Gay / Lesbian

The Stonewall Riot - The Beginning of Gay Liberation (June 28, 1969)

Stonewall_uprisingWhen homosexuals and transvestites took to the streets of Greenwich Village in the wee hours of the morning on June 28, 1969 to protest constant harassment and mistreatment by the NYPD, I was 12 years old and living in Pittsburgh.  I was unaware of what was taking place - and who knows if the disturbance even received new coverage in the Steel City.  And even if it was reported, I wouldn't have understood much since at my age I didn't even know what a homosexual was.  (A few years later I'd learn a lot after sneak-reading my older sister's copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.  The author didn't provide a very positive lesson, but it was a start.)


Judy_garland_closeupThe only memory I have that has some connection to this seminal event was the death of Judy Garland the week before the riots.  I heard the news on the car radio as me and my family drove to church.  At the time my only association with her was as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and not as a gay icon.  Legend has it that her death was a contributing factor to the riot as her funeral was held earlier that day (a stifling hot Friday) and bar patrons weren't in the mood to once again be harassed by police.  However, this this link has since been more or less dismissed.


Supreme_court2Not to digress too much, but 17 years later I was living in the belly of the beast, the West Village, just a few minutes' walk from Stonewall.  On July 1, 1986 I participated in a sitdown protest that blocked traffic on Seventh Ave. South for an hour or so.  It was in response to the Supreme Court's decision (Bowers v Hardwick) upholding Georgia's sodomy law.  And so I had my own opportunity to participate in some civil disobedience. 


Getting back to the disturbance at Stonewall, an event that ignited the gay rights movement, the account that follows was provided by Liz Solomon, a former co-worker of mine, who grew up in Greenwich Village.  She kindly volunteered to recount her memories of that night.  Take it away Liz ...


First off, let me say that the thoughts and language of this mini-memoir are those of 1969, not 2013.  I cringe at some of the things we said and did back in those days.  But more importantly, I'm a firm believer in historical accuracy trumping political correctness.


It's important to understand that the West Village of 1969 was a very different place than it is today.  For one thing, it wasn't called the West Village, but rather "Downtown", "West Side", maybe "the Village".  Furthermore, it wasn't the home of celebrities, models - and especially not the rich.  It was a regular working class/lower middle class neighborhood with dock workers, butchers (the Meat Packing District actually processed meat back then!), truck drivers along with a scattering of white collar workers and government employees.




Greenwich_village1960sWe always knew there gay people interspersed in the neighborhood, but it had yet to take on the "gay ghetto" vibe that came later in the 1970's.  (When I was in high school and college, guys I dated from outside the neighborhood often gave me a hard time about walking me home when they learned where I lived because it might be bad for their "image" if the were spotted there!)  Did we welcome those of different orientations with open minds?  Much as I'd like to say yes, we were kids and it was 1969.  But it wasn't a matter of thinking that homosexuals were deviant.  No, they were just different, and there was getting to be more of them in OUR neighborhood and they were beginning to take over the docks after dark, previously the urban version of "lover's lane" for a neighborhood of frisky, hormonal teenagers. 


No doubt some of the local boys felt a bit uncomfortable or threatened by overt displays of homosexuality (not that they would admit it), but any harassment, name calling, or even occasional fisticuffs was really more a matter of "turf", not orientation, and would have been worse had the interlopers been from, say, 17th Street.   


Stonewall_riotWhich brings me to that last weekend of June 1969.  I admit I missed the first night entirely.  The police raid on the Stonewall Inn happened after 1AM and at the time I had a curfew so I was long home under lock and key.  The next day was Saturday and a family obligation kept me off the stoops and out of the loop until after dinner.  The minute I could, I broke away.  The air was buzzing with incredulous and somewhat amused chatter about how the gays actually fought back, throwing stuff, shouting about their rights and turning the tables on the police - at least for a while.


