Martha Shelley Interview

Dublin Core

Title

Martha Shelley Interview

Subject

Martha Shelley discusses the Gay liberation movement before and after Stonewall.

Description

Martha Shelley is an activist, writer and poet (as well as an English teacher in a "former life" as she explains). Martha was a member of the Daughter's of Bilitis, an early homophile organization for lesbians. At the time of the Stonewall Rebellion, Martha was a vocal representative of DOB and subsequently became influential in the creation of the Gay Liberation Front, the radical activist organization that grew out of the aftermath of the Stonewall rebellion. Martha's insights and memories provide first hand observations and details about the grass roots movement that helped to establish equal rights for the LGBT community.

Creator

Christopher Gioia

Source

Via Telephone: New York and Portland, OR.

Publisher

Christopher Gioia

Date

October 30, 2016

Contributor

Martha Shelley

Rights

This recording and transcript is provided for education and research purposes and should not be altered in any way. All Rights reserved, Christopher Gioia (interviewer) with permission from subject.

Relation

NA

Format

MP3 Digital recording

Language

English

Type

Oral History

Identifier

Martha Shelley MP3

Coverage

NA

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Christopher Gioia

Interviewee

Martha Shelley

Location

Via Telephone: New York and Portland, OR.

Transcription

Martha Shelley Interview

CG To begin with why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself and your background.

MS Ok, if you have any questions about specific details feel free to ask.

CG Absolutely.

MS Let see, I was born in Brooklyn in 1943 and raised in Brooklyn till my family moved to the Bronx when I went to high school, uh and first time, I mean I had thoughts about women. I joined the first all women’s judo class when I was seventeen and had to lie about my age to get in, you were supposed to be 18. There I was wrestling on the judo mats with other women! And then one night I went over- one of the women in the judo class invited me over to her place in Newark (we both went to City College at the time) and uh we hung out in her living room after dinner and after a short amount of time our lips were locked. We didn’t do very much, but when I went home I realized what that meant for me, it was very different from when I kissed boys and I thought this is what I am this is who I am. And for feeling like this the way I felt about her I would go through the fires of hell, no question.
At that point I was 18 and you know how dramatic kids can get.

CG Right

MS Then uh (I’m trying to remember what year that was) probably 1962, um I left home after making a failed attempt in the fall of 62. I finally succeeded in moving out when I was uh lets see, that was April of 1963 when I moved out and uh still continued to have relations with men and women because of the pressures of the time

CG Right

MS I went to work at Harlem welfare center. I graduated college at age 21 (and I was putting myself through college going at night working during the day) and went to work at Barnard College as a secretary there. And I went to work for a woman who was called the general secretary, Jean Palmer.

CG Right

MS Ok And I did not know that she was lovers with the woman who was the head of Catherine Gibbs secretarial school. They were both passionately interested in women’s education.

chuckles

MS I had already joined Daughters before I went to work at Barnard in the fall of 1968.

CG I’m just curious prior to Daughter’s of Bilitis and prior to your job at Barnard that was um around the time when a lot of the articles were written about homosexual sub culture, do you recall reading those and did you identify as part of that community?

MS Well,

CG In the early sixties, there had been…

MS No, no I didn’t. What happened was I found a book, it was one of these pulp paperbacks or maybe it was just about the homosexual in America or something and in the back they had a list of gay organizations. And I saw that Daughters of Bilitis had a chapter in New York City and I thought that’s what I need because I had gone to the bars and was an absolute dud in the bars. I could not connect with anyone. I didn’t know how to dress right. I wasn’t clearly butch or femme I was good at talking. I’m still good at talking.

Laughter

MS I wasn’t good at the kind of things you need to be successful in bars. Being that kind of cute and whatever it was, anyway it didn’t work for me.
So I though if I go to Daughter’s of Bilitis I can meet people and actually talk to them. You couldn’t actually talk in bars, you drank and there was noise. If there was a back room to go dancing you could do that and I remember one dreadful evening at a bar I went in and I sat down and tried to strike up a conversation with a woman who looked like a flight attendant or something and she looked at me and saw immediately that I was Jewish and started talking to the woman on the other side of me and the two of them started singing “Deutschland Uber Alles.”

