Felice Picano Interview

Dublin Core

Title

Felice Picano Interview

Subject

Stonewall Rebellion and the Gay Liberation Movement

Description

Felice Picano, a gay author and memoirist who lived through and participated in the early gay liberation movement, shares his memories about Stonewall Inn, the West Village and Gay culture in the sixties. He provides insights into the riots and their impact as the spark for a protest movement that would become a national gay liberation movement. We discuss the changes that occurred and the evolution of the gay community and the enduring influence these early events have on the development of LGBT identity.

Creator

Christopher Gioia

Source

NA

Publisher

Christopher Gioia

Date

March 2016

Contributor

Felice Picano

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

Felice Picano 2 MP3

Coverage

NA

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Christopher Gioia

Interviewee

Felice Picano

Location

Via Telephone: Los Angeles and New York

Transcription

CG: To begin with Felice, maybe you can tell me about where you grew up your background and what you do.

FP: Living in the West Village, from 1967, the fall of 1967 until the fall of 1995 when I moved to California, I was a long time Villager. Before that I was living for about seven years in the East Village while I went to college. I went to the City University of New York, Queens College while it was still a very small school. There were fewer people in my college than in my high school, a very small college. And I was living on the east side at that point and spending time in the old Greenwich Village south of Washington Square, and I was quite familiar with the area. It was my home. I grew up on Long Island and spent most of my summers in New England. Both of my parents are from Rhode Island, rural Rhode Island. My father came to New York City when he was a very young child. My mother remained in Providence Rhode Island where she was a professional and pro-am sportswoman.

CG: Oh interesting.

FP: So those are my links, by the time I was a child we were living in Hollis, Queens and after that, just before I moved into Manhattan we lived in sort of suburban New York in an area called Twin Ponds right next door to Valley Stream.

CG: And what did you study at Queens College?

FP: I actually studied art. (Chuckles) I was supposed to be an artist.

CG: Oh really?!

FP: And friends of mine were in the literature department and they all wanted to be filmmakers.

CG: Mmhmm

FP: And so to hang out with them I took literature as a minor. Never had a writing course aside from English 101.

CG: And you do identify now, mainly as an author so maybe talk a little bit about your work…

FP: I started writing in the 1960’s. I’m self taught and my many journals and notebooks are at the Beinecke Library at Yale University and also my journals from 1968 to 1988, so when I need to refresh my memory I go to my journals, although you know sometimes one lies to one self in one’s journals at least about personal stuff. About public events it’s usually pretty accurate.
Because I’m not emotionally invested then, for the most part.

My first three books were mainstream psychological thrillers. My third book was a book of gay poetry. I had been publishing gay poetry and even doing readings around New York and San Francisco including one with Allen Ginsberg at Hunter College. He had invited me. Then my fourth novel was a gay thriller, extremely controversial and sensational at the time, which uh turned into a best seller and was the first gay themed book to be picked up by the book of the month club and it became an international bestseller. Shortly after that I felt I was a gay author. I wanted to just write about gay life.

Shortly after that I joined with Andrew Holleran, George Whitmore, Edmund White, Christopher Cox, Robert Ferro and Michael Grumley and we formed a group, the first openly gay writing group in the world called the Violet Quill Club. Robert Ferro named us.

We existed for about four or five years and had a large influence on Christopher Street Magazine, The Advocate, various magazines and we pressured a lot of mainstream magazines and newspapers to cover gay and lesbian literature.

I started my own press, an openly gay press, the Seahorse Press. It’s named after the seahorse because the seahorse is one the few creatures in nature where the male actually gives birth. And so I wanted it to reflect gay men being artistic and creative.

Several years later I joined forces with several other small gay presses to form the Gay Presses of New York which existed from 1981 to 1994. Our first title in that press was Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy,

CG: Oh really!

FP: …so we were in the black from literally our very first day. And from Gay Presses of New York we ended up publishing writers from all over the country, and actually from Europe too. Also we ended up publishing lesbian writers in some number also.

CG: Thanks, that’s a great overview.
As an author, a storyteller, what role do you think personal stories play as part of the construction of historical record?

FP: Well I think personal stories are very important and one of the things I have been doing over the last ten years is that I have been editing and encouraging and getting published works of mainly non- fiction, but also some fictionalized accounts, by people my age or older who are not actually writers, from all over the country but who had stories to tell which are otherwise going to vanish because there’s no kind of mechanism for getting their stories told.

