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Formation & Early Years
The second half of the twentieth century saw growth in the formation of clubs and organizations to support members of the LGBT community in the United States. Gays and lesbians could meet in bars in some major cities, however, until the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco in 1966 and Stonewall riot in 1969 in New York, doing so risked arrest or harassment by police. Outside of bars, there were few groups available, such as the Mattachine Society—oriented to mostly men although not exclusive—and the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB) group, which was lesbian club. These groups are notable in that they chose names that had coded significance so if they their members were discovered, they would not be automatically “outed” and face the significant social repercussions, such as ostracism from family and work. Also, the use of a coded club name helped integrate new members who might be hesitant to join a club with an overtly gay name. In the case of Mattachine, the name was from a French secret fraternity of unmarried men. For DOB, “Bilitis” refers to a fictional lesbian from the poems the “Songs of Bilits.”
The use of coded names for gay clubs continued into the 1970s when a gay running club in San Francisco was created and eventually named FrontRunners. The name referred to the title of Patricia Nell Warren’s 1974 book The Front Runner, which is a story of a gay runner and his gay coach. The name would have some resonance with gay people as the book became quite popular (e.g., it was a New York Times bestseller), but not be so overt as to deter members who may not be out or entirely out.
In October 1979, Malcolm Robinson, who edited the NY Running News for New York Road Runners, asked the San Francisco group if he could use the name for a club he was creating. As they did not control they name, they agreed and he placed in ad in the magazine to see if any lesbians and gay men were interested in forming a running club. According to former President Steve Gerben, “about a dozen people responded, and in October an organizational meeting was held, with Malcolm agreeing to be President, Bob Dubie as VP, Rom Rirchem as Treasurer, and Kevin Moahony agreed to prepare the fun run schedules” (p. 1).
By 1979—the time Robinson created Front Runners New York—there were a variety of gay clubs and organizations, and some had explicitly gay names like Gay Activist Alliance. However, unlike these other groups, which had overt political intentions, FRNY was created primarily as a running club. What it provided was a way for gays and lesbians to meet each other outside of the context of a bar while also doing something that promoted personal health and wellness. Thus, the running and the social elements were inextricably linked: a member should have genuine interest in running, as well in meeting other gays and lesbians. This connection is made abundantly clear in the first Front Runner Newsletter (shown to the right), which includes both race results and the word "PARTY" in all caps.
By the end of 1980, there were 42 members. One particularly important decision made in 1980 was designed to ensure that the club remained both a gay and lesbian club, and not just a gay men’s club. To structurally ensure the inclusion of lesbians, in 1981—using Steve Gerben’s suggestion—both a Men’s and Women’s Vice President would be on the ballot to ensure that women would always have a leadership role in the club. Gerben became president in 1981, and he details the first few years of the club in Front Runners NY – The Early History, which is available for download.
Michael Bronski (2011), A Queer History of the United States, Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
Marcia Gallo (2006), Different daughters: a history of the Daughters of Bilitis and the rise of the lesbian rights movement, Seal Press, Emeryville, CA.
Steve Gerben (2011), Front Runners NY – The Early History, available at: http://archives.frny.org/items/show/3313.
San Francisco Front Runners History, available at: http://www.sffr.org/history
Curated by Anthony Cocciolo, 2015.