Volume 22, Number 06 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | June 26 - July 2, 2009
I wasn’t quite at Stonewall, but it changed my life
By Tim Gay
I remember when Judy Garland died but I don’t recall Stonewall. After all, I was not quite 14 back in June 1969.
But a year and a couple of months later, in the fall of 1970, I was voraciously reading about homosexuality, the Stonewall Inn Riots, the Gay Liberation Organization, the Mattachine Society and Judy Garland — all thanks to a high school librarian who quietly stocked the shelves with “liberal” books and magazines.
And less than 10 years later, I was 24, living with a boyfriend in New York City, and suddenly enjoying the excitement of what I now know was the end of the early gay liberation era.
“It’s a bagel place!” I said when my boyfriend showed me where the Stonewall Inn had been on Christopher St.
“That’s New York real estate,” Michael explained. “At least it hasn’t been torn down and replaced by a condo — yet.”
We were on our way to a public hearing at St. Vincent’s on the proposed gay and lesbian sculptures for Sheridan Square. I wasn’t expecting the heterosexuals’ repulsive and vituperative effluence.
There was bedlam and screaming, hands waving and homemade placards smacking people. And that was just the heterosexuals.
A woman in a green polyester dress pointed her finger at me and screamed, “Your lifestyle is unnatural!” So I replied, “My lifestyle’s more natural than your hair color.”
Could this be the birthplace for lesbian and gay freedom? This isn’t Texas or Missoula, for goodness sakes.
I had read a lot and experienced a lot about my sexuality by the time I came to New York. It was either read and learn, or die a slow death, I later understood.
The first article I read about gays was in Harper’s Magazine in the fall of 1970. The cover photo was the torso of a man with a beefy, pumped-up arm who was wearing a gingham dress. I remember the article as being dark and menacing, full of fear about homosexuals. The author said he would rather his children commit suicide than be gay.
(As an adult, I learned that this article, “Homo/Hetero: The Struggle for Sexual Identity,” by Joseph Epstein, is one of the linchpins in galvanizing the movement against what would become known as homophobia. As I understand it, Joseph Epstein is, to this day, an unrepentant homophobe.)
But that article gave me a sense of power. I was a 15-year-old boy who could possibly become one of these men who cause fear and pandemonium. It explained why I was above and beyond the simple minds of the other boys. As a homosexual, I was supernatural and gifted, like the Greeks and the Romans, writers and poets, artists and thinkers.
I read more — letters blasting the editor of Harper’s for that very article, stories in The Atlantic, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, articles and books on sexuality and adolescents (“Summerhill School” by Alexander Neill was extremely helpful).
Even back then, homophobia (a new word in 1971) came to the lesbian and gay movements. I read that the women’s movement rejected the lesbians, and that the lesbians rejected the gay men, and that everyone rejected the drag queens.
So, Rolling Stone magazine covered the fourth Gay and Lesbian Pride March in 1974. After marching down Fifth Avenue, lesbians and gay men blocked the drag queens and transgender people from the stage at Washington Square. But to save the day, down Fifth Avenue came Bette Midler in feather boas, riding on the back of a red Cadillac Eldorado convertible. She came up on stage and sang “You Got to Have Friends.”
Or at least that’s how I remember the article. I’d like to find it someday, but my search engine just won’t dig it up.
I came out in 1979, when Susan and I got a divorce (she came out, too, and ran off with Mitzi). That was the “Donna Summer summer” of “Bad Girls,” my first non-farm pair of Levi 501s, and my first crew cut since the third grade.
And, I was working at the National Catholic Reporter, sort of the Village Voice of Catholic journalism back then. We covered the shooting of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone in November 1978 and the “White Night Riots” in May 1979, when Dan White was all but forgiven for the murders. I would later have a companion who was there that night. He ignited a San Francisco police car as an officer pounded a billy club into his ear.
None of that would have been possible for me or about 50 million other lesbians and gays and transgenders if there hadn’t been the Stonewall Riots.
But at times I do wish we had a nice bagel place on Sheridan Square.