A New Gay Culture
More than just interested in making political gains for gays and lesbians, the Gay Activists Alliance also strove to alter a mainstream culture permeated by sexism and homophobia—and to create a “liberated gay culture…free of the oppressive role-playing of a hostile sexist society.”
GAA organized a range of activities—such as dances, film screenings, plays, yoga classes, and Consciousness-Raising groups—that were intended to bring gays and lesbians together while helping them understand their oppression, transform their personal interactions, and develop a new gay culture free from gender and sexual constraints. The group also used these events to politicize gays and lesbians, sometimes ending dances with a call to participate in a demonstration that night.
One of GAA’s greatest achievements was securing a space that gays and lesbians could call home. In April 1971, the group leased an abandoned firehouse on Wooster Street in Soho. The Firehouse spurred the development of many of the committees responsible for culture-building activities, and allowed the group to host events (such as weekly dances) that were difficult to put on without a regular space. The Firehouse had implications beyond GAA, however. It also served as a center for New York’s gay community and helped to give rise to a new gay and lesbian culture—in the form of bars, coffee shops, bookstores, and more—that would erupt in the years to come.
The Lesbian Liberation Committee
The Gay Activists Alliance worked hard to create a diverse group that represented the entire gay community, but the organization was largely dominated by men. To increase the presence of women in GAA, a number of women members formed a subcommittee of the Community Relations Committee. As the subcommittee began achieving greater success (a film festival it hosted in the fall of 1971 brought in more than 100 women), its members pushed to form their own committee. Many men worried that a separate lesbian committee would tear at GAA’s unity, but the women prevailed. In the fall of 1971, they formed the Lesbian Liberation Committee (LLC).
LLC set out to politicize lesbians and bring more women into the group. Arguing that women participated less in gay political activity because they had yet to develop a strong lesbian identity, LLC wanted to carve out a space where women could meet and create “a sense of community.”
The Committee’s activities were thus largely social. It sponsored screenings of films that were “of special interest to Lesbians,”organized panel discussions on topics like coming out and lesbian motherhood, and hosted all-women’s dances and picnics.
The women who organized LLC were committed gay liberationists more interested in attracting women to the Gay Activists Alliance than participating in separate lesbian feminist activism. But over time, members of LLC increasingly clashed with men in GAA, leading many of them to question their place in the organization. Jean O’Leary, who was a chair of LLC, remembered: “We had arguments every single day. We had debates on the floor. The men were listening, but they just weren’t hearing what we had to say, and they held on to their stereotyped views of women. They would also make a point of crashing our women-only events.”
O’Leary urged the women to form a separate organization. Although many resisted, after months of discussions and debates, they left GAA. In the spring of 1972, they formed Lesbian Feminist Liberation (LFL)—a structured, reform-oriented group that focused on finding freedom for lesbians while maintaining alliances with other gay and feminist groups.
The creation of LFL had as much to do with the sexism women faced in GAA as with their desire to focus on their own needs and experiences as lesbian women. O’Leary recalled: “We had to find ourselves as a group....Just as gay people have had to become visible in society, lesbians had to become visible within the gay community, as well as in the larger society.”
Rich Wandel, who was president of GAA when LCC was formed, talks in a video interview about the development of Lesbian Feminist Liberation and the importance of splinter groups at that point in the movement
The Gay Activists Alliance remained in existence until 1981, making it the longest-lasting group created during the heyday of gay liberation. Members of GAA also helped to establish gay rights organizations—such as the National Gay Task Force (co-founded by GAA President Bruce Voeller in 1973) and Lambda Legal (co-founded by Michael Lavery in the same year)—that continue to struggle for gay and lesbian equality today.