“The attitude I had before — that what others thought of me was more important than my own life — Stonewall turned it around. I didn’t feel like the only queen in Brooklyn anymore. It was a beautiful thing.”
Tomorrow marks the 50 year anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising of June 28, 1969, an inciting factor in the queer liberation movement that’s since paved the way for countless achievements in LGBTQ+ civil rights. The uprising occurred at a time before Pride meant corporate sponsorship, and being out and proud was substantially more likely to cause you to lose your job, your home, your family, your life, or all of the above.
SAGE is the oldest and largest organization dedicated to improving the lives of LGBTQ+ elders. Founded in 1978, they offer social and support services and advocate for the rights of older queer adults. They’re also driven to uplift their clients’ stories, honoring the ways they’ve blazed trails for young people today — and those stories, a selection of which are featured below, can help us better understand what life was like for queer people before Stonewall, and the true breadth of how queer culture and the LGBTQ+ rights movement has evolved in America.
Their stories reflect the bravery and tenacity of their lives. Charles “Valentino” Harris, 67, sang a queer anthem called “I Was Born This Way” long before Lady Gaga was even a twinkle in her parents’ eyes. Jeremiah Newton, 70, made friends with Warhol and Hollywood superstars. Before transitioning, Graeme Davis, 63, found freedom in the lesbian bars of the West Village. Joe Caldiero, 66, learned about gay life from a West Village drag queen and witnessed the Stonewall riots from inside the bar itself. We asked Harris, Newton, Davis, and Caldiero to tell us about life before, during, and after Stonewall, and how queer culture has evolved throughout their lives.
On being queer before Stonewall:
Jeremiah Newton: Growing up in the 1950s was difficult. My father must have seen something he didn’t appreciate in me as a little boy; he was always critiquing me. A man stands this way, not that way. Why do you have your mother’s dress on? I was four or five, I didn’t know what I was doing. In the early 1960s, I had a wonderful correspondence with Joan Crawford. She let me know when she’d be in Manhattan for personal appearances and I’d show up. I went to a gallery opening and Andy Warhol was there. He kissed a guy like in Europe, on both cheeks. I was kinda stunned; I’d never seen that before. Joan Crawford saw me looking and twisted my head around. She said, “Men don’t do that in this country, only in Europe. And you’re not in Europe.”
It was hard being gay. You felt you had to keep it a secret because people could have you committed. If the boys found out, they’d want a blowjob and that would ruin your reputation forever. In junior high school I started going into the Village — Greenwich Avenue was my gay mecca. I sat on a stoop feeling too obvious and pretended to write a letter. Before long, these three women walked by. One would turn out to be Candy Darling, the other was Holly Woodlawn. Candy and I became friends, which lasted to her death in 1974.
Charles “Valentino” Harris: The Dance Department head [at LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York, where I was a student] called us into her office. I thought we must have done something really good. She slammed her cane onto the table and she said, “Let me tell you about the five flaming faggots of Performing Arts.” She read us the riot act about what Hollywood and Broadway were buying. They were not buying this. She was gay, which made it really hard. But what she said is what it was like. If you wanted to work, you had to go by these rules. I knew then that was not for me. I left Performing Arts my junior year. I never let that bother me. I thanked her for it because I realized what she was doing, but it was a little harsh. There was such a stigma about male ballet dancers. That’s probably why she was so hard on us. I wound up going to Harkness Ballet School. There was nothing you couldn’t express there. We all felt free enough to be ourselves. I’m a Taurus, so I’m gonna be me. I knew I was gay at a young age. Maybe that’s why I chose dancing, because it allowed me and my spirit to be free, which no one had before Stonewall.
Joe Caldiero: I was luckier than most because my family accepted me. I didn’t get bothered in a lot of places. As time went on, it wasn’t safe to be gay anywhere. I dropped out of high school because it was hard to go to the bathroom. You went in and hopefully you’d get back out. If they knew you were gay they’d follow you in. It was hard to move down hallways, the schoolyard. I was always afraid of getting hit. I went to beauty school instead. My mom [said], “You’re gay, be a hairdresser” [laughs]. That was a safe place for me. My “gay name” was Max. If you knew I was gay, you’d call me Max so I’d know you knew. If you called me Joe, I’d have to act straight for you [laughs]. If you got busted at raids or police bothered you, you wouldn’t give your right name so they couldn’t find you. I was about 15 when I came to Greenwich Village. I met this drag queen named Electra Maxine. She said, “Honey, you don’t go down this or that street.” She told me about signals like keys on the right (a bottom) or the left (a top). The colored handkerchiefs, all the hanky codes. Underneath all this chiffon, Electra would wear polka dotted men’s boxer shorts. You had to have an article of men’s clothing on or you’d get arrested. I remember being safe on Christopher Street, but a few times I ran into the Stonewall Inn because of gay bashers. Strangely, the only straight person in my life was the Stonewall bouncer, Chuck. He called us his little fairies and pulled us inside, shut the door, and yelled at the guys. It was really kind of nice.
