NEW YORK -- The popular misconception was that the party was over, simply because all the glitter was swept from the streets, the last of feathers had fallen from the boas, and the rainbow balloons were deflated.
But sequins, parades, and Madonna are not always necessary for a celebration, particularly one that marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York. Last month the city celebrated the 1969 uprising — which is generally regarded as the beginning of the LGBTQ civil rights movement — with a parade, sequined ensembles worthy of Liberace himself, and appearances by both Madonna and Lady Gaga.
By all accounts New York’s WorldPride celebration was epic, and the exuberant parade ran nearly as long as a Lars von Trier film. But sadly I wasn’t there, partially because the idea of facing record-breaking crowds isn’t necessarily my cup of cola, and also because my ability to plan is on par with my ability to solve polynomials.
Here’s the upshot for those of you who may have also missed the festivities. There are still plenty of opportunities to brush up on your LGBTQ history this year. I may have missed Madonna, but I was adamant that I was not going to miss all the exhibitions and art filling New York through 2019.
Most importantly, I wasn’t going to miss Cher.
Currently, the Sofitel in Midtown Manhattan has a Cher Suite, which coincides with the Tony Award-winning Broadway run of “The Cher Show.” Sadly, the show is closing Aug. 18 (buy your tickets now!), but the suite, which is filled with Cher autographs, sparkling Bob Mackie-designed costumes, and plenty of Cher photos is accepting reservations through Sept. 15. You must call or e-mail the hotel directly to reserve. Did I e-mail the hotel and stay in the Cher suite? Indeed I did. Did I walk the halls of the Sofitel singing “Gypsies, Tramps & Thieves” after consuming a Turn Back Thyme cocktail at the hotel’s bar? Only the Sofitel security cameras will ever know.
But most of my Stonewall anniversary exploration of New York was nowhere near as campy as Cher-themed cocktails. I went with a mission to learn about the bravery of people who were still classified as mentally ill by the American Psychiatric Association when they fought back against police harassment in the summer of 1969. A quick primer if you don’t know of the Stonewall riots: On the night of June 28, police raided the Stonewall Inn. It was a common practice for police to raid gay bars. In New York, the State Liquor Authority shut down or penalized bars that served alcohol to gay, lesbian, and transgender patrons. That law was overturned in 1966, but it was still illegal to kiss, hold hands, or dance with someone of the same sex in a bar in 1969.
When police raided the Stonewall that June night, the patrons fought back rather than go peacefully. Emboldened by 1960s counterculture protests, the gay community rioted in Greenwich Village, and continued rioting for six days. The city’s first gay Pride march took place the following year.
Stonewall is now part of the living history of gay New York. It was declared a national monument (along with Christopher Park) in 2016.
However, when you go in for a tipple, keep in mind that the Stonewall you’re seeing is quite different from the Stonewall of 1969.
“I would definitely put Stonewall on the list of places people need to see if they’re exploring the gay history of New York,” said Eric Marcus, a New York-based author, journalist, and host of the podcast “Making Gay History.” “But the caveat is that nothing about the current bar is original to what it was 50 years ago. It closed as a bar in the 1970s and at various points it was a nail salon, a bagel shop, and a pizza parlor. There is no relationship to the original other than the exterior of the building and the name.”
If you’d like to see a truly authentic piece of New York LGBTQ history, my recommendation is to head to Julius’, the oldest continuously operating gay bar in New York. It was used as a location in the Melissa McCarthy movie “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Julius’ was also the site of New York’s first gay rights protest, albeit slightly calmer than Stonewall.
In 1966, three members of the Mattachine Society, one of the first LGBT rights groups in the United States, staged a protest here. They held a “Sip-in” to challenge the law against serving alcohol to gays. The bartender at Julius’ initially started preparing them a drink but then put his hand over the glasses, which was famously photographed. Their action and subsequent court challenge led to the law against serving gays in bars to be overturned.
So, as I sat at Julius’ on a recent Thursday night looking at the walls covered in historic photos and eating onion rings (the bar has a kitchen), I raised a glass of wine to those three brave men who protested 53 years ago and made it possible for me to have a drink in a bar in New York in 2019.
There are dozens of stories like this, and I made a point to seek them out. Sure I went to my usual favorite gayborhood haunts, but I also went to the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project (www.nyclgbtsites.org) website to find self-guided tours of culturally significant locations. You can also find a full list of LGBTQ-related activities on the NYC & Company website (www.NYCGo.com).
