Co-founder of the First Annual Gay Pride March in 1970 and former member of the GLF, Lavender Menace and Radicalesbians
July 2, 2018, 6pm EST and 3pm PST (By phone, Brooklyn, NY to Santa Barbara, CA)
Gwen Shockey: What was the first lesbian or queer-female space that you ever went to, whether it was a lesbian bar or political meeting or a different type of gathering space, and what did it felt like to be there?
Ellen Broidy: Well, there are two things that come to mind. Well, three actually. One from when I was quite young. I’m 72 now. I went to school in The Village – to Elementary School and Junior High – and there was a rumor that there was a donut shop or some sort of coffee shop that was a lesbian space. I can’t remember if it was on 8th street or on 6th avenue. My mother claims that she knew since I was six years old that I was a lesbian so clearly I became aware of it when I was eleven, or twelve or thirteen when I was in school. Since the coffee shop wasn’t far I would go down there after school to see who or what I could spot. I wish I could remember the name of it – maybe it didn’t even have a name – but it was definitely a place that was sort of an informal hangout.
The first bar I was ever in was the Sea Colony. I can’t remember exactly where it was and to be perfectly honest I found it terrifying.
A second space that I was in was when I was involved with a woman who was slightly older than I was and she took me to a DOB (Daughters of Bilitis) meeting and I was terrified at that too. This is terrible and completely politically incorrect but I’ll say it anyway: I’m not a particularly large person and I’m shrinking (so I was at one point larger) but I’m not a large person and I walked in to both of these spaces and these women seemed enormous to me. Physically enormous. Not imposing in the sense that I appreciate now which are large, strong women but these women scared me! I remember this clicking in my head saying, “If this is what it means to be a lesbian, I maybe need to re-compute.” It was a total visceral reaction.
GS: At the time, when you first went to the Sea Colony, were you out to friends? Were you in school? What were the circumstances for you then?
EB: I was probably 18 years old and I shouldn’t have been in there to begin with! The reality of it is Shirley Willer who was the president of DOB probably was 5’ 3” and weighed about 105 pounds but that was just not the image that was projected for my 18-year-old self. So in the search for community my first tentative forays were, “Oh no!” I’m going to get my chronology all screwed up but when I lived at NYU on Barrow Street there was a club a couple of doors down from my apartment. I think I lived at 29 Barrow, which had a lot of gay people (both men and women) and that was a more positive experience for me. The people were more mixed and closer to my age. Age was a significant factor in this because for every year that these women had on me I must have added ten pounds to them
GS: It’s so interesting that you describe it in this way. Are you a very visual person?
EB: I’m a completely literary person! That feeling was overwhelming more than powerful. It wasn’t that I was seeing the power in them, I was seeing how overwhelmed I was. I think if I had been able or had the consciousness at that point to turn it around in my head I would have thought that these were powerful women instead of just a really big woman. That would have changed the whole narrative for me.
GS: So, did you end up returning to the Sea Colony or was it a one-shot deal for you?
EB: No, no I was there more than once but I was young and I don’t drink (I never have) and I don’t smoke. I play pool ok but I didn’t do some of the other bar kinds of things. I had female lovers in high school. All of them are completely straight now except one who I believe is a lesbian. I was well aware of my sexuality the question was where did the sexuality fit and where did my identity fit within anything I could or wanted to construe as community?
GS: I myself often feel this way – not wanting a community based around drinking and desiring a community with a shared belief system or just other interests. Did you find that more in politics?
EB: Yes. I found that more in what we initially called the Student Homophile League at NYU which then turned into Gay Students Liberation, which I was the president of and then at GLF (Gay Liberation Front) and Radicalesbians. Although we ostensibly came together to make a revolution part of the impetus was to form a community.
GS: Can you talk a little bit about how you found your way into these groups initially?
EB: There was small group of us at NYU bizarrely enough in the classics department. Rita Mae Brown and I were in the classics department together at the same time at NYU. There were a couple other people – one guy with the improbable name of Tom Brown – and another young man who’s name I don’t remember who was very involved in an Episcopal support group for gay people. I worked at the American Language Institute when I was in college. I taught in a language lab and the director of the program was this intense guy named Fred Malkemis. He had faculty status and agreed to sponsor this Student Homophile League. We were able to get a room in the student center, advertise and have meetings once or twice a month. This was pre-Stonewall – maybe 1967 or 1968. The summer of Stonewall I was sharing a house with my then partner and four other women who were considerably older: Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen, who was her partner, Ros Regelson and Elenore Lester. We had this house on Fire Island which we split like 97 ways and we would go on weekends. I remember how I encountered these women… I worked at the Oscar Wilde bookstore on Mercer Street right down the street from NYU. I met Barbara and Kay both of whom were living in Philadelphia and then through Barbara and Kay I met Ros and Elenore. So, we spent that summer at the Pines and in the midst of all of this, two things happened that we managed to absolutely miss: Woodstock and Stonewall! Two markers of my generation! So, at the end of the Summer when Linda and I came back to the city we found out about this group called the Gay Liberation Front at Alternate U, which was on 14th street and we just started going and met all of these people, some of whom I’m exceedingly fond of and still in contact with, others were a bit sketchy but I still have good feelings about and others if I never see again it will be three days too soon!
