Coming Out Into Come Out!
Coming out is a wonderful, intoxicating, and sometimes bedeviling idea to me, and my own coming out into Come Out! the newspaper of the Gay Liberation Front, in 1969 is a great example of all of that. First though I need to say this: when I first “came out,” that is actually acknowledged that I was sexually attracted to men, it wasn’t nice. It was scary as hell. But not nearly as ugly as being in that pit of despair a year earlier. I came out sexually at 16—that is, a man went after young totally inexperienced me, and I agreed to it. (Understatement: I flipped over the idea.) A year earlier, at 15, in the summer before my senior year in high school, in Savannah, GA, I had tried to kill myself, a too-usual occurance with gay teens unfortunately. Luckily, I didn’t succeed and was rushed to an emergency room to have my stomach pumped. I went through an epiphany later: I would never try to kill myself again, and certainly not be pushed to do it by other people. I had been pushed: by kids at school who whispered about me things that gay kids overhear; by my mother viciously trying to destroy me in her own way; by my life colliding with itself at 15, a dangerous vulnerable year.
So at 16, after graduating from Savannah High as a small, gifted kid (and I was small; I grew about 3 inches after that year!), I went to bed with a man and liked it a lot. And soon I was ready to take on the world. This included hitchhiking from Savannah to San Francisco the summer of my 17th year (after an odious spell at the very then backward University of Georgia), living this wild, crazy, and queer life in San Francisco, which I have described as “like Mark Twain with drag queens.” Then, a month before I turned 19, still wild, crazy, and queer, I moved to New York.
I had been writing lots of gay stuff, and painting gay pictures, and learning that nothing I did would see the light of day. There was no place “out there” for what I was doing. So, after Stonewall exploded, one of my main reasons for joining GLF was that it had a newspaper.
And not just any newspaper. A gay newspaper!
You have no idea what that meant back in 1969. Only 3 years earlier, the New York Mattachine Society officially challenged a law on the Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s (the ABC’s) books stating that any barkeeper who “knowingly served an alcoholic beverage to a homosexual” could have his license revoked. The swingingSixties just did not swing for gay people. Aside from certain snide and artsy circles, you not breathe the word “homosexual” without either doing personal or career harm to yourself. “Gay” and “queer” were words used in jokes, catcalls, insults, and gossip. They destroyed show business careers, and I was joining the staff of an openly gay, politically leftist newspaper.
I was scared shitless. And delighted.
I joined the paper in the middle of Come Out’s third issue. I used the pseudonym “Mark Shield” to identify two poems I had contributed, but I did include my real name in the Masthead. From then on, in subsequent issues, I didn’t hide my name or for that matter anything else about me. The paper was about the then-fantastic delights of “coming out,” of exposing ideas, feelings, and your whole self in the context of something that was radically different from anything that had come before it. It was then very much being run by Lois Hart, a strong-willed woman who’d gone from a convent to an all-woman house painting business; and her partner, Suzanne Bevier, a gifted graphic artist. I felt intimidated; the whole rhetoric and political jargon of the Gay Liberation Front was still foreign to me. I published the poems and a woodcut as “Mark Shield” (who I later learned became a mystery to subsequent scholars of GLF); we published out of an apartment in the East Village, when the neighborhood was still 60’s cheap. Macrobiotic restaurants and old Jewish delis dotted it, and the Hell’s Angels were down the block. The paper was printed at night somewhere in Brooklyn at a small shop that did advertising circulars by day, by long-haired straight Movement guys who were in sympathy with our radicalism. A small cadre of us used Lois and Suzanne’s van to pick up 3,000 baled copies at 3 am. We were hysterically excited just getting it into our hands. Lois told us that the two guys who hand-ran the paper through the press were both doing acid while they worked. I felt like we were smuggling something intensely radical under the noses of the straight world: we were.
There had been other papers about the “homosexual agenda,” but Come Out! was rife with the politics of liberation, its screeds, positions, calls to action, personalities and viewpoints, the buzzed-out underground artwork of the period, its poetry and stories. In it, the Underground met the queer-sexual New Left, and it flowered.
I got sucked into the vortex of its personalities and politics, in its walk-up East Village “office” (actually the spare bedroom of Ellen Broidy and Linda Rhoades, who also ran a lesbian paperback book service from it), its diffusions of personalities, anchored by Lois and a quiet Suzanne, with other voices from Martha Shelly, Bob Kohler, Jim Fouratt, Pat Maxwell (the first person I ever encountered to use the term “gay art,” which she said we’d have to “invent,” a seeming impossibility then to me), Kay Van Deurs, Bernard Lewis, Earl Galvin, Dan Smith, and Diana Davies, to mention only some of us. It would be hard to imagine any publication that so totally reflected the people it represented.
