There's something wonky and inappropriate about nearly every major protest event in history. The British inspired the Boston Tea Party because they wanted tax revenues to pay for battles they'd fought on behalf of their American colonies. When the French revolutionaries destroyed the Bastille, there were only seven prisoners in it, most of them aristocrats who came with pets, their own furniture, and hundreds of books. The Stonewall uprising protested a police raid on a Mafia-owned gay bar and dance spot that had no running water, where glasses were "washed" in filthy suds and reused, and which was "protected" by straight, extortionate Mafia goons.
But each of these uprisings came along at the right historical moment. Americans were fed up with taxation without representation. The French were protesting rising national debt, extremes in wealth and poverty, expensive foreign wars, and an autocratic government. And gays, who'd almost never resisted arrest, stood up for themselves at last.
There were many causes of this historic resistance. Throughout the early 1960s the city had shut down gay bars out of deference to tourists visiting the World's Fair, which was mainly designed to showcase American business; the power behind it was the Tammany Hall mayor Robert Wagner. But at the time of Stonewall, in that pre-internet age that was the main place for queers to meet, it seemed gay and lesbian bars were being left in peace. Everyone assumed Mayor John Lindsay was a nice guy because he looked like Kennedy.
The clientele of the Stonewall had gradually changed from white to black and Hispanic, kids who were used to fighting the cops. And then it was very hot outside. And Judy Garland, the Pasionara of gay men, had died on June 22, 1969, from a Seconal overdose at age forty-seven and lay in state in Manhattan's Frank E. Campbell funeral home. The Stonewall riots began June 28 at three in the morning. They went on for three days and at times the whole of Sheridan Square was cordoned off. Most important, the sexual revolution, Black Power, and antiVietnam War demonstrations had shown the efficacy of protest.
The United States had gradually shifted from espousing a morality of duty to a newfound yen for self-fulfillment. Gone or going were the days of sacrificing one's own pleasure for the sake of conventional values; typical of the sixties were "alternative" publications such as Screw
, which urged their readers to indulge their secret desires. The Kinsey Reports had already reassured people, straight and gay, how many adults had at least experimented with non-procreative sex—even kinky sex! Black Power had replaced the class analysis of the left with the race analysis of the civil rights movement. War protesters in the days of the universal obligatory male draft had inspired the majority to oppose a war we apparently couldn't win, that didn't serve our national interests, and that had become the "killing fields" of thousands of soldiers. And we were seeing how effective those protests could be. The burgeoning women's movement was showing that "sisterhood is powerful," a preview of coming attractions in our American dialogue. Women prisoners locked up in the Jefferson Market prison (since razed) were shouting down their encouragement to the Stonewall protesters resisting the police.
Many if not most historians would argue that major events such as gay liberation are not sudden but gradual, incremental; as someone who lived through Stonewall I would claim that the uprising was decisive. Although there were small gay-rights groups such as the Mattachine Society (which first met under the name of Society of Fools—mattacino
is the Italian word for a masked harlequin), most gay people (including this one) had hardly heard of them. Before Stonewall the prevailing theories of homosexuality—even among queers—were that we were sinners, criminals, or mentally ill. There was a certain moment at a gay cocktail party in the 1950s, for instance, when we would all put down our martinis and sigh, "Gosh, we're sick!" I spent some twenty years on the couch trying to go straight and was assured by my various shrinks that homosexuality was just a symptom of a deeper disorder (oppressive motherabsent father was a favorite, or being arrested in the "anal-aggressive stage"). Almost no one could see queerness as something along the normal spectrum of human (or animal) behavior. The Mormons were making deviant boys look at homoerotica and then submitting them to shock therapy. Priests were listening to tearful confessions before "consoling" their little sinners. Many Protestant sects were sending their homosexual minors to boot camp for "conversion therapy." Three states still ban all forms of sodomy (including oral and anal sex), even among heterosexuals; a 2003 Supreme Court decision decriminalized homosexuality even among consenting adults in fourteen states.
The Stonewall uprising changed attitudes, first among lesbian and gay people. In January 1970 I moved to Rome for six months, and when I came back cavernous gay dance clubs, complete with go-go boys in white towels under black light, had suddenly sprung up.
