Last March, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (known as ILGA in its short form) co-sponsored a declaration which included a demand for the reform of laws which limit the "recognition" of an adolescent’s "agency" to consent to sex.* An "adolescent," by international standards, is a youth of 10-19 years of age.
This declaration, and its stuffed-in mandate, flew relatively under the radar, with very few activists groups or media outlets catching the sneaky addition buried on page 5 among a host of other, more reasonable, demands.
This is not the first time the ILGA has pushed to expand access to minors for sex. In fact, the last time such a thing had happened was in the 1990s, and the ILGA was expelled from its consultative status with a UN body for having ties to NAMBLA – the North American Man-Boy Love Association. NAMBLA is the oldest organized "pedophile rights" group in the world.
In the midst of the gay liberation movement, NAMBLA managed to be accepted by mainstream gay activist organizations...
...until the lesbians fought them off.
It all started in 1978, when 24 adult men were arrested in Revere, Massachusetts for sexually abusing minor boys. Shortly after, the gay-rights magazine, the Body Politic, released an article defending the men. Titled "Men Loving Boys Loving Men," the article was written by prominent gay journalist Gerald Hannon, and effectively romanticized the concept of "man-boy love" as natural. The article profiles a teacher friend of his who was in romantic relationships with minor boys in his class. Hannon waxed poetic about these relationships – the poetry, the lust, the sexual trust – as though it was all fantastic and innocent. Removed of reference to age, the article could have almost been mistaken for some grand love story.
But it wasn't. It was about pedophiles – specifically, those who preyed on young boys.
Hannon's article resulted in the Toronto office of the Body Politic being raided by Canadian federal police, and sparked a wave of pedophiles infecting the gay rights community.
The same year as the arrests and the raid of Body Politic, the boy-lovers hosted their first conference. The primary actors were Tom Reeves and David Thorstad, who at the time were well-known gay rights activists.
Reeves, a writer who was active with the Fag Rag Collective, had previously pushed for man-boy love content in the pages of gay liberation magazines and pamphlets. Reeves was joined in his efforts of normalization by Thorstad, who was then the president of the Gay Activists Alliance in New York and had just founded the Coalition for Gay and Lesbian Rights in 1977.
On December 2, 1979, Reeves and Thorstad would become the founding members of NAMBLA. They immediately began to mobilize, utilizing their connections within the gay community to their advantage.
Gay Community News' first 1979 issue included a full article titled "Statement to the Gay Liberation Movement on the Issue of Man-Boy Love." It argued that pederasty was a fundamental sexual right that the gay community was not doing enough to forward.
Their sentiment was supported by the lone lesbian who made an appearance in support of the pedophiles – Beth Kelly, who is currently a professor of Queer Studies at DePaul University. At the time, Kelly wrote an article, also published in Gay Community News, insisting that "lesbians do it too," and comparing her affection towards her aunt as a minor to active sexual relationships between men and boys.
Needless to say, Kelly's insistence was not well-received among the lesbians themselves.
But while lesbian discontent with the growing influence and outspokenness of pedophiles within gay rights circles had been neglected, it would finally force itself into the foreground just a few short months later during the widespread efforts to arrange a mass gay rights march on Washington.
On February 25, 1979 at a national gay rights conference, the youth caucus for the National Gay Mobilizing Committee adopted a motion calling for the abolishment of age-of-consent laws. When the conference adjourned, the lesbian caucus threatened to quit the march on Washington unless the motion was revised – effectively sabotaging the march. Reluctantly, the Committee agreed to revise the motion to remove reference to age-of-consent, and instead include "protections" for lesbian and gay youth in their schools and places of employment.
David Thorstad, whose presence on the Committee indicated NAMBLA's direct involvement with the historic 1979 gay rights march on Washington, refused to support the alterations, calling the lesbian caucus' tactics "undemocratic." In his recounting of events, Thorstad mentions that Lesbian Feminist Liberation (LFL), a radical feminist group, condemned him and other boy-lovers as attempting to co-opt the gay movement. LFL crafted a statement, writing:
"[NAMBLA is] attempting to legitimize sex between children and adults by confusing the real needs of Gay youth with a call to repeal all age of consent laws. Feminists easily recognize this as the latest attempt to make palatable the sexual exploitation of children."
