[Prefatory note: I had the good fortune to be living in Los Angeles during the fifties when, with the appearance of the Mattachine Society, the modern gay emancipation movement began. Then I lived in New York City at the end of the sixties, when the Stonewall Riots signaled a fundamental transformation, marking the inception of the major phase of the movement.
In three postings, based on recent books, I have offered my interpretation of the role of Los Angeles. I now supplement these with a posting on New York City.]
The Stonewall Inn was a small, dank, mob-run gay bar in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. Despite the seeming insignificance of this dive, what happened there over three nights in June 1969 fundamentally changed the long-time landscape of the homosexual in society. The Stonewall Riots are widely acknowledged as the first shot that ushered in a previously unimagined era of openness, political action, and massive social change.
In his superb book Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution
(New York: St. Martins, 2004), David Carter provides a careful account of those riots, together with a conspectus of the bar, the area, the social, political, and legal climate that led up to those events. Based on hundreds of interviews, an exhaustive search of public and previously sealed files, and much thought about the history and the topic, Stonewall
has taken its place as the standard account of one of modern history's singular events.
Over the years a number of myths have arisen around the Stonewall Uprising. While David Carter profiles many individuals who were either at the bar, there is no way, after all these years, of filtering out those who falsely claim to have been at the bar during the events. (For the record, I wasn’t there personally. I was residing in New York, but was in Europe that summer. When I returned I noticed the huge change, and resolved to become an activist.)
It is crucial to remember that it was not the police raid itself that made Stonewall extraordinary, but the massive reaction of the crowd outside. At one point it even seemed that the police inside would be burned to death. Such were the times.
At any rate, the Carter book dispels—or should dispel—two major myths about Stonewall. The first is that the modern gay-rights movement started with Stonewall. That claim is false. The American gay movement we now have began in Los Angeles with the launching of the Mattachine Society almost twenty years before. (See my three contributions on Gay Los Angeles.)
The opposite myth, one that finds favor among some New York bashers in several parts of the country, is that there was nothing distinctive about the Stonewall Riots. Other police raids had taken place in other cities, especially San Francisco and Los Angeles. In this view the Stonewall Raids achieved their prominence only because New York is the center of the media.
Not so. Stonewall is of epochal importance not for the raid itself, which indeed does have many precedents, but for the astonishing aftermath. Those arrested did not go quietly, as the police expected. They resisted and found reinforcement in the form of a huge, shouting, bottle-throwing mob. After these people finally dispersed the next morning, the ordeal of the guardians of public order was not over. For the demonstrators returned for two more rowdy nights. To all intents and purposes the scene turned into an insurrection. It is not too much to say that it was the most important such event prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
This is the place, by the way, to dispel yet another myth, the belief that the riots were essentially a middle-class event. As a drinking hole, the Stonewall Inn attracted a mainly middle-class clientele. That much may be conceded. Yet it was the massing outside of the great unwashed—scruffy, disorderly street people, many of them individuals of color, and definitely “of repellent aspect”(as Oscar Wilde would have said)--that made the event seem so dangerous for the authorities. As sometimes happens in history, the “bad people” were the good people. By and large the middle-class respectables didn’t have the guts. But the “rancid little fags” (to quote one homophobic journalist) certainly did.
Almost a quarter of a century ago, I offered my own interpretation of the underlying causes of the Stonewall Riots. With a few minor changes, below I quote a few paragraphs from my analysis (“Afterword” to Jim Levin’s Reflections on the American Homosexual Rights Movement, New York: Gay Academic Union, 1983).
