Founding Member of the Gay Liberation Front Writes Memoir to Inspire Future Activism

By Daniel Perez-Crouse

We Set the Night on Fire: Igniting the Gay Revolution is a memoir by Martha Shelley, one of the founding members of the Gay Liberation Front. It recounts her upbringing as the daughter of Jewish refugees in New York City and charts her development as an activist through the 1960s and ‘70s.
“To be honest, in some ways, I was a young brat. And there are things I regret. Times I was not nice to people. But there’s a saying that nice girls don’t make history,” said Shelley. Some of the history she made was organizing the first gay march in response to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, taking a central role in the Lavender Menace action and so much more.
When she recounted an instance of being thanked for all she’d done, she said, “I had a ball. Nobody shot me, I didn’t get thrown in jail, I didn’t get thrown in a psyche ward and given electroshock therapy, which they did to a lot of gay people. I had a blast and I’m still here. There’s no need to thank me.”
In addition to providing insight into her life and development, the book recounts the history and culture surrounding her. Shelley wanted to focus on the economy in particular. “My father brought home $70 a week take-home pay. And he was able to support a family with that. Our purchasing power and economy have gone down. That means a lot. I was able to live in a little slum apartment and work three days a week and spend my time being an activist. That had a lot to do with the economy. So what are people going to do now? How do we deal with those individuals in this country who own as much wealth as half the population?”
This leads to one of the main purposes of the memoir: “I’m hoping what it does is inspire the younger generation to tackle problems that are facing us today. Specifically, climate change and economic inequality.” And Shelley said that if she were young and looking for a cause in today’s world she’d, “focus first on climate change. If we don’t have that, we won’t have a world. Nothing else we fight for is going to matter, because we’ll be dead.” From there, she says people should focus on one thing that is impacting them, their families and neighbors the most, and use that to guide them.
As a means of inspiration, she references the gay revolution and its success. “Before Stonewall, there was only a handful of people who were ‘out’ in public across the nation. We were scared and in the closet. Then what happened is those handful led little organizations – pleading to be part of the American middle class. To be accepted into the mainstream. And some of us, including me, didn’t give a rat’s patootie about the mainstream. I was against the way things were. People need to have the guts to get out and fight, or we are all going to fry.”
Shelley also noted what helped make a difference with the gay liberation front was how they united amongst groups with singular goals. “We focused on our issues, but we also aligned with the other groups. And that made the difference. That’s why Stonewall wasn’t just a riot and then went away. We organized afterward. We made alliances and got the radicals on our side. When we got the radicals on our side, then the liberals moved in. Finally, it gets to the point where someone like Dick Chaney comes out in favor of gay marriage because his daughter is gay.”
Someone recently asked Shelly how she would like to be remembered. “I don’t care,” she said. “What matters is what can I do today to help make it a better world. What can I do to help my neighbors and friends and the world in general? That’s all. When I’m dead, I won’t care. Unless there’s an afterlife, in which case I have some requests…”
Shelly has a long career of writing. She’s written poetry and articles, published novels and posts on her blog. She said that the memoir was a “joy” to do. Moreover, her wife, Sylvia Allen, helped edit the book and is a writer herself. They both currently live in Portland.
To purchase the book, visit and for additional works by Shelley, visit

Founding Member of the Gay Liberation Front Writes Memoir to Inspire Future Activism

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