XOTV WEEKLY: Perry Brass & the Early Gay Liberation Movements of NYC (Part 2)
Read part one of the interview with Brass interview here.
So then when you moved to New York and joined the Gay Liberation Front and Stonewall happened right before it. Of course, now, everyone talks about [the] Stonewall [riots] as this big cultural shift, but at the time did it really feel that monumental, did you really feel that free?
Brass: We did. We were at the tip of a historical moment. And we were very aware of that. I mean I was aware of it. Several of the people who worked on Come Out! were aware of it, that what we were doing was of historical significance. And that is what really kept us going because there was no money. I made no money at all. I was kind of aided and abetted by New York real estate at that point. I had a rent-controlled apartment, it was a fourth floor walk-up. With a stall shower in the kitchen and a toilet in the hallway, which I thought was fabulous. All I cared about was that I didn’t have to worry about paying the rent and I could devote my life to the movement. And I did that for about three years, from 1969-1971. I went back to New York University in ‘72. And there was still some overlap between GLF and going to NYU. But there was an idea that yes what we were doing, there was a historic dimension, and every single day it felt like something was happening it was changing history. Something was happening that never happened before. So that was very exciting, it was just wonderful.
There were a lot of myths about the Gay Liberation Front, and of them was it was just constantly contentious, and that people were at each other’s throat. That is not true. There were factions. And the factions ran usually from people who were moderate leftists to people who would be considered liberal democrats to people who were Maoist communist, although there was a lot of romanticizing communism. Let’s take communism as giving everything to the people and keeping nothing for yourself because that is egotistical, and power would be shared by everyone.
Well like I said, in every collective there would be some people who are more ‘collective’ than others. It went from people like myself who believe women should be treated with respect and honesty and given a space of their own to people who believe women and men should live in a completely feminist-run world, that women should run the world, they should take the world away from men. We should get a feminist revolution and people were talking about this, there would be a feminist revolution, there would be an armed revolution, and women should control the world. There were women who certainly felt like that, and the women eventually did leave GLF. They started a cell of GLF called Radicalesbians and then they eventually just left GLF completely. They felt that everything that happened in GLF was dominated by men. And to a certain degree, that is true. Men have this constant motivation, I guess, to assert their own dominance no matter who they are, no matter where they are. I don’t know if it’s biological, testosterone, I don’t know what it is. But at a certain point they do get into this competitive thing of who is the most powerful and dominant. And women, you know, unless they are equally dominant, have this tendency to recede from this. You had the women that were seceding from GLF and you have the men who seceded as well because they were super feminist men. And they started a small cult of their own called the Effeminists. The Effeminists were a very small group of guys who were in GLF, who started in GLF, who believed that women should run the world. As gay men, our great role in the feminist revolution should be to support women. And the problem was, they didn’t want to be completely counted out of this role either. You know it was like okay, we’re gonna cut off our balls and hand them to you, but you still don’t want to be completely dismissed, discounted. And unfortunately, I feel like that is what happened to these men. They ended up feeling hurt that history had not done well by them.
After you left the Gay Liberation Front, where was your mind in terms of how to continue this work?
There was a group that seceded from GLF, called GAA, Gay Activist Alliance. And the Gay Activist Alliance was what they called a single-issue organization. GLF was multi-issue, meaning people in GLF believed that gay liberation would come about with human liberation and so we worked with other organizations that were civil rights organizations or women’s organizations. We believed in the feminist revolution. We believed very very much in a civil rights revolution here in America. So we formed alliances with groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, which is famous. That has kind of become a historical moment there with Huey P. Newton’s famous speech. When GLF kind of spun itself out, which I think happens to radical groups, I mean a lot of people say, well GLF couldn’t been much I mean it only lasted for three years. They don’t understand that in a radical organization, three years could have been like twenty years in another organization. We were really inventing the wheel. When you have all this going on, three years is a whole lifetime. So several of my GLF brothers, none of the sisters, got involved with GAA. Their feeling was, I still wanna be in the gay movement, that I will tailor my feelings enough, re-cut them so that I can get involved with GAA. And so they did. Although the ones that got in GAA, eventually left GAA because it was starting to feel like it definitely was not giving them what GLF had given them and a lot of them ended up moving up and going to the West Coast. There was this big migration of GLF men to the West Coast.
