Top ten moments in NYC gay culture
Looking back over the past 50 years, we recollect the seminal events and achievements that have shaped queer cultural life.
Thu May 29 2008
Midnight movies find an audience
Perhaps beginning with El Topo in December 1970, midnight screenings attracts a kind of camp audience. Continuing in 1972, John Waters's Baltimore-based production, Pink Flamingos, becomes an instant if controversial cult classic. Audience participation often involves eating a chocolate dessert during the closing scene, in which Divine, one of the characters, famously eats dog shit. The late-night film tradition probably peaks with the 1976 debut of Rocky Horror Picture Show at the Waverly Theater (now the IFC), though it does continue—albeit on rather tired legs—today.
The Oscar Wilde Bookshop opens
Ushered into existence by activist Craig Rodwell on Thanksgiving weekend, 1967, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop bills itself as “the world’s oldest gay and lesbian bookstore.” We're not sure about that, but it has been going strong for over 40 years. Legend has it that the first Gay Pride March was organized within its lively space.
Rollerblading takes off
The first four-wheeled roller skate is designed in New York by James Leonard Plimpton in 1863. It takes another 100 years or so before the twin innovations of four in-line wheels and mass-produced Lycra exercise gear turn Plimpton's footwear into a ubiquitous gay ornament. While at their flaming height during the mid-to-late ‘80s, the skates have demonstrated commendable staying power, giving rise to the thoroughly ambiguous street-hockey scene and even today reminding us how much fun skating can be—just not in cutoff jeans through Chelsea.
Pride is born
The first Gay Liberation Day march is held in New York City in 1970—a year after the Stonewall riots (more on them later)—in order to commemorate the feelings of solidarity fostered during the riots. The event, initially called the Christopher Street Gay Liberation Day March, becomes the germ for an entire Gay Pride week and, ultimately, the multifarious summer pride activities that now take place in NYC and across the country.
While openly gay characters can be found on Broadway as far back as 1975 in A Chorus Line, this musical-turned-cultural-phenomenon pushes gay themes much further into the mainstream, inducing soccer moms in flyover states to hum along to ditties about AIDS and a marginalized existence. From its first staging in 1994 at the New York Theatre Workshop, Rent has gone on to win not only several Tonys and a Pulitzer, but the hearts and minds of millions across the country for its honest—albeit sentimental—depiction of gay bohemian life.
The Saint Club rages
Before Bruce Mailman and business partner Charles Terrell even open the Saint on September 20, 1980 they have already enlisted 2,500 members at $150 each to gain access to its top-notch performers, cutting-edge disco lighting and hydraulic stage (!). The club's initial popularity is soon devastated by the then-exploding AIDS epidemic, but owing to the venue’s impressive architecture and reputation for booking legendary DJs, it has come through the tough times and is still alive and flaming today, at Second Ave and Sixth St.
A gay political candidate surfaces
No, we don't mean Abe Lincoln (he's not from New York). In 1971 Empire State native Dr. Franklin E. Kameny becomes the first openly gay candidate to run for U.S. Congress. While he desn’t—how to put this—win, he paves the way for such queer politicos as Christine Quinn, who is elected NYC's first lesbian City Council Speaker in 2006…and may yet be mayor!
Fleet Week says ahoy
The first New York City Fleet Week takes place May 21–28, 1984, though the tradition of mariners going homoerotically buck wild undoubtedly stretches back much further. Even though President Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is still in effect for all armed forces, when the seamen are in town for the week, the picture of revelry is truly worth a thousand words.
Stonewall riots erupt
What does it take to galvanize the queer community against discrimination? Impinging on their ability to drink! Shortly after 1am on June 28, 1969, eight police officers (all but one dressed in civilian clothes) enter Stonewall Inn with a search warrant in hand for the illegal sale of alcohol. Having grown accustomed to raids occurring only earlier in the night, bar patrons become furious as arrests are made. Over the following five days, an estimated 2,000 members of the LGBT community riot against some 400 policemen. (One tongue-in-cheek theory holds that grumpiness over Judy Garland's recent death contributes to the feisty attitudes.) While failing to garner much national attention, the riots are considered a galvanizing moment for the gay-rights movement.
Rufus does Judy
One could argue that Judy Garland's legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall performance, which took place in April of that year and spawned one of the most successful concert albums ever, is the greater achievement. But for our money it's Wainwright's 2006 reinterpretation of the event—singing the same set list at the same venue—that represents a bigger moment for gay culture, marking Wainwright’s genius for artistic mimicry and celebrating his liberated status as an openly gay pop singer.