John Knoebel, founding GLF member
Member of the “Femmes against Sexism” and “Gay Male Group,” New York City transplant John Knoebel wasn’t a virgin to rebellion for long. The Gay Liberation Front member recalls co-authoring “The Effeminist Manifesto,” the early days of anti-war activism, wrestling with Panthers, and the blood and sweat behind the ink that made the revolution.
CHRIS DELATORRE: You’re the VP of Consumer Marketing for the nation’s two largest LGBT magazines, The Advocate and Out. How does it feel to have a bird’s eye on what young gay people are reading?
JOHN KNOEBEL: I am not sure where you get the opinion that any of the national gay press today is read by young gay people. Print media in the gay community is encountering the same fate as that in the nation at large, namely, it is read faithfully by an older generation of readers. The average age of the readers of most magazines and newspapers in the US is over 45. Hence the necessity for today’s gay publications to have robust online counterparts that, for better or worse, are needed to attract the younger reader. The gay print media is another area of gay life today with a clear division between an older “Stonewall Generation” and the newer generation of younger gays and lesbians. Gay people who came to adulthood in the heady days after 1969 feel strongly about the importance of a gay identity, the gay press and the many gay political, arts, sports, and other community organizations that they worked so hard to form. Although there are exceptions, it’s more and more clear that today’s youth generation finds the importance of gay identity far less compelling, if not totally passé.
DELATORRE: 1969. 2009. What’s changed? What hasn’t?
KNOEBEL: Here we go on familiar territory again. The difference between 1969 and now is the incredible move from invisibility to visibility. When I moved to New York City in 1969, here — as in other cities — the gay and lesbian bar was the central institution of gay life. No choruses, no softball leagues, no internet sites, no gay publications. We were still largely cut-off from ourselves and from other gay people — on our knees in the confessional, on our backs for shock therapy, herded into paddy wagons by the police, totally closeted at work. Rejected by our families, or at least estranged from them, we came to New York as refugees from all the many small towns and cities across America hoping that the anonymity of the big city might provide some measure of freedom within which to live our gay lives.
DELATORRE: You moved to NYC to attend NYU Graduate School in July of 1969 — one week after Stonewall. How were you first involved with Gay Liberation Front?
KNOEBEL: That first weekend I was walking in the Village and someone handed me a leaflet about a gathering in Washington Square Park to protest the police action at the Stonewall Bar. My first reaction was honestly to wonder how the guy knew I was gay. I didn’t go to that event, but within a few short months I did find my way to a gay bar, came out sexually, and learned about this new gay organization, GLF, that my new friends said I had to check out. Already something of an anti-war activist from my college days in Madison Wisconsin, I did feel immediately drawn to the radical energy of GLF and started attending meetings in November 1969. To my surprise, two of my classmates at NYU were also at the meetings. One of them, Karla Jay, was actually the chairperson of the month, which meant calling on speakers and keeping order by pounding a baseball bat on the wooden floor of the meeting hall. I shortly moved in with Karla and Allen in the apartment they shared on the upper west side.
For the next few months, I became a student of gay politics, participated in numerous street demonstrations and very energetically “came out” in the movement. I looked forward eagerly to our first really major public action, the Gay Pride March, to be held on the one-year anniversary of Stonewall on the last Sunday in June of 1970. However on the Friday night before the March, I was gay bashed in the Village with four of my friends, and ended up in Bellevue Hospital getting 14 stitches on my face. Nonetheless, on Sunday we made the March, pushing our friend Peter Ruffit, who had suffered a broken ankle in the attack, in a wheel chair all the way to Central Park. At the next GLF meeting, I rose to give the details about our attack — my first time speaking at a meeting. Afterward, members of a newly-formed GLF living collective came up and asked me if I would be interested in moving in with them on West 95th Street.
The nine months I spent in the 95th Street Collective marked my true immersion in the gay liberation movement. In the collective, we took seriously our goal of finding new ways to live as gay men in a communal environment. We worked hard at being equals, sharing money, ideas, cooking and cleaning at the same time taking on many responsibilities for GLF. We emerged as an unofficial meeting place for GLF consciousness-raising groups and other meetings. We set-up the first GLF phone in our apartment and took turns taking the hundreds of calls per week that it soon generated. We set up a GLF speaker’s bureau and spoke at numerous high schools and colleges in the area. We became an information center about GLF actions and helped build the phone tree system that we used to alert members about demonstrations. By each member calling 5 to 10 other members, we were able to mobilize street actions within a few hours to respond to events, such as the police raid on the Snake Pit bar where a frightened illegal immigrant among those arrested jumped out of the second story window of the station house and impaled himself on an iron fence below.