The more time you spend reading and exploring New York’s gay history, the more you realize how far the LGBTQ movement has progressed in a relatively short amount of time. There is a lot to celebrate this year, but I also couldn’t help feeling there has been a lot of loss.
At the Guggenheim I walked around a show of Robert Mapplethorpe photographs called “Implicit Intentions” (running through Jan. 5, 2020) and wondered how many of his subjects survived the AIDS epidemic (Mapplethorpe died of complications of AIDS in 1989). A few floors up from the Mapplethorpe exhibit is the Jean-Michel Basquiat show “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story” (running through Nov. 6). The bisexual Basquiat died of a heroin overdose when he was 27.
On this particular afternoon the ghosts of these men, and many of Mapplethorpe’s subjects, felt as if they were haunting the museum.
“I understand. New York is full of ghosts for me,” Marcus said. “I’m 60, because of the AIDS crisis, the city is full of ghosts. I interviewed more than 100 people for my book [‘Making History’], and most of them are dead.”
Historians have done yeomen’s work at reconstructing gay history, but I wondered how much of that history is gone forever as I looked at the remarkable photographs of Fred W. McDarrah at the Museum of the City of New York. Some of the subjects in his photos are well known, such as Craig Rodwell , founder of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in the Village. But many are not. There are smiling young drag queens in 1970s Pride parades and men and women dancing in fields with looks of pure elation on their faces. They may have had incredible tales to tell, but because of fear of persecution, or maybe the AIDS crisis, those stories will never be heard.
The show of McDarrah’s photos, called “PRIDE: Photographs of Stonewall and Beyond,” runs at the museum through Dec. 31. Despite my morose take on it all, it’s very inspiring and fun. These are the kind of historic photos that never appeared in my textbooks in school. I never learned the stories of civil rights protests like the sip-in, but I’m happy to know them now.
I was almost glad that I had missed New York’s massive WorldPride party (the key word is almost), because it meant I was free to roam the city and spend time appreciating art and photography that I otherwise wouldn’t have taken the time to absorb. I went to the Leslie-Lohman Museum, the only art museum in the world dedicated to exhibiting and preserving LGBTQ artwork. During the AIDS epidemic, the gallery rescued the work of dying artists from families who, out of shame, wanted to destroy it. The museum is holding a block party on Aug. 17.
I also recommend the Brooklyn Museum’s “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall,” (through Dec. 8) and three New York Historical Society shows: “Letting Loose and Fighting Back: LGBTQ Nightlife Before and After Stonewall,” “By the Force of Our Presence: Highlights From the Lesbian Herstory Archives,” and “Say It Loud, Out and Proud: Fifty Years of Pride” (through Sept. 22).
For some living history, I called on the experts. Hugh Ryan, author of “When Brooklyn Was Queer,” recommended that I visit Coney Island, which has a rich gay past. He also said I should check out the eastern end of the beach at Jacob Riis Park in Rockaway, which has been a popular LGBTQ sunbathing and socializing beach since the 1940s.
Amanda Davis of the LGBT Historic Sites Project highly recommended the Alice Austen House in Staten Island. Austen was a prolific photographer who lived in the family home with her partner of 53 years. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by putting together your own itinerary, you can take a walking tour with Urban Adventures focused on LGBTQ history in Greenwich Village.
I decided to end my time in New York on an upbeat note, because while history is fascinating to me, I think the 50th anniversary of Stonewall is worthy of joyful celebration as well. You can catch the Technicolor glories of the fashion exhibition “Camp: Notes on Fashion” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Sept. 8. With a soundtrack of Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the galleries are filled with 250 years of over-the-top fashion that falls between the categories of absolutely fabulous to truly outrageous.
It seemed right to cap my New York adventures with a night at the Stonewall Inn. I found myself there thinking of the June night when a scrappy band of drag queens, butch lesbians, effeminate men, and all-around misfits decided to fight for their rights.
It was karaoke night, so I signed up to sing Cher’s “If I Could Turn Back Time” — as one does at the Stonewall. The right to sing Cher at a national monument/gay bar while watching an assortment of couples dance, kiss, and sing along wasn’t lost on me. If I really could turn back time, I would thank those pioneers from the bottom of my heart.