Michael Bettinger Interview

Dublin Core

Title

Michael Bettinger Interview

Subject

Discussion of the early gay rights movement and the legacy of Stonewall.

Description

Michael Bettinger, a pioneer in queer family therapy, discusses his experience with the Stonewall rebellion and the Gay Liberation movement as well as his memories of activism and milestones in gay history in both New York and San Francisco.

Creator

Christopher Gioia

Source

NA

Publisher

Christopher Gioia

Date

September 2016

Contributor

Michael Bettinger

Rights

This recording and transcript is provided for education and research purposes and should not be altered in any way. All Rights reserved, Christopher Gioia (interviewer) with permission from subject.

Relation

NA

Format

MP3 Digital Recording

Language

English

Type

Oral History

Identifier

Michael Bettinger MP3.mp3

Coverage

NA

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Christopher Gioia

Interviewee

Michael Bettinger

Location

Via Telephone: New York and San Francisco

Transcription

Michael Bettinger Interview

CG: Michael first of all can you just tell me a little about yourself?

MB: Uh let’s see, I’m now seventy years almost seventy-one. I lived in New York City the first thirty years of my life and San Francisco the last forty years of my life. I’ve been a psychotherapist, a marriage and family therapist actually. I’m probably one of the pioneers of what’s known as queer family therapy. Which basically is just being able to include the reality of LGBT people in what is thought of as family and such. There was incredible ignorance when I started this back over forty years ago. And about twelve years ago I retired. I decided I had enough. I’ve been enjoying myself since having an active retirement doing a bunch of things that I enjoy. And uh, what else would you like to know?

CG: Well I mean, we are going to talk about the past of course, we’re going to talk about the late sixties and seventies in New York, um so maybe you can also tell me a little bit about what New York, the Village, was like in the late sixties and if you remember anything about the Stonewall Inn, as a bar, in particular.

MB: Well I’ve never been a bar person. I’ve never actually been in the Stonewall bar. But I have a wonderful story about the weekend -- the night and the weekend of the Stonewall Riots. Probably a story I haven’t seen anywhere else. I actually listened to it on the radio both on Friday night and Saturday night. Friday night Saturday morning and Saturday night Sunday morning, so here’s the story:

Well, lets see, I’m about uh, how old am I at the time? This is June 69 so I’m 23 years old. I’m living in Brooklyn. I’m still living in my parents home and I’ve gone out on Friday night as I often do uh, came back and was listening to the radio. There’s a radio station in New York you’re probably familiar with it, WBAI. It’s a Pacifica Station, Pacifica Foundation station, uh very left leaning and this is 1969 the height of the Vietnam war, everything else is going on. It’s a very difficult time. So I’ve been listening to WBAI regularly for a few years at this point. There were two late night talk show hosts, uh Steve Post and Bob Fass. Both of them had a midnight to six AM talk show where people would call up and ya know, talk about various topics. One of them had Monday through Friday; the other had Saturday and Sunday night. I forget which had which. I think Steve Post was Monday through Friday and Bob Fass was Saturday night and Sunday night but it could have been reversed. So it’s about one thirty in the morning and I’m listening to I think it was Steve Post but it could’ve been the other one. Maybe a little later, maybe about 2 o’clock in the morning and someone calls who identifies himself as someone living across Sheridan Square from the Stonewall Inn. And he basically starts the uh, the call in thing, “you’ll never guess what’s going on here right now.” And he has a direct view form his window of the Stonewall Inn and starts describing in detail exactly what’s going on. Now I don’t remember all the exact words he said but he was on the phone for hours and I was listening for hours. I stayed up way, way, way later than I normally would have. It, I was just fascinated by this. I was in the process I guess you would say, of still coming out. I still had not fully owned my gay identity although I had played with guys since I was teenager. I also had a girlfriend at that time. Still a little bit confused, let’s say trying to figure this all out. I was very, very aware of all the developments in the mid sixties and the late sixties with the gay rights movement. I was aware of the Mattachine Society, I was aware of the gay people at Columbia, they had made news in the late sixties before Stonewall, they had started organizing. So when I started hearing on the radio just what was happening that night and the guy described it, you know a gay bar. I don’t remember all the exact detail that he said; uh I was locked to the radio. Now I’ve always been a lifelong motorcyclist. I had a motorcycle at that time in the garage I was in Brooklyn. Uh … I thought to myself, uh do I want to go and take a look and see what was going on? I could simply, cause it was a nice night, I could simply go out and just get on the motorcycle and ride to the Village which would be about half an hour’s ride from my house. And then I thought about it and thought, no this is a riot going on.
I personally don’t like riots. By the way I will tell you a story later about the Dan White -the Dan White night riots in San Francisco, which is a very similar story. But I decide not to attend there personally, that riots are dangerous places. But I was utterly fascinated by this so I listened for several hours and went to sleep. The next morning I got up and thought it would be all over the news. We got the New York Times delivered at that point. I didn’t find anything in the Times. I didn’t really find anything on TV about it. I understand there was something in the Daily News or New York Post at that time, but I’m not really sure of that. So I went about my day on Saturday, normal, and then on Saturday night again, back home, turn on the radio listen to WBAI. Again, after midnight and this fellow calls in again and for hours afterwards, again describes all the activities; the masses of people, the cops moving here and there and just what is going on. And again I make the decision not to go into, into Manhattan, not to take a look at it, but I was just fascinated by it.

