June 2019 marks not only the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, but also the 50th anniversary of the death of queer icon Judy Garland, as well as the anniversary of her birth in 1922.
In the early stories about the insurrection, there was a direct connection between the two events. Garland died in London on June 22, just 12 days after her 47th birthday. On June 26, her remains were flown to Manhattan; thousands of devastated fans came to pay their respects and the funeral parlor had to remain open all night long to accommodate overflow crowds.
Her televised funeral service the next day, including a moving eulogy by her “A Star Is Born” co-star James Mason, was watched by millions.
That night, according to contemporary news reports and early historical accounts, queer fans gathered to mourn her death, including some of the patrons at the Stonewall Inn, a Mafia-owned gay bar in Greenwich Village. Shortly after 1 a.m. on June 28, police raided the bar, but this time, fueled by a potent mix of sorrow and rage, the patrons fought back.
In the intervening years, narratives about how the riots started have shifted, and historians such as David Carter now deny that there was any link between Garland’s death (deemed an accidental overdose of barbiturates) and the riots, despite the testimony of Sylvia Rivera herself.
Nonetheless, the identification of Judy Garland as the patron saint of the Stonewall Riots is still strong in the queer imagination. For example, RuPaul recently said, “Now it has been 50 years since Judy passed and on the night of her funeral, in June 1969, the Stonewall Riots occurred. Fed up with police harassment, the patrons of the Stonewall used their grief over Judy’s death to rise up and fight; and the gay liberation movement was born.”
RuPaul paid tribute to Garland in the episode of “RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars” that aired Feb. 1. The drag superstar used the show to educate the contestants and the audience about the amazing legacy of the woman described as “one of the greatest stars that Hollywood ever produced.” RuPaul also explained that the phrase “friend of Dorothy,” referring to Garland’s legendary performance as Dorothy Gale in “The Wizard of Oz,” was used as a gay secret code pre-Stonewall.
Writer, performer and raconteur Justin Sayre, an expert on all things Garland, emphasizes her importance in the overall narrative of queer resistance.
“The Judy component still means something to me,” Sayre says. “Here was a community reeling from the death of an icon of that community. Whether or not it led to the first brick being thrown, it informed the narrative. The invocation of Judy is sometimes seen as something flippant rather than a powerful moment of grief that we turned into something righteous. To me, that is much more of a queer narrative than one individual did one thing. I think queerness is about community and how we build things together.”
To honor Garland’s memory and the spirit of Stonewall, Sayre is the creator and host of “Night of a Thousand Judys,” an annual benefit for the Ali Forney Center, which houses homeless LGBT youth in New York City.
“It’s a wonderful fit,” Sayre says. “None of us get over the rainbow unless we all do.”
Renowned queer film historian Steven Cohan offers some additional reasons why Garland still remains a popular queer icon. Cohan is the Dean’s Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at Syracuse University. Two of his books, “Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value and the MGM Musical” and “Hollywood By Hollywood,” include fascinating examinations of Garland’s “A Star Is Born.”
Citing critic Richard Dyer, Cohan identifies three features that continue to make Garland’s work so compelling to gay audiences: her androgyny (she frequently performed in male clothing), her camp sensibility (she had a sharp sense of humor and her screen persona was shaped by gay studio executives at MGM) and her identification with the girl next door who was never as ordinary as she seemed. In addition, Cohan emphasizes her extraordinary resilience.
“She always came back,” Cohan notes, pointing to the record-breaking concert at the Palace Theatre in 1951, the 1954 movie “A Star Is Born” and the legendary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1961.
Cohan also notes that “her iconic status in gay culture is more historical than continually active.” Like her career, her legend has its ups and downs.
The current upswing may have started with the release of the latest remake of “A Star Is Born.” Queer icon and artist Lady Gaga took on Garland’s iconic role and scored a personal triumph.
This year, musicians across the country are offering birthday concerts for Judy. Here in Washington, the National Symphony Orchestra is hosting “50 Years Over the Rainbow: A Judy Garland Celebration” on June 28-29 at the Kennedy Center. Under the direction of out Maestro Steven Reineke, the NSO will celebrate Garland’s life and work with singers Laura Osnes, Carpathia Jenkins and Jimmie Herrod.
In September, Renee Zellweger will star in “Judy” about Garland’s 1968 return to London for a series of cabaret performances.
Finally, some viewers see the spirit of Judy Garland inhabiting Armistead Maupin’s “Tales of the City” novels, which are now being revisited in a Netflix limited series. After all, as the saga starts, Mary Ann Singleton flees the drab Midwest for the Emerald (and very grassy) City of San Francisco and gathers a fabulous found family around herself.
And as the new series starts, Maupin’s Dorothy figure returns to San Francisco, perhaps answering one of the lingering questions about Judy Garland’s iconic character: Why does she go back to Kansas after her adventures in Oz? Mary Ann’s journey offers an alternative ending where Dorothy returns to Oz to live with her family of choice, the latest generation of rebels, visionaries and brick throwers.