The season of rainbows is upon us. Millions of U-Haul driving, faux-hawk sporting, Lady Gaga minions will be strutting, prancing, and preening their way to the greatest party of the year! This is the time where we can shout from the top of our lungs: “Gay is Good!” and other select favourites such as: “We’re Here, We’re Queer !“ or my personal favourite: “Closets are for Clothes!”. We come together to celebrate our shared experience and to parade proudly in front of intrigued strangers in our sequined G-strings and our strategically painted breasts to celebrate all that is queer.
Did you ever wonder how we got here? Well if you are like me, you might have until recently assumed that Pride was always a part of society’s celebratory summer culture or just have been ignorant about what launched it into the worldwide festivities we now see each year. While we are sampling the remarkably tasty, watered down beverages in the beer gardens with our favourite drag queen, there is perhaps only a vague notion that Pride originated out of a fight for equality on a very small scale in the rather large city of Manhattan.
In 2007 I became part of the homosexual agenda (my local Pride Board) and quickly learned that where we came from is just as important as where we are going. Without digging around in a small, out of the way queer bookstore in any other major city other than my own (Calgary has a serious lack of any queer literature) the history of Pride is not always very transparent.
Throughout the summer I intend to lure you into the world of queer heroism with stories of my queer heroes. These are the bread to my butter, the cake to my icing, the homo to my sexual. These are the individuals that have fought their way through a shit ton of ideological bullshit so that our G-string dancing is possible. With the recent debate over The Grid’s Dawn of the New Gay and the ensuing discussion over Pride, this post is somewhat felicitous.
Craig Rodwell: Bringing the Homo to the Sexual
Craig Rodwell was born in Chicago in 1940 to a broken family (really, who wasn’t). His mother, unable to care for Craig on her own, decided to send him to a church-affiliated school in Chicago for ‘problem boys.’ You are perfectly correct in assuming and envisioning this as a hot-bed of hormones and sexual experimentation. Regardless of ALL THE SEX, he also learned how not to question sexuality.
What made sense to Craig was that he liked boys. He knew no different. Like a hamster in a cage, all he knew was his surroundings. Testosterone-raging boys was all this boy knew. Not surprisingly, it was when teachers began catching wind of these sexual shenanigans that Craig learned not all boys loved boys. In fact, from what he was told, boy’s hearts were not supposed to skip a beat when another walked in the room.
But Craig’s heart did skip a beat when a boy walked in.
In his late teens, Craig discovered the Mattachine Review, a publication distributed by The Mattachine Society, one of the earliest homophile organizations in the US. Are you curious about the word “homophile”? Well, it is a word that was used in the days of yore for those that were homosexual as well as those who advocated on behalf of homosexuals, and who were quite politically astute and engaged. ”Homophile” emphasized the word love rather than sex and has that Greek awesomeness to it. I am secretly hoping that the word has a strong resurgence, like leggings or The Backstreet Boys. Dallas Barnes is a homophile. Try it with your name. It’s fun.
Anyways, with his growing political mindedness and activist mentality buzzing, Craig packed up and moved out to New York under the premise (to appease his mom) of joining ballet school. Despite the hope that The Mattachine gave Craig, the group was in fact not so interested in rocking the boat. Rather than fight for diversity and acceptance, The Mattachine was interested in assimilating with the dominant male centric, heterosexual, 2.5 kids, and white picket fence dream (think Leave it to Beaver) that defined America, and to some extent, still does.
Craig Rodwell, “Gay is Good”
Although The Mattachine afforded Rodwell a chance to make a difference in the fight for human rights, he proved to be too politically eager for this group and he made the members nervous with his demands. When most members of The Mattachine chose pseudonyms to protect themselves against FBI spies infiltrations, Craig refused. He picketed in front of the draft board, protesting the release of information about sexual orientation to employers of former military. He went out ‘wrecking’ in the streets (a great way to ‘taunt’ close-minded straights by being overly friendly with your choice of same sex partner). I personally like doing this on transit with my girlfriend: I call it holding hands in public, but to certain passengers of the Calgary Transit system it’s “flaunting it in their faces”.
Rodwell’s growing concern for the lack of basic political and personal freedoms motivated him to ask The Mattachine to purchase a bookstore that would act as its headquarters. Not surprisingly, a store was not the kind of visibility they wanted. This was the final straw for Craig, and he quit The Mattachine to open his own bookstore cum community space.
Craig Rodwell at The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop
The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop opened in 1967 on Mercer Street in Manhattan. The name says it all, as Craig was determined to make his shop identifiable as a gay bookstore. He sought to make the store a place where people did not feel intimidated, over-sexualized, manipulated, or used. The book store was a success and was a meeting point for many organizations fighting for human rights.
The Birth of Pride
On June 28, 1969, in what was definitely not the most popular of establishments at the time, The Stonewall Inn, gay history took a quite remarkable turn.
The Stonewall Inn
Like most New York gay bars in the 1960’s The Stonewall Inn was run by the mafia as a ‘legitimate’ business, although lacking in hygiene and regulations. The water was often murky and the watered-down beer was priced extremely high. (If you think this sound like most bars today, well I think you are onto something.)
On this particular night, Craig had been on his way home from playing cards with his friends. He ran into a crowd in front of the Stonewall. The air was tense and the sense of impending revolt was evident (This sounds so hot! It makes me want to throw a pie at Stephen Harper). At 1:20 a.m. the police decided to raid the Stonewall looking for any ‘illegal homosexualism’ (a common ritual amongst the NYPD in all gay spaces). With the growing dissatisfaction of the mafia controlled gay bars and the consistent NYPD raids, the patrons had had enough and fought back.
Rodwell sat on the steps of a brownstone and watched history unfold. As the protests became more heated, and more people began gathering, Rodwell, a believer in spreading the message, immediately phoned the media and ran home to grab his camera.
Rodwell recognized immediately the momentum and importance of the Stonewall protests. After the excitement had died down at the Stonewall Inn, he immediately set into action.
When it was time for the Annual Reminder (a picket at Independence Hall that Rodwell had created five years earlier), not only were gays there picketing, but heterosexual women and their children were there marching alongside their allies. There were public displays of ‘homosexual affection’ again, hand holding (saucy little vixens!), and a general feeling of relentless activism. In other words people were tired of being oppressed and Rodwell realized that the Annual Reminder could segue into something bigger and better: Pride!
The Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade
The first Pride March was held on Sunday, June 28th 1970. Officially titled the Christopher Street Liberation Day after the street on which Stonewall and other gay bars were located, hundreds of people marched for liberation. Forty-one years later, we are still marching for liberation and in celebration of our difference and our diversity.
Anecdotally, Rodwell dated Harvey Milk for a short time in the 1960’s when Harvey was a closeted business man, so unlike who he was at the end of his life. Milk resented the outright activism of Rodwell and The Mattachine Society made him nervous, as did being openly gay, as did an association with The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop. Not long after they broke up, Harvey to San Francisco, and, unhappy with the treatment of gays on Castro Street, Harvey began to speak up. He became political, and became a strong advocate for coming out. When Craig Rodwell opened the bookstore he wanted a place that would act as a public service and to be a meeting place for all gay activist groups. In 1972, Castro Camera was bought by Milk and acted as political headquarters for his political campaigns and was a central spot for the San Francisco gay community, quite like The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, that he had resented.
Craig Rodwell died in 1993 of stomach cancer. His determination, persistence, inspiration, and understanding, have made people aware of their power through activism.
Published in the Gaily June 2011