Of course on Sunday was the first Gay rights march and that did make the news on Sunday evening and there was a small article in the Times about it. But that’s basically my Stonewall Riots story that. I listened to most of it on the radio. Which WBAI, which I’ve not seen anywhere else noted or whatever so you may have a little bit of information there that seems to have slipped by historians.

CG: Yeah, yeah, no, this is fantastic I was just looking up as you were talking to see that WBAI does, well, have a digital archive but I’m sure its all for just the last ten years or so, but I’m definitely gonna have to reach out to them and try to find a maybe a transcript or something of that show. That would be amazing…

MB: There were two shows, both, well one was actually very early on Saturday morning it was a midnight to six am show and the other was very early on Sunday morning so you can figure out what the dates were uh regarding Friday night Saturday morning Sunday morning.

CG: Yeah, absolutely, now you talk about, you mentioned that Sunday was more of a march. I’m just curious why you characterize it as a march cause I’ve never um, how was it described?

MB: It was a protest march uh it was a lot of people massing and I think they walked up either 5th, 6th or Seventh Avenue. I’m not sure. Just protesting what had been happening in the Village. I mean you know the history of the- at the time of the Stonewall Riots there were only four gay bars left in all of Manhattan, it was all corrupt it was all being paid off by the police, all this, the police were being paid off. This is documented elsewhere and a lot of the people were just totally fed up so there was this first march up, protest march up I think it was Fifth Avenue but I could be wrong on that part.

CG: I think it was more, I think it was Seventh. If, cause I’ve heard about protest organizing, but around um, in the West Village between, Seventh Avenue between Bleeker up. So maybe that’s the…

MB: That sounds, it probably was up Seventh Avenue given where the Stonewall is and given the heart of the Village and everything it was probably up Seventh Avenue but that did make the news on Sunday evening and there was a small article in the Times I think on Monday morning about it.

CG: Mhmm, yeah that I can also hopefully find, although the only thing I’ve found so far is a tiny little blurb (in the Times) about Friday night Saturday morning or really Saturday morning, um the um the next question really for you specifically is um Id like to hear a little more about how then you got involved with the gay liberation organizations.

