The Transformation of Pride

Chapter 2: The Birth of a Post-Mattachine Movement

The Transformation of Pride tells the story of how the evolution of the gay pride march in New York City represents larger turning points in the gay liberation movement. Chapter One will describe how gay rights groups came together in the 50s, organized by gay men who shared an interest in communism, then were kicked out of their own group when it became assimilationist. Dick Leitsch was a leader of the all-male Mattachine Society, and Martha Shelley was a leader of the all-female Daughters of Bilitis, both part of the Homophile Movement of the 1950s and 1960. The first chapter will end by portraying the tone of the gay rights movement in New York City before the Stonewall Rebellion and setting the scene for new tensions within the movement. The following excerpt will be Chapter Two, which will tell the story of Stonewall and the birth of the Gay Liberation Front as a turning point.

A group of people standing in front of a crowd

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Gay Liberation Front Meeting at the Washington Square Methodist Church in 1970

(Diana Davies/New York Public Library)

Any gay person in New York City either spent time in Greenwich Village or wished they did. Gay was in the air, as much as people could get away with in a time when merely wearing the clothing of the opposite sex or having sexual encounters with the same sex was illegal. Drag queens, transvestites, and butch lesbians would wear undergarments that belonged to their own sex in order to avoid violating the law. Plenty of other laws were broken, though. Street kids who ran away or were kicked out from abusive and homophobic households lived on park benches and sold sexual favors to survive. Tourists came to the Village and took photos of glamorously dressed transvestites[1]. People hung out on doorsteps drinking wine or moved between bars and coffee shops.[2]

The Stonewall Inn, a dancing bar on 53 Christopher Street, provided one of the scarce options for homosexuals to groove and sway to the music in any intimate manner. It was dark and cramped, and the air conditioners and water faucets never seemed to work[3]. Like other gay bars at the time, it was run by the mafia, and was a hub for underage drinking among gay folk. For the $3.00 cover that included a watered-down drink in a dirty glass, gay street boys,[4] students, businessmen, select drag queens and few lesbians[5] had a community for the night. The windows were covered in plyboard, keeping what was going on inside always a bit of a mystery. Getting into the dark bar, where all sorts of illegal activity kept cash in the owners’ pockets, required knocking and being let in[6].

On June 27, 1969, Mark Segal, an eighteen-year-old gay man, had been enjoying his Friday night drinking with other young bar-goers in the back of the Stonewall Inn. The lights came on a little after one in the morning, and plainclothes officers strode in. Some narrators of the Stonewall resistance say the police were dressed in plain clothes to catch management off guard, while historians say that the police had ties with the mobs running the scenes and tipped off the owners before raids anyway. Segal asked what was going on and someone told him matter-of-factly that the bar was getting raided[7]. Police raids at gay bars were typical, though they usually happened before midnight when the bars were less crowded[8]. The police often would hit the door with their nightstick twice,[9] the lights would come on, and people would switch partners to appear heterosexual.[10] Segal was not so matter-of-fact as he tried to hide his young nerves—he had recently moved to New York from Philadelphia, and was a bar-raid virgin[11]. Officers came to the back of the bar to card the younger crowd and demanded Segal’s ID. Lucky for him, he was actually of age and not a drag queen, so was one of the first that the police let out of the bar without further hassle. Segal stayed outside the door with other customers who had evacuated.

Jim Fouratt, a twenty-eight-year old long-haired yippie who always looked younger than he was had been at the nightclub called Max’s Kansas City after finishing his day of work at Columbia Records, which usually ended around midnight.[12] He noticed a crowd of about thirty people gathered in front of the Stonewall on his way home. Despite living nearby, he didn’t usually visit the bar, as he thought Stonewall’s clientele largely consisted of closeted married men seeking to have sexual relations with younger men.[13]

Village Voice reporter Howard Smith had been following Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine of the NYPD, a World War II veteran who had been overseeing the raid[14]. Smith wrote that a woman resisted being directed into a patrol car; with three shoves, a policeman finally got her in the car, as the crowd yelled at him.

