Making Gay History | LGBTQ Oral Histories from the Archive
Summary: Intimate, personal portraits of both known and long-forgotten champions, heroes, and witnesses to history brought to you from rare archival interviews.
For nearly half a century, Barbara Smith has been speaking truth to power—as a woman against misogyny, as an African American against racism, as a lesbian against homophobia, and as a black lesbian against those in the gay rights movement who sideline the concerns of LGBTQ people of color. Episode Notes: Get better acquainted with Barbara Smith by watching this short video. For an in-depth look at her life and work, read Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith, edited by Alethia Jones and Virginia Eubanks. Listen to Barbara talk about coming out here, and check out her oral history, which is kept at Smith College. For more on Barbara’s broad and intersectional social justice agenda, read this Autostraddle interview and watch this lecture. Read about her frustrations with the mainstream LGBTQ civil rights movement in the Nation and the New York Times. Watch her in conversation with young black feminist leaders here. For a list of books she’s written and edited, go here. In 1974, Barbara co-founded the Combahee River Collective. She was one of the primary authors of its statement, a powerful articulation of lesbian-inclusive black feminist politics. In 1977, Barbara published “Toward a Black Feminist Criticism,” the groundbreaking essay that prompted her invitation to speak at Howard University the following year. Learn more about Frances Cress Welsing, the psychiatrist who responded to Barbara’s speech by declaring homosexuality “the death of the race,” here. In 1980, Barbara and her friend Audre Lorde co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, the first national publishing company run by and for women of color; Barbara describes the founding of the press in this essay. Kitchen Table published dozens of works, including Barbara’s own Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. You can read it here and hear Barbara talk about it here. To learn more about Audre Lorde, watch this short video, listen to this interview about her experiences as a young black lesbian in 1950s New York City, or read her poetry. For more audio recordings of Audre, visit the Lesbian Herstory Archives website. At the top of the episode, Barbara describes a photo of her and her sister at the 1979 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. Read more about the march here and listen to the speech Audre Lorde gave to the many thousands who assembled for the march’s rally. Hear more audio from the march here and here, and read the program of events.
In 1975, long before “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the Navy asked, and Officer Copy Berg told: “Yes, I am gay.” When Copy chose to challenge the military’s ban on homosexuals, the Pentagon fought back with all guns blazing. Episode Notes: To learn more about Copy Berg, read his 1999 New York Times obituary here. The Times first reported on Copy’s case in this March 1976 article. The less-than-honorable discharge Copy received from the military after his administrative hearing was upgraded to honorable in 1977. The following year, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that the Pentagon could not discharge homosexuals from the military without offering specific reasons in addition to their homosexuality; read Copy’s appeal here and the judge’s decision here. (Thousands of additional documents pertaining to Copy’s case can be found among his records in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of The New York Public Library.) While Copy’s case was unfolding, President Jimmy Carter’s Administration had been putting pressure on the Pentagon to change its policy against homosexuals. Midge Costanza, a top aide to President Carter, was instrumental in the effort; for more on Midge, listen to our episode with her then-partner Jean O’Leary here. In 1981, the Department of Defense reaffirmed its ban on gay men and women serving in the military, but it amended its policy to state that those forced out solely for reasons of homosexuality would receive an honorable discharge. The change applied retroactively as well so that any person who had been discharged for homosexuality could apply to have their discharge upgraded. Read Copy’s reflections on the qualified victory in this 1981 Philadelphia Gay News interview. Lawrence Gibson, Copy’s civilian boyfriend during his time in Italy, chronicled Copy’s case in Get Off My Ship: Ensign Berg vs. the U.S. Navy (illustrations by Copy). In 1979, Lawrence and Copy were interviewed together by Enlisted Times and WBAI (interview starts at 5:02). In the episode, Copy references Senator Joseph McCarthy’s persecution of homosexuals, a time known as the Lavender Scare (concurrent to the better known Red Scare). For a short history of the era, read this National Archives article. For a more complete account, read David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government, which was recently made into a documentary. The episode also mentions Air Force Sergeant Leonard Matlovich and his lawsuit challenging the military’s ban on homosexuals. Read more about Leonard here and here. For more information on LGBTQ folk in the military, start here. For a more in-depth look, check out Allen Bérubé’s Coming Out under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II (which was also made into a documentary film) or Randy Shilts’s Conduct Unbecoming: Gays and Lesbians in the U.S. Military. The Library of Congress has a few oral histories with LGBTQ veterans here. After his career in the Navy ended, Copy became an artist. His later work was deeply influenced by his HIV diagnosis; see some of his art here.
