For the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion, local activist and Beyond Chron writer Tommi Avicolli-Mecca has written Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation
. In a collection of 48 essays by 35 writers, Avicolli-Mecca documents the LGBT movement’s radical past – and how it changed in the 60’s from timid requests for basic tolerance, to demanding a full-scale revolution of American society. Although at times repetitive, the book illustrates the vision of this movement’s pioneers – who believed that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people could never achieve full civil rights without upending capitalism, breaking down the walls of religion and challenging the basic gender hierarchy that has dominated Judeo-Christian mores. It is a manifesto of sorts, and Avicolli-Mecca starts in the preface by lamenting the queer community’s current obsession with gays in the military – and gay marriage. But in its strongest moments, Smash the Church, Smash the State
provides insight about the early gay movement – where even seasoned activists will learn something new.
Everyone in the San Francisco activist scene today knows Tommi Avicolli-Mecca – or as many call him, “Tommi the Commie.” At Beyond Chron, we are privileged to have him as a columnist (we jokingly call him our “religion editor”) – as he balances op-ed writing with a full-time job counselling tenants at the Housing Rights Committee. Tommi is an eloquent voice against gentrification in the Castro, and in 2006 many progressives urged him to run
against Supervisor Bevan Dufty. But as Tommi told me at the time, he is more of a “smash the church, smash the state” kind of guy – making the book title appropriate.
It’s often said that white people didn’t listen to Martin Luther King, until Malcolm X came around and scared them. One can read Smash the Church, Smash the State
and conclude that the Gay Liberation Front failed (a “socialist revolution” never came), but taking a broader perspective led me to the opposite conclusion. The book repeatedly mentions how on July 4, 1968 a group of well-dressed and well-behaved “homophiles” (the word “gay” was considered too bold) marched outside Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to demand rights – but no one cared. It wasn’t until June 1969, when angry queers in Greenwich Village rioted with the police that mainstream America started to take note.
Avicolli-Mecca’s book is a collection of first-person essays by veterans of the radical gay movement, much of which revolves around ultra-left groups who spend too much time debating about how to transform society. I was really struck at how short-lived so many of these organizations were. As Tom Ammiano writes, “Bay Area Gay Liberation only lasted for one year – too many sectarians ruin the stew – but what a year it was! We took to the streets. We picketed. It was exhilarating and effective.” Forty years ago, many of these groups provided a “family” for the gay men and women who were kicked out of the house. The goal was not to be accepted as “normal,” but to overthrow normal institutions like capitalism and the Church – which, to put it mildly, is far easier said than done.
One thing the book could have used more was the connection of queers with communities of color, as the media too often presumes all gay people are white. Susan Stryker’s take on the Compton Cafeteria Riots and earlier transgender uprisings in the 60’s brings this into perspective: “many of the queer people who patronized Dewey’s were themselves people of color. They were not ‘borrowing’ a tactic developed by another movement.” The anthology’s final essay by Merle Woo (Stonewall Was a Riot – Now We Need a Revolution
) also gives insight, but analysis by more voices would have been helpful.
We’ve all heard stories about how Sixties groups like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) had their sexist tendencies (women were mostly asked to just serve coffee, which helped prompt the feminist movement), but Smash the Church, Smash the State
also describes how gays tackled homophobia in the anti-war movement. Several essays deal with confronting the Black Panthers’ use of the word “faggot,” and a long letter by Huey Newton that directly confronted that tension – and called on the Black Panthers to make common cause with “the homosexuals” – was enlightening. Queer socialists also struggled how to address Communist Cuba – which viewed homosexuality as the result of “decadent capitalism,” and ostracized its queer population as being undesirable.
On the other hand, there are many essays in the book from lesbian activists – who felt the men in the Gay Liberation Front did not treat them as equals. Many women created their separate organizations, some focusing on female empowerment – while others choosing to take a “separatist” tack that many now acknowledge as unrealistic. There are many insightful opinions about how the queer rights movement was meant to undo the gender power structure in our society, but that lesbians continued to struggle with this dynamic.
The book’s final chapter (“40 Years After Stonewall”) questions what has become of the queer rights movement – with the common consensus that it has become materialistic and mainstream, seeking to join institutions like marriage and the military that early activists abhorred. Tommi writes the book’s preface with an almost fatalistic account, as he looks back nostalgically to a time when queer liberation was about transforming society and overthrowing capitalism. But those who bemoan that transition can find solace in Don Kilhefner’s essay that reminds us “political winds can change very quickly,” or Doug Ireland’s analysis that the change mimicked our country’s 40-year rightward drift.
There are many who now say the American era of conservatism is over – and we are now seeing a progressive transformation
. As the queer community elaborates where it is going, Smash the Church, Smash the State
should not be viewed as a mere historical anthology – but as a critical examination of where to go from here …