements. Was quoted in the New York Times in Sept. 1969. 

Kate Millet—lesbian activist and theorist, her book Sexual Politics was pivotal in changing millions of minds about gender politics when it appeared in 1970.

Jim Owles—first president of the Gay Activist Alliance, Jim foreshadowed the transition from radical, leftist gay politics to more mainstream liberal gay politics. He was an open figure in national politics two decades before others ventured into this arena.  

Arthur Evans—member of G.L.F. who formulated many policies in G.A.A. including the "Zap," a site-specific public demonstration (as in at the office of a company with a stated anti-gay policy) aimed at embarrassing and humiliating straight oppressors. This same strategy was used by other organizations like Act Up and Queer Nation. 

Bob Kohler—first public face of the Gay Liberation Front, Kohler came out of a labor and show business background, with deep leftist roots. 

Arthur Bell—G.A.A member, first openly gay columnist in a national newspaper, the Village Voice, Bell was at one time America's only openly gay, regularly published journalist. 

As you can see, this might be a fairly eccentric list in itself: most of the people on this list are not celebrities--I keep hearing that Ellen Degeneris invented gay liberation, but that's their opinion--still, it's time that gay history separated the truth from the media b.s. And I am more than willing to learn about someone else who is a part of LGBT history, a history of personal stories writ large.

Perry Brass's newest book, King of Angels, A Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief, will be published by Belhue Press in March, 2012. He can be reached through his website, .


  1. Perry,

    That is a difficult list to make for sure and maybe the modern gay movement that did start before Stonewall with organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Women's Movement, is still too young for us to know who had the most effect on our society as gay or lesbian activists. But, it's true that in our heads, all of us who were there can make a list and they would all be different. You'd be very near the top of mine if I made one.

  2. Bayard Rustin would be my pick. Or Melvin Boozer.

    You nailed all others that might've sprung to mind for me.

  3. So glad you named Arthur Evans!!