Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution - Linda Hirshman (2012)
Chapter 4. Stonewall Uprising: Gays Finally Get Some Respect
“The Only Language the Pigs Understand”
The rocks had been removed, the glass swept away, and the windows of the Stonewall Inn boarded up when Mattachine president Dick Leitsch gave in to the pressure to schedule a meeting. By the second Mattachine meeting, on July 16, 1969, there were several hundred people crowded into the Episcopal church on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. The Mattachine secretary, heterosexual matron Madolin Cervantes, proposed that “we ought to have a gay vigil in a park. Carry candles, perhaps. A peaceful vigil. I think we should be firm, but just as amicable and sweet as—”
Long-haired, leather-clad hippie celebrity Jim Fouratt jumped to his feet: “Sweet! … Sweet! Bullshit! There’s the stereotype homosexual again, man! Soft, weak, sensitive! Bullshit! Be proud of what you are, man! And if it takes riots or even guns to show them what we are, well, that’s the only language that the pigs understand!” Wild applause.
Leitsch tried to answer, but Fouratt shouted him down. Leitsch screamed for order again and again but to no effect.
What had happened to the movement?
We’ll never really know. The events at the Stonewall Inn in the early morning of June 28, 1969, are the most contested hours in gay history. People who were there dispute each other’s accounts and people even dispute who was there at all. Famed gay historian Martin Duberman, who wrote one of the first histories of the event, elicited scathing criticism that he placed people on the scene who were blocks or miles away. Reunions of the Stonewall participants only trigger renewed arguments about whether the person who acted out first was a queen, a lesbian, or no one at all. Only a couple of reporters, from the Village Voice, down the street, were present, and their stories were so inflammatory they ignited an additional day of rioting when they were published on July 3. Whatever the details, Stonewall is a genuine American revolution: the authorities took on men in wigs in a bar and all hell broke loose.
One thing no one disputes: what a dump. The now iconic Stonewall Inn did not have running water. As in most Mafia establishments, the liquor was so watered down it wouldn’t even kill a germ. Yet the black-painted, plywood-boarded, dirty, overpriced bar with the Sixties black lights was what passed for a good place to go in the last years of New York’s gay repression. The corrupt and avaricious owners let the gay guys dance together, and the music in the back room was especially appealing. The bouncers admitted transvestites in makeup. All in all, Stonewall was a place with an unusually wide slice of gay life, from men in suits to men in drag: black, white, rich, not so rich. (Women not so much. Historians and the remaining participants still quarrel about whether there were many, some, or no lesbians at the Stonewall Inn, on the night of the riot or any other night.)
Located in the middle of the densest concentration of gay New Yorkers, Greenwich Village, Stonewall was almost a stage set for the next act of the gay revolution. The Mafia owners had set it up as a “bottle club” with “members”; apparently they thought that such a ruse would delude the New York State Liquor Authority, which was still regulating gay bars for “orderliness.” The Mafia, not being inclined to wishful thinking, also took the precaution of heavily bribing the police from the local precinct, who raided only early in the evening, before the fun began. The raids had a ritualistic quality—the employees knew they’d be out in a few hours and the patrons knew they’d get a suspiciously well-connected lawyer and usually never even see a jail cell. That’s why, when midnight rolled around on June 27, the mob guys who ran the Stonewall thought the warning phone call they had gotten earlier in the day must be mistaken.
There were always a bunch of runaway street kids in Sheridan Square park across the street from the Stonewall Inn, some of them hoping to get in and have someone buy them a beer. Gay street kids, then and now, are, typically, involuntary orphans, born into heterosexual families and orphaned when their parents find out about their differences. They are often as young as thirteen or fourteen, and frequently from middle class or educated backgrounds. Although traumatized by the treatment they have received at the hands of their families or communities, desperate, hungry, hustling, and thieving, they are still functioning, resourceful adolescents. They were capable of becoming a crowd. As thinkers have known since the French Revolution, a crowd is filled with possibility.
The area was crowded. By one a.m., there were hundreds of patrons in the bar dancing, drinking, and socializing. Local residents, many of whom were gay, were on the street and hanging out on the stoops because it was Friday night and because it was so hot. The kids were in the park. If things had gone as usual, the police would have lined up the patrons, taken some IDs, arrested some of the employees, loaded the cars with booze, and driven to the precinct house. The raiding police had some icky practices, like ordering the transvestites to the bathroom and examining them for their biological gender, then punishing them if they weren’t wearing three gender-appropriate garments. (New York law, unbelievably, actually required this.) Usually just threatening to probe the queens’ genitals was enough to cause them to admit their transgression without the cops actually having to strip them.
But late June 1969 wasn’t a usual time. A mayoral election was looming, never a good time for New York gays, and incorruptible Lieutenant Seymour Pine had been transferred to the Manhattan vice squad with orders to clean up the Mafia bars in Greenwich Village. The police had raided five gay bars in three weeks and closed several for good. Four days before, on June 23, they had raided the Stonewall. Stonewall’s mob owners mouthed off to Pine that night and Pine was spoiling for a rematch.
From the moment the police entered the bar, the atmosphere was different. People gave them lip when asked for their IDs. The transvestites refused to be taken to the bathroom to be “examined.” The police began hauling the reluctant cross-dressers to jail. But the patrons they had let out earlier didn’t leave, as gays in a raid always had. They hung around to see what was happening to their friends, swelling the crowd outside. As the police wrestled the transvestites and other unlucky prisoners into the paddy wagon, the crowd cheered and jeered, and the exiting homosexuals started camping it up. Gay onlookers went to the pay phones in the neighborhood and called their friends. As Pine remembered it decades later, “Instead of the homosexuals slinking off, they remained there, and their friends came, and it was a real meeting of homosexuals.” A cop shoved a transvestite, she hit him with her purse, and he clubbed her. A crowd started to boo and shout, “Flip the paddy wagon.”
Most accounts pin the eruption of real violence to a person, who may or may not have been a big lesbian, resisting arrest. When the police put her in a patrol car she came out the other side, repeatedly trying to walk away. Finally a cop picked her up bodily, heaved her inside, and locked the doors. A lot of witnesses remember her saying to the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” The kids started throwing pennies (“coppers”) at the police, and the crowd rushed the wagon full of prisoners, which drove away. The hail of coins increased, and the crowd pounded on the three police cars accompanying the wagon. The police drove off with the imploring voice of Lieutenant Pine in their ears, “Hurry back! Hurry back!” Some surge drove the kids back to a construction site, where they found a pile of bricks and began to throw them at the police. As bricks followed coins, Pine herded his tiny corps of eight policemen into the bar and barricaded the door.
All successful protests have some element of luck. At Stonewall, the police radio broke down, so the police could not call for help. Finally, they found a vent to the roof and sent the smallest policewoman up it with instructions to run to the firehouse around the corner to call for help. For what seemed like an eternity to the police barricaded in the bar, no help came. The crowd launched a full-fledged assault on the Stonewall. They threw rocks through the windows and pulled a parking meter out of the ground to use as a battering ram. They began to break down the doors. They emptied their cigarette lighters into cans and made improvised Molotov cocktails.