The Gay Academic Union started in 1973 and lasted four years. Gay political groups formed. Pride marches were held in scores of cities on the anniversary of Stonewall (as I write, we're approaching the fiftieth anniversary). Same-sex civil unions and then marriages were legalized. Openly lesbian and gay volunteers were accepted into the armed forces. In many places discrimination against lesbians and gays in the workplace and in housing became illegal.
These rights are precious and were hard-won by generations of activists. But the change in attitudes is parallel and nearly as important. I was engaged twice, hurt my fiancées, doubted all my impulses, feared a bitter and lonely old age (predicted on every side). Even today well-meaning heterosexuals lament that I'm considered a "gay author." (Would they be equally shocked by a Jewish or African American writer? Oh, no, sorry. Philip Roth and Toni Morrison are "universal" authors.) When I was a kid I knew very few gay couples, and no one would have sided with queers who wanted to adopt. When I worked for Time-Life from 1962 to 1970, I had to refer to my boyfriends as women; otherwise I would have been fired. My dad fired an employee because he was unmarried at thirty and wore cologne.
I suppose the horror stories bore everyone. I just want to finish with one observation: Because of the Stonewall uprising, people saw homosexuals no longer as criminals or sinners or mentally ill, but as something like members of a minority group. It was an oceanic change in thinking.
Twenty-five years ago, the New York Public Library presented the exhibition Becoming Visible: The Legacy of Stonewall
, curated by Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman, as well as an accompanying catalog. Planned to commemorate Stonewall 25, it was the first exhibition devoted to LGBTQ history by a major New York cultural institution. It had the highest attendance of any NYPL exhibition except the Dead Sea Scrolls. In my years working on LGBTQ collections at the library, I have had countless people tell me that the exhibition changed their lives because it was the first time they felt that their history was publicly embraced and treated with the seriousness it deserved. The exhibition was an opportunity to show the riches of the library's LGBTQ archives, which had then recently been acquired by farsighted curators in partnership with grassroots activists. Now with the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, the library is able to open those archives through this anthology to give contemporary readers insight into this pivotal era in LGBTQ history through firsthand accounts of the actual participants.
The Stonewall Inn, located at 53 Christopher Street in New York City, began as a teahouse, Bonnie's Stone Wall, in 1930, and later evolved into a restaurant. After a fire destroyed the interior in the early 1960s, the Stonewall was reopened by Fat Tony Lauria as a gay bar. Part of a network of Mafia-controlled, illegal gay clubs and after-hours joints in the Village (like the Bon Soir, the Tenth of Always, and Kooky's), the Stonewall was operated as a private club, rather than a publicly open bar, to evade the control of the State Liquor Authority. Every weekend patrons paid three dollars and signed the club register—often as Judy Garland or Donald Duck—to get into the Stonewall, drink watered-down liquor, and dance to the music of the Ronettes and the Shangri-Las. Despite the burnt interior, dirty glasses, and surly staff, the Stonewall—one of the few gay clubs in the Village where patrons could dance—drew a devoted young clientele. Many cross-dressed, wearing makeup or their own personal mix of men's and women's attire.
The police routinely raided the Stonewall, but the management, always mysteriously tipped off in advance, would turn up the lights to warn the crowd to stop any open displays of affection, slow dancing, or use of illicit drugs. According to most historians, the Stonewall's management bribed the police for protection, and the raids were merely for show. But on Tuesday, June 24, 1969, there was another kind of raid, organized by the NYPD's First Division, rather than the usual and local Sixth Precinct. When the club was back up and running a few days later, the police decided to go in again on Saturday, June 28, and shut it down for good.