CG Wow

MS And I left there immediately. It was very clear. They hated my guts and I hated theirs.

CG Wow.

MS So, uh anyway I was actually successful at meeting people at Daughter’s of Bilitis. I’m trying to remember what year I joined, maybe it was 1967 fall of 67. Yeah I’m pretty sure of that because then in 68 was all of the uh, riots in Chicago and by then I was already lovers with this woman I met at a dance at Daughters of Bilitis. And the two of us were outraged at the police riots and actually when, (before I was working at Barnard), um let’s see, before that, when I was working in Harlem there was the assassination of Martin Luther King and I was getting pretty radicalized with all that was going on, ya know Harlem went up in flames after Martin Luther King was assassinated and I was there when it happened. I mean, obviously being white I wasn’t fool enough to be standing out on the street.
Laughs

CG Yeah

MS Uh and I had already been on numerous anti war marches in Washington demonstrations in New York and by the time of the Stonewall Riot I was very well politicized in terms of race stuff, the women’s movement, all of that and of course gay stuff because I had become the spokesperson for Daughters of Bilitis. While I was at Barnard this one woman who was basically running the show at D.O.B. asked if I would be willing to do public speaking. I said sure, I mean what was I? I was a dinky secretary at the time. I didn’t have a career that was worth losing. I could always find some other clerical job and I was young and willing to do stuff like that and I think if I had been older I would have been more timid.
And…

CG And so…

MS Oh

CG No, Ok finish your thought

MS …one day I had done a radio program- I went to colleges I went to abnormal psych classes and explained to people why we weren’t abnormal just different, and that went fine, and I was asked to do this radio program. It was on WOR radio and was called the sexual revolution. So I went in and did the interview with this guy who I thought was a real jerk, and I went home with a headache from talking to him. The next morning I go into work and my boss says, “Guess what! WOR radio was here last night and he interviewed the students at the new co-ed dormitory. I just must stay up to listen to that program.” And I thought, “Oh shit, I’m going to be on that program.”

Chuckles

MS She will hear my dulcet tones talking about Daughters of Bilitis. End of the day I went up to Ms. Palmer and said, “I have something to tell you. I’m going to be on that program.” And she said, “Well, hurry up dear, I have to go to the opera.”

Laughs

MS And I told her I’m going to be on the program and she says, “oh what for?” And I said I’m representing the Daughters of Bilitis. And she says, “What’s that? And I gritted my teeth and said, “A civil rights organization… for lesbians.” And then she gave me a big wink and said, “That’s wonderful dear. I’m so glad you young people are fighting for all these causes. Now help me on with my coat.”

Laughter.

MS That’s how I figured out she was gay.

CG But she never actually discussed it.

MS No, but at one point I had lost something and I went- and I had for some reason went to her apartment, and there she was with her lover, I mean I didn’t see them doing anything …

CG Right

MS …but they were clearly living together. It was very obvious.

CG Yeah, and as a member of Daughters of Bilitis, and as you also mentioned- participating in other protests and things, did you find that those other groups or organizers of those groups, were accepting of the gay civil rights organizations? I mean, how integral were they in the broader social movement?


MS I don’t think anyone was paying attention. I mean the anti war stuff? Nobody talked about it. People were dying, people were getting killed with napalm and stuff and we were at war and young people like my brother--he was going to be sent over there. He managed to get out of it, but that’s another story. Our brothers, our relatives were getting killed and that really was the big issue, so nobody really was talking about the gay issue in that context. I wasn’t involved in the civil rights movement per se, because when the freedom rides were happening down south I was I think in middle school or early high school. I was too young to go (laughs). By the time I had left home, that was over and other things were happening like the Viet Nam war.

CG In terms of what you would characterize as the gay community was it, did you spend time in the village, or because you were not a fan of the bars did you not see it as your hangout or neighborhood?

