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A Gay Youth Group, the FBI, and the Community, November 28, 1984

In November 1984, I authored an article titled "Gay Youth Group Admits FBI Involvement," published in The Connection, a bi-weekly gay newspaper published on Long Island and distributed widely in New York City. (It billed itself as "New York's Gay Newspaper," in direct competition with The New York Native). At the time, I wasThe Connection's staff reporter in New York City.[1]

The story revealed that Gay and Lesbian Youth of New York (GLYNY), New York's fledgling peer organization of gay youth, which had an advisory board of adults prominent in the gay community, had initiated a policy of forwarding information to the FBI in situations that GLYNY suspected might involve adults seeking sexual relations with underage youth.

The information supplied to the FBI about suspected parties included, for example, license-plate numbers recorded at a cruising area around the West Village piers. The data was gathered by GLYNY members on behalf of the organization, based on their own initiative and suspicion, rather than in response to any complaint made by an exploited youth. Decisions to forward this information to the FBI were, likewise, to be considered by GLYNY based solely on its own judgment as an organization (again, with no requirement that this be in response to any complaint of exploitation or abuse).

I'd been told about this relationship with the FBI by GLYNY's newly-installed Executive Director, Stan Isaac, who complained that he'd inherited the policy from his predecessor (Joe Van Es), and confided that he wasn't entirely comfortable with it.

I'd been interviewing Isaac (along with the officials of other relevant organizations and a variety of activists) in conjunction with a broader story I was researching regarding evolving community attitudes toward relationships involving gay youth, including those where age differences were a factor.

When I then asked GLYNY's adult advisory board members about the policy, they told me they'd previously been unaware of it. On learning of the policy's existence, their range of reactions, in various proportions, combined outrage at the implicit FBI surveillance and its potential for misuse, with an understanding of the otherwise powerless predicament of gay youth.

Van Es defended the policy in a brief speech at a GLYNY Thanksgiving dinner, describing the collaboration as empowering gay youth to resist exploitation and abuse.

The broader story I'd planned, "Our Man/Boy Love Problem -- and Mine," was published in the subsequent issue ofThe Connection.[2]

The same issue of The Connection published two letters condemning my previously-published story on FBI involvement -- one signed by GLYNY's peer Board of Directors (including Isaac), and the other by its adult advisory board[3] -- both of which characterized the story as injurious to GLYNY. In a brief response (appearing beneath these letters) I noted that neither letter had managed to specify a single error of fact in what I'd written, and that by revealing that GLYNY was working with the FBI, I had no intention of attacking or weakening GLYNY itself, let alone of undermining our community's fragile efforts to empower gay youth. Rather, I insisted, if opening the matter to scrutiny might subject GLYNY to criticism from within the community, such controversy would also provide an opportunity for GLYNY to correct whatever aspects of the policy might prove questionable or flawed -- ultimately strengthening both the community and its institutions, including GLYNY itself.[4]

My aforementioned broader story (in that same issue), meanwhile, was replete with quotes from many community leaders expressing their deep misgivings about GLYNY's FBI involvement. (Remarkably, several of those were quotes from the same people who'd signed the letter -- as members of GLYNY's adult advisory board -- condemning me for revealing that very involvement!)

Furthermore, the quotes in my story documented a history of long-standing antagonisms and divergent interests, fed by an assortment of ongoing personal dramas, that had left the community open to controversies (like this one) with a potentially divisive outcome.

For instance, there'd been a long-standing divergence between the concerns of many lesbian feminists (focused on guarding against the abuse of power in exploitive relationships) and the interests of many gay men (who, from adolescence, had experienced gay liberation as an effort to release male sexuality from a particular variety of sexual repression). This divergence had reached extreme proportions in the conflict over whether NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association -- itself the target of FBI investigations) should be considered as representing an element of the "lesbian and gay community." Then, too -- as I learned in researching my article -- an ostensibly "anti-abuse" perspective (somewhat controversial in its reach) had also played a significant role in informing policy directives and staffing decisions promulgated by the Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth (later known as the Hetrick-Martin Institute) in conjunction with the founding of New York City's (then-new, gay-identified) Harvey Milk High School.