Fouratt arrived to see this woman—she was passing, he thought, which meant she was a lesbian woman who could pass for a man—in a police car parked in front, angry about tight handcuffs and all the mistreatment she had been enduring as a lesbian. She started swinging herself back and forth until she managed to get out the unlocked door on the other side.[15] She raised her handcuffed hands in the air and shouted to celebrate her victory, and the crowd joined in. Fouratt looked around and noticed that others had been looking around too, not in the sexual way he was used to, but in a revelatory sense. Women, blacks, and anti-war activists had risen, and now it was time for the queers. Fouratt had not been in the closet,[16] but he didn’t talk about his sexuality much, either. That night, he truly came out, collectively, with a new movement. “This is me,” he thought.[17]

Smith reported blocking his face as coins were thrown in the air to mock the police, who would often confiscate money from establishments and customers in the raids. Deputy Inspector Pine realized he was now alone with eight officers and a growing mob of fired-up gays, villagers, and tourists who had come merely wanting to witness some real Greenwich culture. Usually, cops could do their job in pairs when dealing with homosexuals, but now they were facing more resistance than usual. With the crowd growing and screaming at the cops, Pine and his men took shelter inside the bar. Pine, despite acting confident, was scared, knowing that a rage had built up among homosexuals against the police and that he was seeing it erupt in front of his eyes.[18] Inside with the police, Smith heard bottles shattering against the boarded-up windows and then thuds at the door, which became a site of further commotion as an arrestee—a heterosexual folk singer who had been at a nearby bar when the riot broke—was pulled inside and beaten by police. When officers saw fire on the plywood covering the windows, they clenched their guns. Pine warned not to shoot without his order.[19]

Segal would later remember drag queens fiercely shouting in support of each other with their makeup running and gowns sliding off shoulders.[20]Some eyewitnesses say that cobblestones, rocks, and bricks were thrown, but others dispute these claims. An Esquire article written months later said a parking meter was uprooted and a match was thrown onto lighter fluid.[21] Nearly-eighteen-year-old Sylvia Ray Rivera, a Hispanic transvestite well known at the time in the Village for not being afraid to tell people what she thought, later told the story of a stranger handing her a bottle full of gasoline with a strip of cloth hanging out of it.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” she asked.

“Well, I’m gonna light it, and you’re gonna throw it,” the stranger said.

“Fine. You light it, I throw it, ‘cause if it blows up, I don’t want it to blow up on me,” she said. She couldn’t explain to herself how she’d ended up doing this, though she would later address the police in her mind, “You’ve been treating us like shit all these years? Uh-uh. Now it’s our turn!”[22] Rivera’s friend, twenty-three-year old drag queen Marsha P. Johnson (who told people the P. stood for “Pay it no mind”), arrived from uptown at about 2 a.m., and was seen climbing a lamp-post, then dropping a heavy object onto the front of a police car.[23]

Later in the night, the Tactical Patrol Force arrived, yet its presence only caused the mob to spread out in the surrounding area rather than leaving. A group of queens formed an impromptu chorus line and kicked their legs in the air, singing,

We are the Stonewall girls;

We wear our hair in curls;

We wear no underwear;

We show our pubic hair;

We wear our dungarees above our nelly knees![24]

When cops threated violence, gays and drag queens responding with ridicule, calling the cops names like “pigs.” At 3:45 a.m., the area was finally calm.[25]

Fouratt, Segal, Marty Robinson (who was a member of the Mattachine Society), and a handful of other men decided this couldn’t be the end. They were sick of the conformist, hetero-pleasing attitude of Mattachine and sick of the mafia running their social scene. Robinson brought chalk to Segal, who proceeded to write all over the neighborhood: “Meet at Stonewall. Tomorrow night.”[26]  Fouratt shared a few tricks from his involvement in other political movements, where he had learned modes of self-protection, like bringing hat pins to prick police horses[27]. He said everyone should spread in different directions so that the police would have a harder time pursuing the crowd. He went home and made about 200 calls, leaving voice messages that urged leftist acquaintances to join the gays at Stonewall.

