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Martha Shelley reflects on Stonewall, writing and activism
by Sarah Toce

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Martha Shelley was in Greenwich Village the night of the Stonewall Riots in New York City on June 28, 1969. The event would not only change the course of her life forever, but that of the entire LGBT community.

"It was a hot, clear night and I was taking two women from Boston on a tour of the Village and the lesbian bars. They had come to New York City to meet with Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) members because they wanted to form a DOB chapter in Boston," Shelley said. "We passed by the Stonewall and noticed some young men throwing things at cops. The Boston women were taken aback. 'That's just a riot,' I told them. 'We have them in New York all the time.'"

Shelley added, "I wasn't trying to be cavalier—this was the height of the anti-war movement. Martin Luther King had been killed the year before and Harlem (where I was working at the time) went up in flames. A few months later there were riots in Chicago at the Democratic Convention. I didn't go to that, but I was at a lot of anti-war demonstrations and sometimes there was violence. So I assumed this was more anti-war stuff. I escorted the women back to the apartment where they were staying, and went to my lover's house. I only found out that it was gays rioting about 48 hours later."

Members of DOB were encouraged to take new surnames in an effort to evade possible FBI surveillance. She would change her last name from Altman to Shelley at this time.

Immediately following Stonewall, Shelley became one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF)—a direct response to the Christopher Street riots that would catapult the gay-rights movement into the mainstream and ignite a new generation of gay and lesbian political activists to take action against the perceived anti-gay government holding them captive in a variety of ways—emotionally, physically, sexually, and otherwise.

Shelley remembered, "As soon as I found out that gays were rioting against the police, I called Joan Kent, who was running our local DOB chapter, and said, 'We need to have a protest march.' She said that if the Mattachine Society agreed, the two organizations could co-sponsor it. So I called Dick Leitch, the head of NY Mattachine, and he said to come to a meeting at Town Hall and propose the march idea to the membership."

The response was overwhelming, according to Shelley. "Town Hall held 400 people, and it was jam-packed with 398 men, one female member of Mattachine, and me. When I proposed the march, Dick asked how many were in favor. Everyone's hand went up. So he said, 'Whoever wants to organize it, go to that corner after the meeting.' A few of us formed a march committee. We subsequently met at the Mattachine Society office to work out the details. It was another hot day. We were tremendously excited, and we were drinking beer. People say that I first suggested the name Gay Liberation Front, but I don't remember that. All I remember is pounding my hand on the table and shouting, 'That's it! That's it! We're the Gay Liberation Front!'"

Not everyone was immediately sold on the idea, however. Shelley said, "Dick got very upset, because he thought we were forming another organization right there in his office, and might take away membership from him. So we hastened to reassure him that this was just the name of our march committee, but we were lying through our teeth.

"Next, someone called a meeting at Alternate University, otherwise known as Alternate U (or alternate you). It was a warehouse-office kind of space where lefty anti-war people taught classes in Marxism, karate, printing, Spanish and so on. We leftists who were in the more traditional gay organizations like DOB and Mattachine met with gays who were in lefty organizations, and that fusion became the GLF.

"For me this was the place where everything I believed in came together—anti-war, economic justice, feminism, the cultural changes spearheaded by the hippie movement, and what I believe to be the basis for all our liberation struggles: the right to control your own body, because if you have control of your own body, the government doesn't have the right to draft you and ship you off to kill or be killed. You can smoke dope or not smoke it, sleep with your own or the opposite sex, and so on. You can't be forced to bear a child against your will—a right we're still fighting about now."

The Gay Liberation Front formed Come Out! magazine during this time. The publication ran from 1969-1972 and carried with it a voice of passion and inclusion.

"Every leftist group at that time had a newspaper or magazine to express its ideas," Shelley said. "Come Out! was ours. We sold it on the streets of New York. Some newsstands carried it. And it went to other cities as well. It was the voice of people who'd been silenced; it reported on events in our community, events that never made it into the New York Times. You didn't need [to have] a degree in journalism from an Ivy League university in order to write for Come Out! so the quality was uneven, to say the least, but the passion behind it was heartfelt.

"And, unlike the New York Times, we didn't have to worry about losing advertisers or losing access to the halls of power. On the other hand, we didn't always hold ourselves up to high standards in terms of rigorous inquiry, and I regret that."

Shelley's commitment to the feminist movement was growing and expanding as she gleaned more of an insight in regards to the economy and women in the workforce. Her loyalty toward equality for women was ever-present as she worked overtime to distribute Come Out! to the masses.

