Dancing in the Streets: Contested Public Spaces and the History of Queer Life

QUEERS THE world over reflect on the state of their movement every June, on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, when patrons of a Greenwich Village bar resisted a police raid and sparked a movement. Articles are written. Some celebrate; others demonstrate. Much of the debate centers on the successes and challenges of a movement that has aimed to establish a space for itself in the public commons, contested streets, and by extension the public sphere of ideas and debate. Queers ask whether the promise of Stonewall as a liberatory movement has been fulfilled, or if it has folded into the system, its dissent commodified like the annual Pride parade in New York City, with its ads for corporate sponsors like Bud Light. Others wonder, how can queer history inform our understanding of current struggles?

Multi-issue activists calling for a broadened understanding of human sexuality as a social justice issue constantly claim public space. So rather than simply integrate and assimilate, queer activists have spent the last four decades creating a consistent public presence (through actions, demonstrations, zaps, permitted and unpermitted parades) to ensure a diverse, open, and engaging public street of ideas, possibilities, and sexual self-determination.

The subtext of much of the discussion of the annual Pride parade is the uncertain meanings of queer history. “It’s all forgotten. Everyone’s gay movement began the day they joined the movement,” notes longtime activist Randolfe Wicker. In fact, queers had been lighting up the streets of the world for over a decade before the first brick was thrown in June 1969. In downtown Los Angeles, queers rioted in May 1958 after the police attempted to arrest a group at Cooper’s Donuts, long a late-night meeting place for hustlers, homosexuals, and street youth. “[T]wo cops ostensibly checking I.D., a routine harassment, arbitrarily picked up two hustlers, two queens, and a young man just cruising and led them out. As the cops packed the back of the squad car, one of the men objected, shouting that the car was illegally crowded,” recalled author John Rechy. “While the two cops switched around to force him in, the others scattered out of the car.” Onlookers poured out of the donut shop, throwing whatever they could get their hands on, forcing the police to retreat. “The police faced a barrage of coffee cups, spoons, trash. They fled into their car, called backups, and soon the street was bustling with disobedience. Gay people danced about the cars.” Eight years later in San Francisco, transgender patrons set off their own riot at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria when they were denied service.

A number of small but dedicated groups helped organize and disseminate information about queer life throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian organization in the United States, was founded in 1955, five years after the Mattachine Society. DOB published the first-ever American magazine for lesbians, The Ladder. ONE, Inc., a Mattachine offshoot founded in Los Angeles in 1952, also published a magazine, entitled ONE. Wicker joined Mattachine in 1958. “I was twenty and I had to lie to say I was twenty-one,” he recalls.

They had rented a fifth floor room, filled with clutter, on a tenement walk-up on 6th Avenue on 47th Street. These people had slaved away for weeks, clearing the area, building a little platform, setting up chairs, actually constructing a little meeting hall where people could come and give lectures. They would usually have lectures. One was by a guy named Leo Strauss. He was a lawyer. And when you got arrested in a tea-room, he would be the one who would come and defend you. He….was going to give a lecture called “Homosexuals and the Law.” And usually we would get twenty or thirty in a meeting and I said, “Why don’t we publicize it?” So I wrote a flier. It said, “Citizens, a lawyer discusses homosexuality and the law. Free admission. Public invited. Mattachine Society.” So I went out with these. Many wanted to put it up in their windows.

On the night of the talk, more than three hundred people, instead of the usual dozen, packed the place. The vice squad was there, too, and soon the group was evicted. Some were happy to see so many at a Mattachine event. Others were angry at Wicker for getting the group evicted. They did not want to make a public fuss. “Some said that if you went out on the street as a homosexual that you would get stoned or attacked on the spot.”

For many years, speaking out or being open in public involved a high degree of risk, including blackmail, loss of work or livelihood, and alienation from friends and family. Wicker saw these challenges as part of the struggle for self-determination for all people—sexual freedom for all. When a friend’s girlfriend needed an abortion, for instance, they had to induce it themselves. “I said to myself society is not just screwed up about homosexuals, society is screwed up about sex in general. She almost died. Well, that led me to the Sex Freedom League.” But with the risks of exposure so great, it seemed the gay movement was stagnating. “I thought, these queens will never come out of the bars.” Pre-Stonewall organizing for the queer movement was hindered by McCarthyism as well. Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, for example, had to distance himself from the movement because of his links with the Communist Party and his long history of labor organizing.

Organizing often begins with the stories—of both oppression and hopes for something better—people tell each other. In the process, both listeners and tellers can gain allies and strength as community takes shape. “In the Sex Freedom League, they had something they would call the Speakout,” says Wicker.

