“Our songs are the stories of our lives”: Two men remember the beginnings of gay liberation on campus

Alex Chun, Reporter

In 1970, Maher Ahmad and Bill Dry founded the Gay Liberation Front — Northwestern’s first gay rights advocacy group. The group hosted the first gay dance on campus, held demonstrations in the city and boycotted bars that had racist policies. Just a few years later, Vince McCoy would become the first black president of the Gay Liberation Front. Fifty years later, the two men recount their time with the Gay Liberation Front in this two-part series. Part 1.

MAHER AHMAD: “April 1, 1970. Dear faculty member, male and female homosexuals at Northwestern have recently organized a gay liberation movement on campus. 

We wish to make the members of faculty and student body aware of the fact that there does exist a large homosexual community both at Northwestern and in society in general that is no longer willing to hide as essential part of it’s identity in order to enjoy the rights that a supposedly free society should grant all of its citizens. Gay Liberation intends to actively oppose the oppression of homosexuals. We hope that you will support us and do all that you can to help us. If you would like some more information about this, you can call Gay Liberation at 338-9241. 

Sincerely yours, William Dry; Maher Ahmad.”

ALEX CHUN: That’s Maher Ahmad (Communication ’71, ’74), reading a letter that he and William Dry (Weinberg ’69) wrote in the spring of 1970. Maher was a junior at Northwestern and the two men had just begun the Gay Liberation Front. They were asking University staff to support the formation of their group. 

MAHER AHMAD: Well, first, let me say that I had completely forgotten that we had written this letter, okay? This was a seminal kind of thing that we did. But what strikes me now, interestingly, we weren’t just talking about making things better at Northwestern, okay? We’re talking about making things better in society at large and engaging the University to help take us there, which is certainly the kind of ambitious goals one can have when one’s a 20-year-old. 

ALEX CHUN: The Gay Liberation Front was Northwestern’s first gay advocacy group. Fifty years later, Maher’s legacy continues through what is now Rainbow Alliance. 

From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun, and this is Defining Safe: a podcast about marginalized communities at Northwestern. This episode is the first part of a two-part series about two gay mens’ time at Northwestern in the 60s and 70s. The two men are Mr. Maher Ahmad and Mr. Vince McCoy (Bienen ’75, SPS ’03).

In 1970, 50 years ago, Maher Ahmad started the Gay Liberation Front with William Dry. Recently, I spoke with Maher, and he shared a part of his story with me.

MAHER AHMAD: You know, memory is a very odd thing. And I can remember some things really specifically. Like when we started the gay rights meeting at Northwestern, we asked the student government for $67. I don’t know how I remember that number. There’s a lot I don’t remember. And very sadly, because there have been so many men that have passed on from AIDS, I can’t tell you to go to this person or that person and see what they remember. 

ALEX CHUN: And in 1970, Vince McCoy would arrive to campus, eventually joining the Gay Liberation Front and becoming the first black president of the organization. Here’s Vince in November 2019 at an event hosted by Northwestern’s Black Professionals Network. 

VINCENT MCCOY: We all have our own songs to sing, and our songs are the stories of our lives. You may not recognize my tune or understand all of my words, yet every song must be heard. So, today, I’m going to sing a little bit of my song for you.

ALEX CHUN: So, let’s hear a bit of their songs.

ALEX CHUN: Maher Ahmad was born in Forty Fort, Pa. in 1960. His parents had moved to the United States after being displaced from Palestine, and he had three brothers. Maher described growing up as the only Muslim family in a predominantly white Protestant neighborhood, saying that his family members were largely regarded as outsiders. 

MAHER AHMAD: My parents aren’t religious, but we were Muslim in a WASP community that predated the American Revolution. And that was an interesting situation because early in my life, neighbors didn’t treat us well. And then as I began, even before I reached adolescence, I knew I had this longing or yearning that somehow was connected to men. And then, when I reached adolescence, okay, I realized I had a same sex attraction.