MB: Ok well out of Stonewall came the Gay Liberation Front, which was a multi issued organization. They were against the Vietnam War, pro feminism, against racism, for gay rights and like most multi issue organizations it was very chaotic. I was never involved with them but I was following this, all the news that I could possibly gather you know continuously. About six months later I saw that a group had broken away and formed the Gay Activists Alliance, which was going to be a single issue organization. Only one issue mattered and that was what they called gay rights at the time. Again I followed that for several years this is over the course of my fully accepting my gayness and lets see in the Spring of 1972 is the first time that I went to a GAA meeting, uh it was at the Firehouse which I think the address was 99 Wooster Street in Manhattan just a little south of Houston, Soho district. And uh Rich Wandel, who you interviewed recently was the president at the time. And I was hooked. I was immediately hooked. Suddenly there was a place for my activism. Now by this time also my career had started taking form. I had been, I graduated college in 1967, the height of the Vietnam War. I was still not really ready to come out publicly to deal with my gayness, although that would have given me a military exemption but I was also interested in teaching and I decided to become a teacher mostly- not mostly but really specifically, teachers got a draft deferment. And there was no way that I was gong to take part in the Vietnam war. I though it was a disaster from the beginning. History has later shown that to be true. Vietnam is now one of our major trading partners which is always, you know, like a joke to me. Uh, so I went back then, in late 69 they switched from the regular draft system to a lottery system and I got an extremely high draft number. I think it was 271 so I gave up my teaching deferment and went into the draft pool for the first year and of course didn’t get drafted which put me like on the bottom of the list. It was a complicated system I don’t want to get into all the details here but it meant basically that I would never get drafted. So at that point I quit my job as a teacher in NYC uh, applied for graduate school in counseling and started attending NYU uh in June, July of 1970… July of 1970 to get my masters in counseling. Uh this put me in the heart of Greenwich Village you know, the time of great activism in the LGBT community and so, ah there were always stories and I was pretty aware of what was happening at NYU and in the Village in general. I’m still living in Brooklyn at this time although I now have my own apartment in Brooklyn. I graduate in June of 71, I get my masters degree and I go back to work for the New York City school system first as a substitute teacher and then I get a full time teaching position which was also, which was a teaching guidance counselor position. The reason I’m saying all this is I started what really became a lot of my life’s work and that is straightening out the small part of the mental health profession to which I was most attached on the issues of homosexuality, gay relationships etc. So when I joined GAA in the spring of 1972 I had already been doing uh as far as classmates and fellow professionals, some work -at that time homosexuality was still listed as a mental illness in the diagnostic and statistical manual of uh mental- DSM whatever it is. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness or something or other- it was still listed as a mental illness, it was horrendous. And point was that most of my colleagues at that time in the mental health profession really didn’t know that it wasn’t a mental illness.

So most of my first work as a psychotherapist, was, aside from my clients, but my work with my colleagues for most of the 1970 ‘s was trying to straighten them out on the idea that homosexuality is not a mental illness. The next year after Rich Wandel served as president, Bruce Voeller, Dr. Bruce Voeller, he’s a biologist, became the president of the organization and there were other mental health professionals involved in GAA at the time trying to get the American-- there are two organizations-- one the American Psychiatric Association, they’re the one’s that control the DSM and the other one was the American Psychological Association. They’re both called APA and I think the first one we tried to or that actually was successful, I think it was the American Psychiatric Association was holding their meeting in Hawaii and there was already a movement to declassify mental illness, homosexuality as a mental illness and GAA sent a representative to them. I remember contributing some money to the pool cause we had to raise money in order to send the person there but there were already a lot of other people involved in this. Well the APA did change it form being a mental illness but they still left in something called ego dystonic homosexuality, which allowed mental health professionals to continue to treat gay people as if they were sick. It was a compromise. It had to be done at the time. It was later changed. It was removed but for most of the 1970s most of my work was in trying to really educate my peers, my colleagues, homosexuality was not a mental illness. That’s the 1970’s. In 1980 I decided to go back to school to get my doctorate in clinical psychology and at this time homosexuality is well established as, you know, not being a mental illness. It was finally delisted, ego dystonic homosexuality, I think it was DSM 3 that was removed as a- or 3R, one of the two, as a classification. So, but by the 1980’s I’m going back to get my doctorate in clinical psychology but its with a specialization in family clinical psychology. I’ve been a family therapist all my life, which is the whole spectrum of mental health, uh there’s a number of sub groupings even among psychotherapists. There are the Freudians, although they did not call themselves that at the time, but the ones that came out for the psychoanalytic, psycho-dynamic tradition, that still had extremely negative views on homosexuality. I couldn’t imagine going to school back with them and having them deal with all that. A lot of psychoanalytic institutions at this time would never allow a person who was gay to train to be a psychoanalyst.