Every meeting turned into a consciousness-raising session about women, lesbianism, patriarchy, racism, male chauvinism (and how gay men are a part of it), the direction of the gay movement, the Viet Nam war and how it spawned an atmosphere of macho violence even home in the US (like the Iraq War has done now), S & M, bar cruising, the way gay men objectify each other and hurt one another, and many other topics. The paper was becoming more and more known as one of the prime voices of Gay Liberation. Several of our subsequent pieces, like Steve Dansky’s “Hey, Man!” about phallocentricism in gay and Movement life; the fabulous group piece “Woman-Identified Woman,” which rocked feminism by proclaiming that true feminists had either to be lesbians or identify with them; and, strangely enough, my own piece “From the Men: Games Male Chauvinists Play,” which delineated for the first time the politics of gay cruising (and which Lois Hart re-titled because she felt that my original title, “Games Men Play,” did not castigate men enough), were reprinted dozens of times, appeared in other underground papers, anthologies, and broadsides, and were discussed at consciousness-raising sessions, in the corners of smoky bars, and of course on pillows and between the sheets all over the country.
It was time of huge personal contact: something difficult to believe in our current age of impersonal digitalism. The contents of this newspaper that printed, at most, 3 to 4,000 copies were read by a hundred thousand people and more. Gays and lesbians and Movement people, people just coming out of the closets and the shadows, people who went to free rock concerts in the parks where the bushes and benches were alive with “weed,” they were all talking about it. I felt that we had to continue with the paper, and would do anything to keep it alive.
By the sixth issue of the paper, it was being published from my 4th floor walk-up apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. Lois and Suzanne left the collective—burn out—and the women whose apartment we had used in the East Village wanted their space back. Rumors went rampant: Perry was now “ego-tripping” on the paper; I had “ripped it off” and was now running it. Bob Kohler told me that STAR, the street drag queens, wanted to take over the paper themselves, and that I should simply produce it for them, since they could not do it alone: as a revolutionary I must be committed to this. I had no idea how I was going to do this, but as a threat he told me that Sylvia and some of the other girls had told him that if they did not get at least part of the paper under their own control, they would set fire to newsstands in the Village that carried it.
Another faction, Third World Gay Revolution, made a similar demand: they would control a section of the newspaper outside the collective that we would produce for them (and also distribute and sell: as Third Worlders, they would have nothing to do with the degrading capitalism of selling the paper, as I did myself on the streets), and if we did not, I would be branded and isolated as a racist. Since I had grown up in Georgia, it was a priori accepted that I was one: there was no getting around that. Luckily, I was supported by a newcomer, Steve Gavin, who had some experience in journalism and writing, and also by the long time Movement heavy Martha Shelly, another young woman named Deborah Moldavan, Roy Eddy, a newcomer from Tennessee, and other people who agreed that we had to keep the paper together, not give in to threats, and still publish it as a collective. We did for the next three issues. My whole life became involved with it. Every issue brought in new challenges and demands: dealing with the ongoing Viet Nam War; the “Cuban question” (loyalty to revolutionary Cuba versus its imprisonment of gay men into special camps as “threats to youth and education”); women, feminism, and the role of gay men among them; sexual role play and how this affects revolutionary thinking; race and racism; and an emerging gay and lesbian culture that was really coming out of the shadows of corporate sensationalism or government censorship. We would not be sexually exploitative, although we sometimes had nudity in it (that we had to get past our various rock-bottom cheap, bootleg printers). We sold the paper for a quarter a copy (difficult even to imagine today), and refused to carry advertising. Subscriptions were $7, and a large number of libraries carried it. We usually had enough money at the end of every issue simply to print the next one. It also featured some of the first queer work of other writers who went on to have literary careers, such as Rita Mae Brown, Dennis Altman, Allen Young, and Tony Diaman.
The paper was extremely inflammatory. It was avidly radical, and made no bones about mixing two of the most incendiary issues in American life: homosexuality and the New Left’s militant socialism. It was covered by other papers in Europe, and some of its content was translated into French, Italian, and German. One day I got a call from a man claiming to be with the New York police department. Since my phone number was published in every issue of Come Out! as the “office number,” I was used to fielding calls.
He asked me if I knew anything about the paper. I told him I did not. “Do you know where it’s printed, and who prints it?” “No, I don’t.” “Do you know where it’s sold.” “No.” “Who edits it?” “I don’t know that either.” He hesitated, then said, “I guess I’m not going to get anywhere with you, am I?” “Yes,” I replied. He hung up.
Like a lot of other Movement people during this period of unrest, police surveillance, and plain-clothes police plants, I was sure that my phone was being tapped. I used to joke about being entertaining on the phone to the third parties listening in, but the tension from this was no joke. I got to meet several people who had “gone underground,” on the lam from the cops, and saw what their life was like, a real horror show.