The Stonewall Rebellion fell in the middle of an extraordinary cultural efflorescence in New York City. Now that that luster seems to be waning [or so it seemed in 1983], we can perhaps for the first time begin to see that flowering clearly. …
Just as Hitler and World War II had driven European movie folk to Hollywood, so they sent a stream of modernist painters and sculptors to New York City. At the end of the war many of these émigrés returned to Europe, but in their wake there developed the first American modernist school of international significance: Abstract Expressionism. Best known perhaps through the vast drip canvases of Jackson Pollock, thee artists (and the critics who sought to formulate their aims in words) stressed that their works were not so much artifacts or static monuments as living manifestations of creative encounter—or more concisely, actions. They were making Action Painting. This concept linked up with a deeply rooted American tendency to reject essentialism, the notion that there are fixed and rational definitions for the key features of the world, in favor of commitment to flux and experience (“Pragmatism”). Consequently, the works of the Abstract Expressionists had a broadly liberating quality, nudging those who were attracted to them towards a more open-textured, “improvisational” approach to life’s challenges. The paintings of this school looked messy and untidy; in the view of hostile observers, the “fecal masses” there displayed attested to the hazards of permissiveness. Cleanliness was next to godliness, but messiness could be downright diabolical.
Most of the first generation of the Abstract Expressionists were firmly heterosexual, though the practiced bohemian life styles. But their leading advocate, the New York poet and critic Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was gay, and had a celebrated affair with the bisexual painter Larry Rivers. O’Hara’s own poetry combined a French-derived dandyism with the everyday conversational tone pioneered by William Carlos Williams in such works as In the American Grain. Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, the two leading painters of the immediately following generation, who form a transition to the vogue of Pop Art, were definitely gay—in fact they had an affair.
Developing a little later than the Abstract Expressionists was the somewhat grandiloquently named New American Cinema. Tirelessly promoted by Jonas Mekas in his columns in the Village Voice (then an important organ of the avant-garde, not the monster of sleaze it has since become), the young film makers sought to break with the naturalistic conventions of the commercial cinema (plot, characterizations, empathy and so forth) so as to create a celluloid equivalent of abstract painting and atonal music. The magus of the movement was the notorious Kenneth Anger, who made his underground homosexual classic “Fireworks” in Hollywood in 1947 when he was only seventeen. After a long stay in Paris (where he wrote Hollywood Babylon
, an exposé of movieland’s scandals), 1962 found Anger in Brooklyn creating “Scorpio Rising,” a prophetic mixture of the occult, the leather and biker subculture, and homosexual sadomasochism. Jack Smith and Gregory Markopoulos made other experimental films (more experimental in fact than Anger’s) with a camp or homosexual sensibility. A little later Andy Warhol and his company popularized the genre in such pics as “Blowjob” (1964) and “My Hustler” (1965). It has been said, somewhat breathlessly, that “Warhol was
the ‘sixties.” If he is now something of a classic, a marker of the past, there was no gainsaying Warhol’s topicality in that era.
Allen Ginsberg, the acknowledged dean of American gay poetry, has lived most of his life in an around New York City. (San Francisco was for him essentially an episode.) It was at Columbia University in the ‘forties that he met Jack Kerouac (whose bisexuality has only recently come to be widely acknowledged) and the definitely gay William Burroughs. “Howl” and “Kaddish,” Ginsberg’s two major poems, are deeply interwoven with New York’s people and rhythms. In turn the East Village scene is scarcely thinkable without Ginsberg. He was its presiding spirit.
In journalism Paul Krassner’s The Realist
startled readers in 1967 with a surrealist description of Lyndon Johnson screwing a bullet hole in President Kennedy’s slain body. The Realist
lapsed, but its place was taken by a host of underground publications, including Ed Saunders’ F*ck You: A Magazine of the Arts
, Al Goldstein’s Screw, and the East Village Other. It is in this context that NYC’s post-Stonewall journalism—Come Out; Gay; Gay Power; and Gay Scene—must be regarded.