Only one of those phone calls proved effective. It was to the closeted Allan Young, who worked at the Liberation News Service, an anti-war publication. “Allan, you’ve got to come out,” Fouratt would later recall begging on the phone, desperate and disappointed at the homophobia still prominent in the political left. Regardless of Fouratt’s friends not showing up, an even larger crowd came together for the second night—this time more celebratory and more militant. They marched in different directions, just as Fouratt had suggested, moving through the streets that crossed each other at diagonals in the Village. They chanted “Join us!” which led to “Come out!” a slogan that stuck, simultaneously encouraging gays to no longer hide their sexuality and physically join the demonstration. When Fouratt walked onto Waverly Place and passed Julius’ Bar, where Dick Leitsch’s “Sip-in” protest had taken place a couple years earlier, men held their bottles up in support, but none of them joined.[28] Marchers flooded into Sheridan Square park a couple blocks away from the Stonewall. A middle-aged woman overheard that the gays were upset that the police had raided the Stonewall and shouted at a police officer, “Don’t you know that these people have no place to go and need a place like that bar?” She then joined the protest with her husband.[29] The Tactical Patrol force returned, and a back and forth between protestors and police continued until 4 a.m.[30]

That night, twenty-six-year-old Martha Shelley picked up two Bostonian women from where they had been staying on the Upper West Side. She took them on the subway downtown to Greenwich Village to go to a couple lesbian bars. Not all the gay bars were in the Village, but most were[31]. The two women were interested in starting a chapter of Daughters of Bilitis in Boston, and Shelley was showing them around New York’s gay scene. When they passed a crowd of people gathered near the Stonewall Inn, just around midnight, Shelley told the women not to worry, it was just another anti-Vietnam War demonstration. After dropping the women back off uptown, she walked the George Washington Bridge to her lover’s apartment in New Jersey—it had gotten late, and the buses weren’t running. The sky was clear, and the moon was full.

But the crowd of people weren’t gathering to protest the war. They were gathering to push back against the police who continuously treated them poorly on their own gay streets—an event that a proud lesbian like Shelley, already a radical in the Homophile movement for not being closeted, was all for.

The next day was Sunday, and Karla Jay, an activist in the radical feminist Red Stockings,[32]  saw police barricades in front of the Stonewall. There was a sign posted by Mattachine members asking people to be peaceful and clear the streets. It said, “We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village—Mattachine.”[33] While seeking a change in the treatment of homosexuals, the Mattachine Society and Daughters Of Bilitis thought uprisings would be setbacks for the movement, showing straights that gays could not blend into society. When Jay saw the sign, she decided that she wasn’t interested in risking trouble with the police, not now at least, and continued on her way.[34] Some eyewitnesses remember trashcans being lit on fire in the following days, others remember quiet until the following mid-week when the ruckus began again. But regardless of how many nights Stonewall actually lasted, it paved the way for a new era of gay activism.

Within the week, at the July 4th Annual Reminder demonstration in Philadelphia, it was clear the movement had irreversibly changed. When marching in front of the Liberty Bell in their dresses, not pants, as per the dress code, two women dared to hold hands. The leader of the Annual Reminder, co-founder of Washington, D.C.’s Mattachine Society Frank Kameny, was not pleased, as the point of the demonstration was to show that homosexuals are respectful of established society. On the bus ride back to New York, younger and older members of the movement argued about what behavior was necessary to bring justice to homosexuals.[35] And soon, the once ultra-civilized protests would take a new form.

Accounts of the official founding of the Gay Liberation Front by early members contradict one another but converge regarding the Mattachine Society planning an event in Washington Square Park.

Shelley would later remember that when she realized what the riot that she had nonchalantly passed really was, she called up Jane Powers from Daughters of Bilitis and told her they had to organize a big march about the current events. “Call the head of Mattachine Society, and if they’re in agreement, we’ll directly sponsor a protest march,” Powers said.

