Very few establishments welcomed openly gay people in the 1950s and 1960s. Those that did were often bars, although bar owners and managers were rarely gay. At the time, the Stonewall Inn was owned by the Mafia. It catered to an assortment of patrons and was known to be popular among the poorest and most marginalized people in the gay community: drag queens, representatives of the transgender community, effeminate young men, male prostitutes, and homeless youth. Police raids on gay bars were routine in the 1960s, but officers quickly lost control of the situation at the Stonewall Inn. They attracted a crowd that was incited to riot. Tensions between New York City police and gay residents of Greenwich Village erupted into more protests the next evening, and again several nights later. Within weeks, Village residents quickly organized into activist groups to concentrate efforts on establishing places for gays and lesbians to be open about their sexual orientation without fear of being arrested.
– Wikipedia, Stonewall riots
When protests over the ongoing mistreatment of gay and bisexual men and transgender women in New York erupted in 1969, the world’s attention became fixed for a time on a square mile or so in lower Manhattan. Black and white TVs in big consoles in suburban communities showed what many saw as part of life in sin city. These images reinforced their Edward-Hopper-film-noir picture of city life. A year later when I visited New York for the first time, it felt both dangerous and delicious to walk the village. Then, police patrolled the streets in groups of two or more, but never alone. They were everywhere, on every block, all the time.I did not witness the activist groups that were being formed at the time, at least not in New York.
But in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I was participating in two such groups, one with great regularity. Michael, Paris, and several of our other gay friends met weekly in intense rap sessions. Some broke into another group considering confrontation about Milwaukee’s Mafia owned establishments where bribes to police were regularly passed across the bar. Then for some reason or other – the bribe not enough, perhaps – a raid would ensue. A back door provided escape for most, in not all, the patrons. Those caught were taken to the station and kept there for hours. This alternative group was not so much organized as it was passionate, not so much active as it was angry.
The rap group re-conceptualized itself over time as a consciousness raising group. We had regular meetings for 50 weeks each year for much of three years, maybe longer. The group ultimately gave into the challenges of people moving, getting into or out of relationships, and changing jobs. Before we dissolved, however, we worked to discover what it was to have a gay identity, to love men. We worked for months on defining who we were as men not in contrast to women, the way that we believed heterosexual men did. A racially and ethnically diverse group, we addressed our sexism and our racism, including the pull to eroticize and exoticize men of color.
I do not recall being aware of what was happening in New York or San Francisco, Boston or Atlanta regarding gay liberation. It was not that I didn’t care. I just cared more about what was happening in Milwaukee, my gay community. I enjoyed reading our local stapled gay press. I grew my hair long, sported a Jew-fro, and then got it straightened. I hung with a couple of straight hippies who were school aids in the classroom in which I taught. I recall loving my trips to San Francisco in the mid-1970s, but less for gay culture than for culture period. I shared with my group the stories of my frequent trips to the draft office, finally culminating in my 4-F status as a pervert.
Between my time as an undergraduate and graduate school, I attended a gay school of sorts. My travels were to museums. My funds went to bars and restaurants and coffee houses and theaters and concerts. I saw Jacques Brel and went to black and tan bars. I learned about protest, privilege, porcelain, and provenance.
These memories for me are more than nostalgia. They informed a perspective I was developing as a gay man, not as sexual minority, but as a man who had less need for traditional systems and who still wanted community. My pals at the time were wiser and more thoughtful than I. Our experiences together certainly shaped me. I came into community. I learned to hold my own in the places where acceptance was not forthcoming.