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Stonewall exhibit showcases flash point in LGBTQ community
Hari Sreenivasan: The Stonewall riots in New York City were a flash point in civil rights history. Fifty years ago, gay, lesbian, trans and other gender nonconforming people rioted at a bar called The Stonewall Inn after police raided the club.
The New York Public Library has one of the largest collections of artifacts from that tumultuous time, which is now being displayed in a major exhibit.
NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano spoke with the exhibit's curator about what is widely seen as the birth of the modern-day fight for LGBTQ rights.
Ivette Feliciano: In its exhibit titled Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50, the New York Public Library is marking the momentous anniversary with never before seen photos and artifacts from an era that defined one of America's great fight for human rights.
Jason Baumann: These are some of the first demonstrations in the United States for LGBTQ rights.
Ivette Feliciano: Jason Baumann curated the exhibit and is coordinator of the Library's LGBTQ initiative. He says the events at New York City's Stonewall Inn undoubtedly changed the face of gay and trans culture and activism. The weeklong uprising that began on June 28th, 1969 brought to light systemic crackdowns on a culture that was not seen as socially acceptable
Jason Baumann: These kinds of raids were fairly routine at these clubs in the village in the 1960s. Many of the bars that catered to gay and lesbian and also transgender patrons were illegal clubs. Because a bar could be shut down or lose its liquor license, in the 1960s in New York, if they had gay or transgender patrons.
Ivette Feliciano: The exhibition begins during the period before the historic rebellion, in 1965.
Jason Baumann: You'd had this almost a decade of this political activism. There were also a number of riots before Stonewall around the country– at Compton's Cafeteria, at the Black Cat and other establishments that leads up to it.
Ivette Feliciano: One of the main attractions of the exhibit, rare photos by noted photographers Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies, who captured everyday life.
In an era when sex between people of the same gender was a crime in many states, there's a section devoted to love.
Jason Baumann: So often, multiracial, multi-ethnic couples. Often also older couples to show that LGBT relationships aren't these fleeting illegal clandestine things but also that you can make a life together.
Ivette Feliciano: Another section shows photos of pioneering demonstrations like this one from a 1965 march in front of the white house.
Jason Baumann: So you have these activists from the 1950s and '60s who had a very kind of conservative appearance, who were often trying to find ways to slowly work within the system.
Ivette Feliciano: But the exhibit demonstrates a change in the tone of LGBTQ activists after Stonewall, particularly in San Francisco and New York City's Greenwich Village.
Jason Baumann: You have this new generation that joins. And– these younger people who were on the streets of the village– really have a much more confrontational politics.
Ivette Feliciano: Featured in the exhibit are activists Marsha p. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender women of color who, in 1970, co-founded "STAR" or the "Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries." The organization addressed the concerns of low-income and homeless queer and trans ethnic-minorities.
Jason Baumann: People debate about this, but it seems fairly clear from people's memories of stonewall, that it was actually transgender women of color who were really on the frontlines of the conflict with the police those first three days of stonewall. Marsha p. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were on the frontlines of all the demonstrations in the 1970s. Before them you didn't have this kind of street activism that they were doing. They really had a very broad intersectional political agenda.
Ivette Feliciano: This new wave of activism emboldened thousands across the country to express themselves. Dozens of organizations formed, including the Gay Liberation Front and Radical Lesbians.
The exhibit also features magazines that existed before Stonewall that boldly brought people out of the shadows.
Jason Baumann: It becomes the ladder: a lesbian review, right and they start putting real happy lesbians on the cover. Before that lesbians would be depicted as killers as mentally ill as criminal, right? Or suicidal. So to have this happy out well-adjusted human being, full human being on the cover of a magazine as a lesbian is totally revolutionary."
Ivette Feliciano: Another section titled "bars" features invitations to dances, bars, and discos that blossomed after stonewall.
Jason Baumann: So you see in the activism part of it is creating alternative nightlife, of creating these dances in all of these kinds of different alternatives to police entrapment in the bars. So it is about creating these spaces for freedom.
Ivette Feliciano: To recreate this era, the Library hosted a cabaret night in April with a performance by the iconic gay singer and comedian Justin Vivian Bond. Also featured were a younger generation of activists and entertainers.
Jason Baumann: LGBTQ history really isn't taught in schools. They aren't being brought up given this history. We're often given this kind of narrative where Stonewall's sort of like this grand beginning of gay liberation that starts, and then all of a sudden, then there's gay marriage, and we're not given all of the steps in between. And I think the real lessons from all of that is that our society changed because people became active politically. It can inspire people today to really realize that our society changed because people got out of their houses, and into the streets.