Politics

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_village_map

 

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.      


Kent State Shootings: 4 Dead in Ohio (May 4, 1970)

Kentstate_shootings It was a mild but sort of hazy Tuesday afternoon.  Rather than take the bus home from school (7th grade at Sto-Rox Middle School) I walked because I stopped off for a haircut.  When I got home I saw that morning's paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, on the hassock in the living room.  On the front page was a photo (now iconic) of an overwrought young woman kneeling over the body of a student shot dead at Kent State University by the Ohio National Guard.  The shootings occurred the day before during an anti-war demonstration protesting the US invasion of Cambodia at the end of April.  Guardsmen opened fire on students, killing four and wounding nine.  Although it was in neighboring Ohio, I had never heard of the university. 

 

 

Kentstate_victims
The four students who were shot dead

 

Perhaps because I was just 12 at the time (and somewhat preoccupied by the onset of puberty) I don't recall there being much talk about this incident among schoolmates or teachers, and at home we usually didn't discuss news events at the dinner table.  But the constant coverage of the Vietnam War was plenty worrisome for my parents since my brother, Darrell, was nearing draft age.  (A lasting memory of the war was hearing the weekly casualty report on the radio while I was getting ready for school.)  

 

Lifemagazine_kentstate

 

However, once the anti-war song Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young became popular during the summer the shootings had more resonance with me.  The song begins with the line: "Tin soldiers and Nixon's coming, we're finally on our own.  This summer I hear the drumming. Four dead in Ohio." (The CD Steal This Record provides a collection of some other notable protest songs from the 1960s).  By the time I turned 18 in 1975 the US was out of Vietnam (the fall of South Vietnam to the Communists occurred two weeks before my birthday) and teen boys were no longer required to register for the draft.

 

Ohio_nationalguard_kentstate

 


INS Takes Elian Gonzalez by Force, Reunites Him with Father (April 22, 2000)

Elian_gonzalez_time_coverI was visiting my mother in Pittsburgh for Easter in 2000 when little Elian Gonzalez was forcibly removed from his relatives' Miami home by an INS SWAT team.  6-year-old Elian had become an innocent, and adorable, political football ever since he was rescued from a piece of flotsam off the coast of Florida during Thanksgiving weekend in 1999.  He, his mother and twelve others set off from Cuba but their boat capsized and Elian was just one of three to survive (his mother died).  Elian's U.S. relatives wanted custody of him but his father in Cuba demanded his return - and he was backed by the U.S. judicial system.  The little boy's relatives, however, resisted and put up countless legal challenges.  Finally, having lost patience with the family's willful ignoring of court orders to turn him over, the Justice Department took action the day before Easter.  In the pre-dawn hours an INS SWAT team swiftly and forcibly removed Elian from the relatives' home in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood and reunited him with his father, who had been allowed into the U.S.

 

Elian_gonzalez

 

Justified as this action was, I found it a bit jarring coming as it did during Christianity's most sacred time of year.  And as we dyed Easter eggs it was hard to get the above image (seen on the front page of every newspaper) out of my mind.  A few months later, after more legal attempts by his unreasonable relatives were exhausted, he and his father quietly returned to Cuba.

 

From the time of this incident Florida has regularly been the center of various controversies.  Later that same year it was the focus of the disputed presidential election.  Then in 2002 Rosie O'Donnell brought attention to the state's gay adoption ban.  2005 saw the political grandstanding over the pulling of the plug on comatose Terri Schiavo.  After the nation's financial meltdown in 2008 Florida was one of the states hit hardest by foreclosures.  And then just a few months ago the Trayvon Martin shooting caused a nationwide uproar followed recently by a backlash by Cuban Americans after Ozzie Guillen, the new manager of the Miami Marlins baseball team, made pro-Castro comments.    

 

Hanging_chads_florida

 


President Reagan Survives Assassination Attempt by John Hinckley (March 30, 1981)

President_reagan_shot It was a gray, showery Monday afternoon and I was in a meeting in a conference room at my office, ad agency Scali McCabe Sloves, where I was a media planner on the Volvo auto account.  This was my first job out of college and I was coming up on my 2-year anniversary.  The last person to enter the room before the meeting started reported that President Reagan had been shot, but she had no further details. 

