The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City was marked in June 2019. This year saw the 50th anniversary of the city’s first Pride march, known as the Christopher Street Liberation Day March. But on June 27 and 28, 1970, one year after the riots, New York City wasn’t making history alone. That weekend there were also the first Pride marches in Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco—although in their first iteration “Pride” was not in their names.
To organize and attend those marches was brave; this was an era in which being LGBTQ and being out brought considerable personal risk. But the Stonewall genie was out of the bottle; being out and visible at marches and demonstrations was the LGBTQ rights movement’s most public statement.
Below, participants and organizers of America’s first ever dedicated LGBTQ marches in 1970 talk to The Daily Beast about the era, why they marched, the drama and color of the day, how they feel the movement has evolved since, what they would like to see in the future—and what advice they have for the next generation of activists.
NEW YORK CITY: Victoria Cruz
Victoria Cruz is a longtime trans activist and LGBTQ campaigner, and a senior domestic violence counselor and advocate for the Anti-Violence Project (AVP). She was present at the Stonewall Riots in 1969, the 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Day March, and was a close friend of Sylvia Rivera.
Cruz is 73, and lives in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, and appeared in David France’s 2017 documentary, The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, trying to solve the mystery of Johnson’s 1992 death. In 2012, Cruz received the National Crime Victim Service Award from then-Attorney General Eric Holder.
What was it like being at Stonewall?
I was 22, and identifying as butch/femme drag queen back then. As a bar, Stonewall was a release. You could go there and be yourself and dance with whoever you wanted. The music was fantastic. There were very few clubs around and most of them used to get raided. The night of the Stonewall Riots, people were fed up: the abuse, the verbal abuse, the physical abuse, the pushing, the shoving, the name calling. People couldn’t take it any more, so they fought back.
What do you remember feeling and seeing?
It was a very warm, humid night. There was a stillness in the air. Judy Garland had just been buried. There was a full moon. It was the calm before the storm. I saw the paddy wagons pull up at the Stonewall and thought it was another raid. But I could see the cops were from another precinct. I was out front. We heard bottles breaking and mirrors smashing.
People starting coming out, the cops were beating up a lesbian (some say this was Stormé DeLarverie, but accounts vary). The crowd threw pennies at them and called them “pigs.” Then all hell broke loose. Someone threw a brick, and cracked the windows. People used parking meters to bang on the doors. The crowd grew. More cops came. They weren’t used to us fighting back. I think they were more astonished than we were.
What happened to you next?
When more cops came, they started chasing protesters. We went north on Seventh Avenue, then on to 10th Street, then back to Waverly Place, then back to the Stonewall again. The cops were chasing us, then we were chasing the cops. It ended up like a Keystone comedy. Then we saw people with Molotov cocktails setting cars on fire and I thought, “This is getting too much.”
My then-boyfriend Frankie was illegal here, from Canada. He was a bouncer at the Stonewall. He didn’t want to get arrested, and get sent back to Canada. It got more and more rowdy. There were more bricks, cops, and batons. We got the train home. When we got there, it was already on TV.
Did you go back the next two nights?
The bar called Frankie to go in the next day. The place was destroyed. He brought back a Stonewall bar sign with the prices of drinks. I still have it. People reorganized, and we went back on the second night and it was more violent. The third night I didn’t go. I thought, “I don’t need any of this.”
You went to the first Pride march the following year in 1970?
Yes, it was so interesting. I remember at first around 50 people gathering at Bleecker and Christopher Streets. Then we marched up Sixth Avenue. They gave us half the street, and we marched all the way up to Central Park. As we were marching, more and more people joined the parade. We got to Central Park. It was like a spectacle. We were so happy, free, and liberated. It was a different feeling. Nobody was ashamed to be out and be themselves. It was just an uplifting feeling of freedom.
Frankie and I stayed together another six months. He didn’t want me to be in drag, he wanted me in regular-guy clothes. I said, “No, this is not me.” He met me in a mini-skirt, and tried to change me. I wouldn’t go for that. I had already let my hair loose, and taken hormones and said, “This is what I want to be.” I transitioned before Stonewall during high school. I had found out there were doctors experimenting with black market hormones. My doctor was a real pioneer.
How was your family about you being trans?
I was one of 11 children, and third from the eldest. (Cruz was born in Guánica, Puerto Rico, and moved as a young child with her family to Red Hook, Brooklyn.) My parents both worked, so I had to take care of my brothers and sisters.
They always knew. I never hid myself, never hid in the closet. They were very supportive. I was one of the family, one of them. I was my mother’s child. My mother was my dressmaker, my father was my friend. I could sit on the bench and talk the breeze with my father about anything. It’s very important when you’re accepted.
That sounds a very positive experience.
Most of the time trans people weren’t that visible. I told my mother, “This is the way I feel.” She didn’t fight me. Once I started my transition she saw the difference. I went to school, and had a job. I passed. It was always difficult at work because when they found out employers would fire me, or make my life so miserable I didn’t want to go back to work. Being trans was taboo back then. I modeled. Once they found out, I lost those jobs.
I took up hairdressing and cosmetology, thinking it would make life easier. In some ways it was more accepting and tolerant. But in those days trans people were not visible. Many people hadn’t met a trans person. They had perhaps heard of Christine Jorgensen (whose transition in 1952 had made headlines).
How accepting in those days was the mainstream gay rights movement to trans people?
I felt in the first march they wanted us to go to back of the parade, and we said, “Hell no.” We were up front rebelling. We mixed through the whole crowd. That’s why you don’t see a separate trans contingent. We wouldn’t go to the back.
It hasn’t changed much. We haven’t been fully accepted, period. You get all these corporations and banks with their boy-toys and fancy floats. How many of those corporations ever hire trans women? How many banks hire trans women as tellers? How many offer medical coverage? We have to depend on government handouts. We are still third-class citizens. Then there are the murders of trans women of color. People look around and find someone who is vulnerable to bully.
Have you had experience of this yourself?
I started at AVP as a survivor of sexual assault and rape. I had been raped before by men. I was working at a nursing home in 1996 and was assaulted by female nurses. It was more physical and hateful. I got through it with the help of AVP. They were arrested.
I was never alone in court for the whole year the case went on (two of the accused were found guilty of harassment, the others were acquitted). Someone from AVP was always with me. I wanted to give something back to them, and I have been there for the last 20 years.
How impactful was STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), which was set up in 1970 to feed and house homeless queer youth?
Sylvia and Marsha (P. Johnson) founded STAR House. It was a youth center in the East Village for two years. There were not enough funds coming in, and it broke apart. The girls took the copper piping plumbing, sold it, and bought food for the street kids. Sylvia had that on her mind all the time, to help people. Marsha would say, “We have to be good to one other.” Those were her favorite words.
