A quick queer history pilgrimage

I’ve been submerged lately in the records of the Gay Activists Alliance, the most prominent gay activist organization in New York City during the early 1970s. From 1971 until the building was heavily damaged by arson in 1974, the GAA was headquartered in a former SoHo firehouse that played host to meetings, dances, film screenings, and a number of other events. Today, I decided to pay a visit.

First, here’s the building in its heyday. (You can also see a color photo in the New York Public Library’s great digital gallery of GAA images.)

The GAA Firehouse at 99 Wooster Street in New York in the early 1970s (cc photo by mountain_man_ny_2)

And here it is today, bracketed by Crocs and Patagonia stores. The building itself houses an art gallery.

The same building today (my photo)

In his 1979 memoir Under the Rainbow: Growing Up Gay, Arnie Kantrowitz, the writer and academic and an early GAA officer, describes the building activists called “The Firehouse”:

The basement held committee meetings. The first floor, where the engines had been stored, was lined with white tile. It made a good hall for general membership meetings. A small spiral stairway led to the second floor, which was used for a snack bar, informal sitting around, and more committee meetings. The top floor was for offices and, of course, still more committee meetings. There was no shortage of meetings. There were so many meetings that, in spite of all the room, space had to be booked in advance.

At the dedication ceremonies in May, 1971, I stood on the spiral staircase and pointed at the new mural that stretched across the tile wall on the first floor in a series of photomontage panels. […] [T]o me it was a family portrait. It was the way we saw ourselves: a homosexual clutching iron bars in anguish (cropped from a picture that revealed the bars to belong to the fence in a public park), Walt Whitman and Gertrude Stein and black militant Huey Newton endorsing our cause, Jim Owles at City Hall, Vito Russo in Albany, Allen Ginsberg, men embracing, women holding hands, slogans such as GAY POWER, GAY PRIDE, AN ARMY OF LOVERS CANNOT LOSE, my erstwhile lover Bud and I holding hands in the streets of Washington, D.C. The mural was something for homosexuals to be proud of.

Kantrowitz then highlights the vital but deeply fraught relationship between the political and the social in the gay movement. The mural, he writes, faded into the background on “Saturday nights,” when “the meeting hall became a dance floor packed with a shoulder-to-shoulder sea of dancers undulating to the deafening blast of soul rock, an awesome sight from halfway up the spiral staircases, which was perpetually too crowded to afford more than a hasty glimpse of all that rhythmic homosexuality.” Indeed, as Alice Echols argues in her flawed-but-interesting new book Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, “The GAA dances suggest the intimate and synergistic connection between gay liberation and gay disco.”