 

President_reagan_recovering I don't recall anyone acting overly concerned - I suppose we were a room full of Democrats.  And I wasn't alarmed over this news, perhaps because it seemed too shocking to comprehend something as bad as this happening so early in his presidency - and I thought back to the two attempts made on Gerald Ford's life which he survived (but no bullets hit him).  Also, I was still in disbelief that Reagan had been elected president, so I rationalized that if he didn't pull through Vice President George Bush would be more suitable.  But Reagan lived - the first president to survive after being struck by a bullet.

 

 

 

The biggest impact for me was that the Academy Awards were delayed one day out ofr respect fo the former actor.  (Up until 1999 the Oscars were handed out on a Monday night.) 

 

Dan_rather Reagan's shooting would be Dan Rather's first big news event since replacing Walter Cronkite as anchorman of the CBS Evening News three weeks earlier.  And at the end of the week my life became upended when my loft space in Tribeca was burglarized.  By coincidence, my friend Marina's apartment on the Upper East Side had been burglarized almost one year to the date of my burglary.  (Back then it seemed your first burglary was a right of passage when you lived in Manhattan.) 

 

I've written six other blog posts about U.S. presidents:

The Sudden Death of FDR

President Kennedy Assassinated

Nixon Resigns the Presidency

Carter Elected Over Ford

Gore vs. Bush: Too Close to Call

Barack Obama Elected President


The "Lindsay Snowstorm" (February 9-10, 1969)

Feb_10_1969_snowstorm I was 11 years old at the time and living in Pittsburgh - and greatly annoyed that we got hardly a snowflake from this snowstorm.  Meteorology was a new interest of mine and I didn't yet understand the dynamics of weather systems, e.g., East Coast storms often don't affect Western Pennsylvania because the Appalachian Mountains act as a barrier.  (As was the case with the post-Christmas blizzard in 2010.)  The 15.3" that fell on New York beginning Sunday, Feb. 9, 1969 brought the city to a virtual standstill for a number of days.  It was front page news in the Pittsburgh papers, and I eyed the photos enviously.  (Like the one to the right showing mostly foot traffic on 2nd Ave. near 45th St.)

 

This became known as the "Lindsay snowstorm" because New York's mayor John Lindsay (below) was blamed for not getting streets plowed quickly enough, especially in the borough of Queens.  It nearly cost him re-election later that year, but he won, running as an independent.  (10 years later a series of crippling snowstorms in Chicago was largely responsible for the defeat of its mayor.)  At the time it was the City's tenth biggest snowstorm - since then ten subsequent storms have had larger accumulations (through the winter of 2021). 

 

Johnlindsay_1969snowstorm

 

This snowstorm was the inspiration for two episodes of the sitcom That Girl (starring Marlo Thomas).  In a two-part storyline Ann and boyfriend Donald were stranded at JFK by the snowstorm after accompanying her parents to the airport.  This threatened a Broadway audition Ann had later that day - which she eventually did over the phone.  Later, Donald, a writer for the fictional Newsview Magazine, wrote a story about Ann's experience.  These episodes aired on ABC on October 30 and Nov. 6, 1969. (They are from the show's fourth season which is available on Amazon.)

 

That_Girl

 

To read about other New York snowstorms, please double click here for a recap I've written on my blog New York City Weather Archive.   And below are links to posts from this blog about other New York snowstorms:

April Blizzard Stops New York, Puts Spring on Hold (April 1982)

March 1993 "Storm of the Century" Immobilizes Eastern US

Blizzard of '96 Brings New York & Mid-Atlantic to a Halt (Jan. 1996)

New York's Biggest Snowstorm of All Time (Feb. 2006)

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President Clinton & OJ Simpson Share Center Stage (February 4, 1997)

1995_stateoftheunion_address The verdict in the civil suit brought against OJ Simpson for the wrongful deaths of his wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman coincided with President Clinton's State of the Union Address on the night of February 4, 1997 (the first of his second term).  Word that a verdict had been reached came shortly before 7PM but the reading of it was delayed for more than three hours until all interested parties arrived at the courthouse in Santa Monica. 