The police were accustomed to handling a large gay crowd with only a handful of officers, but this night the raid went very differently. Rather than leave, a crowd of patrons and onlookers gathered in front of the bar and waited for their friends held inside to be released. When the police van came to take away those who had been arrested, the crowd fought back, forcing the police into the bar. The riot gathered force from onlookers, who turned on the barricaded bar with garbage cans and fire. The drag queens were said to have given the police both the fiercest resistance and a dose of humor, facing them down in a chorus line as they sang, "We are the Stonewall Girls . . ." The crowd was controlled and dispersed in the early hours of Saturday morning, only to reemerge later that night as several thousand people took to the streets chanting, "Gay power!" and "Liberate Christopher Street!" Riots and demonstrations continued throughout the following week. In the end, the arrests and damage were minimal. What shocked both gays and the straight establishment was that queers had openly fought back.
That is the story in a nutshell. Everything else has become the stuff of queer legend and debate. First, we cannot agree on what to call this series of events. Was it a "riot" or an "uprising"? The activists and reporters at the time called it a riot, eager to compare it to the many other historic riots of the 1960s, such as those against racial oppression in Watts, Newark, Detroit, and Harlem. Many later historians and critics have preferred to call it an uprising, insisting either that the level of violence and the size of the crowd did not warrant the use of the term riot
or, conversely, that calling it a riot denigrated the importance of the events. Stonewall is often marked as the beginning of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, but that is of course not true. LGBTQ people had been organizing politically since at least the 1950s, with the emergence of organizations such as the Mattachine Society, the Daughters of Bilitis, the Janus Society, the Society for Individual Rights, and the Erickson Educational Foundation. Although these organizations were small, there were chapters of the fledgling groups across the United States by the mid-1960s. These organizations had magazines and conventions, and even staged demonstrations at the Pentagon, the White House, and Philadelphia's Independence Hall. Some say that Stonewall was the first time LGBTQ people fought back, which is also not true. Stonewall was preceded by earlier queer revolts such as the Cooper Do-nuts Riot in Los Angeles in 1959, the Dewey's restaurant sit-in in Philadelphia in 1965, the Compton's Cafeteria Riot in San Francisco in 1966, and the protests against the raid of the Black Cat Tavern in Los Angeles in 1967, among many others. Scholars, participants, and the interested public also debate how many days the uprising lasted and who threw the first brick, the first bottle, or the first punch. And more, beyond any of these questions we wonder what these events that transpired fifty years ago mean to us today.
With all these contradictions, scholars and documentarians have struggled to sort out the truth. In his pioneering account, Stonewall
, historian Martin Duberman provides an inside view of the lead-up to and impact of the uprising through the lives of six LGBTQ activists. David Carter, in his thorough history, Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution
, painstakingly compares the testimony of eyewitnesses in order to reconstruct the events. They have been followed by numerous documentarians and everyday people who have tried to piece together what happened, why, and what it ultimately means for LGBTQ people and the world. Rather than provide another closed narrative of these tumultuous events, my purpose with this anthology has been to allow the reader to sort out these mysteries for themselves by reading the memoirs and testimony of the participants and those immediately touched by these historic events.
The anthology has been organized into three main sections: before, during, and after the Stonewall uprising. In the "Before Stonewall" section, I have attempted to provide a range of narratives that give insight into what it felt like to be LGBTQ in the 1950s and '60s, as well as give an inkling of the range of activism that was emerging across the country before the uprising. We have focused on but not limited ourselves to New York City. Given the tremendous range of stories, this selection cannot be representative, but only hopes to demonstrate a breadth of experiences and introduce some key LGBTQ political figures of the time, such as Barbara Gittings, Frank Kameny, and Del Martin, as well as some possibly less well-known figures such as Ernestine Eckstein and Mario Martino. There are many challenges to producing an anthology like this one, the first being copyright. So many LGBTQ texts of the midtwentieth century are in publishing limbo. The texts are protected by copyright but have no clear representation that can authorize republishing them. This is particularly true of LGBTQ magazines, which were the main avenue for communication and community building. But an even greater challenge has been the way the LGBTQ archives we have inherited have already been structured by the exclusion from the record of the voices of people of color. The movement's own choice of the Stonewall uprising as a symbol for LGBTQ struggles for liberation has in many ways skewed the story to focus on the experiences of urban gay white men. In this anthology, I have endeavored to shift the narrative to a wider context and to expand what does and doesn't count as a Stonewall memory.