CG: Yeah I was going to ask you.

MB: I don’t need to go into all the details but they were really nuts about this. So I found a school called the California Graduate School of Marital and Family Therapy, its now part of Argosy University, who had a, what’s known as a family therapy approach to mental health. Its based on something called the growth model rather than the medical model which was what most of mental health was using. So as I’m going back and studying family therapy I realize most of my colleagues have absolutely no idea as to what homosexuals, they had no idea that homosexuals were not mentally ill, but that they also formed stable healthy affirmative relationships. So, uh into a number of the classes in which I was studying I kept inviting guest speakers, ya know mostly friends people I knew who were not only in one on one relationships, there was one class I invited this one fellow he was a social worker, a colleague of mine but he had been in a triad relationship. These other two fellas had a relationship for 12 years. He joined them. He was twelve years later, eventually 12 years after that, one of the fellas died and then he died of aids so it all- but for 12 year at a time these three functioned as a family unit. So most of the 1980s for me was devoted to just trying to get my colleagues to understand that gay people not only weren’t mentally ill, but formed stable, long term, healthy, affirmative relationships.

Edited -
CG: A curiosity I have about Stonewall and the phenomenon that grew out of it is about how previous events happened in San Francisco and Los Angeles and other places where there were, you know, altercations with police that led to disruptions and- of different gay establishments, um but I’m always, I’m always curious to hear from my interviewees what was different about New York that really pushed the Stonewall incident in the direction that it went to become this turning point?

MB: Alright, my belief and view it was only serendipity. It was a very hot night a very warm night that June night. For what its worth Judy Garland was buried that afternoon. Uh, she was very popular in the community and I think it was just serendipity that the police uh, decided to raid Stonewall that night. You can read all about the history, the payoffs and exactly how it happened. It could just as easily have happened in San Francisco I think. In San Francisco we had several events, the Compton Cafeteria riots and there was another riot that happened a few years before. There was a lot of activity going on, you know just below the surface level of you know what happened with Stonewall. The fact that it happened in New York and Stonewall, was a seminal moment -- it ‘s like Rosa Parks or a lot of other things. It just changed forever the nature of how everyone was looking on this and everyone knew it was time. And the movement picked up allover the country and all over the world really started, but it could have happened in San Francisco just as easily. There was a lot of activism going on here around the same issue too. So my belief, it was just serendipity.

CG: Mhmm, now… yeah, yeah.

MB: But it was the Vietnam War, it was what was called women’s liberation it was the racism going on, the civil rights movement. It was uh, you know, gay people decided, hey we have the exact same issues.

CG: Yeah, it was a critical mass of things that all converged. Uh, when you were talking earlier you mentioned briefly, earlier something that happened in San Francisco uh…

MB: Yeah, that’s my aversion to riots uh the night of the Dan White decision there were riots at City Hall. Several cop cars were burned, an ex boyfriend calls me up “hey look, come on down, look what’s going on here… cop cars are burning, there’s rioting going on in the Castro.” The cops did riot in the Castro and again I have the motorcycle downstairs in the garage and I ask myself “do I want to go see this?” I can get on the bike, I can just stay on the periphery. No, I do not like riots, is what I thought. I’ll pass on this. I’ll read about tomorrow morning in the newspaper.

CG: Tell us more about, what was the Dan White decision?

MB: Ok you don’t know about Dan White. Let’s see, what exact year was it, the year before Dan White was a supervisor on the San Francisco city council, which is called the board of supervisors. He represented a working class district. He was a very troubled guy he ran for supervisor, which was a part time job and paid very little but had a lot of political prestige and then he was Diane Feinstein’s sort of protégé. She was out of the country visiting China on some trade mission. She was the president of the board of supervisors at the time and while she was out of the country he decided he couldn’t take it anymore, the financial situation, so he resigned from the board of supervisors. And mayor George Moscone, uh it was up to him to appoint somebody else to be the new supervisor. Ah, Diane comes back, he tries to withdraw his resignation. George Moscone says, no you can’t withdraw your resignation. You resigned, you’re no longer a member here, I’m going to appoint somebody else. This is the politics part. There were two factions and Moscone was --didn’t agree with White on a lot of issues. Dan White’s main opposition on the board of supervisors was Harvey Milk. And Harvey was very good with words and everything and sort of made a fool of Dan White on a number of occasions. Not really in a bad way, not like Donald trump does or anything but like subtle twists of words and anything. So Dan White decides since he cant be supervisor he went a little crazy, snuck into City Hall through an open window, hidden through the metal detectors with a gun, came and assassinated George Moscone, walked across the hall a few doors down, walked in on Harvey Milk and assassinated him, then leaves.