Not until the riot squad arrived did the mob begin to back off. And even then, for several hours, the riot police had to chase the gay crowd to drive it away. The police would take the street and the gay protesters would go around the block and came back behind the tactical forces, throwing bottles and chanting. When the tactical policemen lined up in the traditional phalanx formation to clear a street, the gay street kids lined up opposite them in Rockette formation performing high kicks and singing mocking songs: “We are the Stonewall girls, we wear our hair in curls.” The tactical cops went nuts, clubbing the dancers, which, of course, only reduced them to the level of the people they despised. New York’s finest backed down by the queers. They were murderous with rage.
Not Passive Resistance: Resistance
By the time Stonewall erupted, Bayard Rustin’s Gandhian passive-resistance teachings had long been abandoned by the Left. The gay-movement types and the vaguely left antiwar marchers at Stonewall came out of a very different movement from the one that watched the aurora borealis over Port Huron, Michigan, eight years before.
The turning point probably came in October 1967, when the antiwar protesters shut down the induction center in Oakland, California, before being beaten back by the police. The same week, protesters at the Pentagon moved from nonviolent demonstration to an actual invading force, a small number of protesters pushing into the building itself. Although they were repulsed, the protesters skirmished with the guards and hundreds of people were arrested. By the end of 1967, the ghettos of Newark and Detroit had erupted in riots and scores of people were dead. After October 1967, long after the blacks had thrown whites out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) leader Todd Gitlin wrote a friend that he had heard that “some [black] SNCC guys were saying ‘OK boys, you’ve become men now, we’re ready to talk.’ ”
The radical movement came to a head, legendarily, in the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. On August 28, 1968, as the convention was grinding away, the police fought with protesters all afternoon and evening across from the convention hotel. The crowd pelted the police with whatever they could dig up—food, rocks, bags of urine, and chunks of concrete. The battle between the police and the protesters in front of the Hilton itself took place, like the McCarthy-Army hearings, on live TV. “The whole world is watching,” the demonstrators chanted.
The radical gays and street boys of the park across from the Stonewall were watching. When hippie Jim Fouratt arrived on the first night of the riots on his way home from a late night at work, he tried to call some of his straight activist buddies to come and help. None of them did. But whether the Sixties counterculture movement acknowledged it or not, Stonewall was its child. John O’Brien, gay veteran of the Alabama civil rights marches and the SDS takeover at Columbia, was there. When the riots started, he followed the gay crowd, telling them what to do from his long experience in the movement. Go against traffic to force the police to chase you on foot. Take this street, not that one. Bob Kohler, gay veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), from the early, nonviolent days of the civil rights movement, was there. Even seventeen-year-old cross-dresser Steve (Yvonne) Ritter “knew a lot about the peace movement when the bar erupted. I did march in some peace demonstrations. I was enraged at some of the civil rights demonstrations when I saw African-Americans being hosed down in Memphis, and it was just one of those things.” Street kid Danny Garvin, too, knew what was happening: “We had been in war demonstrations and things like that. We wanted the bar back open.”
Early in the events that night, gay bookstore owner and activist Craig Rodwell shouted the movement slogan to the crowd of angry homosexuals outside the bar. “Gay Power!” But all happy movements aren’t the same. “Gay Power” sounded too sincere for the gay rioters, and no one took him up on it. A chorus of “We Shall Overcome” also fizzled out. By Stonewall, the “We Shall Overcome” phase of the Sixties—passive resistance, moral suasion—was over. Real violence had displaced nonviolence.
Young queen Martin Boyce remembers, “When it was over and some of us were sitting exhausted on the stoops, I thought, My God, we’re going to pay so desperately for this, there was glass all over. But the next day we didn’t pay. My father called and congratulated me. He said, ‘What took you so long?’ The next day we were there again. We had had enough. Every queen in that riot changed.”
What Had Changed
For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest.
—Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
Sooner or later political players have to be willing to fight back. Long before Stonewall, the Mattachine Society in New York and its allies had succeeded in getting a ruling from the New York Court of Appeals that the presence of gay men in bars, even men close dancing in bars, was not illegal. The whole Stonewall Mafia setup was technically unnecessary. But despite the ruling from New York’s highest court, as long as the police kept raiding the gay bars, no legitimate business people would open one. As happened with the Interstate Commerce Commission’s 1962 order to desegregate interstate buses, society simply does not obey the order to treat people as citizens until they show their willingness to die for their rights.
The willingness to kill or be killed as a condition of social membership has been a reality of Western politics since people like Thomas Hobbes started thinking about politics just about four hundred years ago. Why do people make a political society, in modern words, a “social contract,” at all? Hobbes asked. For one thing, he answered, in their natural state rational people are afraid of each other. In order to have a life that is not, as he famously put it, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” with everyone going around killing each other, they set up a government to protect everyone, including all the dangerous people. (Later thinkers amended this to include the principle that the government people set up could not be more dangerous to the citizenry than they would be to each other without a government.) There are kinder, gentler standards for citizenship: that all men are created equal and that they are capable of free will and so must have a say in how they are governed. But the history of social movements in modern Western societies is a history of groups showing they are willing to throw their bodies into the maw of the social machinery if they have to.
When gay men were closeted, before people started thinking about them as a class of people (“homosexuals”), they were just as potentially scary as any other men. But once identified as a group, gay people, men especially, were not even as scary as the weakest heterosexual. They just ran and took what society dished out and hid and paid up. Not being scary, they were recognizable outsiders to the social contract. Stonewall rebel and sometime transvestite Martin Boyce described what it felt like to live in the homosexual state of nature: “Every day the police would beat you when they wanted to, they could attack you when they wanted to. We would look down a block and see who would be danger, how we could be safe. This was going on for years.” One day, Boyce remembers, he was taking his dressed-up self to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I wore a six feet scarf that would go around my neck, and a low cut dress, and there were police in plain clothes taking down the horses (there had been a parade on Fifth Avenue). And the cop said a campy, ‘Hi-i-i-i’ and I said, ‘Oh I didn’t know you could be in the police and be like that.’ Nothing happened,” Boyce continues. “I was walking along, the breeze was blowing my scarf. As we got to the museum all of a sudden the scarf tightened around my neck and I was thrown against the car. This policeman had followed me five blocks and he twisted it into a tourniquet. I was blue as a smurf. And [there was] this crowd of middle class, decent people, good citizens, outside the Museum, and they were praising the police for keeping the city safe.” Six months before Stonewall, an off-duty transit cop killed two gay men who were at the popular gathering place near the trucks parked along the Hudson River. No action was taken.