MS Uh no it wasn’t the hangout that way, my hangout was really the Daughters of Bilitis. There was another thing while I was at Barnard there was an organization known as the Student Homophile League and um Steven Donaldson was—his real name was Bob Martin—was the leader there and I remember once, a bunch of us went and marched against the war joining a student group. I was a secretary not a student and I joined the thing anyway. And we marched, we joined an anti-war march and the straight students in the march were very uncomfortable with us. They did not like us. We upset them.

CG Right
So that, I was kind of getting at. There was a division there. There was a bit of division there despite a common cause.

MS Right

CG I want to fast forward a little but because I do want to focus on Stonewall and I know you have a kind of - have, you have an interesting story about the night or the weekend of the riots, so can you tell me um- Well, do you have any recollections about the Stonewall Inn?

MS No, none. I had never been in the Stonewall Inn. It was a men’s bar.

CG Right, right.

MS It never would have occurred to me to go in there. I mean I never went into the women’s bars that often.

CG Right

MS So the night that I passed by the riot I was just giving these two women from Boston a tour of Greenwich village and showing them different places. And I saw these young people rioting and I thought that it was an anti war riot. And they were throwing things at the cops. Well that seemed perfectly normal.

Laughter

MS I mean I had been in situations like that. I had taken a vacation in February and gone to Berkeley and got caught up in a student anti war riot with cops chasing students at UC Berkeley when I was just visiting.

CG Yeah.

MS It didn’t occur to me that what I was seeing was a gay thing.

CG Can you describe to me what you saw because there is so little documentation from eyewitnesses. What night was it that you came across it, was it Saturday?

MS Saturday night…

CG Yeah

MS June 28th 1969. And what I saw was young white guys, I did not see women, I know they say there was at least one there. I didn’t see anybody in drag I just saw these white guys throwing things at cops.

CG And were they already there with like protest signs, because I know by the second or third…

MS No, that came later.

CG Mmhmm

MS Ok so after I said goodnight to the ladies from Boston at the place where they were spending the night which was at the home of people who were running the organization who were in the closet.

CG For Daughters, Daughters of Bilitis was the organization

MS Right. And ok and then I took the subway north and was planning to get the bus to NJ because the woman I was lovers with lived in New Jersey and when I got to the George Washington Bridge, the buses going across to NJ had shut down and so I just walked across the bridge and then hitchhiked. Some guy picked me up and dropped me off at my lover’s house. He was a doctor and he wasn’t able to sleep. It was too hot. He had just finished his shift.

CG Those were…

MS So anyway the next day was Sunday and we had a Daughters of Bilitis meeting and I went to the meeting and we talked about I forget what and then Monday I read about the riots in the newspaper and I thought that was what it was about. I read about the Stonewall Riot in some small article in the New York Times or the New York Post I don’t remember which and I immediately called well, she’s dead so it won’t make any difference, her real name was Jean Powers and she was the uh person who was getting out the newsletter and organizing meetings. I called her and said we have to have a protest march. She told me to call the head of the Mattachine Society and she said if they’re interested we could jointly sponsor it.

CG Right

MS So I called Dick Leitsch who was the head of the Mattachine Society. He said they were having a meeting at Town Hall to discuss all of these things and what it meant for the gay community and come to the meeting and put my proposal out and that’s what I did.

MS There were about 400 gay guys and there was Madeline Cervantes who was the one straight female member of Mattachine. Uh I think the nasty term for her would be fag hag, you know she’d hang around with gay guys and champion their causes. And I don’t know what her personal life was like because I never really got to know her and then there was me, the only other woman in the room.


CG Right

MS So I put my hand up and proposed this thing and Dick Leitsch who was at the podium said how many people are interested. I remember I was sitting right next to Bob Kohler. Do you have information about him?

CG No I don’t.

MS Well, Bob Kohler. At the time I think he was 41 [he was actually 43] and I was 25. He had a little dog and he used to walk around Greenwich Village and he was very concerned about the young gay guys who had been thrown out by their families who were making their living prostituting themselves struggling to survive, you know not having enough to eat.

