By Jim Fouratt
I am looking forward to celebrating the anniversary of the first Christopher Street March for Liberation. It is important to honor the 200 brave people (including myself) who left Sheridan Square and marched up to Central Park on Sunday, June 28th, 1970. By the time we got to the Park we were over 500 people. We marched into the Sheep Meadow filled with what looked like thousands of New Yorkers sunning and picnicking on a perfect late June sunny, but not too hot, day in the Park,
Yes, there were also Marches in LA and SF and a gathering in Chicago that I knew of that day, but New York’s was first. The language of the signage we carried reflected the politics of the early movement’s desire for liberation, equality, and freedom. We were amused that the New York Times said we were thousands, But the truth is our actual numbers, not counting all the sun-worshipers in the Sheep Meadow, was much less than a thousand
But it was the beginning
The person most responsible for organizing the March was the owner of the Oscar Wild Bookstore, Craig Rodwell. We were friends before the Stonewall Rebellion. He had bravely opened the Oscar Wilde Bookstore, a lesbian and gay bookstore on a side street just above Washington Square and right in the heart of NYU’s campus. I remember I would visit frequently. We would sit around and talk politics. Sometimes Robert Martin, a Columbia University student, would join us. I was in my hippie anti-war organizing drag and Craig a cross between bookseller and beatnik.
We developed a close friendship. It was late October 1969 when he called me and said, “Come over to the store, I have something serious to talk to you about Digger, (Digger was my hippie name sometimes). I got there and he said right after he let me in. “We have to do something to celebrate our year of coming out and building a movement as out gay people.”
I was very much involved in the Gay Liberation Front at the time. GLF had over a dozen active cells in the New York City chapter. They focused on everything from political actions to community outreach to reflect the diversity of who we actually are to cells for women, Hispanics; cells for conciousness-raising (gender-specific); cells for organizing our dances and other social events as an alternative to the bars and finally to publishing COME OUT, our newspaper!
Independent chapters were springing up all across the country, mostly on college campuses. I remember being in a cell that would go to other cities to help people form their own GLF. We held demonstrations in front of the Village Voice (because the liberal paper’s advertising director refused to take our ad announcing a gay dance); we demonstrated at the Women’s House of Detention in support of Angela Davis; we joined anti-war marches welcome or not. The lesbians targeted homophobia in the woman’s movement.
At this time “gay” was the word being used to include both men and women, GLF was co-gendered. It was agreed it had to be reflected in our language; it soon became a GLF principle that when we said gay it meant men, lesbian was used to signify women.
We were coming out across the country. We were becoming visible.
But we still had no job protection, we could be fired for being homosexual, for fulfilling our erotic desires.
Craig invited a small group again in mid-December and this time he was prepared, He stood up and unfolded the GLF COME OUT recruitment poster that Peter Hujar and I had worked on. It was to be a recruitment poster for GLF and published by the COME OUT newspaper. Peter and I had decided that COME OUT would be our theme We wanted to picture a world where we were liberated and not afraid. We invited over four weeks of announcements at the GLF weekly meetings that anyone who wanted to be in the poster should just show up. Peter had us running down a street (actually below Houston in what later became Soho). Peter took the photo (I was in it): Lesbians and gay men smiling and not hiding in shadows, a sharp contrast to the fear a closet culture had built to defend itself against homophobia and misogyny.
Brenda Howard was active in the GLF women’s caucus and joined me at that meeting, When we finished we set a new date to meet. Craig announced he was going to ask the newly forming Gay Activist Alliance to join our organizing group. He did, and despite GLF and GAA’s heated political difference, we planned the March together.
History was made.
We marched without a police permit, not knowing if we would be arrested or attacked. Our energy was high because we were out and we were together.
Looking back, these marches have become quite different, reflecting not only our success at being visible everywhere, but also because we have become a market to be exploited.
In the ’70s at one point, the Mafia took control of the march and named their bag man at the Stonewall Inn, Ed Murphy, an Irish gay thug, as Grand Marshall. They changed the name to parade, and the word stuck to the dismay of older activists. Murphy invited Marsha P. Johnson, a GLF member and co-founder, along with Sylvia Rivera of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolution) to ride with him in his official convertible. Marsha did…. in complete male drag. Marsha had always identified as a gay man who liked to dress up and be pretty. Marsha told me that “Gay Day” was always the happiest day of his life
The ’80s and 90s brought the AIDS pandemic, parades became more militant with the emergence of ACT UP and became Marches for our lives.
The success of the LGBT labor organizing efforts over 30 years made it safe for corporations to publicly support their LGBT workers. This is a victory. The success of the commodification of our community as a market (meaning co-optation) and the money that flowed into the organizations that had rebranded liberation as PRIDE was self-evident. The tension between a celebration of some of our success, and the increasing issue of racism, police enforcement, gender expression repression, and elected officials’ actions or inactions, resulted in a break up of unity.
It meant that in the year of what should have been a celebration of 50 years of change and advancement instead brought about the creation of ReClaim Pride dedicated to returning to the radical roots that produced the Christopher Street Liberation March.
In 2019, in NYC, the birthplace of the Stonewall Rebellion, the “Queer March” took place in the very streets that had produced the Stonewall Rebellion. 40,000 LGBTQ+ people marched to show solidarity as out homosexuals and gender expression rebels committed publicly that we would fight against racism both in and out of our communities, fight for justice equality, fight for workers documented or not, fight for sane gun policy, and an environment where we can breath and all life is sustainable, and finally, and perhaps most importantly, the right to control our own bodies.
These are dangerous times: The Supreme Court will decide this year if we have the right to be different in gender expression and appearance, and whether neither will be the basis for being fired or not hired for work; the right for all citizens regardless of race, gender, age, ability, and gender expression to be treated equally under the law.
These are dangerous times: The attacks upon the separation of Church and State, a foundation of our Democracy and Constitution; the increasing success of the religious-nationals who seek a theocracy, not a democracy. We have a Vice President who believes in conversion therapy. We have a Supreme Court now stacked with Justices who appear to let religious bias temper their rulings instead of equality and protection under the law for all.
These are dangerous times: The COVID-19 pandemic is being used to control population growth and frighten people into compliance.
These are dangerous times, heightened by a worldwide health pandemic and the failure of the current economy to guarantee equality and full life as promised in the Declaration of Independence for all citizens, It is a “…let them eat cake” moment.
Homophobia, sometimes called transphobia, is on the rise again. My communities have survived pandemics when we were left to die. My community endured centuries of the quarantining of our desires, and we survived
These are dangerous times. AIDS taught me that when we come together to fight hate and disease, we will also fight inequality in every corner where it hides.
These are dangerous times. It is time to WAKE UP, cast off fear and the feeling of powerlessness, take action, by any means necessary: I choose the vote, and you?