Steven F. Dansky, formative GLF member
Longtime political activist Steven F. Dansky was a founder of the modern gay liberation movement. His work has been cited in nearly every book on early gay liberation, spanning more than three decades, from The Gay Militants (1971) to American Social Movements: Gay Rights Movement (2003).
Dansky had been involved during the HIV pandemic for more than 15 years. Lecturing on AIDS throughout the country, he is the author of two books on HIV, Now Dare Everything: Tales of HIV-Related Psychotherapy (Haworth Press, 1994) and Nobody’s Children: Orphans of the HIV Epidemic (Haworth Press, 1997). Dansky is a retired psychotherapist who had practices in New York City and Albany, New York. As a photographer, Dansky’s work has been exhibited in New York City and Las Vegas, and he curated the current photographic exhibit, “Gay Liberation Front 1969-1971: A 40th Anniversary Retrospective”, at the LGBT Center, New York. As part of a nationwide 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Dansky reunited with other members of the Gay Liberation Front in San Francisco earlier this month and in New York City this week.
CHRIS DELATORRE: Explain the Gay Liberation Front.
STEVEN F. DANSKY: Within weeks of the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was founded. It was the first post-Stonewall Uprising lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) organization. Although homophile rights activists had been organizing for decades, the Stonewall Uprising ushered in a new militancy. The entrance of GLF was onto the most turbulent stage in this country’s history, within a historical continuum, an era marked by a vigorous civil rights, an emergent second wave of feminism, and at the height of aggressive anti-Vietnam War movement. The wellspring for a LBTG movement was overflowing, and GLF was poised to develop from sexual urgency to political activism.
GLF forged the roots of activism with particular audacity, staging activist demonstrations in Times Square and Greenwich Village; at sites of institutional bigotry such as St. Patrick’s Cathedral; against media homophobia at the offices of Time and The Village Voice; at dehumanizing porn palaces; and the group Radicalesbians staged a Lavender Menace challenge to the women’s movement. In addition to activism, a great deal of queer theory began with GLF thinkers and writers who compelled a shift in perception of reality so persistent that it radically altered assumptions about gender and sexuality.
DELATORRE: 1969. 2009. What’s changed? What hasn’t?
DANSKY: The progress in forty years is unimaginable and extraordinary. The right to assemble guaranteed by the Bill of Rights in the U.S. Constitution was violated by the State with bar raids and arrests, which ignited the Stonewall Uprising. Remember, in 1969 same-sexuality was illegal and punishable in many states. In 1986, in Bower vs. Hardwick, the U.S Supreme Court upheld a Georgia anti-sodomy law allowing criminal prosecution for private homosexual acts. This ruling was overturned by the Court in 2003. Scalia warned in his dissenting open that this would lead to opening the floodgate for same-sex marriage. Only in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association reversed its designation of same-sex relatedness as pathology. It became known as the quickest “cure” in history.
I was married in 2004 in Williamstown, Massachusetts, on the first day that same-sex marriage became legal, and now in addition to MA, there is Iowa, Vermont, Massachusetts and Connecticut with Maine, Maryland, Washington, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and New York considering same-sex marriage. And let’s not forget there are 18,000 legal same-sex marriages in California. This is extraordinary progress in 40 years from pathology and legality to front-ant-center in the global human rights debates.
DELATORRE: You’re described as an avid profeminist, and have done considerable work with HIV/AIDS. The bond between the Gay Rights Movement and the HIV/AIDS pandemic has been central to the gay American identity since the early days of Larry Kramer activism and the creation of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) in New York. You write that “during the 1980s, the pandemic was about inevitable death, with few exceptions,” explaining how you “attempted to transform loss into a moral lesson, aligning with the body of literature that demonstrates our pathos as nurturers and caregivers.” With regard to the pandemic and the early gay rights movement, how did the need for health care affect activism? And did it help shape the identity of the movement?