GS: When you were out on Fire Island did you hear about Stonewall at all?
EB: Yes, we did because we were only there for the weekend we were in the city during the week. Since it was mostly a weekend community anyway people would come in from the city and there was a lovely ferry that you had to take from Fire Island to Long Island to get home and it was affectionately called “the bucket of blood” because everybody was in terrible shape on Sunday morning. People were talking about Stonewall. These houses were rented mostly by men and there would be about 12 people to a house so there was a lot of coming and going and a lot of people and a lot of conversation. There was a lot of rumor but some of it panned out into fact.
GS: When you were first involved in GLF and then Lavender Menace did you find there was a split along gender lines within activism?
EB: There wasn’t really a division in the beginning because we were all so new to it and a lot of people had come out of same-sex groups like Mattachine or DOB and I had been involved with the anti-war movement at NYU which of course was a mixed group but other than the folks who had come out of that environment self-identified gay men and lesbians working together was a brand-new thing! I never found Mattachine to be particularly welcoming. I did an oral history with Stephen Palmer at The Center in New York and I was reflecting on my relationship with Craig Rodwell and I realized that before Stonewall Craig started an organization called the Homophile Youth Movement or “HYM”. Already then we had an issue of where “her” belonged in the “him”.
GS: I am curious to hear about your involvement organizing the first Pride March with Craig Rodwell and Fred Sargeant.
EB: Linda (Rhodes) and I were good friends with Craig. We tended to overlook the smaller things that bothered us like the HYM abbreviation and his newsletter called Hymnal. At any rate working with them was fine. I remember being in Craig’s apartment on Christopher Street and putting together the statement we were going to make in Philadelphia at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations and we decided that I would actually make the proposal to create this march because Craig was the real lightening rod. There were people there who I guess would describe themselves as being more progressive and we just felt it would not have gone over as well if he had presented it. So that’s how I ended up with my 30 seconds of fame. I stood up and although I can’t remember what it said verbatim but I raised my hand (we were probably doing some perverted version of Robert’s Rules of Order) and I asked for the floor and I read this out and there was some conversation about it. It was controversial from both the right and the left – from the left because people looked at Craig as being very single-issue-oriented and from the right it was much the same criticism because it was in sort of the language of revolution. There were demonstrations that had gone on for several years at Independence Hall where women in dresses and men in suits basically paraded around asking not to be discriminated against in Federal Government jobs. This included Barbara Gittings and Foster Gunnison who were a generation ahead of me. So this proposal I put forward was to dispense with those polite demonstrations and replace them with a march for liberation.
GS: One thing that really struck me while reading about the proposal was that you called it a demonstration and how much it’s changed over the years.
EB: You know, I don’t recognize it anymore. I’m going to Stonewall 50 but the last few parades I’ve been in have been completely accidental. We’d been at a conference in New York in June and we just ended up at the parade and it was unrecognizable. We had 2,500 people on Saturday in Santa Barbara at the demonstration against ICE, which is sort of amazing for a town of this size and it was just wonderful to see hand written signs again.
GS: I did really want to talk to you about this because I think there is a lot of sentiment in the community here around the parade and that it has sort of lost its roots a little bit.
EB: I mean on the one hand it is wonderful that corporations are buying advertisements that are covered in the rainbow flag but on another hand it’s just pure capitalism. This is a large community with some degree of disposable income so why the hell not. But that’s not my definition of revolution.
GS: There has been talk amongst friends of mine of not wanting to participate in it anymore because it does feel so assimilationist. I don’t know if you have ever gone to the Dyke March? That for me has more of a feeling of perhaps what it felt like to march years ago.
EB: I haven’t been in years! When Lesbian Avengers was still around making their t-shirts “Lesbian Avengers: Yes We Recruit” and teaching people to eat fire… I mean I was an older generation than that too but I understand what you’re saying and feeling a greater kinship with that sort of grassroots, in your face kind of action.
GS: How did you organize for the first pride march in 1970?
