The quest for gay rights had its beginnings on the night of June 28, 1969 at the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, mainly a hangout for gay men and drag queens. I myself had visited the Stonewall only once, accompanied by Warhol superstar Candy Darling, and found the atmosphere and watered down drinks not to my liking. The Stonewall was seen then as a tawdry spot not generally frequented by more upscale gays who preferred the quieter joints like Lenny’s Hideaway, Julius’, The Ninth Circle on 10th Street, Mary’s or The Colony on 8th Street. The loudest noises were heard from the juke-boxes spinning 45 records (a quarter got you five plays) which included Ethel Merman belting out “…curtains up, light the lights, you’ve got nothing to hit but the heights” from “Gypsy” as well as popular stars like Judy Garland or Barbara Streisand singing their upbeat recordings. Looking for their true identity, many gays came to the Village from New Jersey, Ohio or wherever-in-America oppression thrived and love between two men or two women was regarded as a criminal offense. Lawmakers backed this up and even in what was called The Land of True Bohemia – Greenwich Village – ‘queers’, ‘dykes’ or ‘lavender lads’, as they were called, were victimized by the police in ritualistic gay bar raids (even though bar owners paid what were called ‘fines’ to the cops) and many patrons were arrested just for congregating.
There were also entrapments in subway restrooms by lurking detectives who were always on the lookout for illicit sex (note today – no bathrooms in the subway). At the Stonewall on that famous never-to-be-forgotten night in late June, one of the many police raids took place; on this occasion the gay men and transgender clientele took the law into their own hands and began pelting the cops with rocks and smashing windows and breaking beer bottles. One Marsha Johnson, a drag queen who was sometimes known as just ‘Black Marsha’, took off one of her high heeled shoes and hit an officer on the head. Marsha was always a very ladylike presence on Christopher Street but you had to watch out when her other persona Malcolm took over. The sweet smiling Marsha with her veiled hat covered with flowers could fight just like any rough and tough macho man; that is what happened on that weird night of gay revolt. Over two decades later, the media reported that on July 6, 1992 (two weeks after the formal dedication of the Gay Liberation Monument in Christopher Park across the street from the Stonewall Inn) Marsha P. Johnson’s badly decomposed body was found floating in the Hudson River. The police said that foul play had not been ruled out as gay men were randomly thrown off the dilapidated Village waterfront ‘sex piers’ – as they were called – often following homophobic ‘rough trade’ sexual encounters.
John Gilman and I stood watching the 1969 melee from Christopher Park not really knowing exactly what was happening. However, it truly became history in the making. Fed up and angry, a long out and out fight ensued for three days and nights. Howard Smith, who wrote a column called Scenes for the Village Voice (then on the corner of Christopher and 7th Avenue where the Duplex Cabaret now resides), found himself locked into the Stonewall with police officers who had barricaded themselves inside behind tables and chairs as the outdoor crowd gathered strong in numbers and in a fit of collective rage screamed and shouted obscenities. Smith said the police could not believe that “these fairies” were actually out there fighting a rebellion with such intensity and as it turned out, with such a sense of purpose.
Many different interpretations, some real, some mythical and some given over to wild imaginings, have come into play in regard to that historic event. Suddenly being gay did not mean you were to be regarded as just another ‘pansy.’ One of the stories which circulated and persists to this day is that Judy Garland who died just a few days before Stonewall at age 47 had somehow instigated it. Writer-historian David Carter devotes two pages on this subject in his book “Stonewall”. Garland, who had been married at least twice to gay men, had a huge following, which included many homosexuals who identified with her pain, anxiety, her addictions and her desperate need to be loved against all odds. Many of her gay fans were among the 20,000 mourners who viewed her glass topped casket with her daughter Liza standing watch at Frank Campbell’s Funeral Home uptown on the very afternoon of the riot.
Judy was first given speed and sleeping pills by her mother at the age of thirteen. Louis B. Mayer, who was at the helm of M.G.M. Studios, insisted on this and Judy kept at the perpetual movie grind losing and gaining weight until she suffered a major breakdown on the set of “Annie Get Your Gun” which was ultimately finished with Betty Hutton in the starring role. Another breakdown ensued during the making of “Summer Stock” in 1950 and Judy by then, became totally dependent on psycho-pharmaceutical drugs. She also abused alcohol and cigarettes to keep her going. Judy-the-addict is currently being brilliantly portrayed by Tracie Bennett on Broadway in “End of the Rainbow.” This play with music depicts her last six months; at this point Judy is wasted and ready to give up even though she must continue to perform in order to make a living. All of this is driven by her last husband, the ambitious Mickey Deans. At her side is her gay piano accompanist who is trying to hold her intact. And so if some still continue to believe that Judy was one of the causes of the Stonewall riot, well, why not?
