Firstly, I really want to apologize for the lack of articles this month (Pride month of all months!), my job has been insanely busy lately and, unfortunately — I’m sure you’ve all noticed and are probably upset by this too — queer people still have to work in June. So, while I was really trying to get this post up three weeks ago….I’m doing the best I can right now. (And honestly, this could have — maybe should have — been a lot longer but…life is getting in my way.)
Anyways, you all probably noticed earlier this month a lot of attention being paid to the 40th anniversary of the official beginning of the AIDS crisis in the United States. And while its certainly true that June 5th was when the CDC published its first report, it wasn’t the first time the growing epidemic had been publicly written about. Dr. Lawrence D. Mass had covered it nearly a month earlier.
Lawrence D. Mass was born in Macon, Georgia on June 11, 1946. I can’t really find anything about his childhood, so I assume it was pretty uneventful — which is pretty good considering he was growing up gay and Jewish in Georgia in the late 1940’s and 50’s. He graduated from the University of California at Berkley in 1969 with a B.A. and then attended the Abraham Lincoln School of Medicine at the University of Illinois, graduating with his M.D. in 1973. Following that, in association with Harvard Medical School, he completed a residency in anesthesiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
In 1973, the American Psychiatry Association changed its classification of homosexuality, so it was no longer considered a mental illness. Unfortunately, that didn’t change the homophobia of many of the people practicing psychiatry at the time. Mass went up for a residency in psychiatry in Chicago, but mentioned in the interview that he was gay — and the response was, well, not good. It was the first of multiple interviews over several years where this happened. So Mass changed his whole career trajectory — he moved into activism and journalism. (And, not to be grateful for a bunch of homophobic jerks in Chicago or anything, but that turns out to have been a good thing for all of us.)
With homosexuality’s declassification as a mental illness, that did mean that gay practitioners could come out of the closet. Before long, the Gay Caucus of Members of the American Psychiatric Association was formed (now called the Caucus of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender & Questioning/Queer Psychiatrists.) Lawrence Mass became the editor of their newsletter. He was not afraid to feature politically charged articles in that newsletter — the first issue featured the article “Psychoanalytic Statute Prevents Legal Entry of Gay Aliens,” which exposed public policies that relied on out of date theories for justification. At the same time, he began contributing to a number of newspapers and magazines catering to the LGBTQIA+ community — using his expertise in medical fields to better inform his writing. His first piece was published in Boston’s Gay Community News.
Using his medical background and his insight into the American Psychiatric Association (through the caucus), Mass became — as he would put it — “a chronicler of a critical shift in scientific thinking about sexuality.” But he wasn’t just looking at how psychiatry was viewing homosexuality, he was watching shifts in a whole bunch of fields — not just medical science, but social science and political science. He interviewed a lot of leaders in the shift occurring across numerous fields of research, including Judd Marmor, Mary Calderone, John Boswell, Martin Duberman, and many others. Most of these interviews would go on to be compiled in his Dialogues of the Sexual Revolution collections. They provide important insight into the major cultural shift that was taking place in the USA in the decade following the Stonewall Uprising.
Mass also brought his medical background to discussions about sexual health in the gay community during the 1970’s in these same publications, covering the spread of STDs and even topics concerning fetish and kink — like 1979’s “Coming to Grips With Sado-Masochism” in The Advocate.
After a few years of that, it’s little wonder that rumors about an unusual illness afflicting gay men were brought to him. His best efforts to investigate met with little success — he’d talked to a friend who worked in a New York City emergency room, and learned of eleven cases (albeit only five or six of the patients were gay men). While that was promising, both the New York State Health Department and the Center for Disease Control assured him the rumors he was pursuing were baseless. Though he didn’t have all the information he was looking for, Mass went to print — hoping that laying out the facts as he had learned them would help keep his community informed and keep the rumors from starting any kind of panic. On May 18, 1981 his article “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded” appeared in the pages of The New York Native which was, at the time, the most influential gay newspaper in the country. Although no one knew it at the time, it was the first published document about AIDS (at least in the US — though I haven’t found anything published earlier anywhere else either). The story would get picked up by the L.A. Times in June, with hardly any more answers that Mass had already gotten (as the L.A. Times article was published the same day as the CDC’s report.)
Mass’ article stressed that there was no reason to believe that whatever was (or was not happening) was linked to the gay community. One theory put forth in his research was that it was a new virulent strain of a fairly common microscopic organism, and such a thing obviously wouldn’t be tied to just one community. As Mass continued to publish articles as the epidemic unfolded, he stood by this — it was not a gay illness. While it certainly had a profound impact on the gay community, it’s true that we were not the only ones afflicted. Diseases don’t discriminate, and Mass was well aware of that.
By 1982, it was becoming increasingly clear as HIV/AIDS was found in more people than just gay men. Nevertheless, he joined Larry Kramer, Edmund White, Paul Rapoport, Paul Popham, and Nathan Fain in formally founding Gay Men’s Health Crisis (or GMHC) he was the last hold out on the organization’s name — insisting it was not a gay disease. He was overruled, something for which he later said he was grateful because the name works for the organization, even if it isn’t just a gay man’s disease. To this day GMHC remains one of the biggest and most important AIDS organizations in the world. Mass wrote all four editions of GMHC’s Medical Answers About AIDS.
Mass committed himself to providing up to date and accurate information about the AIDS epidemic and combatting AIDS denialism, but early in his research he was confronted with an incident of overt anti-Semitism — the first he’d experienced as an adult. The event was traumatic, and led him to realize that he’d been surrounded by anti-Semitism his whole life, and even internalized a lot of it. Ultimately, this led to his publishing an autobiographical collection of essays in 1994, entitled Confessions of a Jewish Wagnerite. (“Wagnerite” because Mass was a big fan of Wilhelm Richard Wagner, the German composer. As Mass began to broach more subjects in his writing during the 90’s, his love of music became one of his chosen topics.)
The years of research into anti-Semitism helped give Mass a unique insight into the subject of his next major publication: We Must Love One Another or Die: The Life and Legacy of Larry Kramer, published in 1997. Mass was an editor for the book, taking contributions from notables like Anthony Fauci and Tony Kushner, but his own contribution — at the beginning of the book and entitled “Larry vs. Larry” — details a tumultuous friendship, but also recalls how inspiring Mass found Kramer’s personal voice in his writing was.
About that time, the late 90’s, Mass also found himself writing regular articles for gay publications about public health issues facing the gay community other than HIV/AIDS — crystal meth addiction, anal cancer. As the decade came to a close, he began writing specifically regarding bear subculture, publishing articles in American Bear Magazine and in A Bear’s Life Magazine.
Much of Lawrence Mass’ work has been collected and archived by the New York Public Library. That said, Mass is still listed as a contributor on the Huffington Post, but all of his most recent writings have been on Medium. He is presently living in New York City with his partner, activist Arnie Kantrowitz. Sounds like a happy ending, and after everything he (and Arnie, but that’s another story) have done for our community, I think that’s very well deserved.
Today’s post comes to you by popular demand — which makes sense because she was very popular, and she also knew what she wanted and demanded it! Well, okay, mostly she just got it herself. She knew exactly who she was from a remarkably young age and never wavered.
Isabel Vargas Lizano was born on April 17, 1919 to Francisco Vargas and Herminia Lizano in San Joaquin de Flores, Costa Rica. As far as I can tell, it was a pretty unremarkable event. She was frequently called “Chavela” by her family. Despite that affectionate nickname, things would take a turn for the worse — her very religious parents were embarrassed by Chavela’s tomboy-ishness, going so far as to hide her when they had visitors to their home. They ultimately divorced, leaving her to be raised by her uncle, and then she contracted polio. Chavela managed to survive the illness relatively unscathed — she and her family credited this to the rituals and talismans of shamans and witches, rather than the scientific medicine of doctors.
