Beyond Stonewall

Illustration by Susan Coyne

From Power to Pride — with Michael Bronski, Sue Katz, Gary Bailey, Stephanie Burt, and Attorney General Maura Healey. Listen today at 2pm on WBUR or anytime on our website.

This week, we look back on the fifty years since the Stonewall Uprising, that watershed moment in the history of LGBTQ rights. It was a New York story—a conflict at a bar in the city—and the 1970s gay rights movement is so often associated with San Francisco, but the history of LGBTQ movements isn’t limited to any particular city, or any single narrative. In this episode, we talk about Boston’s place in this story—or, more accurately, in the vast constellation of histories related to Stonewall.

Historian Michael Bronski says his Harvard students don’t know gay history (he’s just finished a Queer History of the U.S. for ages 9 to 14). They don’t know what came before gay liberation, and they don’t really appreciate the tragedy of the AIDS era. Michael gave us a short on-air course, helped by Sue Katz who talked about the beginning of lesbian liberation, and Gary Bailey, who described the role of queer people of color in LGBTQ movements.

Never one to put New York in the center of any story, Chris was most interested in the Boston version. Not surprisingly, Boston was the outpost for ideas in the movement (culminating of course in the gay marriage victory in 2004), while New York City was edgier and San Francisco was sexier. Boston had the first openly gay state rep, Elaine Noble, the first openly gay teacher, and an influential newspaper, The Gay Community News, that was considered the movement’s “paper of record” through the 70’s. We know Boston had “Boston Marriages.” Cruising culture, was different here too; it was stratified — not the same on Boston Common as on the Public Garden, by the swan-boats. Gay or thought-to-be-gay politicians got reelected in Massachusetts, in early don’t-ask-don’t-tell style.

Sarah Ponsoby and Lady Eleanor Butler, also known as the Ladies of Llangollen, lived together in a Boston marriage.

Remember: Boston Queer History

Mark Krone, of the History Project, which documents LGBTQ Boston, created an archive of Boston queer history at his blog, which includes photos and text that can help enrich how we think about an American city’s past. There are gems from history at this blog; here’s Krone’s description of queer life in Boston in the 1940s:

Wellesley House party, 1940s. Courtesy of The History Project, Boston’s LGBTQ archive.

Charles Gautreau stands in front of his mirror over the sink in his room in the New York Streets area of the South End. He applies mascara and lipstick, puckering his lips and widening his eyes, he slowly turns into his drag persona, Thelma. Charles shares the room with another man, Peter Seifried, whose drag name is May. They have trouble paying the meager rent and often spend what money they have on drinks and makeup. One time, they got so hungry, they captured a swan in the Public Garden and attempted to cook it in their room until the landlady found out and stopped them, or at least that is how the story went. If life was not easy, it could at least be glamorous with just the right touch of make-up and attitude.

Here, too, is Krone’s reflection on 1950s gay Boston:

Under siege, queer people still danced and partied even as they were scapegoated, punished and neglected by their own government and society. For LGBT people, perhaps “the band plays on” because celebration is our gospel music. It defiantly proclaims: we’re still here.

For more, see The History Project and check out Russ Lopez’s book The Hub of the Gay Universe: An LGBTQ History of Boston, Provincetown, and Beyond.

Read: “How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS”

David France at a 1983 gay rights march in New York

MM: David France’s How to Survive a Plague: The Story of How Activists and Scientists Tamed AIDS is one the best histories of the AIDS epidemic and the incredible story of how grassroots activists helped transform HIV from a mostly fatal infection to a manageable disease. France also made a documentary by the same name. The best book about the era is Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic.

I was a cub reporter in New York in the 80’s struggling to get our national news program to cover an urgent story I could see on the streets of Greenwich Village every day. My colleague and I would bring updates from the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Report to the daily news meeting and be ignored (or worse). The media took its cues from President Ronald Reagan, who said nothing about the epidemic unfolding and the growing numbers of deaths, until Rock Hudson’s death of AIDS in 1985. Reagan’s communications director, Pat Buchanan, called AIDS “nature’s revenge on gay men.” It was activist groups like ACT-UP who changed government and FDA policy and the media’s. One night a few ACT-UP activists handcuffed themselves to the anchor desk of the show I worked on and disrupted the live broadcast. How’s that for media attention?

The Times has a schedule of Stonewall related events and exhibits.

Read: Dhalgren

AC: One name that comes up again and again, when talking to writers about LGBTQ culture post-Stonewall, is Samuel Delany, author of groundbreaking science fiction.

In Delany’s work, you find urban spaces with possibilities beyond heteronormativity. This includes his non-fictional Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, about communities of contact in vanished New York public places, and his epic novel, Dhalgren. Dhalgren disorients, discombobulates; it deliriously plunges the reader into the mystery of a hazy city:

The common problem, I suppose, is to have more to say than vocabulary and syntax can bear. That is why I am hunting in these desiccated streets. The smoke hides the sky’s variety, stains consciousness, covers the holocaust with something insubstantial. It protects from greater flame. It indicates fire, but obscures the source.

Watch: My Own Private Idaho

Gus Van Sant’s 1991 film draws from Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays to tell an updated story of street hustlers, ranging beyond any one city or place.

Just as no single historical narrative tells the whole story—there’s “more to say than vocabulary and syntax can bear”—there’s also no single version of the Henry plays, and even, as the film’s title suggests, no single Idaho.

This Week’s Ephemeral Library:

Be sure to get to this essential reading for any radio- or podcast-listeners: Hua Hsu’s essay on noise-cancelling and audio-mindfulness in our noisy world. See an exhibit of fashion that defies binary gender constructions at Boston’s MFA.

That’s all folks. Tweet, share, subscribe, and send us a note with your hopes and dreams.

The OS Brigade.




An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

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An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.

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