Morty Manford was one of thousands of young people who joined the fight for gay liberation in the early 1970s. As a member of the Gay Activists Alliance, he challenged New York City’s mayor face to face in a successful effort to get the police off the backs of the gay community.
Episode first published December 28, 2017.
From Eric Marcus: Morty Manford was one of many thousands of young people to join the fight for gay liberation in the early 1970s. But before Morty could take on the battle against discrimination and for equality in the streets of New York City, he had an internal fight to deal with first—one that almost cost him his life.
Teenaged Morty Manford came of age in the 1960s, at a time when psychiatrists often did more harm than good with young people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality in a world that had nothing nice to say about homosexuals. But once Morty settled his internal civil war, he jumped with both feet into a social justice movement that would change how he saw himself and how the world thought of and treated LGBTQ people.
From 1970 until he returned to college at Columbia University in the mid-1970s, Morty’s primary involvement was with the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). He also cofounded, with his mother, Jeanne Manford, an organization for parents of gay people that today is known as PFLAG. You can hear Morty and Jeanne tell that story in this MGH episode, which I recommend listening to before listening to this episode.
Morty Manford died from complications of AIDS on May 14, 1992. He was 41 years old. Learn more about his life and activism by exploring the resources below.
Morty Manford’s papers are housed at the New York Public Library. You can learn more about the collection and read a summary of his life and contributions to the LGBTQ movement here. For a more detailed biography, go here.
You can read Manford’s oral history in the first edition of Eric Marcus’s Making Gay History book. It includes a story of how Manford and his friend Lou Todd traveled across the American South like Johnny Appleseeds starting chapters of GAA, much like Shirley Willer did during the 1960s when she traveled the country starting chapters of the Daughters of Bilitis; listen to Shirley Willer’s MGH episode here.
From 1971 to 1974, GAA was headquartered in a former firehouse in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City. Read about GAA members storming the offices of Harper’s in 1970 to protest the magazine’s publication of a homophobic article here.
A pivotal event in Manford’s life was joining a 1970 march through Greenwich Village protesting a police raid of a gay bar called the Snake Pit. (In his MGH interview, Manford states that the raid took place in February 1970; the raid actually took place on March 8, 1970.) Find out more about the Snake Pit raid and the protest that followed on this NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project webpage.
At Columbia University, Manford was instrumental in creating a space for gay students in the Furnald Hall dormitory in 1971. The space still exists today as the Stephen Donaldson Queer Lounge. Here‘s a history of the Columbia LGBTQ student group, which was founded in 1966 as the Student Homophile League and was the first gay student organization in the United States.
In the aftermath of the 1973 arson attack on the UpStairs Lounge, a gay club in New Orleans where 32 men died, Manford and Morris Kight traveled to Louisiana to help. Learn more about the attack in the documentary Upstairs Inferno. Manford later served on the board of the National New Orleans Memorial Fund, which was set up to help the survivors.
Shortly after Manford’s death, New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen wrote this opinion piece about him and his mother.
The Queens chapter of PFLAG annually gives the Morty Manford Award to “an individual or organization whose work on behalf of the lesbian and gay community of Queens best exemplifies the pioneering political spirit of the late Morty Manford, and who serves as a positive and visible role model for gay men and lesbians.”
For additional information about Manford and GAA (as well as a sweeping account of the LGBTQ civil rights movement over the course of the 20th century), read The Gay Metropolis: The Landmark History of Gay Life in America by Charles Kaiser.
Eric Marcus Narration: I’m Eric Marcus and this is Making Gay History!
I first met Morty Manford at his family’s house in May 1989. I was there to interview his mother Jeanne. Jeanne had cofounded an organization for parents of gay people in 1972 that became PFLAG. If you haven’t heard that interview, I encourage you to go back to our first season and listen to it. Now. We’ll wait.
Done? Good. Now back to Morty. He had a big role in founding the group for parents of gay people. But it was in that first interview that I learned Morty was a major gay rights activist in his own right. So I came back seven months later and met with Morty on his own for several hours. There was a lot to cover.
By the time I interviewed him, Morty’s gay activist days of the 1970s were behind him. He’d graduated from Columbia University, gotten a law degree, spent four years at the Legal AID Society and now, at 39, was working for the New York State Attorney General’s office.