By seventeen years old, Chavela was fully aware that she wanted a career in music and — since there weren’t many musical opportunities in Costa Rica — she moved to Mexico. Initially, she sang on the streets — dressed in traditionally masculine clothing, wearing the red poncho (or more specifically a jorongo) that would become a signature part of her performance “look” in her professional years. The look was a conscious decision — Chavela felt she looked “like a transvestite” in women’s clothing and had trouble walking in heels. To fit into the masculine music scene she was attempting to break into, she began smoking cigars, drinking heavily, and making sure to keep a gun on her at all times. During this period of her career, sometime in the mid-1940s, she had an affair with Frida Kahlo — the romance was relatively brief, but intense. Chavela even lived with Frida and her then-husband Diego Rivera for more than a year. And Frida expressed in letters to her friends that she was very attracted to Chavela. (And yet, there are — of course — scholars who are certain they were just good friends.)
In her thirties, she became a professional, becoming known for her own unique take on ranchera — singing solo, with only her guitar as accompaniment instead of a mariachi band, and slowing down the tempo for more dramatic tension or so they could come across as more humorous and, y’know, suggestive. These songs were typically sung from a man’s perspective ( a straight man’s, I should say) and Chavela Vargas refused to change the genders in the songs when she sang them. While her homosexuality certainly would not have been approved of offstage, on stage it was all part of an entertaining act that audiences embraced.
Towards the end of the 1950’s, her reputation began to expand greatly — particularly in artistic circles. She was a popular performer in Acapulco, singing in the champagne room of La Perla, frequently in front of tourists from other parts of the world. She was so well regarded that she was hired to sing at the wedding of Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd on February 2, 1957. Chavela would later claim that she slept with Ava Gardner at that wedding — I haven’t found an corroboration of that, nor have I found any other examples of Ava Gardner having dalliances with women, but I suppose we all have to experiment at least once in our lives and if Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding isn’t the time and place to do it, when is? She is known to have had numerous romances after this — including, apparently, with some very famous people, but she would never share their names. A few have stepped forward, including American author Betty-Carol Sellen, but Chavela was very careful to keep these things private (particularly, I assume, because very few if any of them would have been open about their sexuality at the time!)
In 1961, with the help of José Alfredo Jiménez, Chavela’s first album was released: Noche de Bohemia. This was the first of more than 80 albums that she’d release over the course of her career. Later that year she released Con el cuarteto Lara Foster. Rumor has it that although her career was just beginning to take off, Chavela began a short-lived affair with Arabella Árbenz Villanova in 1964 after their paths crossed coincidentally — the problem being that Arabella was also having a torrid romance with Televisa executive Emilio Azcárraga Milmo, also known as “El Tigre.” When El Tigre learned of this affair he was infuriated and tried to destroy her career. Despite his pretty powerful influence in Mexico, he very nearly did. although Chavela Vargas is — as far as I can tell — still banned from appearing on Televisa in any capacity.
Her next album, Hacia la vida was released in 1966. By the time her fourth album Corridosde la revolución came out in 1970, Chavela had become quite popular, though she still wasn’t invited to headline concerts — but as her popularity grew, so did her alcoholism. Despite her struggle with drinking, Chavela managed to release three albums in 1973 and one more in 1975. However, due to her constant battle with addiction and El Tigre’s continuing campaign against her — Chavela was forced to retire and completely disappeared from the public eye.
The details are a little bit sketchy here, but according to Chavela while she was “submerged in an alcoholic haze” — as she would later describe it — she was found and taken in by a family of Native Mexicans who attempted to help nurse her back to health. It would be decades before the public learned any of this, and at the time many assumed she had died. She had very little money at this time, and sometimes only ate when friends invited her to their homes for meals.
On September 2, 1988, at the request of mutual friend Patria Jiminez, lawyer Dr. Alicia Elena Pérez Duarte arrived at Chavela Vargas’ home in order to stop her from drunkenly signing some legal documents. This began an intense romantic relationship, which both Chavela and Alicia would describe as “something greater than love.” Chavela moved in with Alicia and her four kids — but Chavela’s reliance on alcohol, and her great attachment to firearms, put a heavy strain on the relationship. Although Chavela did manage to quit drinking — which she credits to a shamanistic ritual (though Duarte has publicly disagreed with that statement) — it turned out her violent streak and penchant for guns was not dependent upon alcohol at all. Alicia ended the relationship, though she remained Chavela’s legal representation.
In 1989, a couple of Chavela’s albums were rereleased, sparking renewed interest in the singer. When the nightclub El Hábito opened in Mexico City in 1991, they invited her to perform after spotting her in their audience. Eventually, she agreed — though it was her first time performing on a stage since the 70’s and she was 72 years old at the time. It was also her first ever sober performance. This launched a full revival of her career, which involved several more albums and also international fame the likes of which she had not experienced before. She performed not just in Mexico but even performed numerous sold out shows in Spain and France. And finally, she was the headliner of these shows — an honor she had certainly earned.
She also provided music for several films during this period, primarily at the behest of Pedro Almodóvar who was a fan, a friend, and a champion for her career after meeting her in Madrid in 1992. Chavela once described him as “my husband in this world.” He traveled the world with her, pushing greater and greater opportunities towards her. Despite his best efforts, she insisted that she did not want to begin a career as an actress — although she did appear in the 2002 biographical film Frida about her former lover Frida Kahlo, singing her song “La Llorona.”
That was the same year Chavela published her autobiography Y si quieres saber de mi pasado (which translates to And if you want to know about my past). Although her sexuality had been a fairly open secret for decades — her relationships with women were fairly well known rumors, not to mention her refusal to ever change the genders or pronouns in the songs she sang — it was within the pages of her autobiography that she finally, publicly came out as a lesbian.
The following year on September 15, at age 83, Chavela Vargas had her debut performance at Carnegie Hall. The performance was recorded and released as an album creatively entitled Chavela at Carnegie Hall. The performance was considered groundbreaking given her age and sexuality in a musical genre that generally would have denied her for either of those, and in 2019 the album of the recording was named on Mitú’s list of Spanish-language albums that “Changed the Face and Feel of the Music Industry” calling it “the stuff dreams and legends are made of.”
In 2012, just months after releasing her final album Luna grande, the 93-year old Chavela Vargas was hospitalized in Cuernavaca, Mexico for respiratory problems. Several weeks later, on August 5, she passed away. It’s comforting, I think, that when she did pass away she knew it was coming and seemed to have made peace with it. She spent her final days making statements like “My name is Chavela Vargas, don’t let them forget!” Her final words, according to her Facebook page, were “I leave with Mexico in my heart.”
But truthfully, it’s hard to “leave” if your music is as significant as hers remains to this day, and there’s certainly no way to forget her. Aside from the longevity of her own music, she’s received a lot of tributes — Joaquín Sabina’s song “Por el Boulevard de los Sueños Rotos” is dedicated to her, Juan Carlos created a series of portraits of Chavela which were presented at the Centro Cultural de España en México in Mexico City in 2012. One of the characters in Sergio Ramírez Mercado’s novel La Fugitiva is based off of Chavela. And in 2017, the biographical documentary Chavela was released. She’s even had a Google Doodle in her honor! In 2019, she was commemorated on the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco, which is a “walk of fame” type of thing for LGBTQ+ people who have “made significant contributions in their field.” Given that she essentially reinvented ranchero music, opening it up to women performers, I’d call “significant contributions” an understatement. She remains one of, if not the, most celebrated lesbian in Mexican history.
Before we begin, I do want to take a moment to apologize for my lengthy hiatus — life just got really busy around the holidays and — I’m sure you’ve all noticed — a lot has been going on since then just in the world. Anyways, craziness aside, it’s Pride month now and festivals or no, I was not about to let this month go by without writing out some queer history for you! So, we’re back! I was writing a post about Harvey Milk, but then something happened that called for me to change courses: we lost a legend. Not to spoil the end of this post or anything, but Larry Kramer passed away last week. And as he was someone who had a profound impact on our community…I couldn’t just not write about him.
