Martha Shelley didn’t start out in life wanting to become a gay activist, or an activist of any kind. The daughter of Jewish refugees and undocumented immigrants in New York City, she grew up during the Red Scare of the late 1940s and 1950s, was inspired by the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements that followed, and struggled with coming out as a lesbian at a time when being gay made her a criminal. Shelley rose to become a public speaker for the New York chapter of the lesbian rights group the Daughters of Bilitis, organized the first gay march in response to the Stonewall Riots of 1969, and then cofounded the Gay Liberation Front. She coproduced the newspaper Come Out!, worked on the women’s takeover of the RAT Subterranean News, and took a central role in the Lavender Menace action to confront homophobia in the women’s movement. Martha Shelley’s story is a feminist and lesbian document that gives context and adds necessary humanity to the historical record.
About the Author
Martha Shelley is a longtime political activist from Brooklyn. After the Stonewall Riot, she organized a protest march that morphed into today’s pride parades, and she was one of the founders of the Gay Liberation Front. Her essays, poetry, and short stories have appeared in many anthologies. She has published three novels and four books of poetry. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
“This is an invaluable memoir by one of the founders of gay liberation—a poet, a novelist, and a radical activist who remembers our history. Shelley, a race- and class-conscious lesbian feminist, was there at the beginning, and she remembers it all: growing up ‘different,’ the Mafia-run gay bars, the sit-ins, the jail-time, the protests, and the ideological clashes. This may be one woman’s story—but it is also the story of an American uprising that continues on to this day. An easy and wonderful read.” —Phyllis Chesler, author of Women and Madness
“Meeting the brash, funny, smart, caring Martha Shelley years ago helped push me out of the closet into the human world. Now, thanks to this engaging memoir, you too can meet this inspiring justice activist. Bravo, Martha!” —Jonathan Ned Katz, author of The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams
“In We Set the Night on Fire, readers have a front row seat to Martha Shelley’s inspirational fight for equality and her passion for diversity and inclusion. It’s not only her history but the entire LGBT community’s. Martha is a national treasure, and this book celebrates her.” —Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News and author of And Then I Danced
“Martha Shelley has written a book of heart-turning directness that is both politically and sexually astute. Her writing has directness, simplicity, honesty, and beauty—and is also at times funny as hell. We Set the Night on Fire is that perfect rare place where politics and art unite, as it traces her journey from lesbian feminist discovery to the revelation that even fellow revolutionaries, after the passion and intimacies of battle, can knife you in the back. Shelley has never abandoned her Brooklyn Jewish roots but instead has flowered with them, intellectually and morally. For anyone looking to change and deepen his or her life, this is a must-read.” —Perry Brass, Gay Liberation Front, author of The Lover of My Soul and King of Angels
“Martha Shelley, lesbian founder of the Gay Liberation Front, documents her gay coming of age in We Set the Night on Fire. It is a slow burn through Shelley’s activist awakening as a young woman via the civil rights, anti–Vietnam War, and Second Wave lesbian feminism before arriving at ground zero—the Stonewall Riots in New York City. Shelley, a lesbian founder of the Gay Liberation Front, gives readers a moment in a life strung together like a string of retro lavender pop beads.” —Cassandra Langer, author of Romaine Brooks: A Life
“A fast-paced journey through history by one of gay liberation’s most important activists, We Set the Night on Fire illuminates our history through the eyes of a woman who saw it all. . . . Witty and fun, reflective and ruminative, Shelley’s account brings into vivid relief a wide range of powerful organizers, historically significant figures, beloved friends, and romantic partners.” —Eric Cervini, author of The Deviant’s War
“Some people witness history. Some people change the course of history. Martha Shelley has done both in her role as a pioneering activist who helped spearhead the expansive and transformative post-Stonewall gay liberation phase of the LGBTQ civil rights movement. But even before the June 1969 Stonewall uprising led Martha to a leading role in cofounding the radical Gay Liberation Front, she was a brave young activist and feminist who pushed the boundaries in the fight for equality. Shelley’s is an instructive and engaging journey that will inspire generations to come to fight for a better world against all odds. It’s also a great read—the best kind of time travel.” —Eric Marcus, author of Making Gay History
“Martha Shelley is a true pioneer and hasn’t stopped exploring. We Set the Night on Fire is a roadmap and a way to use the knowledge of yesterday to be prepared for tomorrow.” —August Bernadicou, president of the LGBTQ History Project
“Martha Shelley’s We Set the Night on Fire is a memoir of one woman’s revolt against all that sought to contain her. Martha moves through responses to tyranny that defined the twentieth century, beginning with her parents’ and grandparents’ flight from anti-Semitism, followed by her own struggle against the gay persecution that was a defining feature of the mid-twentieth century United States political and social contract. Martha reminds us of how seemingly casual hatred harms our lives as well as the enormous effort and solidarity across race, gender, and sexualities necessary to expose and challenge that hatred. Her story could be the story of many, brought up in the United States by undocumented parents doing all they could so their children would not experience the hunger and oppression that had scarred their lives. Martha continued this tradition of courage when she stepped forward after Stonewall to become one of the lesbian/gay/trans/queer people who founded the Gay Liberation Front and began a global movement for justice.” —Falvia Radno, coordinator of the Lesbian Herstory Archives and director of its Lesbian Studies Institute
"an important contribution to (the gay liberation movement's) history" — Booklist
"A gay rights activist's funny and thoughtful memoir" — Kirkus