“I think our movement could learn from what happened 40 years ago, but it looks like we haven’t. ”
So says gay writer and activist Tommi Avicolli Mecca, speaking about his new book, “Smash the Church, Smash the State!” a collection of essays from writers, artists and activists sharing their varied and diverse perspectives about the early days of the gay-rights movement.
Mecca, a Philadelphia native and former PGN editor who now lives in San Francisco, said it took him about a year and a half to collect the essays. Having lived through that era as he came of age in a South Philadelphia working-class Italian family during the late 1950s and ’60s, Mecca said he didn’t expect the writers’ recollections of that era to be so even-keeled.
“I was surprised by the fact that nobody really dredged up the old conflicts that we had,” he said. “There were a lot of conflicts in the movement 40 years ago. I guess, when I was putting this together, I was a little worried that it was going to get too personal, but it really doesn’t. People are really good at being able to put those battles in perspective. They are able to look back at them and reflect on them in a way that’s constructive.”
“Smash” is both a celebratory and critical tome, as many of the writers, including Mecca, often lament the issues and divisions within the gay-rights movement that haven’t been resolved in the 40 years since the Stonewall Riots.
The book collects 49 essays and historical documents from Mecca, Susan Stryker, Hal Tarr, Cei Bell, Barbara Ruth, PGN publisher Mark Segal and contributor Victoria Brownworth, among others, with topics ranging from RadicalQueens to lesbian feminism.
“Class issues are still unresolved in our community,” Mecca said. “There’s still sexism, racism and transphobia. All those things still plague us in the movement. It’s good that the book points out that these are struggles that have been going on for 40 years. Maybe it’ll help wake people to the fact that we need to really start dealing with them.”
“Smash” also ponders whether it is better for gays and lesbians to work from within the systems they are trying to change. The book’s title refers to the rallying cry for many LGBT groups in those days: “2, 4, 6, 8, smash the church, smash the state!” Forty years later, those battle lines have blurred as some factions of both the church and state have embraced the LGBT community and vice versa. There are now openly gay religious leaders and politicians, but Mecca and a few other writers in the book are wary, if not critical, of those alliances and the issues of assimilation they represent.
“If people want to be part of the state and the church, that’s their right,” he said. “Personally, I’m an atheist and have been since I was 16 years old. I’ve never wanted a state job or wanted to run for office but I understand that that is part of our struggle: to be accepted in all those spheres. Personally, that’s not where I am. I’d like to see us get past religion and see humanity as a whole get to a different place than where they are now. I find religion problematic because even if religion accepts us as queer, there are still some problems. The whole things with guilt, sexuality and its attitudes toward women, it’s all problematic. I have problems with the state. I recognize that we have to be organized in some way. But I’m an anarcho-socialist. I’m not comfortable with any ideology. I lean more toward some kind of blend of anarchy and socialism. I’d like to see us become a society where people have to be paid a wage that they can survive on.”
The recent fight for marriage equality, especially in California, reopened a rift between gay activists and civil-rights activists in the African-American community, with some of the latter resenting the idea of the gay-rights movement comparing itself to the struggle for civil rights.
Mecca, along with some of the other contributors, said the civil-rights movement was so powerful and effective that it influenced every movement that came after it.
“No two struggles are exactly alike and the civil-rights movement was the great teacher for everybody,” he said. “The anti-war movement learned from the civil-rights struggle, and the women’s movement did too. What [Martin Luther] King did in the South in the 1950s was a blueprint for all of us.”
Mecca added that the stories in “Smash” detail how many of the gay-rights organizations of the era evolved after taking the civil-rights blueprint and running with it.
