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Posts Tagged ‘Gay liberation’


When Kim Brinster, owner of the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, announced that the store would be closing its doors on March 29, 2009 due to economic troubles many people were probably not very surprised. With the economy in rough shape it was not exactly uncommon for smaller local shops to go under. However, the historical significance of this shop, while unknown to some, made this loss a very personal one for many. The bookstore, located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, was an integral part of the early Gay Rights movement and has a unique legacy that should not be forgotten.

The bookstore, which was opened by Craig Rodwell in 1967, was the nation’s first gay bookstore. This was an incredibly risky decision on Rodwell’s part considering that during this time many gay activists were still using fake names to avoid the possibilty of getting arrested. However, he had been actively involved in the Gay Rights struggles for many years before using his personal savings to open the store. As a volunteer for the Mattachine Society of New York he worked to organize Mattachine Young Adults in early 1964, and later that year he participated in the picketing of New York’s Whitehall to protest the military’s practice of excluding gays from serving and for dishonorably discharging them if it was discovered later on. More notably, on April 21, 1966, Rodwell, along with Dick Leitsch and John Timmons, participated in the Sip-In at Julius bar in Greenwich Village, an event that predated the infamous Stonewall Riots in 1969, but is arguably just as important to the ignition of the Gay Liberation Movement. During this demonstration the men were protesting the New York State Liquor Authority rule which made the congregation of gays in places that served alcohol illegal. Their public protest eventually led to the end of the ruling later on.


Rodwell was also a key actor in the Stonewall Riots of 1969 as well. Although he did not participate directly in the protest, he was located just down the street from the bar and was able to respond quickly. As soon as he saw what was happening Rodwell called The New York Times, The New York Post, and The New York Daily News to inform them of what was happening and because of this all three papers were able to cover the riots. Rodwell’s call brought both local and national attention to the riots and more importantly, to the events that had caused them to transpire.

After this the Oscar Wilde Bookshop served as a type of community center for the gay community in the village. The cramoed back room of the shop served as a meeting space for Rodwell and his employees who were determined to bring change for the gay community. He not only inspired owners of gay bookshops around the country, but also formulated strategies for confronting police brutality. In 1970 the first gay pride parade was planned within the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, making it an important landmark in the Gay Liberation Movement.

Since it was opened by Craig Rodwell in 1967, the bookshop had gone through several changes in ownership. Rodwell sold the shop to the manager, Bill Offenbaker, before he passed away in 1993. The store had a new owner once again in 1996 until it was purchased by the owner of Lambda Rising Bookstores in Washington in 2003 in order to keep the store from going out of business. Store manager Kim Brinster took ownership of the shop in 2006 until its closing in 2009. Although the economic issues became too large to overcome the bookshop, which has now been closed for over three years, had a substantial impact on the Gay community in New York for over 42 years and carries with it a lasting legacy.

Sources:
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/04/nyregion/04bookstore.html?_r=0

http://nymag.com/news/intelligencer/54086/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craig_Rodwell

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The Red Dot Collection (photo by Saskia Scheffer, from Lesbian Herstory Archives website)

The story of how Lesbian Herstory Archives acquired “The Red Dot Collection” begins in Provincetown circa 1980. While on vacation, two of the archive’s cofounders, Joan Nestle and Deb Edel, happened to see a white index card tacked to a wooden lamp post. Printed on the card were the words “DOB Library for Sale” along with the name and address of a Jane Kogan.

“We just stared, what had we found,” Joan Nestle explained in a recent email.

Founded in San Francisco, the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB, for short) was the first lesbian organization in the United States. As their 1956 statement of purpose explains, DOB was a women’s organization committed to the integration of “the homosexual into society” (Gallo 11). > Part of the impetus behind the creation of this organization was the extreme lack of social spaces, with the sole exception of bars, to meet and congregate with other lesbians. In addition to serving this social function, DOB was equally committed to educating individual lesbians as well as society at large. To this end, the creation and maintenance of a library of relevant literature was specifically stipulated in the statement.