So here’s the scene. I’m back at the Manford family home in the Flushing neighborhood of Queens, New York. Morty meets me at the front door. He has a pile of curly brown hair that frames his pale, thin face. He looks tired. His mother Jeanne is in the kitchen talking on the phone. Morty’s dog periodically stops by to nuzzle Morty and check out the stranger at their dining room table. I clip my microphone to Morty’s blue button-down shirt and press record.
Eric Marcus: Anyway, I need to put a tag on this tape, which I forgot to do before getting here. Interview with Morty Manford. Saturday, December 9, 12:00 noon. Location is Flushing, New York. Interviewer is Eric Marcus. Uh, thank you for very much for seeing me again, by the way.
Morty Manford: Why don’t you eat first before it gets cold. I could always reheat it, but… You want me to talk or something?
EM: Actually, we can leave this off. We’ll be right back after this message.
MM: I suppose my gay life pretty much revolved around going to the bars in those days. There were raids.
EM: Were you ever caught up in one?
MM: The only one I remember, actually being inside the bar was the Stonewall.
EM: So were you frightened about the raid?
MM: I was anxious. Everybody was anxious, not knowing whether we were going to be arrested or what was happening next, but I wouldn’t say I was afraid, but it was a nervous mood that set over the place. I was watching. I wasn’t looking for a fight. But I personally didn’t riot.
EM: Did you leave then?
MM: But it was a very emotional turning point for me. Yeah, once they started attacking people and forcing people onto the side streets, trying to divide, I stayed a little bit. I basically tried to get out of the way and, uh… I can’t claim credit for the small acts of violence that took place. I didn’t break any windows. I didn’t… I wasn’t the one who had a knife and cut the tires on the paddy wagon.
EM: Somebody did.
MM: I didn’t hit a cop. I didn’t get hit by a cop.
EM: How did you make the transition from observer to activist?
MM: This festering wound…The anger of oppression and discrimination, I think was coming out very fast at the point of Stonewall. There were a few things going on. The following week, 10 days later I went to Philadelphia, where there was a annual picket line in front of Independence Hall and marched in that. And I think I wore sunglasses.
EM: To hide your identity.
MM: Yes, then when I saw cameras I think I turned my face away. But it was a process of starting to deal with it a little bit at a time.
A few days later I had a very personal sexual crisis with somebody that I was infatuated with and I attempted suicide. I think all of my own conflict was starting to come to the surface and take a more concrete form. And even though I had been actively gay for almost a year at this point there was still the struggle going on.
EM: It was too much.
MM: It was enough to the point that I took a large quantity of pills. I wound up in the hospital.
EM: So you saw a lot of psychiatrists.
MM: Bug doctors, I called them.
EM: Bug doctors.
MM: Actually, I think I learned that word from Morris Kight. Have you ever met?
EM: I interviewed Morris. Morris calls me regularly with updates.
MM: Morris is one of a kind.
EM: Yes, that’s the way to put it. Exactly.
MM: It was not uncommon in those days for gay people to attempt suicide.
EM: A good half of the gay men I’ve interviewed have tried to kill themselves.
MM: Well, I think it was the following February, I was sitting with some friends having a sandwich or something at Mama’s Chicken Rib, a popular gay coffee shop on Greenwich Avenue. And this demonstration went by. Hundreds of people with protest signs and chanting and… obviously a gay demonstration. And I said to my friends at the table, “Let’s join it.” Nobody wanted to join it. I said, “Well, I’ll see you later.” I wasn’t going to let the parade go by.
The purpose of this march was to protest police conduct at the raid of a bar called the Snake Pit. One of the customers who was taken prisoner was, I think, an Argentinian national, illegal status, who leaped from the second story window of the precinct in a panicked attempt to escape deportation and became impaled on a picket fence. The moral outrage was certainly very personal in my own heart.
At the conclusion a number of people all went over to the Gay Liberation Front headquarters at 14th Street and Sixth Avenue. I went back with them. There were some speeches. And I really was left uninspired by the political line of what was going on. But somebody at that meeting mentioned the Gay Activists Alliance to me. And I asked a little bit more about it. When did they meet. Where did they meet. And then went to the next weekly meeting of the Gay Activists Alliance.
