One year after the Stonewall Riots galvanized New York’s fearful gay men and lesbians into fighters, a handful of us planned our first march. We had no idea how it would turn out. We weren’t even certain we would be granted a permit. And now, here we were, June 28, 1970, with people gathered west of Sixth Avenue at Waverly Place. We wondered if we would be able to get them to move off the curb.
This was long before anyone had heard of a “Gay Pride March.” Back then, it took a new sense of audacity and courage to take that giant step into the streets of Midtown Manhattan. One by one, we encouraged people to join the assembly. Finally, we began to move up Sixth Avenue. I stayed at the head of the march the entire way, and at one point, I climbed onto the base of a light pole and looked back. I was astonished; we stretched out as far as I could see, thousands of us. There were no floats, no music, no boys in briefs. The cops turned their backs on us to convey their disdain, but the masses of people kept carrying signs and banners, chanting and waving to surprised onlookers.
No one was more responsible for conceiving and organizing that first march on the last Sunday in June than Craig Rodwell. Craig had opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop on Christopher Street in 1967—two years before Stonewall. After we became partners, we ran the shop together. Craig and I had both participated in Stonewall, and the Oscar Wilde soon became Information Central. As the first gay bookshop in the country, we amassed something that proved to be invaluable for organizing a march: our mailing list.
What guaranteed its eventual success, however, was the transformation of the gay movement itself. Before Stonewall, gay leaders had primarily promoted silent vigils and polite pickets, such as the “Annual Reminder” in Philadelphia. Since 1965, a small, polite group of gays and lesbians had been picketing outside Liberty Hall. The walk would occur in silence. Required dress on men was jackets and ties; for women, only dresses. We were supposed to be unthreatening.
As a young member of the Mattachine Society, Craig had originated this idea, but it was quickly taken over by older, conservative
members. By the time Craig left New York a few days after the Stonewall Riots for the 1969 Reminder (it was to be the last), we had already discussed moving the annual event to New York. When Craig returned from Philadelphia, he was blistering over an incident: Washington Mattachine’s Frank Kameny told two women holding hands that there would be “none of that” and broke them apart. This physical act confirmed for Craig that we needed something much bigger and bolder than the Mattachine Society.
In the weeks following Craig’s return from Philadelphia, we had meetings with other gay groups at the Oscar Wilde and in our Bleecker Street apartment. All over the city, people were holding similar meetings, all of us seeking a way to channel this explosion of energy. The bookshop became the intersection for the newly formed Gay Liberation Front, Gay Activists Alliance, the Lavender Menace, and some of the “student homophile leagues” popping up on college campuses.
While we pushed ahead to organize the march, we were also forced to confront the negative press that continued after the Stonewall riots. In October 1969, Time magazine’s story, “The Homosexual in America,” described six “homosexual types,” including the “blatant” homosexual recognizable as the “catty hairdresser,” or the “lisping, limp-wristed interior decorator.” The “homosexual subculture,” the article stated, “is without question shallow and unstable.” That November, our group protested outside the Time-Life building.
Getting everyone together for the Stonewall anniversary march proved to be a challenge. In the fall of 1969, the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations met in Philadelphia. Two women, Ellen Broidy and Linda Rhodes, were instrumental in getting a resolution for that first march passed. New York Mattachine was the sole holdout.
After months of planning and internal controversy, the Christopher Street Liberation Day Umbrella Committee negotiated with more than a dozen very different gay organizations. One of the largest hurdles was which group would have the honor of heading the march. It was only when Craig and Michael Brown, who’d arranged for those first permits, decided that each group would have one representative was the matter finally settled. Even the question of a chant was endlessly discussed—the winner: “Say it clear, say it loud. Gay is good, gay is proud.” Craig and police brass worked out a glitch over permits for the parade and the post-parade “Gay-In” in Central Park’s Sheep Meadow only moments before the events began.
After nearly a year of 1960s-style back-and-forth consciousness-raising, it’s no wonder that by the time we finally started walking, we were already spent. But, like everyone else that day, we were filled with a new energy and hope.
It was only after the march that these gay pioneers realized what might be possible. Of course, at the time, we could never have predicted that our efforts would lead to hundreds of millions of people gathering together around the world. Today, people celebrate Gay Pride from San Francisco to São Paulo, Melbourne to Moscow—all thanks to people like Craig and Michael, who laid the groundwork for what has become the world’s largest and one of its most prominent human rights demonstrations.
Fred Sargeant is a retired lieutenant from the Stamford, Connecticut, police department. He appears in the documentary ‘Stonewall Uprising.’