Sunday, June 7, 2009

Queer Theories by Beth Greenfield

STREETWISE Images of early Pride events, like this one of a 1969 march on Times Square, have a big role in the exhibit.
Photograph: Diana Davies

Instead of just skipping around the New York Public Library this month (out back for Bryant Park’s Pride kickoff rally, out front for the Dyke March or Sunday Parade), do yourself a favor and head right in that grand front door. It’ll be way gayer than you=2 0think inside, thanks to a June exhibit, “1969: The Year of Gay Liberation,” which aims to show how the Stonewall Riots were part of a much wider gay-liberation movement than most may realize.

“I think a lot of people just think about Stonewall, and they don’t think about what happened before or what happened after,” explains Jason Baumann, show curator and coordinator of the library’s extensive LGBT Collections, from which nearly 80 photos, letters, flyers and various colorful ephemera were culled for the exhibit. “It’s not like there weren’t activists before Stonewall, it’s just that they couldn’t get critical mass.” That major event, he added, set off the spark that was needed for a fast and furious sea change.

“Before Stonewall, the ‘gay movement’ as such was a very secret affair. Its ranks, small but courageous demonstrations, and workings were hardly known to the world,” recalls New York City author and early gay activist Perry Brass. A member of the Gay Liberation Front, which formed in 1969, Brass will take part in that group’s reunion panel as one of several exhibit-linked events (including a lecture by Stonewall author David Carter and a workshop on how to use the LGBT Collections) scheduled for later this month. “Afterward, the Gay Liberation Front and other groups like Gay Activists Alliance propelled this movement fully into the public conscio usness. We had nothing to lose except our own shame, fear and self-loathing. And it’s amazing how quickly we shed these.”

Creating the library’s exhibit—which traces the roots of early activist groups and of the first Pride march, called Christopher Street Liberation Day and which drew 2,000 people on June 28, 1970—was an idea that occurred to Baumann in the fall. That’s when he realized that this summer would be the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, and that the library’s last LGBT-oriented show was in 1994, in honor of Stonewall’s 25th anniversary.

“Nobody knows these collections are here,” says Baumann. But they are impressively vast, and include items like vice-commission records, archives of the Cockettes and of the late Barbara Gittings, and the papers of William Burroughs. “It would be almost two miles if you laid it out end to end,” he adds. Don’t miss this chance for a mini walk-through.

“1969: The Year of Gay Liberation” is at the New York Public Library through June 30. See It’s Here, It’s Queer.


1969: The Year of Gay Liberation

Sneak peek items from the NYPL's monthlong exhibit.

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