Popular history tells the story of the Stonewall Uprising with men as the star protagonists, the trans community limited to Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, and lesbian activists like me as background actors. But lesbians were rebels, too, fighting for women-oriented alternatives to oppressive Mafia-run clubs like the Stonewall Inn.
In the late 1960s, our social life revolved around Kooky’s, which was the only lesbian bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. Kooky’s was allegedly run by the Genovese crime family and fronted by a middle-aged woman named Kooky, who patrolled the bar in stiff crinoline dresses, an outmoded beehive hairdo, and ever-present cigarette, which she used to terrorize some of the patrons who weren’t disposing of the watered-down beverages fast enough for her liking.
In a thick Brooklyn accent, Kooky ordered us to drink up “cause this ain’t no choich [church].”
The place was a death trap: the fire exit was padlocked to prevent women from sneaking in without paying the cover charge. Straight male friends of the bouncer would occasionally jerk off through their trousers as women slow-danced. Red lights placed around the small dance floor flashed to alert us when the police raided the bar or came for a payoff. Same-sex dancing was illegal, as was serving a drink to a “disorderly” person, such as a lesbian, so the threat of public arrest, bribes and organized crime were all part of the deal.
But the most humiliating ordeal of this clandestine socializing was the guard outside the single-seater restrooms who issued each woman two squares of toilet paper on her way in — we degenerates could not be trusted to go to the bathroom without supervision and apparently didn’t know how much toilet paper was required.
The only other social opportunities for us back then were private parties and the potlucks sponsored by the pre-Stonewall lesbian group, Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). The DOB cohort was mostly older than I was and their goal of assimilation into the mainstream seemed dated to many younger women by 1969.
The Gay Liberation Front (GLF) created monthly dances, but these male-dominated activities were unsatisfactory, filled as they were with throngs of men who towered over us as they crammed the dance floor. And so, we decided to face threats on our lives, physical violence, and skepticism from non-lesbians in order to have our own dance.
In February 1970, women of the GLF, of which I was then the chair, decided to create the first women’s dance. But how could we spread the word? No newspaper would print a filthy word like “lesbian” or “gay,” so we could not advertise.
To stir up interest in the dance, we reluctantly decided to leaflet Kooky’s. Women, far braver or more foolish than me, went into Kooky’s, only to be tossed into the snow a few minutes later, the remaining leaflets fluttering over their heads. Ellen Broidy, one of the dance organizers, clearly remembers Kooky’s parting threat: “I would sure hate to see youse girls group broken up.”
Undeterred, on April 3, supported by reluctant straight sisters (who feared seduction by us radical lesbians), we hosted a packed dance at LGBT-friendly Alternate U, a Marxist “university” on West 14th Street.
It went well. But in the wee hours of the morning at the end of the dance when we were cleaning up, several huge men in trench coats, with guns in their waistbands, appeared in the stairwell and confronted the cleanup committee taking down the trash.
The goons claimed they were the police and accused us of selling liquor without a license. But before we could deny that, they began pushing and hitting the women closest to them. Showing no fear, Lois Hart, a former nun and a founding member of GLF, said, “We’re tired. If you plan to arrest us, just get it over with.” And then she sat down on the floor.
The men couldn’t believe that the women were not only showing no fear, but that Lois’ action had actually stiffened everyone’s resolve.
Having radical African-American lesbian attorney Florynce Kennedy’s telephone number inked on my palm, I escaped out the back door, found a pay phone and called her. She summoned the real police and the press. Hearing the sirens, the thugs started to flee. As the men thundered down the stairs, GLFer Michela Griffo poked her head into the stairwell and called after them: “Next time, bring your sister!”
Armed with garbage bags, brooms and big mouths, we resisted the goons’ oppressive authority — our incredible moxie mirroring the rebellion at Stonewall. We had been beaten, risked serious injury and death for the privilege and joy of an all-women’s dance.
No mainstream media outlet reported on this assault, not even the Village Voice, which had covered the Stonewall Rebellion. The only story about our defiance that night was written by me in Rat Subterranean News.
The courage of the discarded, disrespected, and sometimes homeless street people who fought back at the Stonewall Inn must be honored. But a half century later, some acknowledgment and appreciation must be given to the GLF women who risked our lives to create an alternative to the Stonewalls and Kooky’s that had dominated our social lives.
It seems so matter of fact today to want to dance with whoever you want to — and surely, we will party again when we defeat this pandemic. But we GLF lesbians risked prison and payback to dance together 50 years ago, proving that sisterhood is powerful.
Karla Jay, Ph.D., is an award-winning author of 10 books, including ‘Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation.’ (Photo by Karin F. Kerner)