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Gay roots: Talking with early activist Philip Raia
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Owen Keehnen

This article shared 981 times since Tue Nov 15, 2016
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I met Philip Raia in October when he visited Chicago for the Legacy PRoject dedication of the Sylvia Rivera plaque on Halsted Street. Philip came up from Florida and his friend, transgender activist Judy Bowen, came in from Las Vegas as rePResentatives who knew Rivera. Their stories and their work as pioneers of modern LGBT history were thrilling to me. I talked with each of them separately, eager to learn more.

Philip Raia was there for it all. He lived on the corner of Christopher and Gay Streets in 1969. He was an early member of the Gay Liberation Front and eventually broke off to help lead another group, The Gay Activist's Alliance. As part of that group's Pleasure Committee, Raia helped organize the first gay PRide parade, Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, in June of 1970. The same day he and Judy also broke the record for the longest kiss—though the Guinness Book of World Records refused to recognize it.

In his activist career, Raia demonstrated, was arrested, participated in zaps, and put himself at great personal and PRofessional risk because he believed in the gay rights movement and he wanted to pave the way for LGBT folks to come. His story is a part of our story.

Windy City Times: Hello Philip. Tell me about growing up gay.

Philip Raia: I realized I was gay very early, PRobably at 6 or 7. I was fortunate to be raised by my grandmother who had immigrated from Sicily when she was 13 and she eventually had 12 children. She could not be shocked. She caught me down in the basement with another boy once and her reaction was, "Dinner is in 10 minutes." Beginning and end of discussion. My parents were very anti-gay. When I actually came out my parents said, "If that's who you are, then you have to leave the house." So I did.

OK: How did you get involved in gay activism?

PR: I was involved in a lot of the early movements—women's rights, the SDS ( Students for a Democratic Society ), the peace movement. It was a turbulent era.

New York was such a different place. There was so much going on, so many things exploding both in terms of the far left and the far right.

OK: Tell me about the birth of the early gay movement there?

PR: In terms of New York, it was our mayor Robert Wagner. One of the things Wagner did was bring the World's Fair to New York in 1964. With all these people coming to the city, he didn't want the tourists seeing gay bars and being exposed to any gay activity. At the time even if you went to a regular bar and they suspected you were gay they could refuse you service. And a lot of this rePRession continued with the next mayor, John Lindsay. That's why a lot of the early activist attacks, after Stonewall, were focussed on him.

OK: How did you discover the gay scene?

PR: I was fortunate in that after I left home and went out on my own I got a decent job and then I got an apartment on the corner of Christopher and Gay Streets.

OK: Wow. Ground zero.

PR: Yes, that was the runway of gay life in New York in that era. I did not get much sleep. My bedroom window was right there and if I saw anything interesting, I was out the door very quickly. I also started to meet a lot of the people who were living on the street. Often I had people camped out on my living room floor. I didn't really think of myself as a flower child or hippie, but I began to embrace that way a lot of these people saw the world. They turned me on to Ginsberg and Thoreau.

OK: Tell me about getting involved with Gay Liberation Front [GLF].

PR: At the time that Stonewall happened the big gay group was the Mattachine Society, but they seemed ultraconservative to me. So when Stonewall happened, the riots lasted a couple of days and you had all these people from the Black Panthers, the Young Lords, the SDS, the peace movement—all these people coming together at this riot and people talked and there started to be an incredible exchange of ideas. This was all still before things like Kent State, but all these movements were bringing people closer to the light after years of so much opPRession.

OK: Tell me about the GLF meetings.

PR: GLF had a lot of activities—there were dances and PRotests. Meetings were boisterous and opinionated, scuffles sometimes broke out. It was good in a PRogressive kind of way.

OK: Yet you broke away from the GLF a few months later to form the GAA [Gay Activist's Alliance] in December 1969. What was the cause of the break and what was GAA intending to do differently?

PR: One of the big questions or issues with the GLF was about money. The issue was that the GLF decided it was going to financially contribute to the Black Panthers, and send them donations. So, the question was raised, since we're giving them money, what is the Black Panther Party doing for us? Why are we supporting them if they are not supporting the gay rights movement? So that was one of the PRimary reasons for the separation. When we formed the GAA we decided that the GAA was going to support gay rights—period. The GAA would not get involved in the peace movement or the women's movement, or anything else, but just focus on gay rights. We needed to focus.

OK: What percentage left GLF for GAA?

PR: Maybe 20 percent. Almost at once, GAA began to attract a different audience within the gay movement. I'd still go to GLF events.

OK: So there was no animosity, it was more a theoretical break?

PR: In reality, yes, but when that sort of break happens there is always a bit of friction.

