stonewall riots Tag Archive

NY Public Library Exhibit – Love and Resistance: Stonewall 50

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I recently visited New York City for a week and happened upon this exhibit by accident. I was walking to my hotel and decided to go past the New York Public Library on the way. When I saw the banners for a 50th anniversary exhibit about the Stonewall Riots, I had to check it out.

On the third floor of the Steven Schwarzman building, you’ll find the Rayner Special Collections Wing and Stokes Gallery. It’s basically a long hallway, but it has the most fantastic collection of artifacts.

You are greeted by the Love+Resistance logo in neon at the doorway adorned with a collage of photos. The exhibit takes you on a timeline from the early days of underground LGBT newsletters and magazine, tensions after the anti-gay Time magazine article, and the events that led up to the riots and the beyond.

There are historic publications on view like Mattachine Review, The Ladder, and Transvestia. The exhibit does a great job of explaining the importance of these periodicals in a time when the public exchange of information was not easy or welcome. In a time before social media, these publication were a way to unite the community.

Few photos exist from the riots in 1969 but there are many from the Christopher Street Liberation Parade, which would later become the Pride parade. There is a wonderful collection of photos by photojournalists Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies. Many of these photos are now iconic. There are also pieces of ephemera like letters and posters from the early gay liberation parades.

There is a section on activism that follows the early protests starting before Stonewall and continues on through the days following Stonewall and the years that followed. At that end of the hall is a screening booth showing footage and interviews.

The exhibit might seems small, but it is powerful. I loved seeing the original letters and posters. I also loved seeing the photos, some of which I have seen online, some I haven’t see at all. It’s incredible to me that it’s been 50 years. While we have come a long way from those days, we still have so much more growing to do.

This exhibit will be up until July 21st, 2019. Check out the NY Public Library site for more info. https://www.nypl.org/events/exhibitions/stonewall50

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Origins of the Gay Pride Movement and Pride Parades

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The sixties were a time when many groups started to fight for their rights. Everything from the civil rights movement, women’s feminist movement, and the anti-war movement polarized Americans and got everyone out to organize, march, protest, and campaign. It was a time for big strides in social change on a variety of fronts. It saw the rise of the gay pride movement and the beginning of the now worldwide celebration of Pride parades.

The Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis were working towards uniting and providing support for the gay and lesbian community since the 1950’s. After the riots at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, it was no longer enough to protest quietly or disguise your identity in a vaguely named organization. The gay rights movement became much more vocal and confrontational. The Gay Liberation Front was created barely a month after Stonewall. Six months later, members of the GLF splintered off to help form The Gay Activists Alliance. Stonewall had become a rallying cry that gained momentum over the year that followed.

Members of the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations decided at their meeting in Philadelphia to have a march in New York on the one-year anniversary of Stonewall. Craig Rodwell, Fred Sargeant, Ellen Brody, and Linda Rhodes were pivotal figures in getting the referendum passed. Back in New York, Rodwell hosted meetings in his apartment and at his bookstore, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop. Brenda Howard attended these meetings and would eventually become a driving force not only for the first march but many more Pride events that followed.

The Christopher Street Liberation Day March took place on Sunday, June 28th along 51 city blocks from Greenwich Village to Central Park. Those attending the first march worried they would not even make it from Christopher Street to Central Park. There was lots of hostility from a largely homophobic public. Despite the fear of being attacked, the march grew in number and jubilance as it made it’s way to Central Park. They chanted and carried signs, making sure to tell the public they were no longer going to stay quiet about their cause. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago also had a march that year. The following year saw more marches around the US, then the first international marches began.

In time, Pride would grow in attendance and host cities worldwide. The 1970s and 1980s were difficult times as the LGBT community had to fight hard against discrimination and also some hard fights within their own communities. Despite this, the passion to change politics and public opinion never waned. Gay Freedom Marches, Gay Liberation Day and Gay Freedom Day continued to be events to bring LGBT issues to the forefront and to make its causes known to a wider audience. The community and burgeoning rights groups would see many challenges in those early decades, from the assassination of Harvey Milk in 1978 to the struggle against increased fear and homophobia during the AIDS crisis in the ’80s.

Pride events quickly evolved from the one-day march to weekend and weeklong festivals. The tone was more political in those early years but even as Pride celebrations became more festive, the undertone of politics and advocacy never went away. By the 1980s, the events changed from “freedom” and “liberation” titled events to the term “Gay Pride.”

Pride would be celebrated around the world, London in July of 1972, Stockholm in 1979, and Berlin in 1979. The ’80s saw an increase in world Pride events with cities like Paris, Dublin, Winnipeg, and Hamburg. Many Gay and Lesbian film festivals started in the US and internationally around this time. Pride events saw a great expansion around the world in the ’90s with the addition of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Israel, Japan, Thailand, Austria, Iceland, many Eastern European countries, and the start of EuroPride which changes the hosting European city every year.