The patrons of the Metropolitan Museum of Art did not want to protect gays. The police, the guardians and enforcers of the social contract, beat them and killed them. And then a lesbian did (or did not) scream at the crowd, “Why don’t you guys do something?” and the gay men outside the Stonewall Inn stepped into the social contract. As activist Arthur Evans puts it: “We said, ‘You are going to have to live up to your democratic principles, or you are going to have to kill us.’ ”
Every Queen in the Riot Changed
The next night, Saturday, thousands of gay people from all over the region gathered on Christopher Street to see what would happen next and be part of the action they had missed. Despite their experience the night before, there still weren’t enough police to clear the streets, so they again had to call in the tactical police force, the riot squad. And the gay demonstrators again fought the riot squad to a standstill on the streets around the Stonewall Inn. The gay demonstrators, who had now come deliberately to protest against the way they were treated, hit on the stratagem of “taking” Christopher Street, blocking it off and only letting through who they wanted. Instead of peeking down a block to see whether they would be safe, the gay crowd forced other people to get permission from them. Hours later, the crowd dissipated and the police left.
Sunday, Craig Rodwell did what any lefty activist would do: he wrote a manifesto: “Get the Mafia and the Cops Out of Gay Bars.” Rodwell’s manifesto did not have the stylistic brio of Mattachine leader Dick Leitsch’s memo, “The Hairpin Drop Heard Round the World,” but Rodwell deployed teams of gay activists around the neighborhood on Sunday afternoon to pass his manifesto out. Leaned on by the mayor, Leitsch put a sign in the east window of the boarded up Stonewall Inn: WE HOMOSEXUALS PLEAD WITH OUR PEOPLE TO PLEASE HELP MAINTAIN PEACEFUL AND QUIET CONDUCT ON THE STREETS OF THE VILLAGE—MATTACHINE. With that sign Mattachine began its journey to the dustbin of history.
For all the good the sign did anyway. After two days of R and R, on Wednesday the gay protesters decided to burn down the nearby offices of the Village Voice. That morning, the Voice, a weekly, had published its report of the Stonewall riots, two side-by-side articles by Howard Smith, who had been in the bar with the police on Saturday, and by renowned author Lucian Truscott IV, then a cub reporter. Unlike the mainstream media in San Francisco, who rushed to the aid of the gay community when the police broke up their New Year’s party, Truscott, whose love of language sometimes overcomes his common sense, reported:
The sudden specter of “gay power” erected its brazen head and spat out a fairy tale the likes of which the area has never seen. The forces of faggotry, spurred by a Friday night raid on one of the city’s largest, most popular, and longest lived gay bars, the Stonewall Inn, rallied Saturday night in an unprecedented protest against the raid and continued Sunday night to assert presence, possibility, and pride until the early hours of Monday morning.
When the aroused gay protesters saw themselves described as the “forces of faggotry,” they turned their newfound force on an old enemy: the media.
Truscott says today, “Some of my best friends are gay. I used ‘forces of faggotry’ as alliteration and it didn’t occur to me in the least that anybody would be offended by it. The gay people I knew used the word ‘fag’ and ‘queer’ among themselves and with straight people that knew them. And the Voice was one of the most gay-friendly places to work in New York. The staff must have been half gay,” he contends, “and you could bring your boyfriend to work and hold hands.”
Months before Stonewall, the supposedly gay-friendly Voice had refused to take a paid classified ad for a very popular manual, The Homosexual Handbook. But in the heady days after Stonewall, the gay protesters were not about to give their liberal “friends” a pass. After the Wednesday riots, they demanded a meeting with editors Dan Wolf and Edwin Fancher and the two liberals agreed that if gay people thought that “faggot” was a derogatory term they wouldn’t use it anymore.
The third and final day of the Stonewall riots also involved something new: Fouratt’s lefty straight friends finally showed up, along with Black Panthers, street gangs, and a general sampling of the rebellious in the New York area. The word was out: the last great twentieth-century movement was happening.
I Would Kill for Those Kisses
The last thing Mattachine president Dick Leitsch wanted after Stonewall was a protest meeting. Mattachine had a relationship with the authorities and progress was slowly being made. Just a few years earlier Leitsch got the New York licensing authorities to abandon the rule against gay hairdressers. He went to a function the Democratic Party was holding and had a chat with the wife of the New York secretary of state. “You know, if you’re a homosexual you can’t be a hairdresser,” he told her. “That’s ridiculous,” the politico’s well-coiffed spouse responded. “Do you mean my Mr. Rodney?” “You’d better not tell your husband about Mr. Rodney or he could lose his license,” Leitsch replied. “And so they changed it,” he concludes proudly.
Fatally for Leitsch, he listened to a handful of newfound allies, such as self-described countercultural socialist Michael Brown. After all, Brown had spent the weekend passing out copies of Leitsch’s “Hairpin Drop.” At the insistence of the new activists, Leitsch scheduled a meeting for July 9. Leitsch had no inkling that once again a lesbian was going to take over the situation.
This was not any lesbian. When Martha Shelley had her first lesbian experience, she came away from it a changed woman. “I would kill for those kisses,” she avowed. Only in her twenties, Shelley had already been an official of the New York Daughters of Bilitis (DOB). “DOB was not the sort of organization that went marching anywhere. I was involved with the peace movement,” she explains. Although she happened to be in Greenwich Village that Friday night and Saturday morning, she thought the noise from Sheridan Park was just the usual New York ruckus. When she realized what had happened, she says, “It was like falling in love. You don’t think about it intellectually, the time is right, the right person comes along, you’re young, you’re hot-blooded and there it is and you know in your heart that it’s the right thing to do. You just go with it, you jump. I didn’t have enough sleep, got up next morning, I found out what had happened … and it occurred to me that we should have a protest march.” Shelley, too, was ready to die for her place in society: “I was tossing and turning and I thought, ‘They’ll shoot us,’ and then I thought, ‘We have to.’ ” She called the women who were running the Daughters and they sent her to Leitsch’s Mattachine meeting. Leitsch was not interested in marching. But he told Shelley to bring it up at the July 9 meeting and see if anyone was interested.
There were hundreds of people at the July 9 Mattachine meeting, Shelley remembers, and, when she asked if anyone was interested in planning a march, a “forest of hands went up.” Leitsch sent the march committee to meet in a back room, never a good idea, and the next thing he knew Shelley was shouting, “That’s it, that’s it, we’re the gay liberation front!” Leitsch practically had a fit. “Are you starting another organization here?” he demanded. “Oh no,” Shelley answered, “we’re not starting another organization, that’s the name of our march committee.” “But of course,” she admits, “we were starting another organization,” and of course it was the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). They set the march for late July. When Mattachine met again on July 16 to consider the content of the march, Madolin Cervantes proposed that the committee’s march take the form of a sweet candlelight vigil and the troops rose up.