CG: I’ll just interject that your age group is mid sixties?

FP: I’m 72, Oh yeah, I’m an old guy even though people tell me I don’t look it but yeah I’m actually 72 years old so I’m dealing with people from 65- 85. So yeah, people are dying. My idea is to get their material out and whenever I talk in front of a group I especially try to exhort some of the women to get their history down because that’s vanishing much more quickly than some of the men’s history and there is a lot that’s not being done. I mean the whole history of the women’s music movement in the 70’s? Nobody’s written about that. The heavy dyke bars of the 50’s and 60’s are just being mentioned, but nobody’s written about that. There’s just so much material that is still out there.

When I wrote one book, the connection between storytelling and history was interesting. In 1995 I published a novel titled “Like People in History” and I chose that title very specifically because it was the story of two gay cousins over a period of thirty years. And one of the things I was trying to show was that in fact gay men and women were in American history and world history. Especially American history throughout our lives and that we were active and influential. People asked me after that, well how much of this book is true and how much of it is fiction and what I told them is 100% of it is true and about 80% is autobiographical. I had taken a lot of stories of people who are no longer alive by 1995, stories, anecdotes, jokes that they had told me and I put it in the book. So there’s some sort of a mixture back and forth between fiction and nonfiction.


CG: Concerning Stonewall Inn and the Village, tell me what you remember about the place prior to the rebellion? What was it like?

FP: Ok it was not a major bar by any means and it was not a particularly popular bar and it was a bar that was often changing personnel. Right around the corner was Julius’ which is still there, which was the post collegiate bar um and that was the most popular gay bar in the ah Greenwich Village and New York for a long time. Most people associated there but it was so crowded and so social um and so filled with your friends that if you found somebody interesting and you sorta wanted to feel them up and feel them out before you took them home you’d take them around the corner to the Stonewall and slow dance in the dark and figure out what you wanted. Right?

CG: Interesting, yeah so…

FP: Yeah really!

So you were, it was a place that was part of the mainstream bar scene in a way…

It was a part of the mainstream but it wasn’t that much … it wasn’t anything.

CG: Yeah

FP: It was also known to be a bar that was operated by some combination of the police and the Mafia which is what I wrote about when I wrote “The Lure” in 1979-- that they would open up their own bars, Julius’ and even the 9th Circle had been opened up …

CG: Since you mention you had been to Stonewall, any particular story you would like to share?

FP: No, I have no particular story about Stonewall at all.

CG: Ok,

FP: I really don’t, before it happened, it was not a place I went in, except like I said to slow dancing, figure it out… It was a very, very mixed club. There were um lesbians in it who didn’t go to the Duchess -- which was a very heavy dyke bar on the south side of Sheridan Square. So it was nearby, so you know younger women that didn’t want to go there um would go to this one. And there were, it became by the time the incident happened, a place for trannies and for people who were not quite street people but almost, and sometimes the hustler boys who would hang out in front of it in the park in Sheridan Square would go in too. So it had this very, very mixed vibe and, and I was always hearing that it was closing down, that it was going bankrupt.

CG: Perpetually in danger.

FP: Right. Exactly.

CG: Regarding the first night of the riots. Do you have any specific recollections?

FP: Yeah I was across the street at a party and went to the party and there was nothing happening…
It was a warm very balmy June night in New York. It was a Saturday night, there were a lot of people out and about. It was an ordinary night.
And I went to this party and I left the party extra late because I picked up the bartender and so I had to leave when he left (laughs) which was at the end of the party when everybody else was either gone or under the table (laughs) When we walked out, we saw the result of the whole . . . of the riot, and we were quite astounded I must say. And we were immediately ushered by police outside of the area.

CG: So it really was already cordoned off.

FP: It was already cordoned off and there were these black marias, I guess they were expecting more arrests, there were two or three big black buses. There were two cars on fire. There was one johnny pump completely broken off, there was a Volkswagen upside down, the johnny pump had a taxi cab smashed against it, it was spouting water into the air. There were all these black hoses running all over Sheridan Square itself and there were saw-horses and a lot of police.

CG: Do you think those hoses were used to control the crowd?

