XOTV WEEKLY: Perry Brass & the Early Gay Liberation Movements of NYC (Part 1)

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Everything XOTV

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Not too long ago, in 2019, a historic moment happened for the LGBTQ+ community around the world: the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Inn Riots. On June 28th, 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn which was then on Christopher St in Greenwich Village, set off a rebellion by the LGBTQ+ patrons who were tired of facing police brutality because of their identities. Queer people fighting back against the police harassment in the heart of the city became powerful enough to open the floodgates for the gay liberation movement of the 70s. 
 
The uprising, which was led by figures like trans activists of color Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivieria, was the bedrock for the formation of many LGBTQ+ organizations, a key organization being the Gay Liberation Front or GLF, an intersectional political collective that started in New York City before popping up in places like the UK and Canada. GLF was an organization that focused on “human liberation,” as member Perry Brass puts it. It had a broad political platform, supporting anything aligned with civil rights, including anti-capitalism, feminism, and anti-racism.
 
I met Brass after I saw his name repeatedly appear in my trip to the New York Public Library at Bryant Park. I decided to research the private collections and scour the internet to find a few remaining members from the premier LGBTQ+ organizations in the city of the riots themselves. As I saw every institution possible try to interpret the social and cultural impact of the riots in today’s world, I started to yearn for the source itself. An eyewitness to tell me what it was like in the first few years of radical change.
 
Brass is a poet and novelist, and a former member of the Gay Liberation Front, which was started no later than the Fall of 1969. He was a writer and editor on the organization’s horizontal leadership structured newspaper, Come Out! He later used the political doctrine he learned from his time there to start the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic in New York. When the clinic opened its doors in 1972, it became the first gay men’s health clinic on the East Coast. Two years later, I wanted to share the insight he gave on those early years of the movement. The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
 
How was writing for Come Out! ?
 
Brass: The last three issues were published in my apartment, in Hell’s Kitchen, which was a fourth floor walk-up apartment. And I never had done anything like this, I never published a paper. I knew nothing about doing that. But the paper had been published out of an apartment in the East Village that was rented by these two wonderful women. One of them was Ellen Broidy and she’s gonna be coming to this reunion this year in New York [for the Stonewall 50th anniversary] and the other woman was Linda Rhodes. I think Linda was her partner at the time. What they had done is that they had rented two adjoining apartments in a tenement in the East Village, because in those days you could rent an apartment in the East Village for about sixty dollars a month. So, they let the Come Out! staff use one of the apartments and then they decided that they needed the apartment for a business they were running themselves. So it was brought to my attention that unless I brought the paper into my home, it would stop, it would cease to publish. And I didn’t want that to happen. 
 
One of the reasons I was enthused about GLF is that I was writing gay material and people said, you’ll never get this published. And GLF had a newspaper. It was the first gay liberation newspaper in the world. That really excited me. So the first thing I did after I joined GLF was that I joined what we called the Come Out! Collective. All the people on the collective were equal editors and had equal say in the paper. Although with every collective there are some people who are more ‘collective’ than others. And there was one woman named Lois Hart and she basically steered the paper usually in the direction she wanted it to go. And she was a very commanding figure. She kind of made working for Come Out! almost like a consciousness-raising situation. Every meeting we would talk about consciousness-raising very often on feminism and the status and life of women. Lois had a hard life. I think she had grown up parentless and was brought up in a Catholic orphanage by nuns. She really idealized these nuns and really, I don’t think she sincerely disliked men but she didn’t have a whole lot of feelings of what is what like to be a gay man - No matter how oppressed you are as a gay man, you’re still a man. And being a woman, you’re always gonna be more oppressed than a man was gonna be and this is very much the way we thought in those days. So there I was joining this newspaper and with very little political insight of my own. I learned a whole jargon of what GLF was about, a whole point of view of looking at the world, what I called the radical lens. We looked through the world in a sort of radical lens. And so I sort of espoused and developed these ideas through my involvement with the newspaper.
 