MS So that was his concern he joined the group that started the march and Marty Robinson did and a few other people whose names I don’t remember. And uh we met we agreed to meet at the headquarters of Mattachine. [It was a summer afternoon] and we were uh drinking beer and I was a little intoxicated. Not terribly but sufficiently.
And that was when the name Gay Liberation Front came up. Now there are people who were present who say that I came up with that name. I don’t remember doing that. All I remember is when that name came up I started pounding on the table with my hand and shouting, “That’s it, that’s it! We’re the Gay Liberation Front!”

Laughter

MS And there was one of those pop tops from a beer can sitting on the table and I slammed my hand onto it and my hand was bleeding. So that’s what I re…

CG So everybody took it seriously at that point.

Laughter

MS Whether I really came up with that name or not I don’t know but I definitely was wildly enthusiastic about it.

Laughter

MS So the noise reached Dick Leitsch who’s in the next room and he comes running in and he says (he’s very upset) we’re starting another gay organization in his headquarters right under his nose. Which is going to drain away his membership. And so of course we lied through our teeth and said, “no, no, no that’s the name of our committee. We’re not starting a new organization.” We knew damn well we were starting a new organization!

Laughs

MS And so my next assignment was to go call the police and find out if we needed a permit for the march. The last people on earth I wanted to call were the police, well after the FBI.

Laughs

MS They were even further down the list. So I called them up without saying who I was or what the organization was and I said do you need a permit for a march and they said only if you have sound equipment.

MS And I thought we don’t need sound equipment. We weren’t expecting a lot of people and I had been leading chants at a strike for a union I belonged to and I knew my voice would carry, you know, at least down the block. So we put an ad in the Village Voice, which was jointly sponsored by Mattachine and DOB and we had our protest march. Which was just about a month after the Stonewall Riot.

CG Ok

MS And by then we already had the nucleus of the GLF. Somebody called us and said we have space at Alternate U. Some of the people who were the members of socialist organizations and were in the closet about their gayness because the socialist organization said they didn’t want their organizations smeared with homosexuality, uh joined those of us who were radicals within the gay movement and of course the more uh straight laced shall we say gay people didn’t want their organizations besmirched by communism or socialism or any kind of political radicalism. They just wanted to present this image of gay people as just a little bit different who wanted...

CG Hello, Martha? Hello.
Hello. Alright…

MS The more conservative gay organizations just wanted to present gay people as just like everybody else, we just wanted a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and you know regular jobs and to be let alone to live our lives just like any other suburban couple or urban couple. That is the image that Mattachine and DOB wanted to present. And we were the people who didn’t fit into those groups so we formed our own. At this point what I want to say is the important thing about Stonewall is not that there were riots, I think there had been a couple of riots, gay riots in California prior to this

CG Mhmm

MS And they didn’t go anywhere because nobody organized afterwards. What was the important thing about the Stonewall Riot is that out of it came organizations and demonstrations and alliances with other groups like the Black Panthers and Young Lords of Spanish Harlem and of course women’s liberation groups.

CG Right that raises something I’ve been fascinated by. Um, do you think its somehow tied to NY as the center of all this activity and um you know it really couldn’t have happened in LA for instance or San Francisco because as you just mentioned all those organizations are really, were centered in NY.

MS Well the old ones were centered in NY, Black Panthers came out of Oakland California and was all over the country.

CG That’s right

MS And they at first were reluctant to align with us they had a lot male chauvinism and it made them extremely uncomfortable but eventually they came around. And the Young Lords didn’t have any problem, right away we made alliances with them Peace movement groups varied the uh, oh lets see I remember at one point there was a big peace march and Gay Liberation Front participated. I think it was down Fifth Avenue in NY and Pete Hamill, who was an excellent reporter for the NY Post at the time, wrote about the march and then he made a remark about the “slim-waisted creeps of the Gay Liberation Front.”

