Lambda Lore

1969 Our Summer of Discontent

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On July 1, 1969, while I was sulking because I felt I was not spending enough time alone with John Cunningham, something big was going on in Washington, DC: The deputy director of the Pentagon, Dr. Donald MacArthur, was called before a congressional subcommittee hearing on chemical and biological warfare. Here he explained that currently all biological agents were naturally occurring, and thus known by scientists throughout the world. However, he also claimed that within the next five to ten years, “it would probably be possible to make a new infective microorganism which could differ in certain important aspects from any known disease-causing organisms.” He noted, however, that this new microorganism might be uncontrollable since it would attack the “immunological and therapeutic processes” that kept humans free of infectious disease.

Pressing on, Dr. MacArthur then told the subcommittee that a research program to create such a new microorganism would take about five years at a cost of $10 million — since molecular biology was a relatively new science and there were few competent scientists in the field. He suggested that if Congress funded the program it be run through the National Academy of Sciences — National Research Council and under the control of the Department of Defense.
Dr. MacArthur warned the subcommittee that biological warfare was a “highly controversial issue” and “there are many who believe such research should not be undertaken lest it lead to yet another method of massive killing of large populations.”
The biological agent discussed at this Congressional hearing was later called a “retrovirus.” The agency that was to create this retrovirus was later hidden in President Nixon’s National Cancer Act of 1971. As part of this national effort, in October 1971, the Army’s Fort Detrick, Maryland biological warfare facility was converted into a cancer research center, eventually becoming the Frederick Cancer Research and Development Center, an internationally-recognized center for cancer and AIDS research.
On the following day, the New York City police were summoned for the third time to quell an aggressive crowd of nearly 500 protestors chanting Gay Pride slogans and marching down Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. According to one eyewitness, the police, armed with nightsticks, seemed “bent on massive retaliation.” The Village Voice newspaper reported, “The cops who had been caught off guard and were on the defensive before, had taken the offensive and massive retaliation was their goal. Some seemed quite ready to depopulate Christopher Street the moment anyone would give them permission to upholster their guns.” Reports from the Village also stated that “7th Avenue from Christopher Street to West 10th looked like a battlefield in Vietnam. Young people, many of them queens, were lying on the sidewalk, bleeding from the head, face, mouth, and even the eyes.” By this time “Black Panthers, Yippies, Crazies, and young toughs from street gangs all over the city and some from New Jersey” out numbered the “queens” and were using the Gay Power movement to loot and cause mayhem in the Village.
On the Fourth of July about 40 of these New York gays boarded a Homophile Youth Movement chartered bus to go to Philadelphia for the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations. ERCHO was holding its 5th anniversary of a homosexual picketing demonstration in front of Independence Hall. The event was called the Annual Reminder. When the youth and the leaders of the homophile organizations came together at Philadelphia they immediately clashed. The New York contingent brought with them a new militant self-respect that the old guard could not tolerate.
When Frank Kameny, founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. and organizer of the Annual Reminder, saw two New York lesbians holding hands, he slapped their hands shouting, “You can’t do that! You can’t do that!” The New York folks were freaked by Kameny’s actions. To ERCHO’s dismay they broke with the older group and wrote on their own picket signs “Equality For Homosexuals” and “Smash Sexual Fascism.” Many of the youth then began walking hand-in-hand as couples and the Annual Reminder disbanded, never to be formed again. “The new young militants stared at the older homophile organizers across a wide generation gap.”
Back in New York City, leaders of a homophile organization called the Mattachine Society of New York organized the first “Homosexual Liberation Meeting” on July 9. The meeting was made up of a committee which demanded a Gay Power demonstration to protest police harassment. However, dissension broke out immediately over whether the movement should align itself with all oppressed minorities or just work for law reformation for homosexuals. The Mattachine Society policy was only to be involved with issues related to homosexual liberation, and it would not budge.
On July 16, MSNY and its Gay Liberation Action Committee parted company. MSNY’s founder Dick Leitsch stated that while “police brutality and heterosexual indifference must be protested, at the same time, the Gay world must retain the favor of the Establishment, especially those who make and change the laws. Homosexual acceptance will come slowly, by educating the straight community with grace and good humor.”

Immediately, a long-haired youth jumped up on his feet and yelled, “We don’t want acceptance, God Damn It! We want respect! Demand it! We’re through hiding in dark bars behind Mafia doormen. We’re going to go where straights go and do anything with each other they do and if they don’t like it, well fuck them! Straights don’t have to be ashamed of anything sexy they happen to feel like doing in public and neither do we! We’re through cringing and begging like a lot of nervous old Nellies at Cherry Grove!”

Then James Fourett shouted, “All of the oppressed have to unite! The system keeps us all weak by keeping us separate. We’ve got to work together with all the New Left.”

Poor Dick Leitcsh tried to maintain decorum, but he was firmly ignored. The day of the homophile was over; after this meeting, young folk’s interest in Mattachine sponsored actions was over as well. They turned to people like Dr. Leo Louis Martello who told fellow gays at that meeting that they must challenge every feeling of worthlessness they may have ever had about themselves. He developed his ideas of Gay Pride further in the first issue of The Gay Liberation Front’s Come Out!. For the 3rd and last Mattachine Society Community Action Meeting, very few straight or gay folks even turned out. It was time for a new beginning.

Oh, yeah. And on July 20 we put a man on the moon.

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