New York Commemorates Stonewall 50th

In this blog post, MARCH Digital Media Coordinator Olivia Errico explores New York exhibits commemorating the Stonewall Riots of 1969.

June 28, 2019, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall Riots in New York City. On that date in 1969, police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar, and attempted to arrest people inside whose gender presentation did not match the gender assigned them at birth. Instead of acquiescing, transgender women and other patrons of the bar fought back against the police.This event is largely considered the beginning of the gay rights movement in the United States. 

In honor of the fiftieth anniversary, cultural institutions throughout New York City sponsored numerous events and exhibitions. I visited two of the city’s most well-known institutions to see their programming surrounding this anniversary.

New-York Historical Society Museum and Library

Stonewall 50 at the New-York Historical Society is made up of a trio of LGBTQ-themed components. The first such component I encountered was By the Force of Our Presence: Highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives. I was particularly excited for this exhibit as I have come across some of the Herstory Archives’ material through my work with an LGBTQ archive in Philadelphia. However, I have not had the opportunity to visit the archive myself.

Mabel Hampton, a Black lesbian activist, wrote this letter at age 82.

Highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives is mounted along a long hallway on the second floor of the historical society. The exhibit consists primarily of ephemera from the archives related to the lesbian community- protest signs from lesbian groups, flyers for marches and events, photographs, and artwork. These pieces are framed and mounted against a purple wall, a backdrop that makes each piece visually pop. On the other side of the hallway, artifacts in glass cases show the span of the archive’s collection and trace important changes in the history of the lesbian community in America. One particularly striking object on display is a letter written by Mabel Hampton, a Black lesbian activist who moved to New York City in 1909 and lived there for most of her adult life. In this letter, Hampton mentions the important role of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in the gay community.

The second component is titled Letting Loose and Fighting Back: LGBTQ Nightlife Before and After Stonewall. This exhibit seems to be the centerpiece of the programming. While all of the Stonewall programming was busy during my visit, visitors lingered much longer in this exhibit, reading the text panels, listening to audio from historical news and video reports, and pouring over the artifacts on display. The content sparked much conversation among the crowd; one couple near me pointed out bars in the exhibit they were familiar with and another group reminisced about the first time they watched Paris Is Burning, a documentary about ball culture in New York.

This photograph depicts a scene from a ball, an important part of social life for LGBTQ people of color.

Letting Loose focuses on the important role of bars, clubs, and nightlife in the LGBTQ community in the second half of the twentieth century. This theme is reflected in the design of the exhibit space; the walls are painted black, a disco ball hangs from the ceiling, and club music is piped into the space. The exhibit narrative explains that nightlife spaces not only were important places of socialization, but took on political connotations. After the repeal of Prohibition, the State Liquor Authority tried to criminalize the presence of LGBTQ people in bars. Later in the century, Mayor Guiliani’s tough on crime policies lead to crackdowns on nightlife. These various efforts at policing LGBTQ social life inspired much political action.

Exiting Letting Loose and Fighting Back, I noticed a large black backdrop emblazoned with the Stonewall 50 logo in the middle of the Historical Society’s library reading room. I entered and was greeted by a library employee who asked if I was interested in participating in their Stonewall 50 Time Capsule. The project was fairly simple; an employee took each visitor’s picture, and then participants wrote a note to go alongside their picture in the time capsule. 

As I sat at one of the library tables, a middle-aged New Yorker seated on one side of me and a group of teenagers decked out in their Pride gear on the other, and wrote out my message on square of paper, I felt simultaneously a strong connection to other people- historic, contemporary, and in the future- and also uncertainty about that future. It’s hard not to feel trepidation when every day we are reminded we only have twelve years to limit irreversible damage from climate change and see reports of states eroding individuals’ rights to bodily autonomy. Yet, imagining people opening this time capsule in 2069 reminded me of another important theme of LGBTQ history: resilience. This is the type of public history project that makes me excited about the field. Sometimes I wonder if we as practitioners get too caught up in technology and social media. The Stonewall 50 Time Capsule did not need any of this, just paper and colored pencils, to make me reflect on my connection to an intergenerational community.

New York Public Library

After visiting the New-York Historical Society I headed downtown to the New York Public Library’s exhibit Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50. Like the Historical Society’s exhibits, Love & Resistance was fairly crowded when I visited. While some visitors were just passing through (the exhibit was mounted in two hallways), many seemed to be there specifically for the exhibit.

Love & Resistance uses the archival holdings of the NYPL to illustrate the moments before, during, and after Stonewall. Overall, the exhibit presents a good overview of LGBTQ history in NYC throughout the twentieth century. It is divided into four sections. Material in the first section focuses on the role of LGBTQ people in changing Americans’ perceptions of political action. The second section looks at bars as centers of LGBTQ community. The third section focuses on LGBTQ print culture, and the final portion focuses on how the LGBTQ community transformed the legal and cultural mores around relationships. 

These photographs by Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies on display at the NYPL highlight LGBTQ intimacy.

The highlight of this exhibit is the collection of photographs by Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies, photojournalists who captured many important moments of LGBTQ history. Their intimate portraits of gay relationships that make up the bulk of the final section of the exhibit are particularly powerful. The exhibit design places emphasis on the visual qualities of the materials on display. While there are labels and wall text, both are printed relatively small, and usually there was only one panel for a large group of objects. At times this frustrated me; however, the minimal wall text worked well alongside these portraits. The images speak for themselves and show how LGBTQ people have challenged conventional ideas around intimacy.

The day after my visit to the New-York Historical Society and the New York Public Library was the day of the WorldPride NYC parade, a celebration attended by millions. At the same time that this larger event was happening, an alternative pride march, the Queer Liberation March, was underway. The organizers of this march were protesting the corporatization of WorldPride and the presence of police at the parade. These marchers connected their movement to the LGBTQ community’s traditions of resistance against oppression and involvement in political action, traditions which they say are embodied by the 1969 Stonewall Riot. While this march was overtly political, it was still a space of communion. As one attendee of the Queer Liberation March told Democracy Now, “it’s just nice to be able to gather together and be together.” 

This is perhaps the greatest strength of the New-York Historical Society and the New York Public Library’s Stonewall 50 exhibits- they provide historical context that centers both the politics and community surrounding this important moment. The content of these exhibits, from lesbian art, gay bars and nightlife, to romantic and platonic relationships among queer people, reveals how LGBTQ social life is necessarily political. 

Stonewall 50 at the New-York Historical Society is on view until September 22.

Love & Resistance at the New York Public Library is on view until July 14.