I used to call Sylvia, Rusty (Mae Moore) and Chelsea (Goodwin, who ran Transy House in Brooklyn from 1995 to 2008) to help girls who couldn’t find shelters. They did not once say no. They welcomed them with open arms.
In 1973, Sylvia gave her famous speech in Washington Square Park to Pride protesters, talking about trans people being raped and beaten, and being ignored by the gay community. “I will no longer put up with this shit.”
Sylvia went home slashed herself after that. Marsha found her, and took her to the hospital. Otherwise she’d have been dead. Sylvia felt the movement had abandoned her, and other trans people. She left the movement, and she moved to Westchester.
How were the rest of the marches that decade?
The marches during that time featured gay bars and clubs who rented out floats and buggies and horses. The second and third march were more organized. Gay bars, with mainly men, at that time sometimes wouldn’t let you in if you didn’t know someone, so we went to trans bars.
Did the mainstream movement become more trans-inclusive?
It got more inspirational, but trans people were still at the bottom of the barrel. Unless you do something out of the ordinary it’s still not as accepted that much. The mainstream movement sidelined us. I always speak my mind. Don’t tolerate us. accept us. I say that to heterosexual people too. Accept me just as I accept you. It’s acceptance, not toleration.
What do you think of the Trump administration?
That draft dodger who uses the excuse of heel spurs? If Marsha and Sylvia were around today, Marsha would ask what kind of heels he had been wearing. He’s a liar. The Russians have got something on him.
Today, they would be upfront marching with the rest of the crowd. Marsha seemed gullible, but she always knew what the prize was. She would give you that naiveté but always knowing what she wanted and how to get it. Sylvia was in your face and aggressive, where Marsha wasn’t. They made a good pair.
Tell me about your friendship with Sylvia.
Myself and Sylvia, we were enemies. You know how girls are! A friend of hers was seeing Frankie, so I was all pissed off about that. It was a rivalry. After I started with AVP, Sylvia and I became friends. When we first met after 25 years, it was at a meeting. She said, “I know you.” I said, “I know you too.” Just then a Marsha button popped off her blouse, and rolled over to my feet. A sister came and picked it up. Sylvia said, “Give it to her, she’s one of us.” Ever since then, we started working together for the community.
She became my best friend. I was with her at St. Vincent’s (the former New York hospital) the day before she died (in February 2002). I used to go at lunchtime. I was feeding her. She told me, “Victoria, sit down. I have to speak to you.” She called me “Victoria,” so I knew it was serious. She said, “You have to keep the community together because we can be our worst own enemy, and there’s power in numbers, and we do have the numbers with our allies.” And I said, “I’ll try.”
The next day I found out that Sylvia was dead. I really miss her. There was something supernatural in that Marsha button popping off, and Sylvia and I making amends and working together.
What are you proudest of?
I am most proud of my counseling work at AVP, around domestic violence, hate crime, rape, police misconduct, bias assaults, without and within the community. Also, the gratitude I get from old clients. When I see them they tell me, “You saved my life,” or “You gave me a roof over my head,” or “You gave me my self-esteem back.” To me, that’s reward enough.
I found that my life came to a standstill when I was in relationships. When I would break up I would move forward. Relationships got in the way of what I wanted to do, which was to be free and be an activist. When I was on my own, I went to college. When I was on my own, I worked. One relationship caused me to be a crack addict. Then I worked for AVP, and I progressed.
Aging is a process. You age gracefully. I’m still growing up. I hope what I am doing now will be my legacy as an activist and a person, working to ensure all marginalized persons are accepted as human beings. Trans rights are always human rights.
Do you think the trans movement has reached a positive turning point?
I think the trans movement has moved a little further forward, especially with shows like Pose. I can’t identify Caitlyn Jenner. She has never walked in my shoes, and I never walked in hers. I can’t identify with her because she’s always had what she wanted, whereas I had to hustle and struggle to get what I wanted—and work for it. It just didn’t come on a silver platter. Most of the girls have to work hard for it. Pose is brilliant, and reflects the lives of real trans women. Will & Grace and other shows are comedies. Pose is real life.
Are you optimistic about the future?
I am optimistic because I feel the movement coming now will be about change. Now it’s the youth and all races fighting these injustices. George Floyd’s killing was a 21st-century lynching. As long as there’s injustice, brown children being put in cages, people have to stand up for what is right. And this is all wrong.
How do you feel about Black Lives Matter, and Black Trans Lives Matter?
Fantastic. It’s time we bring these things out in the open, because the wider world doesn’t hear much about it. We only hear about it in our community. I know “all lives matter,” but picking on marginalized groups is a systemic thing in this country, and that system has to break down. We need to break it down.
You have done so much work and activism over the years.
In a way I am honored, and in a way I am humbled. We have won many battles, but the war keeps on with this administration.
What is your advice to younger activists?
Get educated—because once you’re educated, nobody can take that from you.
LOS ANGELES: Karla Jay
Karla Jay, author of Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation, was an early member of the Gay Liberation Front and a founding member of Radicalesbians. She helped organize the first Los Angeles Pride march—known as the Christopher Street West parade—on June 28, 1970.
How does this 50-year span of LGBTQ history feel?
It is kind of funny to think it was a mid-century ago. Sometimes it feels like that, sometimes it does seem like yesterday. It is quite strange. I think in terms of social history the progress in general we have made is extraordinary.
There were four of those first Pride marches in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco, with fewer than 10,000 people. Last year, there was an estimated 5 million people in New York City, attending or in the March. Now there are Prides in many countries around the world. That is an extraordinary development in the last 50 years.
You helped organize the LA march?
I helped plan some of the New York march, then went out to Los Angeles at the end of May to help them get ready too. The major obstacles to the marches were the police departments, which remains very relevant today. The police wouldn’t give us permits to march because they saw us as felons, who really shouldn’t be out on the street, let alone marching in broad daylight.
It was really very difficult for us to pull off these marches because police departments would throw up things like overtime, bail bonds, and huge sanitation bills which we couldn’t afford. In Los Angeles we raised $1,000 for bail money, which would have bailed out 10 people back then for “disturbing the peace.”
The then-police chief in Los Angeles, Edward M. Davis, tried to stop the march. He had refused to give us a permit, saying that if he did he would have to allow thieves and burglars to march the following week. He said we would “discommode” the public if we marched. (In a forthcoming interview, the Reverend Troy Perry, one of the key L.A. march organizers and founder of the Metropolitan Community Church, talks about having to take the police to court to get the march greenlit.)
The march was eventually allowed to go ahead. What was the day itself like?
We started out at McCadden Place, right off Hollywood Boulevard, and marched one mile to Hollywood and Vine. It was hot during the day, so we set off at 7 p.m. Most people in LA are not used to walking, let alone marching long distances, so we kept it short.
How was the atmosphere?