To the new resident arriving in the early or mid-1960s (and throughout we are concentrating on the developments before 1969), perhaps the most salient aspect of NYC’s avant-garde was the theater—not the Broadway octopus, which was shamelessly commercial—but the experimental houses of Off-Broadway and Off-off Broadway. In those days the archetype was the Living Theater of Julian Beck and Judith Malina, which performed in a loft-like space at Sixth Avenue and Fifteenth Street (1951-63), ranging from Sophocles as translated by Ezra Pound, through a staged I Ching
, to the contemporary drug-culture classic “The Connection” (1959). With the Living Theater’s departure for Europe the mantle passed to Ellen Stuart’s La Mama in the East Village. The true center of gay theater, however, was Joe Cino’s Caffè Cino, originally a simple coffee house. Here gay playwrights like Robert Patrick (the Cino is evoked in his famous “Kennedy’s Children”), Doric Wilson, and William Hoffman got their start. By the late ‘sixties storefront theaters were springing up all over the East Village. Sometimes the material was sexually explicit, as in Rochelle Owens’ “Futz” (1967), about a man in love with a pig, and Michael McClure’s “The Beard” (1967), which became notorious for showing Buffalo Bill going down on Jean Harlow on stage.
In due course this whole theatrical flowering, with its frank treatment of “deviant” sexuality, along with drugs, rock music, astrology, and anti-war protest, was projected commercially—-first to Broadway and then to the nation and the world-—in the immensely successful musical “Hair.” At the same time the art world drew closer to the new theater with its own form of improvisation, the happening.
Against this ebullient background, one is tempted to regard the three days of the Stonewall Uprising as simply the most spectacular manifestation of the new funky theater, produced in improvisational style with unpaid actors, and the police playing themselves. Television, then centered in NYC, stood ready to beam scenes of such colorful social protest across the land. In this flamboyant outdoor theater, recruitment for a much-enlarged gay movement had already begun.
Many of the improvisational and “nonhierarchical” tendencies flowed, together with skills of left-sectarian and New Left provenance (leafleting; mimeographing of manifestoes and statements; hatching of demos and zaps) into the volatile Gay Liberation Front (GLF), formed in the wake of Stonewall. While this proved an unstable organization, fragments of its style filtered into other groups in New York City, and elsewhere.
In a deeper sense the New York mutation of the movement owed a great deal to cultural Modernism, with its roots going back to France in the middle of the nineteenth century. In keeping with the “tradition of the new,” there was a tenacious attempt to combine innovative aesthetics with radical politics. A powerful challenge was hurled at all existing standards, either by proposing new ones or by proclaiming “anything goes”—there are no standards. Out of such a yeasty amalgam, which peaked in New York City in the 1950s and ‘60s arose many of the distinctive features of the gay liberation movement of the 1970s.
In conclusion, I broaden the above conspectus by calling the roll of a half-century of New York City “firsts,” stemming from the list in my article in the Encyclopedia of Homosexuality.
1) the publication of Donald Webster Cory’s (a.k.a. Edward Sagarin) The Homosexual in America
(New York: Greenberg, 1951);
2) the appearance of the foundational text of the movement for recognition of intergeneration sex, J. Z. Eglinton’s Greek Love
(New York, Oliver Layton Press, 1964);
3) the founding of the first gay student association in the history of the world, the Student Homophile League, by Stephen Donaldson (Robert A. Martin), 1966;
4) the opening in Greenwich Village of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, the first to be devoted to gay/lesbian books, by Craig Rodwell, who had earlier organized a gay youth group (November 1967);
5) the Stonewall Rebellion (June 1969);
6) the founding of the Gay Liberation Front, with a “revolutionary” multi-issue format that was to enjoy widespread, though ephemeral imitation (July 1969);
7) the founding of Gay Activists Alliance, whose single-issue orientation was to provide a more lasting model than that of GLF (December 1969);
8) the first Gay Pride March (simultaneously with Los Angeles) (June 1970);
9) the launching of the Gay Academic Union at John Jay College (1973);
10) the founding of the National Gay Task Force (1974);
11) the establishment of Gay Men’s Health Crisis (1981);
12) the founding of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Discrimination (1985);
13) the founding of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) (1987);
14) the publication of the two-volume Encyclopedia of Homosexuality
(Wayne R. Dynes, General Editor; New York: Garland, 1990), the first such comprehensive reference work of this kind in the history of the world;
15) the founding of CLAGS (Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies; April 1991), which became fully integrated with the Graduate Center of the City University of New York a few years later, making it the first such research institute to be affiliated with a public university.