In response, Thorstad and other so-called boy lovers called the actions "censorship," and compared the lesbians expressing concerns to Anita Bryant, an anti-gay rights celebrity who campaigned for the abolishment of homosexuality.
Lesbians made their dissent heard again in 1980, when they attempted to have NAMBLA removed from the gay pride march in New York. At the march, a 15-year-old boy was presented as a speaker who defended man-boy love on behalf of NAMBLA. Mark Moffett Jr., a prominent youth activist with the Gay Youth of New York, was recently honored by the AIDS Memorial.
Lesbians created a caucus which specifically called upon women to split away from the pride march, stating that the pride organizing committee had "been dominated" by NAMBLA and its supporters. At the entrance to the official march at Central Park, lesbian delegates attempted to turn people away and discourage their participation.
In 1981, lesbians drew the ire of Thorstad and his pedophile entourage when they successfully had Thorstad removed from the Cornell University May Gay Day festival, where he had been invited as a speaker.
Despite the lesbian influence beginning to spread, many gay rights activists continued to throw their weight behind NAMBLA well into the 1980s and 90s.
"Who belongs in the gay movement, and who decides?
We think s/m lesbians and NAMBLA do belong. The gay movement is based on expanding people's options, in bed and out, not on setting some new sexual “party line.” Not too long ago, the whole gay issue was too kinky to be taken seriously as a progressive social movement. In the particular cases mentioned above, NAMBLA and the s/m women were only seeking places to talk about their sexual preferences. We certainly support their right to act on them as well."
In 1984, shortly after lesbians unsuccessfully tried to have NAMBLA removed from the Los Angeles pride parade, NAMBLA held a conference in the San Francisco Pride Center. Among the men they included in their panels on adult-child sexual relations were prominent gay rights activists like Harry Hay – one of the most well-respected gay rights activists of all time – and Jim Kepner, who continued to push NAMBLA's agenda in gay circles.
But in 1986, the lesbians and their hard-fought battle won out. NAMBLA was removed from the Los Angeles pride parade. But, despite their efforts, Harry Hay marched with a signboard which protested their exclusion.
And that brings us back to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association (ILGA), of which NAMBLA was a member into the early 1990s.
NAMBLA's ties with the organization resulted in a firestorm after the ILGA received consultative status with the United Nations in 1993. Republican Senator Jesse Helms proposed a bill to slash America's U.N funding until President Bill Clinton could certify that no organizations consulting the U.N. were associated with the normalization of pedophilia.
ILGA formally removed NAMBLA from its membership in 1994 – a shame it still carries to this day, evidenced by the maintenance of a statement on its official website condemning NAMBLA and pedophilia.
But the damage of association, across so many gay rights groups, had long since been done.
Especially after the Helms proposals, gay rights organizations were slandered and smeared. In 1994, shortly after the controversy with ILGA came to international attention, the Associated Press released an article accusing the gay rights community of having been too complacent in its advocacy, and inconsistent on its stances on pedophilia. Anti-gay activists began publishing papers insisting on a link between pedophilia and homosexuality, and bigots cemented their talking points, always pointing back to NAMBLA's involvement in the gay rights movements and the too-little-too-late responses by so many organizations like ILGA and Stonewall.
How much of this damage could have been mitigated had the gay rights community just listened to the lesbians – the women activists who had been throwing up red flags as early as the 1970s?
With the renewed inclusion of the amendments about "sexual liberation" for minors in the new ILGA declaration, history appears to be repeating itself only 40 years later. And, once again, it will no doubt fall to the women, the lesbians, to right the ship.
*4/9/21 - This article has been corrected to better reflect the nature of ILGA's relationship to the "feminist declaration." A previous version of this article stated that ILGA "penned" the declaration, however, ILGA was one of over 200 organizations who signed on to the declaration as part of The Women’s Rights Caucus.
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