Really kind of amazing. We didn’t know what would happen. We encouraged people to come in festive clothing. A number of people came in Halloween costumes. It was really quite entertaining, and also served as a way to disguise the marchers. They were kind of tentative.
I walked with the Gay Liberation Front banner, and I liked to walk in the middle of the street in case people threw things. People used to throw bottles from the sidelines. But none of that happened in this particular march. There were people lined up, 10-deep, watching to the side. The atmosphere was extremely festive.
We were shouting, “Out of the closets, into the streets,” “2-4-6-8, How do you know your grandmother’s really straight?”—things like that. We used to sing a song, “If it was good enough for Sappho it was good enough for me,” although you could take Sappho’s name out and add whatever name you liked to the chorus.
Was it well attended?
A guy counted 1,169 people using one of those little counters. It probably wasn’t exactly accurate, but fairly accurate. We didn’t know we were making history. We were walking in the sunshine, showing our faces. And, in those days, we were risking losing a lot to do that: risking losing our apartments, homes, careers, you could be thrown out of school.
We knew that once we took that step over the starting line that we couldn’t go back. Not many people have taken a step like that. For so many people to say, “Here I am, look at me.” That was making history—to be visible. That’s the biggest challenge still. Every day there are so many people in our community who still invisible in various ways. If everyone came out, they (anti-LGBTQ politicians) wouldn’t be able to do to us what they’re doing today.
What are your strongest memories of the day itself?
I remember holding my breath, just as we stepped off on the march I didn’t know if people would cheer or boo. Suddenly I heard people cheering. I didn’t know if I was going to cry, I was so excited and breathless that people were cheering for us, for something that we had been hated for for our entire lives.
At that moment we knew we had made history. We didn’t know how many people would show up, certainly more than we expected.
Afterwards we went to bar called Satan’s and heard from the activist Morris Kight that activists including Troy Perry, who founded the Metropolitan Community Church, had gotten arrested. (Perry will speak about his arrest, his night in jail, and much more in his forthcoming interview with The Daily Beast.)
An argument ensued about whether we should go to the police station or wait to get them out in the morning as we would not be able to get them out at that hour. Finally, it turned into not quite a fight, but some people wanted Morris to shut up and poured beer over him. It was kind of like the wild west. One guy said to Morris, covered in beer, “Morris you’re all washed up.” That was our gay liberation night.
What happened in the morning?
They got out. Then we did a sit-in for 10 days at the Federal Building. Davis was looking for an excuse to arrest us, but the cops couldn’t arrest us because it was a federal plaza. We sat there for 10 grueling days trying to get civil rights and marriage equality. Some people were fasting.
Some protesters said they had met with police and gotten concessions. I don’t think they did, but sometimes people said that to stop something that had become fruitless with no winner. We got publicity and now it was the July 4th weekend, everyone was gone, and really it was time to go home.
This was 50 years ago. Has the LGBTQ movement delivered what you expected?
In some ways I never thought back then that we would have marriage equality. l remember one of the early Gay Liberation Front meetings in New York, where we sat in a circle and talked about what we wanted. One woman said she wanted to get married. We all laughed at her. We thought she was crazy. Back then we couldn’t even hold hands in public without getting beaten up.
We thought that was really “far out,” as we called it back then. We weren’t interested in marriage, imitating what we saw as heterosexual failed relationships. We really thought we as outlaws could change straight society. We used to say, “We’ll never go straight until you go gay.”
We had a more ambitious image of transforming heterosexual culture to be more androgynous and be able to give up on the idea of monogamy and the patriarchal system. Marriage hadn’t worked out so well for heterosexual people. We had a very different idea. It makes me very sad that we left out non-conforming people of all sorts.
The marriage equality movement threw gender non-conforming and trans people under the bus, and didn’t cherish people who wanted to live a different kind of life—people who wanted to live as single people or sleep with everyone in town or live as a “throuple.” We wanted to see what could be done, not to have what has already been done. That was our ambition then as radicals. I was a feminist, I certainly didn’t want a traditional coupledom.
What did you want, or still want?
I’d also like to see more protections for LGBTQ families, and in particular an end to violence against transgender women of color. It’s an epidemic. There were a lot of transgender women in the movement back then, and except for Sylvia (Rivera) and Marsha (P. Johnson) these women have been forgotten. That’s sad.
It’s disgraceful now to see some feminists attacking trans women, at a time when the right wing are attacking us. We should embrace one another. I fully support my trans brothers and sisters. I think to deny trans people their full humanity and right to exist is awful. I just don’t have strong enough words for LGB people and feminists spending their time attacking trans people in this political environment.
What should the LGBTQ movement do now?
One of the things we were adamant about back then was being intersectional, although we didn’t have that word. In 1969 and 1970, we formed alliances with the Black Panthers and other left-wing groups. Today, I would like for these organizations that are mostly focused on just the LGB community—and too little on the T—to think more broadly about really aligning in more meaningful ways with other organizations; really to mean it when they say that Black Lives Matter.
It’s easy to talk the talk but those organizations that don’t walk the walk need to step aside and let those from the POC and BIPOC communities to lead us. This is the next step.
How do you see the Trump administration’s LGBTQ animus, and importance of the November election?
I think this election is the most critical election we’ve ever faced. Trump has done incredible damage by appointing 200 federal judges to the courts. We can’t begin to fathom the amount of damage we’re facing going forward. If we don’t get Trump out of there and don’t flip the Senate, we are in for tremendous trouble in the future. I would have hoped for a better, stronger, more forward-thinking Democrat candidate, but I would be willing to vote for a cabbage over Trump if it were running.
NEW YORK CITY: Mark Segal
Mark Segal, then 18, participated in the Stonewall Riots in New York City, and was one of the original founders of the Gay Liberation Front. He was a marshal at the first New York Pride march—the Christopher Street Liberation Day March—in 1970. He is the founder and publisher of Philadelphia Gay News, and author of And Then I Danced: Traveling the Road to LGBT Equality.
What do you remember about that day in 1970?
For me, it’s one of the most memorable days of my life. There are few days you remember—my wedding first, of course, but this is up there because that day I knew would be the start of a substantial movement for equality. We had created something.
First had come Stonewall. From the ashes of Stonewall had come the Gay Liberation Front. The Gay Liberation Front changed everything for the LGBT community, or at that time the gay community, in terms of what it ever thought of itself and what we will be.
What was that era like?
There was no LGBT community before the Gay Liberation Front. The only places where LGBT people could go were private parties, or where they met in parks, or the few illegal gay bars there were and they were only in the major cities. And there were some small gay organizations like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, which did small demonstrations. They might have had meetings, but very few people showed up because they were scared the police would raid them.
At Stonewall, it was a riot. No one was expecting anything to come from it, with the exception of (activist) Marty Robinson. Three things about Stonewall stand out. First of course there was the violence of police. Personally I had never witnessed this before, and the police, and their behavior, represented the oppression each and every one of us had been going through our entire lives.