There’s a war on out there. That was Ruth Simpson’s Stonewall takeaway—and she was ready to fight. But when Ruth pushed the NY chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis to be more political, the FBI and the police took note. Episode Notes: Learn more about Ruth Simpson by reading her obituary in the Los Angeles Times and watching this interview, which was recorded for the Lesbian Herstory Archives’ Daughters of Bilitis Video Project (Ruth is interviewed with her partner, Ellen Povill). Ruth joined the New York chapter of DOB in the late 1960s and soon volunteered to serve as its education and program director. She was later elected president and served in that capacity from 1969 to 1971. To learn more about DOB, read Marcia M. Gallo’s Different Daughters—A History of the Daughters of Bilitis and the Rise of the Lesbian Movement and be sure to listen to our episode with DOB co-founders Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon. Ruth first heard about the New York chapter of DOB in a radio interview with its then-president, Martha Shelley, who was featured in her own MGH episode here. During her tenure as president of New York’s DOB chapter, Ruth found herself the target of harassment by the New York City police. In the episode, Ruth recounts a confrontation with police officers when they entered the space where DOB was holding its meeting—a space lent to them by the Corduroy Club men’s discussion group—without a warrant. The incident was reported on at the time by Gay Flames, a publication of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). Like many other LGBTQ organizations at the time, DOB was also subject to surveillance by the FBI. You can read declassified FBI files on DOB going all the way back to the 1950s here and here. As DOB president, Ruth soon moved her chapter’s headquarters to a new space in Soho where they could have meetings and hold dances. Ruth, DOB, and the new loft were profiled by the New York Times in a long 1971 piece titled “The Disciples of Sappho, Updated.” In the early 1970s, Ruth was involved in many street protests, including the 1971 Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) “zap” against Fidelifacts, which she discusses in the episode. In a bizarre moment of serendipity, the demonstration appears in the opening sequence of the film Shaft (you can view it here, starting at 2:20). In addition to LGBTQ zaps, Ruth also participated in feminist protests. In 1972, she was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest during a WARN (Women Against Richard Nixon) demonstration. Ruth was featured in Kay Tobin Lahusen’s 1972 book The Gay Crusaders, a collection of interviews with gay liberation leaders. The audio of her original interview is kept at the Wilcox Archive in Philadelphia and the New York Public Library. To learn more about Kay Tobin Lahusen, check out our two episodes (and accompanying notes) with her and her partner Barbara Gittings here and here. In 1976, Ruth moved to Woodstock, New York, and published From the Closet to the Courts: The Lesbian Transition, a detailed memoir of her time in the gay rights movement.
Making Gay History mines Eric Marcus’s 30-year-old audio archive of rare interviews to create intimate, personal portraits of both known and long-forgotten champions, heroes, and witnesses to LGBTQ history. In this preview, we offer a taste of what’s to come in season six, featuring the compelling voices of Ruth Simpson, Copy Berg, Barbara Smith, Nancy Walker, and Damien Martin.
This was the moment Craig Rodwell had been waiting for. He’d been bumping up against the limits of how far the Mattachine Society was willing to challenge the status quo. And when the Stonewall uprising blew things wide open, Craig grabbed the reins and never looked back.
Stonewall turned the page on the homophile movement. Pre-Stonewall activists like Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen were dinosaurs in the eyes of some of the gay liberationists, and they found themselves fighting for a place in the new chapter of LGBTQ history that unfolded after the riots.
Nineteen-year-old Columbia University student Morty Manford thought it was just another night at the Stonewall Inn, but then the police swept in and the raid was on. Morty shared his memories of that night with Eric Marcus in this archival interview from 1989.
A rebroadcast of Eric’s 1989 interview with Marsha P. Johnson and Randy Wicker. Hear conflicting perspectives on Stonewall from this pair of unlikely roommates. Marsha co-founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries after Stonewall; Randy had led the way in the earlier homophile movement.
What made Stonewall different? How can we carry the lessons of the uprising with us today? Eric is joined by one archivist and four activists to answer those questions in an intergenerational conversation recorded live at the Stonewall Inn on May 23, 2019.
Like so many other acts of queer resistance, the riots in Greenwich Village in late June and early July 1969 could have become a footnote in history. But the protests and organizing that followed the Stonewall Uprising turned the page. A new chapter had begun in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights. With exclusive archival audio from the year after Stonewall, we'll explore how queer anger found a voice with “Gay Power” and how joy propelled the first pride marches. Out of the closet and into the streets!
