Tuesday, June 17, 2014


Accidental Participant” best describes my role the night gay history was made on Christopher Street. I happened to be standing outside the Stonewall Inn when all hell broke loose. On the night of The Event launching modern day gay activism my concerns were more focused on the immediate and personal: getting laid.

In those days the stretch of Christopher Street running pass Stonewall was the first leg of the Gay Miracle Mile continuing over Seventh Avenue and sweeping down to the riverfront collection of trailer truck yards and later the abandoned piers. If you hadn't managed to garner a suitor or two after one lap along "the Street of Broken Dreams", you turned around and retraced your steps back toward Greenwich Avenue—the main drag for an earlier generation of Sodomites.

That night Stonewall was the prearranged point for me to meet friend and CP –Cruising Partner--Robin Woodhull. Like all good gay friendships we started out tricking together on a one-night stand, ended up close friends and eventually cruising buddies-- never again the two of us dallying between the sheets.

This time the anticipated outcome of our meetup took a very different turn. Truth be told it was Robin's throbbing libido that got us caught up in those first heady weeks of The Modern Gay Rights Movement. He was hoping to “run into” some horny trick named Marty. A few nights earlier they hooked up at Stonewall. Robin was hoping for a repeat if not a run.

It was late June, weather cool but not uncomfortable; a Friday night when lust dominates a young man's thoughts and actions. Only weeks pass my college graduation making me the first in the family to do so. Hormones peaking and the influx of summer visitors crowding the narrow Village streets made being out and about even more enticing.

As with our protocol, we'd meet-up 11-ish, dance for an hour or two, then going on 2-ish start rounds together-- the “rounds” being assorted bars, all-night coffee dives, side streets, shadowy doorways and recently popular truck yards. Commercial parking lots dotted the West Village especially under the now extinct West Side Highway and High Line rail tracks.

The pitch black interiors of the long distance truck trailers easily accommodated dozens of the sexually liberated. If either Robin or I connected for a stand-up quickie the other stuck around. If the tryst turned into more we parted and talked the next day. Neither of us might be described as wing man to the other so not sure what you'd call our mutual support system. Sisters on the Seek? LOL 

Have I mention that tall, rail-thin, bleached blond, California-born Robin was something of a punk trannie--very much ahead of his time. He often said he felt more like a woman. Only back then he integrated the drag touches into his fetish wardrobe. Wearing full drag after 6 PM would get you arrested in mid-century New York. A reality that makes the uprising doubly significant: drag queens clutching hems, fierce pride and broken bottles took on raiding NYC police.

Just like it had for black civil rights icon Rosa Parks, discrimination had reached the boiling point. This was our Boston Tea Party only instead of throwing the brew overboard, blue coated officers were showered with braking beverage bottles and metal cans. An uprooted parking meter served as a battering ram when cops retreated into the club. 

After years of harassment it was just desserts. Homophobic acts of violence were never counted as crimes as much as they were viewed as 'some faggot getting what's due' for daring to express a love that need not speak out!

Only moments after Robin arrived as we were waiting on line for doorman/bouncer Sasha to let us in, police cars rolled up. No dummies, Robin and I got out of the way, crossing over to the Sheridan Square pocket park fence opposite the bar. 

Gradually others gathered (but certainly not the legions that also claim to have been there!). Initially clueless we watched with increasing agitation as events unfolded before incredulous eyes. Little did we fathom that this was soon to become a shriek heard round the world.

If truth be told after 45 years specifics of that night have faded, others come and go, while a few remain sharply etched in memory. I made no contemporaneous diary or journal entries. It did not struck home until much later that this was the dawn of a New Day for gay Americans.

All these years I've hesitated to put uneven memories on the page or share with those seeking still another perspective of that night. Though some of those impressions were fictionalized in my novel "A Brother's Touch" which oddly enough debuted over a decade later at dawn of the HIV crisis. I've always had reservations about making much of this moment witnessing history.