StonewallThis animated discussion continued as more and more kids joined the "hanging out" group.  Then someone suggested we walk over to Sheridan Square (two blocks away) to witness firsthand what was going on.  It was about 9:30 and, WOW, was it ever crowded with an agitated throng shouting previously unheard messages of gay pride and solidarity.  Cops were everywhere with their billy cubs in hand, ready to swing them.  The tension was beyond anything I could remember in my young life.  Anyway, we were just onlookers since this wasn't our fight.  Except that anyone starting trouble against our tormenters from the 6th Precinct, who enforced truancy laws and chased us off street corners, was officially OK in the neighborhood kids' book.  The enemy of our enemy was our friend, thus did some dispassionate teenagers get involved in the opening act of the battle for Gay Rights.


Stonewall_bookThe group I was with was pushed to the other side of Sheridan Square towards West 4th St.  Fires had been lit in garbage cans and there was considerable harassment (but restraint as well) on both sides.  There was a lot of shouting, and a few outright beatings but, alas, once again my curfew loomed (plus a small grace period) and I had to make my way to the safety of home a few blocks away.  Thus, my participation in civil disobedience, albeit in the periphery, came to an end.


Gay_liberation_buttonThe following year, on June 28, New York held its first Gay Pride Parade.  It began with a nervous group of a few hundred, but as the parade headed north from Greenwich Village more joined, and by the time the throng entered Central Park it had grown to 2,000 participants.  Since that day a number of other key moments in LGBT history have occurred in late June: the unfurling of the first rainbow flag at San Francisco's parade in 1978; the Supreme Court's striking down of the nation's sodomy laws in 2003; the debut of MTV's gay-themed cable network, LOGO, in 2005; the legalizing of same-sex marriage in New York State in 2011; and in 2013 the Supreme Court overturned DOMA.      

Mount St. Helens Blows Its Top (May 18-23, 1980)

Of all the natural disasters that wrack our planet, a volcanic eruption seems the most exotic, something I expect in the Andes or Pacific islands (or Pompeii) - but not in the U.S.  But on the morning of May 18, 1980 Mount St. Helens, a largely inactive volcano straddling the border of Oregon and Washington, erupted.  And although it was a frightening occurrence for those living in the Pacific Northwest, I don't think many of us living in the East appreciated how serious the eruption was.  One photo etched in my memory showed a young boy who had been asphyxiated lying face-up in the back of a pickup truck covered in ash.  In total, more than 60 people died from the eruption.   




Provincetown_postcardMy memory of the disaster is linked to my first visit to Provincetown, a largely gay resort at the tip of Cape Cod.  It was Memorial Day weekend and I drove there with my boyfriend Gordon.  We left from Poughkeepsie (he lived there and I took the train up from New York after work) and drove there on Friday night.  This holiday trip was memorable because it was the first time I tried marijuana - and it wasn't a pleasant experience. 


Pepperidgefarm_logoRather than smoke it Gordon put the pot in a Pepperidge Farm chocolate sandwich cookie (which I don't think they make anymore).  I became paranoid, which wasn't a nice feeling, especially in unfamiliar surroundings, and I remember thinking that two female friends of Gordon's were witches.  (Alas, because of how I reacted I never became a regular user.)  The trip back on Monday afternoon was stressful because of heavy traffic on the only road off the Cape.  Throughout the weekend the news reported on the effects of the eruption of the volcano.   




The Untimely Death of Andy Warhol (February 22, 1987)

Andywarhol Warhol soup cansFebruary 22, 1987 was an unusually social Sunday for me.  I spent the early part of the afternoon at a brunch in the West Village at the apartment of my friend Marc, a fellow I dated briefly the previous year.  (We met when he walked up behind me at Uncle Charlie's bar and snapped the back of my suspenders).  After brunch a group of us went to a mid-afternoon tea dance at a club in Chelsea called Tracks.  From there I taxied down to SoHo to attend a 5th anniversary celebration for GMHC (Gay Men's Health Crisis) held at the Puck Building.  That was followed by dinner at Taste of Tokyo and then a brief visit to the club Palladium on 14th St.


I didn't get home until late and when I sat down to watch the 11:00 news I was shocked to learn of Andy Warhol's death.  He died from complications after having simple gallbladder surgery.  He was just 58.  (Somewhat overlooked was the death on the same day of talk show host David Susskind.)  A contributing factor to his death was the fact that he put off the surgery for so long, which took a toll on his overall health (he was deathly afraid of hospitals.)