At 1:20 a.m. on June 28, 1969, the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, an unlicensed gay club in New York’s Greenwich Village. I wasn’t there. Of these two facts I feel certain. The first one, because the police report from that night states the time that the police entered the Stonewall Inn. And the second, because I was ten years old at the time and didn’t see Greenwich Village for the first time until I’d graduated from Hillcrest High School in Queens, New York, in June 1976. (I’m shocked now by what an incurious teenager I was back then.) But there’s plenty about the raid on the Stonewall Inn and the subsequent uprising that’s less certain and often the focus of disagreements and heated debate. I like to think that the story of Stonewall is big enough for all the recollections and memories and inevitable myths that have taken shape in the five decades since Stonewall became a key turning point in the history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement and the birthplace of the “gay liberation” phase of the fight for equality. So in this second episode of our special Stonewall 50 season, we’re bringing you multiple voices—and multiple and often conflicting memories—from people who were inside and outside the Stonewall Inn a half-century ago. Voices drawn from my three-decade-old archive and from other archival audio unearthed by Making Gay History’s team of archive rats—including some tape dating back to the first year after the raid. Have a listen and decide which memories ring true for you.
Conflict has context. In this first episode of Making Gay History’s Stonewall 50 season, we hear stories from the pre-Stonewall struggle for LGBTQ rights. We travel back in time to hear voices from the turbulent 1960s and take you to the tinderbox that was Greenwich Village on the eve of an uprising. If you’d like a primer on Stonewall, here is a handy factsheet that Making Gay History co-produced. The final page has more resources if you’d like to dig a bit deeper. To find out more about some of the people featured in this episode and the times in which they lived, check out the following Making Gay History episodes and the accompanying episode notes: Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen (part 1 and part 2), Randy Wicker and Marsha P. Johnson, Ernestine Eckstein, and Sylvia Rivera (part 1 and part 2). Craig Rodwell will be featured more extensively in upcoming episodes, but he also makes an appearance in our episode about Dick Leitsch, with whom Craig Rodwell was in a relationship during their early days at Mattachine. Many of our previous episodes include interviews with LGBTQ trailblazers who became active in the movement pre-Stonewall. To learn more about the founders of some of the early U.S. homophile organizations, have a listen to our episodes with Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society; Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, co-founders of the Daughters of Bilitis; and Dorr Legg, Martin Block, and Jim Kepner, who spearheaded ONE.
A special season of Making Gay History to mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. Hear the voices of the rioters, and of the activists who turned a riot into Gay Liberation—a new and expansive phase in the LGBTQ rights movement.
Brooklyn-born Martha Shelley was a rebel. She didn’t like being told what to do, wear, or say. She hated the lesbian bars, and after joining the Daughters of Bilitis she strained against the self-imposed limits of the homophile movement. Coming of age in the 1960s, she was ready for revolution. Learn more about Martha Shelley in this interview for the website “Stonewall: Riot, Rebellion, Activism, and Identity” (the audio file is embedded at the bottom of the transcript page). Martha’s oral history is included in Eric Marcus’s book Making History. In this episode, Martha mentions how the FBI monitored DOB's activities. To see samples of their investigative work, check out the declassified files collected on this webpage. Martha Shelley was one of the participants in the July 4th Annual Reminders, picket lines organized by homophile organizations from 1965 to 1969 at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. You can see footage of the 1968 Annual Reminder in “The Second Largest Minority,” a short documentary by Lilli Vincenz, here. Martha Shelley has written fiction and poetry, and her short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in numerous anthologies, including Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement, edited by Robin Morgan. You can hear Martha discuss her novel The Throne in the Heart of the Sea on Portland radio station KBOO here.
Read about Dick Leitsch’s life in his New York Times obituary and check out our special “In Memoriam” episode about him here. Dick Leitsch donated his personal papers to the New York Public Library (NYPL) archives. Read the New Yorker article on Leitsch and the NYPL, and explore the Mattachine Society of New York archives available at the NYPL. In the episode, Dick Leitsch talks about the picket he participated in across from the United Nations. To learn more about that protest, check out the website of the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project here. The June 1966 issue of the Daughters of Bilitis magazine The Ladder, which featured Ernestine Eckstein on the cover, reported on the issue of police entrapment in New York City. You can read the article, which contains a reference to Dick Leitsch, here on pages 12 and 13.