John D'Emilio Interview

Dublin Core

Title

John D'Emilio Interview

Subject

Stonewall Rebellion and the Gay Liberation movement.

Description

Historian John D’Emilio shares his memories of growing up in New York City in the 1960’s and being introduced to the “gay world” of the Village, including visits to The Stonewall Inn in 1968. John’s experiences reflect his upbringing and his background from an immigrant family that lived in the Bronx. His thoughts and insights are shaped by his education and study of history. John sees the significance of the Stonewall riots as wrapped up in the specific place and time, that is New York City in the late 1960’s- the media and culture capital of the world and an important locus of the protest movements and anti-establishment culture of the era. The event itself, the actual uprising has less impact in the creation of the movement than the decision by activists to commemorate the event in a protest march the following year. The Stonewall uprising is characterized as the spark that ignites a grass roots movement that builds upon the limited efforts of previous gay rights activism in the early sixties and succeeds in creating lasting victories in the quest for equality.

Creator

Christopher Gioia

Source

NA

Publisher

Christopher Gioia

Date

March 2016

Contributor

John D'Emilio

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

John D'Emilio 2 MP3

Coverage

NA

Oral History Item Type Metadata

Interviewer

Christopher Gioia

Interviewee

John D'Emilio

Location

Via Telephone, Chicago and New York

Transcription

CG: To begin tell us about your background and what you do.

JD: I grew up in New York City, born in 1948, a big extended Italian family - all of my grandparents were immigrants. I grew up in the Bronx actually; I went to this very special boys high school in Manhattan starting in 1962. It’s a Jesuit school that you got into by competitive exams only, Catholic boys from the whole metropolitan area of New York, and it was probably one of the most profound things that ever happened to me because we got treated like serious intellectual kids by teachers who really cared about us and it got me in Manhattan as a teenager where I had barely left the Bronx before that, barely left my neighborhood. And it was in my years at Regis high school where I, in the mid sixties, started feeling gay things so that it initiated, you might say, a pre Stonewall, pre gay liberation coming out. And in terms of my life, I went to graduate school in the 70s to do history and at a certain point early on got involved in gay activism and at a point the doing history and the gay activism became entwined with each other and that’s what I’ve done for the last 40 years; I move back and forth between teaching and doing research and publishing LGBT history and also being involved in the movement, in activist advocacy organizations of one sort or another.

CG: As a historian, what role do you think personal stories play as part of the construction of historical record?

JD: They’re really important and in a lot of ways vital and in some ways even more so now than fifty or sixty years ago. Printed records are most likely to be produced by people of privilege, whether it be primarily economic and class privilege which also is closely related to racial privilege, and if you’re wanting to write about ordinary folks and community life and what it was like to be this or that or the other thing, the only way you’re going to do it and succeed with an on the ground social history and community history is if you have stories to supplement the documents that you find and then it takes thoughtfulness how one evaluates the stories that people tell. Memory is unreliable in some cases but, but if we didn’t collect personal stories and take them seriously there are all kinds of history that would never get written. It’s very important and it has to be used smartly and critically and thoughtfully.

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

JD: My first discoveries of gay life came in the form of street cruising on the Upper East Side because that was a part of Manhattan that I knew, that’s where movie theaters were, in the 50’s, the east 50’s, and as a teenager I began to notice that there were guys who, something told me, were what I was. The first time I went to the Village was in the fall of 1967. A guy I had met on the waiting line for tickets to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, which was kind of like an outdoor gay community center in and of itself in those days because there were so many gay men who were waiting to get standing room tickets to the Opera, anyway this guy Jim, who was a bit older, he was in his late twenties, I was 19 - a sophomore in college, he took me under wing for a little bit. He brought me to the Village for the first time and it was the first time I ever went into a gay bar, and the gay bar of all things was Julius, which is a famous gay bar in New York where (I didn’t know this in 1967) activists the year before had challenged state laws around serving gay people in bars. So that’s when I first experienced the Village and then in the spring of ‘68 I met somebody, a guy named Billy who was a graduate student at Columbia and about ten years older than me - I was still 19 - and he lived in the village, he lived at a building at the corner of West 10th Street and Greenwich Ave. which was literally one block from where Christopher Street started, and Billy introduced me to life in the Village. Today it would seem like nothing but in 1968 it seemed to me like a whole gay world. We would literally sit, lean on park cars on the corner by his apartment building and sit there and watch gay men go by for hours and it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen! And one of the bits of discovery in the Village in ‘68 and ‘69 through Billy is that he did take me to the Stonewall, a couple of times. This was before the Stonewall riots occurred so it would have been sometime between the fall of 68 and the spring of 69 and the drinking age in NY was 18 at that time so it was totally legal for me to go into a bar and be served, and the thing is - (laughter) at this point I have only been in Julius’ once, still hadn’t been to any other gay bar - I’m a person who never liked gay bars because I always felt completely awkward in them. It’s like, how do you approach a person who you don’t know and half the people there are drunk. Anyway we go to Stonewall and of course the thing that was immediately apparent to me - besides the fact that it was, unlike Julius where there were a lot of people but it was conversation, and it was kind of quiet, Stonewall was wildly noisy and they have go-go boys who were dancing up on a platform wearing kind of nothing, you know a g-string, or just underpants, and it seemed very exciting to see and experience something like that! (laughs) As I say, we went twice and that was my experience of Stonewall, of the bar.

