A routine raid on behalf of police on June 28, 1969 would serve as the catalyst for not only the six-day altercation between members of law enforcement and New York’s gay community, popularly remembered as The Stonewall Riots, but for the galvanization of a new generation of activists devoted to the cause of gay liberation in the post-Stonewall era of the 1970s. One such group, The Gay Activists Alliance, convened six months after the Stonewall Riots ended, in December of 1969. What started as a dissident group, disenchanted with the broad political agenda of the Gay Liberation Front, formed in order to devote activist energy toward securing freedom for all gay people.
Founding President and first openly gay candidate for political office, Jim Owles, wrote to the New York state legislature in 1971 on behalf of the GAA, and spoke about public opinion regarding the gay community. The opinions of straight Americans, according to Owles, were of “little interest” to the gay community, except to the extent that “private bigotries are allowed to become public policy.” The activities of the GAA under the leadership of Owles, and other founding members such as Arthur Evans and Marty Robinson, would undertake a range of organizational activities and militant political action in the wake of Stonewall which directly spoke to Owles’ sentiments.
From organizational activities such as voter drives to more aggressive, militant demonstrations directed toward corporate entities and state politicians, the GAA worked with an unflagging devotion to its single issue purpose of securing “basic human rights” for all gay people throughout the course of the 1970s while launching a multi-pronged approach. Ensuring the security of human rights in the workplace and in housing was of paramount importance to members of the GAA in the post-Stonewall era. Much of the early legislative activity was devoted to amending New York State’s Executive Code by attempting to prevent discrimination against the gay community with focus on passing the William Passannante’s Fair Employment Act. Though defeated, the bill represented the influence of the GAA and exists today as the first attempt at securing legislative protections for the gay community on the state level.
Of the most effectively engaging tactics was also arguably the most aggressive and controversial, referred to as “zaps” by GAA leaders. Quick and unsuspecting, zaps involved a direct confrontation with a target – a politician or corporate leader – and involved a bombardment of questioning or comments by GAA members. Purposely controversial, zaps were adopted for their spectacular nature, and the moments of altercation that they often caused. Popular political leaders such as Mayor John V. Lindsay and Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller, along with entities such as The Daily News and The Fidelifacts Corporation, found themselves targeted by GAA zap methods.
These altercations served to not only expose homophobic sentiments directed toward the gay community, but the police brutality that — according to the GAA — the gay community was subject to for decades. Just as media attention amidst the Stonewall Riots gave the LGBTQ community the opportunity to highlight the routine injustice they experienced at the hands of police, zaps often led to physical altercations captured by journalists and photographers, serving as proof of anti-gay sentiments the GAA fought to dissolve in state and local politics especially.
While identifying politicians responsible for upholding homophobic legislation, or who refused to take an outwardly pro-gay rights stance, was of particular importance to the GAA, just as much so was their commitment to supporting those committed to the cause of gay liberation. Rallies for political candidates and lobbying activities for mayoral candidates and other local offices were central to organization actions. Candidates such as Ed Koch had GAA backing at the height of organizational activities in the mid 1970s.
Just as the Stonewall Riots served as the catalyst for a new wave of activism in the years that followed, the Gay Activists Alliance served as the training ground for yet another branch of LGBTQ-centered activism that would evolve with even more specified missions. By the time of their disbanding in 1981, GAA members would grow to form and align themselves with groups such as Act Up, The Lavender Hill Mob, and the Gay Teacher’s Association. Though brief, their presence was critical in helping to ensure the visibility of the LGBTQ community and their fight for equality.
Words by Rachel Pitkin