Andy warhol death - newspaper headline


I felt somewhat of a connection to Warhol because, like me, he grew up in Pittsburgh and was of Slovakian parentage (my maternal grandmother was born in Slovakia).  Seven years after his death, while I was in Pittsburgh to attend my father's funeral, I visited the newly opened Warhol Museum with my brother, his fiance and my two young nephews.  It was ironic that the museum (at the time the only one in the US devoted to one artist) was here because Warhol apparently was ashamed of his Pittsburgh roots.  And in present-day Pittsburgh, a number of Warhol's silk screen creations can be found in one of the concourses at the city's airport.


Warhol museum
Entrance to the Warhol Museum


Warhol at pittsburgh airport
Works of Warhol at Greater Pittsburgh International Airport


(Many books are available about Warhol's life and his body of work.  One in particular that got a lot of press when it was published in the early '90's was The Andy Warhol Diaries.)





The First Gulf War Begins (January 16, 1991)

1st_GulfWar_USAToday The evening the war began, Jan. 16, 1991, found me sitting at a "welcome" table in a meeting room at the Gay & Lesbian Community Center in Greenwich Village where the gay professionals group Out Professionals was holding its monthly meething.  I was treasurer and collecting the meeting fee when a member approached the desk at around 7:30 and excitedly tried telling me something.  However, because he had a pronounced stutter it took him a while to get out what he wanted to say - that the U.S. bombardment of Baghdad had begun.  (The guessing game as to when this would occur had been the week's #1 topic of conversation ever since Congress voted the previous weekend to give President Bush authority to go to war.)




Operation_desert_storm The following evening, a Thursday, found me at HMV Records on the Upper West Side where I had gone after leaving a work-related function at Tavern on the Green (both establishments are now out of business).  Instead of playing music over its speakers a radio broadcast was reporting the chilling news that Iraqi missles were being fired into Israel.  At this very early stage of the war I was feeling a bit uneasy, wondering what Saddam Hussein might have up his sleeve for our troops or here on U.S. soil (he had promised the "mother of all battles").  This feeling of unease was in stark contrast to the party-hearty lyrics of a very popular song playing on the airwaves at the time - Everybody Dance by C & C Music Company.  To this day whenever I hear the song memories of the war come to mind.


(One of George Clooney's earliest films, 1999's Three Kings, was inspired by the first Gulf War.  Other war related films include Jarhead, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Jamie Foxx, Courage Under Fire and Towelhead.)

Harvey Milk & San Francisco's Mayor Murdered (November 27, 1978)




November 1978 was a month like few others for the city of San Francisco.  On Nov. 7 voters in California rejected the anti-gay Briggs Initiative which would have banned the hiring of gay teachers.  It was an emotional victory for openly gay San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk who had put considerable energy campaigning against it.  Then a week-and-a-half later Jim Jones, leader of the People's Temple cult, forced more than 900 of his followers to commit suicide in their Jonestown settlement in the Venezuelan protectorate of Guayana.  Jones and many of the victims were from the Bay Area.


On Nov. 27, the Monday after Thanksgiving, disgruntled former city supervisor Dan White snuck into City Hall during the morning and shot dead mayor George Moscone (pictured, below with Milk) at point blank range and then walked down the hall and did the same to Milk.  In a somewhat bizarre coincidence, Moscone and Milk had a connection to Jim Jones, who a few years earlier was chairman of the San Francisco Housing Authority.




At the time I was in my senior year at Penn State University and in the early stages of coming out so Milk's murder was especially sobering for me.  Back than having an openly gay man in such a high profile government position was unheard of, compounding the loss.  In 2009 Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Milk in the movie Milk.  The film was based on the biography The Mayor of Castro St. - The Life & Times of Harvey Milk.    






