The Prehistory of Gay Marriage: Watch a 1971 Protest at NYC's Marriage License Bureau

Two years after Stonewall, the Gay Activists Alliance invaded the office with coffee and cake to hold an "engagement party" and protest the anti-gay "slander" of the city clerk.

Film still, NYC Marriage License Bureau protest, 1971. (Randolfe Wicker/YouTube)

The gay-marriage fight, which this week reaches a major milestone with the Supreme Court hearing arguments about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage prohibitions, may seem like your classic 21st century culture war battle. But the first skirmishes did not take place in the 21st century. They didn't take place in the 1990s. They didn't even take place in the 1980s.

Go back further than that, to June 4, 1971. Less than two years after the Stonewall uprising, a group of men and women from the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) walked into the New York City Marriage License Bureau carrying coffee urns and boxes of cake to hold an engagement party for two male couples and to protest the "slander" of City Clerk Herman Katz, who had threatened legal action against same-sex "holy unions" being performed -- yes, already then, in 1971 -- by the Church of the Beloved Disciple, which had a largely gay congregation.

The GAA was the the second major gay-rights group to form after Stonewall, the more organized cousin of the Gay Liberation Front, and it flourished in the early 1970s with goal, as one member later recalled, of "writing the revolution into law." Randolfe Wicker, one of the best known gay activists of the 1960s -- he went on the radio in 1962 to counter psychiatric descriptions of homosexuality, then seen as a form of mental illness, and in 1964 was the first out gay person to appear on national television -- posted black-and-white footage of the planning for the Marriage Bureau action, and of the action itself, on YouTube.

There are three videos, each about 10 minutes in length. The first opens with an interview Wicker conducted with the church's pastor about the controversy over whether or not the church was performing illegal marriages -- as opposed to protected religious ceremonies -- and thus violating the law. The rest of it consists mainly of a Gay Activists Alliance planning meeting for the action, with a lengthy speech by Mark Rubin, who lays out the protest's agenda and describes himself as anxious to do what he's about to do in even giving the speech to the membership. But he's also very certain of the morality of his cause.

"Any point of view which is opposed to gay rights is a wrong point of view, categorically, by fiat and word of God," Rubin says.

The whole affair has a very 1970s feel to it, as one might expect. But it also serves as a reminder of the extent to which early gay activists were cultural radicals, because only radicals would have done what they did or dared to stand up at that moment in history. That's important to bear in mind as the cultural history of the gay-marriage fight is written -- gay marriage was not an idea gay conservatives invented in the 1980s and 1990s, though men like Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch have done extraordinary work since then within conservative circles to build, if not a bipartisan constituency for legalizing same-sex marriage, at least some highly visible bipartisan support for it. But gay marriage was always on the agenda, from the very beginning of the post-Stonewall gay-rights movement, when gays were still criminals under the law in many states and designated by the psychiatric profession as suffering from a mental disorder. Homosexuality was removed from the DSM in 1973 -- the same year Maryland enacted the first state ban on same-sex marriage in response to the new agitation.

A real movement for gay marriage could only became possible once other legal and cultural battles were won. A 1971 gay marriage test case lost every appeal it went through until the Supreme Court declined to hear it in 1972, citing a lack of a "substantial federal question." In the 1980s, AIDS became the focus of the gay community's activism. And the state laws criminalizing gay sex were not struck down, finally and by the Supreme Court, until 2003; that same year, it's worth noting, Evan Wolfson started his Freedom to Marry group. For cultural and strategic reasons, the early gay-rights movement made its priority changing other widely held anti-gay views and laws -- including the right to serve openly in the military, which became a major issue as early as 1975, when decorated Vietnam veteran Leonard Matlovich appeared on the cover of Time for his lawsuit against the military ban.

"This is not an issue at this particular time that we want to be arrested for," Rubin says in the 1971 planning meeting video. "If the cops come ... if we can't talk them into letting us stay longer, we'll leave with some gay power chants and we'll take our cake back here."

The second video shows the shouting-and-chanting phase of the action, as the GAA members invade the office, set up their coffee urns, and offer the staff cake.

"We're having a wedding reception for gay people in room 265 .... You're all invited to come," activist Arthur Evans, who is the main speaker in the video, says to people down the hall.

"Our rights as gay people have been slandered by a public official," Evans says to those who tell him he has no right to be there.

Eventually the group enters Katz's office and shouts, "Bigot! Bigot! Bigot!"

The third video shows the party part of the engagement party, as activist Peter Fisher sings songs with lyrics modified to make them gay-rights protest songs. "We waited too damn long for our rights," he sings to the tune of the gospel song "He's got the whole world in his hands."

At another point, off camera, a man asks a bystander, "Any comment?"

"I just hope they're very happy," a woman sweetly replies.

"Right on!" a man interjects.

When the police finally arrive, they are offered cake and seem mightily amused by the scene.

"Having gotten no satisfaction from government, we will take our case to the people," Evans announces as the protestors leave. And so they did.