In order to understand this era, we have to understand that the history of sexuality and gender does not follow an even and upward march of progress toward freedom. Throughout history there have been cycles of freedom and repression. Same-sex relationships were discreetly tolerated in nineteenth-century America in the form of romantic friendships, but the twentieth century brought increasing legal and medical regulation of homosexuality, which was considered a dangerous illness. At the same time, there was increasing societal awareness of and anxiety about transgender and gender-nonconforming people as gender-confirmation surgery became available. This change in attitude was accompanied by pockets of resistance, spaces that gays, lesbians, and transgender people carved out for their self-expression. Sometimes these spaces were hidden, like the bars in Greenwich Village and Harlem that were frequented only by those in the know. Sometimes they were in plain sight, like the homoerotic subtexts and in-jokes of Hollywood movies. The repression of homosexuality reached its peak in the 1950s with the McCarthy era. During the paranoia of the Cold War, gay men and lesbians were seen as a corrupt lurking menace, easily used as pawns by communists.
Gays and lesbians began to organize during the 1950s with the homophile movement but were hampered by the lack of a political language with which to express their experience, as they were neither a class nor an ethnicity but instead were considered victims of a moral and medical defect. The activists of this era fought for civil rights framed as inclusion in the society at large, focusing on employment rights and military service. As LGBTQ people struggled to organize and represent themselves, the United States was torn by a succession of political struggles—the African American civil rights movement, the women's movement, protests against the Vietnam War, and the emergence of the hippie youth subculture—that transformed the possibilities of political organizing in the United States. The narratives in this first section speak to this mix of repression and resistance, as well as the growing range of political forces inspiring LGBTQ communities.
In the second section, I attempt to provide the wide range of memories of the Stonewall uprising itself. Who exactly was and was not at the Stonewall uprising is probably the most debated question in both the scholarship and popular opinion. Even the eyewitnesses disagree about who was there. Given that the event took place over more than five days and involved thousands of people, we will probably never know definitively who was there. For this reason, I have not attempted to police these narratives. I have taken witnesses at their word that they were there. The section begins with the news reportage of the events: Mattachine activist Dick Leitsch's account, "The Hairpin Drop Heard Around the World," which ran in the New York Mattachine Newsletter
; and the reportage by Howard Smith and Lucian Truscott IV, which ran in the Village Voice
. These articles were key in framing the events for the public and appear to have structured participants' memories as well. There then follows a wide range of testimony about the uprising from possibly familiar figures such as Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Martin Boyce, and Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, as well as LGBTQ figures we might not realize were personally touched by the Stonewall uprising, such as Holly Woodlawn and Jayne County. In order to preserve the voices of the subjects, transcriptions remain faithful to the original interviews as much as possible, only correcting errors in spelling or punctuation in the transcriptions.
If the Stonewall uprising was not the beginning of LGBTQ political activism and not the first time LGBTQ people fought back against police repression, then why was it singled out as a defining moment in our history? The stories of the participants make it clear that it marked the convergence of homophile-era activism with the energy and vision of the civil rights, antiwar, and counterculture movements that were transforming the country. The patrons at the Stonewall weren't card-carrying Mattachine members. They were inspired by the many resistances to accepted authority that were taking place in the culture at large. Although the Stonewall uprising was spontaneous, it was used by both seasoned and new LGBTQ activists as a symbol of a new revolution. The small flames of resistance that LGBTQ activists had been tending and fanning for decades finally erupted into a mass political movement.
In the final section of this book, I provide a selection of personal accounts of the years following Stonewall and the tremendous explosion of activist energy that resulted from the uprising. I have included memoirs and manifestos by LGBTQ activists in New York City as well as in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Today's LGBTQ movement grew out of the activist organizations that emerged in the fertile and tumultuous year that followed Stonewall. Organizations such as the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, and the Radicalesbians quickly sprang up in the wake of the uprising and tackled LGBTQ activism in a whole new way. Rather than struggle merely for societal acceptance, they called for a complete transformation of the society as a whole, demanding not just equality but liberation. Veteran activists pursued their work with a renewed courage and tenacity, tackling oppressive institutions such as the psychiatric profession. The emerging political movements all sent small groups of activists on road trips to spread the word. Activists around the country were inspired by the emerging revolutionary vision in LGBTQ politics and quickly adopted its new language. Chapters sprang up across the country, and many outlived the original groups in New York City. These groups in turn fought for civil rights and liberation in their home communities. The 1970s became a gay and lesbian renaissance with its own literature, music, politics, and erotic presence. LGBTQ activists won major political victories, such as the removal of homosexuality from the American Psychiatric Association's classification of mental disorders, and began to apply public pressure to combat negative stereotypes.
