Q history By Michael Doylen

Michael Doylen is the head of the UWM Archives Department and Milwaukee LGBT History Project member.

GLF and a World Re-Eroticized

Milwaukee Gay Liberation Front (GLF) deserves to be more than a footnote in our community’s history. Flourishing for only a few months from 1970 to 1971, GLF’s brand of radical politics linked our city to an international and revolutionary gay liberation movement.

Milwaukee GLF was a splinter group of the Gay Liberation Organization (GLO), a University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee student organization that advocated for gay and lesbian civil rights.

The split was foreshadowed in May 1970, when the more radical members of GLO joined thousands of students, activists and hippies to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. The action shut down UWM and prompted Chancellor Klotsche to declare a state of emergency. Not everyone in GLO was comfortable with such radicalism or supported involvement in issues not directly related to homosexual oppression.

In fall 1970, the more militant members withdrew and aligned themselves with the Gay Liberation Front, a revolutionary organization that had formed in New York following the Stonewall Riots.

Milwaukee GLF was a mixed-gender, gender-bending group of radicalized men and women rebelling against practically everything. Prior to their participation in GLF, these individuals had been active in the protest movements of the 1960s, including the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the women’s movement. They brought to GLF a passion for social justice and social change.

Drawing on the work of contemporary feminist and Marxist theorists, GLF dismissed the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s as mere hype, and characterized the United States as the “most anti-erotic and anti-life culture in the world.” It believed that the sexual revolution had resulted only in the further distortion of female and male sexuality. “The so-called sexual revolution has meant that women are further manipulated and degraded by the advertising world” and that men are encouraged through “the Playboy Philosophy to treat women and gays as nothing more than sexual objects.”

To truly liberate human sexuality, GLF proposed dismantling the capitalist state and establishing in its place “a re-eroticized world. A place where people can live and love free from all the oppressive role-playing imposed on us in the past. We want not only freedom for ourselves — an end to the daily brutality and harassment that we face -- but freedom for everyone to express himself and herself in a way that is consistent with his whole humanity.”

What GLF’s philosophy lacked in subtlety, it made up for in vision. GLF refused to make the struggle for civil rights the ultimate goal of the gay liberation movement. While admitting that repealing unjust laws and ending persecution were important goals, GLF argued that homosexuals had a larger contribution to make: the liberation of all human sexuality from capitalist exploitation.

GLF promoted the transformative power of “coming out” and organizing. In a decade when most gay men and lesbians remained in the closet, GLF advocated public visibility. GLF members demonstrated openly as gay men and lesbians alongside other groups and complained bitterly when the media refused to acknowledge them. GLF also embraced organized resistance as a means of social change. It declared Milwaukee’s first pride event in January 1971, announcing a week-long series of events that included “parties, dances, cultural events, and demonstrations” as well as “wig care and make-up classes held for the Queens.”

The history of Milwaukee GLF parallels that of other gay liberation groups across the country. By 1972, the brand of radical politics practiced by GLF was already waning. Nationally, the activist style of gay liberation was being replaced by the more moderate politics of the gay and lesbian rights movement. Acceptance into mainstream American society replaced revolution as a political goal.

Does the eclipse of the gay liberation movement make GLF historically irrelevant? Hardly. GLF and gay liberation left an important legacy, one in which “coming out” is charged with political meaning and “pride” represents a new possibility for self-understanding. In GLF’s radical politics -- its insistence that the struggle for civil rights is not the final aim of sexual liberation -- we may also find a legacy yet to be realized.

Copyright 2004 by Q-Queer Life, LLC. All rights reserved.
March 2, 2005
Vol. 1, Issue 4
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