Michael Suiter was a junior in high school in 1968. He grew up in New Jersey, in a pre-Stonewall era when one day on TV he saw a Mike Wallace Special just before the late news. It was about homosexuality, a hot topic for him.
Suiter had the volume to a barely audible level while his parents slept. The homosexuals being interviewed were behind tall potted plants. In his hometown of Livingston the library only had two books on homosexuality: one on how to assure your children would not grow up gay; and the other about a young male prostitution ring that led to political scandal.
How does a young person who already knew he was gay find his way forward? Everywhere he looked, where gay people were visible they were nothing like him.
Then, a week after Suiter graduated high school, Stonewall happened. But the New Jersey newspapers and the TV news didn’t cover it at all. Had it been available it would have jumped out to Suiter and many young people who were poised on the edge of coming out.
The year he started college at Rutgers, the Rutgers Student Homophile League was founded. It started just six months after Stonewall in December of 1969. Students discussed it in the hallways. Suiter discovered two of them were more than just curious. “I wanted to see who was there, too, but for different reasons. I didn’t go to the meetings, but I followed their work through the student newspaper with great interest.”
The Gay Liberation Front started in NYC and Mickey was aware of that group too. LIFE magazine did a feature on some newly visible gay liberation activists. These activists were no longer content to meet in the dark; they were determined to be seen. Visibility mattered. They set the foundation for the activism to come.
Suiter never did come out on campus, but during his sophomore year he was living off campus and made some gay friends. By January of 1972, Jenny Glaab, one of the first gay people he met, and Jeff Samuels, a long-term friend, went to a Gay Awareness Action Committee (GAAC) meeting in Plainfield, founded to create a buzz around gay life.
Jeff and Mickey found out about Gay Activists Alliance in Essex County which met at the Unitarian church in Orange and later moved to Maplewood. It was run by Sue McConnell, a single mom with four kids.
In 1972 there was the Gay Activist Alliance of New Jersey or GAANJ on Friday nights at a church in Paramus. “They had more than 100 people at their meetings,” said Suiter. “And they were led by firebrands like John Gish. But it was a long way to travel. Remember, in 1972, I-280 didn’t exist, nor did I-78.
“Maplewood wasn’t far to go when we were in Livingston. Other friends were in Madison and Florham Park and that area. Then we started to meet more people from Parsippany and Morristown and started to think ‘why not make our own group?’”
“GAANJ was enormous; we didn’t think we could be something like that. I don’t know what we envisioned. By Spring 1972, I had met John Sheehy and was dating him and he was the only one who was out to his family. They were very supportive. We were shocked that they were so okay with it. John’s Dad was the superintendent of schools in Parsippany and John’s parents gave a lot of advice. They were grownups we could talk to.”
“When we were first discussing where we were going to meet, we considered an Episcoplian church close to the Sheehys. The minister was sure he could work on his board, but he was going away. If we were willing to wait, he would speak to them. Being impatient youth, we said we wanted to do it NOW, and he kindly suggested the Morristown Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.”
The four founders met with [MUF leaders] Mr. and Mrs. O’Dell over tea. “I wasn’t sure we were coherent, but we must have impressed her because she agreed to our proposal.” The Fellowship had something on Tuesdays and other gay groups were meeting on other week days — so Monday became GAAMC day at MUF.
They made hand drawn flyers and had about 50 printed. They visited college campuses to post them on bulletin boards. They went to the Morristown Daily Record to buy a personal ad. When they told the counter person what they wanted to do, it was suggested they run it as a press release — for free! They were thrilled because there was no money.
They set their first meeting for Monday, September 11, 1972 in the dining room of the Fellowship. They had wondered whether they might be the only four — Jenny, Jeff, John and Mickey. They asked their friends to not come so that locals might venture forth for the first time. There were five other brave souls who attended that first meeting: a freshman from County College of Morris, a freshman from Drew, and an older man from Parsippany who brought two New York friends.
The Daily Record also sent a reporter and Jeff was interviewed. He took an assumed name because he wasn’t out to anyone but his friends. And this was a world where you could lose your job, your house, and your family by being your authentic self. Each of the founders were young adults as were the freshmen; the Parsippany man was 50 and his friends were in their 30s; yet the reporter said the average age of the group was 50.
“We would have been happy with one other person,” Suiter continued, “but we got five! And the three local people became regulars. We got more people the following week. Initially, it was predominantly men. The group drifted and stumbled for about six months. Sometimes it was a sing-a-long with Jeff on his guitar and other ad hoc musicians, mostly it was discussion groups and then John drifted for a bit. Then when I came back, Jeff had gone. There have been various people rotating in and out. The regulars got tired of floundering, and we met and became organized. We wrote a constitution and that’s when we really took off. We had found who we were.