The excitement and energy of the times are clear in these narratives, but it is also clear that the differences among LGBTQ experiences quickly became apparent in these new movements. Lesbian activists soon tired of the sexism of their gay male political colleagues. Transgender activists were inspired by the gay liberation movement, but many gender-essentialist lesbians and gay men attempted to silence them and push them out of the movement. African American, Latina/Latino, and Asian American activists critiqued the racism of the movement and sought to create new cultural spaces for LGBTQ people of color. Because the post-Stonewall political movements were inspired by anti-racist, feminist, and anti-imperialist politics, it was natural that these critical lenses would be used to analyze LGBTQ politics themselves. This era gave birth to political strategies, frameworks, critiques, and disagreements that continue to inform LGBTQ politics today.
Clearly understanding that they were making history, these activists also recognized the need to recover the hidden history of LGBTQ people. Among the many activist groups that worked to archive this history was the International Gay Information Center (IGIC), which grew out of the History Committee of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA). The IGIC archives operated as a community-based repository until 1988, when the organization's directors gave the collection to the New York Public Library. These archives, along with other archives and collections subsequently donated to the library, comprehensively document the political struggles in New York City since the 1950s and have made NYPL's one of the most important archives of LGBT history in the United States.
These NYPL archives have grown in the ensuing years to include the papers of pioneering activists such as Barbara Gittings, Kay Tobin Lahusen, Vito Russo, and Joseph Beam; the manuscripts of LGBTQ writers including Walt Whitman, May Sarton, and James Baldwin; as well as drag performers including Charles Pierce, Charles Busch, and Sylvester. The materials for this anthology, with two notable exceptions, have been drawn from this rich archive. The oral history archives of Eric Marcus have been an important resource for the anthology, providing the transcripts of interviews with Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Martin Boyce, Randy Wicker, and Morty Manford. Marcus's archive of interviews was assembled to support the writing of his book Making Gay History
and lives on as the Making Gay History
podcast. The library is currently partnering with the NYC Trans Oral History Project to document the lives of trans people in New York, which has made it possible to preserve and present the stories of Jay London Toole and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy. The archives of Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen provided the narratives of Gittings, as well as of Craig Rodwell. The rich research files of Martin Duberman supplied the narrative of Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, as well as many pointers. Lastly, the extensive book collection in the IGIC and the LGBT periodical collection provided the bulk of the materials.
When I first started working with the LGBTQ collections of the library, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was an early-career librarian who had chanced to be a part of the AIDS activist organization ACT UP, as well as the gay liberation movement the Radical Faeries. The library was beginning a fund-raising initiative to help promote and preserve these LGBTQ history collections and needed someone who could speak to their importance. In the ensuing years it has been my tremendous privilege to meet and work with several generations of pioneering LGBTQ activists, historians, and artists, some of whom are included in this book. I have been continually humbled and awed by their visionary courage. These are people who have literally changed our world. The most important lesson that I have hopefully learned working with these archives is that they are people's lives. They are not just boxes of papers and magazines; they are people's memories, hopes, and dreams that have been entrusted to us. It is my sincere hope that reading these stories will bring you closer to the generations of LGBTQ
activists who precede us and that it will help to fuel future struggles for liberation.
Caribbean American poet, scholar, activist, and librarian Audre Lorde was a pivotal figure in LGBTQ and feminist literature and politics in the 1970s and '80s. In this selection from her "biomythography"
Zami, Lorde remembers the challenges and loneliness of being a young, black lesbian in New York City's Village neighborhood in the 1950s.
