How Gay Activists Challenged the Politics of Civility

From pie-throwing to shouting down public figures, these groups disturbed the establishment to effect change

Gay rights activists march in San Francisco in 1978, (Robert Clay / Alamy Stock Photo)
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On April 13, 1970, New York Mayor John Lindsay and his wife arrived at the Metropolitan Opera House. It was opening night of the season, and Romeo Et Juliette was playing. The Republican mayor had no idea he was about to be ambushed by members of the newly formed Gay Activist Alliance (GAA). The protesters infiltrated the event, dressed in tuxedos as to blend in with the elite crowd, and shouted “End Police Harassment!” and “Gay Power!” Their pleas, aimed at the mayor, rang through the packed lobby. Despite the headlines made a year earlier during the Stonewall riots, Lindsay had refused to enact a city-wide anti-discrimination ordinance. Gay rights activists would continue to confront him in public over the next two years, showing up to boo, stomp shout, and rush the stage at his weekly television show tapings.

In 1972, in response to the unrelenting pressure, Lindsay at last signed an executive order prohibiting city agencies from discriminating against job candidates based on sexual orientation.

From its inception in the early 1970s through its response to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, the American gay liberation movement pursued the political strategy of persistent confrontation of public figures. They pioneered this hit-and-run tactic, known as the “zap action,” to court necessary media attention and force homophobic figures and institutions to acknowledge gay rights, a protest technique inspired by other New Left groups like the Yippies and radical feminist collectives. Together, they set the historical precedent of the type of shaming and heckling that has disrupted the routines of GOP leaders as of late.

The first groups to orchestrate zaps included the GAA and Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which formed in the wake of Stonewall and committed to nonviolent, but militant, resistance. Although there had been earlier efforts to promote gay rights in the United States, they had been based primarily on values of privacy and respectability. Gay liberation departed from the politics of civility that characterized polite pleas for inclusion from “homophile” groups in the mid-20th century, namely the Daughters of Bilitis and the Mattachine Society. Such organizations had assimilationist goals and preferred to work alongside of existing institutions rather than disrupt them. They disavowed “aggressive” actions in favor of accommodation and consensus. In the late 1960s, the Mattachines encouraged “peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village,” and were known for cooperating with the police.

The black power and radical feminist movements, along with the culture of protest among young people and students, provided models for revolutionary organizing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. But gay groups had a special flair for the theatrical nature of the zap action. As “A Gay Manifesto,” written by activist Carl Wittman in 1969, concluded, “We’ve been playing an act for a long time, so we’re consummate actors...it’ll be a good show!” Indeed, the spectacle of the zap emerged from a community with strong ties to live performance. And it was intended to unfold in front of the camera.

In the early 1970s, most zaps focused on protesting negative representations of gays and lesbians in television shows, films and newspapers, like ABC's "Marcus Welby MD" (zapped in 1973 for its conflation of homosexuality and illness), and NBC's "Police Woman" (zapped in 1974 by the Lesbian Feminist Liberation group, for depicting a gang of lesbian murderers targeting elderly people in a nursing home). Activists knew that the media influenced public opinion, and they wanted more control over the narrative. In 1973, operating on behalf of a small group called the “Gay Raiders,” Mark Segal snuck onto the set of the CBS Evening News under the pretext of being a student journalist. He leapt in front of Walter Cronkite and waved a banner that read: “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice.” The action reached an audience of 60 million viewers, and facilitated a conversation about why the network hadn’t covered the Stonewall Riots or any of the New York gay pride marches. Segal, who recently donated his papers and artifacts to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, also claimed that the host of a CBS dance show had kicked him out after seeing him dance with a male partner. Ultimately, Cronkite decided to take LGBT issues more seriously, running gay news segments regularly over the next decade, in a more favorable light.