Well I mean.... sorry there’s like five billion questions I have. 
 
Brass: Well, start with one! (laughs)
 
You said that you didn’t have that much of a political viewpoint before your involvement with GLF, but I’m also assuming through your own experience...
 
Brass: I couldn’t politicize it. I’d grown up in extreme poverty. My father died when he was eleven years old. He died of colon-rectal cancer. I was never told what he died of. In those days, in the South, you didn’t tell kids anything about cancer, especially cancer that had the word rectal in it. But I was told he died of kidney problems. He died when I was 11, my sister was nine. My mother was I think, thirty-four. Through a series of bad business, experiences, and ventures he was basically bankrupt when he died. We had nothing. So we had to move into a public housing project, where we were the only Jewish family in the project. In Southern culture, I was this kid who wasn’t like other boys, like I had no interest in sports. I was smart, I was this kid who read voraciously, my father loved to read, I inherited this wonderful habit from my father. So I wasn’t like other kids and it was very difficult for me to walk in the projects without being hurt or a rock being thrown at me. The idea that I was bullied, now we talk about bullying so much, I didn’t think of it as bullying because I thought it was just part of the environment. I just never thought about it. I just thought, ‘this is an environment I need to get out of as soon as possible.’ And I did, I left home basically as soon as I turned 17. 
 
The idea of what I was going through was part of a political process that didn’t come to me until I joined GLF. Until I understood that being gay and being the kind of person I was, meant that I did not fit into the culture and the economy of what was going on. And this was one of the great gifts of the Gay Liberation Front. And when I first got involved with GLF, people were very wonderful to me. As soon as I joined, I was like suddenly, I have all these friends. And to a certain degree, GLF was a cult, I mean all groups like this have a cult aspect to them. People wanted to support me and hold me and tell me what was going on. Now you have to start thinking the way we’re thinking. And I loved it, I didn’t have enough political background to say, no wait a second, I don’t believe this. The basic political platform, stance of the Gay Liberation Front was that homophobia, or the oppression of queer people, was caused by patriarchy. And basically the patriarchy is the idea that men will dominate women, and since gay men, queer people, do not fit into this heterosexual, capitalist environment, we are meant to be destroyed, to be oppressed. Just so understanding that, hearing that, was just so revelatory to me. I was like, wow, this explains it, now I understand what was happening to me, what this was about.
 
And were you already aware of the fact you were gay?
 
Brass: I came out at sixteen but by the time I was seventeen I was already sneaking into gay bars. And having relations with boys and men. I was certainly doing that. I was realizing everything about my life in a public sphere of my life, had to be an act. It was simply an act I did. And my real life, my personal life, my private life, my authentic life had to be hidden from this public act. And I think that was the way most gay men felt about their lives. This idea of gay men basically being spies within this bigger world. We’re spies from an underground world, and that’s basically the way I felt. I spent my first year of college at the University of Georgia out in East Georgia, and at that time, the school was what I called an ag-frat-jock school. Its biggest concentration was in agriculture, it was a frat school, frats were everything, and it was a jock school. And if you weren’t an agriculture student, a frat guy, or a jock, you counted very, very little. And here I was this sort of secret queer student at seventeen, and I had a terrible time. I had death threats in my dorm room, boys threatening to kill me. It was very difficult, one of the more difficult years of my life. I knew that I wasn’t going to stay there. By the end of my year at Athens, I went back to Savannah, and I heard that San Francisco was kind of a gay mecca. Not necessarily in a public way but certainly as an underground way it was a mecca, so I hitchhiked from Savannah to San Francisco. And I basically spent the next year leading this very underground life in the street...


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About the Author:
Jendayi Omowale

Jendayi is a Caribbean-American creative who uses any medium to highlight narratives that have been looked over or marginalized. They weave complex stories that tell uncomfortable truths while captivating viewers' attention.
Social Handle: @jen_omo on Twitter

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