Laurence “Larry” David Kramer was born in Bridgeport, CT on June 25, 1935 in the midst of the Great Depression. He was the second child of a struggling Jewish family, who had really not wanted another mouth to feed as they struggled to find work. His father George Kramer was a government attorney, his mother Rea worked variously as a shoe store employee, a teacher, and a social worker with the Red Cross.
Eventually — after the Depression — the family moved to Maryland — I’m guessing because of his dad’s job — but they were in a much lower income bracket than the family’s of Larry’s fellow students at his school. Larry had his first sexual relationship with another boy during junior high school. It was, from what I can gather, purely sexual and not romantic at all.
As he grew up, he had mounting pressure from his family. His father wanted him to marry a wealthy Jewish woman, and go to Yale, and become a member of the Pi Tau Pi fraternity. Although Larry enrolled at Yale….the rest of that is not exactly how things were going to go down. When Larry got to Yale, he found himself very isolated, feeling like the only gay guy on campus. This is 1953, so there’s not like a Gay/Straight Alliance he can just join up with — he’s pretty much stuck on his own with no way of connecting with other queer students. So, he tried to kill himself by overdosing on aspirin.
Fortunately, the attempt failed. I don’t know the details, but I’m hoping he just like…got a cramp for ten minutes and then was fine. Probably not, because he was very much changed after that. He became loud, proud, determined to fight for gay people and determined to explore his own sexuality. And determined not to marry a rich Jewish woman. The following semester, he began a romantic relationship with his German professor. He joined the Varsity Glee Club, and was an active member there until he graduated in 1957 with a degree in English. As far as I know, he never joined Pi Tau Pi.
At the age of 23, Larry became involved in movie productions, taking a job at Columbia Pictures as a Teletype operator — a job where the office happened to be across the hall from the president’s office. This led pretty directly to his first writing credit, a dialogue writer for Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. He followed this by adapting the novel Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence into a screenplay. The movie was nominated for an Oscar in 1969. Larry’s third major project was a musical adaption of Frank Capra’s movie Lost Horizon, which debuted in 1973. Though Larry later was embarrassed by the project, it made him a substantial amount of money that, due to some wise investments made by Larry’s older brother Arthur, gave him enough money to not worry about money for the better part of the 80s and 90s. Doesn’t sound all that embarrassing when you look at it like that, huh?
Having established himself, Larry began taking some risks. He started writing plays and — much riskier — he started adding homosexual elements to his work. The first of these plays was 1973’s Sissies’ Scrapbook (which would later become the play Four Friends — I gather the play is better but the title’s pretty forgettable now.) Larry found he loved writing for the stage — until the producer canceled the show despite a favorable review in The New York Times. At that point, Larry promised never to write for the stage again.
In 1978, following a break up with his boyfriend David Webster, he wrote and published the novel Faggots. The book was based around a character who was looking for love, but was caught up in drugs and partying in bars and clubs on Fire Island and in Manhattan. To say that the book was not well received is an understatement. Heterosexual readers found it appalling, and could not believe that it reflected an accurate representation of a gay man’s life. The queer community had an even harsher reaction to the book — the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, the only gay bookstore in New York at the time, refused to sell the book at all. Larry was banned from the local grocery store where he lived on Fire Island. The book was universally trashed by mainstream and queer media alike.
Despite that, Faggots is one of the best-selling gay novels of all time and has not been out of publication at all since its debut. The book is often taught in LGBTQ+ studies. It’s been noted that the themes of Faggots are still relevant to the gay community to this day — the negative reaction to the book, as pointed out by many who’ve studied the book since it was first published, such as Reynolds Price and Andrew Sullivan, is largely because it touched a nerve and was more honest than people were comfortable with.
Despite the reaction to the novel, Larry still managed to have a lot of friends on Fire Island, so when a number of them began to fall ill in 1980, he was concerned. The next year, after reading an article in the New York Times about “gay cancer”, he decided something had to be done. He invited about 80 affluent gay men to his home in New York City, where they listened to a doctor explain what little they knew about the related illnesses afflicting gay men. By the next year, this group had officially formed into the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) which quickly became the primary organization raising funds and helping to provide services for those afflicted with AIDS in and around New York. GMHC is still providing support for people who are impacted by HIV and AIDS and has been expanding every year.
Kramer led the GMHC in a fight to get funding from the city to help them provide much-needed services to those fighting the disease. He made NYC mayor Ed Koch a principle target for this fight. When doctors began to suggest that, to curb the spread of the disease, gay men stop having sex, Larry brought this to the GMHC and suggested they spread the word. His colleagues refused.
Larry was not deterred. He wrote a fiery piece called “1,112 and Counting” which was published in the gay newspaper the New York Native. The essay attacked basically everyone. Healthcare workers, the CDC, politicians — and it also went after the apathy of the gay community. The piece did something important than no one else had managed: it caught the attention of the rest of New York’s media. It finally had people talking about the AIDS epidemic. According to Tony Kushner, author of Angels in America, “With that one piece, Larry changed my world. He changed the world for all of us.”
Unfortunately, it also contributed to Larry’s growing reputation as a confrontational crazy person. He had gone toe-to-toe with an NIH agency of not devoting more resources to the AIDS crisis because he was deeply in the closet. Similarly, Larry had it out quite publicly with conservative fundraiser Terry Dolan, even throwing a drink in his face, for secretly having sex with men while using homophobia as a political tool to his advantage. He argued with his brother, whose law firm Kramer Levin refused to represent GMHC. He called Ed Koch his cohorts in city government “equal to murderers.” He even attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the scientist who was leading the government’s response (once there was one.) Ultimately, this behavior led to the dissolution of Larry’s long-term relationship with a fellow member of the board of GMHC and — perhaps even more devastating — it led to GMHC removing Larry from the organization he’d essentially started in 1983.
After his removal from the group, Larry traveled to Europe. While he was there, he visited the Dachau concentration camp where he was horrified to learn that it had begun operating in 1933 and no one, in or out of Germany, had seen fit to stop it. He felt this paralleled the US government’s response to AIDS. Despite having sworn never to write for the stage again, Larry churned out a script for the play The Normal Heart — a somewhat autobiographical look at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I’m not going to talk too much about its contents, other than to say that you should absolutely watch it — you can see the 2014 film version on Hulu or Amazon Prime, starring Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer. The play itself was groundbreaking — one of, if not the, script to actually talk about AIDS. The play premiered in 1985, a full year before President Ronald Reagan would publicly mention the disease. It was produced by the Public Theater — running for over a year and becoming the Public Theater’s longest running production. It’s been produced over 600 times since then, in countries all over the world. (That’s not even counting the movie!)
Two years later, Larry was invited to speak at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in NYC. His speech was well-attended and focused on fighting AIDS. He started the speech by having two-thirds of the people in the room stand up — and then he informed them that they would be dead within five years. For the most part, the rest of his speech was rehashing his points from “1,112 And Counting.” At the end of the speech, he asked the attendees if they wanted to start a new organization devoted to political action. The audience agreed that they did, and two days later about 300 of them met again to form the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT UP) — an direct action organization primarily focused on advocating on behalf of issues relating AIDS and HIV, such as medical research and improving public policies.
Initially, their primary method was civil disobedience. They sought to get attention for their cause by getting their members arrested. Larry himself was arrested over a dozen times. ACT UP did manage to capture a lot of attention — with new chapters forming rapidly across the United States and even into Europe. (And, if you’ve seen or heard RENT or watched the second season of Pose you already knew about them. And if you haven’t watched Pose, fix your life. After you finish reading this.)
In 1988, Larry wrote his next script — Just Say No, A Play About a Farce. Despite the title, the play is not a farce, it’s a dramatic piece that is almost entirely a commentary on the indifference the Reagan administration showed towards the AIDS epidemic. The play received a terrible review from the New York Times which kept most audiences away. However, those who did attend reportedly loved the show. After seeing it, activist and writer Susan Sontag wrote, “Larry Kramer is one of America’s most valuable troublemakers. I hope he never lowers his voice.”
