When we began the fight, only a handful of people were willing to come out.
Now we've reached a point where everybody's best buddy on TV is gay.

BEAR IN MIND

A PERSONAL MATTER
OF PRIDE

By Max Verga

This month Max takes a break from answering your questions to bear witness to a large piece of liberation history. As we queer crips come to write our own history in the coming years, personal accounts like Max's will serve as models and inspiration. -B.G.

Most people assume that the gay pride movement began with the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village in the late sixties. To a great extent this is true, but before Stonewall a number of groups paved the way for what would become a national civil rights movement. Before the first stone was thrown on the evening of June 28, 1969 in reaction to the latest raid on the Stonewall Bar, groups like the Mattachine Society, the Corduroy Club, the Daughters of Bilitis, and the West Side Discussion Group were active in and around New York City.

I was involved, either directly or indirectly, with some of those groups, and with many of the significant gay rights events of the past thirty years. Their importance became clear to me only in hindsight, when viewed over the sweep of time.

I first became involved with the West Side Discussion group, many of whose members were also associated with the Mattachine Society and Corduroy Club, after meeting some gay friends at Long Island University in downtown Brooklyn. The West Side Discussion Group met at the time in the headquarters of the Corduroy Club. Its weekly discussions covered a wide range of issues, including ways to meet people, the question of monogamy, and even gay humor. Today it's hard to imagine the importance of providing such a forum, but in those days repression and secrecy were the rule.

The West Side Discussion group also sponsored what may have been the era's first openly gay theater-piece, Shades of Lavender, a revue that I participated in. West Side later revived existing plays and eventually sponsored original works, one of which I wrote. A few of us later formed our own theater group. The set designer for my play became the general manager of Les Ballets Trokadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male group that spoofs traditional ballet.

West Side had close ties to a pioneering gay religious group, the Church of the Beloved Disciple on West 14th Street in Manhattan, where Trokadero performed one of its first shows, a version of The Nutcracker. This one example shows how closely interconnected these few organizations were.

Few of us realized at the time just how innovative all of this was. After all, it was the 1960s and '70s, a time when change seemed to be occurring every time you turned on your television set to watch the news. Nobody can underestimate the fact that so many of us involved in the early gay pride movement grew up in the 1960's, when the civil rights movement was challenging social rules and constraints. Groups like the Mattachine Society and the West Side Discussion Group were founded during a time when being gay or lesbian meant that you could go to prison simply because of whom you chose as a partner in the privacy of your own home.

To some extent, just appearing at those groups involved a degree of risk; at West Side you identified yourself only by first name (not always real) and last initial. At first these groups did not advocate a radical agenda. But that would soon change.

I remember receiving a late-night call one warm, sticky June evening from one of two college friends. As usual, he had been at the Stonewall Bar. Not surprisingly, it had been raided. But instead of allowing the police to perform their standard arrest ritual, the patrons fought back. The fighting moved from the bar to the streets and continued for several days. Nobody knows exactly what sparked the riot or why that particular raid should have proven so pivotal. Some have theorized that it was the warm weather. Some say that the coincident death and funeral of Judy Garland, a gay icon, created an atmosphere of despondency and anger. Others insist that it was the last straw in a pattern of harassment that was business-as-usual for a group perceived to be weak and defenseless.

Once the commotion subsided, a meeting was called in a local church to decide how what was now becoming recognized as the "gay community" would respond to the riots. I went with my two friends, one of whom had been at the riot. The meeting was sparsely attended. No local television stations would cover it, but one British news crew filmed portions of the meeting. I always believed that this meeting was of great importance to the gay pride movement, but my belief was only confirmed years later when I met a Stonewall veteran who had also been there. Out of that meeting, he explained, developed such politically significant groups as the Gay Activist Alliance and the Gay Liberation Front.

Before long, gays and lesbians were caught up in the social upheaval that was the hallmark of the era. It would not be long before the anniversary of the Stonewall riots was celebrated with the Annual Lesbian and Gay Pride Parade. It was not long before bisexuality and transgender were included under the lesbian and gay rainbow flag. And it would not be long before the complacency that had welcomed nothing greater than a "reasonable" degree of accommodation would be shattered by the emergence of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

HIV/AIDS emerged at a time when a few cities had passed anti-gay/lesbian discrimination laws. Society was becoming used to images of gay men and women and achieving some level of comfort about alternate lifestyles in general. But then word about HIV/AIDS began to filter through the media and the outbreak of what was at first considered a "gay disease" began to have a devastating effect. The loss of life was incalculable. Equally incalculable was the blow to the artistic heart of the gay community, a blow soon felt in the arts world at large.

