While perusing the digital collections for pictures for my post on LGBT protest pre-Stonewall, I came across a photo that made me instantly happy:
The sheer joy on that man's face is palpable and his shirt is pretty fabulous too.
The photo is in a collection from Diana Davies, taken in 1971. The photo caption reads: Dance at Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse.
Okay, what is the Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse and how can I find more about this delight-inducing place?
Turns out, before the LGBT Center was even a glimmer in anyone's eye, The Firehouse was established as a place for LGBT folks to come together to talk, organize and party.
The Firehouse was established by an organization called the Gay Activists Alliance. In 1973, The Advocate cited New York's Gay Activists Alliance as a "good model of structure with flexibility." Writer Arthur Evans offered proof of this by saying, "The leaders are personally and intimately known to the general membership and are elected by them."
By far the most popular events were the Saturday night dance parties organized by the appropriately named "Pleasure Committee." The dances even featured on NBC in a documentary about gay liberation.
These dances were one of very few places LGBT folks could go to interact socially and politically. Many of the gay bars at that time were owned by Mafia members who had complicated relationships with the police and who would often blackmail wealthy patrons, threatening to out them to their employers and families. The Firehouse offered events for LGBT people organized and run by LGBT people. Aside from being a top fundraiser for the GAA as well as an ideal outreach and recruitment tool, the dances offered a safe space for LGBT people at the time to have some fun without fear of persecution.
In fact, The GAA was so successful at accomplishing its goal of LGBT mobilization and change that it began to effect its membership. A number of spin-off groups were formed, including the Lesbian Liberation Committee. The separate committees, while offering places for the minority groups within the LGBT communities, did pull members away from the GAA. The GAA also discouraged police harassment of legitimate gay establishments so effectively that a number of modern and sophisticated discotheques began to spring up around the city giving competition to The Firehouse dances.
The Firehouse tragically met its end in a fire on October 15, 1974. The fire set at The Firehouse was determined by firefighters to have been set by "insiders" of the organization who had a set of keys to the building and hoped to cover up the theft of $5,000 worth of electrical equipment (the electrical equipment was $5,000 of the GAA's total $9,000 in assets). However, former president Morty Manford suggested that any of the 16 sets of keys to The Firehouse could have gotten into the wrong hands. Therefore, the arsonists were not necessarily members of the GAA.
No one was ever arrested for the crime, but The Firehouse had already made its mark as a trail-blazer when it came to the assembly of LGBT people and generation of equal rights. Though not a perfect place, the legacy and spirit of The Firehouse lives on in the many LGBT centers and spaces around the country today.