The New York Chapter

In May 1957, DOB’s national newsletter, The Ladder, published a letter (anonymously) penned by the playwright Lorraine Hansberry. Hansberry’s blurb invited fellow readers to comment on the absence of DOB from New York City. She writes: “Considering [gay and lesbian organizations] Mattachine, Bilitis, ONE; all seem to be cropping up on the West Coast rather than here where our vigorous and active gay set almost bump into one another off the streets– what is it in the air out there? Pioneers still? Or a tougher circumstance which inspires battle? Would love to hear speculation, light-hearted or otherwise” (L.H.N. 26). >

An overdue New York chapter was founded the next year by Barbara Gittings and Marion Glass. Gittings recalls that eight or ten women showed up for the first meeting (Katz 224-225). > Initially, the tiny chapter of DOB shared an office in a loft building with the primarily gay male organization Mattachine. For the next 13 years, DOB bounced around the city wherever affordable office space was available. The chapter’s apparent final location was in a loft on 141 Prince Street, one block outside Greenwich Village, or as their newsletter aptly termed it “the new Village” (DOB 1). This 4,000 square foot loft included a partitioned-off office and library, kitchen, and a slow dance room to accommodate the organization’s monthly socials.

Gay Liberation and the Lesbian Feminist Movement

Despite the chapter’s slight geographic remove from the Village proper, DOB’s chapter is an integral part of Greenwich Village’s lesbian and gay history. The anecdote that best exemplifies this point is the New York chapter’s (too often ignored) involvement in the Stonewall Riots. On June 27, 1969, a twenty-six year old member of DOB escorted a couple from out of town on a guided tour of Greenwich Village’s bars. Martha Shelley remembers: “While we were walking around, we saw these people who looked younger than I was throwing things at cops. One of [the women] turned to me and said, ‘What’s going on here?’ I said, ‘Oh, it’s a riot. These things happen in New York all the time” (Shelley 33). >

What these women had unwittingly witnessed was the beginning of the Stonewall riots. Shelley (along with the rest of the city) soon became aware of the ongoing demonstrations, catalyzed by a routine police raid of the Stonewall Inn. In response, she helped spearhead an effort to organize a protest march co-sponsored by DOB and Mattachine. The planning meetings for this march also led to the creation of the short lived, but important Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which in turn spawned a multitude of splinter groups including the Radicalesbians. Out History has a nice article that covers this in more depth or you can read Radicalesbians’ “The Woman Identified Woman” here.

It is important to acknowledge these threads of continuity between the Daughters of Bilitis and the subsequent gay liberation and lesbian feminist movements of the 1970s. Too often, if DOB is written about at all, it is written off as a conservative and assimilationist minded organization that was wholly displaced by more radical movements. DOB’s involvement in Stonewall and, for that matter, Lesbian Herstory Archives eventual acquisition of their library attests to a more complex reality.

DOB and LHA

Last I mentioned them, Joan Nestle and Deb Edel were staring at a “magical little index card” with Jane Kogan’s contact information. The cofounders were immediately struck by the historical significance of this library to their growing collection of lesbian materials. At the time, Lesbian Herstory Archives had been around for six or seven years, depending on whom you ask. The seed was first planted in 1973, when a consciousness raising group comprised of women who met at the first conference of the Gay Academic Union came up with the idea for a lesbian archive. This group began actively collecting material in 1974 and the archive opened its doors to visitors a few years later. Joan Nestle’s Upper West Side apartment doubled as the Lesbian Herstory Archives until the archive moved into its own Park Slope brownstone in 1993.

DOB’s library was successfully purchased by Lesbian Herstory Archives for $1500, a sum that was raised through a combination of individual donations and a grant from the Cowan Family Foundation. Jane Kogan packaged the books in twenty liquor carton sized boxes and sent them from her Provincetown home back to the city where the collection had originally been assembled. The frozen in time library of the New York chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis is now known as “The Red Dot Collection” (so named because of the red dots on the spines of all the books). Visitors to LHA have had the opportunity to view this collection onsite for more than thirty years. For the benefit of remote researchers and interested browsers alike, this library is also about to become a digital resource. I am excited to announce that I am currently working with Lesbian Herstory Archives to digitize covers of selected books in this unique and fascinating collection.

Click here for complete Works Cited

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Sylvia Rivera (Image courtesty of NYPL)

One year after the Stonewall Rebellion, on June 28th 1970, the Gay Activists Alliance hosted a successful dance in the basement of Weinstein Hall, a New York University residence building located on West 11th Street. At this time, Greenwich Village was home to the largest gay, lesbian and transgender community in the world, and was in dire need of social services, as well as spaces to host public gatherings. The Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee (CSLDC), organizers of the Stonewall Parade, decided to coordinate a series of four additional dances, to be held at Weinstein Hall as fundraisers for legal, medical and housing services for the gay community. The “Dance-a-Fairs” were booked with the Weinstein Hall Student Governing Association for the Friday evenings between August 7th and September 4th 1970.

