June 26, 2019 at 2:50 pm EST | by Joey DiGuglielmo
Pride, activist groups, the gay press and more take form in wake of Stonewall riots
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The first Pride parade in New York, 1970. (Photo courtesy Gay and Lesbian Information Center, New York Public Library)

The most impactful legacy of Stonewall isn’t what happened those few nights, but what grew out of it — annual Pride celebrations, of course, but also the gay press, a proliferation of rights groups, de-classification of homosexuality as mental illness, disco, sexual lib, AIDS and more. Whole books have been written on each of these topics, for anyone interested in further study. 

THE BIRTH OF PRIDE

Some of the people who rioted starting on June 28, 1969, once things settled, started to organize and a group called the Stonewall Veterans Association, which is still in existence, formed. 

In November 1969, Craig Rodwell (1940-1993), owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop (the country’s first gay bookstore), along with his partner Fred Sargeant, Ellen Broidy and Linda Rhodes, proposed a New York City march to commemorate the riots. He introduced a resolution at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organization (ERCHO) in Philadelphia.

“We propose that a demonstration be held annually on the last Saturday in June in New York City to commemorate the 1969 spontaneous demonstrations on Christopher Street and this demonstration be called Christopher Street Liberation Day,” the resolution said. “No dress or age regulations shall be made for this demonstration.”

The concept of Pride being held in other cities simultaneously was ingrained in the concept from the outset. 

“We also propose that we contact homophile organizations throughout the country and suggest that they hold parallel demonstrations on that day. We propose a nationwide show of support,” the resolution stated.

Christopher Street Liberation Day was held June 28, 1970, the first gay Pride march in the U.S. It covered 51 blocks to Central Park with a parade permit reluctantly delivered just two hours before the scheduled start time. Marches were simultaneously held in Los Angeles and Chicago. In 1971, it had spread to Boston, Dallas, Milwaukee and three European cities as well. Pride in Washington started in 1975. 

Since 1984, the parade and related events in New York have been produced and organized by Heritage of Pride, a volunteer, non-partisan LGBT group. 

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A scene from 2012’s New York City Pride march. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

THE GAY PRESS

The gay press didn’t begin with Stonewall. The earliest known publication had an inauspicious start. In 1947, an underworked secretary trying to look busy, typed, stapled and distributed 12 copies of Vice Versa, which she dubbed “America’s gayest magazine.” Since then, thousands have followed in her steps producing about 2,600 — at their height — publications ranging from weekly newspapers to more radical tabloids to glossy monthly magazines.

Seminal pre-Stonewall publications included Ladder, Vector and the Los Angeles Advocate. 

The July 1964 cover of The Ladder. (Image from the Washington Blade archive)

The number of these publications exploded after Stonewall. It was seen as necessary as even the most liberal alternative press of the day — in New York, The Village Voice, refused to print the word gay. Throughout the ‘70s, people who depended solely on mainstream media for news would hardly have been aware of the gay rights movement,” writes author/historian Eric Marcus in his 2002 book “Making Gay History.” “With a few notable exceptions, the television networks, daily newspapers and newsmagazines gave little coverage to gay issues.

“After the apocalyptic Stonewall impulse, the press erupted in so many directions that it is impossible to document when each publication was founded, how long it existed or who edited it,” writes Rodger Streitmatter, author of “Unspeakable: the Rise of the Gay and Lesbian Press in America.” 

“Our Own Voices: A Director of Lesbian and Gay Periodicals” listed 150 publications by 1972, Streitmatter writes. 

One of the most influential was called simply GAY, started in December 1969 by gay press veterans (and partners) Jack Nichols and Lige Clarke, who’d covered Stonewall. It soon became, according to Streitmatter, the “newspaper of record for gay America.” 

Veteran activist Lilli Vincenz, who wrote a lesbian column for GAY is quoted in “Unspeakable” as having said, “It was the newspaper of the day. If you were gay and you wanted to find out what was going on in the world, you turned to GAY.” 

It sold 20,000 copies of its first issue (at 40 cents per copy) and reached a monthly circulation of 25,000 by its second issue, figures that took the Advocate two years to build. Within six weeks, two other New York-based newspapers were launched — Come Out! and Gay Power. GAY continued until Clarke was murdered in 1975. 

Streitmatter writes later in the book that the publications “that survived the aftershocks of Stonewall were those with a combination of calm voices and stable finances,” citing GAY in New York and The Advocate in Los Angeles as leaders. 

