Historian publishes study on LGBTQ protests of the ‘60s and ‘70s

Gay Liberation Front members Jerry Hoose (left), Mark Segal (right), and Sylvia Rivera (background, holding a bag) at a GLF demonstration against New York University. (Photo: Diana Davies collection, New York Public Library)

Some of the most widely documented LGBTQ protests include the Annual Reminders at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Dewey’s sit-ins (also in Philly), and of course, the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City. But activists engaged in hundreds of protests and marches from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, according to a new study from OutHistory and Queer Pasts, helmed by historian and professor Marc Stein.

“I thought this might be a way to call attention to the broader and fuller range of activism,” Stein said. “I think once we do that, we start seeing that there’s this amazing history.”

The study sheds light on 646 LGBTQ direct actions that occurred in the U.S. from 1965 to 1973, including demonstrations, marches, protests, rallies, riots and sit-ins. Stein and his student research team at San Francisco State University found that over 200,000 people participated in LGBTQ actions in that nine year period and almost 200 people were arrested during said actions. Despite the idea that protests of this nature only took place in specific states like New York and California, they happened in 20 U.S. states and Washington D.C. 

On a broader scale, one of Stein’s takeaways from the study showed an uptick in direct action protests in 1965, including the Dewey’s sit-ins, but also actions like the July 1965 East Coast Homophile Organizations’ demonstration against denials of LGBT rights and equality at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, as well as the May 1965 demonstration by the Mattachine Society of Washington and East Coast Homophile Organizations against gay-targeted government discrimination at the White House. 

“Then, when the number and frequency really escalates in ‘69, it’s not in June, it’s in April, and it’s not in New York, it’s in San Francisco,” Stein said. “So it really begins to kind of change our sense of when the movement took off, when the movement radicalized, where the movement took off and radicalized.”

One type of LGBTQ protests that hasn’t typically been documented, Stein found, were actions against sexism and racism at gay bars and other LGBTQ businesses. The study revealed dozens of actions protesting sexism and racism at gay bars in the late 1960s and early 1970s, such as the Philadelphia chapter of Gay Activists Alliance demonstration against sexism, racism and trans discrimination at The Steps venue and restaurant in Philadelphia in 1973; Gay Liberation Front D.C. demonstrations against discrimination targeting race, trans people and women at the Washington D.C. gay bar Plus One in 1971; and a big demonstration consisting of 200 to 500 people, led by Personal Rights in Defense and Education (PRIDE) against police brutality at The Black Cat bar in Los Angeles in 1967.

The study also revealed protest actions against churches and other religious institutions that condemned queer bodies and lifestyles. March 1971 saw the Homophile Action League and Philadelphia Christian Homophile Church demonstrate at the Bible Presbyterian Church in Collingswood, New Jersey. In April 1969, the Committee for Homosexual Freedom, Society for Individual Rights, and the Council on Religion and the Homosexual demonstrated in San Francisco and Berkeley against the police killing of Frank Bartley, with a motorcade from Glide Church to the Berkeley Police Department. In 1965, an LGBTQ demonstration against the Episcopalean Church mistreatment of Canon Robert Cromey took place at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. 

Stein also brought up PGN publisher Mark Segal’s work with the Gay Raiders to achieve more LGBTQ visibility on TV in the early 1970s. Segal protested high-profile news programs by posing as a journalism student, handcuffing himself to cameras, and crashing live news broadcasts, otherwise known as a “zap.” The Gay Raiders zapped The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite in New York in 1973. 

“You really apply more of a microscopic perspective to see how in ‘69, ‘70 there were lots of protests against newspapers and magazines,” Stein said. “There were famous protests in ‘69, ‘70 against the Village Voice, San Francisco Examiner, Los Angeles Times and Harper’s. Those have been written about, but we’ve had much less attention to protests against ‘Sanford and Son,’ or against ‘The CBS Evening News’ or ‘The Today Show.’”

The study revealed other noteworthy targets of LGBTQ protests and demonstrations that took place from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s, including 25 actions against prisons, 21 against churches and religious conferences, 44 against colleges, universities and other educational institutions, 51 against media entities, and 64 targeting LGBTQ institutions like bars and political organizations. 

As for why some LGBTQ direct actions were better documented than others, Stein explained that some now well-known LGBTQ direct actions didn’t get that much media coverage at the time. It was only years later, in some cases, that historians studied them and created a body of work on them. For example, the Dewey’s sit-ins didn’t get much media coverage at the time. And the Stonewall Riots were eclipsed in mainstream media coverage by an LGBTQ protest against vigilantes who took down trees in New York’s Kew Gardens, where gay men would frequently have sex at night.

“From what I recall, Stonewall really didn’t get much media coverage,” said Segal, who was at the Stonewall Riots and became a founding member of Gay Liberation Front New York. “There was a Village Voice article, a New York Times article, and one or two others. They all had inaccuracies in them.”

Stein also pointed out that the 1966 Compton’s Cafeteria riot in San Francisco didn’t get media coverage at the time and only came into public knowledge when Dr. Susan Stryker directed the documentary “Screaming Queens.” At that action, trans women and drag queens protested against the police for frequently harassing and mistreating them at the all-night dining establishment. 

“And then Philadelphia — I think a whole set of people, myself included, really helped shine a light on the Annual Reminders,” Stein said. “That’s why it was better known until I then did my work, and others did work on the Dewey’s sit-ins. But it took years for Dewey’s to get the recognition that maybe it now has. It’s going to take further work for some of these other demonstrations that I’ve identified to get their full treatment.”

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