Dancing in the Streets: Contested Public Spaces and the History of Queer Life

QUEERS THE world over reflect on the state of their movement every June, on the anniversary of the Stonewall Riots of 1969, when patrons of a Greenwich Village bar resisted a police raid and sparked a movement. Articles are written. Some celebrate; others demonstrate. Much of the debate centers on the successes and challenges of a movement that has aimed to establish a space for itself in the public commons, contested streets, and by extension the public sphere of ideas and debate. Queers ask whether the promise of Stonewall as a liberatory movement has been fulfilled, or if it has folded into the system, its dissent commodified like the annual Pride parade in New York City, with its ads for corporate sponsors like Bud Light. Others wonder, how can queer history inform our understanding of current struggles?

Multi-issue activists calling for a broadened understanding of human sexuality as a social justice issue constantly claim public space. So rather than simply integrate and assimilate, queer activists have spent the last four decades creating a consistent public presence (through actions, demonstrations, zaps, permitted and unpermitted parades) to ensure a diverse, open, and engaging public street of ideas, possibilities, and sexual self-determination.

The subtext of much of the discussion of the annual Pride parade is the uncertain meanings of queer history. “It’s all forgotten. Everyone’s gay movement began the day they joined the movement,” notes longtime activist Randolfe Wicker. In fact, queers had been lighting up the streets of the world for over a decade before the first brick was thrown in June 1969. In downtown Los Angeles, queers rioted in May 1958 after the police attempted to arrest a group at Cooper’s Donuts, long a late-night meeting place for hustlers, homosexuals, and street youth. “[T]wo cops ostensibly checking I.D., a routine harassment, arbitrarily picked up two hustlers, two queens, and a young man just cruising and led them out. As the cops packed the back of the squad car, one of the men objected, shouting that the car was illegally crowded,” recalled author John Rechy. “While the two cops switched around to force him in, the others scattered out of the car.” Onlookers poured out of the donut shop, throwing whatever they could get their hands on, forcing the police to retreat. “The police faced a barrage of coffee cups, spoons, trash. They fled into their car, called backups, and soon the street was bustling with disobedience. Gay people danced about the cars.” Eight years later in San Francisco, transgender patrons set off their own riot at Gene Compton’s Cafeteria when they were denied service.

A number of small but dedicated groups helped organize and disseminate information about queer life throughout the 1950s and 1960s. The Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian organization in the United States, was founded in 1955, five years after the Mattachine Society. DOB published the first-ever American magazine for lesbians, The Ladder. ONE, Inc., a Mattachine offshoot founded in Los Angeles in 1952, also published a magazine, entitled ONE. Wicker joined Mattachine in 1958. “I was twenty and I had to lie to say I was twenty-one,” he recalls.

They had rented a fifth floor room, filled with clutter, on a tenement walk-up on 6th Avenue on 47th Street. These people had slaved away for weeks, clearing the area, building a little platform, setting up chairs, actually constructing a little meeting hall where people could come and give lectures. They would usually have lectures. One was by a guy named Leo Strauss. He was a lawyer. And when you got arrested in a tea-room, he would be the one who would come and defend you. He….was going to give a lecture called “Homosexuals and the Law.” And usually we would get twenty or thirty in a meeting and I said, “Why don’t we publicize it?” So I wrote a flier. It said, “Citizens, a lawyer discusses homosexuality and the law. Free admission. Public invited. Mattachine Society.” So I went out with these. Many wanted to put it up in their windows.

On the night of the talk, more than three hundred people, instead of the usual dozen, packed the place. The vice squad was there, too, and soon the group was evicted. Some were happy to see so many at a Mattachine event. Others were angry at Wicker for getting the group evicted. They did not want to make a public fuss. “Some said that if you went out on the street as a homosexual that you would get stoned or attacked on the spot.”

For many years, speaking out or being open in public involved a high degree of risk, including blackmail, loss of work or livelihood, and alienation from friends and family. Wicker saw these challenges as part of the struggle for self-determination for all people—sexual freedom for all. When a friend’s girlfriend needed an abortion, for instance, they had to induce it themselves. “I said to myself society is not just screwed up about homosexuals, society is screwed up about sex in general. She almost died. Well, that led me to the Sex Freedom League.” But with the risks of exposure so great, it seemed the gay movement was stagnating. “I thought, these queens will never come out of the bars.” Pre-Stonewall organizing for the queer movement was hindered by McCarthyism as well. Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, for example, had to distance himself from the movement because of his links with the Communist Party and his long history of labor organizing.

Organizing often begins with the stories—of both oppression and hopes for something better—people tell each other. In the process, both listeners and tellers can gain allies and strength as community takes shape. “In the Sex Freedom League, they had something they would call the Speakout,” says Wicker.

And I had the nerve to get up and say, “Right down this street, there is a bar that is run by mobsters. And it caters to the gay community. And the only way it can stay open is to pay off the police.” I said, “Homosexuals have the right to gather and drink like everyone else….Homosexual bars should be legal, open in public.” The crowd was 90 percent straight. To my surprise, I got a warm smattering of applause. No heckling….I suddenly realized that if you went out and talked to people in a way that was informed and rational, they were willing to enter a discussion. So that’s how I started discovering that you wouldn’t get murdered for going out and appearing.

Gradually, Wicker recognized that social change would take place through a media-filtered lens and storyline. Through direct action and media influence, Wicker helped the movement open public space and debate to queer voices, challenging predominant narratives of homosexuality as a disease.

[T]hey had these psychiatrists on WBAI [a listener-supported radio station]…They were saying that they could change any homosexual in just eight hours at $50.00 an hour. That’s what they were saying. I thought, these people don’t know anything about homosexuals. I went to WBAI and walked into the program director and said, “That program you had was an absolute outrage. They are out there fishing for clients and suckers….We can speak about homosexuality in a much more informed way than those jerks out there selling snake oil.”

The resulting panel, aired in the summer of 1962, was covered in the Herald Tribune, the New York Times, and Variety. “As a result of this,” says Wicker, “some conservatives went to the FCC and said, you’ve gotta revoke WBAI’s license. They’re putting perverts on the air. And the FCC ruled homosexuality is a legitimate subject for discussion on the airwaves.” Soon, “the phone was ringing off the hook at the Mattachine Society.” The media strategy brought many gays out of the closet and onto the airwaves. Next were the streets.

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