And I had the nerve to get up and say, “Right down this street, there is a bar that is run by mobsters. And it caters to the gay community. And the only way it can stay open is to pay off the police.” I said, “Homosexuals have the right to gather and drink like everyone else….Homosexual bars should be legal, open in public.” The crowd was 90 percent straight. To my surprise, I got a warm smattering of applause. No heckling….I suddenly realized that if you went out and talked to people in a way that was informed and rational, they were willing to enter a discussion. So that’s how I started discovering that you wouldn’t get murdered for going out and appearing.

Gradually, Wicker recognized that social change would take place through a media-filtered lens and storyline. Through direct action and media influence, Wicker helped the movement open public space and debate to queer voices, challenging predominant narratives of homosexuality as a disease.

[T]hey had these psychiatrists on WBAI [a listener-supported radio station]…They were saying that they could change any homosexual in just eight hours at $50.00 an hour. That’s what they were saying. I thought, these people don’t know anything about homosexuals. I went to WBAI and walked into the program director and said, “That program you had was an absolute outrage. They are out there fishing for clients and suckers….We can speak about homosexuality in a much more informed way than those jerks out there selling snake oil.”

The resulting panel, aired in the summer of 1962, was covered in the Herald Tribune, the New York Times, and Variety. “As a result of this,” says Wicker, “some conservatives went to the FCC and said, you’ve gotta revoke WBAI’s license. They’re putting perverts on the air. And the FCC ruled homosexuality is a legitimate subject for discussion on the airwaves.” Soon, “the phone was ringing off the hook at the Mattachine Society.” The media strategy brought many gays out of the closet and onto the airwaves. Next were the streets.

In 1964, Wicker recommended to the Sex Freedom League a picket at an induction center for the U.S. Army. “We went down there to the induction center on Whitehall Street (in Manhattan) on September the 19. Renee Cafiero, she was there with her lover. Craig Rodwell was there—twelve all told. Yet, not much press.” In subsequent years, the event was recognized as the first gay picket line.

The following year, Wicker organized another demonstration after hearing about Fidel Castro’s crackdown on homosexuality in Cuba. “The movement was divided over whether we should demonstrate or not.” Jack Nichols of the Washington, D.C. Mattachine Society, Wicker’s “biggest ally and my best friend….decided to demonstrate in the front of the White House one day earlier.” The demonstrations were broadened also to protest the lack of civil rights in the United States and garnered some publicity. Ten people showed up for the D.C. event and about twenty, including poet Allen Ginsberg, for the New York City one. The Mattachine Society address was published, and “suddenly, from all over the country, letters poured in.” At their peak the early demonstrations never had more than fifty-some people, but between the DOB and Mattachine newsletters, legal cases, the WBAI interview, and the street actions, queer visibility was on the upswing.

By the mid-1960s, the New York Mattachine Society was increasingly influenced by the civil rights movement, borrowing tactics as well as political understandings. In April of 1966, New York Mattachine members held a sip in to fight their exclusion from bars not under mob protection. They entered bars and announced, “We are homosexuals. We are orderly, we intend to remain orderly, and we are asking for service.” The first few sites went without incident. At the fourth site, they were refused service. The New York Times story was headlined, “3 Deviates Invite Exclusion by Bars.” The confrontation eventually led to a ruling that allowed homosexuals to be served in bars.

WITH THE Stonewall riots in 1969, the story line of the gay movement shifted from Mattachine-era calls for tolerance toward a defiant call for the total transformation of a society that harbored anti-sex attitudes, restricted sex roles, profited off of war, and institutionalized racial hierarchies. In the weeks after the June riots, gay activists adopted a new term for the movement—Gay Liberation—and sought to organize around a call for solidarity with movements for freedom taking place around the world.

By mid-July, a flier was plastered up around Greenwich Village that read, “DO YOU
THINK HOMOSEXUALS ARE REVOLTING? YOU BET YOUR SWEET ASS
WE ARE.” With that flier, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF) was born. The Gay Activist Alliance (GAA) would take shape out of GLF. While GLF lasted only a few months, its legacy would be lasting as a radical approach to multi-issue organizing for sexual freedom. The more focused GAA would last for nearly a decade.

The movement’s call for struggle against injustice anywhere echoed similar sentiments by Martin Luther King, Jr., and, in an earlier era, Eugene Debs. Others, however, rejected this universalist attitude and decided to take a different path. GLF members condemned the GAA as overly white and reformist, while the new GAA suggested that it had enough work to do just fighting homophobia. Mattachine Society founder Harry Hay worried that many gay groups were overly concerned with assimilating into mainstream society rather than continuing the struggle to dismantle the oppressive forces that furthered homophobia as well as exploitation. The conflict between assimilation and cultural transformation would continue in debates over the meaning of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender liberation for decades to come.

