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Uncover the Story: NYC’s Fight for LGBTQIA+ Rights

New York’s history is abundant with public demonstration. Particularly in the past 100 years, empowered New Yorkers and their allies have organized in public parks, outside government buildings, across bridges and tunnels and boroughs, in support of issues from Women’s Suffrage in 1920 to Environmental Sustainability in 2019. Public assembly is a pervasive response to injustice and tragedy: a key strategy that innumerable activists have employed to fight what they believe in and change the course of history. But information about these ambitious motivated New Yorkers and the things they cared about is often hidden in narratives of a larger historical moment. Whose job is it to remember the stories of the protests/public actions that shaped the city we live in today?

New York City’s LBGTQIA+ community is the most visible in the month of June and if you’re in Lower Manhattan in June, it’s nearly impossible to miss the spirit of Pride. Pride honors the Stonewall Uprising of June 1969, an event widely recognized as the beginning of the public fight for LGBTQIA+ rights in America. Stonewall has become a famous historic site; the bar is still in operation on Christopher Street, and the building is landmarked, as one of the most significant historical events in the fight for LGBTQIA+ rights.

But five years before Stonewall, 10 New Yorkers took bold action against the unjust treatment of the LGBTQIA+ community in New York. Finding information–about the protestors’ identities, the process of organizing, the opposition they faced–is very challenging. Many stories of the events and people that shaped New York [and American] history get lost in a bigger picture

On September 19, 1964, protestors gathered outside 39 Whitehall Street. Located at the intersections of Pearl, Whitehall, and Water Streets, this imposing structure was the US Army Induction Center. The protesters opposed the Armed Forces’ treatment of LGBTQIA+ people; specifically the Army had breached the confidentiality of gay men’s draft records. This public assembly is recognized as the first-ever action for LGBTQIA+ rights in American history.

The rally was organized by Craig Rodwell, who’d soon become known as the Father of Pride, and Randy Wicker, an activist for gay visibility and the first openly gay person to appear on television on the East Coast. 10 people protested–4 homosexuals and 6 heterosexual allies–holding posters and picket signs. Statements like “The Army Invades Sexual Privacy” and “Homosexuals Died for US Too” were bold and controversial at the time. These 10 courageous New Yorkers essentially set the stage for the protests, public actions, demonstrations, and activism for LGBTQIA+ equality of the years to come.

Millions of Americans were inducted into the Armed Forces at 39 Whitehall Street, between its opening in 1884 and its closing at the end of the Vietnam War. The building was bombed in anti-war riots in 1968 and 1969 and though the damage was minimal, the building was closed soon after. Today, it’s a high-rise luxury condominium apartment building in the heart of NYC’s Financial District. The building, as it stands today, may tell a story, but it’s not the story of what happened on that corner 55 years ago. It’s also not the story of the millions of people who risked their lives for this country. In fact, the address–39 Whitehall– is no longer in use. The apartment building uses a new address, 3 New York Plaza.

The courage of these protestors is preserved only in 7 photographs, and the legacy of LGBTQIA+ actions in public space in New York City’s history. During Pride month and throughout the year, how do we incorporate the stories of courage and dissent beyond Stonewall? Who is looking for these stories? Who is responsible for amplifying them? What happens if these stories get lost?