Monday, June 22, 2009

Forty Years Since Stonewall 1969-2009

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Stonewall as it appeared in 1969.


Stonewall celebrates the night some drag queens, and a lot of just plain young people, pissed off that the police were continually harassing them, took a stand and fought back after one too many raids on the old Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Soon, gays were not only fighting back, but coming out all over the nation. "The love that dare not speak its name" has not shut up since. ("The Love that dare not speak its name" is a phrase used by poet Lord Alfred Douglas to describe homosexuality. Douglas was lovers with Oscar Wilde. He coined the phrase in his poem Two Loves, in 1896.)

It was not, as he urban legend goes, a reaction to the death of Judy Garland earlier that week. That saddened a lot of comfortable closeted gays, but not the grass roots.

"The street kids faced death every day. They had nothing to lose. And they couldn't have cared less about Judy. We're talking about kids who were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. Judy Garland was the middle-aged darling of the middle-class gays. I get upset about this because it trivializes the whole thing."

-- from The Question of Equality: Lesbian and Gay Politics in America Since Stonewall, Scribner, 1995

The Stonewall protesters were not just drag queens, but an oppressed community finally saying enough was enough. The politeness of the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis was dropped, and the Gay Liberation Front spawned a host of new activist groups.


I stuck my big toe out of the closet back in 1959 when it was a pretty dangerous thing to do so. I was in the Navy, and got involved in a triangle with a sailor named Gerald and Duane a Marine, and soon the whole aircraft carrier - 1,000 sailors and 100 Marines - was buzzing with rumors and gossip. The officers on my ship, the USS Kearsarge, CVS 33 were having apoplexy because we were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with no port nearby. I was lucky they didn't throw me in the brig, but I was a very popular guy until the secret came out openly. The worst that happened was I was shunned and given the silent treatment. The chaplains were floored. I had been the ship's organist for services. The officers relied on me to decode secret messages about Russian submarines. They banned me from my working quarters while they figured out what to do.


Finally they summoned up one of their planes, loaded me aboard and shipped me off to Taiwan. I was quickly drummed out of the Navy, stripped of my uniforms, and sent home to hang my head with shame. That didn't last long. They had given me a General Discharge "under honorable conditions" which was another lucky break. I had spent some time with a couple of Ensigns and Lieutenant JG's too. Such a bad boy. The ship acquired a new name, "The Queer Barge" which stuck long after I was gone.

How I loved my sailor drag.


For a decade I lived the typical furtive gay life, straight by day at work but gay as a tree full of chickadees at night, hopping down to the Cha Cha Palace, our local gay dance bar in the basement of the Charles Playhouse in Boston where the Blue Men currently bang their drums nicely. Similar to Stonewall, it was a dive that was run by the mob connected, in this case the Vara Brothers, Henry and Carmen. They also owned The Punch Bowl and Jacques at that time.

Ah, the Cha Cha, it was the only place you could dance, boys with boys. girls with girls. Of course girls didn't have trouble dancing together, as long as it was innocent. But this was real dancing, with lots of grinding and smoochy face stuff as we jokingly called it. The club was unmarked, a simple door at street level, where someone kept watch for the Boston Vice Squad. You had to look "right" to gain admittance, and your first visit was usually facilitated by a friend who introduced you to the gatekeeper. You could then return alone. But the truth is gay people looked a lot different from plainclothes police even back then. We always had better taste in fashion.

Days of Wine, Roses and Regret.


Dancing did not go on every night, but just Thursdays as I recall. At least once a month the cops would raid the place, though the watchman usually was fast enough to throw a light switch to turn on the bare bulb above the dance floor to alert everyone. In a twinking of an eye all the queer boys changed partners with the dykes and it looked like a normal sock hop, only the girls had shorter hair, and the men often wore mascara.

This of course frustrated and confounded the police. So they would start checking ID's and anyone without proof of age, or missing identification was hauled off to appear in front of the horrific judge Elijah Adlow in the Boston Municipal Court after a sobering night in jail. Names were often printed in the local papers, especially the rag called Midnight, which was the scandal tabloid of the period. Careers were destroyed, lives were ruined. It was harassment, plain and simple and it was hard for many people to venture out of their lifelong closets.

Tom of Finland was an artist who helped reinforce gay masculine and military stereotypes. His work lives on.