By chance, John O’Brien had reserved a meeting room at Alternate U., the counterculture free school at Fourteenth Street and Sixth Avenue, just in time for the revolution. O’Brien had been a radical since he was fifteen and sneaked out of his white working-class house to sign up with the NAACP. Muscular, independent, and proletarian, O’Brien was no one’s notion of a homosexual. He had never been a fan of Mattachine, having failed to qualify for Kameny’s picket line in 1967 because he was only twenty years old and not wearing a suit. A few weeks before Stonewall, one of the SDS radical homosexuals, Bill Katzenberg, approached O’Brien in his role as board member at Alternate U. to help him with a proposed homosexual discussion group. After weeks of recruitment on the stoops and in the diners of Greenwich Village, Katzenberg had scared up five people and O’Brien used his place on the board of Alternate U. to get them a place to meet. They put an ad in the underground newspaper the Rat and sent out leaflets.
Then came Stonewall. Instead of five, around forty people showed up. Many of them were from the radical Mattachine march committee. When well-connected young street guy Jerry Hoose walked into the meeting at Alternate U., he says, 95 percent of the men and women in the room were total strangers to him. “They became a community really fast,” Hoose says, “because we were so angry. We were treated like garbage, and it was an experience most of us had shared. The unity that came was because of the shared experiences of the last decade.” By the end of the first meeting, the forty insurgents had set an agenda, picked a name, Gay Liberation Front, and agreed to meet again.
Hoose’s story, like all stories of spontaneously erupting social movements, is partly a myth. New identities don’t just spring up from nowhere. Although the dramatic young hippie Jim Fouratt and the like never would have admitted it, some of the new “gay liberation” movement really did grow out of the now-discredited and unfashionable Mattachine Society. Even though Leitsch was ultimately behind the curve, in the few years before Stonewall, he had moved Mattachine in a much more radical direction. Fouratt and Shelley went to Mattachine to organize the first political action after Stonewall—the rally. Craig Rodwell, the man who would dream up the legendary 1970 Stonewall anniversary march, had been one of the most visible militants in the new Mattachine. It was under the protective shelter of the old organization that the new identity “radical homosexual” began to form.
At the same time, the homosexuals in the radical organizations of the New Left had begun to take ownership of their homosexuality, often after years of suppressing or hiding it in the interest of their radical politics. The existing movement organizations—SDS, the broader antiwar movement, and a myriad of Sixties institutions—were implicitly and often explicitly homophobic. On January 9, 1969, the Young Socialists Alliance kicked John O’Brien out because they had found out he was a homosexual. While working at a left-wing bookstore in the late Sixties, later GLF stalwart Steven Dansky remembers being given instruction in how to cross his legs and hold his cigarette so as not to appear effeminate and lose his chance at going to Cuba to meet his revolutionary brothers. Around the time of Stonewall, Dansky was working as a substance-abuse counselor. His director called him in before the whole staff and told him that they had found out he was a homosexual. Get treatment, his bosses told him, or get fired. Within weeks, Dansky went to his first GLF meeting and soon became one of its most active members.
Yet the homophobic New Left, too, gave birth to Dansky’s and O’Brien’s identities. “The women’s movement and the civil rights movement are all about human rights and the moral struggle that’s necessary for the evolution of humankind,” Dansky says. “As a member of these movements, these political formulations that I spent my early life trying to understand, something internal was happening to me and I was understanding the world differently. And that’s where I was able to draw the strength to say, yes, I’m going to proceed ahead to investigate a movement that’s about me.” As leftist believers in human liberation, once gay leftists made the connection, participation in the new gay-liberation movement was essential to Dansky’s, and others’, larger identities. Movement homophobia catapulted the newly formed homosexual radicals out of the New Left rather more abruptly than their common belief systems would have predicted and the GLF was the beneficiary.
GLF was the most fun most of its founders had ever had. Street guy Hoose and college graduate Dansky both used the word “chills” when describing their memories of that revolutionary period. The July rally, which they planned with the people who remained in the Mattachine Society, was neither as ladylike as Cervantes had wished nor as radical as the breakaways had in mind, but it was a rally, with speeches and attendance in the hundreds.
They rallied … and they danced. Arguably, the dances were their greatest accomplishment. Alternate U. had been renting its space to countercultural organizations that wanted to hold dances. Hoose and a couple of the other GLF members who wanted to concentrate on fund-raising for the front saw a golden opportunity and asked Alternate U. if they could hold a dance. “Alternate U wasn’t all that excited about having us,” Hoose remembered forty years later, smiling the smile of a satisfied fund-raiser, “but our first dance was packed and they made more money from our dances than all the other fund-raisers put together.” The little movement capitalists at GLF had found a formula that would appear and reappear wherever the gay movement organized—until the AIDS virus appeared and the dancing stopped.
The GLF’s most successful political action actually came from the dances. They had tried to put an ad in the Village Voice to advertise their “Gay Community Dance,” but the Voice told them it wouldn’t run an ad with the dirty word “gay” in it. So the GLF, now a month old, threw up a picket line. When the Voice gave in, Hoose says, the activists knew that Stonewall was not a one-off. They could go on pushing back.
The GLF lasted barely nine months. The new organization was probably doomed the minute the first member said, “No one is free until everyone is free.” Just as their dance stash got big enough to fight about, O’Brien proposed giving five hundred dollars to the Black Panthers and all hell broke loose. O’Brien to this day does not wall off his loyalty to the gay cause. “What was ‘my cause’?” He asks. “There are gay people of color and women who are just as much a part of my community as Rock Hudson. The Panthers were the vanguard of the black community.”
O’Brien’s stance is superficially appealing. Since some gay people are black, their interest overlaps with the interest of people defined first as black. But of course O’Brien wouldn’t take up the interest of, say, black conservatives. They would hardly qualify as the “vanguard of the black community” to him. What O’Brien is really saying is that the movements he lists—the Black Panthers and women—share a common aspiration. But on closer examination, they don’t: their aspirations are actually not the same. Being categorized as sinful, crazy, criminal, and subversive, gays would have to fight for moral acceptance and respect. Not being categorized as crazy or the rest, women and people of color—and their “vanguard” movements—could move directly to claim the goods of the liberal state: security, freedom, and equal self-governance. The particular social change required for gay women or gay people of color was different from and more difficult than the social change that would fully satisfy nongay women or people of color.
And, as Carl Wittman had warned not a year before, O’Brien’s strategy is generally fatal when put into practice. Social movements arise in large part because they enable people to act on a new identity formed under the wings of older institutions and then to stand alone with that new identity. A movement may at some point benefit from making an alliance with other movements, but “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” is a world away from “No one is free until everyone is free.” At its stand-alone moment, the identity is at its most fragile. When a movement is at that point, the more inclusive it becomes of other identities the weaker it gets. A movement that wants to advance gay liberation and Black Panthers does not attract gays and Black Panthers. It attracts only people who want to advance both gay liberation and the Black Panther cause, a much, much smaller group than either group alone. Instead of growing by alliance, the front actually shrinks. “No one is free until everyone is free” also completely sidesteps the only important question for alliance politics: priorities. Alliances create political surplus. Who’s first in line to get the surplus put to their freedom and how much do they get?