The political discussion was very appealing. We truly felt we were being a part of history. We were doing something new. We were doing something righteous. We were part of the generation of committed youth.
EM: What were you doing though? What was it that you were hoping to do?
MM: Wherever there was anti-gay and anti-lesbian discrimination, we would oppose it. There was a vast range of discriminatory policies that we were addressing.
EM: Such as?
MM: From the policy of certain leather gay bars to exclude transvestites to avowed employment discrimination against gays by private industry. We very early decided as a strategic focus to work for the enactment of civil rights legislation in the New York City Council. There were therefore protests focused in the three main areas that our legislation would address. We protested discrimination in employment, in housing, and in places of public accommodation.
EM: So you were in your late 20s then.
MM: At the time I guess I was 20—’69, ’70. I guess I was… When I first started I was 19, in GAA.
EM: A fearless time of life.
MM: And, uh, yeah, and it was also in a very idealistic era where young people felt we could change the world.
EM: Um, I want to ask you about an NYU protest, uh, where you broke into the hall where the Mayor was speaking.
MM: That was my 21st birthday. There had been some raids. The police were out going wild raiding the bars. They did this each year as the elections started to roll around. They’d want to build up their statistics for the coming elections to show the police were making arrests and they were arresting all these perverts. Those of the sorts of things they’d say in the New York Times. Anyway, we had already reached the point where we weren’t going to just stand by and let this stuff happen.
And there was a big uproar at One Sheridan Square, which was a bar. And the police had physically beat some gay people who were there. Those attacks and the police brutality against the gays was the inspiration for the demonstration at NYU against John Lindsay.
EM: Who was then running for President or not yet?
MM: September 17, 1971. The election was…
MM: Yeah, he was testing the waters and there was sort of a… In any event, we had our demonstration outside. We set up our picket lines. And we had scores of people. People were having trouble getting inside. We wanted to go into the hall and have a protest. It was a pretty quickly organized protest. Everybody was having trouble getting inside. Somehow or another I got inside.
EM: All by yourself. You were the only one to get in.
MM: Yeah. What, maybe a thousand people sitting in the audience. And the Mayor was up at the podium talking. Well, there I was. What was I going to do? It was just me. So naturally I did what anyone else would do. I walked onto the stage and I took the podium away from John Lindsay.
I walked up right next to him and I said, so the audience could hear, “The police are brutalizing gay people three blocks away from where we’re sitting…” The police harassment and attacks were even going on that night. That was one of the points that I made. I wasn’t there very long but what I said made an impression. The police dragged me off the back of the stage and they ejected me through, you know, some or another exit.
Apparently, after I left, the audience called the Mayor to account for what was going on with the police bothering the gay community. And apparently John Lindsay had made the statement that he would permit me to speak. Of course, he knew darn well the police had already thrown me out, didn’t realize that I would come back.
And I snuck back in. I mean, I broke through their security lines again. I can’t tell you how I did it, but I got back in and I came right down that aisle. And I could see him looking up from the podium at me, you know, biting his lip and saying “Oh shit, here he comes again.” And I walked right back up on stage and I said to him, “I understand you said I could speak.” And he said, “Yes,” and he yielded the podium to me. And I addressed the audience about the police brutality and the harassment we were facing. And I said my piece. I thanked them and I left as surreptitiously as I’d entered.
EM: Where did you get the guts to do that?
MM: It had to be done. I mean, you know, it was a matter of simply believing that it was the right thing to do. That political protest was going to bring some cure to the problems we were facing.
See, I had this thing with John Lindsay. Somehow or another we had encounter after encounter, face to face. The problems were ongoing. And he wasn’t giving us the kind of… He started… We started getting some, some real restraint by the police following a number of these demonstrations. And there was a definite cause and effect here.
EM: I think the component in all of this is anger. That there was sufficient anger. There’s sufficient anger today, even more deeply felt now, because of AIDS, because people have died.
MM: People are hurt. You see your friends all around you dying.
EM: Has that had a significant impact for you?
MM: Yeah, I guess it has.
EM: Is this something I shouldn’t ask?
MM: It affects all of us. I mean, I’ve got one friend who probably goes to a funeral, you know, every two weeks. I mean, it’s devastating.