I remember standing across the street from the Stonewall and saying to myself, “This is 1969. Women, Black people and Latino people are fighting for their rights. What about us?” That moment was when I decided to devote my entire life to this movement.
You don’t think in the middle of a riot whether it will be historic. You think, “Will I be safe?” and there was also a lot of joy. Some of the depictions of Stonewall are false. While there were people throwing things at the bar and chaos, there was a sense of joy.
We were fighting back for the very first time, fighting as a unit, and there was power in numbers. There were a lot of people running around having fun. It was probably the most joyous riot you have ever seen, because the heavy weight of oppression lifted that night. We felt that that oppression was being lifted by our very actions.
What happened after the first night of rioting?
Somewhere during all this Marty Robinson (a noted gay activist, who died in 1992) came up and gave me a piece of chalk to write on the streets and walls up and down Christopher Street: “Christopher Street, Tomorrow Night.” That created the second night of Stonewall. On the third night, the people who later became the Gay Liberation Front were leafleting on the streets. That act of leafleting was an act of defiance because it was illegal for us to be doing it. We were literally saying to the police, “Screw you, you cannot stop us any more.”
Three weeks after the Riots came the first march that Martha Shelley and Marty Robinson organized. It was not a Pride march. It was from Washington Square Park to Christopher Street. This was against the police. We were saying, “Take back the streets.”
Remember, at this time there was no “gay community.” The only thing we had was taking back our streets and creating pride. Later the Gay Liberation Front created community. We created everything we could to help build an inclusive and diverse community. We created the first trans youth organizations, medical alerts, legal alerts; we created the first gay community center. We distributed newspapers on the streets.
And then the first march was created, a year to the day of the Riots.
The first march was to celebrate three things—to mark the occasion of Stonewall obviously; to celebrate the fact of our pride in what we had created and pride in ourselves; and the most important part of that pride: that we were out, loud, proud, and in your face. That’s called visibility. That’s what the march was all about.
How easy was it to organize the first march?
It was organized by the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We congregated at Seventh Avenue and Christopher Street. We marched down Christopher Street, then up Sixth Avenue to Sheep Meadow in Central Park.
We were leaving what was our ghetto to walk across town in public. Thousands of LGBT people had never done this before. We were defying the world to come after us. We didn’t know what was going to happen. We gave civil disobedience classes. I was a marshal. I didn’t know how many people would be brave enough to come with us. I didn’t know the magnitude of community we’d created that first year. On the morning-of, we thought a few hundred people might show up.
What’s your outstanding memory of that first New York march?
The area of Seventh and Christopher was so crowded it made lining people up very difficult. It was chaotic. It was an occasion overflowing with joy, seeing how many people were there.
I hadn’t realized how many people were there until I climbed a pole at 17th Street and looked back and could still see people coming out of Christopher Street. I felt a chill at that moment I don’t think I would ever have again in my life. At that moment I knew we had created a movement for equality that would exist for a long time. The LGBTQ rights movement is one the best export gifts America has given to the world.
How do you see the 50-year span of LGBTQ history since then?
If you look at just the United States we’ve come an incredible way. Remember, in 1969 I was an outlaw just because of who I was. Who would ever have thought that that kid standing outside the Stonewall at 18 years old would be invited by President Obama to dance with his husband at the White House (in 2014, at a White House Pride reception)? That’s huge.
Who would have thought we would have had a viable out presidential candidate, gays in the military, marriage equality, the recent non-discrimination-in-employment decision by the Supreme Court? These are all things we in the GLF laid the groundwork for. Everything we have in the LGBT community today is founded on the shoulders of the Gay Liberation Front.
Before the GLF, those activists had been very brave, but not been able to form a massive movement as we did. I blame the LGBT organizations that came after us for ignoring the trans community. If they had embraced trans people, we would be further down the line on trans issues. They are embracing transgender people and issues now, but it’s relatively recent and they have a long way to go in that area.
What do the Trump administration’s attacks, particularly on trans people, mean?
There will always be cycles in civil rights movements. I think we will survive Trump I don’t know if he will survive us. What I mean is history will record him as wrong. As far as trans rights go he will be considered the George Wallace standing in the doorway. Every single public opinion poll shows that the American public is far ahead of Trump and his administration. Trump is an outlier.
What advice do you have for the next generation of activists?
When there is an issue go to the streets. When there is an issue don’t be afraid of getting arrested. When there is an issue, do outrageous acts, but make sure they are non-violent. And during all of it, try and keep a little joy in your life.
You talk about joy a lot.
Joy is very important when dealing with a tough subject. During my 51 years of working on this, I always told those I have worked with in the allied community, or those I was trying to make allies, “This is going to be difficult for you. The only way to get through it is if we have some fun doing it.”
I have worked with governors, presidents, mayors, you name it. Some weren’t always friendly. You can only do that if you’re willing to talk and have communications and dialog. I don’t think someone will remain an enemy forever. I cannot express how many politicians were opposed to marriage equality who now embrace it fully.
NEW YORK CITY: Alston Green
Alston Green, 69, is a client of SAGE, the advocacy organization for LGBTQ elders. A creative consultant and fabric and graphic designer (including leading the design initiative for “Mahogany,” Hallmark’s African-American card brand), he lives in New York City, and attended the Christopher Street Liberation Day march in 1970.
What was the 1970 New York march like?
It was rather quiet. It didn’t have a parade permit. It wasn’t really huge. But the congregation that happened at Sheep Meadow in Central Park afterwards attracted a large crowd. I was 19 years old, and it was all kind of new to me, because I had only recently come out. I didn’t realize the full impact of what had happened at Stonewall. I grew up in Philadelphia, I had moved to New York City to go to school (Parsons School of Design) two months after the riots.
How did the march feel?
A combination of the celebratory and the political. There were a lot of hippies, and a lot of people were stoned. I was pretty political. The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam situation were at the top of my list.
At the time I could have been drafted. There was a lottery back then, but I wasn’t called to go. I knew people who had moved to Canada to avoid it. We had no business being in that war. It destroyed a lot of men, who either died or came back with PTSD, or drug addiction. It was a really awful, painful time, and we didn’t treat them right.
The first march was typical of that thing that happens with white gay men who wanted to exclude trans people—and they were the ones who helped start the riots! I think it’s wonderful they’re erecting those monuments to Sylvia (Rivera) and Marsha (P. Johnson). I’m not surprised Sylvia went off at the protesters in 1973. I don’t blame her.
I’m African-American. In that era the bar scene was very segregated. Several bars we could not get into—although the Stonewall itself accepted everybody. My first experiences of going out here were at parties attended by a consistent group of gay men—and a few lesbians, but not that many—in Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. We have all this technology now. Who knows how we did it back then, but we did it. We had our own little family.