The first two Dance-a-Fairs were held successfully, and without comment from the NYU administration. However, on the eve the third dance, to be held on August 21st, the NYU administration and trustees announced that the remaining two dances would be cancelled, and that the student government of Weinstein Hall did not have the authority to negotiate with non-university organizations. With the help of a New York Civil Liberties lawyer, the NYU administration was convinced to allow the third dance to proceed. The CSLDC secured the sponsorship of an NYU student group, Gay Student Liberation, for the final dance on August 28th. However, as the fall semester approached, the NYU administration closed all university facilities to gay social functions until a panel of ministers and psychologists determined whether homosexuality was “morally acceptable.” The administration was particularly concerned about the impact of gay dances on impressionable freshmen.

The evening of August 28th witnessed a small but angry demonstration outside Weinstein Hall. City police were called, and a group of representatives from the gay community went to meet with NYU Dean Harold Whiteman. Gay Flame described the event:

We told him it was Weinstein Hall or stormy weather. He looked at us and he knew we meant it. We weren’t hiding in our closets and we had a foot wedged in his. So, after a little while, he gave in and said we’d have it. We ran back over and told the people who were still marching the news. Another win for GAY POWER. We had met the enemy and the hall is ours![1]

The remaining protesters entered the hall for a small dance party that evening, but the ban on gay social functions at the university remained in place.

Meeting of gay activists at Weinstein Hall (Image courtesy of NYPL)

Three weeks later, a meeting of the NYU group Gay Student Liberation decided to call for an immediate occupation of Weinstein Hall, in response to the administration’s discriminatory conduct toward gay, lesbian and transgender functions on campus. A liaison was sent to a Gay Liberation Front meeting to request additional volunteers. Within hours there were almost 70 people in the cavernous hall, including transgender activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. The five-day event was an open occupation, and activists came and went from the hall, meeting with students from the residence building, flyering the university and holding public teach-ins on gay liberation. Student representatives met and voted to support the strike, providing blankets for the occupiers as the administration attempted to freeze them out by turning up the air-conditioning in the hall. Two days later, a mass meeting of students and occupiers decided to organize a dance in Weinstein Hall for the evening of Friday, September 25th.

At 2:30pm on the afternoon of the dance, NYU administration called New York City’s Tactical Police Squad. With all doors to the hall barricaded except one, riot police gave the occupiers ten seconds to vacate the hall, in what was described “as the most frightening, naked display of antihomosexual power” that had ever been seen.[2] Sylvia Rivera refused to leave, and was carried out by police. NYU’s homophobic policies and the violent actions of the city police led to a series of demonstrations against the university, beginning that evening in Greenwich Village. Further demonstrations were held at NYU’s Bellevue Hospital, which practiced shock therapy treatment on homosexual psychiatry patients and at the NYU Student Center, where protesters presented the university with a list of demands. Included in the demands were: the use of university facilities by the gay community, open admissions and free tuition for gay people and all other oppressed communities, the discussion of homosexuality in relevant courses and the end of oppressive treatment of gay patients at Bellevue Hospital.

Marsha P. Johnson (Image Courtesy of NYPL)

The occupation of Weinstein Hall was primarily led by transgender people of color and women. Emerging from the occupation was the formation of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) by Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. STAR focused on the needs of homeless transgender sex workers; providing shelter, food and legal support. STAR also worked to combat discrimination within the gay community.

The sit-in at Weinstein Hall by gay, lesbian and transgender activists and their allies is one in a long history of occupation in New York City in pursuit of social and economic justice.


[1] Teal, Donn. The Gay Militants (New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1971), 205.

[2] Murphey, John. Homosexual Liberation: A Personal View (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971), 123.

Sources:

Bell, Arthur. Dancing the Gay Lib Blues: A Year in the Homosexual Liberation Movement. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.

Duberman, Martin. Stonewall. New York: Penguin Group, 1993.

Murphey, John. Homosexual Liberation: A Personal View. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971.

Out History. “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.” http://www.outhistory.org/wiki/Street_Transvestite_Action_Revolutionaries. Accessed December 10, 2011.

Teal, Donn. The Gay Militants. New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1971.

For more information about STAR please see:

Cohen, Steven L. Gay Liberation Youth Movement in New York: An Army of Lovers Cannot Fail. Florence, Kentucky: Routledge, 2007.

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