Shelley didn’t find Leitsch from Mattachine particularly enthusiastic about her idea, but he invited her to propose her idea to the membership at their meeting called to discuss reactions to the riots at the Stonewall Inn a few days after. Shelley would recall four hundred gay men in the chapter shooting their hands up in favor of her idea. Some met in the corner of the room at the end of the meeting to plan, becoming the Mattachine Action Committee, which would develop into a separate organization.

When the group was meeting, and Shelley could feel herself sweating, beer in hand, someone mentioned the possible name “Gay Liberation Front.” A little intoxicated, Shelley banged her hands on the table and yelled, “That’s it! That’s it!”[36]

Leitsch was in the other room, overheard her screams, and was not pleased with the idea of a new organization being created. “Oh no, no, that’s just the name of our committee,” Shelley lied. In the meantime, the group would be called the Action Committee of Mattachine, although aside from using the established organization’s office space and staplers, the committee wasn’t much part of the Society.

Fouratt would recall the Gay Liberation Front being founded completely separate from Mattachine, on the third night of Stonewall, Sunday night, when he and six other men came up with plans for meetings.

Author of Stonewall Martin Duberman’s description of the founding of the organization is that the meeting Mattachine called to discuss Stonewall was on July 4 at St. John’s Church on Waverly Place, after the Annual Reminder. He wrote that when Madeline Cervantes, a heterosexual woman who participated in Mattachine Society planning, suggested a peaceful candlelit vigil to show how “sweet” the gays are, Jim Fouratt yelled in protest, saying they don’t need to perpetuate stereotypes about gay men being “sweet.” He left the meeting with a crowd of thirty following him to gather at Alternate U, a radical school and organizing space on 6th Avenue and 14th Street. There, Fouratt would later say, the Gay Liberation Front was officially founded.[37] Fouratt would recall that he was assigned by his group of men with whom he had been conspiring to go to a Mattachine meeting and bring people from there to their own meeting at Alternate U. Cervantes’s speech about the need for a peaceful candlelit vigil to show the innocence of the gay community set the perfect scene to announce an end to Mattachine politics.[38]

The plan for the vigil moved forward as a conglomeration between Cervantes’s proposal and the nascent Gay Liberation Movement’s ideals. An advertisement in the Village Voice on July 24, 1969 announced, “Gay Power means that homosexuals want the right to self-determination and an end to abuse of your rights as citizens. SUPPORT GAY POWER[.] Demonstrate with us in Washington Square Park at 2:00 P.M. on Sunday July 27. Join our peaceful non-violent vigil to show Gay Power. Wear a lavender arm band. Co-sponsored by Mattachine Society of New York and Daughters of Bilitis.” A phone number to call for more information appeared below.[39] The ad shows the result of old and new gay rights ideas clashing. The emphasis on the event being a peaceful vigil shows that members of Mattachine hoped it would show the respectability of the local gays. For the more radical thinkers, it was a chance to make a scene and encourage others to be out and proud by screaming, “Gay power!”

The vigil, as it actually happened, was a rally followed by a march. Emerging Gay Liberation Front organizers Robinson (from Mattachine) and Shelley (from Daughters of Bilitis) spearheaded the event. Shelley was set to speak and was shaking in anticipation. She had organized the event enthusiastically, yet the day of, the fear was sinking in. She would later recall thinking of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The waters hadn’t been tested yet. Some homophobe with a gun, a doctor who considered the gay ill, or police angry at the changing power dynamics—who knew what any of them might do.

But once she arrived at Washington Square and was surrounded by about four hundred demonstrators, she was on fire. It was a hot day, and her nervous sweat turned to excited perspiration.[40] Organizers handed out lavender ribbons and armbands, and Shelley began her speech. “Brothers and sisters… welcome to this city’s first gay-power vigil. We’re tired of being harassed and persecuted. If a straight couple can hold hands in Washington Square, why can’t we?”

The crowd cheered and chanted, “Long live the queen!”

Shelley went on. “We’re tired of straight people who are hung up on sex… tired of flashlights and peeping-tom vigilantes. Tired of marriage laws that punish you for lifting your head off the pillow. Socrates was a homosexual. Walt Whitman and Richard the Lion-Hearted were homosexuals.”