OK: The GAA selected the Greek letter Lambda as its symbol. Why was it chosen? I've always been curious about how that Lambda symbol came to be associated with the movement.

PR: Lambda is the 11th letter of the Greek alphabet and it means—moving forward. A lot of things were talked about as a symbol. We needed one. All the other organizations at the time had one—the peace movement, the women's movement. The Lambda symbol was decided on by the executive board of the GAA and then brought to the next general meeting. Everybody ended up embracing the Lambda.

OK: I also read you were a member of the Pleasure Committee for the GAA. What was that about?

PR: Basically we made and sold Lambda T-shirts and buttons. Partly it was to raise money, but partly it was also to raise consciousness—to get the Lambda symbol out there. The Pleasure Committee also held events and planned anything that would bring money into the organization to keep it afloat.

OK: As part of your role with the group you also planned the first gay PRide parade, The Christopher Street Gay Liberation Parade, in 1970.

PR: We were staging an event. The actual march was to bring the various gay organizations together for a sort of out of Closets and onto the Streets celebration or event. You know, it's time to declare your own truth sort of thing. We discussed logistics and said, okay if we start on Christopher Street and march them to Central Park, what do we do when we get there. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of holding a kissing contest to try and break the Guinness Book of Records for the longest kiss. I remember there was a big GAA banner behind it since it was a GAA sponsored event. Three couples participated. We were at the place where all the marchers came in so Judy [Bowen] and I never did march. We had it timed so the marchers came into Central Park just as we'd would be breaking the record.

OK: How long did you kiss?

PR: The record was eight hours and something and we went 10 minutes past the world record, but Guinness refused to recognize it.

OK: Because there was no official rePResentative there?

PR: Well, we actually had rePResentatives there to certify when it began and when it ended and that we hadn't broken the kiss in the eight hours. Afterwards I felt terrible. Judy was so red from scratches from my beard stubble.

OK: In 1970, you staged a sit in at the headquarters of the Republican State Committee in New York and were arrested as one of the Rockefeller Five. What did you hope to achieve with the PRotest?

PR: We were demonstrating for equal rights and equal employment. At the time if it was discovered that you were gay you could be fired from your job, and people were losing their jobs. We had several teachers and educators in the GAA who had lost positions because of that.

OK: I also noticed the GAA is often cited for starting "the zap." I hadn't seen a record of that sort of action or the zap term used in that way before your group.

PR: A zap was a way to spontaneously throw questions at people without warning to get them to think. One time Mayor Lindsay was scheduled to be on the Arthur Godfrey TV show. A bunch of us from the GAA got tickets. They were discussing cars and roads and noise and air pollution. So during the question and answer portion of the show, the first person in the GAA got up and asked, "What do you think about gay liberation?" Basically, one by one we hit Lindsay with questions.

Each time one of us asked a question, the cameras would stop and that individual would be escorted out of the studio. Then there was an announcement letting us know that sort of behavior was not going to be tolerated, but we kept asking. My question was when they were discussing abandoned cars and I asked "Do you think it's okay to abandon homosexuals?" I was PRobably the sixth one of us that got up and asked a question and then got kicked out. The studio sat about 150 people and PRobably 30 were GAA members. They cut every one of us out of the final broadcast of course, but that sort of thing was what we considered a zap.

OK: Coming from these early groups from 45 years ago and seeing where the LGBT community has come to today, what are your feelings?

PR: I am enamored with our PRogress. Recently, I went to a discussion at the LGBT center in Las Vegas. They told me to PRepare a twenty minute PResentation and that would be followed by a question and answer. The age of the audience was PRimarily 18-24 year-olds. So after this twenty minute talk, they had so many questions that the event ended up lasting almost three hours. Their questions were so thought out and heartfelt. I walked out of there feeling 20-30 years younger.

OK: There's a hunger for mentors. Our roots as a people and community need to be passed down.

PR: It's so important that history is being talked about and that's why I like the Legacy Walk so much. You see all these great people, all these role models. The message that it sends out is that you're okay, you're normal, and you're not this freak of nature that your church or classmates or parents or whoever says that you are.

OK: And do you have any advice to the LGBT youth of today?

PR: You've got to feel PRide in who you are and be able to not fall victim to guilt or the homophobia that is many times pounded into us. Another part of that is that we need to encourage others to be themselves as well. Don't make others feel lesser, like in the ads that will say something like, Butch Top, Not Looking for Femmes. When you do that sort of thing, you immediately discredit a whole group of people. You can never find love if you go through life building those kinds of walls around yourself and others.

OK: Good advice. Thanks, Philip, for talking and for being such a part of LGBT history.

This article shared 981 times since Tue Nov 15, 2016
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