The largest celebration is in Sao Paolo, Brazil with 3,000,000 participants and was named the largest pride parade in the world by the Guinness World Records in 2006. EuroPride has the next largest participants while San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles have the largest numbers in the US. Taiwan is the largest in Asia, Tel Aviv is the largest in the Middle East and Toronto is the largest in Canada. The smallest had 100 participants in Sligo, Ireland.

You can now find Pride events in almost every country, from the largest cities to smallest islands, and the numbers continue to grow. Check with your local LGBT organizations, LGBT Community Center or online resources for lists of Pride events near you.

 

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Marsha P Johnson: Transgender Activist

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For Pride Month, I looked into the history of the Stonewall Riots. An important part of that history is relevant this month. The Stonewall Inn was significant because it catered to the outcast amongst the outliers. They not only provided a safe space for underage homeless gay kids but a place for the transgendered, cross-dressers, and the gender fluid. Gay, lesbian and trans patrons socialized together. It was a place where they could find others like themselves, a place where they could feel safe even if it was only between police raids.

Long before the riots, activist groups were already forming and worked under the radar for equal rights. Constant raids, harassment, and abuse leading up to Stonewall made it an exploding pressure cooker. There are many conflicting accounts of who “started” the riots. What’s more significant are the amazing people who stood up for their rights that night. One of the notable people present that night was Marsha P Johnson, a trans person of color.

Marsha P Johnson was born Malcolm Michaels Jr. on August 24, 1945, in Elizabeth New Jersey. Malcolm moved to NYC in 1966, and legally changed her name to Marsha P Johnson. The “P” she said, stands for “Pay It No Mind,” a preemptive answer to a question she knew was on people’s minds. Marsha identified as a drag queen, though sometimes she would slip into a male persona and become Malcolm on occasion. When that happened, she could be mean and vicious. A majority of the time, she was kind and gentle.

She spent much of her first years in Greenwich Village on the street, a fate for most trans folk and drag queens. Wearing women’s clothes or looking effeminate in a way was unacceptable so kids were often thrown out of the house or they ran away. Marsha decided to escape her family that would not allow her to leave the house dressed as women by moving to the Village. To make ends meet, Marsha found sex work a reliable, if dangerous, way to make a living. She lived for many years couch surfing, staying overnight with Johns or even sleeping in a movie theater during the matinees. She would later find a permanent home with friends.

Marsha’s exuberant nature coupled with her love for extravagant accessories on a non-existent budget was well known and loved. She could often be found with massive amounts of flowers in her hair or with an elaborate hat. She would piece outfits together between dumpster diving, second-hand clothes, and castaways from the flower market. Marsha’s penchant for dramatic clothing served her well while she was a member of the Hot Peaches, a renowned gay theater troupe that ran from 1972 to 1998. In the same spirit as San Francisco’s Cockettes, Hot Peaches was well known for its entertaining and thought-provoking performances. Marsha would read poetry or sing, to much acclaim.

While Marsha was already a member of the Gay Liberation Front, she formed the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, STAR, with her friend Sylvia Rivera in 1970. STAR helped young drag queens and trans women with food and shelter. Their goal was to help cast out young street queens, but they were open to anyone who needed their help. They looked after any street kids trying to survive around the Christopher Street docks. Housing was a challenge. At first, Marsha and Sylvia put up as many as they could in their hotel rooms. They then tried using an abandoned tracker trailer until the owner recovered it with the street kids still inside. Eventually, they renovated a burned out house owned by the mafia that became known as STAR House. Marsha was “mother” to the kids at STAR House during the two years it lasted before they were forced to leave. She and Sylvia hustled on the streets to make money to provide for them so they could stay off the streets. They ran STAR as a collective with everyone helping to provide food and supplies as best they could.

Marsha and Sylvia continued to advocate and help street queens and queer youth even after their attempts to provide a permanent place for them was foiled. They were often seen at marches and protests together. Marsha was also involved with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power), an AIDS advocacy group that formed in 1987.

In 1974, Marsha was photographed and painted by Andy Warhol. Warhol decided to do a series based on drag queens. He went to the Gilded Grape, a nightclub popular with cross-dressers, and took photos of several drag queens hanging out at the nightclub. These large format polaroids were transferred to paintings as a silk screen. Marsha’s photo, a brightly smiling portrait with a playful pigtailed wig, became part of his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series first shown in Italy.

As she became a beacon of light for street queens, an inspiring performer and a work of art, Marsha also struggled with mental illness. She even claimed to have visions. Despite not being accepted by the Catholic Church, she was very spiritual and was known to pray prostrate at the foot of a statue of Mary at the local churches. Living as gender non-conforming drag queen and a person of color was already a challenge. Coupled with the dangers of sex work this added immense pressure and stress in her life. During her lifetime, she experienced several attempts on her life by Johns, so many arrests she lost count, and many nervous breakdowns. Despite all this, Marsha was always known to give what little food and money she had to others. There’s a story that she used the last of her money to buy a back of cookies then wound up giving away most of it to the street queens she passed. Marsha’s would rather give away the last of what she had rather than see others go in need.

