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Remembering Stonewall: the art and culture which created an original backdrop for Pride

‘That night, which came to be known as the Stonewall rebellion, gave birth to the Gay Liberation movement. It changed the entire country and a great deal of the world.’ (Eliot Tiber, Woodstock 1969 Organiser).

52 years ago, in the early hours of June 28th, a series of riots which would go on to fuel a global human rights movement were beginning to break out. The riots at the Stonewall Inn, a well-known gay bar in the New York borough of Manhattan, marked a historical change which highlighted the year 1969 as a prolific year for queer communities everywhere.

This article paints a picture of the original demonstration of pride and protest for gay rights on a grand scale, the art and culture which enhanced and influenced the riots, and the pop culture moments which framed the historic events.

 

“To love someone takes a lot of courage.” (Maya Angelou)

 

In 1969, just weeks after the Stonewall riots, Maya Angelou released her famous ‘I know why the caged bird sings’, a piece of autobiographical fiction touching most heavily on themes of identity, sex, gender and race. This book has come to be universally acknowledged as the highlight of Angelou’s literary career, and one of the most powerful literary works of all time.

Although most famously and rightly recognised as a civil rights activist against racism and racial discrimination, Angelou also proved herself as an integral ally to the gay rights movement. For example, Angelou brought sexuality into conversation at the inauguration of Bill Clinton, reciting her poem ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ in which she famously unites ‘The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher’ in a powerful message of equality that ‘we human beings are more alike than we are unalike’. Many see this as a political milestone, as this recital was most likely the first time that sexuality was mentioned in such a public, political setting. 

That same year, Angelou also stood in solidarity with a mainly queer crowd, saying ‘I am gay. I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim’. Years later, she would go on to contact three New York State Senators in advocacy for the legalisation of gay marriage,  and be remembered after her death as a prominent figure in queer history.

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“I’m gay, and always have been, even when I was David Jones.” (David Bowie)

 

Less than 2 weeks after the riots, on July 11th 1969, David Bowie released “Space Oddity”, his first single to chart in the UK, with his album being released later that same year.

Despite his early work dealing less with themes of gender and sexuality than his later work, in 1969 he had already begun to challenge the norms of gender identity and expression, describing himself as a ‘a phallus in pigtails’. He also famously opened for the band T. Rex on their 1969 tour in mime makeup which many have compared to a form of drag. 

When Bowie first chose to publicly disclose his sexuality in 1972, saying ‘I’m gay, and always have been, even when I was David Jones’, the Stonewall riots were not even three years passed, with society still widely rejecting queer figures, communities, and lifestyles. However, the artist did not let this diminish the presence of queer themes and representation within his music, producing songs such as ‘Queen Bitch’, ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’, and the entire album ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’ which was voted ‘the gayest album ever’ in 2008. These songs are now widely recognised as fun, yet still powerfully political, messages in advocacy for the sexual and romantic freedom of all people.

Overall, his music paired with his playful expressions of sexuality, sex and gender meant that 

Bowie very soon became an icon for the LGBTQ+ community, drag queens, and androgynous dressers everywhere.

 

‘Historically, even though Americans have loved the contributions of gay people, they have hated the artists and inventors themselves.’ (Eliot Tiber)

 

1969 saw the birth of the most iconic music festival of all time: Woodstock. However, one aspect of the festival which was and still is overlooked by many is that, notably, in a time of such change and rebellion regarding the queer community, one of the men behind the popular festival was himself battling against homophobia in his own life and society. 

Eliot Tiber, who explains in his memoir turned film ‘Taking Woodstock’ how he was partially responsible for the existence of the festival itself, is a prime example of how although people were willing to benefit from the art, culture and events created by gay people, they were not willing to accept his sexual identity. Whilst now, Tiber is open about and proud of his sexuality, in 1969, he knew that ‘coming out’ to his family and in the public eye could deeply affect both his personal life and his professional career.

The festival itself was an instant hit, featuring 35 incredible music acts such as Janis Joplin, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix, and attracting a crowd of over 400,000. It placed emphasis through its marketing on being an event encouraging peace and love, which Tiber touches on in his memoir through detailing the numerous relationships he formed at the festival during a time when the public expression of homosexuality was illegal.

After coming out as openly gay, Tiber went on to have a brilliant, creative career as a writer, film set designer, and teacher of higher and further education, releasing Taking Woodstock in 2007.

The book, which sold very well, also recalls his experience at Stonewall as a member of the riots, describing in detail the actions of both ‘the mob’ and the police, as well as making note of the artistic and cultural moments which he believed shaped the protests, including the death of Judy Garland.

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‘Judy would have wanted us to sing and celebrate’ (Eliot Tiber)

 

Just hours before the riots, pop culture and much of the queer community was mourning the loss of the great entertainer Judy Garland, a friend and inspiration to many within the LGBTQ+ community. Many people since, including Tiber, have strongly connected Garland’s funeral to the events at Stonewall, with famous drag queen RuPaul dedicating many episodes of Drag Race to her legacy and suggesting that those present at Stonewall ‘used their grief over Judy’s death to rise up and fight back’ against the homophobic attacks.

Naturally, as Stonewall was one of the only gay bars which allowed dancing at the time, those wishing to honour Garland’s memory through song and dance gathered there the night after her funeral, as Tiber describes in his memoir. Those gathered included many fellow entertainers local to New York, such as Stormé DeLarverie, a performer and host at the Apollo Theater and Radio City Music Hall. Besides her roles in entertainment, DeLarverie was known for her strength, courage, and determination to protect the LGBTQ+ community, as she acted as a bouncer, bodyguard and volunteer street patrol worker, dubbed by many as the ‘guardian of lesbians in the Village’. 

Notably, she was also, according to herself and many other eyewitnesses, the spark which set alight the Stonewall Riots themselves, with her confrontation with the police being the initial act of protest. Whilst the exact order of events of Stonewall are hotly debated and can never really be proved, DeLarverie was nevertheless undeniably an integral part of the riots, as was her friend and co-worker, the famous drag queen Marsha P Johnson.

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‘Darling, I want my gay rights now.’ (Marsha P Johnson)

 

Marsha P Johnson was a drag queen and entertainer living in New York in 1969. Although less widely known than other entertainers such as Judy Garland, Johnson’s art and political activism was extremely influential within the communities of both pre and post-Stonewall New York. Not only was she a brilliant performer, crafting her own outfits from fresh flowers, performing with the famous drag group Hot Peaches, and modelling for Andy Warhol, but she was also a revolutionary.

Johnson personally contributed to the gay rights movement in many ways, through her gender non-conformity, stating when questioned about her gender that the ‘P’ in her name stood for ‘pay it no mind’, through her membership with the Gay Liberation Front, and through her participation at Stonewall itself as a large and active part of the protests. 

 On the first anniversary of Stonewall, Johnson marched in the first ever Gay Pride parade, then named the Christopher Street Liberation Day, of which she was dubbed locally as the Mayor. 3 years later, she was banned from the event as the committee decided to disallow the attendance of drag queens. However, refusing to be marginalised or excluded from the queer community to which she belonged and had contributed so much, Johnson marched ahead of the parade in a strongly political act of defiance against those who still refused to accept her.

After dedicating so much of her life to rebelling and reacting against injustice, Johnson is now celebrated worldwide as a key figure in the Pride movement.

Overall, whilst Stonewall was definitely the defining moment for the progression of gay rights in 1969, it was without a doubt not the only one. Amongst the art, music, entertainment and literary scenes of 1969, there was much to be found which can now be seen as a collectively giant leap for the universal human rights of all.

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