CG Ew, yeah

MS Yeah, creep. The creep was Pete Hamill at that point.

CG Yeah

Laughs

MS And then there was the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I don’t know what the Communist Party’s take was because I didn’t have a anything really to do with them, but the SWP had a reputation of moving in on other radical groups, taking them over, getting their own members elected to offices, and then draining the treasuries. So they were kind of a parasitic group and they were very uptight about gayness—you know you couldn’t be openly gay and be a member of the SWP. Well one time later on, I was a part of the demonstration that took over a welfare center, an abandoned welfare center on East 5th St. in New York City. This was New Year’s Eve 1970. We’d taken it over right under the nose of the police because the police precinct was right across the street from the abandoned welfare center. We were there a few days and then were arrested and hauled into the precinct. The leaders of that women’s liberation group negotiated with the city and got a firehouse that was also unused. They rented it from the city for a dollar a year to use as a women’s center so we had an organization there.

The SWP decided that they wanted to take over the group. So they had their people running for office. They wouldn’t just come in as members [of an organization they were targeting]—they would run for office and be in charge and be the treasurer and president. I got involved with some other people and we went there and I proposed that anyone who was an active member of a political party could not be an officer in this organization. The SWP women were incensed and said that was discrimination. I said, “No its not. Anyone who is an active member of the Democratic Party, the Republicans, or the Communists—you know not just signed up as a registered voter but anyone who is an active officer in those organizations can’t be an active officer in our group. If you think that’s discriminatory, how about the fact that gay people can’t be open in your organization? Y you discriminate against us. So the next year when they had their annual convention they changed their policy about gay people.

CG Wow

MS But it took a kick in the slats for them to do that.

CG Yeah!

Laughter

MS So anything else you wanted to ask about?

CG Yes.

MS There’s so much.

CG Yeah, actually I wanted to ask, in other interviews you expressed a feeling that the GLF got a little bit distanced from or less focused on gay rights, and were you involved in the transition to gay activists alliance, or?

MS No, no I was not, I was not interested at that point in electoral politics. And really a lot of the stuff they were doing and really part of it was I just got bored of the whole idea and didn’t think much of politicians and was more into the kind of stuff that GLF was doing. Radical action and working together with other radical groups we did things like demonstrating at the Women’s house of Detention to free Angela Davis when she was there—to free other prisoners—that was the kind of thing I was interested in.

CG And do you recall the first CSLD parade and can you tell a little bit about that?

MS Was that the one where we marched up 5th Avenue.

CG Yeah, 1970 on the anniversary…

MS Yeah, I had a good time!

CG Yeah,

Laughs

CG So was that a more of a Mattachine event? That was organized by…

MS No, no, I don’t know who organized it but it definitely wasn’t Mattachine. Probably a whole number of different people. I remember going there and wearing our tee shirts and holding banners.

CG And by the time the parade reached Central Park, the accounts I’ve read are there were thousands of people. Did you march up Fifth Avenue or did you just meet them in the park?

MS No I marched up.

CG And what was the response?

MS Pedestrians?

CG Yes,

MS No problem, I don’t remember any problem there were just so many of us. Ya know every march I’ve been to, every Gay pride parade you will see some people standing on the sidelines holding big signs that say “You’re going to hell” “God hates fags” that kind of thing.

CG Right

MS There’s always a very small group of religious, hateful religious nuts, but they are the minority. Most people will stand by eating their ice cream enjoying the spectacle.

CG Right, right.
And the police too were standing by. There was no confrontations or anything.

MS No, no.

CG And do you recall before Stonewall, I know you weren’t, you didn’t spend a lot of time in the night life of the village but do you have a recollection of there being a lot of abuse and police discrimination?

MS Personally? No, I was never in a bar that got raided, I mean I heard about that sort of thing and I knew it went on and if you had any sense you’d stay away from and that was something to be scared about but I was never harassed by the police. I never had that personal experience

CG In terms of, I’m thinking… broadly…

MS I take that back in a different way.

CG What’s that?