The first bar that opened in Manhattan that welcomed people of color was a block away from the U.N. on the East side. At that time it was not really a mixed neighborhood. Then everything changed in the mid-’70s, the Village became very popular. The world was your oyster, it really was. You could really be, say, and do whatever you wanted. I was young, I didn’t go crazy, but I certainly enjoyed myself. I wasn’t out in my job at the time.
How has George Floyd’s killing, and everything that has come from it, affected you?
I was devastated when I saw the video. That is what we call a televised lynching. Listen to the last line of Gil Scott Heron’s 1971 song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”: “The revolution will be live.” What happened was awful, but I’m glad it inspired young people to get off their asses. I have been cynical about millennials, but it’s great to see them so involved.
What do you think when you consider that 50-year span of history?
It feels good to have helped us get to where we are now. We still have problems, but it’s good the movement is more diverse now. Where we are now is two steps forward, two steps back. I was sad to hear about the altercation at the Queer Liberation March at the weekend. I tell young people: it’s your turn now.
I also want young people to know about gay history. What we are seeing in this country is very disturbing and frightening. A lot of people don’t want to realize how the country is built. As people of color we know. We see it every day. White America is now being forced to look at the ugliness that built this country. This country was built on systemic racism. We have lived it every day of our lives as Black people. We know it. Slavery ended, and then the penal system was built for free labor.
What advice would you give to younger activists?
To know history. You need to understand history in order to be able to move forward. I’m not knocking young people. I 100 per cent didn’t feel it was important to me until I was 25/26. That’s when started I reading about the Mattachine Society. It’s important for all LGBTQ people to know their history.
How do you feel about the future?
My biggest disappointment right now is how impatient people are, and how many are not paying attention. I can’t believe so many people have a problem wearing masks, when they help save other people’s lives. My generation went through the AIDS crisis. We knew the importance of safer sex. A lot of people had difficulties with that.
I went to three or four funerals a week, which was too much for me to deal with. We were forced to learn how to take care of each other. We lost so many male leaders, lesbians stepped up to the plate. In the early 1980s everyone was burnt out from people dying. Drag became very popular. We became more comfortable with gender flexibility.
I’m optimistic. I hope the younger generation are learning from what is happening now. I can’t believe there are shows like Pose, featuring trans and non-binary people on TV. It’s pretty awesome to see. I never thought I would get to this point. I don’t watch RuPaul’s Drag Race, but so many straight people do!
SAN FRANCISCO: Peter Fiske
Peter Fiske is a Stonewall veteran, and has been an activist for over 50 years. He was at the first Gay Freedom Day march in San Francisco on June 27, 1970, and at the following day’s “Gay-In” picnic in Golden Gate Park. He is a Leather person, and “a proud ally for people of color, trans people, and Black Lives Matter.”
What happened on June 27 and 28, 1970, in San Francisco?
There was a parade on Saturday, and a picnic which we called a “gay-in” in Golden Gate Park on the Sunday. We called it Gay Freedom Day. It hadn’t really found the name “Pride” yet. I’m a Stonewall veteran, but I’m a veteran of the bar, not the Riots. It was my hangout in 1968 and 1969.
I had come to New York for seven-and-a-half months. I had taken a lot of drugs in San Francisco and wanted to clean myself up. I went to the Stonewall 50, 60 times, and I was in there three times when the police raided it in 1969. What I saw turned me into a lifelong activist.
What was it like being in the Stonewall when a police raid happened?
I was in there the last time the cops raided it before June 28, 1969. You’d get no notice of a raid. The first evidence was the music being turned off, and the lights turned on. It was about 1 in the morning when it happened that final time before Stonewall itself.
The cops would come in, and you would have to line up and show them your ID. If you were not wearing three items of clothing that matched what they deemed to be your gender, or if you were underage, you were arrested. They called us “queers” and “fags.” They were mean and bullying.
If your ID was OK, they let you leave, and the bar reopened afterwards. That last raid before the one the night of the riots, people were angry and muttering. Stonewall was a street bar. There were hustlers, street people, homeless people, poor people, and also suburban people, people of color, leather folks. I was one of them. I used to go there after going to the two leather bars New York had in those days.
You weren’t there for the riots themselves?
I left New York the Tuesday before the riots. I was not a very political gay person before what I saw at the Stonewall. I had drag queen friends, and was at the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco in 1966.
There was a lot of police brutality in San Francisco. It was not a tolerant city until the 1970s. That night at Compton’s, the cops beat everybody, the queens fought back, and a bunch were taken to jail. In those days, people’s names got printed in the newspaper. It was awful for them. That was part of the oppression.
When I came back to San Francisco after Stonewall, I went to GLF meetings. I didn’t get extremely politically active immediately. That came during the AIDS crisis.
After Stonewall, GLF expanded wildly in San Francisco. Gay people were moving into the Polk Street neighborhood, the first “gayborhood” in San Francisco; the Castro was still mixed back then. New bars were opening all the time.
How was the march?
A lot of people at the time were afraid to be in a gay march. I would say the crowd had around 800 to 1200 people on it, which was a lot. I was happily surprised when I got there. People had come out, dressed mostly hippie-ishly. It was very colorful. There were a lot of drag queens. People didn’t do drag in the streets normally. I wore a leather vest and leather chaps.
There were speakers at the march. The route started at Polk and Sutter, near to one of the biggest gay business of that time, the Town Squire, known as the Squire. We walked down Polk Street, and as the street got un-gayer and un-gayer, I thought there would be catcalls, but people waved. We walked all the way to North Beach, and had a picnic at Aquatic Park. Everyone smoked marijuana. The next day, in Golden Gate Park, there were a lot of drugs being done. I believe I took a small dose of LSD for that one.
What happened next in the city?
Suddenly the city seemed full of activists, and we were starting to find our way. I remember us picketing Pacific Bell who wouldn’t hire homosexuals. Eventually, the they gave in. The city changed throughout the 1970s.
By 1978, this little parade had become one with 3-400,000 people, marching against the Briggs Initiative, which was aimed at stopping LGBTQ people from teaching in Californian schools. Harvey Milk made his career fighting it. I knew him to say hello to. I used to see him and his then-partner Scott Smith at the bath-house.
I remember him being assassinated and the White Night Riots that followed (when his assassin, Dan White was given a lenient sentence). There was a lot of anger that day. Our march that afternoon snaked through the streets. We chanted, “He got away with murder. He got away with murder.” The demonstrators burned around 6 police cars; and the cops beat up patrons at some Castro gay bars in retaliation.
You also lived through the AIDS era in San Francisco.
AIDS brought me my partner and love of my life, Coulter Thomas. He was International Mr. Leather in 1983. We met in 1983 at an AIDS benefit. He was with someone else, and when that person died he moved to San Francisco, we got together. We had a wonderful time together for four and a half years, until, in September 1992, AIDS also took him away. He was the most beautiful man I ever saw in my life, and he was also a really kind and sweet man.