“There were six or seven of us who were regulars who really made it happen — we could have gone the way of so many other groups at the time. Fortunately, we had a dedicated group of people who wanted to make things happen.
“We had an arrangement with the Unitarians that we would either have the Library or the Terrace Room depending upon how many people there were. We could pass the hat to see whether we could make rent. Fall of 1972, we raked leaves for the Fellowship to cover rent. And things were looking up.
“Over the next couple of years we built up to about 40 each week. GAAMC became instrumental in helping re-establish and grow the New Jersey Lesbian and Gay Coalition. The Coalition had formed in 1971 and had some difficulties. GAAMC and other groups saw the importance of having a network of information and resources across the state to address all the needs and concerns of the community.”
GAAMC experienced an explosive period of growth in the late 80s and 90s. HIV/AIDS brought gay men and lesbians together, and corporate and local affinity groups formed as a response to Reagan’s policies and his embrace of the so-called Moral Majority. Suiter picks up the story: “Initially, people were deathly scared of HIV/AIDS but then health-related and political organizations began to come together and the whole community exploded. Here were organizations already existing that provided excellent foundations for all that new growth.
“The Helpline began in the 1970s, originally in the Maplewood home of two of our members. They would forward the helpline using the latest technology, ‘Call Forwarding’, to send the calls to different members of the volunteer staff. Back then, it was 7-10pm and we began by providing information on upcoming meetings, resources and other meetings and we were able to refer them to therapists, lawyers and most of them just wanted some peer counseling or a conversation. Eventually the volunteers were screened and trained but initially we had the community at heart and we were good people who wanted to help other good people. We were listening, mostly, and that’s what a lot of people need.
“Gay and Lesbian Youth — New Jersey, GALY, was founded under GAAMC’s auspices by Bill Corey when he was a student at UMDNJ. GALY was his brainchild and other people from GAAMC helped launch it with chapters in Central Jersey, South Orange and Bergen County. The Central Jersey chapter spun off, then the Bergen chapter, but South Orange remained with GAAMC. When GAAMC formed GALY, it was the first group of its kind dedicated to support of questioning youth.
“Over the years, there were many speakers at GAAMC. Arthur Warner, a man who had gone to law school but never became a lawyer, had been arrested for cruising in the 1950s. He was told to sweep it under the rug by pleading guilty, as was done in those days. He later found out that pleading guilty meant he couldn’t be admitted to the bar. His passion for the law made him perfect as the first speaker we had. We had Barbara Gittings, who marched around Independence Hall in a skirt and heels in 1966, and Quentin Crisp! We always had good speakers, we could get people to take a train from New York, take them out to dinner and take them to the meeting.
“The Maressa Bill was a project of the Coalition and a lot of GAAMC members were involved. State Senator Maressa, reintroduced a bill in 1978 to re-criminalize sodomy. The penal code was revised in 1976 and the state had left out sodomy laws as part of a national wave of decriminalizing consensual behavior. [The Bill] was also pushback from the right, the year after Anita Bryant began her campaign. It was the first time the Coalition had planned any kind of legal action.
“We even had dinner with Camden County Senator Maressa at the Cranbury Inn. Maressa said he didn’t want anyone to go to jail over this, he just wanted to stigmatize gay people. He wanted the state to say ‘you’re bad people and we want everyone to know that.’ Hearings were held in Trenton on the bill and the Coalition organized a lot of people to testify against the bill and to fill the gallery with supporters. The Coalition felt that this was their first legal victory. The NJ Supreme Court, however, ruled that the prior sodomy law was unconstitutional and Maressa ended up withdrawing the bill. Ironically, at the end of the dinner we had, Senator Maressa said he was impressed with us all and thought we were very nice people.
“The $1.98 Beauty Pageant was an annual event that began in the early to mid 80s and the United Conferences we held, bringing gay organizations together for workshops and plenaries, happened then too. We had annual picnics starting in 1978 at a private home and it was overwhelming and we moved to Valley Spring Lake. We used to provide the food and drinks, even when we had 1000 people, we managed to do it. Later we moved to Suntan Lake. It got too expensive to rent out the space at Suntan Lake so we moved to Duke Island Park and it was a wonderful day outdoors. The last Suntan Lake picnic was in ‘86 and Duke Island didn’t begin until ‘89 so there was a bit of a hiatus.