I was never arrested, but I did get a call from an NIS investigator one day demanding that I testify against an old friend from my teenage days who was now in the Navy. They had connected to me via some rather telling letters I had written, and he stowed away in his locker. They tracked me down with the help of the Boston police. Nothing was private back then, especially in the military. I had to hire a lawyer to prevent them from grilling me about the gay scene in Boston and subjecting me to a polygraph test, not to mention losing my job, not that it was so great back in those days. But it scared the hell out of me, and accounts for my lifelong hostility for the "moral guardians" who still keep watch, albeit fairly toothlessly these days.

When was the last time you saw a rainbow flag in the Berkshires? Don't they want our business?


What happened at Stonewall empowered those of us in Boston to also push back at the police and the corruption that was behind most of these "raids" on gay people. The city's licensing board continued to harass the gay bars in any way they could, thereby keeping them in the hands of operators like the Varas. Funny thing is, the Varas always treated the gays right, keeping the drink prices reasonable, and defending those present from any straight interlopers intent on bashing a few gays. There were baseball bats behind the bars for such intruders though I only saw them picked up once, as a threat. The bashers quickly left the premises, and when followed out the door by the bouncers, left the Bay Village neighborhood. This area where the bars were located was pretty free of open hostility, especially since some of the clubs like the old Napoleon and Phil Bayonne's 12 Carver were located on dimly lit side streets. How I miss seeing that large man sitting on a swing hung over the bar, singing "The Old Apple Tree."


I suspect the standard disapproval of gays and lesbians in distant years past is one reason that no gay bars flourished in the Berkshires, and the residual veil of silence continues to discourage gay people from remaining here. The Berkshires seem to be a sort of Don't Ask Don't Tell kind of place. It is one reason that the Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition exists, to help us find each other. This blog tries to further support that effort by pinpointing events and places we can enjoy, both as lesbians and gays, and as members of the larger Berkshire community. The cultural and outdoor activities seem to be the most welcoming. Progress is incremental.

The infamous Punch Bowl was the major destination in Boston in the 1960's. To close it down, they had to take it by eminent domain to build U. Mass. Boston. A surprising number of gay men developed into full blown alcoholics due to the emphasis on the bar scene. In later years we met up again at AA meetings.


" Henry (Vara) specializes in sleaze. As a matter of fact, Henry is the Babe Ruth of sleaze. Henry's latest specialty is homosexual cowboy bars. Henry's joints are not exactly private clubs. They are noisy, conspicuous, dangerous and, of course, sleazy. They absolutely destroy neighborhoods. They do not attract the kind of people you would like to take home to meet mum unless mum was into a little sado-masochism. The latest target for Henry and his associates is the South End, an area that already has enough problems." Mike Barnacle in the Boston Globe in August 1981. The bigots continued to rail.

Back in the 1960's, there were many young and gay "Mad Men" who worked in advertising and marketing. Like the TV series, they drank martinis, but they didn't chase the secretaries. I am on the right, seen here with Bobby and Phil.


After Stonewall, gay people became political, and began to encouraage the process of "coming out" and going public about it. Some of us were supported, others rejected by our friends and families. But at least we finally knew where we stood. It took some of us longer than others, and there are still plenty of people in the closet, largely older gays whose years of self loathing caused them to seek refuge in the Republican Party where double standards are the norm. That's where the Larry Craig's of this world have ended up, still in the closet, still getting in trouble, still in denial.

But for the several generations that have followed mine, coming out has become much easier, and finding other lesbians and gays more open and easy. The internet, first with gay chat rooms and now through social networking sites has removed the final barriers and facilitate the process of finding each other.

The need for gay bars has declined as gay and straight young people visit the same clubs, restaurants and enjoy each others company. In Pittsfield, many find Dottie's to be a perfect gathering place, and a new series of dance evenings at Jae's Spice has been begun. (Next one is July 11, "El Gato Volodor!" starting at 9:30 with DJs Albaro and BFG with Latin inflected disco, house and electro) These are places that are simply welcoming to all who want to come and party. Many high schools have developed gay-straight alliances, and even Williams College reaches out to its LGBT students in numerous ways. The Rainbow Times now publishes a monthly paper for Western Massachusetts. And there is talk of bringing the Boston Gay Men's Chorus to Pittsfield this fall.

Progress. Support. A brighter future. Thanks to everyone - gay and straight - who has helped make this new era in the Berkshires begin to blossom.

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