He introduced me to a group of friends who were transitioning from female to male, and I got to know them and they are still very close to me now. Because of that, later on, I campaigned to get the leather community and leather events to accept transgender men and women. It took a long time, but we did it.
Do you think mainstream gay activism has done enough for trans people?
I don’t think we have done enough. That’s why I am so glad to see so much going on with Black Lives Matter, and Trans Lives Matter and Black Trans Lives Matter. I’m still an activist. I was glad about the Supreme Court ruling.
The first and only time I was arrested was in 2009, when Proposition 8 (banning same-sex marriage in California) was ruled constitutional. (It was finally overturned in 2013.) There was a sit-down protest. Because of my age I was told I would be arrested with the clergy. When I was arrested and they pulled out plastic handcuffs, I joked I would prefer metal ones. My cop friends found that very funny. The charges were dropped the next day.
What does LGBTQ activism mean to you today?
I didn’t dream of marriage equality. In 1969, we were fighting not to be oppressed. That was what Stonewall was about. I think we have come further than I could have ever dreamed. There is still some way to go, of course. We’re not done yet. They could take it all way away again if the country continues to go down the dark road it’s been on for the last three years.
What advice would you give to young activists?
Sometimes you have to get angry to get action. Sometimes you have to demand rather than ask. And keep going. If you’re angry enough about it, channel that anger into creative action.
I’m proud to be part of the Stonewall generation of activists. I did it because we wanted the world to be better for the ones coming after me. I also did because I was damn angry, especially in the 1980s during the height of AIDS when the government didn’t just not care but it actively wanted us dead. We were frightened for a time they would put us in camps.
It’s been a long, wonderful road and I’m not going to stop. I can’t physically go to demonstrations for Black Lives Matter, but I would be there if I wasn’t at high risk for COVID. I have emphysema, I’m 75, and I have lung problems—chronic pulmonary disease. I can be there in spirit.
I’m so proud of the young right now. They have really done something that reminds me of the time around Stonewall and the time around the start of AIDS, and they’re doing it for LGBTQ people, women, people of color, trans people. And they’re confronting and exposing our own racist history.
You left San Francisco to move to Palm Springs?
Yes, in 2011. Palm Springs is gay leather heaven! Half the leather community in San Francisco has moved here. There are 3 bars, several clubs, and a couple of leather resorts. 40-50 per cent of the town is gay. It used to be Republican and racist until the 1990s, but that changed when the queers moved in.
NEW YORK CITY: Ellen Broidy
Ellen Broidy was an early member of the Gay Liberation Front. She was president of the NYU Student Homophile League, a founder of Radicalesbians, and, in fall 1969, presented the resolution creating the Christopher Street Liberation Day March at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations.
A Californian since 1971, she completed her doctorate in U.S. History at UC Irvine. She has worked as a librarian, faculty member, and Writing Specialist at UCI, UCLA, and UCSB. Ellen and her partner of 41 years live in Santa Barbara where she remains active in progressive causes, with a particular focus on racial and immigration justice.
What did you do to help make the march happen?
I was one of four people who wrote one of the initial statements saying we should have this kind of march. I made the proposal at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations on Nov. 2, 1969. (The statement, written by Broidy, Craig Rodwell, Fred Sergeant, Linda Rhodes, proposed there should be an annual march, the last Saturday in June, to mark the 1969 Riots, and not just in New York City but across America.)
We wanted it to be on the Saturday, but it ended up being Sunday. Chicago had theirs on the Saturday and beat New York. I was 23 when I made the proposal, 24 at the time of the march, and 74 now.
How was coming out for you?
All the struggles were in my head. They did not exist with family at all, which was quite unusual at that time. I was 23 when I finally told my mother that I was a lesbian. She looked across the table at me and said, “I’ve known since you were 6.” I said, “Why didn’t you tell me?” She said, “I didn’t think it was any of my business and you’d come to it on your own.” She’d been an activist all her life in civil rights, and worked at the National Urban League.
How was the march itself?
There was a great appetite to have one, and a cohesive group of activists looking to organize it. It took on a life of its own. Demonstrations in New York City are not easy to mount because of police and permits and all of that. There were thousands of people at the march, so it clearly hit a nerve. What Stonewall was was a moment. What GLF needed to do was turn that moment into a movement, and the June 1970 march was a pivotal turning point in that movement.
We did not call the march “Stonewall.” We called it the Christopher Street Liberation Day March. Talking about not what happened in the bar but on the street may be a difference without a distinction, but I think it’s important.
All those debates around who threw the first stone and pennies has taken on an interesting mythology of its own. But what happened in the street wasn’t mythology. And what happened with the march wasn’t either. It was tangible and real.
Did it feel like a moment in history?
Through my 24-year-old eyes it sure felt like a turning point, like we had joined the revolution, and not only joined the revolution but joined it in our own names which was significant. I’ve been disappointed until now these last 50 years because we were supposed to have a revolution.
I was gratified to see this year’s Dyke March in New York alongside Black Lives Matter. These revolutionary forces are coming together in a way that probably could not have happened 50 years ago.
Visually, what do you remember from the 1970 march in New York?
One really strong picture in my mind were the numbers of people looking out from their windows and fire escapes. We were calling out, “Off the sidewalks, into the streets.” And damn it, people did that.
What was your emotional trajectory that day?
“Trajectory” is a good word because I probably started off feeling a great deal of anxiety and trepidation. We had no idea whether the crowds were there to support us or do us harm. We had no idea what the reaction of the police would be—if something went amiss, would they let it happen, facilitate it, or intervene?
When I saw the crowd numbers, that trepidation and fear dissipated, and was replaced with a kind of elation. If someone was asked to describe me, “elation” would not be a word they would choose. I’m sort of dour. But that day I felt elation, great cheer and joy, just to be there.
How do you feel about the span of time since the first marches?
If you asked me this question last year at Stonewall 50, I probably would have given a somewhat negative response. This year, everything happening with Black Lives Matter feels much more positive. I had felt pretty negative for the last 49 years. In our youth—I was 24 years old at the time of the first Pride march—we really thought we were on the cusp of revolution. Before we had a word for it, we thought we knew something about intersectionality and crossing borders. But we all came together and what we ended up “doing” was Donald Trump.
Has the movement achieved what you hoped?
Marriage equality, serving in the military: as a member of GLF 50 years ago, these weren’t even on my list. But things like the recent anti-discrimination Supreme Court decision, yeah, that’s wonderful. I never served in the military. I married, and I’m very grateful that happened, but it was not something on my mind or the minds of my colleagues when we were marching in 1970.
As I have said before, we weren’t out for a piece of the pie, we were out to blow up the bakery. We were out to start the whole thing again.