Zaps quickly transformed from a startling affront on civility to a necessary part of the liberation movement. As GAA activist Arthur Evans explained, at first the greater LGBT community was “disturbed at the demonstrators for rocking the boat,” but eventually this turned into “anger [and] a sense of class consciousness.” The actions functioned as a form of personal catharsis, fostering collective identity and making people feel safer coming out. According to Life magazine, participants felt that “one good zap is worth months on a psychiatrist’s couch.” But perhaps more significantly, this type of protest was politically effective. As scholar Sara Warner argues, “simply threatening to zap a person of authority often resulted in victory.”

But the fight intensified during the summer of 1977, which marked the beginning of a conservative backlash to the gains of the movement across the country – in the form of hate crimes, increasingly inflammatory rhetoric, and local initiatives aimed at undoing protective legislation. Activists escalated their response, staging larger “super-zaps” against antigay politicians, lawyers and business owners. They weren’t afraid to show up at the private homes of their targets or face the inevitable legal consequences. Some of their actions received bad press – a TIME magazine article called them “gay goons” and quoted one of their critics: “Why do people who claim to want human rights go around like a bunch of Storm Troopers trying to intimidate others?” But the publicity ultimately increased GAA membership.

The biggest moment of the year involved former beauty queen, singer, and Florida orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant, who created the “Save Our Children” campaign in Miami, a Christian coalition purporting to protect young people from recruitment by gay and lesbian sexual predators. Bryant, who had referred to gays as “human garbage,” was speaking about how to “do away with the homosexuals” at a televised press conference in Des Moines, Iowa, when young activist Thom Higgins smashed a pie in her face. Humiliated – and eager to perform the victim role – a tearful Bryant proceeded to pray for Higgins’s soul, voice cracking, after getting in her dig, “at least it was a fruit pie.” The playful, zany, Vaudevillian act of pie-throwing was a way to turn a villain into a joke. Bryant never changed her stance on gay rights, but her political influence and career both dissolved in the subsequent years.

When the AIDS epidemic decimated gay communities in the 1980s, the movement suddenly became an urgent life-or-death struggle. Activists who witnessed their friends and partners waste away knew they had to put their bodies on the line like never before. Between evangelicals calling AIDS “nature’s retribution” and “God’s punishment,” willful negligence on the part of the Reagan administration, and the long approval process for new medications, it was no time to be civil. Out of this crisis, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP), was born in 1987.

The grassroots organization had an anarchist spirit and a knack for raucous street protest. Dozens of participants were dragged away by police at demonstrations on Wall Street and at the White House. At a “Stop the Church” die-in at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, ACT-UP’s shock troops screamed “you bigot, you’re killing us!” and “you have blood on your hands!” at Cardinal John O’Connor. They threw condoms into the air and refused to leave. ACT-UP was responsible for infiltrating the Republican National Women’s Club in drag, shutting down FDA offices, and chaining themselves to pharmaceutical company headquarters. They also directed ire towards the new mayor of New York City, Ed Koch, who was slow to respond to AIDS due to his fear of being outed as gay. A popular protest chant at the time went: “AIDS funding is ineffectual, blame Koch, the Heterosexual!” Hundreds of members were charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespassing. Disrupting public space and blocking traffic were deliberate calculations made to convey the high stakes of the crisis. ACT-UP was savvy when it came to press coverage; they coordinated their campaigns in advance with news reporters, and created their own media in the form of eye-catching posters with memorable slogans (such as “silence equals death”) pasted all over major cities.

While some in and outside of the gay community felt that the group’s boundary-crossing went too far, historians recognize ACT-UP’s success in forcing politicians and the public to reckon with the disease in ways that reduced social stigma and saved lives.

Whenever the threats of homophobic violence, media vilification, or repressive laws reached a tipping point, gay liberation activists made a choice. They decided that civility was not the answer, and channeled their anger and fear into confrontational direct action instead. After all, they could not find any civility in the policies that separated them from their sick loved ones in the hospital, nor in the rhetoric that justified their painful deaths. As GAA activist Morty Manford reflected, years after his involvement in this type of protest: “We were doing something new. We were doing something righteous.”

About Sascha Cohen

Sascha Cohen is a freelance writer and historian. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation at Brandeis University, which examines American satire from 1969-1989.

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