We ran a gay coffee house/drop-in center on Sundays on West 82nd St. We helped organize and acted as monitors for an August 1970 demonstration against police harassment in Times Square, an action that ended with two nights of major street riots in the Village. We organized transportation for GLF members to the two sessions of the Black Panthers “Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Conventions” in Philadelphia and Washington DC in the Fall of 1970. We helped locate and then clean and paint the space for the first GLF Community Center which opened on West 3rd Street in the Village in early Dec 1970. All of these items have long and interesting stories associated with them that the space of this interview unfortunately doesn’t allow me to cover.
DELATORRE: Do you keep up with any other original GLF members?
KNOEBEL: Many of my male friends and colleagues from the early days died of AIDS. Those remaining are now a very scattered tribe. I still remain close to my best friend from those days, Steven Dansky.
DELATORRE: What would you say characterizes the age gap between younger and older gay men in 2009? Do you see any differences in attitudes toward age now, as compared with during the early Gay Rights Movement?
KNOEBEL: No real difference. Then as now, we live in a gay culture that values youth and beauty. This is human nature.
DELATORRE: In Karla Jay’s 2000 memoir Tales of the Lavender Menace your younger self is described by one of the characters as a “grub.” Did you read the book and, if so, what was your reaction to your portrayal? Did you contribute to the book in any way?
KNOEBEL: I don’t remember this comment in the book, but I don’t think I could ever have been described as a “grub.” Karla gave me an early look at the book and I gave her lots of positive feedback. She remembered a lot of actions we worked on together that I had forgotten about and it was joy to read about them again.
DELATORRE: Are you wearing horn-rimmed glasses right now? I have to ask, because it’s a good look for you. Am I ingratiating myself?
KNOEBEL: Yes and yes.
DELATORRE: You’re a member of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.
KNOEBEL: I’ve been singing with gay choruses in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York since 1980. I love singing and have had some of the most satisfying experiences in my life singing in these choruses. People may not be aware of this, but the gay and lesbian chorale movement has commissioned hundreds of pieces of new music in the past 30 years. When we perform inspired repertoire that expresses our lives and our politics we truly change the lives of our audiences. This is a legacy that will live on. In recent months, The NYC Gay Men’s Chorus has had the opportunity to sing at events like the recent Defying Inequality fundraisers in support of gay marriage.
DELATORRE: Are you a rebel at heart?
KNOEBEL: I’d say that I was an incredible rebel in my youth. I sometimes scare myself when I think of the risks I took with my life in those first five years of gay liberation. I still feel passionately about gay identity. I love being with gay men and lesbians. I am very proud of what we have accomplished.
DELATORRE: The early GLF days were rife with revolutionary publications – Red Butterfly, Gay Flames, Faggotry, Off our Backs and RAT, to name a few. Rebellion was in the air and in the ink. The evolution of the gay publication from The Ladder could be an interview in itself, but can you abbreviate for us?
KNOEBEL: Of course, The Advocate predates Stonewall by two years, as it was started in 1967 and continues to this day in its role as the national gay and lesbian news magazine. But if you limit this discussion to only “revolutionary” publications, then GLF’s own newspaper started in the Fall of 1969, Come Out!, was the first to see itself as a political journal for wide circulation. Published by GLF’s Come Out! collective, its eight issues contained important articles on the issues of gay and lesbian liberation, gender, activism, outreach to other radical movements, racism and much more. As the outgrowth of the leftist cell within GLF, Red Butterfly published many leaflets and position papers. Gay Flames was started by GLF member, Allen Young, as a series of leaflets, but became more of a magazine as the months went by. A compilation of Gay Flames, called the Gay Flames Packet, was the first real anthology of important gay writings.
Although a few important articles by gay and lesbian activists were published in Rat, such as Steven Dansky’s “Hey Man!” it was not a gay publication, but rather a newspaper produced by leftist community organizers on the lower east side. Faggotry was a single-issue magazine edited and written by Steven Dansky, who subsequently joined me and Kenneth Pitchford in publishing Double F: a Magazine of Effeminism, which gave voice to our politics about gay men in support of feminism — that’s where we published our important document, “The Effeminist Manifesto.” Other periodicals outside New York that gave voice to radical gay politics included Boston’s Fag Rag and an important early lesbian feminist newspaper, Off Our Backs, published in Washington DC.
