The Daily Agenda for Friday, March 8
March 8th, 2013
Events This Weekend: Belgian Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, Brussels, Belgium; Ft. Lauderdale Pride, Ft. Lauderdale, FL; AIDS Walk, Houston, TX; Lake Tahoe Winterfest, Lake Tahoe, NV; SWING Gay Ski Week, Lenzerheide, Switzerland.
TODAY IN HISTORY:
First Post-WWII Gay Organization Formed: 1948. The Veterans Benevolent Association had been meeting in New York City since 1945, serving as a social club for 75-100 regular members. Four honorably discharged veterans founded the group, and the VBA became an important resource for those who needed assistance with a nasty employer or with legal problems. On March 9, the New York State Department issued a Certificate of Incorporation for the group. Its purpose was described this way:
To unite socially and fraternally, all veterans and their friends, of good and moral character, over the age of twenty years. To foster, create, promote, and maintain the spirit of social, fraternal, and benevolent feeling among the members and all those connected by any means and ties. To enhance the mutual welfare of its members. To promote and advance good fellowship, mutuality, and friendship, and to promote the best idealism and interests of its members. To advance the social and economic interests of its members; to provide suitable places for meeting of members and the establishment of facilities for social, fraternal, benevolent, and economic activities and functions.
Of course missing from that description is any reference to homosexuality.
As time went on, a split developed within the group between those who wanted the VBA to become more politically active and others who wanted the group to remain a social organization. The conflicts grew until the group was finally disbanded in 1954.
Philadelphia Police Raid Rusty’s Bar: 1968. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo had developed a fearsome reputation in the city’s African-American community, anti-war demonstrators, radicals, hippies, students, and anyone else who ran afoul of his law-and-order regimen. He is reported to have said about one group of demonstrators, “When I’m finished with them, I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a fag.” In 1968, Philly police turned their attention not to fags, but dykes, with a raid on a popular downtown lesbian bar called Rusty’s. When police descended on the bar, they unplugged the jukebox, turned on the house lights, and, as gay rights advocate Ada Bello recalled, “the small posse of trench coat clad figures slowly moved form table to table.”
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, “It was alleged (in graphic language) that several women had been making love on the floor, that others were drunk and disorderly, and that some had resisted arrest.” Byrna Aronson was there, and she didn’t see the police when they arrived. “I leaned down to kiss my girlfriend on the cheek, and Captain Clarence Ferguson, in a pork-pie hat, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘You’re under arrest.’ and I said, ‘What for?’ He said, ‘Sodomy.’ I just started to laugh. Police arrested a dozen women, including Aronson, charged them with disorderly conduct, held them overnight, and brought them before a magistrate in the morning, when all charges were dropped.
Bello, who was a member of the local chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis that had formed a year earlier, remembered that raid on Rusty’s as an important turning point for the group. “The Philadelphia police made a very valuable contribution. Maybe it was the mood prevailing in the country at that time. Maybe it was because there is such a thing as the last straw. But out of that incident… our group got the first clear sense of direction. Some of the women came to us and demanded action. …. Several women joined that chapter, among them Byrna Aronson.”
The challenge before the DOB was, as one member put it, “were we really going to try and change the world or were we going to talk among ourselves about how the world ought to change?” The DOB’s bylaws were clear: all protests had to be approved by the national board. But as Bello said, “It was difficult to get authorization from the administration of DOB. We couldn’t find the president — remember, this was before cell phones and e-mail — and we felt that it was hampering our ability to react.” In the end, local DOB leaders decided they were more interested in action than social gatherings. “So we thought, ‘why not start another organization — one whose middle name is Action!’”
In August of that year, the local DOB chapter voted to dissolve and regroup as the Homophile Action League (HAL) as an organization of both lesbians and gay men. Pioneering gay rights activist Barbara Gittings (see Jul 31), who two years earlier been relieved of her duties as editor of the DOB’s newsletter The Ladder over her participation at a pro-gay picket at Independence Hall (see Jul 4), also joined HAL. “There hadn’t been any really concerted effort on the political scene until HAL was organized and began to attract some men.” The DOB had been open only to women, but Philadelphia’s lesbian leaders felt that it was time to make common cause with gay men. With HAL, local gay rights activists found the freedom they needed to respond to local provocations.
The disbanding of the local DOB chapter was an important milestone in the eventual downfall of the Daughters of Bilitis as a national organization. That year, national DOB president Shirley Willer (see Sep 27) tried to reform and decentralize the DOB in response to the Philadelphia action, and she wound up resigning in disgust when her efforts failed. The national organization finally disbanded in 1970.
New York Police Raid the Snake Pit: 1970. It may come as a surprise to those who are not of a certain age, but raids on gay bars by the New York police department didn’t end with the Stonewall uprising in the summer of 1969. In fact, raids continued, virtually uninterrupted. At about 5:00 a.m. of March 8, 1970, New York police descended on the Snake Pit, an after-hours unlicensed bar in Greenwich Village. Deputy Inspector Seymore Pine showed up with a fleet of police wagons, and without bothering to sort out the owners from the clientele, arrested all 167 customers and took them to the station house, an act which violated police policy. One patron, Diego Vinales, panicked. An immigrant from Argentina who was in the country illegally, he feared what would happen to him in the police station and tried to escape by jumping out a second story window. He landed on a fence below, its 14-inch spikes piercing his leg and pelvis. He was not only critically wounded, but was also charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. As paramedics attended to Vinales, a cop told a fireman, “You don’t have to hurry, he’s dead, and if he’s not, he’s not going to live long,” sparking a false rumor that Vinales had died.
Following on that rumor, the Gay Activist Alliance immediately organized a protest for later that night. A pamphlet publicizing the protest read, “Any way you look at it, Diego Vinales was pushed. We are all being pushed. A march on the Sixth Precinct will take place tonight, March 8, at 9pm, gathering at Sheridan Square. Anyone who calls himself a human being, who has the guts to stand up to this horror, join us. A silent vigil will occur immediately following the demonstration.” Nearly 500 people showed up for the protest. After Rep. Edward Koch accused New York City Police Commissioner Howard Leary of green-lighting the resumption of raids and illegal illegal arrests on the gay community, Leary resigned and Pine was reassigned to Flatbush in Brooklyn. And the gay community, which had already witnessed a burst of organizing activity since the Stonewall uprising nine months earlier, became even more politically and socially active, setting the stage for a very successful Christopher Street commemoration later that Summer for the first anniversary of Stonewall.
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And feel free to consider this your open thread for the day. What’s happening in your world?