"I had two jobs on the paper aside from writing for it," she said. "I worked part-time in a typesetting shop (that was before everyone had computers), and the owner was an old radical who [type]set stuff for the Black Panthers in her spare time. So I could go in there after hours and set copy for Come Out! Then I'd turn the copy over to the layout people, and they'd lay out the paper and send it to the printer.

"When the paper came back, I'd grab a bunch of copies and go out onto the streets of Greenwich Village and hawk them. One cold day, after selling out the paper, I went into a coffee shop to warm up. A professor from New York University was there talking with a student. He was an economic determinist. I overheard him saying that the women's movement wasn't succeeding because of its ideas, but because the economy needed women in the workforce."

Although infuriated at first, Shelley later realized that the professor had a valid point. "That made me angry," she said. "I was one of the people generating feminist ideas, and those ideas were having a huge impact on women. But years later, I developed a broader perspective. Now I've come to believe that it is the interaction between economic, technological, cultural, and ideological factors that gave rise to modern feminism. Some technological examples might be machinery that obviates the need for heavy manual labor, and reliable birth control. And once a woman is in the labor force, not dependent on a man for income or forced to bear more children than she can support, she can divorce Mr. Wrong or even live as a lesbian if she wants. She can do this as an ordinary, working-class person instead of having to be an heiress like Gertrude Stein."

The urgency to report the news regarding the feminist movement is still valid in 2012—possibly more than ever, Shelley believes. "I think that urgency is even more valid, given the attacks on women and gays coming from the right wing. We have different organizations now and different means of communication, due to the Internet. We need to make use of every available avenue, because our adversaries aren't going to stop. It should be obvious by now that their economic aim is to suck up every cent from the 99 percent, and to take back control of our reproductive organs. I think it was Rick Santorum who said that a pregnancy resulting from rape is a 'gift from God.' So I suppose the rapist is God's holy instrument. We made a few gains in the 1970s but ever since then the right has been trying to roll us back to the 19th century."

In 1970, Shelley entered the radio field with Lesbian Nation on New York's WBAI radio station—a move that seemed natural to her since she was used to organizing marches and creating change from within the community. "I was a public speaker for DOB and the Gay Liberation Front, so I was comfortable being in front of a microphone. It was just a matter of learning the technology—how to use a tape recorder and how to edit tape," she said.

The inspired activist moved to Oakland, Calif., in 1974 and became involved with the Women's Press Collective. There she released Crossing the DMZ and other works. Her poetry also appeared in Ms. Magazine.

Her advice to the up-and-coming new generation of journalists is simple: Follow your heart, your gut, your passion.

She shared, "Many years ago, when I was really, really broke, a woman suggested that I get a job writing advertising copy in order to pay the bills. I looked at her as though she'd suggested I go to Times Square and sell pussy. Once you've sold the most precious part of yourself—your writing soul—you'll have a very hard time getting it back again. I think about the journalists who beat the drums for the Iraq War, the ones who were 'embedded' with the military and reported whatever they were told to say, and the ones who still faithfully regurgitate press releases from the government as though this was real news.

"I don't think too many young LGBT journalists are going to break into those circles, where they are getting paid handsomely to do public relations and propaganda for the 1 percent. So we are free to say what we believe. The major pressures might be from within the community. For example, I am very much against transgender surgery and taking hormones, and this is strictly for medical reasons. I'm also opposed to cosmetic surgery, for similar reasons. This is not the same as being opposed to transgender people, though I'm sure it will be taken that way. I doubt if any gay newspapers would print my thoughts on the issue—and if they did, the response would be furious.

"A young journalist is going to be influenced, as I was, by the culture and ideology of the time. When I look back at my earlier writing on Come Out! I can see times when I went along with the crowd and censored myself. So it's important to look at your day's work and think about what you didn't say, as well as what you did say.

Although completely immersed in the journalism field, it was never a full-time venture for Shelley. "I never had a normal career. I've mostly had part-time jobs that allowed me to write and be a political activist," she said.

Her day job is medical/legal research. After hours, she works closely with Code Pink, a women's anti-war group. "I am also involved with an anti-foreclosure committee of We Are Oregon—an organization fighting for economic justice," she said. "My most recent book is The Throne in the Heart of the Sea, a historical novel with a major lesbian character [available at]."

Note: It should be noted that Shelley's views on transgender people and medical care are, in fact, very controversial. While the medical consequences of gender-related care continue to be studied and debated, it is has also been argued that gender-related medical interventions can help gender-variant people in feeling affirmed in their true selves and can also save lives. Shelley's views do not necessarily reflect the views of Windy City Times or its staff.

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