EM: Well, what about you? In terms of your friends? Have you had friends…?
MM: Yeah. Yeah. We all have, haven’t we?
EM: Yeah, college friends. But I’ve been spared the immediate friends and I haven’t… My lover’s fine. My best friend’s lover has AIDS, so it’s that close, but it hasn’t… We went and got tested last year and both were shocked by the results. He came out in San Francisco and I came out in New York. And the statistics were not in my favor. I still thank God every morning because given the statistics I should not, I shouldn’t even be alive.
MM: What have we lost, 65,000 people so far? And a million of us, it’s not all gays, but a million people they say are infected now.
EM: Do you ever wonder what would have happened if not for the work you and many others did in the late 60s and early 70s, if AIDS had happened in pre-1970 times?
MM: Well, If there hadn’t been a movement we would be ill prepared to deal with… with it. Not that we’ve had the kind of resources we should have to deal with it today. But at least we’ve got our own infrastructure that’s been there. Yeah, I’ve thought about that.
You know, a few years ago, when the hysteria was much greater, we had these lunatics calling for gays or people infected with AIDS to be put in a concentration camp kind of setting. There was some popularity to that idea. There’s no telling how things would have been like… What was that old Jimmy Stewart movie, where..?
EM: It’s a Wonderful Life.
MM: It’s a Wonderful Life. I mean, you could make those kinds of leaps of imagination, what would have been had we not… It would have been pretty horrendous.
I think the existence of the AIDS crisis has given a lot of bigots fodder. They’ve used it to justify in their own minds and in their pandering to prejudice they’ve used the AIDS issue to camouflage their prejudice or to justify it. But I think we’ve done pretty good at least holding, you know, back that pressure to backtrack.
EM Narration: Sometimes it’s hard to ask the next question. That’s what happened when I brought up the subject of AIDS with Morty Manford. You can’t see it because this is audio, but what I saw in that moment, was that Morty’s eyes quickly filled with tears. And that’s why I asked him if AIDS was something I shouldn’t ask about.
From Morty’s reaction, I wondered whether he knew yet that he had AIDS, but I didn’t feel comfortable asking him directly. Still, I always wondered. So in preparing this episode, I wrote to Morty’s sister, Suzanne Swan, to ask her whether he knew. Suzanne told me that just a couple of weeks before I interviewed Morty, when she was home for Thanksgiving, Morty told her that he had what he called the “plague.”
In the spring of 1992, not long before the original edition of Making Gay History was published, I got a call from Morty’s mother. Jeanne told me that Morty was dying and that one of the things that upset him was that he felt that no one would know about his contributions to the LGBTQ civil rights movement. That he’d be forgotten. I asked Jeanne if she’d like to have a copy of the pre-publication galleys of Morty’s chapter from my book, so she could read it to him. He was already too ill to read it himself. She said yes and later told me how happy he was to know that his story wouldn’t be lost to history. You’ve just heard only a slice of a slice. There’s so much more and you can read more of Morty’s story in my book.
Whenever I think of Morty, I picture him on his 21st birthday, standing by himself at the back of an auditorium filled with a thousand people, the Mayor of the City of New York up at the podium. And then he does what few of us would have the courage to do—walks up on stage and takes the podium away from the Mayor and addresses the audience. I like to think that this is Morty’s legacy, to inspire us all to have the courage to take whatever opportunities we have to challenge injustice. To ask ourselves in moments when our courage flags, W.W.M.D? What would Morty do?
Morty Manford died on May 14, 1992. He was 41 years old. Jeanne Manford lived another 21 years and died at age 92.
This is the final episode of our third season. While we’re on hiatus, have a listen to the episodes you may have missed during our first and second seasons. You can find all our episodes at makinggayhistory.com. That’s also where you’ll find additional information and photos for each of the people we’ve featured.
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If you’re still listening, I know you’re a tried and true Making Gay History fan, and so I also know that you will get a kick out of this. Guess what Morty named his dog.
EM: [Petting Morty’s dog] Yes, nice to see you, too.
MM: Zap, c’mon. Okay. Down.
EM Narration: And if you don’t know what a “zap” was, it’s what the Gay Activists Alliance called their trademark protests.
So long! Until next time!