FP: I think they were fire hoses, they were for the fires. And it looked like a bomb had gone off or a meteor hit. We had no idea. And as we got to the edge of the crowd -- and this had to be like 2:30 or 3 in the morning -- people started telling us there had been a riot at Stonewall and we went through the crowd and picked up whatever it was, all the information that we could get, which was already then half true or half not. And the bar itself was boarded up at that time, you know there is this great big picture window in the front which was completely boarded up and the door was gone and completely boarded up already by that point.

CG: And so, did you think that was going to be the end of it or that it wasn’t going to be that consequential? What was the feeling?

FP: It took us a few, you know we were stoned and high (laughs) obviously! You know it took us a while to figure out what the hell was going on.

CG: Right right,

FP: So we went home, fucked, went to sleep, but here’s the thing, I was awakened the next morning by a friend of mine, Douglas Brashears, the least political person I know and he was the one that said it, he knew we had been at that party and he asked if I had been involved in it, if I had been arrested. When I told him what I saw he said “the queens are revolting.” And you know the guy I was with, we went to a very late brunch in the Village, and all of the stuff was up and people were gathering already.

CG: Really?

FP: So that was, and then I saw Marty Robinson and Vito Russo and some other friends of mine who were hanging around and they said “We’re protesting, will you sign this, and will you do that?” and I guess that was the foundation of Gay Liberation Front.

CG: Really, so it really did have consequences almost over night.

FP: Ya know, the next day. The next day already there was activity on the street. There were people yelling at the cops who were still there, and there were a lot of people gathering. A lot of people had heard about it you know a lot of people would come down to the Village to hang around on a summer Sunday anyway. All of those people were there and they were pissed off. And the mood was really angry and pissed off. Let’s organize now.

CG: I guess there was- a lot of it was the timing over a summer weekend and then word of mouth…

FP: I mean I got a call from Doug, really I mean of all people, so the word had gotten around by 10 o’clock Sunday morning because he woke me up.

CG: Yeah yeah

FP: So there was that and I think that the other thing that’s really hard to explain to people is that there was an established gay community there, when I came back from Europe in 1967. When I left the year before that there really wasn’t a gay community but when I came back there was.

CG: Yeah.

FP: So there really was a gay community there. There was one in San Francisco. There was one in LA. There was one in Boston and in other cities. So it already, in that time frame, was I think very important, because there already was a community.

So it wasn’t a spark happening where there wasn’t any tinder. There was plenty of tinder to go up.

CG: As you mentioned that San Francisco and LA already had communities that were already developed. Do you think that Stonewall and the mythology that evolved around the uprising was a particularly New York phenomenon?

FP: No I don’t think it was a particularly New York phenomenon, I think it could have happened in San Francisco just as easily.

CG: Mhmm

FP: I think it could have happened in West Hollywood just as easily.

CG: I just wondered if that network, that network that reached everyone by 10 am the next morning, that connectivity was somehow stronger in New York?

FP: Maybe -- my friend George called it “Queen Control.

(Laughter)

Something would happen and the queens would get on the phone and it would go all around. So he called it queen control and people would call up and say this is queen control calling and you didn’t even ask who it was and they would start giving you information, right?

Right?

So queen control definitely existed in New York City and I think it might have existed elsewhere in San Francisco and in LA too but people were not as pissed off.

CG: So you would say perhaps the police were more abusive in New York?

FP: Well you know the World’s Fair had a lot to do with it. The 1963 World’s Fair because it meant that the mayor at the time, Mayor Wagner, wanted to clean up the city which was the stupidest idea anybody ever had. So all of the gay bar closings began in that period, 1963 and just continued. So they had been going on most of that decade.

CG: Right

FP: In an organized fashion, where I don’t think it had been happening in an organized fashion in other cities.

CG: You have pretty clearly stated this already, but can you characterize for me the impact you think Stonewall had on the Gay Liberation Front.

CG: Direct, direct, you know, the next day you had people doing that and on Monday there were already protests and lines of people marching with signs at every subway station in the Village.

CG: Wow.

FP: “ What do we want, Gay rights, when do we want ‘em now.”
People with fog horns, sign up here, Gay Liberation Front, oppose the man, blah blah blah, and that happened all the next week.

CG: And so this term Gay Liberation Front, was that newly coined? Or was that…

It was named after the Viet Cong Liberation Front. And one of the reasons why that group ended and was superseded by the Gay Activists Alliance was that it was really a very sixties hippie movement. You know they wanted in their by-laws that we would support the people of North Viet Nam, and that we would legalize drugs and every other god damned thing. And so people said let’s get more focused. And then Gay Activist Alliance began.