I got other calls, too: from young people just coming out and writers who wanted to submit. Also calls where they’d hang up, or whisper obscenities into the phone. It was unnerving but part of publishing Come Out! Finally, at the end of the ninth issue, we realized that we could no longer go on with the paper. It had outlived GLF which died in a war of attrition and factionalism: too many people dropping out or scattering into too many subgroups, including one that was so orthodox Maoist that it became almost a comic version of young middle-class kids playing Lefties. (I remember one meeting when a woman came in with a Louis Vuitton purse to discuss the Red Book.)
The war in Viet Nam was grinding to an end, I was back in school at NYU, and the big question was what was going to happen next? The Gay Activist Alliance was collecting steam, and some GLFers simply moved their own alliances over to them. I could not. Like any good convert, I believed to my core everything that GLF had taught me: that the Movement and the people had to come first instead of my own “bourgeois professionalism” (Bob Kohler had harangued me about this once on Christopher Street, the same way that Lois had gone after my loathsome male chauvinism); that all of us were brothers and sisters and problems could only be solved through consensus; that only a radical change might create a world in which gays and lesbians could be equal to straights, and our own needs and sensibilities be taken seriously.
This always brings me back to the question, what did GLF accomplish? I am asked that often, and so came up with a “list” of what we did. And knowing what it did accomplish, I’m glad that I was a part of it.
GLF provided the radical “centrifugal” energy needed to, if not create the modern gay movement, then to bring it back to Harry Hay’s radical dream of liberation that he had wanted the first Mattachine Society to be. GLF’s own radical structure and thought process did that. Radical meaning going back to the roots of a systematic problem that had reduced and destroyed lgbt people for millennia, that in America with its Anglo-Saxon heritage of Puritanism, under a relentless regime of competition, suppression and censorship (and environmental destruction) had reduced queer people to being worthless, incapable of decency, honesty, and heroism, to being if not the constant effete victims then the twisted Hollywood villains, as seen in Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train, or Psycho: the Freudian Mama’s-boy sissies who never grow up; the manipulative hard-edged merciless dykes; the outcasts from the Sodom and Gomorrah who deserved their fate—GLF tossed all of this out the window.
Instead of the earlier homophile organizations’ pitiful calls for acceptance and tolerance, we declared that we were a necessary part of the order of nature. Instead of psychiatry’s mythologies about us that so many of us desperately clung to as it was killing us (while we were being hospitalized, lobotomized, castrated, or chemically numbed), we declared that society itself was sick, and that this sickness could only be addressed through a complete redressing of society.
GLF did not cook these ideas up from scratch. But our use of them was revolutionary. Instead of the older adaptations of constant accommodation, we provided the radical and youthful energy needed to blow accommodation out the water, and bring in a new atmosphere of self-invention and love.
We did this through ideas and tools that we brought from other parts of the radical movements of this period, namely from the Women’s movement, the Peace movement, the Student Movement, and the Movement for racial equality:
-Foremost was consciousness raising: the very idea that human consciousness creates institutions of oppression and we can change consciousness by becoming aware of how it forms us, and how it is deformed from oppression. This was borrowed from the Women’s movement and also the Peace Movement.
-Second was collectivism: the idea that together we could do more than we could do individually.
-Third was using the power of the media, especially the radical Underground media of this period. It meant inventing the whole idea of gay media—something that is being rethought all the time now. Instead of begging Time magazine, for instance, to “recognize” our existence, and then go about recasting its own lies about us (as Time regularly did), we would create our own magazines, newspapers, videos, theatre, and art. We literally invented the idea of gay art as a positive thing. Before GLF, queer art was always cast as perverse, sexually provocative or exploitative. It was either something that could not be brought out into the open, or was a sideshow in the cultural market. I believe we literally changed that attitude.
-Fourth was dealing with sex itself, in a thoughtful, open, honest way. Seriously, without nervous giggles, but also with a lot of genuine love, admiration for it, and respect for all of us. We believed that sexually, all of us deserved this respect, whether we were button-down collar white men, working-class mothers, street transvestites, or the unseen and unheard lgbt population that often can not speak for itself. Sex had to be addressed openly for its uses of power and also for its rewards and delights.
So it’s hard for me imagine coming out without the legacy of the Gay Liberation Front, and its paper Come Out!, but I’m glad that newer generations of people are getting to see the paper now online. That they are getting to see how remarkable it was, and its legacy. And I hope they are coming out in the process.
http://www.facebook.com/perrybrass, or through http://urbanmolecule.wordpress.com
Read "Come Out!" magazine here: Come Out Magazine, 1969-1972