Since the GLF had no leaders and ran by consensus, meetings never ended before midnight and nothing was ever put to rest. Although John O’Brien originally lost the divisive motion for the Black Panther donation, the proponents simply reopened the matter at the next meeting and that time it passed. Stripped of any regularized means to campaign against the decision or to protect themselves against further unwelcome decisions, a handful of the GLF members—Arthur Evans, his lover Arthur Bell, and some other single-issue members—did what newcomers to a social movement always do when the movement does not fit their newfound identity: they left.
A Lesbian Is the Rage of All Women Condensed to the Point of Explosion
The gay and lesbian alliance was the next casualty of the centrifugal force of “front” politics. For years, lesbians had closeted themselves in order to find a place in the feminist movement, which spoke so powerfully to their experiences of discrimination and oppression. Hiding your identity in an identity movement was hardly a stable strategy, so when the gay liberation movement erupted in New York after Stonewall, a little band of sisters thought for a while that they might find their liberation through that route.
From the day she arrived in New York in late 1969 until she left for Boston two years later, brilliant and beautiful lesbian feminist “Artemis March” (née March Hoffman) went to meetings every night. “We thought we were going to change the entire world,” she reminisces, “from top to bottom.” March barely had time to run home to her broom-closet-sized apartment in Brooklyn between meetings.
And yet none of the causes was, like Baby Bear’s porridge, just right. The women’s loyalty to feminism was stretched thin when feminist leader Betty Friedan left the Daughters of Bilitis out when she convened the First Congress to Unite Women; her remarks about the media turning lesbianism into a “lavender herring” against the feminist cause didn’t help much either. Feminism was just too cold. The New York lesbians began attending meetings of the newly born Gay Liberation Front. They even went to some of the dances. But the dances, crowded with men jammed up against one another and reverberating with deafening music, had scant appeal to the women. The meetings were almost as noisy as the dances. The gay men’s movement was too hot.
At a typical GLF meeting in January 1970, a twentysomething unpublished writer, Rita Mae Brown, got up on a chair. Brown, a slender brunette with killer cheekbones, was the kind of woman who could always command a room. “Enough already,” she announced. “We can’t be out in NOW, the guys dominate this, we need a lesbian feminist civil rights movement. Come to my house on Wednesday night.” That Wednesday, Brown anxiously waited to see if anyone would show up. Thirty women came, and the radical-lesbian movement was born. Recognizing no limits on their power to change the world, they decided to take on both the homophobic feminists and the sexist gay men. They planned the controversial first all-women’s dance.
But the lesbians really had their eye on the women’s movement. The feminist Congress to Unite Women (CUW) was about to have its second meeting in the spring of 1970 and the radical lesbians intended to precipitate a confrontation. When the congress met in the usual high school auditorium the first night, the lights suddenly went out. When they went up again, seventeen women in purple T-shirts were standing on the stage holding signs. “Lavender Menace,” they proclaimed, and “Take a Lesbian to Lunch.” The lesbians pitched the assembled hundreds to let them into the women’s movement without closeting or discrimination and passed around Artemis March’s mimeographed proclamation, “The Woman Identified Woman” (“lesbianism is the rage of all women condensed to the point of explosion”). Clapping and cheering, the audience applauded the Menace and turned the meeting into an extended ritual of reconciliation and unity. Feeble efforts of the CUW organizers to take back the mike were soon extinguished. It was, after all, a Congress to Unite Women.
Later that year, the lesbians on the GLF fund-raising committee went into the lockbox and took half the treasury for their dances. In the uproar that followed, the lesbians finally left the GLF and officially formed their own organization. The new organization, the Radicalesbians, seems on its face to follow all of Carl Wittman’s prescriptions: it acknowledged that lesbian women were different from the larger society, advanced their cause with pride, and resisted diluting their message with the claims of other oppressed groups. Still, it did not last. In a poignant article years later, photographer Ellen Shumsky, who had abandoned her studies in France to come to New York when she learned about Stonewall, remembers. The new organization, the Radicalesbians, would have “no entrenched leadership hierarchies.” They drew lots to see who would speak, run the meeting, or go to represent the organization, if invited. It turns out that there were people who were more articulate and more comfortable speaking. Less-articulate women started feeling resentful and protested. In response, people felt they were being hounded out of the organization because of their leadership skills. Once again, people just started leaving. This organization that started out with so much hope turned into a desultory group of people who were trying to solve problems they couldn’t solve.
Shumsky comforts herself that the organization fell apart but the consciousness didn’t. In the wake of the Radicalesbians, she notes, there were all kinds of self-help groups and lesbian artists groups and lesbian martial-arts groups. It was not all for naught.
You Can’t Get More American Than That
There was no way Arthur Evans was going to make any of those mistakes trying to solve everybody’s problems, getting agreement on everything, letting everyone talk. Even in the Sixties, he rarely had long hair and his immensely becoming mustache was always neatly trimmed. He even looks tidy marching in a T-shirt with the newly minted gay-rights lambda symbol on it. The anarchic procedures of the Gay Liberation Front “drove me crazy,” he recalls. “There was no continuity, so they would adopt a position at one meeting and at the next meeting they would debate the entire thing all over again. There was no structure of responsibility, and also there was no thought-out program. For example, something would happen and then we’d go out and demonstrate, which was great, and then there would be this pause until something terrible would happen again.”
Evans, by then a philosophy graduate student at Columbia, and his lover, Arthur Bell, a publicist at Viking (the “Arthurs”), were a great loss for the GLF. Although middle class and educated, they were not uptight establishment types. Evans set his life course while still a student at Brown in the late fifties, organizing a protest against compulsory chapel. Once he realized he was gay, he left college one term short of graduation in 1963 to move into a filthy single room in Greenwich Village, working as a clerk typist for a film company and looking for sex at gay restaurants like Mama’s Chicken ’n Ribs. Since Evans was on full scholarship at the time, his parents were not too thrilled with his self-emancipation, but he was ecstatic, because he had his own place and, “thanks to New York City,” he was surrounded by gay people, including, eventually, Bell. The couple had tried one meeting of the jacket-and-tie Mattachine Society and, as Evans said, found it “too much like Sunday school” (Bell, who was Jewish, had never been to Sunday school and said he was not about to start).
In August 1969, the couple took a walk in Greenwich Village and stumbled across a GLF meeting. “It was quite wonderful,” Evans recalls. “For the first time in our lives we were around these gay people who had an exuberant sense of gay pride, that it was something to be proud of. Many of us had been active in the student movement, and we felt this great energy, this great uprising of the Sixties had finally come to us! Now it was our turn to take to the barricades.” Arthur Evans says he will “always be grateful to the GLF for making that happen.”
But the ideology, rhetoric, and open structure at the GLF gave them no avenue to contend for their beliefs. When they resisted giving money to the Black Panthers, “We were denounced as being racists,” Evans remembers, “so we were really bucking our heads against a stone wall. Because the sentiment in the GLF was almost totally against what we wanted to do. We were a small minority, we were viewed as counterrevolutionary for even suggesting not sharing the wealth, so we were constantly defending ourselves.”