What do you think of the LGBTQ movement now?
It has gone the way it needed to go which is not to say I necessarily recognize it. The issues are different. In some ways it’s far more dramatic because we’re dealing with the murders of trans women of color.
Our moment is over, although I do wish my younger colleagues have a stronger sense of history and they did not wake up one morning and invent the whole thing. They are standing on other people’s shoulders. But then, reflecting back, I was quite dismissive of the homophile movement that came before gay liberation. The only thing I regret is the sense that lesbians in some ways have disappeared from the face of the movement and I mourn that.
What has the movement achieved in the last 50 years?
What isn’t revolution is reform. Those are two pretty distinct concepts. We have a degree of equality, but we still don’t have liberation. We have equality as has been given to us by the courts. We are still not in a position of being a liberated community that can demand in its own name this and that.
This is reform, not revolution; and it’s a kind of equality, not liberation. The fact that the Supreme Court had to make that decision is clear that this is an equality that can be taken away and that is terrifying, as was the fact that the good citizens in the state of California were able to vote on my rights when it came to Proposition 8.
What’s your advice to the next generation of activists?
Keep doing it, keep on keeping on. Don’t let the pressure off. Don’t deny why you are in this movement. Keep going and then occasionally turn around and look over your shoulder and remember us.
Know your history. Acknowledge the fact that you did not invent this struggle. You can move it forward in new and important ways, but you didn’t invent it.
I say that with a great deal of self-criticism, given my own completely dismissive behavior towards the people who came before me, like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis, the mainstream homophile organizations of that time. And really they were incredibly brave people. They didn’t participate in the struggle in the way I thought they should have, but at 23 you think you know everything.
Do you think LGBTQ equality will ever be settled, or will always be a struggle?
You know what they say: freedom is a struggle. 50 years ago we thought this struggle was for lesbians and gay men. Now it’s lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people. I don’t see an end to any of these struggles, as much as I would like to see an end to white supremacy, heterosexism, homophobia, and racism. We have got to keep moving forward.
CHICAGO: Gary Chichester
Gary Chichester, 73, has provided more than 50 years of commitment and work to the LGBTQ communities—including marching in the inaugural Gay Liberation March of June 27, 1970.
In 1971, Chichester co-founded the Chicago Gay Alliance, which created Chicago’s first gay and lesbian community center. He has served on the Chicago Commission on Human Relations’ Advisory Council on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues, and sat on the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame Committee from its inception in 1991 (co-chairing it since 1992).
What do you remember about the planning of the march?
It was organized by Gay Liberation Front student group at the University of Chicago. A month or so prior to it, we created a symbol of two sets of male and female symbols under a proud fist.
Around 200 people participated. We wanted to march over to Michigan Avenue to show people there were angry queers around. We marched to Daley Plaza for a rally. The atmosphere was noisy, and jubilant for the most part. We shouted for people to come out of their closets and join us. Then we danced around as hippies did in the day.
I remember people’s jaws dropping. They had never seen anything like that. People in the march felt the same: a lot of them had never marched before.
Were you political before the march?
I had come from a conservative suburban background. Two years prior, we had the 1968 Democratic National Convention here. I spent weeks going to demonstrations, and saw the police beating up protesters. I was even hit by a teargas canister on Michigan Avenue.
In 1969, my then-partner Richard and I were at home one Saturday night, and got a call from a friend of Richard’s who was living in New York City, who said, “You’ll never guess what’s going on here,” and told us about the Stonewall Riots.
Groups like GLF started forming on Chicago campuses. There were social events and dances. Bars started allowing dancing. The vice department didn’t care; their attitude was “Get them off the streets.”
What was it like, being LGBTQ in Chicago at that time?
If you don’t have something, you don’t miss it when don’t have it. I was pretty open about my sexuality. It didn’t bother me to be gay, and I had a pretty good relationship with my family. But during the 1968 Convention the cops raided gay bars. There was a lot of street cruising. I spent a lot of time in a 24-hour restaurant drinking a lot of coffee. That’s how you met up with people. Some of the bigger bars were racist, and didn’t let Black gay people drink in them, but we eventually worked through that.
How do you see the last 50 years of LGBTQ history?
Knowing your history and heritage gives you power. I’ve been posting on Facebook throughout June about LGBTQ history, which people liked. I was mad because I came to New York City for the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, and there was so much, celebrating Sylvia (Rivera) and Marsha (P. Johnson) and events and exhibits. There wasn’t anything like that in Chicago, and it upset me. There was a memorial at the Stonewall commemorating the Pulse massacre, but Chicago didn’t touch on that.
What happened after the 1970 march?
I was part of the Chicago Gay Alliance. In 1971, we thought we should get a permit for the march. My signature is on the first permit given to an LGBTQ parade. You think people will say no, but I’ve found if you walk in and act like you know what you want, you get it. We got everything we wanted. The only thing we didn’t get was the approved closure of streets and removal of parked cars, so it was a little tight on the sidewalks in 1971.
I’m so happy Chicago elected Lori Lightfoot, our first African-American lesbian mayor. Pete Buttigieg is just down the road in Indiana. I never thought I’d see the day when a gay man would run for President of the United States.
What advice would you give younger activists today?
I really appreciate when the kids go out now. I think they need to know that what they have today wasn’t just here for them. There were a lot of people fighting to get where we are today, and a lot of fighting to go. Learn your history, learn your heritage. It’s where you’ll get your power from.
NEW YORK CITY: Martha Shelley
Martha Shelley, 76, was born in Brooklyn. She is one of the founders of the New York City chapter of the Gay Liberation Front, and author of numerous poems, essays, and a historical trilogy which takes place in the ancient Middle East. She also writes a blog.
What do you remember of the 1970 New York march?
That 1970 march was not the first march. I helped organize the one we did one month after Stonewall. We called it a protest march. There were around 400 people there. It was the first time people were prepared to step outside in the sunshine, and let the world know they were gay. I was scared before the march. I had been in Harlem when Martin Luther King was killed. I knew the government would have no hesitation in killing us, or beating the crap out of us and throw us in vans.
But once it started, I wasn’t scared. I was angry. We ended up in Christopher Park, opposite Stonewall. Marty Robinson made a speech. I made a speech, and asked people to leave peaceably, because this wasn’t an end, but a beginning and we would be back. And we were: as the Gay Liberation Front.
One of my memories of the 1970 march is that I was totally blown away by numbers. Whatever sexuality you were, you were part of us. We ended up in Central Park. It was a lovely, lovely afternoon.
Did that era feel like a turning point?
I knew it was a historical moment, but I didn’t know how fast it would spread.
