Friday, June 24, 2011

The Origins of Gay Day

The Origins of Gay Day
28th There are many red-letter days on the calendar, but only one lavender-letter day, June 28th.
June 28th is the anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising here in NYC. (Commonly called the Stonewall Riots)
In honor of that, this Sunday the Heritage of Pride Parade will be held.
What does it commemorate?
On June 28th 1969, dare I say it, a seminal event occurred.

Cops entered a “homosexual hideaway” a bar called the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street (owned by the Gambino Crime Family) and as usual began to harass the Nancys and drag queens. But this night the gays were no fags*

(* The slur “fags” comes to us from merry, gay olde England.  Faggots were bundles of sticks used to start a fire. Oxford freshmen had the duty of keeping the fires lit in upperclassmen’s rooms. Eventually the freshmen were referred to as faggots. Likewise bundles of cigarettes got the English slang word fags attached to them.)

The gentlemen in heels fought back. Breaking beer bottles over cops' heads and giving them a good scratch or two. The ruckus spilled outside, other Village residents joined in the fight. The cops retreated back into the bar. Windows were broken. Some folks ran across the street to the Village Cigar shop and bought little cans of lighter-fluid poured that in the windows and tossed lit matches. The cops stood with guns drawn ready to shoot the next person who came through the door. At that moment their back up arrived and rescued them. Then a full-scale riot broke out in the street (there was rioting the next 3 nights.) This event was the Lexington & Concord of the Gay Liberation movement. The headline in the NY Daily News the next day read:


You can ascertain from the headline that it was still considered perfectly okay to publicly make fun of Gays.

Interesting sidebar...
Judy Garland was quite popular in the Gay community (LGBT if you prefer). As you might already know Fire Island is a summer vacation beach community just outside NY with a large gay population. Judy once quipped “all the flags on Fire Island will fly at half mast when I die.” In fact, she died 3 days before the Stonewall riots and her burial took place 8 hours before the riots began. Connection. You decide.

Why was the Stonewall Uprising considered so important?  In 1969, the non-straight community was expected suffer in silence.  Homosexuality was still officially considered a mental disorder by the medical community, as well as grounds for arrest in the law enforcement community. In the 1960's people were still being committed to mental institutions due to their homosexuality.

The Black Liberation movement was in full swing. The word “Women’s Liberation had just been coined. But homosexuals “homos” knew they could be arrested or have their professional license (Lawyer, Doctor, or hair stylist for that matter) revoked on the grounds of their homosexuality.  Don’t ask. Don’t tell. Don’t complain.

Because it was illegal to be gay, the mafia became involved.  Which is why they owned the Stonewall.  Homosexuality was a dirty, forbidden back alley business. Gay bars paid kickbacks to the police. 

When homosexuals were arrested in a bar raid they were supposed to throw their coat over their head to hide their identity and meekly step into the paddy wagon. But to the shock and surprise of the NYPD, NYC and the entire world, that night they refused to go quietly into the back of the bus.

And so, on that night the gay community found its voice and its furor.

It was a Rosa Parks moment art directed by John Waters. Gays in jeans and sneakers and wigs and heels said no.

There is a terrific documentary about the uprising archived on the PBS American Experience site with interviews of those inside the bar and out. It’s a much richer story than I can get into here. It’s definitely worth a watch.

Big Onion Walking tours is holding “Before Stonewall: A Gay & Lesbian History tour on Saturday.

From that night onward the gay community found itself and found its voice.It was the start of a whole new Civil Rights movement.

In 1970, on the first anniversary of the riots The Gay Liberation Front organized a march from Greenwich Village to Central Park. Remember at this time everything north of 14th street was Straightlandia. The Gays were ready to step out of the Gay Ghetto of the Village and march through Straight New York. Not to be outdone San Francisco held a “Gay In"

The Anthony Weiner float
In NY the march was called the Gay Liberation March.  In L.A. it was called Gay Freedom March. By the 1980’s there was more acceptance of the Gay community and the parade became less activist and switched its name to The Gay Pride parade.

And like most things in life, as time goes by folks tend to forget the origins of what they are celebrating.  Sometimes it seems marchers are taking more pride in their pecs than in the struggles of the folks who began the rebellion. But that’s life, gay or straight.

The parade goes all the way down 5th Ave to Washington Square Park. Then around the Village. Then turns into one big street party in the West Village.

This year the parade is being billed as “The Heritage of Pride” Parade.

It starts at noon at 5th Avenue and 36th Street and goes down Fifth to Christopher. There will be a moment of silence at 2pm. Followed by some wild partying on down. The city paints a lavender line down the middle of Fifth Avenue.

As my decidedly heterosexual, NYC police sergeant, father in law used to say: There’s a little lavender in all of us.  So come out and enjoy the parade.  I don’t mean come out, oh you know what I mean.

Enjoy the day. Remember the struggles of the original Village People.


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