The stress of the opening of the show caused Larry to suffer a hernia, which sent Larry to the a few weeks after the show opened. While there, they discovered he had experienced liver damage from Hepatitis B and, subsequently, they found that he was HIV positive. Nevertheless, Larry was not deterred, and he was not about to lower his voice.
He published a non-fiction book called Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist in 1989. The book documents his career as an activist, particularly his time at GMHC but also his work with ACT UP and a lot of letters to editors and speeches he wrote. The book encouraged gay men to take responsibility for their own health, and urged survivors to help strengthen their community by giving back to it and advocating for it. The book also, quite intentionally but definitely controversially, declares the AIDS epidemic a holocaust, stating the government ignored it because it was primarily wiping out minorities and poor people.
His next piece was a sequel to The Normal Heart called The Destiny of Me in 1992, which was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, won two Obie Awards, and the Lortel Award for Outstanding Play of the Year. To be honest, I haven’t seen it or read it (yet!) so I’m not going to tell you too much else about it.
In 1995, Larry reunited with his ex-boyfriend David Webster. The two were together for the rest of Larry’s life.
In 1997, Larry tried to give several million dollars to Yale to establish a continuous, permanent gay studies class, and to possibly construct a gay and lesbian student center. The proposal was incredibly narrow — something which Larry would later himself comment on the flaw of — and stated “Yale is to use this money solely for 1) the study of and/or instruction in gay male literature, by which I mean courses to study gay male writers throughout history or the teaching to gay male students of writing about their heritage and their experience. To ensure for the continuity of courses in either or both of these areas tenured positions should be established; and/or 2) the establishment of a gay student center at Yale.” The provost declined, stating it was too narrow a field of study. By 2001, however, Larry and Yale reached an agreement. Arthur Kramer gave Yale 1 million dollars to have a five year trial of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies — a program focused on gay and lesbian history.
2001 was also the year that Larry needed a liver transplant. He was rejected by Mount Sinai Hospital’s organ transplant list because of his HIV. At the time, HIV positive patients were routinely rejected because of a belief that they were more likely to have complications. I don’t know if that was true or not at the time, I’m not a doctor and I don’t really follow advances in organ transplants. Larry certainly considered it discrimination, and — as we could predict by now — he was not quiet about it. In May — with the help of Dr. Fauci, who he had actually become very good friends with over the years — he was added to the transplant list at the Thomas E. Starzl Transplantation Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. It was too late to stop the media though — on June 11, Newsweek published an article titled “The Angry Prophet is Dying”. He received his transplant on December 21 and was moved out of the intensive care unit on December 26. There was some miscommunication about that, which led the Associated Press to release an article erroneously announcing that he had died. In actuality, he was in a regular hospital room and was released to his home the following week.
Larry managed to stay out of trouble for a couple of years after that — until George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004. Larry believed Bush’s re-election was mostly due to opposition to marriage equality, so he gave a speech entitled “The Tragedy of Today’s Gays” on November 21 of that year. The speech was published in a book the following year. In the speech, he laid out the framework for an intentional plan by the wealthy and conservative elite to destroy the lives of racial minorities, non-Christians, the poor, and gays and lesbians that went back as far as 1971 with the “Powell Manifesto”. He described the AIDS epidemic as a dream come true for this behind this — a genocide that the undesirables spread among themselves. It was mostly hailed as a passionate and truthful call to arms. Others, however, accused Larry of homophobia — pointing to his history of being anti-sex in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and Faggots to establish a pattern. I’d like to point out, though, that much of what he was warning us about is proving true right now.
The next decade was a fairly quiet one, although the Broadway revival of The Normal Heart won a Tony Award in 2011, and he married David Webster in 2013. The following year, of course, The Normal Heart was made into a movie.
In 2015 he published the novel The American People: Volume 1, Search for my Heart, a passion project he’d been working on since 1981. In it, he asserted that a number of important American historical figures were gay: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, Herman Melville, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Richard Nixon…. while the novel is a work of fiction, apparently he put a great deal of research into it, but I am still really skeptical about most of those names. (But I’m definitely doing some of my own research just to be sure!)
Anyways, this year — 2020 — he released the second volume of The American People: Volume 2, The Brutality of Fact. The combined work is called The American People: A History. I haven’t read it yet. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Larry began writing a new play called An Army of Lovers Must Not Die. Unfortunately, he was unable to finish it before he came down with pneumonia and passed away on May 27.
Larry Kramer had a remarkable ability to force a spotlight to shine on issues. He probably garnered more attention for the AIDS crisis than anyone outside of Rock Hudson. He certainly reshaped the way that the government, and scientists — particularly those working with the government — respond to activists. He had a profound impact on medicine in general — it is because of him that part of the process the FDA uses to approve new drugs involves consulting with representatives from groups who will use the medicine. He will likely go down as one of the most aggressive activists in queer history, but he’ll have that reputation because when he did it…it worked.
Most of the people who were at the Stonewall uprising in 1969 are primarily known for their involvement with the riot — even though most of them went on to be heavily involved in activism in the following decades. Craig Rodwell is another story. Craig was so heavily involved in activism both before and after the riots that his presence there is basically a footnote.
Rodwell was born October 31, 1940 in Chicago. His parents separated before his first birthday, and for the beginning of his life he was sent away to for “day care” — this day care, however, made him start doing laundry and working in the kitchen as soon as he was old enough. When he was six, his mother realized that maybe this wasn’t the best arrangement if she wanted to keep custody of him and so she sent him to a Christian Science school for “problem boys” called Chicago Junior School. He attended that school for seven years, where he got a reputation for being rebellious — but also for being a “sissy.”
By all accounts, the “problem boys” there frequently fooled around sexually — though with nothing serious behind it. At fourteen, Rodwell pursued a relationship with an adult man. When the two were caught by police, who refused to believe Rodwell when he insisted he’d started the relationship and was at fault, the man was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for having sex with a minor. The police tried to encourage him to lie in his testimony, asking him to say that the man had paid him money. Rodwell refused, and was threatened with juvenile detention — ultimately he was just ordered by the court to see a psychiatrist, but the experience colored his view of the legal system for the rest of his life.
Rodwell also fully believed the Christian Science teachings he was learning — particularly the idea that “truth is power and that truth is the greatest good.” As a result, after he graduated and began attending Sullivan High School, he enrolled himself in a Christian science Sunday school. It was in these classes he learned that Christian Science didn’t approve of homosexuality — something Rodwell determined he was going to have to change. After high school, Rodwell relocated to Boston to study ballet before moving to New York City in 1958 — intentionally moving to Greenwich Village, where he’d heard there was a large queer community. Rodwell was hoping to become involved in the Mattachine Society.
Unfortunately, the Mattachine Society required its members to be 21 or older. Rodwell also couldn’t get into any of the gay bars yet — so he spent his time in parks, connecting with the gay community on the streets. This made him pretty vulnerable to the police, and he was involved in more than one scrape with them. But this only made him more radical.
In 1962, Rodwell was dating Harvey Milk — who was still in the closet (and just, generally, had a lot of growing to do before he becomes the Milk we all know and love). This was Rodwell’s first serious relationship. Rodwell’s outspoken activism was unsettling for Milk, and he also blamed Rodwell for an STD that he contracted. (Not unreasonable, really.) In September, Rodwell was arrested for resisting the police when they swept through a popular cruising area of Jacob Riis Park. While in jail, Rodwell was physically abused by one of the guards. When he was released from jail, Milk dumped him. His self-confidence rattled, Rodwell tried to end his own life. Fortunately for the entire queer community, the attempt failed. He left New York to travel for a couple of years.