Evans and Bell and the other two critical renegades, Marty Robinson and Jim Owles, were the living manifestation of the dangers of GLF’s demand that its members spread their identity across multiple causes. Although Evans and Owles had been in the peace movement, they were by no means shaped by the New Left, as so many GLF leaders were, and, by late 1969, Owles was working on Wall Street. Robinson, a self-styled proletarian from a wealthy and prominent family, was never involved in any other cause. Too modern and too young for the fifties-inflected Mattachine Society, they were too focused and too disciplined for the Sixties gay “liberation front.” Anticipating the decade about to dawn, they wanted to take to the barricades all right, but only for their “turn.”
They were not inspired by the Parisian mob. “We decided,” Evans says, “we had to have institutional continuity and revolutionary energy. You don’t want to create a bureaucracy, [but] on the other hand you don’t want to become victims of revolutionary hysteria. You have to find an intelligent middle ground.” For Evans, being a trained philosopher, this was not a hard problem. “So I in particular thought about the American revolutionary experience; that was the thing that inspired me because they did that. They combined the rationality of the enlightenment with the vigor of a popular uprising. We had a historical precedent right in our own country. So based on the models of the US constitution we wrote a preamble to the constitution. You can’t get much more American than that.”
And so the constitution and bylaws of their new organization, the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), begins, “We” as in “We the people of the United States”: WE AS LIBERATED HOMOSEXUAL ACTIVISTS. But because the gay activists were not yet a nation, the preamble actually reads more like that other American classic, the Declaration of Independence. The GAA demanded:
Freedom for expression of our dignity and value as human beings through confrontation with and disarmament of all mechanisms which unjustly inhibit us: economic, social and political.
They even mimicked that most establishment of Thomas Jefferson’s moves—invoking a decent respect for the opinions of mankind—by placing their demands “before the public conscience.”
After all the years of sexual revolution, it would be fair to expect the new activists to simply adopt the language of sexual privacy from the long line of constitutional decisions. As those decisions reflect, however unattractive they are to the majority, the protection of intimate and personal aspects of life from an intrusive state is one of the founding principles of a liberal state.
Perhaps in recognition of the political reality that toleration is really not as blind as it pretends, the GAA constitution frames the demand for sexual privacy in the language not of tolerance, but of approval. The first right on the GAA’s constitutional list of rights is “the right to our own feelings,” including the right to feel attracted to the beauty of members of their own sex and “the right to express our feelings in action through making love.” Regardless of the reason for the choice of words of moral approbation—love, beauty—the implicit claim for approval in the language further embedded the moral grounding of this new movement. As it turned out, the moral framing that was useful in getting same-sex “lovemaking” to the level of liberal tolerance catapulted it well beyond what formal liberal politics had to offer.
Clearly, the line between transgender people and the rest of the gay movement was not as harsh as it would later become; the founding document of the GAA also includes a potent claim for all kinds of transgender behavior, demanding the right “to treat and express our bodies as we will, to nurture, display, and embellish them solely in the manner we ourselves determine.”
Only then does the preamble turn to the universal language of human rights, familiar to students of the American Revolution and the centuries of political thinking that justified it, demanding their individual rights under just laws and to be full citizens of the republic that so long ago extended that promise to other Americans.
Having made their declaration, the Gay Activists then construct their more perfect union. Just as the US Constitution was shaped by the colonists’ unhappy experience with the disarray of the Articles of Confederation, the founding principles of the GAA start in direct repudiation of the GLF’s commitment to freedom for all in alliance with all. The GAA new order was explicitly dedicated only to gay rights and committed to move forward on the actions of oppressed homosexuals themselves. The GAA constitution includes every principle Carl Wittman had set down two years before.
After the endless disarray of GLF meetings, the gender-bending body-embellishing homosexuals of the GAA set up a structure so orderly and conventional it would make the Daughters of the American Revolution look like hippies. Prospective members had to attend three meetings within six months of joining; no more people wandering in from the street and competing for who could be most disruptive. There was even an entrance fee of a dollar. There would be an annual election of officers by secret ballot, and the meetings were to be run by Robert’s Rules of Order. The constitution forbade any alliance with any organization not directly related to the homosexual cause. The date was December 21, 1969. By March they had forty members. They bought an abandoned firehouse and started holding dances.
If the State Wouldn’t Protect Gays, Gays Wouldn’t Protect the State
As he helped give birth to the GAA, philosopher Arthur Evans said, “Existentialist philosophers inspired me because they took concrete situations over theory: existence precedes essence. All the existing essences rejected us: the church, the politicians, our fathers, we didn’t fit into anybody’s essence. And yet my feeling was let’s exist, let’s be, express our being, and our cognitive realities.” The floodgates of gay direct action were about to open. The channel had been cut—by the black students who sat down for lunch in Greensboro all those years before, by the clever, clownish hippie Abbie Hoffman, with his theatrical yippies and by … Jean-Paul Sartre. The New Lefties succeeded in part because they acted with their bodies rather than arguing about their beliefs.
Their first target was the mayor of New York, John Vliet Lindsay. After Stonewall, whoever was mayor of New York would be central to the gay revolution: the New York police made gays’ lives miserable, the mayor was formally responsible for the police, and the media were heavily concentrated in New York. But Lindsay, a liberal convert whom gay voters had supported, was a natural target. For almost a decade at that point, the gay organizations had been eliciting official statements of what constituted lawful behavior. The New York State Liquor Authority denied it had a policy of forbidding bars to serve liquor to gays, yet no one would risk establishing an openly gay bar. The police commissioner told an audience at a community meeting right before Stonewall that it was not police policy to entrap gay men, yet that same night a cop arrested a straight deacon innocently having a burger at Julius’.
In its early, innocent days, the GAA marched on City Hall, in the time-honored fashion, to present its demands on job discrimination and police harassment, and, in time-honored fashion, Lindsay’s representative promised them that someone would get back to them. The next night, in an act of astonishing folly, New York vice cop Seymour Pine raided another gay bar, the Snake Pit. Trapped inside the illegal bar and desperately fearful of deportation, illegal Argentinian immigrant Alfredo Diego Vinales made a panicked bid to escape the police by jumping out a window. He landed, impaled, on the sharp point of an iron fence below. As he lay near death at St. Vincent’s Hospital, every gay group in New York called out its troops to march on the police station. This time the incident got some serious press.
More important, it attracted the anger of the indefatigable Marty Robinson. If Evans was the existentialist philosopher of the GAA, Robinson was existentialism incarnate. Young Stonewall denizen Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt describes Robinson’s political technique as sex followed by politics. Before you even knew what he was doing, Lanigan-Schmidt reports, his sexy charisma and muscular good looks had swept you in and you were passing out leaflets. Robinson didn’t march in antiwar parades and never joined SDS, or any other New Left group. He just caught a young man’s eye at twenty, came out, and started living the life of a gay man. After Stonewall, he lay awake all night and got up the next day committed to the movement. Evans says Robinson was the smartest man he ever met.
