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77 4 Birth of an Activist Michael Morrissey couldn’t wait to introduce Vito to Arnie Kantrowitz. Given the secretary’s razor wit and love of Hollywood arcana, the two seemed a preordained match. Arnie was a Staten Island Community College professor of English who had only recently accepted his homosexuality after two suicide attempts. When he attended the Snake Pit demo, he realized that the nascent gay movement could save his life. In May 1970, after two months in GAA, he followed Michael to the Omnibus, where he met the manic Italian waiter who would be his best friend for the next twenty years. Once Vito joined GAA, he and Arnie became the “Bobbsey twins of gay liberation.” Arnie’s images of Vito from that era are blurry. As Vito immersed himself in GAA, he was in constant motion, endlessly speeding from the Omnibus “to political meetings to gay rights [demonstrations] with his fringed shoulder bag flying in the breeze behind his wiry body.” When not waiting tables or attending GAA functions, Vito ran to the movies, which “he digested whole at the rate of several a day.” Arnie was charmed by this young man whose “brown eyes brightened with fervor at the mention of Judy Garland” and who bubbled with “easy sentiment for all the celebrities who had acted and sung the fantasies [Kantrowitz ] had grown up on.” Vito and Arnie shared a campy, film-laden vocabulary more typical of the gay generation that preceded theirs. Nonstop references to Garland and Bette Davis, Arnie’s icon of choice, helped cement their friendship. So did their passionate involvement in the first organization created expressly to reform antigay legislation. It was a remarkable transformation for two young men who, less than a year earlier, were peeking at the incipient struggle from behind a professor’s tweeds and the elm branches of Christopher Park. Vito met Arnie during the most exciting period of his life. While active in GAA, he found his first serious lover, his first full-time professional job, and the first friends who were his intellectual and political equals. He took on administrative duties within GAA, got involved in city government, and became, almost by accident, a writer. With fond nostalgia, Vito came to look on his time in GAA as “high school,” but this understates the organization’s importance in his life. GAA brought Vito into adulthood and launched his career as an activist. Vito loved GAA from his first meeting. Bella Abzug’s charisma helped, but the organization played directly to his sensibilities. The preamble to GAA’s constitution proclaimed members’ “right to feel attracted to the beauty of members of [their] own sex and to embrace those feelings as truly [their] own, free from any question or challenge whatsoever by any other person, institution, or ‘moral authority.’” It also asserted, as Vito witnessed at the first Gay Pride March, the “right to express [their] feelings in action, the right to make love with anyone, anyway, anytime.” GAA’s explicit linkage of these rights with freedoms guaranteed in the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights surpassed any political utopia that Vito had ever envisioned. He was equally drawn to GAA’s definition of activism as “the commitment to bring about change in the present, rather than theorize about change in the distant future.” After years of Mattachine caution and accommodation, Vito was more than ready to see change for gays put into practice. GAA’s commitment to nonviolence was particularly attractive to the neophyte activist. He was reassured by GAA architects who had left Gay Liberation Front partly because of its willingness to align with organizations, such as the Black Panthers, that considered violence integral to political progress. President Jim Owles, along with his friends Marty Robinson (who had handed Vito the Snake Pit leaflet) and Columbia Ph.D. candidate Arthur Evans, abandoned GLF in November 1969 to create an organization focused exclusively on gay rights, not the hodgepodge of leftist causes that scattered GLF’s energies. Jim had tired of courting black, feminist, and Yippie radicals who were, at best, embarrassed by gays and lesbians. He’d had his fill of homophobic rejection in the peace movement, where, he remembered, “they kept telling me that there were greater things to work for than my own oppression and maybe I could be taken care of after the revolution.” Neither he nor Marty appreciated GLF’s trashing of their penchant for uninhibited anonymous sex—a...


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MARC Record
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