“I think it’s important to know where we came from,” he said. “It’s important to know what the homophile movement of the 1950s and ’60s had done. I think it’s important that activists today know that after the Stonewall Riots in 1969, we were a radical movement and we were looking for some pretty radical social change. And we shook up the world. We didn’t just shake up America: We shook up the whole world. We were so defiant and outrageous in our tactics, and we had to be. There was no other way that we could have done what we did without being as outrageous and forceful as we were — things like Mark Segal disrupting Walter Cronkite on the ‘Evening News,’ the GLF [Gay Liberation Front] New York staging protests at a lot of media outlets, the GLF Los Angeles disrupting the American Psychiatric Association Convention. These were all things that, at the time, were tactics being used by the anti-war movement, the Black Panthers and the radical women’s movement. But it was the first time that the queer movement started using these kinds of tactics. The homophile movement didn’t use them. The most they did was march around Independence Hall in Philly every July 4. And that was considered radical in 1964 to do that. I laugh at it now because it seems funny that marching around Independence Hall in suits and dress would seem radical. We come along five years later and we’re not just marching, we’re disrupting things.”
In a time when LGBT individuals and issues are featured in the news and on TV shows and have an audience with politicians, Mecca said “Smash” is a reminder that there was a time when gays and lesbians were invisible in any form of mainstream media.
“They didn’t pay attention to us at all until we started confronting them,” he said. “When I first came out, back then, the newspapers never covered us. The Inquirer wouldn’t cover us even though we would do something. It wasn’t really until we started disrupting TV shows and the media started realizing we weren’t going to let them ignore us that the media opened up. Politicians were the same way. It wasn’t until we started going after them, targeting them, protesting and shouting at them at their rallies that they started meeting with and paying attention to us. Our pushing helped open the door to the Democratic Party. A lot of things are better today and kids coming out today do have it easier. Not to say that it’s perfect. A lot of kids still get thrown out of their house, but I do think all of the changes that have been made were set [in motion] by what we did 40 years ago.”
Indeed. Gay activists today even have the ear of the president, despite that he doesn’t seem to be throwing enough effort into backing all of the issues that won him LGBT support on the campaign trail. Still, Mecca said the ability for activists to get the president to address LGBT issues at all is a triumph.
“Young people today need to appreciate the kind of work that made the Democratic Party as supportive as it is,” he said. “We can criticize it — and I’m the first one to criticize Obama and the Democratic Party on what they’re not doing — but we’ve got to recognize all the things they do are because of the things we did. It’s the same with the media. I’m the first one to trash the hell out of the corporate media because I hate the mainstream media. It’s just awful, especially TV news. It’s a joke. But at the same time, they cover us. It’s only because of what we did.”
Yet, Mecca added, this doesn’t mean activists shouldn’t try to press their allies on these issues.
“I don’t think we should ever stop criticizing,” he said. “I’m a firm believer that you acknowledge what someone is doing but you keep pushing. If you don’t keep pushing, then you don’t get more. It becomes stagnant and people don’t give you more. I want to keep pushing and pushing [Obama]. To me it’s not about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ To me, it’s about things that don’t seem to affect our community, but they do — like affordable housing, a living wage, jobs and national healthcare. They affect the working class and poor of our community. Those are the things that I’d like to see the queer movement pushing more for. Because it’s all well and good that he issued a gay Pride proclamation. It’s all well and good that he’s giving domestic-partner benefits to domestic workers. These things are great, but it’s not enough, especially if we’re going to talk about class issues. It feels like everything we do is for the middle class or better. Unless we’re fighting for economic justice, I don’t think we’re doing our job as gay activists.”
With so many internal issues still prevalent within the movement for gay rights, Mecca, with his long and rich history and perspective as an activist, isn’t too optimistic that the issues of class, race and sexism can be resolved any time soon.
“Being human beings, I don’t think we’ll ever get over division,” he said. “I think it’s the curse of being human. I think it’s a matter of how we deal with those divisions. There are constructive and destructive ways. I think the battle over ENDA two years ago when Barney Frank and the HRC decided to leave out transgenders was a destructive way to deal with our differences: Our community is a very diverse one, more than just gay men and lesbians.”