Everywhere one turns this month the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot is being commemorated and celebrated. The series of spontaneous, violent demonstrations by disenfranchised queer people against a police raid in Greenwich Village, New York, in June 1969, is now considered the incident that sparked the modern lesbian and gay civil rights movement.
I was 16 in June 1969. A clueless kid who knew he was different, with no idea what that really meant. I never heard about them, not on television, not in history books, nothing. I don’t even remember when this event crept into my consciousness. And I certainly never dreamed that I would have crossed paths with so many activists over the intervening fifty years.
Chatting recently with a young woman working on the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, I mentioned that I’d met a few of the people she was historicizing. When she was obviously impressed, I realized that in my role as librarian, researcher, writer, and archivist, I was a bridge between these important pioneers, many of them now gone, and her generation.
I met most of these activists in my role as the founding Program Manager of the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian (now LGBTQIA) Center at the San Francisco Public Library. To celebrate the Center’s opening, renowned transgender scholar and activist Susan Stryker and I co-authored Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area. We included information Susan had recently uncovered about a riot at Compton’s Cafeteria in August 1966, documented in her award-winning film Screaming Queens, which brought attention to similar pre-Stonewall actions around the country. It had fallen to me to ask Armistead Maupin to contribute an introduction to Gay by the Bay, but my nervousness was unnecessary as the always-in-demand author charmingly obliged. Our paths crossed occasionally in the intervening years, before he and his handsome husband, Christopher, recently decamped to London.
Jim Hormel made history when, against considerable right wing opposition, he was named the first openly LGBTQ American ambassador, to Luxembourg. Jim was always supportive of me personally and professionally, and I was thrilled when a profile in the local paper depicted him peeking over the cover of Gay by the Bay. I learned a lot about the rest of his life by reading his fascinating memoir Fit to Serve: Reflections on a Secret Life, Private Struggle, and Public Battle to Become the First Openly Gay U.S. Ambassador.
In 2006 I attended the very first LGBTQ Archives, Libraries, Museums and Special Collections (ALMS) conference cohosted by the Quatrefoil Library and the Tretter Collection at the University of Minnesota. Among the many activities the international attendees were treated to, we were squired through the massive archives by the inveterate collector Jean Tretter himself. Minneapolis native Phil Willkie, founder of the James White Review, hosted a party where I met Frank Kameny and somehow ended up giving him a ride to the airport. At the time Frank was trying to find an archival repository for the protest picket signs reading “First Class Citizenship for Homosexuals” that he had hand-lettered and carried in 1965. I don’t think I fully understood how important he was to the movement, and how disappointed he was that no one seemed to understand the historical significance of his material. Through hard work and negotiations, he was able to see them persevered for posterity at the Smithsonian Institution. Years earlier I had become friends with Dick Hewetson, co-founder of Minneapolis’ pioneering Quatrefoil Library. The former minister moved to San Francisco where he encouraged the San Francisco Public Library to enhance its collections on atheism. During the ALMS Conference, Dick generously arranged for a friend to drive us all around Minneapolis and Saint Paul so that I could see the sights.
Over the years I spent a considerable amount of time with library activist Barbara Gittings and her partner, photographer Kay (Tobin) Lahusen, mostly at events related to the American Library Association. I was impressed with their commitment to the cause. They flew separately, they once told me: in case of a plane crash, the survivor would continue their important work. The last time I saw Barbara, we were on a panel together in Los Angeles, and she was not well. That didn’t stop her from doing her utmost to impart her considered perspective on the proceedings. Influential MCC minister Jim Mitulski and I once arranged for a historic reunion of Del Martin & Phyllis Lyon, co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis, with Barbara and Kay. There had been some bad blood back in the day, but this time these fierce little old ladies seemed glad to reunite.
I encountered the handsome and irascible Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, and his winsome partner, John Burnside, many times while working with the cadre of volunteers dedicated to ensuring his papers were preserved and made accessible at the Library. These included his biographer Stuart Timmons and radical faerie Joey Cain, among others. I also became good friends with John Gruber, the last surviving founding member of the Mattachine Society, the person who had covertly snapped the sole, now-famous, photograph of the group.
I never met Harvey Milk, but I visited the home he once shared with Scott Smith, and worked with his friends, including photographer Dan Nicoletta, to secure the Harvey Milk-Scott Smith Collection for the Hormel Center. After we included Danny’s work in Gay by the Bay, he and I became friends. As I did with Cathy Cade, Rich Gerharter and Chloe Atkins.
I have stories about Barbara Grier & Donna McBride, starting with a visit to the Naiad Press compound in Tallahassee, FL. Suffice it to say that Barbara was an important figure in promoting lesbian literature albeit quite cantankerous. I remember once sifting through one of the many boxes Barbara had sent, and almost tossed a lone salt shaker, until I realized it was the salt shaker used on the cover of Naiad’s reissue of Patricia Highsmith’s classic lesbian novel (using the pseudonym Clare Morgan) The Price of Salt. Tee Corinne, who designed many of Naiad’s covers, also became a friend while we were both involved with instigating a Queer Caucus at the College Art Association.
Other literary figures include Ann Bannon, the charming author of the Beebo Brinker Chronicles, who has over the years become a dear friend. She embraces her moniker of “Queen of the Pulps” as she reminisces in documentaries and on panels about her experiences in the early 1960s. Many women tell her that her books saved their lives by providing a road map to their sexual identity. I also befriended one of her male counterparts, the late Victor Banis, the prolific pioneering pulp writer who used many pseudonyms. When Katherine V. Forrest, beloved mystery and science fiction author, and I co-edited Love, Castro Street, we included a lovely reminiscence by Victor. I also became friends with Katherine’s pal, Michael Nava, author of the award-winning Henry Rios mysteries, who also contributed to the anthology.
In the 1990s on a visit to the ONE Institute I was introduced to W. Dorr Legg and Jim Kepner. I indirectly interacted with Morris Kight, when my partner-at-the-time’s artwork was accepted into a group exhibit, only to be nixed by Kight. Speaking of Southern California, I became friends with activist, author and therapist Betty Berzon and her partner Terry DeCrescenzo, ultimately contributing an essay about this power couple to an anthology about gay men and their divas. And I always enjoyed chatting with their good friends author and minister Malcolm Boyd and his life-partner, journalist, photographer, and therapist Mark Thompson.
Other names to drop: Allan Bérubé, the historian, activist, author of Coming Out Under Fire : The History of Gay Men and Women in World War Two. We would sometimes meet for coffee while he was at the SFPL doing extensive research for his next project. I admire FTM activist Jamison Green and remember fondly our time together on the Frameline screening committee, sometimes rolling our eyes as the elders in the group. I’d never heard of Peter Berlin when two friend separately said someone should make a documentary about the pioneering porn star. So I introduced Jim Tushinski and Lawrence Helman, who went on to co-produce That Man: Peter Berlin. There have been many others important figures, some of them still with us.
I’ve just read We are Everywhere: Protest, Power, and Pride in the History of Queer Liberation by Matthew Riemer and Leighton Brown. Unfamiliar with the relatively young authors’ @lgbt_history Instagram account, I was expecting a standard-issue coffee table book and was therefore surprised and delighted to discover that I’d never seen many of the photographs and the nuanced stories enhanced my understanding of the queer civil rights movement’s complicated path over the past five decades. This new book reminded me of the many losses and gains, fits and starts, how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go, in the struggle for our basic human rights.
It also reminded me of how many of these pioneers have enriched my own life.