ALEX CHUN: However, this was the 1960s, and homosexuality wouldn’t be decriminalized nationwide until decades later following the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court case in 2003. Here’s a clip from a CBS Reports episode aired in 1967 titled “The Homosexuals,” hosted by Mike Wallace.

MIKE WALLACE: Homosexuality is an enigma. It remains a subject that people find disturbing. Embarrassing. And the reluctance to discuss it. Yet there is a growing concern about homosexuals in society. About their increasing visibility. We discovered that Americans consider homosexuality more harmful to society than adultery, abortion or prostitution.

ALEX CHUN: But Maher never felt like he was at odds with his sexuality. He credits his mother for his strong sense of self.

MAHER AHMAD: Now, for some reason, that I think has to do with genetics that I inherited from my mother who has always been an extremely kind person. And a rabble rouser. She was political from the get-go. She was a feminist. She was the first female broadcast journalist in Palestine. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me.

ALEX CHUN: Rather, when Maher first heard the word “homosexual” from his older brother, he experienced two feelings: self-realization and curiosity. 

MAHER AHMAD: He defined it for me and I thought, “Oh, I’m a member of a class.” And, being an industrious young person, I decided that I was going to find out about myself.

ALEX CHUN: So, Maher went to the local library. He searched through the card catalog and was able to find the call numbers of the few books that the library had about homosexuality. But the books weren’t on the shelves. When he asked the librarian for help finding them, she told him that they were in the locked case. But despite the climate at the time, Maher never felt like he was at odds with himself being gay.

MAHER AHMAD: And I kept a journal in my senior year. I wrote things like, I don’t know, I wrote down, “I am special.” I wrote it twice, “I am special,” and I was proud of this. I never pretended to be straight. I absolutely refused to go to the senior prom because I wasn’t going to go and put up this false thing and find a girl to be my beard to go to the senior prom with, so I didn’t attend the senior prom. I remember there was one girl that chased me. Her name was Pixie, and we were at a party and she initiated a kiss with me and I kissed her and I felt nothing. And I thought to myself, “Yeah, you know what, I’m never doing this again. I’m not interested.” And so that’s basically what it was like when I was in high school. 

ALEX CHUN: Maher wanted to leave Forty Fort, Pa. and ultimately went to Northwestern to study theatre and theatre design. But Maher sensed that something was different. Revolution was in the air.

MAHER AHMAD: You know, it’s really wonderful to be on the cusp of anything. I started as an undergraduate in 1967. Kennedy was shot in 1963, which was a major historical marker. 1964 was the beginning of the Free Speech Movement on college campuses, where students were saying you have to stop treating us — “in loco parentis” was the phrase, as if you’re our parents, you have to stop restricting our rights. We are adults, and there are certain things that you can’t make us do or can’t prevent us from doing. So revolution was in the atmosphere. And, you know, 1969 was Stonewall. 

ALEX CHUN: And protests were even taking place on Northwestern’s campus as students protested the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Maher was still an undergrad at the time.

MAHER AHMAD: So this whole kind of opening up this whole progressivism, this whole desire to throw off the strictures of the system that was in place that was repressive in so many different ways was in the air, and gay rights were a part of that.

ALEX CHUN: During Maher’s junior year, he saw an ad in The Daily Northwestern that ultimately led to a reshaping of queer culture on campus.

MAHER AHMAD: It was just a tiny little ad of maybe 10 or 15 words. And it said, in the title and bigger letters, it was tiny, it was like an inch by two inches or something. It said gay liberation. And then it said, anyone, any men and women interested in starting your gay liberation group at Northwestern call Bill, and it had his phone number on it. And I saw this, and I thought, “Well, I’m interested in doing that.” And I called the number and it ended up that I knew this guy, Bill Dry. We didn’t know each other were gay. So we said, “Yeah, let’s do this.” And then we got some other people to join us and that began the birth of the group on campus.

ALEX CHUN: The group was around 20 people, but a core group of six men were the most active. They held meetings at apartments off-campus. Among their first goals was to be recognized as an official campus organization. So they drafted a letter to faculty outlining three goals of the Gay Liberation Front. 

