One of our earliest activists groups was the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) which was founded in New York City on December 21, 1969, just 5 months after the Stonewall riots by dissident members of the Gay Liberation Front( GLF). Instead of working on multiple issues the GAA wanted to concentrate on a “single issue” cause with the goal being to “secure basic human rights, dignity and freedom for all gay people.”
The Gay Activists Alliance was most active from 1970 to 1974 and performed what they called zaps, (protests conceived by Marty Robinson) which were public peaceful confrontations with officials to draw media attention. Some of their more visible actions included protests against an anti-gay episode on the popular TV series Marcus Welby, M.D., a zap of Mayor John Lindsay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and later at Radio City Music Hall, But the most well known was a sit in at in at the offices of then Governor Rockefeller as part of a push for a Gay Civil Rights Bill to become state law
At the New York State Republican Headquarters in Manhattan on June 25, 1970 a number of G.A.A. members walked into the tenth floor offices of the New York State Republican Headquarters and demanded to see Governor Nelson Rockefeller about the issue of gay civil rights in New York State. They were informed that the governor wasn’t in the office at that moment and, strangely, didn’t seem interested in coming over to talk with them. And so the upstairs action began. When asked to leave the demonstrators refused and held a sit in.
Downstairs we were marching around chanting as loudly as we could; loud was a G.A.A. trademark. There were never more than ten of us downstairs. Upstairs the Republicans had decided that they’d ignore the people who were sitting in, demanding to see Governor Rockefeller. About two hours into the action Arthur Bell came down and told us that they could hear us over the general noise of the city up in the Republican Headquarters office! He told us that we sounded like there were fifty people or more down in the street demonstrating. A large crowd had gathered around to see what we were doing, and when the Republicans looked out the window they couldn’t tell that the demonstration consisted of only the small number of people in the middle of that large crowd. I don’t think there was ever more than a few continuous seconds of silence on that picket line. Did I mention we were loud?
Upstairs there were negotiations, there were demands, and there were requests to leave. The demonstration lasted for hours and hours. Finally, after the Republicans couldn’t stand it anymore, they had five of the sit in demonstrators arrested for criminal trespass. We cheered them as they were led away in handcuffs, and at long last we could stop yelling. My voice never actually recovered from that day.
At a meeting of the G.A.A. Political Action Committee (it had nothing to do with campaign contributions) some time later we were all wondering what to call the people who had been arrested. Suggestions were tossed around. I suggested “The Rockefeller Five,” which was met with silence. Shortly, Arthur Evans, one of the arrestees, said, “How about ‘The Rockefeller Five?’” and there was suddenly great jubilation in the room. That was the name that stuck. And I learned a lesson about groups’ expectations and how it shapes the way they listen to you or not.
The Rockefeller Five went through court appearance after court appearance, and months after the action the charges were simply dropped. The Rockefeller Five action was one of those ongoing activities that G.A.A. could sustain that were to prove crucial to pushing gay liberation forward in the seventies.”
After months of postponed hearings on August 5, 1970 the charges against the activist were dismissed
The GAA’s theory stated that consciousness would be raised through activism rather than through introspection. Its deliberate goal was to effect the lives of as many people as possible by raising consciousness through activism rather than through introspection to effect the lives of as many people as possible.
Here are some of the actions that GAA did in the early seventies. Many of which are slowly being forgotten. And all of which are worthy of note and remembrance.
- Occupied St. Patrick’s Cathedral after yet another defeat of a bill by the City Council. This occurred on a weekday afternoon. Pete Fisher sang his gay freedom songs sitting on the steps of the main altar. A meeting with a representative from the archdiocese was demanded and held — obviously Church policy hasn’t moved.
- Invaded the New York City Taxi Commission to protest its requirement that gays have psychiatric examinations before they could be licensed. The requirement was dropped.
- Invaded the office of the New York City Clerk after he refused to issue a marriage license to two men wishing to be married by the Church of the Holy Disciple.
- Zapped and lobbied the American Psychiatric Association in a successful effort to force it to remove the diagnosis of homosexuality from its listing of psychiatric disorders. Ron Gold, chairperson of GAA’s media committee, has long been denied the credit he deserves for directing the campaign that resulted in this most important achievement.
- Took over the editorial offices of the New York Daily News in response to a viscous anti-gay editorial. The News never did another editorial like that one.
- Sat in at the offices of Gertrude Unser, President of the New York City Board of Education to protest biased hiring and firing practices. Those biases were soon lifted from official Board of Education policies.
- Zapped police and occupied the District Attorney’s offices in Hauppauge, Long Island and Bridgeport, Connecticut to protest Police harassment and the brutal beatings of several GAA members.
- In conjunction with STAR, Street Transvestite Activist Revolution, picketed and held a demonstration at Rikers Island Mental Hospital to protest its treatment of transvestites. One result was Marsha Johnson’s escape to New York.
- Demonstrated at Times Square to protest police harassment of hustlers and transvestites.
- Established New York’s first Lesbian and Gay Community Center at the GAA Firehouse. Vito Russo held the first lesbian and gay film festival there.
- Zapped CBS and ABC News to protest anti-gay tone of its reporting. They shaped up. Dick Cavett, whose relentless anti-gay spiels had become unbearable, was forced to give time to GAA spokespeople on his national TV show after one Zap and the threat of others
Now almost 50 years later we are still fighting the battle that the GAA began. The battle “to demand our Liberation from repression and for our rights to be written into the documents that protect the rights of all people, for without that writing there can be no guarantees of protection from the larger society.”
We must remember the GAA and all the other early LGBT activists and groups that started our fight for equality. It is imperative to our community that we not only remember but learn from them but to finish the fight and to use their history and teachings to our advantage.