FREE Before Stonewall: Twin Cities Gay Organization Launched Six Weeks Prior to Pivotal New York Event

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

The late Koreen Phelps, cofounder of Minnesota gay liberation in 1969. Photo by Sophia Hantzes

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

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; and in 1965, he founded the still-flourishing International Court System, which has numerous chapters, such as our local Imperial Court of Minnesota. 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 called the four B’s—our only gathering places: bars—like the 19 Bar and Gay 90’s; bookstores—like Ferris Alexander’s recently opened adult establishments; bathhouses—like the Hennepin Baths; and bushes—like Bare Ass Beach.

In the spring of 1969, two courageous young gay activists, Koreen Phelps, 20, and Stephen Ihrig, 21, envisioned a brighter future for our community. Not knowing how to make it happen, they contacted Leo Laurence of SIR in San Francisco, who became their mentor. The two visionaries, under the auspices of the Free University, began by teaching a class called “The Homosexual Revolution” at the Coffee House Extempore on the West Bank near the University of Minnesota. It first met on May 18, 1969, and continued doing so weekly thereafter. That’s the real birthday of the gay movement in Minnesota.

An article by S. Jane Albert that appeared on June 20, 1969, in The Minnesota Daily, the U of M student newspaper, was headlined “Free U starts ‘homosexual revolution’” That headline says it all. It’s 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). It’s the forerunner of all past and present successors. Nationwide, it had a tremendous impact on groups in other cities.

Meanwhile, six weeks after Phelps and Ihrig’s “The Homosexual Revolution” class started meeting, and seven days after Albert’s article was printed, New York City 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 gay bar.

Ironically, although San Francisco had been a center of gay activism for years, this event in New York City soon became the catalyst for gay liberation, celebrated as such ever since. The first Pride Celebration, on the last Sunday of June in 1970 in New York City, exactly a year after Stonewall, spread to similar Prides in other cities, including Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1972.

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

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