MS Is it okay to talk about that sort of thing after Stonewall?

CG Yes, sure I’d like to hear that.

MS Ok this is somewhat different, this is after Stonewall and after I had joined the women’s take over of Rat newspaper.

CG Ok

MS I was living on the lower east side in some, what the person who had rented the apartment or who passed the apartment on to me called a squalorific slum apartment. It really was one of these places with a bathtub in the kitchen and a toilet down the hall that you shared with other people. And one day I was coming home and this little old Ukranian lady that lived one flight down from said that she wanted to let me know that the FBI had been there asking questions about me and she said, “I didn’t tell them nothing.” She knew about police abuse. That was why she had left Ukraine. She was a refugee from Stalinism. So we had some kind words together. And so I knew that the FBI were looking at all of us and part of the reason was that RAT newspaper the uh some of the women that worked on there, one of them was Jane Alpert- were involved with bombing stuff. There were a group of women who contributed an article who were a part of Weather Underground. So anyone who was involved with RAT newspaper was going to be on their radar.

CG Exactly yeah,

MS And then at one point the FBI… this guy had to be—w at do you call the kind of person who tries to agitate people or entrap people into being violent? Someone who would go to a demonstration..

CG An agitator?

MS Not only an agitator there’s a word for it and I can’t think of it now. And he asked me to come to his apartment he had some idea some political ideas and I went up. I didn’t think anything and then he started talking about plans, he had this 22 rifle and about making poison and poisoning people and this, that and the other and all the alarm bells went off in my head. “FBI Agent! FBI Agent!” Clearly not a member of the FBI, you know a sworn officer, but one of these people who they pay money to entrap people. And I said let me think about that and got the hell out of there fast.

Laughter

CG Well so, um as the movement progressed, you know you talked about Daughters of Bilitis and Mattachine having this idea or wanting to foster this idea of gays as that tad bit different than the rest of us or the rest of the world. So it’s kind of um, how do you see that evolution that happened? Basically, everyone became a little more radicalized in the early seventies with the Liberation movement and then it seems to almost have gone back to that idea of we’re just the same as you.

MS Right.

CG How do you feel about that?
Laughs

MS Well I think that’s true a lot of times in the course of history. We’re not outside of history, outside of the spirit of the time. There wouldn’t have been the Gay Liberation Front if we hadn’t had the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the anti war movement. All of that movement, all of the ideas that came out of that movement led to the gay movement becoming radicalized, not the early homophile movement, but the radicalization. That changed after the Viet Nam war ended. The whole country became less radical to a certain extent and a lot of gay people and other radicals went into other things like environmentalism and other stuff but the organized gay movement, human rights campaign and so on were able to do what they’re doing because I think the majority of people want to live quiet lives.

This woman who was a friend, she died I don’t know how many years ago, she was originally from Germany and married a Chinese man during the second world war, you can imagine the courage that took. If the Nazis had known about it they would have thrown both of then into concentration camps. And so she had to have this secret marriage and at the end of the war went with him to China, and ended up coming to America. What she told me was for all the places that she lived everyone pretty much wants the same things; a roof over their head, enough to eat, and a decent education for their children. I think that is probably true of most people whether they are gay or black or anybody- they don’t want to be beaten, raped, thrown out of their jobs etc. and if they had the opportunity they’d have quieter lives, not necessarily being rich, but comfortable, the house, the job the three squares. They’re happy with that. They’ll only get up and fight when there is a reason to, when they are being oppressed. And you know I look back at my life and I still would go out there, I would go on anti war marches except that my wife has some serious health issues and I have to stay the hell out of jail at this point so I’m there to take care of her, but—and we have a house. We even have a white picket fence. We put it up because the dogs were pooping in our front yard, so its there to keep the dogs out!

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MP3 Digital Recording

Duration

approximately 40 minutes.

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16bit/ 44.1 kHz

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NA

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Citation

Christopher Gioia, “Martha Shelley Interview,” Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity, accessed May 20, 2019, https://stonewallhistory.omeka.net/items/show/10.

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