A Radical Voice Rekindles the Spirit of June 1969

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Martha Shelly speaks, while Community Board 2 chair Tobi Bergman and Congressmember Jerry Nadler look on. | DONNA ACETO
Martha Shelly speaks, while Community Board 2 chair Tobi Bergman and Congressmember Jerry Nadler look on. | DONNA ACETO

Remarks from Martha Shelley, a participant in the Stonewall Rebellion and a founder of the Gay Liberation Front, at the September 20 press conference announcing plans to press for creation of a national park anchored on the vicinity of the Christopher Street bar at the heart of the action in June 1969:

I’m Martha Shelley and I was one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front. We’re at the Stonewall Inn today because of the riot that took place around these premises back in 1969. Before then, gay people had to keep the most central part of our souls hidden in shame, and now we might have a national park celebrating our struggles. This is terribly important, because we need to know our history, not have it tamed down and prettified, the way they try to do to Martin Luther King, or even erased as though we never existed. So here's some of that history.

The Stonewall Riot wasn't the first of its kind. The first occurred in 1966, at Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. What’s special about the Stonewall Riot is that some of us seized the opportunity to form the Gay Liberation Front. Up to 1969, the existing gay organizations were assimilationist. They aimed to convince America that all gays wanted was acceptance into middle-class society. They pleaded. They were well-dressed and polite. And they got almost nowhere.

GLF was a coalition of radical gays from those mainstream organizations, gay radicals from socialist organizations, and street queens and dykes who'd never been organized before. We made alliances with other groups that shared our dreams of a just society, like the Black Panthers and the women's liberation movement.

At one point, we put together a list of demands. These included the right to control your own body, which meant freedom to engage in consensual sexuality, reproductive rights for women, freedom to get high, and freedom not to have your ass drafted and shipped to Vietnam. Our demands included an end to racist oppression. They included economic justice.

We are here today because the in-your-face tactics of groups like GLF, Gay Activists Alliance, and ACT UP succeeded, at least to a certain extent. We have same-sex marriage. Now we can volunteer to have our openly gay asses blown up in the Middle East. America may be on the road to ending the drug war. BUT –– every day we read about the cops murdering another unarmed black or Hispanic person and getting away with it. Our jails and prisons have become a vast gulag for poor minorities. Abortion rights are being slashed and women are still treated like baby-making machines. Economic inequality is astronomically worse: ordinary workers have lost their jobs, their homes, and their pensions, while CEO pay is somewhere between 700 percent and 1000 percent greater today than it was in 1969. And the filthy rich — I do mean filthy — want to keep us burning fossil fuels, so they can pile up more money while the whole planet goes down.

Let’s pause for a moment today, because we need to celebrate our victories. But only for a moment. And then let’s all of us — especially you young people — get out in the streets and organize.

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

Barry G. Wick says:
Sept. 21, 2015, 9:41 pm
perrybrass says:
What Martha said was so completely truthful, perfect, and to the point that it should be seen and heard by everyone. Thank you, Paul Schindler, for putting it here. The real point is that no matter how much is made out of the Stonewall Action (or Rebellion, or Riots), no matter how many movies or TV programs are made about it, it is what happened afterward that really changed the lives of millions of people. The first organization to radically announce that the world was ready for gay liberation and the liberation of all people was the Gay Liberation Front followed by our brothers and sisters at the Gay Activists Alliance. They were then followed by thousands and thousands and now millions of people. This was the liberation of all of us, from the shackles of fear, self-hatred, and passivity. We needed to liberate ourselves—no one would do it for us. The same thing went for the AIDS crisis—because of the radicalism of GLF, groups like Act-Up could seize the day. The process continues all over America and the world. Thank you, Martha, for reminding us of that.
Sept. 23, 2015, 11:01 pm
etseq97 says:
If you reduce history to mere nostalgia then sure...GLF was a product of its time and it was not unproblematic, especially its theoretical grounding in silly, third world "revolutionary" marxist theory and praxis. Much of what they believed would be viewed as just down right silly, if not reactionary. Radicals always take credit for any advances made under a liberal democracy but are the first to criticize "liberalism" for selling out - you can't have it both ways.
Sept. 23, 2015, 11:43 pm
Martha Shelley says:
Etseq97, you weren't there and have no idea what you're talking about. The GLF wasn't grounded in Marxist theory. We rejected traditional Marxism and a lot of theoretical bullshit. We organized demonstrations and community events that brought people together--that was our "praxis." And what is silly and reactionary about being anti-war, pro women's rights, anti-racist, for the right to control one's own body, against the drug war, and for economic justice?
Sept. 24, 2015, 12:28 am
MPetrelis says:
What have you done of any consequence regarding queer liberation, Etseq97? It's all too easy for you to throw stones at the GLF and brave fighters including and particularly Martha Shelley, instead of taking action yourself. Big thanks to Martha, for her advocacy back in the day and continuing to speak up and be active now. Her life and legacy are greatly appreciated by me and many others!
Sept. 24, 2015, 1:09 am
Bici says:
OMG, Martha, It's you! Good rap! Same voice - same telling it like it is. So great to know you are still telling. Wish we cd bridge the miles and years - so much to say. Be well! I salute you!
Sept. 24, 2015, 1:10 am
Martha Shelley says:
Hi Bici--how are you? Where are you? It's been decades. Go to my website, and send me a message. Love, Martha
Sept. 24, 2015, 1:57 am
Johnny de Philo says:
Hello Etseq97, Next time you wish to comment on .. well, anything, try using your brain and mouth, more or less in that order. You'll find that it works so much better than trotting out the kind of nonsense written above.
Sept. 24, 2015, 8:54 am

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