CG: So had the Gay Liberation Front existed before that summer…

FP: No, no, it happened right there at those subway stations. There were 3 lines that converge in that area and all of them had protests that week. So there were seven or eight subway stations. And I know that I went to several of them that week. My friends asked us to take signs to make sure people had signs. Me and my friends went with signs to give protesters.

CG: I was going to ask you, I have this sense that there were other um gay liberation groups that weren’t quite as, they weren’t protesting in the streets. So how do you see their influence if any on the growth of this…

FP: The other thing we haven’t talked about is the fact that there were at least two generations involved in all of this and the Stonewall movement and the Gay Liberation Front were all done by people my age for the most part, with very few older people and that the older gay people who were established in the community were all closeted, really opposed us and fought us for many years.
So but there really was a big generational gap, so but we came from a generation that had fought for women’s rights, and against the war in Viet Nam, many of us had been involved in the marches on Washington and the marches down in the south for Civil Rights so we were already used to all this stuff and they, that generation which has been called the silent generation, weren’t. They were afraid. They were a fearful group. And ya know and it was the few voices from that period the very, very brave voices from that period, people like Frank Kameny and um Harry Hay, the founder of the Mattachine Society, they were very, very brave people but they were very few and they got no support from their generation.

CG: Mm, yeah,

FP: So I really do think you have to see this as part of the baby boom or post war generation which was already very adept and active in political action and the fact that we, many of us were um the majority of us were college educated and had been in all these actions before meant that we were able to organize very quickly and very efficiently.

CG: Right I see that.

FP: People say to me, you know, especially this was during the 25th anniversary- well you know Stonewall was a diverse and colorful rainbow thing. I told them no, it wasn’t. I said maybe the original riot was, but all the organizing was 90% men, 95% white, 95% college educated and if they weren’t, the movement wouldn’t have gotten started as quickly or organized as well as it did.

Unfortunately that’s the truth, that’s how it happened, and the fact that soon they were backed up by white gay men with money made it even more important. These are factors that a lot of the Queer community doesn’t want to accept but they happen to be historical facts, the way I remember it.

CG: Yes I mean,

FP: You know you would go to a fundraiser, plunk down your $25, and next week there would be an action somewhere. It was really very simple it was very simple cause and effect. Laughs.

CG: So do you feel like there was this subculture that existed in the sixties, do you feel that it grew out of those earlier movements, that previous generation, did the growth of that group help build the foundation…

FP: I know exactly what you’re saying, I’m trying to explain it. The scene used to be, before I went to Europe, I’m using that as a point because as I say when I went there was gay people in the Village when I came back there was a community. And one way I can explain that is by geography. Greenwich Ave. from St Vincent’s Hospital down to Jefferson Square Library and Sixth Avenue, that was the hangout of the gay and lesbian community before I left and that was the entire reach of it, pretty much, right?

CG: Right?

FP: When I came back not only were gays there, but further north and all along Christopher Street and south and along the west side was the gay hangout. Also before I went, a year before I went there were a couple of articles in Life magazine or Look magazine about gay the homosexual life which was mostly in Greenwich Village along Greenwich Ave. and there were people who called themselves “Third-Sexers.” Now these were not transgender or T.V. or any thing like that. They were men in their twenties and thirties who dressed and looked almost like women but never like women. They would wear Capri pants and pedal pushers and maybe ballet slippers, they wore their hair in a kind of Gina Lolabrigida cut, fluffy sweaters. We called them mohair sweater queens. (Laughs)

CG: Mmhmmm

FP: In pastel colors right? They weren’t guys, none of the gays or most of us wouldn’t go near them and they mostly had straight or bisexual boyfriends or closeted boyfriends. That was what that era was like and when I took a look at that, I said I will have nothing to do with this. No interest in this whatsoever. Went to Europe, came out there, did a bunch of stuff there, came back and the scene was different, much more to my liking and those sweater boys were gone, they were in one bar. They hung out in one bar after that.

So that’s the difference. There really was an entire, I think presenting it style wise I think I can give you an idea of what the actual thinking was that was taking place

CG: Yeah, well…

FP: You know there might have been people sitting in their apartments saying this bullshit has got to stop we don’t want to be like these guy-girls over here.

