GAA members, including Vito Russo (right) holding the banner, in the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, June 1970. Photo by Kay Lahusen (also sometimes credited under her pseudonym, Kay Tobin). Courtesy of the New York Public Library.
This former firehouse in SoHo served as the headquarters of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) from 1971 to 1974. GAA was formed in December 1969 when a number of members, led by James (“Jim”) W. Owles, Martin Robinson, and Arthur Evans, broke away from the more radical Gay Liberation Front.
The exclusive purpose of GAA, the leading and largest American gay liberation political activist organization of the early 1970s, was to advance LGBT civil and social rights. It lobbied for the passage of local civil rights laws, banning police entrapment and harassment, the creation of fair employment and housing legislation, and the repeal of sodomy and solicitation laws. Many of the group’s activities were planned at the Firehouse after it opened in May 1971, including sit-ins and picket lines. Perhaps GAA’s most famous tactic was the “zap,” a direct, public confrontation with a political figure regarding LGBT rights, designed to gain media attention. GAA was the first group to adopt the lambda as a gay symbol in 1970.
The Firehouse was New York’s most important LGBT political and cultural community center during these years. It hosted numerous social events, particularly weekly Saturday night dances (crowds were said to be as large as 1,500 people), which provided income for the group’s activities, and “Firehouse Flicks,” a Friday night movie series selected by activist and film buff Vito Russo. The building was also used by Lesbian Feminist Liberation, Gay Youth, the Gay Men’s Health Project, and the Catholic group Dignity. The Black Lesbian Caucus, one of GAA’s subcommittees, later became the Salsa Soul Sisters. The Firehouse was also the site of Jonathan Ned Katz’s seminal play Coming Out: A Documentary Play About Gay Life & Liberation in the U.S.A. in June 1972.
An October 1974 arson fire destroyed the interior of the firehouse and GAA was evicted. Of the fire, GAA president Morty Manford stated that it was “part of a wave of harassment against gays.” GAA disbanded in 1981.