When Lindsay’s deputy mayor and a police representative finally met with the GAA, the deputy mayor assured the gay delegation that “it was not the policy of the police department to harass homosexuals per se.” This may have been technically true. By 1970, some courts were starting to invoke basic constitutional rights of association to limit what could be done to gatherings of people not otherwise engaged in criminal conduct, so New York State probably couldn’t formally enforce gay harassment and entrapment. Anyway, for years gays had been assumed to be so worthless that they didn’t even warrant a formal policy of oppression; the police were just set loose on them, creating anarchy, as the early philosophers imagined life was like before there was a liberal state.
Evans had had enough. His people lived with lawless arrests, name-calling, and intimidation. They weren’t even getting the first promise of the liberal state—that their government would provide them with a secure life and certainly never make it less secure for them than if they had no government at all. Seeing Diego Vinales’s terror at being deported taught them that their persecution was not limited to the police raid itself. When they were caught in an illegal bar, they not only risked arrest: they lost their jobs, got deported, got reported to their parents.
Unable to get the officials to call off the police, the GAA determined to bring lawless disorder to the officials. Robinson came up with a new tactic, the zap. As in “Zap! You’re dead,” the children’s game. But instead it became “Zap! You’re alive.” Zaps were extremely vocal, nonviolent confrontations with homophobes, combining a great deal of energy with very articulate and intelligent speech and a queen’s sense of camp. “The idea,” Evans says, “was these are like little theatrical productions. The other side came across as looking really oafish, stupid, and boring and people on our side were exciting and wonderful and theatrical and inspiring and sexy and energetic. And television is so perfect, we knew we could create these little scenes for TV, so we’d go out and get arrested and then we’d come home and watch it on TV.” They decided to zap Mayor Lindsay every time he appeared in public.
Martin Boyce, whom the policeman tried to strangle in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art the year before, must have felt a thrill on April 13, 1970, when he saw GAA activist Marty Robinson appear next to the mayor right on the museum steps. It was the hundredth anniversary of the Met and Lindsay was there to open the ceremonies. As the city’s chief executive smilingly commended the museum patrons on their love of the arts, Robinson meandered up the museum steps and spoke into the mayor’s microphone. “When are you going to speak out on homosexual rights, Mr. Mayor?” GAA activists were waiting everywhere in the museum to ask Mayor Lindsay when he was going to help them. Robinson remembers that it took three of the mayor’s bodyguards to get a GAA zapper to let go of the mayor’s hand.
They infiltrated the operagoers awaiting the mayor’s arrival in the perfect zap setting at the bottom of the Metropolitan Opera’s grand staircase (filled with patrons and journalists); they disrupted a theatrical benefit chaired by Mrs. Lindsay; they trashed the mayor’s presidential fund-raiser at Radio City Music Hall, handcuffing themselves to the balcony railing and setting off personal antimugger alarms, while blanketing the audience below with leaflets.
The campaign was often illegal—it included trespass and disorderly conduct—just as were the harassment arrests and bar busts against the gays. The gay activists were acutely aware of how much heterosexual authorities benefited from enjoying their rituals and public spaces without having to patrol the boundaries all the time. They would show them what it felt like. The zaps disrupted their ribbon-cutting ceremonies and their opening nights, their fund-raisers, and their television appearances.
Histories of the gay revolution often compare the GAA zaps to the early days of the direct-action civil rights movement, like the Greensboro lunch counter sit-in, but they are not the same. The racial civil rights movement was attacking a formal system of segregation, embodied in the openly acknowledged laws and policies of the state. They started their direct action on the premise that they were going to disregard the formal structure of inequality and act as if black people’s lives were as good as the lives of white people, eating away peacefully at their lunch counters. Leitsch’s “sip-in” was self-consciously a sit-in. The zaps were not.
When the racial movement moved north it found the informal structure of de facto housing segregation much harder to tackle. When the feminists turned from attacking the formal segregation of the help wanted ads into “Male” and “Female” and tried to address the unspoken gendered division of labor in the family, they were met with mockery and derision. Similarly, the gay movement could not get the traction to mount a formal challenge, because the New York authorities would not even acknowledge what they were doing to their gay citizens. Their persecution took place without warning, in secret, in the dark, on unpatrolled streets, in helpless, illegal bars.
GAA zaps, occurring without warning and in vulnerable spaces, were intended not to make their lives as good as the lives of their oppressors, but to make the lives of the authorities as miserable as the lives the gay citizens were living. In trying to impose pain, the GAA was involved in an exquisite balancing act the civil rights movement didn’t have to face in its crucial years. After the Stonewall uprising, and similar actions in California, gays had taken on some of the dangerousness necessary to be taken seriously in the liberal state. But they were so despised and marginalized—their fundamental act of identity a crime and a sin and their character categorized as crazy and subversive—that they had to do the work of establishing moral legitimacy at the same time they were engaged in illegal and disruptive acts.
Hence the genius of the zap. The zaps were potent political ammunition for the new gay movement. Consciously or not, they adapted some of the most useful aspects of the camp culture—the use of mockery and the humorous inversion of roles, as when the “invaders” brought coffee and cake to their oppressors. While disrupting their activities, the zaps also forced their victims to be witnesses to gay humanity. When Harper’s magazine published an article by intellectual heavy hitter Joseph Epstein, expressing his wish to “wipe homosexuality off the face of the earth,” GAA activists brought cakes and a big coffee urn to the offices of the magazine, interrupting publication to demand equal time to reply. As each of Harper’s employees walked into work that morning, he or she was greeted by a GAA demonstrator: “I’m a homosexual,” the activists said. “Have a doughnut.” As decades of ensuing activism would prove, again and again, it’s hard to wish someone off the face of the earth when he’s offering you a doughnut. Even if he’s trespassing.
With just the right degree of gentility and humor, the GAA carried out its disruptions, so that clearing them out of any besieged public space made the enforcers look like brutes. GAA zaps were, at bottom, no different from Martin Luther King’s march in Cicero and feminist Alix Kates Shulman’s “Marriage Agreement” dividing the household chores. They were all strategies for getting at the hidden structures of oppression. The homosexuals at the Metropolitan Opera in their tuxedos and the nice young men with the doughnuts for the staff at Harper’s might be deliciously amusing, but the game they were playing was for the highest political stakes.
The Birthday Party of the Gay Movement
Exactly a year after Stonewall, Craig Rodwell and some of the other Stonewall insurgents threw themselves a birthday parade. As it turns out, the celebration may have been more important than the birth itself.
After all, there had been other bar riots. In San Francisco, the gay and straight allies resisted the police incursion on their New Year’s party in 1964. A year later, the transvestites at San Francisco’s Compton Cafeteria responded to a routine sweep by throwing cups, saucers, and trays at the police, breaking all the cafeteria windows and those on the police car, too. There was a big street protest in Los Angeles in 1967, after the LAPD beat up New Year’s revelers at the mostly gay Black Cat/New Faces party. Yet none of these salient events marked the so-called birth of the gay rights movement. Only Stonewall did. Because only Stonewall was followed by a parade a year later.