EB: Well, once the conference approved the idea the march just sort of took off on its own! There were clearly people who had some knowledge about how to negotiate police permits, the park, starting points, ending points… but the march was in the Spring and this conference was in the early Fall so between the Fall and the Spring lots of things happened that in some ways were quieter but to my mind more significant than the march. There were other kinds of street actions and demonstrations that kept alive this whole idea of gay liberation. I remember two specific ones. One in particular because I almost got expelled. I don’t remember if we were still the Student Homophile League at that point but we booked the multi-purpose room in our dorm for a dance and when the university discovered who we were they broke the contract so we took over the dorm. We barricaded it and they called the NYU police. We were in there for several days and it was kind of touching because there were all of these young students on the phone with their parents saying, “Mom, you can’t believe what’s going on here! It’s so cool!” A lot of people from STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) joined us, I went to a GLF meeting on a Sunday night to get people to come down and we never did have the dance. I don’t remember how they got us out of there but they did and I got a not-so-polite invitation to go see the dean of undergraduate studies to discuss my remaining career as a student. They did not expel me but I got called out. This was in 1969. There was the first women’s dance – we had dances at Alternate U and Holy Apostles – the first dance was at Alternate U right after Kent State. In fact, we debated cancelling and I wrote a piece for Come Out called “A Time to Dance and A Time to Mourn” talking about our decision to go forward with the dance. I had all the proceeds in my pocket when these two men showed up and came up the stairs, they never showed us badges but showed us their guns. We had attempted in the weeks before the dance to publicize it in the bars by handing out flyers. There were two main women’s bars then called Gianni’s and Kooky’s which were both mafia run. Kooky was marvelous, her hair was like three feet high – she made Dolly Parton look like she had a marine crew cut! She threatened us though. She basically said, “I’d sure hate to see you gals’ group broken up!” She did that when we tried to leaflet the bar. We got chased out of all the subway stops. She threatened us in English and Sicilian. I was with Linda Rhodes, Michela Griffo, maybe Marge Hoffman and maybe Ellen Shumsky. That’s who I sort of remember. Things were quiet until very early after the dance ended these two guys showed up there was at least one woman there undocumented from Cuba. We got her out and several of us got down the back stairs. We were literally running for our lives! We called the men from GLF not particularly wanting to do that but we needed somebody on the outside to know what was going on and as quickly as they arrived they left. They were there to make a point. That was the point of being armed.
GS: How did that affect you and your strategizing and organizing following?
EB: Well, I was aware for some time that this was not safe. The cops would raid the bars and I remember Linda screaming at me one night from across Gianni’s that the cops were coming and we couldn’t get arrested because of our dogs. But this incident brought it home on a whole different level. The mafia controlled everything – the liquor commission, the cigarette machines, the vending machines but it was all terribly abstract until Kooky’s threat and this instrumentalization of Kooky’s threat.
GS: Yeah, I mean there is a big difference between being verbally threatened and seeing firearms and being chased.
EB: And to sort of understand something about who runs these places and getting a full-on view of it. Because we threatened their bottom line no question. The dance was mobbed. Absolutely mobbed.
GS: Did you ever experience a police raid?
EB: Oh yeah, I was in bars when police came in. You unplugged the jukebox and said there’s no dancing here. The times I witnessed it they would leave right away. Other people of course had more profound experiences and were loaded in the paddy wagon but that never happened to me I never managed to get arrested. This was at Gianni’s.
GS: I’m reading a book right now called The Mafia and the Gays about the different mafia families and their involvement with the bars but it’s so different hearing personal accounts of incidents and being in this really tough spot between wanting spaces and having them be so controlled and regulated on not on your terms necessarily. There were several protests against the mafia control of the bars if I’m not mistaken?
EB: Yeah. But I wasn’t involved in any of those. Another example though of events that took place between the formation of GLF and the first march was a raid on a bar and a lot of people got taken to the 6th precinct and a young man who was also not in the country documented name Diego Vinales jumped out of a window and was impaled by the fencing around and all of the sudden tons of people came out to demonstrate. And then of course the Lavender Menace actions which were political in a different way because we were trying to speak to people who should have been our allies and the mafia and police didn’t fall into that category.
GS: From what I hear and the names I’ve been reading about it seems like there is a lot of overlap and it was a small community involved in these different political groups.
EB: As someone once said, “There are only 200 of us. It’s all done with mirrors.” It was the same women at all the dances. It was a small fairly tight-knit group but as I see there are a couple of Facebook groups which are actually pretty large and I’m not familiar with at least two thirds of the names. I also left New York after the first march when I moved to California and I’ve been there ever since. I moved for graduate school.
GS: I so appreciate you Ellen and the work you did and continue to do. Thank you so much for speaking with me and I cannot thank you enough honestly.
EB: It’s fine! My whole focus has changed now though. Now I’m focusing mostly on immigrant issues because of the community I am a part of here.
GS: There just isn’t enough time for all the demonstrations that are needed right now in this political climate.
EB: After this past week if we could take a magic pill and end up in Amsterdam I would go in a heartbeat. It’s too scary here now. America at large. Anyhow, I am interested that we are coming up on the 50th, there is a lot of activity around it which is wonderful and what I’m hoping for and what you seem to be doing that I truly appreciate is kind of reinvigorating lesbian visibility. It is a woman-identified identity.
I have to say sort of in closing that what I’m feeling now in regard to younger generations and notions of queerness is not so different from how I am sure those women that terrified me when I was first coming out felt about me. It’s created in my own mind more of an understanding of myself, how I thought I knew everything and I feel humbled thinking back to those women. On one level I’m completely pissed off by all of it and on another I completely understand it.