GAA may have utilized the political system, but it was not seeking to accommodate it. The group practiced“confrontation politics”—in which politicians or other “persons of authority” were “publicly exposed through mass demonstrations, disruption meetings, and sit-ins.” Zaps, as these actions came to be known, forced politicians to take a stand on gay rights (or at least publicized their unwillingness to do so); proved that gay people were a “legitimate political minority” and a force to be reckoned with; and facilitated “the development of an open sense of public identity in the gay community” that would encourage others to follow suit.
To ensure they had a far-reaching impact, zaps were meant to grab the attention of the media. As such, they were often lively affairs. To push Mayor John Lindsay to make a public statement in support of gay rights, for example, GAAers planted themselves in the audience at a taping of his weekly television show, a reporter from the Village Voice in tow. During the show, GAA leader Arthur Evans “rushed to the platform: ‘What about homosexuals? Homosexuals want an end to job discrimination.’” Although Evans was removed by security, the other Activists in the room continued the disruption. They “clapped, stomped, and chanted: ‘Answer the homosexual!’” as he was led out. Lindsay plastered a smile on his face for the next half hour as the audience continued to press him: “‘What about the laws against sodomy? We want free speech! Lindsay, you need our votes. Homosexuals account for 10 per cent of the vote….’” Although the Mayor’s camera crew stopped recording, an account of the entire affair was published in the Voice and GAA won a meeting with Deputy Mayor Richard Aurelio to discuss their demands. The Mayor continued to refuse to issue a statement in favor of gay rights legislation, but GAA was nonetheless pleased that “[t]he police were kept busy and so was Lindsay’s smile.”
GAA didn’t just target politicians. When the president of Fidelifacts—an investigating agency “used by businesses to identify and exclude homosexuals”—explained that he “[went] on the rule of thumb that if one looks like a duck, walks like a duck, associates only with ducks, and quacks like a duck, he probably is a duck,” GAA decided to strike back. The group, armed with squeaking rubber duckies, picketed Fidelifacts’ headquarters. At the front of the picket line was Marty Robinson—dressed like a duck. The protest was designed not only to grab the eye of the media and highlight employment discrimination against homosexuals, but also to inspire closeted gays and lesbians to join in the fun.
Other Political Tactics
Beyond Zaps, GAA utilized an array of tactics to gain political support. During the 1970 elections, for example, they invited candidates to speak at their general meetings, lobbied at the New Democratic Coalition’s convention, and ran voting drives in the gay community. They sent out questionnaires to candidates soliciting their stances on a range of issues, from sodomy laws and police entrapment to employment and income tax discrimination. And while the group didn’t endorse politicians, it did make sure that the gay community—and the media—were well aware of their views, issuing press releases, publishing articles in gay newspapers, and leafleting in areas populated by gays and lesbians.
Along the way, GAA made sure to stress that homosexuals were a powerful voting bloc. As one tenth of the population, gays and lesbians could have a significant impact on the direction each election went—a fact GAAers didn’t let politicians forget. They urged gays and lesbians to “put gay power to the voting booth” and “vote gay,” while reminding politicians that public statements in support of gay rights could“provide a considerable vote swing” and help them win elections.
Their strategy often worked. In the 1970 election, 40 candidates responded to the GAA questionnaire, all but one of them positively. The group elicited supportive statements from the gubernatorial candidate and both senatorial candidates—the first in New York State to come out in favor of gay rights. The majority of the pro-gay candidates (many of whom GAA canvassed for) won their elections; the organization made sure to publicize the difference its support had made.
Michael Lavery, a Gay Liberation Front member who later joined GAA, thought that some of the organization's political success came from its reputation as the moderate alternative to GLF. Lavery talks in a video interview
As early as the spring of 1970, GAA decided to focus much of its political energies on pushing for gay rights legislation in the New York City Council. The organization contended that such a bill would appeal to—and help politicize—a wide range of homosexuals.
Additionally, it would gain the support of influential community leaders and politicians who could “help legitimize homosexuals as a political minority.” Finally, it would expose gays and straights alike to the level of systematic discrimination that homosexuals faced in employment, housing, and public accommodations. Although the bill’s passage was not necessary to achieve these goals, if it became law it also had the potential to make real changes in the lives of New York City’s gay and lesbian residents.
GAAers worked furiously throughout 1970 to secure council members willing to introduce the legislation, develop a strategy for their legislative push, and document their discrimination for a report to present to the City Commission on Human Rights.
On January 6, 1971, Council Members Carter Burden and Eldon Clingan introduced a bill—Intro 475—to include sexual orientation in New York’s Human Rights Law. GAA immediately put its legislative strategy into action. The group attacked from two sides: members of the Municipal Government Committee worked behind-the-scenes to gain the support of council members, and the Municipal Fair Employment Committee organized public demonstrations that would put pressure on obstinate politicians while encouraging other gays and lesbians to come out and join the fight.
The group faced difficulties from the beginning. Although some influential politicians backed the bill, Mayor Lindsay continued to refuse to publicly support it or issue an Executive Order banning discrimination within the City. At the same time, the Council’s Majority Leader, Thomas Cuite, and the Chairman of the General Welfare Committee, Saul Sharison, rebuffed GAA’s demands to schedule public hearings.
As time wore on, playful demonstrations like the Fidelifacts zap gave way to more confrontational actions. In October 1971, a late-night protest at Sharison’s apartment building, for example, quickly turned “nightmarish” when the Tactical Police Force—“the city’s most brutal cops”—began to “savagely” beat demonstrators. Nevertheless, the action seemed to work. Sharison scheduled public hearings for Intro 475 five days later.
The hearings only brought more confrontations. Insulting statements from council members provoked GAAers, who loudly voiced their objects by calling them“heterosexual bastards” and “bigots.” While Lindsay enlisted an aide to read a statement of support on the second day of the hearings, he refused to allow the police and fire commissioners to testify—leading GAA to declare“TOTAL WAR” on the Mayor.
On January 27, 1972, the General Welfare Committee voted against bringing Intro 475 to the full council. But while the bill failed, GAA achieved its goals of raising awareness about discrimination against homosexuals and encouraging more gays and lesbians to fight against their oppression. Intro 475, as GAA leader Marty Robinson wrote in an article for the Village Voice, “was not advocated as the goal for the movement but as a tactic, a tool toward liberation…. In that very real sense, Intro 475 never was and never could be defeated. Many gays came out of the closet for the struggle and many more will join them as that struggle continues.”