Martha Shelley was in Greenwich Village the night of the Stonewall Riots in New York City on June 28, 1969. The event would not only change the course of her life forever, but that of the entire LGBT community.
“It was a hot, clear night and I was taking two women from Boston on a tour of the Village and the lesbian bars. They had come to New York City to meet with Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) members because they wanted to form a DOB chapter in Boston,” Shelley said. “We passed by the Stonewall and noticed some young men throwing things at cops. The Boston women were taken aback. ‘That’s just a riot,’ I told them. ‘We have them in New York all the time.’”
Shelley added, “I wasn’t trying to be cavalier—this was the height of the anti-war movement. Martin Luther King had been killed the year before and Harlem (where I was working at the time) went up in flames. A few months later there were riots in Chicago at the Democratic Convention. I didn’t go to that, but I was at a lot of anti-war demonstrations and sometimes there was violence. So I assumed this was more anti-war stuff. I escorted the women back to the apartment where they were staying, and went to my lover’s house. I only found out that it was gays rioting about 48 hours later.”
Members of DOB were encouraged to take new surnames in an effort to evade possible FBI surveillance. She would change her last name from Altman to Shelley at this time.
Immediately following Stonewall, Shelley became one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF)—a direct response to the Christopher Street riots that would catapult the gay-rights movement into the mainstream and ignite a new generation of gay and lesbian political activists to take action against the perceived anti-gay government holding them captive in a variety of ways—emotionally, physically, sexually, and otherwise.
Shelley remembered, “As soon as I found out that gays were rioting against the police, I called Joan Kent, who was running our local DOB chapter, and said, ‘We need to have a protest march.’ She said that if the Mattachine Society agreed, the two organizations could co-sponsor it. So I called Dick Leitch, the head of NY Mattachine, and he said to come to a meeting at Town Hall and propose the march idea to the membership.”