CG: It is funny because when I read some historical accounts that talk about Stonewall and they mention rather matter of factly that there were gogo boys because it doesn’t seem that outlandish, since the forty years that have transpired, but it must have been at the time…

JD: For me in 1968, I had never seen anything like it, or even imagined anything like it, so it was like oh my god! What’s going on here?! And yeah, it created, it helped create and sustain this atmosphere with noise and people were dancing. There were two rooms in the Stonewall. You walked in and you were in the bar and then you got to the back of the bar and you turned left and you were in this other room where there was also dancing.

CG: And um do you have any specific recollections about the first night of the riots?

JD: Well I wasn’t in New York City when they happened, I was with Billy, we were travelling in Europe that summer - one of these Europe on five dollar a day summer trips. We rented a car and were driving all around and this is really so ironic really, I learned about the Stonewall riots toward the end of the summer, when we were in Paris, so this might have been late August, maybe late August 69 and we stumbled upon, total coincidence and accident, we stumbled upon a copy of the Village Voice in Paris and it was the copy of the Village Voice, that - I can’t remember now if they covered it for one week or two - but it was a copy of the Village Voice that had a big story about the Stonewall riot and the fighting back and I can remember Billy and I reading this and thinking “oh my god, that is amazing.” Who could believe that this is happening? “I wonder what it will mean?” But it’s sort of funny I learned about the Stonewall riots about 4000 miles away from where the Stonewall riots occurred.

CG: And what do you think about the sources you cited when you wrote about Stonewall do you feel like they that the Times and Voice, that their overage, I mean they were obviously limited but how would you characterize them?

JD: Well, you know, I haven’t looked at them in a while. I mean, talk about memory - like who knows whether what I am saying now is accurate – but my memory is that the Times reporting was more detached than the Village Voice reporting. The Voice reporting was, well, it was the Village Voice. It was almost like it was on the scene. It was more dramatic, it was more in the middle of it, it was a more radical paper, it was more exciting. The Times, my memory of it was they were reporting on this very unusual incident that occurred in the Village but they are not necessarily reading a lot into it.

CG: Do you think that Stonewall and the mythology that has evolved around the uprising could have happened anywhere else in the country or is it a particularly New York phenomenon?

JD: Well it is certainly not a New York phenomenon in the sense of a bar raid and at that period in time people starting to respond to police action, because in San Francisco especially there were lots of responses in the 1960s from clergy, responses from homeless youth and street queens responding and stuff like that, so in some ways that kind of event is not unique. But I think what made it a particularly New York phenomenon and a unique phenomenon, and those two things are not necessarily the same, is that unlike today, in this world of electronic media, New York was the media capital of the United States in a way that it’s really hard to appreciate almost fifty years later. And so New York stories and New York press carried more weight and got paid more attention to.


An example of this which goes back to before Stonewall is in 1963 the New York Times had this major cover story on homosexuality and this new gay world or new gay life and over the next two to four years newspapers around the country imitate that article by doing their own expose of their gay community. You know if Denver had written the article in 1963 it would not have meant anything beyond Denver.

CG: Right

JD: And so Stonewall, I mean New York is significant because of that. It just gave it a sort of media significance - it would be noticed. But the other thing that was significant about New York is that in the context of the sixties and the escalating protests and all that is that New York is a very important center of protest in the late sixties.


It’s not just Washington D.C., but Washington D.C. and New York in terms of big protests and as a result these new radical gay activists that are responding to Stonewall in New York are more likely to be seen and encountered by other gay people at black power demonstrations and anti war demonstrations of one kind or another in New York and in other Northeastern cities. It was a place and a time.

CG: Right

JD: …and I think those two things go together. It was a place and a time that made it more likely that Stonewall would become symbolic and what it meant, what it could mean, spread.

CG: Yeah it’s interesting in another interview they discussed kind of a gay network -so not only were there kind of um media networks and counter culture network but he describes also a gay communication network where people would spread the word -there was word of mouth and it was organized in a sense and I wonder if you feel like that was going on too in other cities…

JD: Well, well I mean there’s a very developed gay world in large American cities in the late sixties. It’s true in Chicago, which doesn’t get written about as much as other places,

CG: That’s true

JD: …a really well developed network and I am talking here primarily gay male social network but one of the things that isn’t appreciated in the writing about Stonewall is that there is a very big gap in the years after Stonewall and into the seventies between that traditional gay social world and the world of gay liberation and gay and lesbian activism. They are not really the same. There is some overlap of course. There are some people who are bar folks who somehow become activist but they are a different world so they don’t actually overlap that much, because as you move into the seventies, the public face, the public figure is the gay clone.

The gay clone is almost never a gay activist. He’s just a different version of the gay guy who went to bars in the sixties. It’s just now he doesn’t have to worry as much about being gay and about being arrested because those crazy gay liberationists, which he is not, have actually succeeded in limiting police harassment. So yes there are great gay networks but they are social networks, and those social networks and the gay liberation movement are not intertwined.