DANSKY: My political trajectory completely changed in the 1980s with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I became a caregiver, as well as an activist. I learned caregiving helping to raise Blake Morgan. And activism from Gay Liberation Front. So many of us were helpless in the face of an unknown and fatal retrovirus. I remember a brief telephone conversation with Larry Kramer in 1986. I was a social work intern at Beth Israel Hospital in New York, and Kramer was going to give a lecture at the hospital. As it turned out, I was unable to attend, but I telephoned Kramer and said, “I can tell you a lot about homophobia at this hospital.” I believed that homophobia, whether unconscious or not, affected the delivery of quality health care to patients with HIV/AIDS. Kramer said, “I don’t care about the homophobia. I’m coming to speak to the staff to make sure we get the care we need.” You see, all activism became focused on health care.
And ActUp was the most audacious gay group in the history of the gay movement, taking it’s tactics from GLF and GAA in its confrontation of any institution that was homophobic. I’ll always remember ActUp for the human scaling of the walls of the FDA in Washington for its lack of attention and urgency during the first phase of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
DELATORRE: Now, 40 years after Stonewall the concept of marriage for same-sex couples sits heavy in the collective social consciousness. In “Our Critical Direction” you say the gay and lesbian community must “re-vise our critical direction.” How should couples go about doing this as they institutionalize their commitments?
DANSKY: When Barry Safran and I married in 2004, of course, we loved each other and wanted to extend our commitment, but we did so because it was the right side of history. In the five years of our marriage, we received no benefits of any kind, none, nada, but we present ourselves to the LGBT community and the larger society as two men in a loving relationship. Many in the LGBT community see marriage as an oppressive institution, true the history of marriage is about property exchange with women as chattel. I think lesbians and gays can reformulate marriage.
DELATORRE: Is terrorism a byproduct of the disequilibrium between what you describe as “female” and “male” principles?
DANSKY: In my article, “Our Critical Direction,” I wrote, “As we promote our right to marry, let us be guided by life-giving, creativity, and mutuality. I define this as the female principle, as caregiving and concern and foremost the generative power, rather than the male principle of action and overcoming. Actually, humans embody both principles. As complements, each principle necessitates balance, without which there is disequilibrium manifested most by power dominance, violence, and all forms of terrorism.”
DELATORRE: How do you define terrorism?
DANSKY: The Oxford English Dictionary defines a terrorist as “anyone who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation.” Terrorism is by nature political because it involves the acquisition and use of power for the purpose of forcing others to submit, or agree, to demands. I think one of the definitive books on the issue of terrorism is “The Demon Lover,” by Robin Morgan. As one reviewer noted about Morgan’s book, “there is no distinction between ‘state violence’ and ‘terrorism,’ ‘revolutionary’ and ‘terrorist,’ ‘justifiable violence for the cause’ and ‘unjustifiable violence.’ They are all products of a self-perpetuating cycle of power and domination. Violence is an ultimate kind of power and although men have suffered its effects, the majority of them endorse it, validating it as a legitimate political tool. Women’s experience is much different.”
DELATORRE: Johns Hopkins University Professor Dudley Clendinen recently said this: “The gay movement has always had a problem of achieving a dignity or a moral imperative that the black civil rights movement had, or the women’s rights movement claimed. Because this movement is fundamentally about the right to be sexual, it’s hard for the larger public to see that as a moral issue.” Thoughts?
DANSKY: The gay movement was never solely about the right of same-sex-sexuality. Heterosexists have often proclaimed this to be the cases, making false arguments, at best that go something like, “What you do in the bedroom is your business.” This is an attempt to reduce the far-reaching implications of rethinking gender, sexual roles, identity, power dominance, alternate communities, relatedness, aesthetic sensibility, changed marriage and families. The LGBT vision isn’t about sex—we went from the urgency of being able to have sex, despite its illegality last century when we burst onto the stage in 1969 declaring “we will be who we are.”