Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Liberation Time Capsule
I'm not sure how it survived four moves and thirty years apparently undisturbed, but while rummaging through a box looking for something, this week I found a plastic bag filled with metal buttons from 1983. I wish my memories were as sharp, fresh and uncorroded as the pins folded on their backs. These pins date from the Lesbian and Gay Pride March of 1983, and there's a little story attached.
I was part of a group of leftists active inside the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee, as the official pride planning coalition was then known. This was a year or two before Heritage of Pride corporatized and institutionalized the planning of New York's annual June festivities. It was a coalition of community and political organizations, run by an odd alliance of longtime activists who longed to make it into the halls of Democratic party machine politics and representatives from the gay business world, including some rumored to have deep connections to organized crime.
Everybody had an agenda. The folks in charge were trying very hard to figure out how to turn Lesbian and Gay Pride into a profit center; I don't remember if it was this 1983 march or the year before, but they engineered the redirection of the event from a march that burst out of the Village uptown toward a rally in Central Park to a parade that assembled uptown and funneled crowds downtown into a street festival and the bars and shops of a rapidly gentrifying gayborhood. They weren't terribly concerned with the politics of the event, though they sure didn't want it to be threatening.
I was there with my organization, the Revolutionary Socialist League, and allies in Lavender Left, CRASH (the Coalition against Racism, Anti-semitism, Sexism and Heterosexism), DARE (Dykes Against Racism Everywhere, Freedom Socialist Party, and the Coalition of Lesbian and Gay Male Socialists. It was time to come up with the annual slogan. Each year, the march and rally had a theme, and the theme's slogan was emblazoned on official banners and buttons. I have no memory of what the other slogans proposed were, but I came up with a slogan that encapsulated our own more radical, political agenda: "Diversity Is Our Strength, Liberation Is Our Fight." Oh, that first half doesn't sound like so much now in today's world of diversity programs sponsored by corporate Human Resources departments, but at the time it was a broadside against the whitewashing tendencies of a middle-class gay movement striving for middle-class respectability. The second half, in an era of struggle for New York's gay rights bill, set its sights on the evocative higher goal of liberation, achieved not through influencing politicians, but through self-struggle.
We were shocked when the volunteers from all those other community organizations liked our slogan better than the one the CSLDC bigs seemed to favor. The grassroots political groups, the religious folks, the volunteers, they loved it. We were angrily opposed by the Stonewall Democrats, the mafiosi, and the other business interests. Our radical slogan swept the vote, despite an attempt to stuff a bag full of ballots. "Diversity Is Our Strength, Liberation Is Our Fight" became the official slogan of the 1983 Christopher Street March & Festival! We looked forward to seeing the graphic treatment the publicity committee would develop.
Fast forward a couple meetings. The new buttons and banner designs were in, and were about to be unveiled!
Our jaws dropped. For the first time in the 12 or 13 years of the march, the slogan was left off the buttons, replaced by an unappealing abstract design. The corrupt ringleaders of CSLDC had their corporate revenge. "But it will be mentioned in the program," they said, over our loud protestations. We were done with CSLDC. We had all learned a lesson about the gay establishment.
So we organized the "Militant Stonewall Contingent for Lesbian and Gay Liberation." I designed a logo for a button, using the pink triangle, the symbol of gay resistance in those pre-rainbow flag days. I still remember the laborious manual mechanical pasteup of these designs in those pre-desktop publishing days. "Stonewall" evoked nothing short of revolutionary turmoil for us: at the time the building that had been and now is again a bar called Stonewall was a bagel restaurant. We produced hundreds of buttons in English and Spanish. And apparently, sometime after the march was over, bagged up the leftover buttons in such a way that I wouldn't notice them again for thirty years.
Frankly my first few pride marches in New York City are a bit of a blur. I wish I could report confidently that our Militant Stonewall Contingent was a raving success. I think it was actually pretty good, drawing together many otherwise not-so-friendly organizations left of gay center, but I'm not even sure if the few march photos I have from that era were that year or another. I know we were young, happy and energetic; the worst of the decimating AIDS assault still ahead of us. The photo above is either from 1983 or the year before. I'm happy to say I can still call the guy front and center in this photo a friend.
Hey, anybody want a button?