GLF and the New Left
Many of the Gay Liberation Front's founders had been active in the New Left—the loose coalition of civil rights, black power, antiwar, student and feminist groups—and from the beginning, GLF aligned itself with a broader movement for social justice.
Ellen Shumsky was one such GLFer. After fighting for a number of New Left causes, she joined GLF in the fall of 1970.
GLFers believed that they could not find freedom in the current social and political system. As a result, they saw their participation in the Movement as essential to their own liberation. An early leaflet laid out the group’s radical analysis:
"GLF differs from other gay groups because we realize that homosexual oppression is part of all oppression. The current system denies us our basic humanity in much the same way as it is denied to blacks, women and other oppressed minorities, and the grounds are just as irrational. Therefore, our liberation is tied to the liberation of all peoples."
GLFers threw themselves into New Left activism. They participated in actions against the Vietnam War, and for the Black Panther Party (BPP), the Young Lords Party (YLP), and women’s liberation, proudly holding the GLF banner even amidst harassment from other demonstrators. The group also held dances and other events at Alternate University—a space in Greenwich Village used by a number of radical groups—to promote dialogue and exchange with the New Left.
The Gay Liberation Front challenged the sexism and homophobia it saw in the New Left. GLFers believed that they were helping to bring about—as the slogan went—a “revolution in our time.” They wanted to ensure that this new society did not enforce the repressive gender and sexual norms of old. By participating openly in Movement activities, they could not only reach out to other radical gays and lesbians, but also gain acceptance from the New Left. As one GLFer argued, “only in getting our rightful place in the movement and demanding an end to our oppression can we ever really make changes for homosexuals.”
Not all members of the Gay Liberation Front agreed with the group’s alignment with the New Left. In fact, tensions about whether GLF should integrate with the Movement were present from the group’s second meeting—and continued throughout its existence. In December of 1969, a number of GLFers left the group after it decided to donate $500 to the Black Panther Party. They formed the Gay Activists Alliance: a single-issue, reform-oriented organization that used a hierarchical structure and Robert’s Rules of Order. Their leaving caused the first of many splinters that tore at GLF.
As time wore on, even those who remained in GLF tired of the persistent homophobia they experienced from the New Left. Many straight male activists belittled gay liberationists or diminished their oppression as “trivial” compared to that facing poor or “Third World” people. Epithets like “faggot” and “cocksucker” were commonly thrown at enemies like Reagan and Nixon, and slogans like “Up the Ass of the Ruling Class” peppered anti-war demonstrations.
Even radicals like Martha Shelley began arguing that GLFers needed to focus on their own community before making alliances with other groups. "To become a revolutionary," she wrote, "...your own oppression must have first priority.” And GLFer Step May spoke for more than just himself when he threatened Yippie leader Jerry Rubin: “Keep pushing me, Jerry, and you’ll find me allied with some ruling class pig who is also homosexual—allied against a common oppressor—the great freedom fighter Jerry Rubin.”
Splinters and Dissolution
GLF brought together a wide range of people, and the group worked hard to accommodate the different needs, interests, and experiences of all of its members. Yet just as gays and lesbians had left New Left groups to come together around their own particular oppression, so too women, people of color, transvestites, and others eventually left GLF to organize groups—such as Radicalesbians, Third World Gay Revolution, and Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries—that centered on their identities and experiences. Their leaving was precipitated by persistent sexism, racism, class biases, and transphobia among some GLFers, but it also reflected a very real need to explore, understand, and fight back against their own oppression on their own terms.
The Gay Liberation Front collapsed within two years of its founding. The “structureless structure” that had energized participants in the group’s early days began to wear on many members as endless debates and discussions seemed to prevent action rather than facilitate it. Additionally, the group’s far-reaching goals prohibited it from achieving tangible results—leading many less radical men to leave the group for the reform-oriented Gay Activists Alliance.
Martha Shelley remembered: “We got involved in these endless theoretical debates about what we should do and what our relationship was to other organizations. I think we just talked ourselves to death. And all these splinter groups formed…. GLF disintegrated into so many splinter groups that it just disappeared.”
Even though GLF folded relatively quickly, the group gave birth to a new movement, one that was bold, assertive, and unabashed—and which continues to this day.