Charles Silverstein was a grad student in psychology when he attended a workshop at a behavioral therapy convention in October 1972. The topic was aversion therapy, a form of pseudoscientific conversion therapy in which gay men were administered electric shocks and other stimuli to “cure” their sexual attraction to other men.
But Silverstein wasn’t there to learn. He was there to shut the workshop down. As a leading psychologist took the podium, Silverstein hurried to the front of the room and introduced himself as a gay activist.
“We’re going to interrupt your presentation,” he told the speaker. “We’ll give you 10 minutes to speak, and then we’re taking over.” He made good on his promise, prompting chaos in the presentation room as angry protesters and participants began to debate the issue.
The speaker had just been “zapped.” Pioneered by gay liberation activists in the early 1970s, zapping combined protest with performance art.
The tactic was deceptively simple. It involved sudden, loud, brief action. If it interrupted business or an event, all the better. Designed to instigate media coverage and disrupt the status quo, zaps were theatrical, boisterous, and impossible to ignore. Organized on short notice, zaps were a way to confront discrimination directly and remind the public of the existence of the LGBTQ movement and the possibility of pride in a marginalized identity.
In Silverstein’s case, it was effective; one attendee later invited him to give a presentation to influential psychologists. Silverstein’s activism helped prompt the eventual removal of homosexuality as a medical disorder diagnosis.
“That was a time when we were fighting for our lives,” Silverstein said, recalling the zap during a 2019 oral history interview at Rutgers University. Although the heyday of zapping was short-lived, it helped fuel a growing swell of support for LGBTQ equality. Activists credit it with growing their ranks, too.
Zaps make their mark
For most of its history, discrimination and anti-gay laws were the norm in the United States. Homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder, and before 1961, every state criminalized sodomy. The laws were used to justify sweeps of suspected gay bars and public parks, and LGBTQ people risked public humiliation, job loss, and even criminal prosecution for their homosexuality.
Some gay and lesbian groups that emerged during the 1950s and 1960s did publicly protest anti-LGBTQ discrimination. But though there were some riots and noisy confrontations during the era, protests were typically well-mannered demonstrations like the “Annual Reminder,” a yearly event at which protesters in business attire quietly picketed Philadelphia’s Independence Hall in an attempt to show gay men as orderly, contributing members of society.
Then came the June 28, 1969, Stonewall uprising. The riot, which broke out after police raided a gay bar in New York City, galvanized the LGBTQ community. Their frustrations about police entrapment and social stigma boiled over into the gay liberation movement. Groups coalesced around the country, and one of them, the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), came up with a simple and extremely visible form of protest: zapping. (Find out how Stonewall sparked the modern LGBTQ rights movement.)
Credited to GAA member Marty Robinson, who became known as “Mr. Zap,” the organization’s first zaps were aimed at New York’s then-mayor, John Lindsay. Frustrated that the mayor had refused to meet with them and had avoided commenting on gay liberation, the group took action. From opening night of the Metropolitan Opera to the taping of a TV show, the group relentlessly interrupted his speeches, heckled him during live interviews, and sprinkled sites of his appearances with pamphlets.
“We decided that every time he appeared in public or every time that we could get to him, we would make life as personally uncomfortable for him as we could and remind him of the reason why,” recalled GAA member Arthur Evans in 2004. Lindsay eventually met with the group, but the zaps continued until he announced his support for a bill that prohibited discrimination against LGBTQ people in New York in 1971.
By then, activists had realized how powerful their zaps could be. In 1971, for example, the GAA and the Daughters of Bilitis, a lesbian group, targeted Fidelifacts, a New York-based company that performed background checks and was accused of investigating and targeting LGBTQ employees.
The company’s president had stated that his rule of thumb for identifying gay people was that “if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, associates only with ducks and quacks like a duck, he is probably a duck.” Activists—one dressed in full duck regalia—marched in front of the building, squeaking rubber duckies and handing out flyers. Others tied up the company’s phone lines for an entire day, calling to say “Stop your offensive services now!”
An electrifying legacy
Although the protests were often painted as silly by the media, they accomplished their goal by drawing attention to the cause. The most effective zaps involved embarrassing public figures over specific injustices.
One of the most memorable took place during a broadcast of the CBS Evening News in December 1973. In front of a live audience of 60 million viewers, Mark Allan Segal, a member of a small group called the Gay Raiders and an accomplished zapper, jumped in front of the camera and held up a sign that said “Gays Protest CBS Prejudice.” He was protesting major networks’ depiction of LGBTQ people and the way their coverage ignored things like gay pride parades and equality legislation.
It worked: Not only did the network begin covering LGBTQ issues, but Cronkite befriended Segal and began to report on the struggles and successes of the movement.
Another noteworthy zap took place in 1977, when activist Tom Higgins hit singer and anti-gay rights campaigner Anita Bryant in the face with a strawberry-rhubarb pie during a press conference in Des Moines, Iowa. Bryant responded by kneeling in prayer and asking God to deliver Higgins from his “deviancy”; a satisfied Higgins told a Gay Community News correspondent that “There is nothing more humiliating than getting a pie in your face.”
These early gay liberation protesters didn’t just want to reach their straight oppressors. Zaps had another audience in mind, too: LGBTQ people who had not yet joined the cause. Between 1969 and 1973, groups like the GAA inspired the formation of nearly 800 gay and lesbian groups, political scientist Matthew D. Hindman notes; by the end of the 1970s, there were more than 2,000.
By then, however, zaps had mostly faded away as movement leaders, facing public criticism and infighting over militant protest tactics, began to push for LGBTQ rights on a national scale through organizations like the National Gay Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force).
Their legacy lived on, however, and the tactic was revived in the late 1980s, when participants in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) began a series of powerfully disruptive demonstrations that drew upon zap tactics. Sit-ins, die-ins, and a raucous protest in which more than 4,500 people disrupted a Catholic mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral—all bore a resemblance to the zaps that had come before them. (Forty years later, recalling the terrifying early days of the AIDS epidemic.)
Time and the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaged the ranks of the early gay liberation movement. Today, LGBTQ pride has entered the mainstream and homosexuality has been decriminalized in the U.S. But there are still battles to be fought, and LGBTQ activism persists with a wider arsenal of protest techniques, including social media campaigns. These gains can be credited in part to the scrappy tactics of those early activists.
“It’s sassy, arrogant, determined, headstrong, gonna win!” Robinson told author Kay Tobin in 1972. “Nothing happens until you make it happen.”