In 1964, Rodwell returned to New York and devoted himself to activism for the “homophile” community (as we called ourselves then — I am so glad we don’t use that term anymore). He was volunteering with the Mattachine Society — using his legal name, which was a rarity in that time — and even serving as their vice president. He founded the Mattachine Young Adults organization, and was an early member of the East Coast Homophile Organizations (ECHO) — which coordinated various homophile groups from around the eastern seaboard. On September 19, he and several other notable activists including Randy Wicker, Jefferson Poland, and Renee Cafiero staged a protest against the military’s exclusion of gay service members — and the practice of dishonorably discharging those who were found out. This is officially recognized as the first organized LGBTQ+ protest in United States history (though I suspect there were some before that we just don’t acknowledge).
In a coordinated protest with ECHO, Rodwell and Wicker led a protest at the United Nations Plaza in New York on April 18, 1965 — joined by Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, and roughly 25 other protesters. Days after this protest, the sit-in protest at Dewey’s began in Philadelphia. With the other leaders of ECHO, including Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings, it was decided they needed regular protests to remind the nation about the plight of the queer community — they could not afford to only protest when there was a crisis happening in Cuba or in Philadelphia. And so, on July 4, 1965, the first of the Annual Reminders was held at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
In 1966, Rodwell was ejected from a bar called Julius’ for wearing a pin that read “Equality for Homosexuals.” On April 21, with the help of John Timmons and Mattachine president Dick Leitsch, Rodwell held a “sip-in” at the bar. This was specifically to protest a rule by State Liquor Authority that prohibited homosexuals from gathering in places that served alcohol. Rodwell and his cohorts held that the rule encouraged bribery and corruption amongst the police. The publicity from this sit-in led directly to that particular rule ending.
In order to try make the Mattachine Society more accessible, Rodwell proposed they open a storefront. When the idea was rejected, he cut his ties with the organization. In November of 1967, Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop — the country’s first store that focused on queer authors. The store was so named because Oscar Wilde was the most notable homosexual he could think of and he wanted absolutely not confusion about what the store was all about. The place functioned as more than just a store — Rodwell also envisioned it as a community center that didn’t have age restrictions and didn’t rely on alcohol (or the organized crime families that owned most of the gay bars in the city). To that end, he found the Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN) out of the bookshop, and led their rallies in that year. In 1968, he started publishing their periodical HYMNAL. Harvey Milk — now friends with Rodwell — was a frequent customer of the store, and it would later be the inspiration his own shop/community center/campaign headquarters Castro Camera in San Francisco. Rodwell also met Fred Sargeant at his store. Sargeant became heavily involved in HYMN and a romantic relationship blossomed.
On June 28, 1969 police raided the Stonewall Inn. (Did you forget, in all of this, that this was coming up too?) Rodwell and Sargeant were walking through Greenwich Village when they happened to see a crowd gathering outside the bar — and caught the beginning of the riots. Rodwell was a leader in fighting back, and led the crowd in various “gay power” chants. He also had a camera with him, and tried to take pictures to document the event. Unfortunately, none of the pictures were successfully developed — which is extra sad because we have hardly any pictures from the first night of riots (even though Rodwell also used a pay phone to call the press and let them know what was happening). Nevertheless, he did share his account of the night — which he described as “one of those moments in history that, if you were there, you knew, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”
The next day, Rodwell created a flyer — which HYMN helped him to disseminate through Greenwich Village — that read “Get the Mafia and the Cops Out of Gay Bars.” The flyers helped encourage further protests the next several nights — protests Rodwell participated in as well.
After the annual reminder of that year — which took place a week after Stonewall — Rodwell decided that the needs of the community had been changed after the riots. He began writing a resolution in his store. In November, Rodwell, Sargeant, Ellen Broidy, and Linda Rhodes proposed the resolution at a Philadelphia meeting of ECHO to change the annual reminders. Instead of happening on July 4 in Philadelphia, they proposed, there would be simultaneous demonstrations in cities across the country on June 28. This would be called Christopher Street Liberation Day, and there would be no dress code (as the annual reminders had had) or age limitations. And so Pride began.
Despite he tremendous work so far, Rodwell found he’d never really been able to address the homophobia in Christian Science. In 1970, he placed a biography of Mary Baker Eddy in a very visible place in his store in order to meet other gay Christian Scientists. Meanwhile, he was continuing to work on advocating for queer rights. He is often credited with inventing the word “heterosexism” in January of 1971, when he wrote “After a few years of this kind of ‘liberated’ existence such people become oblivious and completely unseeing of straight predjudice and – to coin a phrase – the ‘hetero-sexism’ surrounding them virtually 24 hours a day.” In 1973, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop moved from its address on Mercer Street to the corner of Christopher Street and Gay Street.
In 1978 Rodwell formed Gay People in Christian Science (GPICS) with Ray Spitale, Bob McCullogh, and Bob Mackenroth. While they were not the only gay Christian Science organization in the country, they were the only one actively challenging the church’s policies — actively challenging the excommunication of three of their members. This quickly became Rodwell’s primary focus for his activism. GPICS created an eight-page pamphlet entitled “Gay People in Christian Science?” which they proceeded to mail to every Christian Science church, college organization, and practitioner that they could find. Overall, they mailed out 8,000 copies. They then made plans to hand out the pamphlets at the 1980 Annual Meeting of the Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston. To organize this in the least offensive way possible, Rodwell alerted security for the event of their intentions.
When they arrived, they discovered extremely heightened security and police presence. Undeterred, they set up their table and began distributing flyers. They were quickly informed that the booth was illegal and that they needed to leave. The group obeyed, though Rodwell and a handful of others remained on the premises and handed out their pamphlets more discreetly. Unfortunately, the pamphlet wasn’t enough to change the church’s minds and in 1981, the church fired Chris Madsen from the Christian Science Monitor for being a lesbian. GPICS returned to the annual meeting that year, this time fired up. Instead of simply handing out pamphlets, they engaged in loud and disruptive protests.
In the years that followed, queer activism within Christian Science moved to become primarily focused to areas in the Midwest. Although Rodwell remained involved, he took on a much less significant leadership role. He remained heavily involved in queer activism for the remainder of his life.
In 1992, Rodwell received the Lambda Literary Award for Publisher’s Service. In May of that year, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. In March of 1993, he sold the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop to Bill Offenbaker. He passed away on June 18 that year. It was not until 1999 that the Christian Science Church finally began to allow gay and lesbian members.
It’s honestly hard to think of anyone who, in our history, has been so devoted to our community and done so much for us. I find his name crop up in almost everything that happened for our community in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and for some reason I’m always surprised. And given his influence on Harvey Milk, what he accomplished for us actually extended all the way to San Francisco.
Of all of the heroes of the LGBTQIA+ community who fought for us at the Stonewall Riots, I personally think that Sylvia Rivera may have had the most important impact on our community — however, she may also be the most controversial. Though we view her as a hero and champion for our community now, she was not always looked on so fondly.
Sylvia was given the name Ray Rivera when she was born on July 2, 1951 and was of both Puerto Rican and Venezuelan heritage. Her father, Jose Rivera, abandoned the family. Her mother committed suicide — orphaning the young Rivera at only three years old. And so she was raised by her grandmother, who vocally disapproved of how effeminate “Ray” was. This disapproval became even worse when Rivera began to wear makeup in the fourth grade — as a result, she was living on the streets at eleven years old, surviving only by making money through sex work. She was taken in by a group of drag queens, who gave her the name Sylvia that she would carry for the rest of her life.
Rivera developed a very, very fluid sense of gender identity throughout her life. She would alternate between referring to herself as a gay man, a gay girl, a drag queen, a street queen, and a transvestite (while that was still the popular term in usage, anyways.) Consistently, however, she shirked labels whenever possible. In one interview she stated, as a response to the gender identity question: “I am Sylvia Rivera. Ray Rivera left home at the age of 10 to become Sylvia. And that’s who I am.”
Rivera took to activism early, before the Stonewall Riots, and was active in the Civil Rights Movement and protested against the Vietnam War, and was involved in youth activism with the Young Lords and Black Panthers. She was particularly vocal, however, about queer homeless people of color — who she felt were being left behind by a gay community that only wanted to assimilate into the mainstream. She frequently struggled with substance abuse and homelessness herself, so she sought to give a stronger voice to those who — like her — suffered from racism, poverty, as well as inmates, drag queens, and other often ignored sections of the queer community. (Some of these groups, I might add, are still often ignored — we could use another Sylvia Rivera!)