  1. To educate the heterosexual community about homosexuality;
  2. To secure equal rights for all homosexual men women; and
  3. To provide homosexual and intellectual activities for the homosexual student.

ALEX CHUN: At the time, gay culture was largely underground and discrete. Small parties were held off-campus, but there were no public gay events. Gay students would go to bars in the city to party, but they had to be wary of police. Gay men who were arrested had their names published in the local newspaper.

MAHER AHMAD: I was able to go to gay bars when I was 19 and 20. But that was it. There was nothing social going on and in that letter that I wrote with Bill to the faculty, one of the things we said is we feel we need to have some kind of social mechanism on campus to associate with ourselves.

ALEX CHUN: The Gay Liberation Front then requested money from the student government to help them print leaflets. They needed $67 but had anticipated that they may not get the full amount requested. So they asked for $670 instead. To their surprise, their request was approved, and they were given the full $670. Later, Maher learned that the head of the committee at the time was a closeted gay student. With the extra money, the members of the Gay Liberation Front wanted to plan something special: a dance. 

MAHER AHMAD: It was wonderful. It’s very hard, I think, for young people today, who are both gay and straight, to conceive that back in 1970, no bars allowed any dancing. In Chicago, you had to get a dance license — a bar had to get a dance licence —  to allow dancing, and the city would issue one to gay bars to allow same sex dancing, but the bars back then were sordid kind of affairs, as I say, they’re by and large owned by the mob. They paid off the police. And they had a captive clientele. So one of the things that we wanted to be able to do is to have sociability and some notion of normality. And instead of having our entire social lives circumscribed by surreptitious meetings in private apartments, or gay bars, we wanted to have a dance.

ALEX CHUN: The Gay Liberation Front rented the Patten Gymnasium on campus to hold their dance. A member of the group, Duncan, happened to know Corky Siegel, a member of the Siegel-Schwall blues band. So, Duncan asked them to play at the dance, and they agreed to do so.

MAHER AHMAD: Instead of it being just, you know, 20 or 30 gay people that were brave enough to be public and go to a public dance… because we only charged $1 a ticket, which is well below the market rate for a Siegel-Schwall concert, we packed the gym! And it turned into a concert rather than a dance, which was, you know, unfortunate. And it was more geared to like this performance rather than than the gay people, but it was great, great fun. So suddenly, we’re this group, we got our $67 turned into $670. And rather than losing money on this dance from our bank, we got tons more money which then we could use to do other other kinds of things. And it was just a lot of fun. 

ALEX CHUN: Corky Siegel, one of the band’s co-founders, was 27 at the time. He remembers playing at the Patten Gym. The band played hits such as “Hey, Billie Jean,” “I Don’t Want You to Be My Girl” and “Angel Food Cake”.

CORKY SIEGEL: Everyone was having a good time. It was a lot of fun, and we felt really good about doing it.

ALEX CHUN: Corky says the Siegel-Schwall Band was very political and often played at benefits. Corky believes that music can be political, and the Siegel-Schwall’s support for the Gay Liberation Front was exactly that.

CORKY SIEGEL: It does really bring people together. Music is a form of compassion. What it does for people, individuals and for the world, and how it uplifts people… it’s just a form of compassion. So, in that sense, anyone who plays music is putting that into the atmosphere. More practically, just a popular band that’s showing support adds a little more power to the people.

ALEX CHUN: The Gay Liberation Front also worked to make safe spaces for everyone in the city. The Normandy Bar was the largest gay bar at the time, but would occasionally turn away non-white patrons. To protest, the Gay Liberation Front compiled a list of demands. They wanted the bar to stop pushing drinks on patrons, obtain a dancing license and to let all patrons enter regardless of their race.