“The Committee to End Discrimination became active as an off-shoot of the Coalition in about 1985 with the mission of revising New Jersey’s Law Against Discrimination (LAD). At the time, the mission was to add sexual orientation. It took about six years of concerted effort and the group’s name changed to the A634 Task Force. Ultimately in 1991, the LAD was amended to include sexual orientation, yet it was not until 2005 when gender identity would be added.”
The first annual Jersey Pride in Asbury Park was held in 1992 and has been continuously running ever since. Suiter went on, “GAAMC members were involved. Initially I was the person, then David Morris and other GAAMC members. David Morris was a long-term GAAMC member and corporate labor attorney working for Mobil Oil in the 1980s. He created a diversity training program, among the first of its kind, to educate New Jersey State Police on working with the gay community and chaired the Legal Committee of the NJLGC. He was President of GAAMC’s board several times starting in 1986 and whether on the board or Emeritus, David continued to be a passionate advocate and a driving force in LGBT rights in New Jersey until his death in 2008.
“Charlie Murphy was another long-term member of GAAMC. In the 80s, David and Charlie took turns being Board President. Charlie started coming to GAAMC in the mid-70s. When the $1.98 Beauty Pageant began in the 80s, Charlie’s drag persona Mr. Scarlett O’Hara was the MC for the length of the run. The Pageant ended in 2014 or 2015. It ran for 30 years and Charlie always did at least one Shirley Bassey number.” Charlie Murphy’s sequined dresses and wigs were flawless. His Barbie collection made frequent appearances and his favorite line was “that bitch has everything!” Suiter remembered, “I worked in New York from 1981-84, and I was walking past a dress shop on Christopher Street and there was Charlie being fitted for a gown. Clearly, he was getting ready for the $1.98!
“When the first National March for Gay Rights was being organized in 1979, they had a meeting in Dallas where Charlie represented New Jersey. He was the President of his CWA affiliate for a number of years. I had met Charlie years before he became a GAAMC member, I had met him at a fun bar in West Orange called Penelope’s. He was the “Den Mother” of the Kiddie Corps, as the drinking age had been lowered to 18 and he would hold court in a booth and they would flock to him. And he took care of them.
“GAAMC people like Debbie Smith and Sue Harris were very active in the 1980s and 90s. The phenomenal growth of GAAMC in the 90s when we took over the entire Morristown Unitarian Fellowship building every Monday night was a time when there was so much organizational energy with HIV/AIDS, political work on LAD that had people coming out and wanting to get involved in these larger issues. Debbie Smith and Mr. Sue were both avid Board Members with Debbie serving as Board President and organizing several of the United Conferences.
“In the 2000s, we made progress with Domestic Partnership, then Civil Unions, adding Gender Identity to the LAD, and eventually full Marriage Equality. … Garden State Equality (GSE) grew out of that movement and the torch was passed. GAAMC members were active in the Coalition and volunteered with GSE and GAAMC hosted the very first GSE Town Hall for Marriage Equality. The message went out to a very full house that evening.”
But then the internet took over.
Suiter continued, “The Internet meant people no longer had to leave their house to join a community, and GAAMC began to see some attrition in membership. GAAMC had created an environment where groups could specialize and focus on legal action like Garden State Equality, or addressing youth suicide like the Trevor Project. GLSEN or SAGE focused on education of youth and the needs of our elders. And this drew people into other groups, who saw their time as ‘or’ rather than ‘and’ — people sometimes feel they need to make choices.
“Politically, since then, GAAMC has done work on school bullying as well as the inclusion of LGBT history in educational curriculum in New Jersey as a cultural aspect, and the passage of the law protecting LGBT identified seniors in nursing homes. GAAMC continues to be involved in what’s happening in New Jersey. It is important to stay connected. As we see in other states it is very easy to slip backwards.
“The political atmosphere here in Florida, where I live now, reminds me very much of the political atmosphere in New Jersey in the 1970s. Here in Florida, my husband John De Leeuw and I have founded LGBT Friends here in our community and our membership is predominantly gay although allies are welcome. Usually, allies visit when a friend has recently come out to them, and they want to know more. This is why GAAMC was founded and clearly there’s still a need. We’re a social organization, although with the political atmosphere here we work to make sure that we keep people up on events. Equality Florida exists to do legal work, much like GSE does in New Jersey. With the 1970s mentality here in Florida, having a statewide group like that does put us a few steps ahead.”
GAAMC is poised to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of their founding this Fall, and Suiter is still making change where he is in Florida. Thank you, Mickey, Jeff, Jenny, and John for showing thousands of GAAMC members and visitors a better life for LGBTQ’s across 50 years.