I had passed by the Stonewall Riot on the Saturday night, and thought it was an anti-war demonstration. I knew we had to seize the day. I called the head of (lesbian activist group) the Daughters of Bilitis and said we should have a protest march. I had joined it as 1967, and served briefly as treasurer and president. I didn’t have skills to do that job, but I was articulate, so became its speaker because I was unafraid of speaking in public.
Where did that fearlessness come from?
I wasn’t brought up to be fearless. Some of my family were Holocaust survivors, some had emigrated before the Holocaust. I always asked myself what I would have done in Germany or Poland—if I had been a non-Jewish German or Pole—in that moment of history. Would I have had the courage to oppose to the regime, to fight back, to stand up for what I knew was right? That troubled me.
You can’t go back in history, so I knew at this moment this was something I had to do. I had been on anti-war protests and was very much aware of segregation. I was too young to have gone on the freedom marches in the South, but my mother had been sympathetic to all those movements.
Was she OK about you being gay?
No, she wanted me to be straight. It was the same with all the other stuff I did. She wanted me to be safe and protected—the idea of finding a man who makes a comfortable living, to be married. She was never comfortable with who I was, but she loved me. She had gone through poverty, the Depression, she never crossed a picket line. She had socialist principles. I learned early which side I was on.
What is the legacy of GLF? Did lesbians face sexism in it?
Very powerful. I don’t think the GLF was so sexist. I think there were an awful lot of men who were anti-sexist. The problem came up with dances. There would be mixed GLF dances, where sometimes straight men came and harassed and groped the women. The gay guys were too busy looking into each other’s eyes to do anything. We realized we needed all-women dances.
Personally, I think it was a mistake to split into so many different groups. GLF ended in 1972. If we could have maintained an umbrella organization, it might have lasted longer, but maybe it wouldn’t because how politics changed.
How do you feel about Pride’s growth over the years?
For a while I was really impressed with the participation. Then I got kind of disgusted with all the corporations who use Pride for advertising. Last year, I addressed both an event held by the organizers of the big march, then went on the first Queer Liberation March on Sunday.
The pressing issues for me now are climate change, and the concentration of wealth among the very few. Our rights—as LGBTQ people, as women, as Black people, as trans people—don’t mean anything if we cease to exist as a species, or if we have to work three jobs to make our rent.
Where do you think LGBTQ rights are now?
I think we’ve made some progress, but mostly in western countries. We’re not safe everywhere. There is an awful lot of rights people want to tale away, specifically Trump, Pence, and all their followers, and evangelicals. I have mixed feelings about the recent Supreme Court victory; on the one hand we can wipe the sweat off our brows, but on the other we don’t know long this will last, especially is Trump is re-elected. Or if he gets another chance to pick another Supreme Court justice.
We can’t rely on the courts. We need to be continually on our guard and ready to fight for our freedoms. There are always people who want to take it away. Intersectionality is not new. It started back in 1969/1970, when Gay Liberation Front members attended the Black Panther conference in Philadelphia and made alliances. I’m glad it’s continuing now.
What’s your advice for the next generation?
Don’t give up, and don’t expect that everything is going to be won in your lifetime. There is something that we say at Passover: “In every generation, there will be a pharaoh that arises to oppress us.” The corollary is that in every generation we have to fight back. It’s not won, once and for all.
I’m astonished at the progress we did make. I have benefited from marriage equality, but I am not terribly impressed by gays-in-the-military. I was never interested in going to Vietnam and killing Asian people to benefit our corporations. I don’t want my adopted children and grandchildren to be made to go to Iraq and kill more people to benefit more corporations. I want to get rid of the military, not serve in it.
Right now, because of my age and medical condition and my wife Sylvia’s age and her medical conditions we cannot go out, so I write my blog and do interviews like this. So, my other advice is to make connections with other oppressed people all around the world.
NEW YORK CITY: Joe Negrelli
Joe Negrelli is a former applications programmer, and longtime activist. He was present at the Stonewall Riots, and the first New York City march in 1970. He is a client of SAGE, the advocacy organization for LGBTQ elders.
You were at Stonewall, and also the first march?
Yes, I was 18 years of age in 1970. I had been at the Stonewall riots the year before. I was 17 at the time of the Stonewall Riots. I had lived in New York since 1957. I was very happy. It was a riot, tremendous civil disobedience.
I was very impressed, very happy, and a lot of the rioting was done by non-homosexuals who just understood that gay people had had enough. And it was that time in the history of New York when lots of groups—women’s liberation, Black liberation, anti-war anarchists—were all in the West Village area. They were very sympathetic and very kind to help gay people.
What do you remember of the riots?
I remember seeing the smashing of the plate glass window at the Stonewall, the garbage cans set on fire. All trash cans and bottles were made of glass then. Police barricaded themselves in the bar. Someone started a fire. Believe me, it was a small fire but it scared the police and I’m very happy it scared the police.
What was your mood like?
I was really enraged, very angry. I remember that there were about 50 to 75 people there at the beginning, and then by 4 a.m. there were at least a thousand people throughout the Village causing anarchy. Places that specifically discriminated against gay clientele were particularly targeted for vandalism.
In the 51 years since, the police haven’t figured out how to be nicer to people who they initiate hostility with. And that night the hostility came from police, not gay people. If it wasn’t for the police there wouldn’t have been a riot. If they had just arrested people there wouldn’t have been a riot, but they had to try and humiliate gay people
How was the first march a year later?
I was stunned. There had been homosexuals who had hidden out on the first three days of Stonewall. No one knew what would come from this thing. One year later homosexuals did get the message.
I was deeply moved by all the people who showed up. These are the people who hid the year before, afraid to lose their jobs, their apartments, their standing in the community. Now they were coming forward. I felt great deal of pride, and a great deal of liberation. At least, if nothing more, one year later people understood what we were talking about.
How do you feel about activism now?
Last Sunday I marched at the Reclaim Pride/Queer Liberation March, and I was exceedingly proud and happy, and proud of the young people. There were very few people my age there! I was really happy, and happy they were defiant.
I don’t agree with all they say. I agree with them about the corporations who make money off gay people and give very little. I’m unhappy about the exclusion of LGBTQ police officers. But I know that it’s complicated, and I’m proud of young people taking the initiative to get their voices heard.
I was happy about the recent Supreme Court ruling, but there are still some states where LGBTQ people are not so free and safe. We’re getting there. I still wear pink and yellow, and that’s how I want people to remember me—as bright and sunny, and not some bitter old queen like I used to meet 50 years ago.
What advice for young activists do you have?
I would like them to carry on the banner of what happened a few days ago. I would ask other gay people in other cities to be civilly disobedient towards the government. I should not have to beg for the right to live. I don’t not need your permission to breathe.
I am a human being and a citizen of this country. I’m not going to beg for that, or beg to get married, or have health insurance, or beg to have equality in the place I was born and raised. I’ve been in New York for 63 years. I have no reason to beg to be treated normally, like any other citizen.