Graeme Davis: In 1969, I was 12 — I was young but very much aware of queer people in my neighborhood, of what went on in the Village. I recognized myself early on, but a term I didn’t use at that time was queer or gay because I was trying to navigate my life through school. It was not something so accepted back then. Knowing who I was, I feared speaking the word because of non-acceptance, being ridiculed in the neighborhood and in the community. We’d hear of people being bullied. There was a queer person in my neighborhood. She told us about some situations that occurred while she was out in the community. It was understood that you tried to stay under the radar.
On the Stonewall riots:
CH: I was 17 when Stonewall happened. My friend and I were at The Sanctuary discotheque on 43rd Street. Someone called from a telephone booth and said the queens were rioting in the Village. We jumped on the train to Christopher Street. It was really humid and there was that New York smell, like a fish market, booze, and smoke. You could feel it as soon as you left the subway station. It was really muggy. There were cops, lights, folks throwing beer bottles.
To be honest, to me and my friend, it was just a night. I didn’t know it continued days after or what would happen from that. I feel like Stonewall was one of the first times everyone said enough is enough, we’re not gonna take it anymore. We’re human beings born to be free. They stood up that night not knowing they stood up for all of us. They stood up because they were tired. They didn’t know they were rebelling for all generations.
JC: I was hanging out in the back room at Stonewall with friends. I had no ID on me, which was stupid, because they’d never find the body. Suddenly, the lights went on and cops were everywhere. They lined us up. I was always taught to respect the police, but it really hurts my feelings when I think of how my friends were treated that night. There were two lines, people with ID and people without. The police were shoving people. People with IDs moved quickly. I got to the policeman at the door. He asked my name and I said Paul McGuire because that’s what it said on the fake draft card I bought to prove I was 18 when I wasn’t. Outside the bar, this drag queen Twiggy said, “Oh my god, there’s Max! Get out!” The cop shoved me out the door. I don’t know what happened to the people behind me. It was scary and loud. Twiggy grabbed me and brought me to Sheridan Square, across the street. Then I noticed people throwing things. The queens said, “Don’t go home, don’t let them follow you.” I ended up in Queens. A bunch of us hung out at somebody’s house trying to comfort each other. I was a teenager but still a little boy. I wasn’t used to police treating me that way. It was so violent.
On being queer after Stonewall:
CH: Dancing and being in the theatre, it was easy for me to sing my song “I Was Born This Way” in 1975. It’s genderless, an anthem for the gay community. It was number one in New York. Lyrically, it can’t get any more proud than that:
I’ve learned to hold my head up high
Not in scorn nor disgrace
Yes I’m gay
Tain’t a fault, tis a fact
Yes, I was born this way
I didn’t have a problem saying that. Everyone was like, “Oh my god, if you sing that, what’s gonna happen after?” I’m not gonna have a problem with it, that’s who I am. I was that way before Stonewall. I got worse after in the best ways [laughs]. I wore scarves on my head, I wore heels. Some woman said to me one night, “Ooh, you look so svelte and sinewy!” I said, “That’s lovely, thank you!”
GD: I was able to find lesbian places to go pretty easily. I felt free to tell the world who I was. When I first went to this bar Bonnie and Clyde’s, you went downstairs, turned a corner, and woo! There were lesbians at the bar, standing around, music playing. It was wonderful. On a Sunday night. I saw some of my high school friends. We all hung together in high school, but we were never able to say, “Hey, I’m gay, you’re gay.” But once I walked into that bar, saw them and met them, it was a wonderful connection. I thought about transitioning when I was 15 years old. Back then you had to travel out of the country. I’m a kid growin’ up in Harlem, who had the finances to do that? I didn’t. I tried to compartmentalize my life to keep moving forward. I’m a trans person now. Those services weren’t really available before. Even now they are available, there are organizations and groups addressing it, but there are also a lot of trans people not getting services they need, not able to connect, not able to have medical insurance, not able to have finances to do what they need to do if they are transitioning. Those are some issues we still need to address. We are still struggling.
JC: After Stonewall, I went back and got my high school diploma, then I went to college. I didn’t necessarily feel safe, but I no longer felt alone. I think Stonewall did that. I felt a little more courage. I never felt fully accepted, but it didn’t matter. You don’t have to approve of the way I am, because I do. What you think of me is none of my business, and vice versa. The attitude I had before — that what others thought of me was more important than my own life — Stonewall turned it around. I didn’t feel like the only queen in Brooklyn anymore. It was a beautiful thing.