Leo Martello (September 26, 1930 — June 29, 2000) was a noted Wiccan priest, gay rights activist, Greenwich Village resident, and author. He was a founding member of the Strega Tradition, a modern form of Wicca informed by Italian heritage and ancestral teachings. During his life, he published a number of books on such esoteric subjects as Wicca, astrology, and tarot reading. While some aspects of Martello’s biography may set him apart, others fit right in with Village traditions of activism, free-thinking, and pushing at the accepted norms of society.
Originally from Dudley, Massachusetts, Martello moved to New York to work as a freelance graphologist and hypnotist, and thrived in a vibrant community of self-identified gay witches and activists.
In the preface to his popular book, Witchcraft, the Old Religion, Martello describes his spiritual beliefs as innately tied to his desire for justice in the world around him. “I don’t believe in the Christian devil or hell or their heaven,” he writes, “and I certainly don’t worship Satan. I don’t desecrate churches or graveyards, as my religion respects those who have passed on and we honor them on Halloween. I don’t waste my time, thoughts, or energies on cursing people, since I know that most of them will do that for themselves without any help from me… I don’t worship the ‘powers of darkness’ or consider the evil principle in life as powerful. In fact I consider evil impotent. What gives it power is the support of the good people who don’t stand up to it, those basically decent people who say nothing, do nothing, when they see evil.”
One month after the Stonewall riots of 1969, Martello, who identified as gay, attended an organizing meeting of the Mattachine Society. While the group had gained increasing popularity among mostly gay men after Stonewall, Martello soon realized his differences with the organization, believing the group did not stand firmly enough against police brutality against the gay community.
Citing these political differences, Martello soon became a member of the Gay Liberation Front, elected as the group’s first moderator. He supported the GLF’s stance against the “rotten, dirty… capitalist conspiracy,” that he thought dominated American society. He began to write articles for Come Out!, the newspaper of the GLF.
In fall of November 1969, Leo Martello co-authored a lengthy opinion article which was published in the first ever issue of Come Out!: A Newspaper By And For The Gay Community. Along with fellow organizers Mike Brown and Michael Tallman, he criticized the Village Voice’s decision to ban the word ‘gay’ from its advertisements. The GLF wanted to embrace, rather than shun, the word ‘gay,’ and reclaim it as a term of empowerment. In the article, entitled “THE SUMMER OF GAY POWER AND THE VILLAGE VOICE EXPOSED,” the activists write:
“The Village Voice and its writers have once again shown where their heads are really at, during this past summer of ‘Gay Power.’ They’ve consistently demonstrated their contempt of the Gay Community… their handling of the first Gay Riots in history [the Stonewall Rebellion] read like a copy of the New York Daily News. Instead of being concerned about the civil rights of the Gay minority they were preoccupied with the uptight establishment’s reaction to the riots.” Later, the writers criticize the Village Voice‘s concerns for the “harassed” police of Stonewall, rather than for the well-being of the marginalized activists who fought back.
The activists also quote an open letter sent to the Village Voice by writer Kevan Lisco, which ties together mystical and Pagan ideas with a more tangible fight for justice. Lisco writes, “When these people [Village Voice writers & readers who supported the ban] practice their whole concept of a new morality, I hope they can stop to dig the fact that we are people with something to fight for. Hail Aquarius!”
A symbol made famous by the 1968 Broadway musical Hair, the invocation of Aquarius is used to refer to a utopian, free-thinking future. In Leo Martello’s own book Witchcraft: the Old Religion, he writes that: “Many mystics and psychics predict that the coming Age of Aquarius, the water bearer, spells an end to organized religion, especially Christianity, and that it will combine the best elements of a pagan past and modern thought culminating in the rise of various independent religious groups the world over.”
Later in his organizing life, Martello again found himself questioning his political allegiances, and decided to organize with the Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) after a political fracture in GLF. The GAA held its meetings in a building at 99 Wooster Street (which, incidentally, was granted individual landmark status after Village Preservation’s successful campaign in June of 2019). He wrote a regular column, entitled The Gay Witch, for the Gay Activist Alliance’s newsletter GAY, launched in December of 1969.
Notably, Martello also founded the group the Witches International Craft Associates as a networking organization for fellow Wiccans, and organized a “Witch-In” under its auspices. The community gathered in Central Park on Halloween of 1970 despite opposition from the New York City Parks department.
In Witchcraft: The Old Religion, Martello writes: “The world’s first public Witch-In was held on Halloween, October 31, 1970, in New York’s Central Park. The event was made into a documentary film by Global Village and shown many times on Channel 13, New York’s National education television outlet. When the Witches International Craft Associates (WICA) filed for a permit to hold their Witch-In, they were refused by the city Parks department. They refused to accept the arbitrary reasons given for the refusal and were prepared for any eventuality.”
The NYC Parks Department claimed that the Witch-In “did not serve the purpose of the park.” (“I thought the park existed to serve the purpose of the people!” Martello proclaimed). Luckily, the WICA’s case was backed by Barbara Shack of the NYCLU and finally a permit was granted on October 29, 1970 — with only two days to spare before the witch-in. As Martello described the incident in a later interview, they had won “the first class-action civil-rights suit for Witches in history.”
Martello’s close friend and fellow Strega practitioner Lori Bruno chronicled Martello’s life extensively in her biography, remembering that he “gave tirelessly of himself for the fight for human rights… gay and lesbian rights, and for Witches worldwide to worship in complete freedom.”
As Martello himself famously said, “Out of your broom closets and on to your brooms!”
Village Preservation has led the charge for recognition and protection of sites connected to LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) history, especially LGBT civil rights efforts, in our neighborhoods. This included getting the Stonewall Inn named the first LGBT site listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 1999, and New York City’s first designated LGBT landmark in 2015. Click here to learn more.