Thursday, March 4, 2010

Smash the Church, Smash the State!

Despite the rumpy pumpy title, this collection of Gay Lib reminiscences published in 2009 by City Lights is well-ordered and useful. The period covered is generally the early 70’s, and it is interesting to see how contributors experienced those festive and confusing times quite differently from one another.

Initially Gay Lib arose in less than a half-dozen places in the U.S., and communication was virtually nil. There was no national organization, and due to the nationwide media boycott—homosexuality was still outlawed in most places and considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association until 1973—it was very difficult if you were in San Francisco to know what folks in Iowa City or Boston  or NYC were up to. It was truly an underground operation, and it’s been interesting for me to read some of these stories 35-40 years later.

The lead article by Susan Stryker emphasizes that rebellious activities were underway long before Stonewall and its subsequent “mythologizing” effects, by way of example here in San Francisco already in 1966 with the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots. Susan is concerned mainly with the transgender community, but as one who has been fulminating for many years against the “Stonewall narrative"—according to which the gay revolution originated in NYC in 1969—I am proud to report that the flames of rebellion were burning brightly in San Francisco by at least 1967, as far as us longhaired gay males were concerned, who hung out at the Capri on Grant Avenue.

One contributor thinks that Gay Lib had no need to go public before 1969, but the fact of the matter was that it was really quite dangerous to advertise one’s gayness in public before then, and it was only under the umbrella of the massive anti-War protests in 1968 that Gay Lib was finally able to hit the streets without undue fear of violence or arrest. Outside of the hippie reservation in the Haight-Ashbury, just going around the City with longhair aroused insult, and it was perilous enough to ride the 14-Mission late at night if your hair was long, gay or straight.

Unfortunately the present book hardly attends to the writers, poets, newspaper and small press publishers, and gay-friendly bookshop owners, whose work provided a theoretical platform for the nascent movement. A second volume dedicated exclusively to their efforts would certainly be appreciated.

[Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation, ed. Tommi Avicolli Mecca. City Lights, 2009] 

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