Robin did manage to hook up again with “Marty”--gay activist Marty Robinson as it turns out--in the predawn hour as street rampages briefly quieted. Through Marty's urging we got involved in early planning meetings held at the pioneering Mattachine Society offices on lower West End Ave and a lecture room on the NYU campus.

We helped handout early informational fliers in the immediate days following what was then-called “the Stonewall riots”. The very first demo Marty called a "Hang Out" to keep up a strong gay presence in the area. These were the very first efforts to organize "the community",to take full advantage of this unprecedented spark of rebellion. 

How I found myself among those early pioneers was Robin's crush on Marty. Soon Marty took prominent roles in creating a formal gay political narrative. At the time leadership roles were assumed by those expressing ideas and following through. For a long time there were no official officer designations or elections per say.

Marty encouraged Robin to come to early meetings. Robin was sure it was an invitation to get laid as well, maybe even begin an affair. Robin brought me and we befriended a tall lanky recruit called Ralph. At the time (unbeknownst to us) Ralph was homeless. We were more warm-bodied supporters than political strategists.

Though flamboyant in attire, at heart Robin was shy. He felt awkward in group situations. Neither of us were much for speaking in public. We were witnessing something important but didn't think it was going to evolve as quickly or as vociferously as it has. It was the values and prejudices of the times and my upbringing that made me a reluctant participant. 

The anti-gay social sentiment that rubber-stamped discrimination was serious cause for thought—and pause. Not only were gay acts criminally prosecuted but the psychological establishment had declared us deviant and mentally defective.

Still an expanding group of brave pioneers recognizing the significance of the night's potential to give gays political presence, worked assiduously to exploit it . In the first few days we went to strategy meetings, passed around informational handouts at ragtag demos, and watched as our legions grew. 

The more public attention the movement got the more ambivalent I was about my visibility. Print media was coming around and nightly newscasts started filming. If caught on camera—either motion or still, and recognized, there could be serious ramifications for one's future in the homophobia of the times.

While not truly closeted it was still a time when making a public display of one's gay sexual orientation was not only socially unacceptable, it was illegal and determined to be a mental illness. It didn't seen an opportune time to become a gay rebel. Perhaps cowardly but nonetheless a reality of the time.

Yet in those fledgling days there was definitely an opportunity to strike out if one had political ambitions. Disorganized and volatile as various factions and ideologies collided and coalesced. Guys who might otherwise be brainy misfits in majority society, were able to maneuver themselves into positions of relative power. 

Others, whose physical idiosyncrasies branded them queer or odd now found themselves on a level playing field. We were all queers and hated by the mainstream. What you brought to the table was more important then what you looked like. If you had a big mouth you ruled.

Later that summer Robin grew disenchanted as he got less attention from Marty. His star rising, Marty stopped dropping by for late night trysts. When he turned up with an obvious "new friend" in tow, Robin couldn't deal. It bummed him out, as we used to say. He was looking for a husband not foot-soldiering a revolution.

It was just as well we started drifting away from being active. I had already started a paid job at a federally funded summer program in the hood. No way would awareness of my participation in gay demonstrations benefit the job and might even get me fired.

While this was definitely a turning point in our history and naturally something I fully supported, it was time to pursue professional interests and turn my energies to learning craft and supporting myself. 

That winter I moved to San Francisco with my first real boyfriend. When I returned the following fall the movement had kaleidoscoped beyond anything I could imagine. The strides being made in recent decades are simply mind-boggling and bewildering but terribly empowering.

I have no regret about how I felt or acted those many years ago. Perhaps one reason I'm reluctant to “dine” on those experiences. So far I have avoided the fatal infection that took so many of my contemporaries. Friends, lovers and acquaintances I might have known a lifetime were taken too early, and horribly, including both Robin and Ralph--and Marty.

In my teens the prospect of two men marrying was inconceivable (but then again so was a Black President). Today's rapidly evolving climate makes all things possible. I can hardly imagine what the Stonewall Revolution has yet to spawn.

"Say it clear, Say it loud: We're Gay, And we're Proud!"

New York City

© Owen Levy 2014

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