From Zami: A New Spelling of My Name
I remember how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt. A lot of it was fine, feeling I had the truth and the light and the key, but a lot of it was purely hell.
There were no mothers, no sisters, no heroes. We had to do it alone, like our sister Amazons, the riders on the loneliest outposts of the kingdom of Dahomey. We, young and Black and fine and gay, sweated out our first heartbreaks with no school or office chums to share that confidence over lunch hour. Just as there were no rings to make tangible the reason for our happy secret smiles, there were no names nor reason given or shared for the tears that messed up the lab reports or the library bills.
We were good listeners, and never asked for double dates, but didn't we know the rules
? Why did we always seem to think friendships between women were important enough to care
about? Always we moved in a necessary remoteness that made "What did you do this weekend?" seem like an impertinent question. We discovered and explored our attention to women alone, sometimes in secret, sometimes in defiance, sometimes in little pockets that almost touched ("Why are those little Black girls always either whispering together or fighting?"), but always alone, against a greater aloneness. We did it cold turkey, and although it resulted in some pretty imaginative tough women when we survived, too many of us did not survive at all.
I remember Muff, who sat on the same seat in the same dark corner of the Pony Stable bar drinking the same gin year after year. One day she slipped off onto the floor and died of a stroke right there between the stools. We found out later her real name was Josephine.
During the fifties in the Village, I didn't know the few other Black women who were visibly gay at all well. Too often we found ourselves sleeping with the same white women. We recognized ourselves as exotic sister-outsiders who might gain little from banding together.
Perhaps our strength might lay in our fewness, our rarity. That was the way it was Downtown. And Uptown, meaning the land of Black people, seemed very far away and hostile territory.
Diane was fat, and Black, and beautiful, and knew it long before it became fashionable to think so. Her cruel tongue was used to great advantage, spilling out her devastatingly uninhibited wit to demolish anyone who came too close to her; that is, when she wasn't busy deflowering the neighborhood's resident virgins. One day I noticed her enormous bosom which matched my own and it felt quite comforting rather than competitive. It was clothed in a CCNY sweatshirt, and I realized in profound shock that someone else besides me in the Village gay-girl scene was a closet student at one of the Uptown (meaning past 14th Street) colleges. We would rather have died than mention classes, or tests, or any books other than those everyone else was discussing. This was the fifties and the gulf between the Village gay scene and the college crowd was sharper and far more acrimonious than any town-gown war.
There were not enough of us. But we surely tried. I remember thinking for a while that I was the only Black lesbian living in the Village, until I met Felicia. Felicia, with the face of a spoiled nun, skinny and sharp brown, sat on my sofa on Seventh Street, with her enormous eyelashes that curled back upon themselves twice. She was bringing me a pair of Siamese cats that had terrorized her junkie friends who were straight and lived on a houseboat with the two cats, until they brought their new baby home from the hospital and both cats went bananas back and forth all over the boat, jumping over everything including the box that the baby screamed in, because Siamese cats are very jealous. So, instead of drowning the cats, they gave them to Felicia, whom I ran into having a beer at the Bagatelle that night, and when Muriel mentioned I liked cats, Flee insisted on bringing them over to my house right then and there. She sat on my sofa with her box of cats and her curly eyelashes and I thought to myself, "if she must wear false eyelashes you'd think she'd make them less obviously false."
We soon decided that we were really sisters, which was much more than friends or buddies, particularly when we discovered while reminiscing about the bad days that we had gone to the same catholic school for six months in the first grade.
I remembered her as the tough little kid in 1939 who came into class in the middle of winter, disturbing our neat tight boredom and fear, bringing her own. Sister Mary of Perpetual Help seated her beside me because I had a seat to myself in the front row, being both bad-behaved and nearsighted. I remembered this skinny little kid who made my life hell. She pinched me all day long, all the time, until she vanished sometime around St. Swithin's Day, a godsent reward, I thought, for what, I couldn't imagine, but it almost turned me back to god and prayer again.
Felicia and I came to love each other very much, even though our physical relationship was confined to cuddling. We were both part of the "freaky" bunch of lesbians who weren't into role-playing, and who the butches and femmes, Black and white, disparaged with the term Ky-Ky, or AC/DC. Ky-Ky was the same name that was used for gay-girls who slept with johns for money. Prostitutes.
