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June 1st, 2007

GREENWICH VILLAGE – PAST, PRESENT & FUTURE: THE CRADLE OF GAY ACTIVISM

by Lawrence Pfeil Jr

stonewall-inn-69-hi-res.jpgWith its earliest roots as a Dutch hamlet in the first half of the seventeenth century, it wasn’t until its capture by the British in 1664 that the renamed Greenwich Village (Grin’wich to be exact) became independent of Manhattan, and was later recognized as an “official” village in 1712. Three centuries later it would attract progressive artists and writers, becoming an epicenter of Bohemian culture known for its avant garde art movements, radical politics, and alternative way of life. During its post-WWII bohemian hey day, a group lead by Marcel Duchamp even went so far as to declare it “The Independent Republic of Greenwich Village.”

So… it’s not surprising a place so fertile and fervent in ideas and intellect would become a hot bed for social awareness, justice, and change, and give birth to the largest civil rights movement in the history of the world. But on a sweltering night in late June 1969, police raided a mafia run underground gay bar on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village…and the world has never been the same.

nydailynews-1969-hi-res.jpgThe “accidental” heroes and heroines patronizing The Stonewall Inn that night had no idea when they stood up to police harassment and said, “enough!” that they were about to ignite The Stonewall Rebellion and found the gay civil rights movement. The “gay riots” in The Village went on for four nonconsecutive nights, and their effects and influence have circled the globe and are still present today.

As unbelievable as it may seem, the Stonewall Rebellion is arguably the most underreported revolutionary world event in history. There are no photographs or even a single piece of footage from the first night because the media viewed it as unimportant. It wasn’t until a week later that the NewYork Daily News would print the first “report” of the uprising in a brief item entitled, “Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Stinging Mad.”

As such, the only source material about these revolutionary events is the eyewitness accounts of those who were there. The Stonewall Veterans Association, founded byWilliamson Henderson in 1969 two weeks after the rebellion began, is the keeper of these varied, and many times conflicting, reports. But thirty-eight years, AIDS, Vietnam and even 9-11 have taken their toll on these personal accounts of the genesis of the LGBT community and many have been lost forever. Yet as time marches on, knowledge is sometimes gained in the most unexpected ways.

During Stonewall 25 in 1994, Jeremiah Newton, who joined the rebellion minutes after it began, had the opportunity to meet Seymour Pines, the police detective in charge of the raid on June 28, 1969. During that meeting it was revealed that, ironically, the reason for the raid that night had nothing to do with homosexuals. It had been planned in order to make an example of the Mafia owners of Stonewall, who were behind in their protection payoffs to the police. But the most chilling revelation was that the Stonewall Rebellion was nearly the Stonewall Massacre.

The crowd had forced the police to retreat and barricaded them inside Stonewall. According to Newton, “When we met, Pine told me the cops on the inside had broken the glass out of the boarded-up front window and had aimed their guns through cracks and holes in the plywood. If anyone saw the crowd outside with a lit Molotov cocktail, they had orders to open fire on us!”

Greenwich Village’s Stonewall “Club,” as it was called, was the center of the universe for gays and lesbians and arguably the very first gay community center. It was a safe place for them to socialize, make friends, and share information about what was going on in the “community.” But little has been done to recognize the place or the people who changed the world.

In honor of “Stonewall 30” on June 21, 1999, The Stonewall Inn was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the only gay and lesbian location on the list. But sadly, after 38 years there is still no monument or even marker to the Stonewall veterans who gave life to a community, a global civil rights movement, and nearly gave their own lives in the process.

No one present ‘in the beginning’ could have possibly imagined the explosive growth of the gay community or its tremendous strides for equality and justice worldwide. Nor could they have possibly imagined the horror that would befall it a little over a decade later when 41 men were diagnosed with “gay cancer.” The AIDS epidemic ravaged the community in the 1980’s, with gay men getting sick and dying at a terrifying rate and little hope or treatment in sight.

magenta-larry.jpgIn March of 1987, activist and writer Larry Kramer spoke at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center’s “Second Tuesday” lecture series, filling in for an ailing Nora Ephron. His angry and impassioned words were a clarion call to action and resulted in the formation that night of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACTUP. Less than two weeks later ACTUP held its massive and now historic March onWall Street and erupted on to the national stage and conscience refusing to be ignored, because “SILENCE = DEATH.”