DELATORRE: GLF convened a meeting with Black Panther co-founder and leader Huey Newton at Jane Fonda’s penthouse. You were there. Give us the scoop.
KNOEBEL: Shortly after his release from prison in 1970, Huey Newton released an important essay entitled, “A Letter from Huey Newton to the Revolutionary Brothers and Sisters about the Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation Movements,” which is considered the first pro-gay, pro-woman proclamation to come out of the black civil rights movement.
In it, Huey Newton asked Panthers to confront their prejudices and re-examine their attitudes towards women and homosexuals. He stated, “We [Panthers] have not said much about the homosexual at all, but we must relate to the homosexual movement because it is a real thing. And I know through reading, and through my life experience and observations that homosexuals are not given freedom and liberty by anyone in the society. They might be the most oppressed people in the society.” Later in the letter, he said, “there is nothing to say that a homosexual cannot also be a revolutionary. And maybe I’m now injecting some of my prejudice by saying that “even a homosexual can be a revolutionary.” Quite the contrary, maybe a homosexual could be the most revolutionary.”
These were powerful sentiments to come from a leader of the Black Power movement at this time. GLF’s support for the Panthers had long been a contentious issue within GLF, ever since a consensus of sorts to support the Panthers in November of 1969 had been largely responsible for the split off of GAA. The essay received wide attention among gay liberationists after its release in August of 1970 and was highly influential in providing a perceived new basis to work more closely with the black movement, despite the known homophobia of so many Panther members.
In New York, the Panthers had a highly influential spokeswoman in Afeni Shakur (future mother of rap artist, Tupac Shakur), who was responsible for developing a genuine rapport between the Panthers and GLF at this time. In September of 1970, Afeni contacted GLF with the news that, while he was in New York City to do press engagements, Huey Newton would like to meet with members of GLF to discuss possible joint demonstrations with gay liberation. Some GLF members objected to the meeting, either doubting its sincerity or questioning the idea of an alliance with the Panther movement. Others were interested in attending, but could not do so on such short notice. In the end, GLF put forward three members to go: myself, Nikos Diaman and a transgender journalist, Angela Douglas. We were not particularly qualified to go, but we all were well aware of GLF’s politics, past history with the Panthers and its generally positive attitude toward Huey’s recent letter.
The meeting was to take place in connection with a press conference being held at Jane Fonda’s Upper East Side penthouse, and we were told to get there on the early side. Books now say that Jane Fonda and Huey Newton were having a brief affair and the location that day was no accident. When we arrived, the elevator opened directly into Fonda’s apartment and we were greeted by her daughter, Vanessa, who was screaming, three years old and innocently naked. Jane Fonda herself appeared, gave us a gracious hello and quickly pulled her daughter back into a further room to get dressed. Afeni came out to host us for the rest of the event. Camera crews arrived and we sat in the back of the large, very crowded living room as Huey Newton gave an eloquent speech, answering questions from the national press corp.
As the cameras were being broken down, Afeni told us to be patient, as Huey wanted to speak with us after he took a shower. Within minutes, Huey arrived shirtless, still drying himself with a bath towel. I remember him as a very attractive individual, well-built and with particularly striking eyes. We wondered later if he’d been intentionally showing off. The conversation wasn’t long. Huey clearly had a few things he wanted to tell us. First off, he referred to his recent letter concerning gay liberation. He said that while in prison he had become acquainted with gay brothers who had talked to him at length and were largely responsible for a change in his thinking about gay people. He said that when he returned to Oakland, he intended to move the headquarters of the Black Panthers to Harlem, as he felt they should be located in the historic home of urban black Americans. Finally, as Afeni had alerted us, he proposed that we organize joint demonstrations between GLF and the Panthers in the months ahead. We then spent a few more minutes commenting on his letter, asking for more details about how he saw us working together. We tried to ask more about his experiences in prison, but the conversation wasn’t easy and Huey excused himself rather quickly. Not a whole lot had been accomplished. The move to Harlem never became a reality and, after his return to Oakland, Huey quickly became involved in trying to regain some of the leadership role that had been taken over by others during his stay in prison. None of the proposed joint demonstrations were ever held in New York.