Thinking of Judy’s last hurrah and untimely death, I recently saw at the Culture Project on Bleecker Street, Tennessee Williams’s final full-length play “In Masks Outrageous and Austere” written over a period of five years when Tennessee was like Judy on a day to day diet of pills and martinis. The play, starring Shirley Knight as Clarissa ‘Babe’ Foxworth, is a kaleidoscopic comic dreamscape similar to his earlier collage-like nightmare play “Camino Real.” Ms. Knight’s character somewhat embodies Tennessee himself at his most desperate and in this play he is truly ‘outing’ himself onstage in a big way with openly gay characters right in the middle of all the mixed-up neurotic relationships. Billy Foxworth played by Robert Beitzel and Jerry by Sam Underwood give brilliant performances as two doomed gay lovers living on the edge, heading into the abyss. Shirley Knight’s ‘Babe’ is a composite of earlier Tennessee women like Ariadne Del Lago in “Sweet Bird of Youth” or Sissy Goforth in “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” Those who didn’t make it to see Ms. Knight’s bravura performance have missed something really outstanding in terms of finely tuned acting.
I originally saw Ms. Knight as Irena in Lee Strasberg’s magnificent and memorable Actor’s Studio Broadway production of Chekov’s “The Three Sisters” which also starred Kim Stanley as Mascha and Geraldine Page as Olga. In my opinion, Knight now joins her top notch actress ‘sisters’ Geraldine and Kim as one of the great actresses of the American stage in the modern era. The night I saw it, the audience was riveted and at the play’s end were onto their feet and shouting ‘Bravo!’ At a special ‘talk-back’ with the actress after the performance, Shirley told this anecdote: “When Tennessee and I were in Charleston, South Carolina doing “A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur,” a play he wrote for me, we came back to our hotel after rehearsal along with our producer David Merrick. Walking across the grand lobby of the historic hotel, two elderly women were talking rather loudly nearby. One said to the other ‘Oh my God that’s Tennessee Williams!’ The other exclaimed ‘Don’t be ridiculous. He’s been dead for years!’ Tennessee walked over to her and said, ‘Not quite yet, honey, not quite yet.'” Unfortunately, trashed by the uptown newspaper critics, the play closed on Mother’s Day, May 13. The many negative judgments helped to shut down what many felt was a great Tennessee Williams work. One can hope it will see the light of day again. Watch for the soon to be published “In Masks Outrageous and Austere” by New Directions.
It seems that in this our year of 2012, events are adding up more and more to the cause of gay liberation and gay rights. The headline of The New York Times on Saturday June 25, 2011 reads NEW YORK ALLOWS SAME-SEX MARRIAGE, BECOMING LARGEST STATE TO PASS LAW. The sub-heading read CUOMO SIGNS BILL RECHARGING GAY RIGHTS MOVEMENT. Once again crowds gathered that very night on the street in front of the Stonewall Inn but this time it was a showing of joy, love, happiness and relief that the bill had passed. Just two years ago when asked what his feelings about same sex marriage were President Obama said “they are evolving” and on May 9, 2012 the President finally stated, “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.” The Times headline on the next day read OBAMA ENDORSES SAME-SEX MARRIAGE, TAKING STAND ON SOCIAL ISSUE.
So it should be said that on the 42nd anniversary of Gay Pride that this is good news albeit that a battle is still on the agenda across the nation. New York City Gay Week events this year include celebrating Gay Pride, the Stonewall Revolution and the legalization of same sex marriage in New York.
Events planned for Heritage of Pride week include:
- Saturday June 16 – a gay rights rally (location to be announced)
- Saturday June 23 – ‘Rapture on the River’ a women’s dance on the pier at the West end of 13th Street.
- Saturday June 23 – VIP Rooftop Party at Hudson Terrace/621 W. 46th St., 2 PM until 10 PM
- Sunday June 24 – The Gay Pride Parade at 36th Street and 5th Avenue, commences at 12 noon
- Sunday June 24 – Dance on the Pier, 4:30-l0:30 PM
- Sunday June 24 – PrideFest on Hudson St. between Abingdon Square and 13th St., 11 AM to 5:00 PM
The PrideFest street fair with food, t-shirts and gay ‘rainbow’ flags and 2012 souvenirs for sale, will also have on hand ‘How to Apply for a Marriage License’ and ‘Plan-Your-Wedding-Day’ pamphlet giveaways.
Church services such as the annual Gay Pride Day service at St. Luke’s-in-the-Field on Hudson Street will take place all over the city.
For further reading on the Stonewall, there is available: “Stonewall (The Riot that Sparked the Gay Revolution)” by David Carter (St. Martin’s Griffin, New York) and “Stonewall” by Martin Duberman (Plume Books from the Penguin Group, USA)
Recommended documentary: “Pay It No Mind: Marsha P. Johnson” by Michael Kasino, Richard Morrison and Larry Mitchell shown recently at IFC on 6th Avenue and Waverly and at a special screening at LaMama.
Playwright/author Robert Heide’s book “Greenwich Village – a Primo Guide to True Bohemia” (St. Martin’s Griffin, New York) co-authored with John Gilman is available at Amazon.com and other internet book outlets.