But two months before GAY was launched, in October 1969, Vincenz and a small group of men and women met in the basement of a Connecticut Avenue building to work on the first issue of the Gay Blade. The monthly, mimeographed one-sheet issued by a volunteer staff contained three columns of news, community notices and a small advertisement for someone who wanted to sell a car, writes author Edward Alwood in his 1996 book “Straight News: Gays, Lesbians and the News Media.” 

“By distributing copies at the city’s gay and lesbian bars, they quickly established the Blade as a source of valuable information that was not available from any other source,” Alwood writes. 

Editor Nancy Tucker told Alwood they printed “things that we thought were important to the mental health and social welfare of other people like us,” Alwood quotes her as having said. “Periodically we ran warnings of blackmailers who hung around Dupont Circle or the gay bars. We wrote about rough cops. There were plenty of military and government workers who were undergoing some type of security investigation and all of those people needed to know about their rights. These were a heavy orientation for us.” 

The first issue of the Blade was distributed in October 1969.

It was the first of a new generation of gay papers that included Gay Community News in Boston, NewsWest in Los Angeles, Gay News in Pittsburgh and GayLife in Chicago, Alwood writes.

“Unlike the early homophile press, which stressed identity and cooperation, this second generation concentrated almost solely on political change and resistance,” Alwood writes. 

The Gay Blade was rechristened the Washington Blade in 1980 and went to weekly publication in 1983. It’s the oldest continually operating LGBT newspaper in the country. It celebrates its 50th anniversary in October. 

REGIONAL GAY RIGHTS GROUPS

The late Barbara Gittings and the late Frank Kameny in 2005. Their pre-Stonewall gay and lesbian activism wasn’t always appreciated by groups that formed in the wake of the riots. (Photo courtesy National LGBT 50th Anniversary Celebration)

Although groups like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis had been around since the ‘50s, things became more emboldened after Stonewall. The Gay Liberation Front was the first organization to use gay in its name. Previously, all “homophile” (as they were known) groups purposefully did not.

Legendary early activists Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen were vacationing on Fire Island when they heard about Stonewall. Upon returning to the city in September, they began attending meetings of the Gay Liberation Front and encountered a much different group of people and ethos.

“They were huge meetings, it was the best theater in town,” Lahusen is quoted as having said in “Making Gay History.” “This was the heyday of radical chic … and here I was this plain Jane dinosaur from the old gay movement.”

Gittings said there was zero acknowledgement of the pre-Stonewall efforts.

“Suddenly here were all these people with absolutely no track record in the movement who were telling us, in effect, not only what we should do but what we should think,” she’s quoted as having said in “Making Gay History.” “The arrogance of it was really what upset me.” 

Gittings said she and Frank Kameny were even asked at one Philadelphia meeting who they were and what they were doing there. 

“For once, I think even Frank was dumbfounded,” Gittings is quoted as having said. “As if we owed them an explanation.” 

Gittings said right after Stonewall, the Gay Liberation Front and the Mattachine Society, which some perceived as having been slow to respond to the riots, were the only two active groups. 

“Mattacine was so stuffy and its day was over,” Lahusen said in “Making Gay History.” “These organizations seem to have a built-in life expectancy.”

“Mattachine wasn’t up to managing the lively response to the Stonewall riots and GLF came in to fill the void,” Gittings told author Marcus. 

The Gay Liberation Front (a name used by multiple groups over the years), however, disbanded after just four months when members were unable to agree on operating procedure. In December 1969, some people who had attended Front meetings but left frustrated formed Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), an “orderly” group to be focused entirely on gay issues. A D.C. chapter had formed by 1971. It became the Gay & Lesbian Activist Alliance in the ‘80s, and continues to this day. 

Many of the main groups with major name recognition today started later. The National Gay Task Force (now the National LGBTQ Task Force) started in 1973. Two groups merged to form the largest, Human Rights Campaign, in the early ‘80s. 

Many of the state groups came much later, uniting around the marriage issue. The California Alliance for Pride and Equality was founded in 1999 and only became Equality California in 2003. The now-dissolved Empire State Pride Agenda was founded in 1990 through a merger of two earlier groups. By 2005, it was the largest state lobbying group. 

