One year after the Stonewall riots: Fred Sargeant Remembers
One year after the Stonewall riots, when the day finally came for our first march up Sixth Avenue, we had no idea how it would turn out.
All the meetings, all the talk, all the different opinions over the march and other events continued until the moment we stepped off. We had never been certain that we would even be granted a permit when we began our planning. But now, each minute became critical for us. People had gathered in the march assembly area west of Sixth Avenue on Waverly Place, but would we get them to move off the curb?
Fifty years ago, before anyone had heard of a gay pride day, it took a new sense of audacity and courage for many of those gathered to take the next step and march through midtown Manhattan and look New York City square in the eye.
As one of the parade marshals that day, I had the only bullhorn to assemble the marchers.
It took the collective persuasiveness of the organizers and marshals that Sunday afternoon to get people to leave the sidewalks at Waverly Place. One by one, we encouraged people to join the assembly and, finally, we began to move. Up Sixth Avenue we marched as the cops turned their backs on us much of the way, conveying their disdain.
I stayed at the head of the march the entire way and at one point I climbed onto the base of a light pole to get a look back. I was astonished – we stretched out for as many blocks as I could see, thousands of us. There were no floats, no music, just the mass of people carrying signs and banners. They were chanting, shouting and waving to surprised onlookers along Sixth Avenue.
Many people were critical to this moment in gay history, but no one was more responsible for conceiving and organizing the march than Craig Rodwell.
Craig had opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in 1967. We met after the shop opened, became partners and ran the shop together during those years.
As the first true gay bookshop in the country, we had something that would be valuable for organizing a march: our mailing list. Using our letterhead, we sent our request for participants and money for a mass march on what was then called the Christopher Street Liberation Day.
Craig and I had been at the Stonewall Riots the year before, and the Oscar Wilde had been a central location for information and leafleting that helped get the word out about the riots.
After Stonewall, some of us saw the opportunity for the gay rights movement to shift from what many thought of as a "letterhead" movement of press releases to one of action.
The Movement Before Stonewall
The underlying success, though, was the transformation of the gay movement itself. Before Stonewall, gay leaders had primarily promoted silent vigils and polite pickets.
The Annual Reminder in Philadelphia was one of the signature events. Since 1965, there had been a picket outside Liberty Hall with a small, polite group of gays and lesbians. The walk would occur in silence and the required dress was primarily business type attire; men mostly in jackets and ties and women in dresses. Gays and lesbians were supposed to appear unthreatening; we're just like you.
As a young member then of the New York Mattachine Society, Craig was the originator of this idea. But it soon was being run by the older, conservative members of the Society and it was falling short of what Craig had intended.
So when Craig left New York a few days after the Stonewall Riots for the 1969 reminder (it would be the last one), we had already discussed the idea of moving that annual event to New York. Now we had something much better to build around than the somewhat dated and stilted symbolism that the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall implied; we had Stonewall.
Mattachine didn't agree. When Craig returned from Philadelphia he was blistering over an incident with Frank Kameny of Washington Mattachine, whom he saw at the time as a champion of the old ways and methods.
At the picket, two women had been holding hands. In Craig's account of this incident, Kameny saw it as a breach of decorum and rushed to slap their hands apart, saying there would be "none of that." By this physical act, Kameny confirmed for Craig that something much bigger and bolder than the leadership of the Washington and New York Mattachine Societies was needed.
Mattachine's attitude around Stonewall was that this was a fine mess we had gotten them into. Their leadership role was evaporating and new, younger and more inspiring leaders were coming out of the riots.
After Stonewall, Mattachine was calling for peace in the community, but it was a message our generation didn't need to hear. Mattachine tried to continue to lead and control as they had in the past, but younger gays thwarted that previous dynamic by operating much more like a group of collectives.
Committee to Organize First March
So when the committee to organize the first march was formed, Mattachine was not a part it. In fact, they fought against it.
In the weeks following Craig's return from the Reminder, we had a lot of meetings with other gay groups at the Oscar Wilde, in our apartment on Bleecker Street and in other apartments around Greenwich Village.
Similar meetings were being held by other groups, many based in city colleges, seeking a way to channel this new-found energy. The movement was transforming itself and becoming broader. We were hardly the only activists, but the bookshop had grown to be an intersection for many of them, including members of the Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance and a group of lesbian radical feminists that would become known as the Lavender Menace.