News of ACTUP’s radical, creative activism and relentlessly militant tactics rapidly spread with every accomplishment. Through its efforts ACTUP changed public policy, accelerated the development of new drug therapies and forced pharmaceutical companies to lower prices, making medicines more accessible to those who needed them. Two decades later, ACTUP’s global record of achievement stands unparalleled in LGBT history.

On the second Tuesday in March 2007, Larry Kramer marked ACTUP’s founding and again spoke to an overflow audience in the same room in Greenwich Village where it all began twenty years before. Many in attendance had been there the first time and owed their lives to the accomplishments of ACTUP. Anniversary or not, anyone familiar with Larry Kramer knew better than to expect nostalgic contemplation or sweet sentimentality when he took the stage. Give Larry Kramer a microphone. . .and he’s going to use it!

For him the occasion was marked by fear and sadness – fear that the “heroic work” and accomplishments of ACTUP would be forgotten and sadness for the painful loss of so many of his “children” who “did not live to enjoy the benefits of their courage.” Arguably Larry Kramer’s greatest strength is his ability to ignite passions and incite others to action by transforming his fear, pain and grief into anger, and that’s what he did…again.

cathy-renna-and-larry-kramer.JPG“How could a population of gay people…who did all this, be so relatively useless now? Doesn’t anything make anyone angry?…I wish I could make all gay people everywhere accept this one fact I know to be an undisputed truth.We are hated. Haven’t enough of us died for all of us to believe this?…the old ACT UP we knew is no longer useful enough to the needs that we have now…We must field an organized army…a gay army with gay leaders fighting for gay people under a gay flag, against our common enemies!”

The palpable, kinetic, and fearless energy in the room at the conclusion of his speech was extraordinary. With long-time activist Ann Northrop facilitating, the gathering organized into committees and a demonstration was planned for Times Square, protesting General Peter Pace calling gays “immoral” less than two days earlier.

The “ACTUP Army” (as it was being called), converged on the military recruiting station in Times Square at high noon with protest posters, flags, bandanas, and a giant rainbow “ribbon” three feet wide and 75 feet long. The militia of more than 200, including former Governor of New Jersey, Jim McGreevy, chanted, “War is immoral! Gays are fabulous!” The spirited protest was covered by more than 20 mainstream media outlets as well as several gay bloggers, including one in the UK.

At the height of the demonstration, Mark Forman, Executive Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, head Rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (and recently named by Newsweek as one of the “Top 50 Rabbis in the US”) carried the giant rainbow ribbon across Seventh Avenue, bringing midtown traffic to a halt. Confiscating the ribbon, the police ordered them to leave the street immediately. Instead Forman and Kleinbaum sat down in an act of civil disobedience…and were then arrested and taken away to jail to the cheers of both protesters and bystanders alike.

But this new generation of activism has something its predecessors did not have…the power of the internet.Word of the new organization and its successful Times Square protest rapidly spread across the country and around the world.Within days, emails were received from as far west as Los Angeles and as far east as Paris, where an American gay youth was studying abroad, as well as places in between. Everyone was asking for the information and updates and if they could start local chapters of their own!

Is this the dawning of a new gay activism?We can only hope, and only time will tell…

But with the Stonewall and ACTUP veterans who have all gone on before us, and now surely watching over Greenwich Village, and with its rich history of giving birth to gay activist movements, well…like the man said, “the times they are a changing.”

MORE INFO:
www.stonewallvets.org
To see streaming video of Larry Kramer’s speech
or read the full text, go to…

www.gaycenter.org
www.actupny.org

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