AIDS

In a roundabout way, Stonewall, in time, also brought attention to the disparate health care needs of LGBT people. That’s the contention of Perry N. Halkitis, dean of Rutgers School of Public Health and author of the new book “Out in Time: From Stonewall to Queer; How Gay Men Came of Age Across the Generations.”

“The riots allowed gay people to say ‘we exist’ and create a demand for health equity,” Halkitis said in a recent interview with tapinto.net. “The civil disobedience of Stonewall served as a catalyst to the activism of the AIDS era, which in turn has contributed to the foundations of how public health today emphasizes social justice and health equity.”

Although initially about wholly separate issues, Stonewall started a movement that was eventually “catapulted” 13 years later when HIV hit, he says.

“As the riots framed the basis for the recognition of gay people as viable members of the population, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and ’90s created the circumstances by which they would come to demand that the government and society attend to their well-being,” Halkitis said in the tapinto.net interview. “Before then, gay people kept silent and were invisible to their doctors, who were unaware they were gay or did not understand the mental health and drug issues they were facing. The AIDS crisis shined a light on the fact that there was this population that needed specific health services beyond what was given to the general population.”

Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, deputy commissioner for the Division of Disease Control of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said in a New York Times interview last week that the histories of Stonewall and AIDS are inextricably linked and have affected what’s still happening today.

“It’s so critical that you had an uprising, and it became not just folks being downtrodden by their system but actually then fighting back,” Daskalakis told the Times. “I feel that the fighting spirit now is like the ACT UP experience in New York. There was a feeling that it was part of LGBTQ rights to ask for faster, better support and funding to fight HIV. … I think the legacy of activism remains powerful decades later.”

As the number of deaths soared, gay and lesbian people and gay rights organizations redirected their energies, Marcus writes in “Making Gay History.” 

“Many thousands of gay people who had never participated in gay rights efforts were motivated to join the fight against AIDS,” he writes. “New organizations joined existing ones to provide care for the sick and dying, conduct AIDS education programs, lobby local and federal governments for increased funding for AIDS research, pressure medical researchers and drug companies to become more aggressive in their search for treatments and a cure and fight discrimination against people with AIDS and those infected with HIV.”

AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIC ASSOCIATION

In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed the diagnosis of “homosexuality” from the second edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. 

In the mid-20th century, some homophile activist groups accepted psychiatry’s illness model as an alternative to societal condemnation of homosexuality’s supposed “immorality” and were willing to work with professionals who sought to “treat” or “cure” them, Jack Drescher writes in his 2015 study “Out of DSM: Depathologizing Homosexuality.” Other activists, however, forcefully rejected the pathological model as a major contributor to the stigma and in the wake of the Stonewall riots, brought modern sex research theories to the attention of the APA.

Believing psychiatric theories to be a major contributor to anti-gay social stigma, activists disrupted the 1970 and 1971 annual APA meetings.

Although, Drescher writes, there were rumblings happening within the world of psychiatry that helped the gay cause, “the most significant catalyst for diagnostic change was gay activism.”

Kameny and Gittings spoke on a 1971 APA panel entitled “Gay is Good.” They returned in ’72, joined by Dr. John Fryer, who appeared anonymously as a “homosexual psychiatrist.” 

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Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny and John Fryer (in disguise). (Photo by Kay Tobin Lahusen via Wikimedia Commons)

APA’s Nomenclature Committee eventually recommended removing homosexuality when it determined it unique among the supposed mental disorders in that in and of itself, it did not cause distress nor was it associated with generalized impairment in social effectiveness of functioning.

It wasn’t a completely cut-and-dried affair; the psychiatric world continued grappling with the controversial decision for years, Drescher writes in his scholarly article, but it was “the beginning of the end of organized medicine’s official participation in the social stigmatization of homosexuality.” 

Many people, both inside and outside the psychology profession, claimed the APA had succumbed to pressure from gay activists and while it was true that many gay men and lesbians had exerted pressure, there were also respected psychiatrists within the organization who worked to affect the change, Marcus writes in “Making Gay History.” One was Dr. Judd Marmor, a Los Angeles psychiatrist.

“We didn’t merely remove homosexuals from the category of illness. We stated that there was no reason why a priori a gay man or woman could not be just as healthy, just as effective, just as law abiding and just as capable of functioning as any heterosexual,” Marmor is quoted as having said in Marcus’s book. “Furthermore, we asserted that laws that discriminated against them in housing or in employment were unjustified. So it was a total statement.”

