Monday, June 27, 2011

Ginsberg at Stonewall, NYC, June 28, 1969: "Defend the fairies!"

"We are the Stonewall girls

We wear our hair in curls

We show our pubic hair ...

we wear our dungarees

above our nelly knees!"

(Chant at Stonewall, June 1969)

The passage of legislation permitting same-sex marriage in New York State -- regardless of the legal challenges and moral outrage that will likely become part of the 2012 presidential campaign -- comes at an historical moment of another kind: the 42nd anniversary of the Stonewall Inn riots, in the West Village, June 27-28, 1969.

The police who harassed the crowd that had gathered to observe the funeral of Judy Garland that evening were met by patrons who refused to show I.D. one more time, including Marsha P. Johnson, a transgender activist. What happened afterward has been called by many names -- a riot, an uprising, a beginning -- but it began, as many historical events do, at a point when the ideas of the past collide with the idea of a future.

Allen Ginsberg, never one to miss the action of whatever kind, was eventually drawn to The Stonewall Inn to make the scene. As it was reported in Lucien K Truscott IV’s controversial Village Voice account:

“... Allen Ginsberg and Taylor Mead walked by to see what was happening and were filled in on the previous evening’s activities by some of the gay activists. 'Gay power. Isn’t that great!' Allen said. 'We’re one of the largest minorities in the country –- 10 percent, you know. It’s about time we did something to assert ourselves.'

Ginsberg expressed a desire to visit the Stonewall ('You know, I've never been in there') and ambled on down the street, flashing peace signs and helloing the TPF. It was a relief and a kind of a joy to see him on the street. He lent an extra umbrella of serenity to the scene with his laughter and quiet commentary on consciousness, 'gay power' as a new movement, and the various implications of what had happened.

I followed him into the Stonewall where rock music blared from speakers all around a room that might have come from a Hollywood set of a gay bar. He was immediately bouncing and dancing wherever he moved.

He left, and I walked east with him. Along the way he described how things used to be. 'You know, the guys there were so beautiful –- they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.' It was the first time I had heard that crowd described as beautiful.

Outside the Stonewall Inn, June 27-28, 1969

We reached Cooper Square, and as Ginsberg turned to head toward home, he waved and yelled 'Defend the fairies!' and bounced on across the square. He enjoyed the prospect of 'gay power' and is probably working on a manifesto for the movement right now. Watch out. The liberation is underway.

As David Carter has pointed out: 'Ginsberg's characterization of the change that the Stonewall Uprising had brought about was so trenchant that when the early gay activist Allen Young interviewed (him) for the literary magazine, Gay Sunshine, the only question that (he) asked him about Stonewall was the circumstances behind Allen's statement.' Allen's reply:

'I wasn't there at the riot. I heard about it, and I went down the next night to the Stonewall to show the colors. A crowd was there, and the place was open. So I said, the best thing I can do is go in; the worst that can happen is I'll calm the scene. They're not going to attack them while I'm there. I"ll just start a big "Om". I didn't relate to the violent part. The trashing part I thought was bitchy, unnecessary, hysterical. But, on the other hand, there was this image that everybody wanted to make that they could beat up the police, which apparently they managed to do. It was so funny as an image that it was hard to disapprove of, even though it involved a little violence'." ...

Whatever happens next in New York, the sixth state to ratify same-sex marriage, is anyone's guess (one opponent called the law's passage in a blue state a victory of "the last of the low-hanging fruit"), but lawsuits and presidential-year politics are sure to follow.

It would be interesting to see what Ginsberg and many before him, like Harry Hay of the Mattachine Society, would say about the continuing efforts to legalize same-sex marriage. It will be a different world to imagine that what was once too scandalous to speak openly of in a court of law will be the basis of that court's august deliberations about the very meaning of marriage.

(1969 Stonewall photo from the Columbia University archives)

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