It was September of 1970, only months after the National Guard had shot 4 students dead at Kent State in Ohio as the war in Southeast Asia came home to the heartland. The Guard was holding their national convention in NYC at the Sheraton on 53rd and 7th Avenue. Their guest speaker was the general in charge of the war that wasn't at home: William Westmoreland. And students from all over the city were gathering on the street to protest.
I arrived early and was given a stenciled sign provided by the Students Against the War Committee and found myself behind police barricades with a large group of people. And directly behind me, above the shouted anti-war chants, I heard a voice louder than the rest. I turned to see who it came from and there was Mark Segal, short, cute and intense. Holding a pole that held the front end of a banner that read: Gay Youth, Gay Liberation Front, Gay Groups United Against the War. Gay Youth?!?! I was still 17 years old. I had been to the Oscar Wilde Bookshop when I was 16, months before Stonewall. I had been to the West Side Discussion Group for those out there who remember this weekly meeting where the topics were always about homosexuality but never about politics. I had been to Julius. I felt way too young everywhere and out of place. And here at this demo were gay people my age — and activists! And the first thing I said was "Where have you been all my life?"
We talked throughout the demo. And the following Sunday I was at my first Gay Youth meeting, at the Church of the Holy Apostle on 9th Avenue in Chelsea.
I'm grateful the demo was captured in the New York
Post. On page 1, the story was about the death of Jimi Hendrix of a drug overdose. On page 3, there I am, holding my sign up, with Mark Segal behind me holding
the front end of the Gay Youth banner. Deeper in
the paper that day, there was a story about the activists of GAA
disrupting a campaign speech by Mayor Lindsay as he aspired to the
highest office. I can't imagine activists getting anywhere near a
candidate today much less surrounding his car. Marty Robinson is mentioned by name in that story. I remember seeing Marty on the Dick Cavett show a few months later, calling for vounteers to help fix up a building they had bought in an abandoned industrial neighborhood people were starting to call Soho. I had an instant crush after seeing him on TV and was there sweeping out the basement of the Firehouse later that week. But that was later...back to memories of October 1970...
So some things don't change. Famous people die of drug overdoses. We choose governments that lead us into unjust wars. But some things do. Because today, 37 years after I met Mark on Seventh Avenue, same sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts. Spain. Canada. South Africa. And will continue to spread.
And Gay Youth continued as an organization. I learned a lot from Mark over the next year — and when he aged out, I was chairperson after him. And it continued long after me — so that I could run into alumni the Gay & Lesbian Youth just the other day in the Village and spend the afternoon on the pier hanging out with them. A tradition of youth activism that has spread around the country so that high school students have the courage to bring same sex partners to proms in increasing numbers. Yes, there are setbacks all the time. But the ongoing movement has always been forward.
I will always be grateful to Mark Segal. And I am in awe of those young people today, like the student activists in Soulforce, who continue to press for full equality under the most hostile conditions. And I am proud to be part of this lineage.
One week after that demo in 1970 I was at my first meeting. Two weeks after that demo, I was at my first Gay Youth Dance — held at Alternate U. A building on 6th Avenue and 14th Street that was a nexus of leftwards political activism. Before the dance, I went up to the Bronx to hang out with my new friend Michael — and helped him carry his 16mm projector and several cans of film down from the Bronx to Manhattan, since along with the dance, there was a room where we were showing Marilyn Monroe in Bus Stop and Goldiggers of 1933. Just cause you're a left wing activist doesn't mean there's no time for camp!
I met my first boyfriends at Gay Youth, I was socialized into a group of people who were struggling to redefine what it would mean to be gay in school, college, and in the world of work. We handed out leaflets outside high schools and colleges (which even today might seem a radical act in some places) included Hunter College High School, which was all young women at the time. We held dances. Did interviews on WBAI and WPLJ as well as any college radio stations who would speak to us. We contacted guidance counselors at high schools, and amazingly, sometimes we were invited in to speak. But mostly we did what all teenagers do: we hung out, and learned to be ourselves. Had parties. Shared dreams, secrets and love.
If all the activism sounds daunting or brave, all I can say is, it was the 60s, and for most of us, it just seemed like the natural thing to do, that there was no alternative to living openly. It is in fact how I have lived my life since, because it was the world I came out into.
I have been very lucky to have never been bashed or discriminated against (that I could see — after all, as Merle Miller once said,"a faggot is the homosexual gentleman who has just left the room.") I still think it is a miracle that Gregg and I weren't attacked as we made out on the Canarsie Line from Union Square all the way to Rockaway Parkway. I don't know what we were thinking, other than that we were very much in love.
After I was chairperson, my first serious boyfriend, Bill Agress, (on the right) who was anything but serious at the time, became chair for a while. He went on to be one of the founding members of the PWA Coalition in the 80s, and was part of a team that produced a weekly TV show about HIV on cable in NYC. I don't go a day without thinking about him or missing his smartass ways.
My old friend John was also a chair, you can see him in the photo on the left holding the Lambda in between the "Y" at the end of Gay and the "Y" at the beginning of Youth, at a Pride Day march in 1977 — the year we were all galvanized by Anita Bryant's crusade to repeal a gay rights law in Dade County Florida. John was chair for a while in the mid 70s in between Mark Wald and I have no memory who else. I met John when he was still a frat boy at his college and spent a night at his frat house. I still can't believe it. The photo was taken in Sheridan Square — and yes, there was a bowling alley on Christopher Street. Today it is home to what I think is a jazz club.
The Gay Youth Constitution you see reproduced below is from 1976, so it must have been written when John and Mark W. were in the group, though this would be hard to verify. I only received this copy via email this last week from Tom, another member from after my time who I've only met recently through the GLNY.org bulletin board.
In 1979 I still knew a few people who were members, though all of the people I knew when I was a member had aged out by that point. However, socializing was another matter, and up until I was 28 I was hanging out with folks in the group. In fact, I sent people their way, including one fellow, Craig, who I met one evening outside the 9th Circle. He was a charming Southern boy and a music prodigy. He went off to GY and hung out with my friend and sometimes lover Gilbert Sprague (who went on to write two books in the ongoing Oz series, along with editing the monthly Oz fanzine for Books of Wonder).
Soon after I moved to Japan and was out of the country for 7 years. When I came home, many of my friends had died or were sick. Many survived. And thrive. Mark Segal of course is a force of nature — an activist to be reckoned with and publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News. Just last year the city of Philadephia held a roast in his honor! My friend Michael and I still go to theater occasionally. Craig and I reconnected when I found him through Google (he'd moved back south). Tony works out on the west coast as an award-winning TV journalist. Me, well, I'm just another queer Jewish Buddhist advertising executive, teacher and storyteller. And I've found myself connected to a whole generation of members who were in the group in the mid to late 80s just in the last month. What an amazing group of people. What a blessing.
Who knows, the time is not long before we'll be ready for one of the first planned gay senior residential communities. Nah, don't bet on it.
Part 2: It looks like this page is also going to become a kind of online archive of material. Recently Mark Segal, first chair of Gay Youth back in 1969 and today publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, just sent scans of two of the GY newsletters. I remember a couple of more of them, with some first person accounts of things, but certainly don't have any copies anywhere I am aware of. Nevertheless, here are two Gay Youth Journals, from 1970 and 1971.