Bill Thieleman joined Seattle Men’s Chorus during its first year of operation, 1979. Forty years later and still singing, he reflects on the birth of the LGBTQ rights movement and how much life has changed within one generation.
As we rehearse “Quiet No More,” the new musical piece for our June concert, Summer of ’69, I’ve been experiencing flashbacks to my own summer of 1969. Perhaps my experiences from that year will give younger readers a bit of perspective.
I grew up in a small suburban town on Long Island just 40 minutes from Manhattan. It was a sheltered, nurtured childhood always laced with a sense of being somehow different. By 1965, I’d graduated from high school having struggled to conform, dating girls and hiding my crushes on boys. I went to a college in Charleston, West Virginia which, for context, only integrated in 1967. It was one of those first five black students who brought me out although he has always claimed he just held the door. In those days, boys wore jackets and ties to class. Girls wore white shopping gloves to go downtown on Saturdays and had a curfew if they lived in the dormitories. One girl was thrown out for helping a friend find an abortion. College involved more conformity but there was the occasional “experience,” often with one of my fraternity brothers. It was the ‘60s after all and everyone experimented. (Once, I had to explain to the local pharmacist that I had these little creatures that looked like little tiny crabs. “Ah, we call those crabs!” he responded and equipped me with the cure.)
In my senior year, a friend took me to my first gay bar, The Downstairs Club, which was below a neighborhood grocery store. You would ring a doorbell and inside, a red light would go on. Someone would check you out before opening the door. The denizens of The Downstairs included the full range of gay men from people who would not stand out in a crowd to the most outrageous of queens. It was a complete eye opener.
After graduating in May 1969, I returned home to Long Island and early that summer, courtesy of the draft board, I went to Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn for a physical to see if I might be suitable for a trip to Vietnam. If you’ve ever seen Alice’s Restaurant with Arlo Guthrie, it’s that same place! Lines of boys in tighty whities! I sat at a desk with a questionnaire full of check boxes: Have you ever had: measles, mumps, HOMOSEXUAL TENDANCIES, chickenpox, polio, etc. After considerable squirming about the prospect of a ruined life because the truth would be out there, I checked the box. The result was a draft status of 4H or maybe H4…which meant either “loves animals” or “in case of war, use as a hostage.” At any rate, I didn’t go to Vietnam. In truth, I don’t know who scared me more at the time, the Viet Cong or straight American boys with rifles.
With that uncomfortable business out of the way, it was time to explore gay life in New York. I found a great little bar near home. No dancing male to male and no turning your back to the bar while holding a drink. I met Lee who, on a first date, took me to a gay restaurant in Manhattan, The Grand Finale. It was astonishing! All atmosphere, downstairs, opening onto a little courtyard. It was hard to imagine a whole really nice restaurant by and for gay people. This was at a time when, if you came out to any family and friends, you often heard “you’ll never amount to anything,” or “you’ll be all alone when you get old.” And there was always that fear of a “ruined life” gnawing at you.
In that transformative time, there were newspaper articles about a bar on Christopher Street in the city called “Stonewall.” Everyone started talking about what happened. Most of what I know was told to me by friends in ensuing years, often sitting on a bench in nearby Sheridan Square as they recounted details. Those in the know talked about the fact that most of the habitués of the Stonewall were blue collar, the queerest of the queer, many of minority background, and seen by the police as easy pickins. But Greenwich Village was a magnet for gay people of all stripes from around the city and beyond. It was hot that June of 1969, people were sick of police harassment, and Judy Garland had just died. People just got pissed off and pandemonium ensued, for several nights. And the rest is history.
I do remember being afraid that participating in the first Pride march in 1970 was just too risky. But in 1971 I got up the nerve to march and was surprised to run into people I knew while walking down (or was it up?) Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue! In 1973, I remember Bette Midler arriving in a cab for the rally in Washington Square to sing “Friends.” There was talk that she’d told off her business manager who objected to her appearance.
One of the less pleasant experiences in those days were the police raids. There was a Halloween party at an East Rockaway bar one night; everyone was in costume. It was quite a nice open bar, big windows, deck out front and a dining area. The police barged in and arrested anyone wearing anything that constituted cross dressing. Another time, a friend and I were at a major Manhattan bar accessed by a freight elevator. Once again, police barged in and put an end to the party. They always took names to scare the hell out of us.
It was in late September 1969, at the tender age of 22 and still very naive, that I learned personally about police bigotry. After driving an hour out to Bohemia in Suffolk County one Saturday night to dance at the popular Central Hotel, I was introduced to a young man named John by his sister and her girlfriend. He was really nice, had finished college and was just out of two years in the army. We went off in my car to get to know each other…so to speak. Not having a clue about rest areas, we ended up being hauled from my car by a police officer, thrown face down in the wet gravel, handcuffed and taken off to the Patchogue police precinct where we spent the night in cells sleeping on a wooden bench with lights on.
The next day, a detective counseled me to plead guilty so I could get out of jail and be at Kennedy Airport on Monday in time to pick up my parents. After the reading of a very explicit but completely fabricated account of what the officer had seen, in front of all manner of speeders and parking scoff laws, the judge didn’t like how I pleaded and told me to come back the next day. So I was hauled off to the very intimidating Suffolk County jail, handcuffed in a prison van, entering first one gate and then a second one, body searched, and, at last, given a phone call. I called my family’s attorney.
The next morning, Mr. Gallagher turned up with my grandmother in tow, her pocketbook full of cash! Thankfully, he had the reading of charges waived and had me remanded to my own custody. He never told my family what the whole business was about. But the six months before the trial were filled with so much anxiety and fear that I ended up hospitalized with a panic disorder.
That outcome is something I’ll never forget. John, my “partner in crime,” couldn’t afford his own attorney and so ended up with a public defender. I was found not guilty and John was found guilty, received a suspended sentence of three months in prison, and probation. It’s a pretty clear example of inequity in the American legal system….you get what you can pay for.
Needless to say, there have been astonishing changes in the lives of LGBT people over the last fifty years. It seems to me that Stonewall really has served as a catalyst for change, inspiring our community and our allies to stand up for our rights, equality, and recognition. So, when we celebrate Stonewall, we honor those in our rich history who came before and those who were inspired to move us forward to a place unimaginable in 1969. Here’s to those queens in that seedy little hole in the wall bar who got their backs up that hot summer night in the Village and ignited the modern Gay Rights Movement.