Nuclear War Movie "The Day After" Airs (November 20, 1983)




ABC aired the chilling, and controversial, movie The Day After on the Sunday before Thanksgiving  in 1983.  It depicted a conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union that escalated into nuclear war, and the consequences suffered by a family living in Lawrence, Kansas after a nuclear bomb was dropped nearby.  I watched it with my ex-boyfriend Rick at his apartment. (We had broken up a few months earlier but would reconcile and move back in together a week before Christmas.)  I have to admit it was weird watching a movie depicting Armageddon just as the holiday season was getting underway.   




The movie (starring Jason Robards) had a grim storyline with no happy, or even hopeful, ending.  It was even more sobering because of real-life tensions that had been building between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the first Reagan administration.  Despite the fact that it was expected to attract a huge audience, the movie aired with limited commercials (and none after the missles were launched) as very few advertisers were willing to air in it.  This apprehension prevented ABC from charging high rates  for advertising time; therefore, the few advertisers who took advantage got extremely good deals.  One ad I remember seeing was for Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn.  I thought the juxtaposition of a nuclear blast and corn popping was amusing in a black humor sort of way.   




By the standards of today the special effects are quite cheesy and have a slap-dash look to them, but even today the five minutes showing the attack are sobering.  As expected, the movie delivered a huge 46 household rating/62 share, making it the highest rated TV movie of all time and 3rd highest rated program of the year (behind the final episode of M*A*S*H and the Super Bowl).  Soon afterwards a parade of TV movies with "socially relevant" storylines would follow, including Something About Amelia (incest); The Burning Bed (wife beating); and An Early Frost (AIDS). 


Upon the movie's conclusion a special episode of Nightline aired to discuss the movie with a studio audience.  I had seen enough and didn't need to immerse myself further in the grim subject so I walked home in the rain to my apartment in Manhattan's East 20s.  After what I had watched tonight I was looking forward to spending time with my family back in Pittsburgh for the Thanksgiving holiday.


New York City's First Big Blackout (November 9, 1965)

1965blackout_in_nyc I was in the 3rd grade and after dinner on the evening of November 9, 1965 I was doing homework in the living room with the radio playing in the background (my parents listened to the evening news on venerated Pittsburgh station KDKA while we ate dinner).  Mom and Dad were getting ready to leave for Parents' Night meetings at each of the schools my brother, sister and I attended.  That's when the news bulleltin came on about a massive power failure affecting New York City and the Northeast during evening rush hour. 


Lifemagazine_1965blackout Years later (as a resident of NYC) I was on a date when the conversation turned to our tastes in music, in particular, the Supremes.  My date told me that whenever he heard their song I Hear A Symphony it brought back memories of the Blackout of '65.  The song was being played on radio station WABC the evening of the blackout when the melody and voices became distorted as the turntable slowly wound down after losing power.  And my second memory of this date was that when we said goodnight he hugged me so hard (it came out of nowhere) that he broke one of my ribs.  Literally, a painful memory.





Bill Buckner's Error Gives Mets Incredible World Series Win (October 25, 1986)




October 25 was a Saturday evening and I had gone to the commitment ceremony for two lesbian friends, Helena and Diana, who lived on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  After the ceremony our party of fifteen hopped into taxis and went down to the Chinese restaurant Marvelous Mandarin in the East Village.  The entire night we followed Game 6 of the World Series between the Red Sox and Mets.  (By coincidence I had gone to the Mets' last game of the regular season with Helena and Diana.)  After dinner the gang was going to continue celebrating this happy occasion and go to a dance club, but I had a touch of a cold and was low on energy and decided to go home instead. 


When I left the restaurant shortly after midnight the Mets, who had come back twice to tie the game, had once again fallen behind.  It was now the bottom of the 10th inning, Boston was ahead 5-3 and there were two outs and the bases were empty.  I reconciled myself to the reality that the World Series was over and the Red Sox had finally broken their "curse".  Of course it was a disappointment, especially since the Mets had a 108-54 record during the regular season.  However, a few minutes after I began walking across town to my apartment in the West Village the streets exploded as if it was New Year's Eve.  Curious, I popped my head into a nearby bar and heard the unbelievable news that the Mets had come back to win the game after an easy ground ball hit by Mookie Wilson went through the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner!