Rivera was a regular customer of the Stonewall Inn in 1969 and was frequently there with her close friend Marsha P. Johnson. Although Rivera stated in interviews in the 90’s that she was present when the riots began, most other accounts — including Johnson’s telling of it — indicate she arrived after the riots began. In fact, by some accounts, she may not actually have been present the first night of the riots at all — though Johnson made sure Rivera was aware of the riots that night, it’s unclear if Rivera actually showed up until the second night of the riots. She was certainly present at that point.
Following the riots, Rivera worked alongside theGay Liberation Front— and with their next iteration, theGay Activists Alliance. In 1971, she campaigned with them to pass a sweeping anti-discrimination ordinance in New York City. However, despite her hard work, the GAA made deals that stripped the language protecting non-gender conforming individuals, like drag queens and transvestites. The argument was that it would not be possible to pass the bill with “extreme elements” included — but the GAA rapidly became more conservative, and began to outright exclude any protections for the more “radical” portions of the LGBTQ+ community. The leadership of the GAA would have Rivera plan and front rallies — until the media showed up, when the straight passing members of the organization would essentially push her aside. Eventually, Rivera was all but pushed out of the organization. When recalling this in an interview years later, she’d add “Hell hath no fury like a drag queen scorned.”
In 1970, River and Johnson worked together to found the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to provide support and advocacy for young homeless queer people. In 1972, STAR even managed to open housing for homeless queer youth — with rent paid mostly from money that Rivera and Johnson earned as sex workers. According to Rivera, aside from trying to help those who needed it, they were trying to help move the community away from the mafia-controlled bar scene.
In 1973, at a Christopher Street Liberation Day rally Rivera gave an impassioned speech in which she warned of heterosexual men who preyed on the transgender community, and also declared that queer inmates looking for help “do not write women. Do not write men. They write to STAR.” Despite that — and how revolutionary an organization STAR was — it was short lived, partly because of Rivera’s passion. At the same rally, Rivera and Lee Brewster interrupted Jean O’Leary‘s speech. Rivera argued, “You go to bars because of what drag queens did for you, and these bitches tell us to quit being ourselves!”
Following the rally, Rivera attempted to commit suicide — but was found and saved by Marsha P. Johnson. Unfortunately, that outburst cost Rivera much of her remaining support in New York’s LGBTQ+ community. STAR closed within the year. Rivera took the better part of the next 20 years off from activism, feeling totally abandoned by her community. She did — on certain occasions in the ’80s — speak up on behalf of those left homeless by the AIDS crisis.
In July of 1992, Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River. Police ruled the death a suicide — something Rivera, among others, insisted was false. Rivera stated that she and Johnson had made a pact to “cross the ‘river Jordan’ together.” In May of 1995, Rivera attempted to commit suicide in the Hudson River. The attempt failed, but afterwards she got back into advocating for the most vulnerable in the queer community — much to the chagrin of other activists in the community. Most of the focus of queer activism at the time involved fitting the homosexuals into existing legal structures — getting marriage equality, overturning Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, passing the Matthew Shepard Act, etc. These were not Rivera’s priorities, and she made it quite well known.
She was banned from New York’s Gay & Lesbian Community Center for most of the mid-90s for angrily insisting that they provide housing for homeless queer youth during the frigid winters. She attacked the Empire State Pride Agenda for not being inclusive of transgender issues. She also made something of an enemy of the Human Rights Campaign, because — as she would tell Michael Bronski: “I’m tired of sitting on the back of the bumper. It’s not even the back of the bus anymore — it’s the back of the bumper. The bitch on wheels is back.”
Despite her friction with many queer organizations, Rivera was an active member of the Metropolitan Community Church of New York, and often helped to feed the poor and homeless through their food pantry. In 2000, Rivera traveled to Rome, Italy for WorldPride. There she was called “the mother of all gay people” and participated in the Millenium March. In 2001, Rivera attempted to revive STAR as a political organization — changing the “T” to stand for “Transgender,” which was beginning to come into common usage. The new STAR, under Rivera’s leadership, pushed for a trans-inclusive New York State Sexual Non-Discrimination Act, as well as the New York City Transgender Rights Bill. They also fought for justice for Amanda Milan, a transgender woman who was murdered in 2000.
Sylvia Rivera suffered from liver cancer at the end of her life. Before her death — on her deathbed — she negotiated with Matt Foreman and Joe Grabarz, leaders of the Empire State Pride Agenda, to ensure they would be more inclusive of transgender people and issues in the future. She passed away on February 19, 2002.
After her death, she became much more appreciated by the queer community. The year of her death the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was established, to help fight against discrimination based on gender identity and expression. The MCC in New York built a shelter for homeless queer youth, which is named Sylvia’s Place in her honor. The New School named their social justice hub the Baldwin Rivera Boggs Center, putting her name alongside James Baldwin and Grace Lee Boggs. The intersection of Hudson Street and Christopher Street in New York was also renamed in her honor, coming to be called “Sylvia Rivera Way.” In 2015, she became the first transgender (well, genderfluid?) American citizen to have a portrait placed in the National Gallery of the Smithsonian. It was recently announced that she — along with her friend Marsha P. Johnson — will soon be honored with a monument in Greenwich Village
There have even been some fictional depictions of Rivera. In 2002, she was depicted in the musical ICONS: The Lesbian and Gay History of the World, Vol 1. In 2007, a musical called Sylvia So Far premiered in New York, based on Rivera’s life. She is also depicted in the short film Happy Birthday Marsha!
Despite all that Rivera did, the communities she specifically fought for — the poor queer — mostly transgender — youth of color are still by far the most vulnerable in the queer community. They are the most likely to be homeless, most likely to be uneducated, most likely to be unemployed, and most likely to commit suicide. It’s been 50 years since the Stonewall Riots. It’s been 19 years since she was called the “mother of all gay people” at WorldPride. Now that WorldPride is going to be in New York City, honoring that momentous event 50 years ago, let’s not forget what Rivera was actually fighting for and truly honor her legacy by keeping that fight going.
Although she regularly said her middle initial stood for “Pay it no mind”, Marsha P. Johnson proved to be a difficult person not to notice. Though Johnson is commonly referred to using female pronouns (she/her/hers) — and I’ll be doing that here — her actual gender identity is a bit of a mystery. She variously described herself as gay, a transvestite, and as a (drag) queen — though words like “transgender” really weren’t being widely used yet during her lifetime. My personal opinion is that she would probably identify as gender non-conforming or non-binary, but make your own judgments.
Johnson was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey on August 24, 1945 — one of seven children — and was named Malcolm Michaels Jr by her parents, Malcolm Michaels Sr and Alberta Claiborne. They were not, from all accounts, a particularly open-minded family and Claiborne was said to believe that being a homosexual was like being “lower than dog.” Johnson was raised in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and remained a devout, practicing Christian for her entire life.
At the age of five, Johnson began to wear dresses — but stopped because she was harassed and teased by neighborhood boys. Some time during this period, Johnson was sexually assaulted by a boy who was roughly the age of 13. In 1963, Johnson graduated from Edison High School and promptly moved to New York City with $15 and a bag of clothing. By 1966, she was waiting tables, engaging in sex work, and living on the streets of the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan.
She also began to perform as a drag queen — initially going by the name “Black Marsha” before settling on Marsha P. Johnson. She was often recognizable for having flowers in her hair — something she began doing after sleeping under flower sorting tables in Manhattan’s Flower District. She usually had on bright colored wigs, shiny dresses, and long flowing robes. Marsha was known to be peaceful and fun, but there was a violent and short-tempered side to her personality (which her friends commonly called “Malcolm”) — leading some to suspect that she suffered from schizophrenia. Between her sex work and her occasional violent outbursts, Johnson claimed to have been arrested more than a hundred times.
