What do you remember?
I moved into an apartment on the north edge of West Greenwich Village in 1969. (I was working and going to school nights at NYU.) Suddenly I was surrounded by gay men and the culture that they were creating in New York City at the time. Two years later, I went to work as an illustrator for the merchandising office of a major department store chain. Almost all of the men who worked there were gay, but unlike the teachers, social workers, and medical personnel that lived in my apartment building, these gay men were part of the New York City fashion world, up on the most stylish of everything and rubbing shoulders with celebrities. Before feminism made it okay for a woman to be single and independent, it was an unmarried girls dream come true. A world full of handsome, creative, and successful men who would spend time with you even if you didn’t have sex with them.
I was blessed to have entree into gay life during that time—after Stonewall and before AIDS. I heard behind-the-scenes stories of gay celebrities out on the gay town. I was invited to the original Village Halloween parade, when it wound around the Village beneath balconies filled with performers. I was invited to Christopher Street after midnight to see the parade of Transvestites (the Village Queens) in full regalia. I have Rollerina’s autograph on a cocktail napkin from Gene’s Patio. There was a sense of excitement for a minute then as gay people risked more and more visibility expecting to finally be allowed to be themselves in all areas of their lives. Then AIDS hit and the celebrations came to a dead halt. In the end, AIDS was probably the biggest force for change in civil rights for gay/queer people. Overnight, everyone suddenly realized that they knew and loved gay people and that those people suffered persecution because of their sexual orientation.
What I wasn’t in touch with at the time, were the leaders who were risking everything to push for changes in the way gay/queer people were viewed and treated. They rarely received mass recognition (Harvey Milk aside) and their stories are in danger of being lost.
In 2016, Mason Funk created OUTWORDS (TheOUTWORDSArchive.org) to document the history of LGBTQ people in the United States. This book presents the first seventy-five people Funk interviewed and archived, in their own words. What I found most noticeable in these interviews is the creativity and joie de vivre that permeates each accounting of what was an incredible struggle for survival. Every interview I read made me wish that I had known that person.
At a time in America’s history when discrimination is rearing its head again in a seemingly powerful way, it is reassuring to read that ordinary people can stand up to abuse and together, in the end, they will prevail. SHOP FOR THE BOOK
© 2019 Anna Jedrziewski and InannaWorks