Needless to say, these were not purely intellectual or ideological issues; more often than not, they involved highly personal, crucial developmental experiences and painfully intimate social interactions -- some of them lifelong memories, others still ongoing -- all of which, in turn, could be in danger of manipulation (or could themselves be cause for manipulation) in the service of a vast array of opportunistic (often hidden) personal and political agendas -- no matter whose "side" one supposedly was on.

Meanwhile, many in the community (with concerns stemming from more broadly homophobic inquisitions) spoke of GLYNY's policy as susceptible to the sort of abuse by the FBI that, for them, had itself all-too-recently been a frightening (often crushing) reality.

Thus, when I contacted Ginny Apuzzo -- Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force -- she acknowledged her awareness of the need to empower gay youth to resist exploitation. But then she exclaimed, "That doesn't mean you go to the oppressor!" (By oppressor, in this instance, she clearly meant the FBI.) She vowed to work behind the scenes for a more acceptable resolution.

Eventually, Charlie Cochrane, a member of GLYNY's adult advisory board (and the founder of the Gay Officers' Action League [GOAL], an organization representing gay New York City cops), made it known to GLYNY that his organization would henceforth be available to intervene on behalf of the community whenever there might be need to come forward with a complaint involving the exploitation or abuse of gay youth. That provided a potential and necessary first step toward finding the most appropriate means to resolve the situation, from within the community or as otherwise might prove necessary -- and thus (so I was told) GLYNY's FBI involvement quietly came to an end.

In Retrospect

In retrospect, this episode reflects the concurrent ravages of AIDS, with its pervasive chilling effect and its demoralization of the gay male community. The epidemic was then at its seemingly-hopeless height -- three long years, even, before the founding of ACT UP. In that context, moreover -- and with many gay male leaders dying or dead -- this incident also signaled the entrenchment of certain aspects of a feminist perspective (and the relative ascendency of a variety of lesbian leadership) in guiding the community.

This was, after all, a tragic time for gay men. Whether increasingly angry, alarmed, or compassionate, or merely exhausted by the sheer magnitude and ghoulishness of the devastation -- seemingly without regard for whatever other issues might arise -- we were forced by necessity to channel virtually all our energy, attention, and resources into an all-consuming (and, all-too-often, seemingly futile) struggle for sheer physical survival. In any event -- given the challenge we confronted -- in the future, we'd be far more reluctant to present our issues (or even to conceive of them) purely in terms of personal freedom.

It's clear to me, at least, that GLYNY's dalliance with the FBI would have been unthinkable in the decade or more between Stonewall and the onset of the epidemic. Despite this controversy -- and maybe, in part, because of it -- such an episode may never again be unthinkable in quite the same way. But then again, it would also have been unthinkable previously to have had an alternative that involved referring such matters to an organization of gay cops.

In a sense, then, this is a story of evolution. But as with much of evolution, it's a story deeply intertwined with a catastrophe -- one from which (it still saddens me to say, from the bottom of my not-yet-normal heart) we've yet to, and we may never, truly recover.

Notes

  1. Mitchell Halberstadt: "Gay Youth Group Admits FBI Involvement," The Connection (New York City), vol. 4, no. 1, November 28 – December. 14, 1984), pp. 18–19.
  2. Mitchell Halberstadt: "Our Man/Boy Love Problem -- and Mine," The Connection (volume 4, number 2, December 14 – 28, 1984), pp. 40–44.
  3. The Connection (volume 4, number 2, Dec. 14 – 28, 1984), pages p. 6. The editor gave each of the letters a small headline: "Scruples" and "Implications".
  4. The Connection (volume 4, number 2, Dec. 14 – 28, 1984), pages pp. 6–7.