But it was also the gay community that rallied around its losses, reached out to celebrities, helped develop safe-sex guidelines, and helped to educate society about what HIV/AIDS was all about. One of my two college friends died of AIDS. Others who were fellow union activists and even coworkers also died. As the crisis escalated, some people chose to become activists once more and work with groups like Act Up. Others turned to charitable work and still others made commemorative squares for the AIDS quilt that is now too large to display in its entirety.

Winning our rights began to seem scant consolation for the loss of friends and lovers. We noticed, too, that with the advent of HIV/AIDS came a backlash that once again made coming out a controversial and dangerous decision.

It was during this period of uncertainty that labor began to develop its own pride agenda. Ironically, the person who had trained me at the License Issuance counter when I first came to the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs in 1973 was a man who had also attended many events at the West Side Discussion Group. At first, the union's response to lesbian and gay issues was mixed. I can remember the negative comments made by people heading up to Albany for Lobby Day as the union buses passed the bars along West Street in Greenwich Village. But there too, attitudes would soon change.

In 1984 former District Council 37 Director Victor Gottbaum asked me to address the AFL-CIO convention in San Francisco in support of a pro-gay/lesbian resolution, where delegates from across the country discussed the formation of a national gay and lesbian labor group. It was several years before these preliminary efforts coalesced. In New York, District Council 37 was probably the first union to support a lesbian and gay pride committee.

In San Francisco, the impact of AIDS led Levi-Strauss employees to make history when they succeeded in securing a domestic partnership policy. Employees able to document participation in a committed relationship were guaranteed medical benefits similar to those enjoyed by married workers and spouses.

It was not long before a Domestic Partnership Coalition developed in New York City, where I attended many of the Coalition's meetings. Its members were lesbian and gay legislators, individuals from private industry, municipal labor, and a wide range of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender groups throughout the city. But there were also a number of heterosexual individuals who would ultimately be covered under domestic partnership rights as well. After reaching an impasse, several members of the Domestic Partnership Committee agreed to initiate a suit against New York City, aimed at securing rights similar to those offered by Levi-Strauss.

Domestic Partnership coverage soon became a part of medical plans offered by many private companies, one more achievement of the gay/lesbian pride agenda that I am proud to have been a part of. But it is no excuse for complacency. Same-sex marriage, gays and lesbians in the military, state and federal civil rights laws, and a rise in HIV/AIDS cases are all issues that demand our continued attention. The death of Matthew Shepherd shows that while gays and lesbians may enjoy a high level of visibility and freedom in larger cities, the picture may be entirely different in rural areas and smaller cities.

It is hard to believe that I've been part of the movement since before Stonewall. Sometimes I was in the middle of things, like the Pride at Work and Domestic Partnership movements. Sometimes I tagged along to organizing events with friends. Sometimes I was forced into taking a stand by the actions of those around me. I was fortunate to be in Washington, DC for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall riot that started it all, and to remember, with a vivid sense of history, the call from my friend on that hot June night so many years before.

When I look back at the last thirty years I can see clearly now that no ground is won without losses or without scars to show for the battle. When I see the names of friends on a quilt that I wish I'd never had to make a commemorative square for, I can feel the scars inside myself. Sometimes the scars are external, like those worn by victims of bias attacks. When memory grows blurry, you ask yourself if what occurred was really so important. Then you feel the scars and the answer is "Yes!"

The saga that has been the lesbian and gay pride movement is far from over. As we have become more inclusive in our goals, our actions have had a positive impact on gay and straight alike. We have fought bigotry, disease, and inertia, and have helped contribute to a body of law that stands against small minds and violent actions. As we look at our losses, losses that resemble war dead, we share the sorrow of every other group that has had to fight for its rights.

When we began the fight, only a handful of people were willing to come out. Now we've reached a point where everybody's best buddy on TV is gay. That's one way to measure progress. And if I, who have witnessed the passing parade and marched in a good chunk of it, still ask "What's my destiny?" maybe I can finally see the answer: My destiny was to be part of something larger than my own awareness, something that age now lets me see more clearly as the place I had to be, the actions I had to take. It may just be that hindsight, however disconcerting, is, in the end, the catalyst that is needed for the telling of the tale.

© 2001 Max Verga

 

MAX VERGA has been an activist ever since getting a call from a friend reporting that he'd been in a riot at the Stonewall Bar only hours before. He began his activism with the West Side Discussion Group, later became involved with its offshoot theater group, and was one of the founders of Mainstream, a gay-disabled group. For more about Max, see his longer biography.

 

 

BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/July 2001