Nonetheless, our reports of this meeting did a lot to further positive sentiment within New York GLF to accept the Panther’s invitation to participate in the Revolutionary People’s Constitutional Convention — a Panther-inspired idea for radicals from many different movements to gather to write a new people’s constitution. Two sessions were held, the first in Philadelphia in early September 1970 and another over Thanksgiving weekend in Washington DC. I estimate a group of 40 or so New Yorkers attended the first session in Philadelphia. We were joined by dozens of other gay and lesbian GLF delegates from cities across the nation, including many from Boston, Milwaukee, San Francisco, Chicago, Lawrence KS, Tallahassee FL, and other places in between. In fact, an important side outcome of the Philadelphia convention was the opportunity it provided for what was in effect the first national gay liberation gathering. The weekend convention was poorly organized, and so included many hours waiting for Panther events. As a result, GLF members had large meetings with long discussions of gay liberation politics that energized the movement in the months to follow.
In Philadelphia, the seemingly omnipresent Afeni Shakur again acted as the Panther’s main representative to GLF and provided logistics around meetings and events connected to the convention held at Temple University. I attended sessions where our group prepared a position paper on behalf of the “male homosexual workshop” for inclusion in our section of the proposed constitution. A discussion ensued when Afeni unexpectedly told the gathering that, before we could present our statement, we would have to vote as group to approve the statement that “the Black Panthers were the vanguard of the revolution.” Some GLF members felt offended to have to vote for a revolutionary pecking order. Dan Smith from New York was particularly eloquent in describing the revolution as a multi-pronged movement with many groups working towards a revolution in equally important ways. In the end, a spirit of pragmatism prevailed and the group voted for the statement, just to move ahead with the process.
Elsewhere, the lesbians from GLF were not fairing as well. Incidents between the women and individual Panthers ensued. A long-scheduled lesbian workshop was dropped from the Panther agenda at the last minute. After more of the same, the lesbians departed telling us to stay behind and deal with Panther sexism on our own. The men of GLF did get to read their demands on the convention floor and an enthusiastic coterie of GLF delegates who had somehow managed to squeeze into the vastly overcrowded hall, greeted the gay speakers with cheers and gay power chants.
Over Thanksgiving weekend in Washington, D.C., the work of the convention proceeded. Although originally scheduled at Howard University, it was instead held at several smaller churches, including St Stephen’s and Trinity Church. GLF held long sessions to finalize our plank which had morphed into a platform from the Third World Gay Revolution caucus. On Saturday night, a delegation of 15 or so GLF members, under leadership of third world members, went to St. Stephen’s church to attempt to present our 16-point program to the Panthers, but the chaos and crowd at the church made any such presentation impossible. We left the weekend with a sense of frustration. No one was quite sure how much further we would be involved in this process. Once again it seemed that the most productive outcome of the weekend for GLF were the vigorous sessions we held among ourselves to discuss gay liberation issues.
Perhaps another small side incident, however, would prove to be a little more interesting story of that Washington weekend. I was part of a large contingent of about 75 of the GLF members from around the country. We were housed for the weekend under Panther protection at the chapel on the grounds of American University. Security for convention delegates was much more in evidence in Washington, as there was clearly a larger perceived threat of violence against the convention by police in the nation’s capitol. Intimidating, probably armed Panthers, all of whom seemed to us particularly tall and burly, patrolled the grounds around the chapel where we were bedded down on the floor for the night. I recall the group made some attempt at discussions about the next day’s sessions until around 10pm, but we were all rather subdued as they told us we could not leave the building until the next morning. Then at about 11pm, Panther guards came in and announced that, due to a change of plans, someone they called “Big Man” would need to stay at our facility that night. A rumor went around that this was possibly the editor of the Black Panther newspaper. In any event, we were given 20 minutes to go through our belongings and hand-in any drugs or weapons we had in our possession “to avoid any potential problems with the police.”
After some initial resistance, rustlings through backpacks began and small dime bags of grass and plastic bottles with stray blue and yellow pills began to be handed in. However, no one was expecting what happened next. One of us—a thin, black kid from Philadelphia — produced a handgun, which he dutifully placed on the pile. To say we were shocked that one of us actually had a gun would be an understatement. “Big Man” never did show up, but a warm glow of being true revolutionaries spread throughout GLF that night.
DELATORRE: Taking all of these amazing experiences, reflecting on your life, what’s the one lesson to leave for future generations?
KNOEBEL: While there are many important civil rights for gay people that I want now, and will work towards — including marriage — I still believe that sexism is the core issue. Gay men’s ultimate fate is tied to transformation of the position of women in society. The struggle against male supremacy will take a very long time. It’s a road with many turnings, false starts and disappointments. It’s much too soon to feel complacent about what we have achieved.