Every year, in the weeks leading up to Pride Week, Martin Boyce and Danny Garvin’s phones start ringing off the hook.
“Martin here. Yup, that was me at Stonewall, June 28, 1969.”
“Yes, this is the Danny who was at the riots.”
And on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Mr. Boyce, 64, and Mr. Garvin, 63, were bombarded by even more press than usual. “I was like a puppet on a string,” Mr. Boyce said. “Anytime somebody bumped into me on the street I’d go right into ‘So I was walking towards Stonewall with my friends Birdie and Tommy…’”.
While many of the rioters from that night fell victim to drugs or the AIDS crises in the ’80s, Mr. Boyce and Mr. Garvin are two of less than twenty confirmed survivors, calling themselves the Stonewall Veterans. They’ve been immortalized in David Carter’s Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution, saluted in the PBS documentary Stonewall Uprising and have been invited as guest speakers to participate in discussions on the gay rights movement over the four decades since. And on days like today, when NYC Pride takes to the streets and the riots’ anniversary is marked by the Pride Parade, which noncoincidentally ends on Christopher street right next to Stonewall, their contributions to the gay rights movement is brought to the forefront once again.
Mr. Boyce spends nearly every day in Central Park, across from the Bow Bridge, in a shady benched area called the Ramble, where members of the gay community have been known to congregate. In his teenage years, he painted on eyeliner and glittery lipstick in hopes that straight people would take notice of him and his peers.
“In 1966, I was extremely frustrated with the way gays were treated,” Mr. Boyce said. “That’s why I went into scare drag—not because there was a need to or because there was a woman inside of me. I just thought, like they did in Hollywood, you should emphasize and at least get a reaction from these people.”
And Mr. Boyce would do just that. Him and his friends would go to museums, the zoo or wherever they could find large amounts of straight people. They’d dress in scare drag (think Boy George) and try to speak eloquently in hopes of enlightenment or—if nothing else—to agitate. But the late ’60s was not ready for “I’m here and I’m queer” and their outings would often result in ridicule or, worse, violence. He was astonished by how the littlest drop of eyeliner would make people go mad, but by the Post-Stonewall mid ’70s he felt he had no reason to shock, the word was out. If he was going to fight now it would be with political action.
Today he wears no make-up. He’s handsome, spirited and appears every bit as masculine as anyone else in Central Park, except when he sometimes erupts into a fit of laughter.
Mr. Garvin is well-coifed and small-framed but has a tough, raspy New York accent. When he sipped his cappuccino, the foam clung to his white handle bar mustache, indiscernible until he smiled and a bead glided off his chin onto the sidewalk of the Inwood Cafe near his apartment.
In 1969, Mr. Garvin was 19 and lived in a gay commune on Bleecker Street, the epicenter of NYC gay life at the time. He recalls a time when he was at Julius (a bar in the West Village which at the time was composed of artists and actors). The bartender warned him not to sit with his back to the bar because they were afraid if the cops came he would be accused of soliciting and the bar would be closed. Mr. Jarvin would bounce about the neighborhood but Stonewall was never his regular spot.
“A lot of kids from out of town felt liberated from walking into Stonewall but I was scared to death someone from my neighborhood was going to see me.” (At the time Mr. Garvin’s family was not aware he was gay. It wasn’t until he was 25 that he told his family, and it was many years later that they finally accepted it.)
When the riots started on Christopher Street, he was on the street antagonizing, screaming, yelling and trying not to get hit. But, more importantly, he was trying not to get arrested.
“If I would have been taken to jail it would have been on my permanent record. Homosexuality was considered a deviant behavior back then.” Since the American Psychiatric Association ruled being gay as a mental illness, Mr. Garvin and his fellow rioters risked not being employed in the future.
When doing an appearance at Barnes and Noble for the release of Stonewall about five years ago, Mr. Gavin and Mr. Boyce became fast friends. Bonding over Stonewall, mutual friends and a cool disposition of their effect on the gay rights movement, they kept in touch and wax all sorts of nostalgic about the way it was before the riots.
While both Mr. Garvin and Mr. Boyce admit there is some envy of the rights that gays have been afforded today, they also have a great appreciation for their time, when being gay was more of a subculture.