When the bottles started flying at the Stonewall Inn on that first night, Rodwell remembers shouting, “Gay Power!” His outburst was met with a big shrug. The street kids and would-be Rockettes were not ultimately going to be the fount of gay power. But Rodwell, as always, was undeterred. Raised off and on by a single mom, he’d been an out homosexual since he was thirteen. He came to New York from the Midwest because he heard that there was a group there advocating for homosexual rights. (Rodwell never lost that Midwestern look, though. The pictures of him from the time always show a neat haircut and a white button-down shirt.) When he arrived in New York at nineteen in 1959, he was so young the Mattachine Society, ever mindful of its virtuous reputation, would not even let him join. But they let him volunteer.
Within five years, allied with the Mattachine activists Dick Leitsch and Randy Wicker, Rodwell had basically taken over the place. But Rodwell’s genius did not lie in the machinations of the myriad gay organizations, before Stonewall or after. Typically, when Mattachine did not live up to Rodwell’s radical expectations, he simply founded a new organization, Homosexual Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN). Rodwell was the only member. Nonetheless, at crucial junctures, he “represented” HYMN at regional and national meetings like the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO), pulling the discussion and resolution of important issues his way.
By Stonewall, Rodwell had perfected the two other activities crucial to social organization but not requiring consensus: the bookstore and the march. Unlike other gay bookstores, the bookstore Rodwell founded did not sell pornography. As a result, the store could have big, open windows that admitted the light and made the place a warm and welcoming destination. There was a gay bulletin board. Organizations could come and distribute their literature or sell it. Professors sent their students there for everything from literature to counseling on how to tell their parents they were gay. When it finally closed in 2009, Rodwell’s Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, founded in 1967, was the oldest gay bookstore in the country.
At ERCHO in the Sixties, Rodwell had found a natural ally in the godfather of homosexual militancy, Frank Kameny. So it made perfect sense for him to join Kameny in his mentor’s first gay protest march in Washington in 1965. In an eerie prefiguring of his role in the Stonewall myth, Rodwell proposed that they have a march every year. He suggested that it take place in Philadelphia, before Constitution Hall, on the Fourth of July, as an annual reminder that gays and lesbians still did not have full political rights. Thereafter, every July, a subdued ring of forty or fifty perfectly dressed homosexuals presented their claims to a mostly empty sidewalk.
The fifth annual reminder, a week after Stonewall, attracted a rowdier crowd of mostly young recruits from Rodwell’s bookstore. When two women at the march had the effrontery to hold hands, Kameny started yelling, “None of that! None of that!” and broke their grip apart. Rodwell was apoplectic. He publicly berated Kameny for his stuffy, retrograde attitude and quarreled openly with his old allies. On the bus going home to New York, there was much talk about how outdated the Mattachine annual reminder had become. Rodwell proposed that they move the event to New York and have a parade about Stonewall instead. A commemoration. Maybe even an annual one.
Kameny may have seen Rodwell and his bookstore band as unwashed upstarts, but as the New Left was fond of saying, “We are your children.” Like the Mattachine Society and the Gay Liberation Front, the preexisting annual reminder marches had provided the sheltered seedbed for the new movement to grow. Certainly, the West Coast cities, which had had three incidents of police abuse and homosexual resistance in the late Sixties, never generated anything like it.
Although the gay-pride parade was a logical extension of a familiar idea, it was also a bombshell. Rodwell had already begun the process of inflating Stonewall the week of the riots, calling it “world famous.” Mattachine’s Dick Leitsch, too, had invoked the universal signifier, titling his leaflet “The Hairpin Drop Heard Round the World.” To advance his cause Rodwell turned to the distinctly unrepresentative ERCHO, which in November passed his proposal to move the time and location of the annual reminder from Philadelphia on July 4 to New York in June. The motion, too, was drastically more ambitious than anything that preceded it, calling on individuals and organizations all over the country to produce a nationwide show of support to commemorate this life-altering event. ERCHO ordered the formation of a Christopher Street Liberation Day Umbrella Committee.
Which of course turned out to consist mostly of Rodwell and his friends meeting in the bookstore. But Rodwell cannily, and, by all accounts, sincerely, invited all the ever-proliferating gay organizations in the area to participate in planning and sponsoring the event. And they all had agendas. The Gay Liberation Front wanted to cement their ties to other radical New Left organizations. The Gay Activists Alliance wanted to make homosexuals aware of the need to confront politicians and public officials. Rodwell wanted to affirm liberated gay lifestyles. Fortunately, unlike almost any other activity, a parade does not require reconciliation of competing agendas, especially if there is not a speakers’ roster to select. It is the ultimate existential activity. Just showing up is a political statement.
A similar laissez-faire approach worked wonders with the other regional organizations. Foster Gunnison, another of the Mattachine activists in Rodwell’s circle, wrote an exquisite memorandum to the midwestern and western “regional homophile organizations” to “encourage their support and participation,” but not proposing any particular content. He, too, frames Stonewall as the “famous … first time that homosexuals had taken massive street action in open battle with offending institutions in the social order.” Gunnison’s and Rodwell’s power grab for the New York event could have failed, surely. But both Los Angeles and Chicago had men of enormous goodwill and increasingly radical outlooks at the crucial power centers. Morris Kight, one of the founders of the Los Angeles GLF, had started the first gay and lesbian community center in history years before and probably did not feel threatened. Troy Perry, the founder of the gay Metropolitan Community Church, was also a uniquely inner-directed individual, and he had been advocating adoption of the techniques of the New Left in LA for years. Jim Bradford in Chicago, too, was ripe for more activism than the Mattachine Society had been offering. The offer of an occasion to march was perfectly timed for their political needs, standing, as they were, at the cusp of an identity-based liberation movement to replace the old, elite-oriented, political gradualists of the Mattachine era. A parade is an excellent vehicle for identity formation. And they grabbed it.
As the months before the march passed, Rodwell had repeated panic attacks featuring an empty street. And it did feel sort of empty in front of the Stonewall at two o’clock that first year. Young gay lawyer Michael Lavery thinks there could not have been more than twenty-five at noon. If there were a thousand people after all that work, it was a lot. As they marched up Sixth Avenue, however, the march grew. First it doubled; then, most observers think, it doubled again. Somewhere between two thousand and ten thousand people marched through the streets of New York. When they got to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park, the first marchers climbed a little rise and looked back to see gay people filling the entire space and still pouring down the street. Frank Kameny remembered the forty-five people at the last annual reminder and now he saw thousands. He was there with his good friends Jack Nichols and Lige Clark. We were, they wrote in the new New York weekly, Gay, “awestruck by the vast throngs of confident humanity wending their way into a promised land of freedom-to-be.”