CG: I had no idea. His name [laughs] has kind of been lost in history. I had no idea he was the assassin. Sorry, go ahead.

MB: Yeah so Dan White was caught, he was thrown into jail. He was charged with murder. He was only convicted I think of manslaughter. He had what was called a Twinkie defense, saying that he had been eating only Twinkies and Coca Cola for days before and that had driven him mad.

CG: That’s…

MB: Eventually Dan White commits suicide-- gets out of jail and commits suicide but that’s how Diane Feinstein gets to become mayor, by George Moscone being assassinated. Uh and Harvey Milk was also assassinated and the night that the conviction just of manslaughter came down there was at first a demonstration in front of City Hall which turned into a riot in which seven police cars were set on fire and the police as a revenge got in other cars, drove a mile and a half to the Castro and basically rioted in the Castro destroying a bar called the Elephant Walk attacking a lot of patrons there. It was really one of the ugliest chapters in San Francisco police history. This was very intentional on their part. Not one of them was ever prosecuted for this. A whole bunch of them should have been thrown in jail for assault-- for whatever the charges were but none of that was ever done.

CG: Wow, unbelievable. Yeah, I mean I knew about that, you know the aftermath, but I never realized that the police had actually targeted pretty much basically, they weren’t even really seeking retribution against those who were protesting at- by City Hall.


MB: Yeah, there was nothing going on in the Castro that night. The police got in their cars and drove to the Castro and rioted there.

CG: Wow, unbelievable, um yes, so you have good reason for aversion to riots. (Laughs)


MB: Yes, yes, I avoided that riot. I’ve had several minor situations roughly similar to that. No, my mother did not raise a fool. She was a bit paranoid in a lot of ways, which was her problem, but uh she said basically, avoid riots and situations like that and wars and situations in -- where people do crazy things.


CG: Now, but I know that you did participate in, well not really in crazy things, but activism that uh -- I think you had mentioned to me once before in an email about Zaps. Can you tell me what a, what…


MB: Uh for a short time, well in GAA we had these things called zaps which you can probably read about.