CG: So it sounds like you’re saying that this reflects a general movement within mainstream culture of the sixties to be more open, free, all those concepts that were coming out, so by the time you returned in 1967 it was a different world already.

FP: Yes it was significantly different.

CG: So you would definitely see it as a- that the ability of the community to organize and to mobilize and all those things are interrelated with the broader social movements of the time.

FP: Absolutely, without a doubt, I think without a doubt. I mean um that’s the people who rioted, the people who protested, the people who knew about or read about or said I want to be part of it.

CG: So back to the actual riots, you mentioned the first night but the story is that it continued for a couple of nights that even that Sunday night there was more…

FP: There was a lot of activity there. Well you know it attracted angry people.

CG: Right

FP: You know it was no doubt that was going to happen.

CG: Did you start to see...

FP: You know the bar raid thing had been simmering for years

CG: Uhuh

FP: Now it happened to be in a central place and it attracted all the people who wanted to have a say.

CG: And did you see over the course of those few nights that the media paid attention…

FP: You’ve seen the articles that were written right?

CG: Some of them

FP: Well it was “Queens Throw Hissy Fit”

CG: What?

FP: That was the headline for the Daily Mirror, “Queens Throw Hissy fit”

CG: (Laughs) Oh I haven’t seen that one.

FP: It was completely disparaging. You know it wasn’t the media reporting.

CG: It was tabloid.

FP: It was totally tabloid. (But it was also one of New York three biggest newspapers) When it was reported -so the media was not interested in it at all. Once they got their tabloid stuff they had no interest whatsoever and you know when GLF or GAA started doing media events we had to contact gay people within the media. You know, people we knew, dated, fucked with, to cover it and often they covered it without the consent of their papers.

CG: Right

FP: But came back with interesting stories and so they got published.

Right and then as the movement-I think there were two great moments. One was the mock marriage down at city hall, do you know about that? (Laughs)

CG: No please tell…

FP: I can’t remember the year maybe 1970 or 1971, I don’t know whose idea it was it was probably Marty’s idea.

He arranged for us to go down to City Hall. It was somebody’s very funny idea to dress a guy as a girl and girl as a guy and get them down to city hall and to get them married. (Laughter)

So they got out their licenses and got down to city hall and the marriage clerk was completely nonplussed and did not know what to do, right? And so the media attended that and it was in all the papers and it was a funny idea. The next thing that happened was maybe five or six months after that. I remember spending two nights stamping all these dollar bills with these pink stamps we had made that said “gay money.”

(Chuckles)

And they had somebody who went down there to the American, no the New York, Stock Exchange and in the middle of this whole thing, got up on the podium and starting throwing this money.

CG: What does gay money buy you?

FP: It was a couple hundred dollars of dollar bills. With pink lips and inside it said “gay money.”

And they just threw all this money and that sure made all the papers, even the Wall Street Journal, and so they got the idea that gay money was being spent and they better be aware of it. So there were a series of actions that grew out of this and then there was the first gay march which went up Fifth Avenue which was completely illegal. There was no permit for it.

CG: And when was that? 1970?

FP: 1970, yeah June of 1970 a year to the day. And there were about 150 to 200 marchers. There weren’t a lot of us! (Laughter)

There were not a lot of us I can tell you that!

CG: But that’s pretty significant for the first year.

FP: Yeah, yeah it was a big deal, but one of the things was that people had talked about it a lot and there were people along the parade route. So spottily along the route people who were in windows or on balconies hanging out signs saying “gay rights now”. There was a lot of spotty support and also the police were completely nonplussed. (Laughs) They had no idea what to do, ya know, um so it was really kind a curious. But these actions started gaining more and more velocity and the other thing was they got more and more publicity within the community, “Where were you?” “I was at the first gay march.” Stuff like that so it started gain traction.

CG: And people were probably hungry for that, to have that collective goal or experience. It was social.

FP: Very social.
And I think it was one of the ideas, I don’t remember who expressed it I think it was Karla Jay. We don’t want to lose our identity as gay people, this is Karla, a friend of mine who was in the GLF, GAA -we don’t want to lose our identity by becoming political we want to be both.
And I think we kept true to that.




Original Format

MP3 Digital Recording

Duration

55 minutes

Bit Rate/Frequency

16bit/44.1kHz

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Citation

Christopher Gioia, “Felice Picano Interview,” Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity, accessed August 17, 2019, https://stonewallhistory.omeka.net/items/show/8.

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