And a lot of them [GAA organizations] started popping up in cities, there was one in Boston, one in Chicago. Some of them were in small college towns. There was one in Lawrence, Kansas, Austin, Texas. There was one in Atlanta and there was one in London. The one in London lasted about ten years. So what happened was that the term Gay Liberation Front just became synonymous with the term Gay Liberation itself. And then the other cities became much less radical. You’d have people who would have been liberal democrats in the Gay Liberation Front of these other cities. So I decided I just could not join GAA. So I started another organization and I wanted to call it Gay Radicals Coalition, and we had like two meetings in my apartment but I was not an organizer I knew so little about organizing. And we did not have that political impetus, that propulsion, among ourselves to do what had happened in GLF. I also decided that my creative life had to happen again. So much of my creative life basically stopped with those years, I really wanted to start it again.
However, I did get involved with gay health. In a very big way. So in 1972, even less than a year, even less than a full year after GLF. I got involved with a project called the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic, first clinic specifically for gay men on the East Coast. And I founded this clinic with two friends of mine, Leonard Ebreo, and a wonderful man Marc Rabinowitz, and both of them unfortunately died, so I am the only survivor of the three founders of the Gay Men’s Health Project. I mean the clinic was fascinating to me because the clinic came out of my involvement with GLF. Everything about the clinic came about through GLF, it was the idea that if gay men had a problem, only we could solve it. That we could not go to the city of New York and go, we’re having a problem, and we want you to solve it. No, we had to solve the problem ourselves and we would start this clinic ourselves and use whatever resources we could get to solve the problem, and that was very GLF also.
And are you still going to school while all of this is happening?
Yup, I graduated in ‘74. I was still going to NYU while working at that project clinic.
How did you balance that?
I had a lot of energy. I was young. I was doing the gay men’s health project clinic, and I was also the second president of the Gay Student group of NYU at the same time called the NYU Gay Student Liberation. I went back to NYU I think it was the spring semester of ‘72. And the next year, within the fall of next year we had an election for officers and I think there were like eleven members of the organization and people were like, ‘Well who is going to be president ?’ and I said okay, I’ll be president. So everyone was like, yes that’s fine, you’ll be president Perry. So I was president and also the secretary and the treasurer. I was the only person who was out enough to be president of this group.
How did you go about developing the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic? How did you obtain people to help you?
Very easily, because there was such a need for it. What we had done was there was a kind of mini-community center on West 10th St that was in a raw unfinished basement in an apartment building that these two wonderful people started. They were Leonard Ebreo, and a wonderful friend named Alice Bloch, they lived in Israel. When they heard about Stonewall, they realized they could now come out, they moved to New York and decided they wanted to do something to the movement and what the movement needed was a home. It didn’t have a home. So they started a community center. The basement is called the Liberation House. So one of the ideas they had which they took from GLF was a consciousness-raising group. In consciousness-raising [the goal] is to become more aware because you had other people who had been through the same experiences that you’ve been through, which means that your experiences are now affirmed. Like if you are gay and you said you never felt happy with other boys in school, and ‘I’ was always threatened by them and they would know what you really felt like, you think, ‘oh my god I feel like that, I’m this queer and I’m alone.’ So you go to a consciousness-raising group and there are like six other guys who go ‘Oh I had that same experience, I felt just like that.’ So at the end of the session you say, all of us have had this experience. We can affirm this experience and say something good came out of this experience.
So Lenny [Leonard], decided what needed to happen was that we needed to have a consciousness-raising group around gay men’s health. So one of the things that CR groups often do is that you have a project in the group and so our project was to start public panels to talk about gay health, which had never happened. It certainly had not happened in New York. So we had two public events about gay health. And we publicized it only by handing out leaflets in the West Village. And going to bars and things like that and handing out leaflets. At our first one, like a hundred and fifty guys showed up and we had a guy from the New York City Health Department talk, a wonderful gay doctor talk. It was just so revelatory. I mean here is all these guys coming in, listening and talking about gay health. So we did another one, and after that Lenny had decided yeah, I think we should open up a clinic. There is not a clinic specifically for gay men. And when he said that, Marc and I said, sure, let’s do that. (laughs) I mean none of us had any background in public health, none of us had any medical training whatsoever. But we decided this was needed, this was necessary so we did it.
Brass continued to let the revolutionary teachings of his time at the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Men’s Health Project Clinic influence the rest of his life. He combined his love of writing and literature and fervor for the LGBTQ+ movement by becoming a founding coordinator of the Rainbow Book Fair, the biggest LGBT+ book fair in the country. As all the corporations line up every June to viciously pinkwash the LGBTQ+ movement it is important to celebrate the stories of pioneers like Brass, who explain the passion behind these historic movements. And with 2020’s Pride focusing on the Black Trans Liberation Movement and the protests at Nellie’s Sports Bar this June, now could not be a better time to remember the radical roots of the LGBTQ+ movement.
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