Throughout the early 1970s, gay liberationists borrowed from the playbook of such groups as Science for the People, seeking to disrupt the normal mechanisms of scientific knowledge production. They pushed, prodded, and interrupted meetings of the psychiatric profession until, in 1973, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) stopped categorizing homosexuality as a pathology. The rejection of narratives linking queer sexuality with pathology helped create a new self-understanding. For gay liberationists, it was a rationalized, clinical worldview that had consigned homosexual existence to the realm of mental illness. After Stonewall, this worldview was largely rejected (although many conservatives continue to hold it).

Over time, the movement expanded and in some cases commercialized. In 1976, Lionel Biron published an essay called “Capitalist Manifesto” in Gay Sunshine, in which he attacked the Advocate, a national gay magazine, for its blatantly consumerist approach. “During the past year the Advocate has been transformed into a show place of white, middle-class gay America,” he wrote. “Features on travel, fashion and entertainment suggest an affluent, carefree lifestyle in which Gay means little more than fun and chic….Editorial statements, lashing out at the gay liberation movement, have promoted a myopic gay politics whose sole end is the passage of gay civil rights legislation.” Rather than achieve protections only for gays, the point was to fight to create a better world for all. After all, Biron suggested, few could argue that “all will be well with gay America once anti-gay discrimination laws are enacted.” Instead of a single-issue politics, Biron noted, gay liberation took into account multiple, overlapping narratives of queer experience. To do otherwise was “an affront” to gay communities of color and to “all other minority group gays who must struggle against oppression on more than one front.” Yet by the late 1970s, the movement had jettisoned much of its radical edge for a more limited gay civil rights agenda.

In other circles, the radical promise of sexual freedom for all remained, particularly in the public sexual cultures created in the 1970s and even after the assault of the AIDS epidemic. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) merged its anger over the AIDS crisis with the legacy of gay liberation, wresting the gay movement from an assimilationist civil rights lobby. These activists brought to the AIDS struggle an understanding of how to use direct action to shift social mores, create power, and alter political story lines. The group’s 1989 Stonewall 20 rally clearly marked the link between AIDS and queer activism: members carried a banner reading, “The Tradition, Lesbians and Gay Men Fighting Back!!!” Marchers screamed, “Arrest us, just try it. Remember, Stonewall was a riot.”

With the silver anniversary of Stonewall in 1994, a rift emerged over meaning of the riot. Stonewall 25, the official organizing group, appeared to be dominated by a cadre of advocates who thought that the only thing wrong with gay life was that queers were not allowed to marry and serve in the military. This view ran counter to that of the multi-issue advocates of sexual freedom for all, who rankled at the post-rally party taking place on the USS Intrepid, a retired aircraft carrier. As Harry Hay recounted in his memoir Radically Gay, this was “a rift which may unravel, if not tear apart, much of what we’ve gained in this century.” While assimilationists planned a permitted march to celebrate and reinterpret much of this history, Hay and a radical branch from ACT UP called for an alternative march. A few days before the anniversary march, a group dubbed the “Spirit of Stonewall” held a press conference. There Hay “called upon the organizers of Stonewall 25 to reexamine the liberating principles of the celebration’s namesake, the Rebellion of 1969, and reminded them that the original Stonewall was a cry for full sexual freedom as a part of the struggle for social justice.”

The fissure in the movement produced any number of creative responses. When Brian Griffin, a veteran of ACT UP and Church Ladies for Choice, heard that the organizers of the official Stonewall march were downplaying drag, he reached out to the other Church Ladies for Choice as well as to the Radical Faeries, the group Hay helped found in 1979 in response to the increasing commercialization of the GLBT movement. The Friday before the anniversary weekend’s festivities, 6,000 people marched in various forms of drag, without a permit, from Tompkins Square Park across the city Stonewall. The following day, lesbians marched, by the thousand, in the second annual New York Dyke March, an unpermitted semi-topless rally. Both marches still take place every year, always highlighting an anti-assimilationist sentiment. In 2010, a group brought a sound system hitched to a bike, ushering in an impromptu street party after the drag march concluded. Drag queens danced on cars, just as gays danced on cars outside of Cooper’s Donuts five decades prior.

PERHAPS ONE of the most effective advocates for the legacy of Stonewall as a street rebellion was Sylvia Rivera, who died in 2002. Whenever Rivera spoke at a rally she linked her story with the story of the street youth who threw the first bricks during Stonewall. Formerly homeless herself, Rivera was acutely aware that young people, many kicked out by their families for their sexual orientation, needed a place to call home in a city that provides only 200 shelter beds for homeless youth. Some 40 percent of homeless youth in New York City are queer. This homelessness exposes them to any number of risks, including homophobic violence and HIV. For street youth, the struggle for a place to sleep and live didn’t end after the battle for liberation in 1969. For these youth, Rivera was a hero. She helped them understand Stonewall as a continuing call to arms for social outsiders to reclaim public space.