Robinson said, “Gay power is here. Gay power is no laugh. There are one million homosexuals in New York City. If we wanted to, we could boycott Bloomingdale’s, and that store would be closed in two weeks!” The crowd cheered. “We will not permit another reign of terror,” he shouted. “Let me tell you, homosexuals, we’ve got to get organized. We’ve got to stand up. This is our chance!”[41]

Public gatherings of gay people had formerly been treated as illegal disorderly conduct. Now, they were not only congregating, but they were displaying signs declaring their gayness on neighborhood streets. After the speeches, they marched on Christopher Street to Sheridan Square near the Stonewall Inn. For many participants, the march was their very first time being public about their sexual orientation.[42]

Regardless of how exactly the group began, the gay radicals decided to call themselves the Gay Liberation Front after the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam—the Viet Cong[43]—since the group’s goals were to align themselves with other radical causes[44]. They met at Alternate U and the Church of the Holy Apostles,[45] and participants would be greeted as brothers and sisters.[46] They cared about consciousness-raising and collectivism, concepts from the women’s movement and peace movement. Anyone could attend meetings at no cost, and there was no official membership rollcall.[47] Gay Liberation Front meeting attendees sat in a circle, and women who came from the feminist movement encouraged adopting an indigenous tradition of holding a talisman while speaking. Everyone in the room had three minutes with the talisman to share why they came to the meeting and what they wanted from the movement. If one attendee had nothing to say, everyone would sit silently for the entire three minutes. No one could speak again until everyone got a chance with the talisman. Many people held the object and could not speak. Others simply said they wanted to hold their significant other’s hand in public without fear.[48]

As word got out about these meetings, Karla Jay began attending regularly. The group brought people together from different movements who blended ideas from the anti-war struggle, the women’s struggle, the black struggle, the class struggle, and the gay struggle. Jay felt like she had finally found her people. Red Stockings was great, but the prevalent anti-lesbianism made it hard to feel like she had a place in the feminist movement. Now, everything was different.[49]

Like the original Mattachine, not the more recent assimilationist group but Harry Hay’s original California group founded by communists, the Gay Liberation Front had a cell structure, so everyone could be involved, whether it was through the sewing cell, the political cell, the Latino cell, and so on. [50] The Aquarius cell planned the dances[51] and often put Rivera on door duty protecting the cash, since she was fierce and always carried a knife.[52] But her personality wasn’t appealing to everyone. Some lesbians, even Jay, who had fun spending time with Rivera, felt that drag queens promoted the stereotypes that lesbian and feminist women were trying to diminish, and that they could revert to their male privilege anytime.[53] Her loud personality and frequent drug use didn’t endear her much more to those who already judged her.[54] Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or STAR, as a sub-group of the Gay Liberation Front[55] that went on to become its own organization, much like the Radical Lesbians, Gay Youth, Third World Gay Revolution, Red Butterfly Group, and Come Out! Newspaper.[56]

The next chapter will dive into the successes and failures of the Gay Liberation Front.

[1] Stonewall Forever – A Documentary about the Past, Present, and Future of Pride – LGBT Center

[2] From a Low Life in High Heels by Holly Woodlawn in The Stonewall Reader P 162

[3] Karla Jay interview from LGBT Center’s Stonewall Forever

[4] Gay Militants by Don Teal p. 29

[5] Interview with Eric Marcus in Stonewall Reader p. 129 by Morty Manford

[6] A Low Life in High Heels by Holly Woodlawn in Stonewall Reader p. 159,

[7] Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity by Christopher L Gioia, Empire State College 2017 p. 21

[8] New York Times: The Night the Stonewall Inn Became a Proud Shrine by Michael Wilson 6/27/19

[9] Ground Zero by Miss Major Griffin-Gracy from The Right Side of History: 100 years of LGBTQI activism by Adiran Brooks p. 88

[10] Jim Fouratt Interview with Charlie Rose on 6/24/1994 & Aliya Schneider on 4/28/20