The Mets went on to win Game 7 two days later, making them World Series champions, but after Game 6's amazing finish it was almost anti-climatic.  It was somewhat similar to the 1975 Series in which the Red Sox's Carlton Fisk's memorable home run in Game 6 is remembered more than the fact that Boston lost the Series the next day. 




(To further immerse yourself in the '86 World Series the 1986 Mets World Series Collector's Edition DVD is worth considering.) 




Remembering the Tragic, Shocking Death of Princess Diana (August 31, 1997)


Princess diana in pink


It was the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend 1997 and I was out at my summer share in Fire Island Pines, which is situated a few miles south of Long Island.  As my housemates and I were finishing dinner we became playful - as a group of eight gay men can easily do after a marvelous dinner and a few glasses of wine. For whatever reason we were inspired to try on some campy hats, feather boas and wigs that just were on the "wig wall" (just having a gay old time - literally!).  Eventually we got around to clearing the table and loading the dishwasher and then decided to go out to Sip'n Twirl, a dance bar in the harbor.  


It was well past midnight when we finally got our asses in gear and left the house for the 10-minute walk to the club.  We were making our way along the rickety boardwalk called Fire Island Boulevard when an acquaintance of one of our housemates walked by and said rather dismissively, "Oh, I guess you're going down to join the rest of the queens sobbing over Diana".  We didn't know what he was referring to (our house didn't have a TV) so he told us of the recent news bulletin reporting on Princess Diana's death in Paris in a high speed auto accident. 




Stunned, we returned home instead of continuing to the bar.  Since we didn't have a TV in the house it was actually somewhat of a relief because we weren't immersed in the news coverage that dominated the rest of the weekend. 



The following Saturday was Diana's funeral.  It aired beginning at around 4AM here in the U.S.  Once again I was out at FIP, but this time I had an opportunity to watch it at the house of a fellow from Cherry Grove who I had just begun dating.  However, I just wasn't in the mood to watch something so dispiriting.  Instead I borrowed a tape from a friend at work who taped it on his VCR and I watched it in fits and starts over the course of the following week.  A memory that sticks with me was seeing the hearse bearing Diana's casket with its windshield wipers slowly moving back & forth in order to clear flowers/bouquets being thrown at the vehicle by the millions lining the streets.  (Mother Teresa died the week leading to Diana's funeral but her death was somewhat overlooked.) 




The 2006 movie The Queen is about the British public's backlash when Queen Elizabeth failed to join her subjects in publicly mourning and commemorating Diana's death. (British actress Helen Mirren won an Oscar for her portrayal of the queen.)  






Richard Hatch Wins First Season of "Survivor" (August 23, 2000)

4ad9e10ea7a567a4_Survivor Newsweek_survivor cover storyAlthough I only occasionally watched the first season of CBS's Survivor, I was familiar with its contestants from "water cooler" conversations with colleagues at work, from what I read in Entertainment Weekly as well as a few amusing websites that dissected each episode ("TV Without Pity" was one of them).  The final four contestants were even featured on the cover of Newsweek.  This summer replacement series was wildly popular and regularly delivered an audience in the neighborhood of 25 million.  My contribution to the building excitement was coordinating a "guess the final rating" contest in my office at ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding.






I didn't get to see the final episode on Aug. 23, 2000 because I had tickets that evening to see The Music Man on Broadway.  However, after the performance my date and I read on the electronic ticker in Times Square that the $1 million winner was gay nudist Richard Hatch, who had prevailed over Kelly Wigglesworth.  In a classic moment from that episode, here is contestant Sue Hawk's "Snake & Rat" speech in which she coldly explains her vote for Hatch:  





David_janssen The telecast delivered a huge audience, especially for summertime, with nearly 60 million watching some portion of it (28.6 household rating/45 share).  This gigantic audience brought back memories of the final episode of The Fugitive which also aired in August (8/29) in 1967.  It had a 45.9 household rating, which was the highest rating for a TV series until the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode of Dallas in November 1980.  I remember it being on but it was my brother and sister who were giving the episode their undivided attention.  Although I was in the living room, as a 10-year old it was more or less background noise.


(If you have a yen to relive and own Season 1 of Survivor, click here.)