While we pushed ahead over months to organize the march, we continued to confront the negative press that occurred after the Stonewall riots.
Time Magazine: "The Homosexual in America"
In October 1969, Time Magazine had published a story titled "The Homosexual in America." It's hard to imagine such a story now having made it to print. The story described six "homosexual types," including the "blatant" homosexual who straights would presumably recognize as the "catty hairdresser" or the "lisping, limp-wristed interior decorator." The "homosexual subculture," the article said, "is without question shallow and unstable." The story's special mix of bias and fact created a tone that fed into the prejudice toward gay people and motivated us to do more. So that November, still trying to build momentum for the next year's march which had yet to be announced, our group protested outside the Time-Life building.
"Two women . . . were instrumental"
While we had been focusing on one event - the march - others were thinking of a week of events to commemorate Stonewall, and getting everyone together was proving to be a challenge.
In the fall of 1969 when the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations met in Philadelphia, it was important that a resolution for the first march would get everyone's support. Two women, Ellen Broidy and Linda Rhodes, were instrumental in making that happen. We knew them and knew that they would not have the same baggage with Mattachine representatives that Craig or I had. The resolution passed, with New York Mattachine as the sole holdout, and the march was on.
After months of planning and internal controversy, the Christopher Street Liberation Day Umbrella Committee had negotiated the push and pull of more than a dozen different gay organizations and we were on our way to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park for a "Gay- In."
Which Group Will Lead?
So many compromises needed to be fashioned in order to satisfy the needs of each group seeking to be recognized in the march.
One large hurdle was which group would be at the head of the march. So many had done so much over the year that as the time came to put together the structure of the march, each contributor made their argument about why their group needed to lead the march. The stakes were high for each of the groups that had come onto the scene over the year. When Craig and Michael Brown, who'd arranged for the first permits, asked each group to send a representative to march in the lead group, the matter was settled.
The Name of Pre-March Events?
Another matter to be settled was the name. While it was agreed that the march would carry the radical sound of the time as the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, there was also discussion about how to refer to the events during the week leading up to the march.
In the bookshop, we had carried the common tools of 1960's activism - leaflets, books, periodicals, and the ever-present pin-back button. One of the most popular buttons was "Gay Is Good." In the weeks and months prior to the march, we changed our shop advertising to say, "Gay and Proud? Then you're our kind of men and women."
The committee finally adopted a name for the week's events - Gay Pride Week. Even a chant was created for the march - "Say it clear, say it loud! Gay is good, gay is proud!"
The Stakes Were High
For us, the stakes were high at the step-off. That reconciliation that Craig and Michael had come up with set the stage for future cooperation over turf issues among gay organizations. We could not have predicted at the time that this march would lead to decades of gay pride marches around the country and the world. But we knew that, if we were unsuccessful, we would probably have to return for some time to tepidly choreographed, annual reminders.
Our fund-raising appeal had raised the grand total of something around $500 for the march expenses. A glitch over the parade permit and the Central Park "Gay In" permit dates was worked out in the last moments in a huddle with Craig and the police brass. A year's worth of 1960s-style back-and-forth over how to get to this point had been overcome. Even Mattachine's resistance to the idea of the march had been tamed.
"A New Energy and Hope"
The complexities of creating something so new, something which hadn't been done before, had been exhausting. It's no wonder that by the time we got to the Sheep Meadow in Central Park that June 28th, we were spent. But like everyone else who marched, we were filled with a new energy and hope, not the bleak sense of fulfillment of the pre- Stonewall actions. After this march, all of these new gay pioneers began to realize what might be possible.
Fred Sargeant is a retired lieutenant from the Stamford, Conn., Police Department, now living in Vermont. Copyright 2019 by Fred Sargeant.
For related essays by Sargeant, see "Anger Management," New York Times, June 25, 2009 and "1970: A First-Person Account of the First Gay Pride March," Village Voice, June 22, 2010.
We at OutHistory.org are extremely grateful to Sargeant for offering his original essay to us to publish for the first time. Minor edits were made for clarity of reading online. Nothing of substance was changed.
--Jonathan Ned Katz