When the Stonewall Inn began to permit women and drag queens inside, Johnson was one of the first to begin regularly visiting the bar. Some witnesses have even credited her with starting off the riots in 1969. Although this claim has certainly gained traction and become the popular version of events, she likely was not the woman who sparked off the Stonewall Riots by throwing the legendary “first brick” — this was also rumored, and was perhaps more likely to be Jackie Hormona or Zazu Nova by eyewitnesses — Johnson did have one particularly iconic, though unconfirmed, moment in the riots. She is said to have shouted “I got my civil rights!” and thrown a shot glass at a mirror. ( Some said this — the “shot glass heard round the world” — was the moment that started the riots, but Johnson herself disputed this. According to Johnson, word of the riots reached her and she immediately went to collect her friend Sylvia Rivera so they could join in — but Rivera was sleeping on a bench. According to Johnson, she arrived at about 2:00 am, forty minutes after the riots began. (I guess word traveled fast!) There are many reports that on the second night of rioting, Johnson climbed up a street lamp with a purse that was loaded down with a brick — which she dropped through the windshield of a police car. Though there’s a lot of stories about those riots, and a lot of confusion about the details it is very clear that Johnson was there and made a noticeable impact.
Although she’d been an activist before, Johnson became a real leader in the LGBT movements that followed the riots. In 1970, she and Sylvia Rivera founded the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries (STAR) — an organization that provided community support for transgender youth. She also joined the Gay Liberation Front and participated in the Christopher Street Liberation Pride rally that commemorated the first anniversary of Stonewall (and was, essentially, the creation of the Pride festivals we celebrate.) At one rally in the early 70’s, Johnson was asked by a member of the press what they were protesting for –Johnson shouted into the reporter’s microphone “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
Johnson once said, “I was no one, nobody, from Nowheresville until I became a drag queen. That’s what made me in New York, that’s what made me in New Jersey, that’s what made me in the world.” In 1972, she began to perform periodically with the international drag troupe Hot Peaches. She was also continuing to work as a sex worker, taking the money she (and Rivera) earned from that business to help pay the rent for the housing for transgender youth that STAR had established that year. Johnson also took on an active role mentoring all of the youth in their care, becoming a “drag mother” even to those who were not performers. Although STAR declined and closed in 1973, it was a groundbreaking organization and the shelter that it provided queer youth was truly revolutionary.
In 1973, Johnson also performed with the Angels of Light drag troupe — taking on the role of “The Gypsy Queen” in their production of “The Enchanted Miracle”. That same year both Johnson and Rivera were banned from participating in New York’s gay pride parade — the committee organizing the parade felt that drag queens and transvestites brought negative attention and gave the cause “a bad name.” In response, Rivera and Johnson marched ahead of the beginning of the parade.
In 1975, Andy Warhol took pictures of Johnson for his “Ladies and Gentlemen” series. Johnson’s success as an activist and a performer, as well as her regular appearances throughout the decade, earned her the nickname “Mayor of Christopher Street.”
By 1979, Johnson’s mental health was beginning to decline quite severely. Her aggressive side was coming out more often, and a Village Voice article called “The Drag of Politics” listed all of the Manhattan gay bars from which Johnson had been banned. In 1980, a friend named Randy Wicker invited Johnson to stay with him for a particularly cold night and the two remained roommates for the rest of Johnson’s life. This was — as far as I can tell — the first time Johnson had a permanent address since moving to New York in 1963.
In the 1980’s, Johnson began to work with ACT UP as an organizer and marshal, and was a prolific AIDS activist. She made this her primary focus for the last few years of her life. On July 6, 1992 — just after that years New York Pride festivities — she was found dead in the Hudson River with a large wound in the back of her head. The police ruled her death a suicide — despite pressure from the community and the fact that she had a wound in the back of her head. One witness had spoken of Johnson’s fragile mental health to the police — which was all the police, who had no interest in investigating a black queer person’s death, needed despite witness testimonies also describing Johnson being harassed by a gang. Another witness claimed to have heard a man brag about killing a drag queen named Marsha. The police did allow Seventh Avenue to be closed so that Johnson’s friends could spread her ashes out over the river.
In 2012, an activist named Mariah Lopez was finally successful in convincing the police to re-open Johnson’s case and investigate it as a homicide. That was also the year that the first documentary about Johnson was released: Pay It No Mind — The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson. This documentary included footage from an interview that had been filmed only ten days before Johnson’s death. Fictionalized versions of Johnson also appeared in the films Stonewall (released in 2015) and Happy Birthday Marsha! (released in 2016.) In 2017, another documentary was released — The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson — which followed the Anti-Violence Project’s Victoria Cruz investigating Johnson’s death on her own. Despite all of these tributes, it wasn’t until 2018 that the New York Times published an obituary for her.
Johnson — with her friend Sylvia Rivera — will be honored with a monument in Greenwich Village, near Stonewall. This is perhaps most fitting for Johnson, since she was quite insistent about moving the Stonewall monument from Ohio to Christopher Street in New York City in 1992 — famously saying “How many people have died for these two little statues to be put in the park to recognize gay people? How many years does it take for people to see that we’re all brothers and sisters and human beings in the human race? I mean how many years does it take for people to see that we’re all in this rat race together?”
Johnson may not have “thrown the first brick” at Stonewall, but she led the fight for LGBTQ+ equality in every other way. Randy Wicker said of Johnson that she “rose above being a man or a woman, rose above being black or white, rose above being straight or gay”, while Rupaul described her as “the true Drag Mother.”
So, while we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, let’s all pay plenty of mind to Marsha P. Johnson — and to the other heroes who stood up that day and said “Darling, I want my gay rights now!”
Most Americans are aware of the Red Scare — the witch hunt for Communist agents in the US led by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite the infamy of that event, there was a notable queer element that often gets overlooked, despite lasting longer and impacting a greater number of government employees: the Lavender Scare. Gay men and lesbians were said to be communist sympathizers and dangerous security risks. Given that the 1947 Sex Perversion Elimination Program had already seen to legally labeling homosexuals as dangerously mentally ill, so these assertions fed into growing public unease. There was a national call to fire them from employment in the Federal government — which made it even more difficult for queer people to be out of the closet anywhere in the United States. Though the official Lavender Scare was focused on Federal government and armed forces employees and contractors, you can be sure that thousands more across the country lost their jobs simply because of the fear that McCarthy and his allies were stoking.
In February, 1950 McCarthy announced that he had a list of Communists that worked for the government. Two names on that last were homosexuals who had been fired and then rehired. Senators Kenneth S. Wherry and Senator J. Lister Hill interrogated these two individuals — called “Case 14“and “Case 62“. I can’t find real names for those two, but they were dismissed from their positions — the first official victims of the Lavender Scare. A week later Deputy Undersecretary of State John Purefoy testified before the Senate Committee on Appropriations that the State Department had actually fired, and later hidden, 91 suspected homosexual employees they had flagged as security risks. In truth, the Senate Committee was not shocked to learn this, since they had essentially given the State Department leeway to purge homosexuals from employment in 1946. However, the testimony revealed this information to the public and granted legitimacy to all of McCarthy’s claims — strengthening public support for his Red Scare.
On April 15, 1950, the Republican National Chair Guy George Gabrielson (a name that truly sounds fictional, but it isn’t) made the claim that “sexual perverts” who had infiltrated the government were “perhaps as dangerous as actual Communists.” He argued that homosexuals were susceptible to blackmail and therefore a great risk to national security. (Later investigations found that not a single person who lost their job during the Lavender Scare ever revealed classified information, and most never had access to any. In case there was any confusion, this was never actually about national security!)
In a somewhat ironic twist, McCarthy hired Roy Cohn — a closeted homosexual — to be the chief counsel of the Congressional subcommittee. (Cohn was also a terrible, terrible human being. We can’t all be winners, I suppose.) Working alongside J. Edgar Hoover, they fired multitudes of accused gay men and lesbians. They also used rumors of homosexual activity to coerce their opponents and to smear those they suspected of being communists.