Marsha’s live was cut short in July of 1992. A few hours after the Pride March on July 6th, her body was found floating in the Hudson River near the Christopher Street piers. The police dismissed it as a suicide, but everyone who knew her argued that was impossible. There had been no indication she was suicidal. What they did know was that she was harassed shortly before she was found dead. Friends rallied to have her death investigated, but the case was closed. In 2012, Mariah Lopez lobbied to reopen the case and won. The New York police department reopened the case as a possible homicide2012. Unfortunately, I can find lots of info about the reopening of the case but nothing about any results. As far as I can tell, the case is still open and unsolved.

Marsha was a champion of trans rights and a guardian angel for the cast off runaways she found in the West Village. There are amazing stories of her vibrant personality and her endless generosity. While not without her demons, she made a big different in the lives of many and continues to be an inspiration long after her death.

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Stonewall Riots

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By Another Believer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Another Believer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The 60s were a turbulent time. We exited the era of the conservative nuclear family where you fit in at all costs into a decade where people were done with being something other than their authentic selves. Rights movements brought out firebrands for several marginalized communities. There was an overall feeling among groups that had been oppressed and abused that they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Soon after the Stonewall riot, we would see the rise of the gay rights movement.

In 1969, The Stonewall Inn was a well-known gay bar on Christopher Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village. It was a haven for the poor and extremely marginalized transgender and transvestite community, as well as prostitutes and the homeless. The gay community didn’t have many public places they could go to socialize much less be out about their sexuality. At the time it was illegal, as was serving gay patrons. It was also illegal to dress in clothing not assigned to your gender. You couldn’t even dance without getting arrested. A few bars catered to the community but the police raided them often.

These bars operated without a liquor license, they were denied due to the illegal proclivities of their patrons. The mafia was often involved and a dance of scratching each other’s back would involve payoffs to police to prevent the business from being closed down. Cops would raid the bars, line up patrons to check IDs, send some on their way or others to the waiting police wagon. The cycle would repeat when the bars would reopen the following night. They sent anyone without proper identification or dressed in clothing of the opposite sex to jail. The rule was men couldn’t look like women and women needed at least three pieces of feminine clothing. If rich and influential patrons were found during the raid they were often blackmailed so their little secret didn’t get leaked to the public. Fear kept the community from fighting back but that would not last.

At 1:20am on June 28th, eight police officers lead a surprise raid at The Stonewall Inn. The police would find this raid was not business as usual. Instead of dispersing, people started to gather outside. Inside, the patrons had had enough of the injustice and harassment so they fight back. Tensions rose, as did anger and frustration. Stonewall wasn’t just a gay bar but a safe place for the drag community to gather. Queens and crossdressers weren’t accepted even among the queer community at this time so the raid was a threat to one of their few safe havens. It was also a place that homeless youth under the drinking age, then 18 instead of the modern 21, could hang out for the price of a modest $3 admission. When the Stonewall was raided, they would lose one of the few places they could go to stay warm and safe rather than sleeping out on the streets.

During a raid, usually bar patrons would be line up by the police then either go home or go to jail. This time instead of a few smart mouths and some back talk, the police started getting more resistance. The police decided to arrest most of the 200 people in the bar but there was a glitch. The police wagons had not arrived yet. During the wait, the group got more violent. Outside more people had gathered along with some of the patrons who had been released to go home. Instead of going home they stayed. By the time the arrested bar patrons were being put into police wagons and police cruisers, the crowd had grown tenfold. When a woman was roughed up and hit with a billy club the crowd surged in anger. The crowd pelted the cops with coins, then bottles, even used a broken parking meter as a battering ram. Soon a small-scale riot had started and the Tactical Patrol Force was called in. They would pin the police down as they continued to push forward; efforts to quell the fray were met with even more resistance. The crowd even tried to flip the police wagon and firebomb the Stonewall Inn.

Even after everyone was violently dispersed, people returned from all over the city the next day. One raid turned into a week of protests. For six days there were chants, kicklines, leaflets handed out, and smashed windows. In true 60s protest fashion fire hoses would be used to disperse the crowd. The protests were a call for freedom and “Gay Power.” While things calmed down eventually, a need to take action had begun. A need had been brewing since the beginning of the 60s and was ignited at this West Village bar. The coming year would see big steps forward in the fight for gay rights, the Gay Liberation Front would be formed which would lead to the Gay Activist Alliance. The battle for gay rights had been around before the events at Stonewall. What could have been just another raid at this unlicensed bar turned makeshift community center for the marginalized among the marginalized became a turning point for gay activism. The gay right movement would no longer fight in the shadows but become a loud voice that demanded to be heard.

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