“I liked being part of something. You only knew how to find a gay bar if someone told you about it,” said Mr. Garvin. “We had our own way of talking and meanings of things—our own language.”
Mr. Boyce smiled wide in a childlike grin when remembering his days buzzing around the streets of the Village with his friends.
“It was great. How gays stuck together without an oath,” Said Mr. Boyce. “It was a system that had a great deal of success until we realized that this was not success at all, it was just coping—like the way blacks used to sing in the field.”
Before the riots, there was no chatter of civil rights, just a deep-seeded desire for a simple basic human right to not be beaten, arrested, harassed. Just to drink, dance and have a right to own their sexuality.
“We didn’t want to go to Vietnam to kill, get married, be police officers or firemen,” Mr.Garvin said of the norm. “All we wanted to do was dance.”
The night of the first riots was in response to a police raid that attempted to shut down Stonewall and arrest the patrons inside. As the streets amassed with crowds, there was an explosive and violent release of pent-up frustration towards a government that had repeatedly persecuted sexual minorities. A group that was constantly oppressed, finally stood up.
It wasn’t until leaders of gay rights organizations met to organize a march on the anniversary of the riots that Martin Boyce, a participant in the riots on June 28, 1970, knew Stonewall’s influence had finally been recognized.
“It began in a question mark, we weren’t sure,” Mr. Boyce recalled with regards to the reluctance of those that marched from Christopher street up Sixth Avenue in hopes of reaching Central Park. “We were very nervous about marching all that way but it ended in a giant exclamation point. The park was full of supporters.” The march had only 100 people at first, but ended up amassing almost 2,000 people along the way.
“I knew something had changed—not what we have today, but that was great alone. Just that. That we could march.” said Mr. Boyce.
Mr. Garvin is still trying to wrap his head around some of the giant strides recently made towards complete equality. “I see someone that is twenty now and I didn’t have any of the freedoms that they have.” Being married or being “out” and in the service seems foreign to him. The thought of himself ever marrying still seems odd.
Mr. Boyce admited that “a lot of times in your own ignorance, you don’t know what you don’t have means.” He’s had a lover for 37 years and at first he didn’t even confront the fact that if he was terminally ill he would be unable to care for him, or have claims to each others things. But he said back then “you gave that all up for love.”
“It seemed to me that to have the rights with love isn’t always necessary,” Mr. Boyce said, rather whimsically.
While Mr. Garvin and Mr. Boyce admit that they have established a degree of celebrity within the gay community, they both have a sense of humor about what has manifested from Stonewall, at least that not pertaining to civil rights.
“It could be like Carnival in Rio, but with all gay talent. You think with all those gays they could put on a show, unless people do find it a show–I don’t.”
Despite the perceived lack of creativity, Mr. Boyce planned to attend the parade today with Mr. Jarvin for a couple hours but they have no intentions to exert too much energy jockeying for position against the crowds that will be gathered at the Christopher Street bar where it all started.
Stonewall has become somewhat a caricature of itself. Ownership of the bar has changed over the years, a portion of the original establishment is now a nail salon and you can now purchase your very own Stonewall Riot t-shirt for just $20. Hokey, yet still paying homage.
“I really only go to Stonewall for interviews,” Mr. Boyce said. “It’s like when people go to Paris looking for the Paris they read about in the ’30s. It’s not there—It’s so considered now.”
Underneath the shade of the century-old trees of Central Park, Mr. Boyce rolled a cigarette and talks about the times that were. Even though Stonewall is nothing like Paris—and never was—it was there he and Mr. Garvin made history and there that the LBGT movement was ignited. He was giddy and stewing with excitement, recalling the scene at Stonewall.
“Where is Stonewall?” Mr. Boyce turned towards the middle-aged man whose Southern draw interrupted his memory.
“Simple. You just take the Seventh Avenue train downtown to Christopher Street. It’s right there,” Mr. Boyce warmly advised, pointing west of the park.
“I’m just visiting, but I’d love to see it,” the man said. He then nodded and left, not knowing that a real piece of Stonewall was right in front of him.
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