[11] That Segal had recently moved from Philly is noted in the New York Times article: The Night the Stonewall Inn Became a Proud Shrine by Michael Wilson, published 6/27/19. Segal’s shock is noted in his memoir, And then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality

[12] The Faces of Jim Fouratt, July 3 2012 by Lorenzo Ligato in The Villager (now amNY)

[13] Jim Fouratt Interview with Charlie Rose 6/24/1994 and with Aliya Schneider 4/28/20—same sentiment about Stonewall being sleazy albeit a safe space for gay and closeted married men and runaway street kids; p.180 of Martin Duberman’s Stonewall says that Craig Rodwell and Jim Fouratt both saw Stonewall as a place for older men who were looking for sex with boys

[14] New York Times: The Night the Stonewall Inn Became a Proud Shrine Michael Wilson 6/27/19

[15] Fouratt’s interview with Charlie Rose and Aliya Schneider

[16] Jim Fouratt Interview with Aliya Schneider & The Revolutionary Joy of Gary Alinder by Paul Gabriel in Brooks’ book, p. 101 confirms that Fouratt was openly gay before Stonewall

[17] Jim Fouratt Interview with Aliya Schneider

[18] Duberman p. 198 & Full Moon Over Stonewall by Howard Smith published in the Village Voice in 1969

[19] Wilson’s NYT article

[20] And then I Danced… Mark Segal’s memoir

[21] The New Homosexuality by Tome Burke in Esquire Dec 1969

[22] Deitcher p. 67. Interview with Sylvia Rivera

[23] Making Gay History Season 2 Episode 1 Interview with Marsha P. Johnson

[24] Duberman p. 201

[25] Duberman p. 202

[26] Stonewall Reader p. 123 & Segal’s memoir

[27] Jim Fouratt Aliya Schneider Interview at 47 min mark

[28] Fouratt Schneider Interview 51 min mark

[29] Dick Leitsch’s Account of Stonewall Published in the Mattachine Society newsletter

[30] Duberman p. 205

[31] Freaking Fag Revolutionaries: New York’s Gay Liberation Front, 1969-1971 by Terence Kissak in Radical History Review p. 108

[32] Red Stockings was a women’s liberation group founded in 1969, noted in On Bearing Witness by Gay Liberation Front member Steven Dansky p. 71

[33] Karla Jay Stonewall Oral History Project & photos & Duberman p. 207

[34] Karla Jay Stonewall Oral History Project

[35] Duberman p. 210. Gay Militants by Don Teal also explains the new behavior at this Annual Reminder.

[36] Shelley has told this story in past interviews as well as her interview with me, but Fouratt objects that she created the Gay Liberation Front

[37] Duberman p. 212

[38] Jim Fouratt Aliya Schneider interview, right before 1:14 mark “your politics are over, it’s post-Stonewall”

[39] Village Voice July 24 1969 ad

[40] Martha Shelley Aliya Schneider Interview

[41] Village Voice July 31 1969 coverage

[42] Martha Shelley Aliya Schneider interview and The Village Voice July 31 1969 pg. 1, pg. 3 and pg. 28

[43] The Guardian, The riot that changed America’s gay rights movement forever, by Ed Pilkington June 19 2019,

[44] Point about identifying with oppressed causes in the Hippie Dictionary p. 202

[45] NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project

[46] Sisters and Brothers: A Writer Hungering for Family Finds GLF by Perry Brass in Smash the church, Smash the state!: The early years of gay liberation. 2009.

[47] Brass p. 134 

[48] Jim Fouratt Interview with Aliya Schneider

[49] Duberman p. 221

[50] Jim Fouratt Interview with Aliya Schneider Around 1:15 mark

[51] Duberman p. 238 & Jim Fouratt Aliya Schneider Interview April 2020

[52] Jim Fouratt Aliya Schneider Interview and Duberman p. 238

[53] Duberman p. 237 & Aliya Schneider Interview with Michela Griffo April 2020

[54] Mark Horn Aliya Schneider Interview, talking about how people, particularly in Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), were not comfortable with Sylvia

[55] Mark Horn Aliya Schneider interview

[56] Brass p. 135

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