CG: Yes, yes…

MB: They were basically, were quick spontaneous demonstrations with some sort of little twists to them. When Bruce Voeller was the president of the organization, GAA uh, they zapped the taxi commissioner. The taxi commissioner had decide that it was ok for gay people to drive uh, drive taxi cabs, but they had to be interviewed by a psychiatrist at least once a year and to get a note from the psychiatrist to say that they were mentally stable enough to drive a taxi cab. This was the rules at this time, this was 71, 72 -- no maybe it was 72. Now, Dr. Bruce Voeller was a biologist. He has a lab coat, white. Oh one of the early things that made GAA successful was they spent $2000 on a Sony reel to reel video recorder. This was brand new. No one, you know videotape was brand new for television. Sony had come out with what was essentially a portable (but it was a luggable). It was about eighteen or twenty pounds. And it was reel to reel but you could record things. So a zap was something like this: at a certain moment Bruce Voeller and several others including the ones with the video equipment just walked into the outer office of the taxi commissioner and said we’re here to interview the taxi commission to see if the stress of being a taxi, the stress of being a heterosexual is harm… interfering with his ability to be a taxi commissioner and just walked into his office. Now what normally would have happened at this time was that everyone would have gotten beaten up except that the videotape was running. And everyone was already on it. You can see the people they’re about to attack and then they see this and they freeze. And they stop. At the exact same time a news conference is being held downstairs on the street with all the news agencies (and they buy up anything LGBT related at this time). They’re just looking for these stories they are sensational. So there’s a news conference going on downstairs explaining what is going on upstairs. That’s a zap. For a short time in 1974 I became what was known as the Zap Meister. Uh which the women later criticized as it was a male term, Meister. Changed the term to ah, political action coordinator, I think, or something like that. I really didn’t get to do-- organize a lot at that time because that was also about the time that GAA was falling apart. Eventually there was a fire at the firehouse- oh before that Bruce Voeller had resigned as president to form the National Gay Task Force, which later became the National Lesbian Gay Task Force. So, and this was going to be a federal, countrywide organization so that left a vacuum in GAA. I don’t think they ever recovered from that and the organization started to go into a decline and then there was the fire at the firehouse eventually, which was the organization’s headquarters. That ended that. So GAA went on for a few more years but they really were ineffective and other organizations took their place: The National Gay Task Force later the National Lesbian Gay Task Force. But there were also other local organizations, so I didn’t have a lot to do as a Zap Meister. But I did have the title for a while. We raised a couple of small things. Nothing of a big nature, like the taxi commissioner. That was just absolute beauty. And those tapes by the way would be run again and again. GAA made its money on the Saturday night dances
at the firehouse. It only cost two bucks to get in but over the course of the evening they would have a thousand people in and out. So we had an income of about $2000 a week, which was a hundred thousand a year. In these dollars today that would probably be about seven, eight hundred thousand dollars a year, something like that, to play with. So we were flush. The video equipment kept getting stolen so we kept buying more, uh some of those tapes probably exist. Someone has them in storage somewhere, but videotape like that also doesn’t hold up too well so maybe they don’t exist. But there was enough money to do a lot of organization like that.

CG: Yeah that’s amazing… Uh Michael, you’re still there?

MB: Yeah I’m here.

CG: Ah yeah, that’s amazing that you had, yeah, that equipment, which was state of the art at the time. But if no one transferred it, you know, it wouldn’t be readable or viewable maybe, even if the actual physical tapes survived, you know?

MB: Well if anyone has the tapes someone has an old Sony video recorder player. I’m sure they can get it transferred to digital but who knows what exists and where it is.

CG: Um, so I do have to wrap up because I have to be somewhere else. Earlier you mentioned your take on Stonewall in terms of -- as it relates to being a New York-- or as something that could have happened anywhere in the US, but just to sum up if you can just try to articulate a little bit about what you think Stonewall means and represents to the community.

MB: Well it’s become larger than life. Its like Rosa Parks, you now her refusing to walk to the back of the bus was just one little small thing but you look back now and you can see that is where it all changed. The whole course of history changed at that point. Everyone sort of realized the time for this had come. And I think it was the same thing with Stonewall. There’s a number of you know, small incidents, that in and of them selves shouldn’t have been very important but for some reason galvanized everyone and it clearly became an issue.

CG: Exactly. And you were saying that you felt that it reached throughout the country, so, not just the coasts and not just the big gay centers. When you moved to San Francisco you felt like it had already, you know, there was whole other level of activism going on there. Right?

MB: There already was. In 1969 you had the first march in New York City. The next June on the equivalent Sunday you had the first march in San Francisco and probably other cities. San Francisco, uh for a long time called it the gay freedom march or -not the gay rights march for some reason it was -they came up with, but that was 1970 and I was travelling back and forth to San Francisco in those years, my brother lived here, still lives here, so I was aware of what was going on here. It was a vibrant scene both sexually and people-- it was the 1970’s. I’ve had younger people now come up to me, you know with the understanding that New York and San Francisco were like Berlin or Paris in the twenties and ask me what was it like both politically, and the sexual scene and the party scene. It was a very special decade. It was a special place and time, both San Francisco and New York.

Original Format

MP3 Digital Recording

Duration

36.46 minutes

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16 bit/ 44.1 kHz

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NA

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Citation

Christopher Gioia, “Michael Bettinger Interview,” Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity, accessed August 17, 2019, https://stonewallhistory.omeka.net/items/show/16.

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