MAHER AHMAD: Our biggest ask, our most radical ask was that they allow black people in, because they would not allow black people or any people of color as I recall. And the way they would keep them out was one of these traditional kinda things that white racists do. They would ask them for like three forms of photo government-issued identification. Now they wouldn’t ask anybody else for that. They would let 18-year-olds in against the law. But black people had to show multiple forms of identification or they couldn’t get in.

ALEX CHUN: The Gay Liberation Front organized a meeting with the owners of the Normandy Bar and read off the demands. 

MAHER AHMAD: And we said, “Okay, if you don’t do that, we’re going to boycott your bar.” And he laughed at us. And he said, “Go ahead and boycott,” thinking that what was this little scruffy group of college students going to do to his Normandy Bar that paid off the police, that got, I don’t know how many people it held at night, it had to be at least 600 or 800, maybe as many as 1,000. And he laughed at us and told us to get the “F” out of his bar.

ALEX CHUN: So the Gay Liberation Front planned to hold a boycott that Friday night. There was just one issue. They only had about six men who were willing to publicly boycott the bar. But to their surprise, the International Socialist Group on campus agreed to join them in the boycott, making the group of boycotters about 20 people.

MAHER AHMAD: So we went out there early on a Friday night, and we started, you know, like marching around in a circle with our signs hoping that we could keep people from going in. People would turn around the corner two blocks down from the subway station, see this ruckus in front of the bar of people chanting slogans and carrying signs and walking around in a circle. And they would, discretion being the better part of valor, turn heel and go right back to the subway and go someplace else. Well, we killed their business that night. I think they had no business.

ALEX CHUN: The group boycotted the next week on Friday and Saturday as well, effectively killing the Normandy Bar’s business. Eventually, the owner of the bar gave in and agreed to meet with the Gay Liberation Front once more.

MAHER AHMAD: We signed up for a classroom in Kresge Centennial Hall in the basement, and we said meet us here and it was at night and this is an image that will ever be seared into my brain. The visual was so great. It was like six scruffy gay boys, the bright blaring fluorescent lights and us sitting around in the chairs and then these two mafioso types in ties and suits stuffed between the return arm and the back of the chair negotiating with us. And they agreed to all our demands, and they got a dancing license. It made the bar more popular than ever. And what happened because of the competition, other bars one after the other started getting dancing licenses.

ALEX CHUN: The Gay Liberation Front participated in other protests and demonstrations across the city, advocating for equality wherever they could. Some of the chants they used may sound familiar to activists today…

MAHER AHMAD: And I remember one of the things… this phrase was around when I was an undergraduate, so it’s at least that old, we would sing things like, “We’re here because we’re queer.” 

ALEX CHUN: Although the Gay Liberation Front had originated as an advocacy group for gay rights, Maher said he has always seen the fight against oppression as universal.

MAHER AHMAD: We can help all these other oppressed groups from all over the world because oppression is indivisible, okay? And when one tries to separate one’s own oppression as being more legitimate or deserving of more attention, it diminishes the oppression of other people and diminishes the oppression of the group that considers themselves somehow raised above other oppressed groups or more worthy of attention. 

ALEX CHUN: Today, Maher’s support in the fight for equality hasn’t diminished, and he remembers the importance of protests when he was fighting for liberation.

MAHER AHMAD: They are absolutely essential. 100 percent essential. Our Constitution, our founders… these guys were your age. Our founders that wrote our Constitution, they didn’t get some things right, but wow, what a system they came up with. And one of the things they realized was absolutely essential to a free society was the right to peaceably assemble because that is what will take the attention of people in power. I would hate to get stuck on a freeway in Los Angeles, because a whole bunch of gay rights activists or BLM activists sat down on the freeway and closed it up, but if these people are willing to sit in the freeway, be arrested, go to jail, fight the arrest, pay the fine, get released and do it again, more power to them. Because sometimes you gotta shout to be heard.

ALEX CHUN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Alex Chun. Thanks for listening to another episode of Defining Safe. This episode was reported and produced by me, Alex Chun. The summer managing editors of The Daily are Sneha Dey and James Pollard. The summer editor-in-chief is Emma Edmund.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @apchun01

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