CG: Um that leads a little bit to this other question that I had. Which was um the impact of Stonewall on the creation of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), do you think that it was the defining moment or part of an equation…

JD: It’s the response of individuals who were either there or who heard about it in succeeding nights to come together and create something called GLF. There were also more militant groups forming in Los Angeles and San Francisco as well, independently of Stonewall and the Gay Liberation front. The very name of it takes on significant new connotations and meaning and it spreads, awareness of it starts to spread fairly quickly through networks of activists, not so much networks of gay people. Networks of activists in which some of those activists are gay people, and now they are becoming gay liberationist because of Stonewall and what Stonewall means to them. Of course what’s really the thing that makes Stonewall so significant is less the Stonewall uprising, the Stonewall riots, the Stonewall rebellion, than the fact that a decision was made to commemorate Stonewall with a march the following year. Otherwise Stonewall could have ended up being one event among many. But it’s the fact that it becomes this excuse for a march that becomes then, you know, it’s like an historical equivalent of St. Patrick’s Day marches, and it creates visibility and community and politicization in a way such that nothing else compares with it.

CG: And as a side note did the other cities sort of push back about that or did it catch on-

JD: Well there are marches held in three cities in 1970 and after that there are more marches held every year. Every year the number of cities that commemorate Stonewall, or you don’t even have to say commemorate Stonewall, that have gay pride marches grows and actually one of the interesting things, especially as time moves on, about the gay marches - they’re not called gay or marches any more but pride parades by and large - but an amazing number of people don’t know what the parade is about. They just come out for it but they are very unaware of Stonewall.

CG: That’s interesting because I wanted to ask about LGBT identity, I wonder then if formation of an LGBT identity that reaches beyond individual communities to the whole- how does the initial uprising factor in if they are not event remembered?

Is there something else that they create, I mean it created a movement but the individual acts get lost …

JD: What Stonewall does, what Stonewall precipitates or provokes, even if Stonewall is not remembered by all of the people who are affected by it, is that it creates, it launches really what becomes a militant grassroots mass movement which hadn’t existed before, there had been activism for almost a generation before but you could hardly claim that there was in any way mass activism, like the biggest pre-Stonewall demonstration might have had several dozen people. They didn’t involve a thousand or two thousand people.

So Stonewall provoked, became the spark, that helps create the mass movement that then grows in different ways and takes lots of different directions…So even though change is in the offing, something was needed to make the jump, to make the leap and Stonewall is the thing that did it.

CG: You describe in some of the things you have written the earlier groups such as the Mattachine Society or the Daughters of Bilitis um that were active for fifteen years before, or more, before Stonewall. Do you think, maybe you can just tell me a bit of what role you feel they played in the overall movement.

JD: The earlier efforts created more visibility, they helped to create the environment for some additional media coverage even if the coverage remained within the framework of illness and deviance and stuff like that. It was by the mid sixties - the voices of gay people are actually starting to appear in important media outlets, not with any regularity or frequency but they are starting to appear. The dialogue with the medical profession began before Stonewall so I think that it is no accident that the first really big victory in the post Stonewall era, the elimination of homosexuality from the DSM as a form of mental illness in 1973, it’s no accident that that’s the first big victory because there was work being done on that beforehand. So, yes, it was important. Movements aren’t magical, they evolve and they grow under different circumstances. So that activism made a difference, but what that activism was never able to do was to create a mass movement. It always remained a relatively small number of people who were fairly isolated from the larger community.

CG: I have this overarching question about um subcultures that become mainstream -do you think it was just a matter of time for it to become accepted or was it a confluence of all these things?

JD: No, it’s not just a matter of time because that makes it sound like it’s inevitably going to happen but it only happens because people make decisions to act and because circumstances or a larger set of conditions come together that increase the likelihood that people are going to act. In the case of the US, the emergence of gay liberation and a radical lesbian feminism is so, so bound up with the larger trajectory of the 1960s in which the norm, for a significant part of the younger generation - not everybody because the sixties also created the Reaganite movement and the conservatism that we are living with today - but for a significant part of that generation of young people, young adults in the 1960’s, there was a deep, deep questioning of authority and of the way things were and at a certain point that extends to questioning the received common wisdom about homosexuality and about what it is and what it means. And then it took people making the decision and taking the risk. It’s interesting because the people by and large taking the risk are young people who feel alienated from the mainstream values of the society. They don’t care if they get arrested on demonstrations because that’s what you do, they don’t care if they get rejected by the military for being gay because they are against the war in Vietnam. Who wants to go into the military? They have a freedom to show their gayness that an older generation and many in their own generation don’t feel like they have.




Original Format

MP3 Digital Recording

Duration

35 minutes

Bit Rate/Frequency

16bit/ 44.1kHz

Time Summary

NA

Files

Citation

Christopher Gioia, “John D'Emilio Interview,” Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism and Identity, accessed November 11, 2019, https://stonewallhistory.omeka.net/items/show/9.

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