FREE Before Stonewall: Minnesota’s First Gay Organization Was Founded Six Weeks Prior to Pivotal New York Event

Each year, our Twin Cities Pride Celebration is a dual commemoration of two monumental events: locally, the founding of FREE, Minnesota’s first gay organization; and nationally, the Stonewall Riot, the pivotal event that catalyzed gay liberation in the United States and worldwide.

In the United States, the decade of the 1960s was a hotbed of political and social change: the antiwar movement protesting the Vietnam War; the black civil rights movement; the women’s movement; and the American Indian movement.

For the gay community in the 1960s, pre-Harvey Milk San Francisco was a beehive of activity. In 1961, José Sarria was the first openly gay person in the nation to seek elected political office; in 1965, he founded the still-flourishing International Court System, of which the local Imperial Court of Minnesota is a chapter. In 1967, the Society of Individual Rights (SIR) was organized. In 1968, Reverend Troy Perry established Metropolitan Community Church (MCC), which eventually grew into an international body that includes our local All God’s Children MCC.

In Minnesota, by early 1969, the gay community consisted of what some have called the four B’s, our only gathering places: bars, like the 19 Bar and the Gay 90’s in Minneapolis, both still in operation today; bookstores, like sex purveyor Ferris Alexander’s adult establishments; bathhouses, like the Hennepin Baths in the Lumber Exchange Building in Minneapolis; and bushes, like Bare Ass Beach on the east bank of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

In the spring of 1969, two courageous young gay activists, Koreen Phelps, 20, and Stephen Ihrig, 21, envisioned a brighter future for our local community. Not knowing how to make it happen, they contacted Leo Laurence of SIR in San Francisco, who became their mentor. On May 18, 1969, the two visionaries, under the auspices of the Free University, began by teaching a class called “The Homosexual and Society” at the Coffee House Extempore in the West Bank area of Minneapolis near the University of Minnesota. That’s the real birthday of the gay movement in Minnesota. We’re marking its 45th anniversary this year.

An article by S. Jane Albert that appeared on June 20, 1969, in The Minnesota Daily, the U of M newspaper, was headlined “Free U starts ‘homosexual revolution.’” That headline says it all. This article is the first published account of gay liberation in Minnesota, at its birth.

Albert aptly began her article this way: “First there was Black Power. Then Red Power. And now, through the efforts of two former University students, pink power has come to Minneapolis. Gay Power, as it is properly termed, is a homosexual movement that seeks to change the laws, attitudes and prejudices of uptight, upright heterosexual America.”

Couldn’t be put better today!

By midsummer, the Free University class developed into an actual organization—our first—christened Fight Repression of Erotic Expression (FREE—such a marvelous acronym!). It’s the forerunner of all past and present successors in Minnesota. On its website, the Queer Student Cultural Center (QSCC) at the University of Minnesota traces its direct ancestry to FREE.

Meanwhile, six weeks after Phelps and Ihrig’s class started meeting, and seven days after Albert’s article was printed, New York finally caught up to San Francisco and the Twin Cities. The Stonewall Riot in Greenwich Village began on the night of June 27, 1969, as a protest against the latest in a series of police raids on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar.

Ironically, although San Francisco had been the preeminent center of gay activism for years, the Stonewall Riot in New York City soon became the catalyst for gay liberation everywhere, the event that has been celebrated ever since as the beginning of it all. The first Gay Pride Celebration on June 28, 1970, in New York City, exactly a year after Stonewall, spread to similar Pride observances in other cities, including Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1972.

Minnesota can be enormously proud that our own gay liberation movement, influenced by San Francisco and not New York, got under way six weeks before Stonewall. Unfortunately, a common misconception has it the other way around: that Stonewall sired FREE. But we know better!


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