In the months after she died, attacks on queer youth of color increased in the West Village. Many complained that the “Quality of Life” policing begun under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani specifically targeted youth of color who hung out on the West Side Piers. FIERCE (Fabulous Individuals for Education, Radical, Community Empowerment), an advocacy group for homeless queer youth, countered the hyper-control of this space by holding rallies and speak-outs and stacking community board meetings to publicize their call for services rather than policing. They called for the city to keep the West Village a safe space for LGBTQ youth, to give priority to their needs, and to counter their displacement and criminalization. The aim was to ensure that the West Village remained a place that benefits all of the communities who live, work, and access the area. In doing so, the group became a constituency while struggling to democratize access to public space itself.

The policing of public space, especially the Christopher Street Pier, hadn’t abated over the years. In 2010, police placed a security tower on the pier where queer youth converge during Pride weekend. As the 2010 parade ended, those willing to pay a cover charge of $25 to $35 could stroll over to Pier 54, at 13th Street and the West Side Highway, for an after party. Meanwhile, queer youth of color not paying a cover charge were cordoned off from access, left to filter into the policed pier at Christopher Street.

This year, the pattern appears no different. In late May and early June, LGBTQ youth members of FIERCE and other LGBTQ youth of color have been targeted and harassed by the NYPD 6 Precinct in the West Village and Chelsea as part of yet another NYPD “Quality of Life” initiative. “Our communities often have experiences with the police that end with violence, harassment, and discrimination,” says Krystal Portalatin, FIERCE associate director.

The NYPD initiative, which is being implemented through increased police sweeps, stop-and-frisk practices, checkpoints, subway monitoring, and street floodlights and security towers, is targeting and intimidating LGBTQ youth, particularly youth of color, trans women of color, and homeless youth in the area. “I, and many other LGBTQ youth of color, call the West Village and FIERCE my home,” says Myra Aguirre, of FIERCE. “‘Cleaning up’ Christopher Street cannot come at the expense of our safety, and we refuse to be pushed out of one of the few safe spaces we still have.”

“What’s happening in the West Village is police harassment and part of a citywide trend of increased police violence that is largely impacting low-income and homeless queer people, especially people of color, youth, and immigrant communities,” adds Amber Hollibaugh, interim director of Queers for Economic Justice. On Tuesday, May 31, two plainclothes Detectives from the 6th Precinct stationed themselves in an unmarked car outside of 147 West 24th Street, the location of FIERCE, the Audre Lorde Project, Queers for Economic Justice, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project—four community-based organizations working with LGBTQ and homeless communities of color—a move that FIERCE and company decried as an attempt to “intimidate and question community members who are trying to access safety, receive life-saving support, and organize together.” In addition to the NYPD “Quality of Life” initiative, some resident and business groups in the West Village and Chelsea have petitioned for even more policing and organized protests against crucial services for low-income and homeless people.

Questions about visibility on the street remain. Although many queers feel free to show affection in public, violence and the threat of violence hover around public spaces. Gay bashings remain common, as does rape. And attacks on immigrants, streets youth, trans people, and social outsiders continue.

The stories of FIERCE and Sylvia Rivera, of Randy Wicker, Harry Hay, and so many others, are stories of the struggles for a queer public presence in a contested neoliberal city. This year, Wicker plans to make an appearance at the Drag March. The Church Ladies will be there to sing. Others participate in the annual Trans March. Another group is planning an event called, “Queerball, a radical street party.” The group’s call to action sums up the “Why” of the event:

Because it SUCKS (and not in a hot way) to not be represented, and to be misrepresented, by mainstream Pride celebrations.
Because we CAN’T BUY LIBERATION with corporate-sponsored Pride—but we can come together, dissent, and have rowdy fun for FREE.
Because we, too, get to make & TAKE UP SPACE for ourselves and our own politics.
Because we want space to BRING TOGETHER folks of many queer identities, rather than dividing and subdividing ourselves into segments or fighting over identity & territory.
Because it doesn’t get better until we MAKE it better.
Because we’re hot, we’re diverse and inclusive, and we’re gonna be SEEN & HEARD.

Queer groups will continue to make claims on public space for people who are different. Public space is vital—not only for its democratic value as an incubator of tolerance and as a stage for organized political action, but in its everyday role as a site for the social interaction that permits individuals to conceive of their participation in society. It is a barometer for the vitality of democratic public life.

Benjamin Shepard, PhD, teaches at City Tech/CUNY. He is the coauthor, with Greg Smithsimon, of The Beach Beneath the Streets: Contesting New York’s Public Spaces, SUNY Press, 2011, as well as Play, Creativity and Social Movements: If I Can’t Dance It’s Not My Revolution, Routledge, 2011.

Images: Gay Pride Parade NYC, 2009 (Dan Nguyen, Flickr cc); Rene Cafiero at first-ever public demonstration for gay rights (courtesy of Randolfe Wicker)

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