 

It was Tuesday night and I was preparing dinner after doing a weight workout at the gym.  Since both events were of high news value NBC resorted to a split screen to show both unfolding.  And although it seemed somewhat disrespectful to the President, truth be told, the verdict was largely the reason I switched on the TV.  Finally, at the conclusion of the President's address the verdict came in.  Reporters inside the courthouse signaled to the crowd gathered outside that the verdict was - guilty!  On one side of the split screen President Clinton was shown shaking hands while and on the other side a defeated Simpson was show leaving the courthouse followed by the triumphant Goldman and Brown families.  I let out a cheer.

 

Fred_Goldman_PeopleMag For me, this verdict took some of the sting out of the contentious not guilty verdict reached in the criminal trial in 1995.  Shortly afterward I called my friend Marina down in Baltimore to share the news.  She had passed the Maryland bar six months earlier so I asked her to explain why this type of suit could be filed after a verdict had already been rendered in the criminal case, in other words a do-over.  (I still don't understand the legal reasoning.)  Thus ended a tragic case that had been part of the nation's zeitgeist for nearly three years.  (However, it wasn't the last we'd hear from OJ.)

   


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 Mayor Murdered (November 27, 1978)

Harvey_milk_sfparade November 1978 was a month like few others for the city of San Francisco.  On November 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 November 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.

 

Harveymilk_georgemoscone

 

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.    

 

Mayor_of_castrostreet Seanpenn_harveymilk 

 


Remembering the Day President Kennedy Was Assassinated (November 22, 1963)

Jfk_jackie_in_dallas The assassination of President Kennedy is the first vivid memory I have of any historical event.  In the fall of 1963 I was six years old and in the First Grade at Fenton Elementary School in the Pittsburgh suburb of McKees Rocks.  Nov. 22 was a Friday and early that afternoon I had just returned to school after having lunch at home.  My classmates and I waited for our teacher, Mrs. Foley, to arrive but for some unknown reason we waited an unusually long time for her (this was too good to be true!).  Finally, she walked in and told us the news that the president had been shot and that we could go home.

 

Walter.cronkite-kennedy.assassination

 

It seemed fitting that the afternoon was overcast, which added to the somberness of my walk home (and Saturday would be dreary and rainy).  Although I was aware this was an awful event I don't recall feeling any strong emotions.  While waiting for my father to return from work I sat on the sofa in the living room and paged through my mother's December issue of Good Housekeeping that arrived in the mail earlier that afternoon (pictured).  On the cover was a little girl holding a large Santa lollipop.  Although its festive nature was incongruous with that day's tragedy, it was a nice escape for a young child.  And the next day my brother and I spent much of that rainy Saturday afternoon at the movies.


  Dec_1963_goodhousekeeping

 

Another thing I remember about this day was my surprise at the word "assassination", which I had never heard before.  Although I quickly learned its meaning, I found it somewhat amusing/shocking because it had the word "ass" in it - twice - yet everyone was saying it, which my six-year-old self found curious and amusing.  After all, back then words like that weren't spoken in polite company.

 

Just two days later the nation witnessed the shooting death of accused assassin, 25-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald on live TV.  It was just past noon and my family was eating Sunday lunch.  The TV was on in the background in the living room because my father, a football fanatic, insisted on watching the NFL game that was being broadcast.  The telecast was interrupted by coverage of Oswald being brought into police headquarters in Dallas.  As he was being walked in, surrounded by detectives, a man named Jack Ruby jumped out of the crowd and shot Oswald in the stomach.  I didn’t see the shooting because my seat at the dinner table was obstructed by a wall that blocked my view.  But I heard the commotion and saw the reaction of my parents.  This was very likely the most shocking event ever seen on live TV until 9/11 when millions saw the second plane (United Flight 175) crash into the south tower of the World Trade Center.

 

Lee_harvey_oswald

 

Because of these events, for a long time I viewed Dallas (and Texas in general) as an evil place, not unlike enemy territory such as Red China, and it took a long time for me to shake this feeling.

 

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, journalists Guy Russo and Harry Moses asked a cross-section of Americans to share their memories of that tragic day, and turned it into a book titled Where Were You? 

 

Where_were_you_book

 

 

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

TheDayAfter 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_day_after_bomb_strikeThe 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. 

 

 

 

Day_after_missles_launched 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.