In March of 1952, the Federal government fired 162 employees because they might have been gay. On April 27, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450 which — among other effects — led to a ban on gays and lesbians working for the Federal government of the United States altogether and even more heightened drive to uncover homosexual infiltrators. Suspected homosexuals were interviewed and surveilled for signs of gender non-conformity — as were their roommates and friends. Investigators relied on “guilty by association” — anyone with ties to homosexuals must be one as well. People were given lie detector tests and grilled with questions about their personal sexual history. Police were asked to raid gay bars and homosexual meeting places, and then share their arrest records. Within its first year 425 suspected homosexuals were fired from the State Department alone. Over 5,000 Federal employees were fired because of suspicions that they were homosexuals. Every single one of them was not only lost their job, but was publicly outed as well. Many more were pressured into resigning.
McCarthy effectively convinced the government and the media of a connection between homosexuality and Communism — calling them both “threats to the American way of life” and even blatantly telling reporters “if you want to be against McCarthy, boys, you’ve got to be either a Communist or a cocksucker.” He repeatedly referred to homosexuality as an invasion. The rhetoric caught on. Those who’d been removed from their jobs found it impossible to get hired anywhere else — a few resorted to suicide. Federal investigators later covered up most of those deaths.
The effects of the investigations rapidly expanded out from just government work, leading to an untold number of homosexuals (and suspected homosexuals) being fired and denied employment from even ordinary, non-government jobs — even in Hollywood. Gay and lesbian bars were raided by police with an ever-increasing regularity. Even queer organizations like the Mattachine Society (which was founded partially in 1950 partly in response to the Lavender Scare) were forced to adapt by 1953, adopting specific policies that specified they were loyal to the United States and forcing out founder Harry Hays — who happened to actually be a gay Communist.
The discriminatory practices destroyed lives and families, even among the most powerful people in the country. After Lester “Buddy” Hunt Jr. was arrested for soliciting prostitution from a male undercover police officer, his father Senator Lester Hunt was blackmailed and attacked by his political opponents (which included McCarthy) — destroying his political career and tearing apart his family. On June 19, 1954, he sat down at his desk in his Senate office and shot himself in the head with a rifle.
It wasn’t until Frank Kameny was fired from the United States Army Maps Service that anyone sought to challenge these firings in court. He brought his case all the way up to the Supreme Court — making him the first person to argue in United States courtrooms that homosexuals were being treated as second class citizens. They decided against him in 1961. (This would be the beginning of Kameny’s profound influence over LGBTQ+ rights in the U.S. — but he would never hold another paying job for the rest of his life, and survived only on the generosity of his friends.) In 1969, the Supreme Court had realized the error of its ways and ruled differently in a similar case. Of course, that didn’t help Kameny much.
Between 1947 and 1961, more Federal employees had been fired for being suspected of being homosexual than were fired for being suspected of being Communist. Records of the number of people who were fired as part of the Lavender Scare get more than a little fuzzy after that, but it was hardly over. Even after the end of McCarthy’s career in 1957, the tactics used in the Lavender Scare remained in effect for several more years. In fact, the Florida Legislative Investigation Committee (aka the Johns Committee after state senator Charley Eugene Johns) officially began using these same practices to drive the queer population out of state universities in 1958. They pursued students and professors for doing such suspiciously homosexual behaviors as wearing Bermuda shorts on campus. Professors were immediately removed from their positions for even being suspected on queerness, students were allowed to remain on campus only if they routinely visited their school’s medical facility for routine psychological treatments. In 1964 the Committee began printing pamphlets entitled Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida — or colloquially known as the Purple Pamphlet. Because it included pictures of homosexual activity, it was immediately considered controversial and called “state-sponsored pornography” — ultimately leading to the dissolution of the Committee in 1965.
Executive Order 10450 was struck down in court in 1973 but not formally repealed. Parts of it were undone by President Bill Clinton, through the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and Executive Order 13087 — the latter of which officially ended the FBI’s and NSA’s discriminatory hiring practices. The Executive Order was not truly repealed until 2017, when — in one of his last acts in office — President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13764. At about the same time, outgoing Secretary of State John Kerry finally issued a formal apology on behalf of the State Department for the discrimination that occurred.
The long-lasting effects of the Lavender Scare drove the queer community of the U.S. deeper underground, turned public sentiment against the LGBT+ community for decades, and to this day continues to impact hiring policies, and public ideas about homosexuality, around the country. Congress is, even now, preparing to decide on whether or not to pass the Equality Act — which would, among other things, protect LGBTQ+ people from employment discrimination. I would say that almost seventy years after the beginning of the Lavender Scare, it’s about time.
June 24 marks a very somber day in the history of LGBTQ+ Americans — it is the anniversary of the Upstairs Lounge fire, an arson attack that occurred in 1973 and which was the deadliest attack on a U.S. gay bar until 2016.
The Upstairs Lounge was on the second floor of the three story building at 141 Chartres Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was the final night of Pride weekend and, at the time of the attack, some 60 people were still inside the Upstairs Lounge listening to the piano music of David Gary at an event hosted by the Metropolitan Community Church. At 7:56 pm, the buzzer on the front door went off. Luther Boggs went to answer the door, only to find the front stairwell completely aflame. Buddy Ramussen, an Air Force veteran and the bartender there that night, led twenty people out the back exit to the roof of a neighboring building where they could escape. However, somehow, their escape route locked behind them trapping everyone else inside. A handful tried to escape by squeezing out of the barred windows. MCC Reverend Bill Larson died clinging to those bars, and his body was visible from the street below for hours afterwards. The MCC’s assistant pastor Duane George “Mitch” Mitchell had escaped, but returned to try to rescue his boyfriend Louis Horace Broussard — they died holding onto each other. Firefighters had difficulty reaching the scene because of pedestrians and car traffic. One fire truck crashed into a taxi. Once they arrived, they quickly brought the fire under control quickly. 28 people died in the fire, one died enroute to the hospital, and three more died later due to injuries sustained in the blaze. Fifteen were injured but survived. The only suspect in the arson attack was a man named Rodger Dale Nunez, who had been kicked out of the bar earlier in the night for fighting with a customer. A witness claimed to have seen him in the area of the bar twenty minutes before the fire, but police determined that the witness was unreliable. Nunez also suffered from mental illness, and was placed in psychiatric custody after his arrest. He escaped, however, and was never picked up by police again despite being quite visible in the French Quarter. A friend later told investigators that Nunez confessed to the arson at least four times, before taking his own life in November of 1974. Despite the magnitude of the attack, it was all but ignored. The media made no mention of the LGBT status of the victims, and neither the city nor state government ever made a statement on the attack — despite having declared days of mourning for smaller tragedies. Worse still, the victims — and many of the survivors — had been outed. Churches refused to have funerals, some of the survivors lost their jobs. Some of the victims’ families refused to claim the bodies. On June 25, Father Bill Richardson of St. George’s Episcopal Church held a small, private prayer service for the victims — he was the only member of the city’s clergy who was willing to do so. 80 people attended the service, and he received over 100 complaints about it from parishioners and was officially rebuked by his superior in the church.
On July 1, MCC founder Troy Perry — who flew from L.A. — held a memorial service for the victims. Reporters waited outside, eager to expose the grieving and mostly closeted members LGBTQ+ community of New Orleans to the public. Although a side exit was offered, none took that option. Every person who attended the service exited together in a show of solidarity. In 2003, the city of New Orleans installed a (small) plaque in the sidewalk at the location of the fire to memorialize the victims. Three of those victims — white males — were never identified. The burial costs of these three were paid for anonymously, and they were buried along with Ferris LeBlanc in a mass grave in a cemetery reserved for the poor. LeBlanc’s immediate family only learned of his death in 2015. The cemetery he is buried in is massive and unkept and there is not a map, so his family has yet to see his grave.