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50 Years of Stonewall - A Visual Review at the New York Public Library

  • Diana Davies – Demonstration at City Hall
  • Kay Tobin Lahusen - Untitled
  • Diana Davies – Times Square
February 16, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The late 1960s in America were marked by an increasing rebellion of the youth which was very often affiliated with a certain social movement operating throughout the country. The climate was fertile for any kind of organized struggle, so the LGBTQ community gathered and demanded the abolishment of social, legislative, economic and any other repression. Regardless of race, gender and even class, queer people united and their rage ultimately culminated with the famous Stonewall riots.

Namely, the police were raiding bars molesting and arresting people, and especially members of the trans community. In the midst of one of those raids, in the morning hours of 28 June 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village, New York, the community stood up.

This was a momentous event which triggered the consolidation of the movement, the clarification of demands, and slightly later the organization of first parades which were, at the time, quite politically charged. This year is the 50th anniversary of this historically significant riot in global terms, so The New York Public Library decided to join the celebration with an exhibition titled Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50 which aims to show the difficult status of LGBTQ community before and increasing transformation of the movement after Stonewall.

Homosexuals Are Different
“Homosexuals Are Different…” Mattachine Society of New York, 1960s. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

The Stonewall Riots 1969

During the 1950s and 1960s, queer people were segregated and they felt the repression in every aspect of their lives. The social rejection was related to the anti-communist propaganda which included queer people alongside anarchists and other subversive factors. Even the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the police departments garnered lists of homosexuals, their favorite meeting points, and friends; a certain form of frenzy appeared that even educational films about this outrageous and criminal behavior were featured in high schools, so a great number of people were physically harassed, humiliated, fired from their jobs, institutionalized and jailed.

There were only a few bars in New York City which were tolerant and gay-friendly, and those were run by the Mafia – the Stonewall Inn being one of them. It became popular and gathered the most marginalized people in the gay community: trans people, drag queens, butch lesbians, effeminate young men, male prostitutes, and homeless youth. The homophile groups in the States promoted equality regardless of sexuality, and such a discourse coincided with the rise of the counterculture, civil rights movement and the anti–Vietnam War movement at the end of the 1960s.

That is why the Stonewall Riots of 1969 are so important – they enabled the sprawl of the movement and the precision of political demands.

Left Transvestia Right Diana Davies Ida
Left: Transvestia no. 16, Los Angeles: Chevalier Publications, 1962 / Right: Diana Davies – Ida, member of the Gay Liberation Front and Lavender Menace, 1970. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Love & Resistance

The upcoming exhibition will include a tremendous archival material from the period between 1965 and 1975, including the photographs by Diana Davies and Kay Tobin Lahusen, two pioneering photojournalists who managed to capture some of the crucial events of the community from this era. The photographs are accompanied by flyers, posters, and original documents from the archives of pioneering organizations such as the Mattachine Society of New York, Gay Liberation Front, Radicalesbians, and Gay Activists Alliance, the papers of activists such as Barbara Gittings, rare LGBTQ magazines, as well as ephemera from iconic New York City gay and lesbian bars.

In order to present the years leading up to and following the Stonewall Riots in a proper manner, the curator Jason Baumann decided to organize the exhibition around four themes. The first one is titled Resistance and it gathers rare photographs of one of the first LGBTQ pickets in the United States at the U.S. Army Induction Center in 1964, poster and flyers from Christopher Street Liberation Day 1970, the first LGBTQ pride march, as well as photographs of activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, legendary and the most prominent activists.

The second segment is simply called Bars. As it was already mentioned, during the 1960s bars were important meeting points in which among other things critical politics was discussed. Queer people were under the police and were often exposed to blackmail. However, after Stonewall, an array of different venues started opening and the scene started establishing. On display are also invitations to Mardi Gras balls and “Phallic Festivals” from the Mattachine Society of New York, then invitations and flyers to iconic clubs like the Flamingo, Mineshaft, Duchess Bar, and the Paradise Garage.

The third segment is titled In Print and is focused on the publishing activity happening before Stonewall. A network of lesser-known magazines which featured book reviews, personal experiences and political debates aimed to connect individuals and communities across the country. On display are publications such as Transvestia, Drag Queens, and The Voice of the Transexual Action Organization of the transgender and drag communities of the 1960s and 1970s, physique magazines including Grecian Guild and Demi-Gods from the 1950s and 1960s, then Black & Blue, the fanzine of New York City’s gay motorcycle club in the 1960s, as well as lesbian magazines from the 1970s, including Sinister Wisdom, Third World Women’s Gayzette, and the Lesbian Tide. Naturally, after the Stonewall there was a boom of publications which were driven by the new sense of freedom and they have contributed largely to shaping the queer culture.

The last segment is simply called Love and it features a selection of photographs of lesbian lovers from the 1960s, as well as intimate photos of drag parties by filmmaker Avery Willard. These images have to be perceived in regards to the context of an era when the same sex love was considered a crime and could lead to social punishment and incarceration.

Diane Davies - Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse
Diane Davies – Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse, 1971. New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division

Stonewall 50 at The New York Public Library

The 50th anniversary of Stonewall is of great significance for LGBTQ communities and a perfect occasion to learn, exchange, debate, rethink and articulate their past in regards to the present and future approaches in an ongoing struggle for equality. The Library is in possession of treasures archives which contribute to a better understanding of the initial struggle, so the exhibition is not only important for the community itself, but also for all the people willing to participate and practice solidarity, understanding, and respect in their everyday lives.

The Library also collaborated with Penguin Classics on the production of The Stonewall Reader, a grandiose anthology encompassing diaries, periodic literature, first accounts, and articles from LGBTQ magazines and newspapers of pre and post-Stonewall years.

Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50 will be on display at the New York Public Library until 14 July 2019.

Editors’ Tip: Love and Resistance: Out of the Closet into the Stonewall Era

A ragtag group of women protesting behind a police line in the rain. A face in a crowd holding a sign that says, “Hi Mom, Guess What!” at an LGBT rights rally. Two lovers kissing under a tree. These indelible images are among the thousands housed in the New York Public Library’s archive of photographs of 1960s and ’70s LGBTQ history from photojournalists Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies. Lahusen is a pioneering photojournalist who captured pivotal moments in the LGBTQ civil rights movement. Davies, in turn, is one of the most important photojournalists who documented gay, lesbian, and trans liberation, as well as civil rights, feminist, and antiwar movements.

Featured images: Diana Davies – Demonstration at City Hall, New York (From left: Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Jane Vercaine, Barbara Deming, Kady Vandeurs, Carol Grosberg, and others), 1973.; Kay Tobin Lahusen – Untitled, 1970; Diana Davies – Times Square, New York, 1970. All images courtesy of New York Public Library, Manuscripts and Archives Division.