Shortly thereafter, the American Psychological Association and the American Bar Association came out in support of gays.

“It was an important step that we took,” Marmor said in “Making Gay History.”

DISCO

Disco music, a type of dance music and the subculture around it that emerged in the ‘70s from the U.S. urban nightlife scene, is inextricably linked to post-Stonewall gay life.

Its “four-on-the-floor” beats, syncopated basslines and shimmery instrumentation flourished in venues popular with black, Latinx and gay nightlife lovers mostly in major cities on the East Coast at the dawn of the ‘70s. The most popular disco artists were Donna Summer, Gloria Gaynor, the Bee Gees, Chic, KC and the Sunshine Band, the Village People, Thelma Houston and others. Pop acts like Diana Ross and Michael Jackson who’d had hits in other genres, jumped on the disco bandwagon with success.

In his essay “In Defense of Disco,” gay writer Richard Dyer writes that disco gave gay men a mainstream musical genre they could embrace.

“All my life, I’ve liked the wrong music,” he writes. “I never liked Elvis and rock ’n roll; I always preferred Rosemary Clooney. And since I became a socialist, I’ve often felt virtually terrorized by the prestige of rock and folk on the left. … Disco is more than just a form of music, although certainly music is at the heart of it. Disco is also kinds of dancing, club, fashion, film — in a word, a certain sensibility.”

Thematically, Dyer (whose essay is included in the 1995 anthology “Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian and Queer Essays on Popular Culture”), writes that disco has both rhythmic and lyrical appeal to gay men.

“No wonder (Diana) Ross is (was?) so important in gay male scene culture for she both reflects what that culture takes to be an inevitable reality — that relationships don’t last — and at the same time celebrates it, validates it.”

“Our music owes so much to the gay clubs that first nurtured it, which in turn helped to create safe spaces that allowed a marginalized population the freedom to be themselves,” writes Ned Shepard in a 2016 Cuepoint essay.

He cites a comment from Barry Walters from Billboard.

“The history of dance music in America and the history of LGBT folks — particularly those of color — coming together to create a cultural utopia was and still is inseparable. Neither would have happened without the other,” Walters is quoted as having said. 

SEXUAL LIBERATION

Sexual liberation in the pre-AIDS era for lesbian and gay activists was a heated topic. Gay men especially enjoyed dabbling liberally without any of the baggage sexually adventurous women — despite this being the era of Helen Gurley Brown and her landmark 1962 book “Sex and the Single Girl” — faced, but the concern that gay rights would be overly associated with a free sex narrative was contentious and variations of that argument continue to this day.

The 1980 William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”)-directed movie “Cruising” was a nadir of the conundrum.

“There was … a political and ideological split in the gay community about whether or not it was valuable or necessary to show the leather and sadomasochism aspect of the community on screen,” recalls “The Celluloid Closet” author Vito Russo in “Making Gay History.” “There were middle-of-the-road gays who found this kind of thing horrifying. Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you were necessarily acquainted with the more far-out aspects of gay sexuality, especially in the 1970s. There were a lot of gay men, and certainly lesbians, in this country who would have been deeply shocked by the sex bars in New York. … Suddenly the issue became, ‘Do we want to present this to the world as the way gay people are?’ The public was not going to distinguish between one group of gay people and another.”

Nancy Walker (not the “Rhoda” actress) writes of her volunteer work in the early ‘70s at the Boston-based weekly Gay Community News in “Making Gay History.” 

“We wanted gay liberation but what did that mean,” she writes. “Did it mean equal rights? To me, that’s all I ever wanted. On the other hand, some of them wanted to be able to fuck in the parks. Well, that’s wonderful, but if they did, I wouldn’t take my children there either. How far is sexual freedom supposed to go? Are you allowed to have intercourse on the street corner because you feel like doing it? How does that make you different from a dog? What happens to civilization when people lose all their socialization and have sex, where and with whom they please? We have to have a little bit of self control, a little discipline. I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in sexual freedom. I’m interested in being able to live.” 

Ultimately things somewhat self calibrated — AIDS brought a day of reckoning writ large, it didn’t manage to kill off gay bathhouse culture and, of course, antiretroviral meds and PrEP were game changers in the AIDS war. But it’s not all gay “Pollyanna.” Entrapment of cruising gay men remains a problem. As recently as 2015 in Rehoboth Beach, Del., of all places, 12 men were arrested for public lewdness by undercover police officers.

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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