Flee loved to snuggle in bed, but sometimes she hurt my feelings by saying I had shaggy breasts. And too, besides, Flee and I were always finding ourselves in bed together with other people, usually white women.
Then I thought we were the only gay Black women in the world, or at least in the Village, which at the time was a state of mind extending all the way from river to river below 14th Street, and in pockets throughout the area still known as the Lower East Side.
I had heard tales from Flee and others about the proper Black ladies who came downtown on Friday nights after the last show at Small's Paradise to find a gay-girl to go muff diving with and bring her back up to Convent Avenue to sleep over while their husbands went hunting, fishing, golfing, or to an Alpha's weekend. But I only met one once, and her pressed hair and all too eagerly interested husband who had accompanied her this particular night to the Bagatelle, where I met her over a daiquiri and a pressed knee, turned me off completely. And this was pretty hard to do in those days because it seemed an eternity between warm beds in the cold mornings seven flights up on Seventh Street. So I told her that I never traveled above 23rd Street. I could have said 14th Street, but she had already found out that I went to college; therefore I thought 23rd was safe enough because CCNY Downtown was there. That was the last bastion of working-class academia allowed.
Downtown in the gay bars I was a closet student and an invisible Black. Uptown at Hunter I was a closet dyke and a general intruder. Maybe four people all together knew I wrote poetry, and I usually made it pretty easy for them to forget.
It was not that I didn't have friends, and good ones. There was a loose group of young lesbians, white except for Flee and I, who hung out together, apart from whatever piece of the straight world we each had a separate place in. We not only believed in the reality of sisterhood, that word which was to be so abused two decades later, but we also tried to put it into practice, with varying results. We all cared for and about each other, sometimes with more or less understanding, regardless of who was entangled with whom at any given time, and there was always a place to sleep and something to eat and a listening ear for anyone who wandered into the crew. And there was always somebody calling you on the telephone to interrupt the fantasies of suicide. That is as good a working definition of friend as most.
However imperfectly, we tried to build a community of sorts where we could, at the very least, survive within a world we correctly perceived to be hostile to us; we talked endlessly about how best to create that mutual support which twenty years later was being discussed in the women's movement as a brand-new concept. Lesbians were probably the only Black and white women in New York City in the fifties who were making any real attempt to communicate with each other; we learned lessons from each other, the values of which were not lessened by what we did not learn.
For both Flee and me, it seemed that loving women was something that other Black women just didn't do. And if they did, then it was in some fashion and in some place that was totally inaccessible to us, because we could never find them. Except for Saturday nights in the Bagatelle, where neither Flee nor I was stylish enough to be noticed.
(My straight Black girlfriends, like Jean and Crystal, either ignored my love for women, considered it interestingly avant-garde, or tolerated it as just another example of my craziness. It was allowable as long as it wasn't too obvious and didn't reflect upon them in any way. At least my being gay kept me from being a competitor for whatever men happened to be upon their horizons. It also made me much more reliable as a confidante. I never asked for anything more.)
But only on the full moon or every other Wednesday was I ever convinced that I really wanted it different. A bunch of us—maybe Nicky and Joan and I—would all be standing around having a beer at the Bagatelle, trying to decide whether to inch onto the postage-stamp dance floor for a slow intimate fish, garrison belt to pubis and rump to rump (but did we really want to get that excited after a long weekend with work tomorrow?), when I'd say sorry but I was tired and would have to leave now, which in reality meant I had an already late paper for english due the next day and needed to work on it all that night.
That didn't happen too often because I didn't go to the Bag very much. It was the most popular gay-girl's bar in the Village, but I hated beer, and besides the bouncer was always asking me for my ID to prove I was twenty-one, even though I was older than the other women with me. Of course "you can never tell with Colored people." And we would all rather die than have to discuss the fact that it was because I was Black, since, of course, gay people weren't racists. After all, didn't they know what it was like to be oppressed?
This excerpt ends on page 8 of the Penguin Paperback edition.