In the tumultuous few years before the Stonewall uprising, I met several older women who pushed me toward the gay activism that became central to my life after the riots. We may also perceive a disturbing parallel between those times and the present.
By the summer of 1965 I had my B.A. and a reasonably good job with the welfare department. My relationship with Laura had been a torment but it was over. I’d heard that lesbian bars existed, but because gay relationships were outlawed, the bars kept a very low profile. Many of them had no sign on the street, and the windows were covered so no one could see inside. I did find one such place in Greenwich Village and tried looking for love there, but I struck out time and time again. You had to identify as butch or femme, wearing either men’s trousers with a shirt and tie, or a tight dress, nylons, and lipstick. I would show up in a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt. People like me were called “kiki” (rhymes with “bye-bye”) and were not welcome.
The bars never became a social or political home for me. My worst experience in one of those Mafia-run establishments was on a night when I sat at the bar, inhaling the scents of spilled beer, cigarette smoke, and some drugstore perfume that I couldn’t identify, and trying to make small talk with the woman on my right. Another woman took the stool to my left and then the two of them—who obviously knew each other—began to sing “Deutschland über Alles,” a song closely identified with the Nazis regime. I hadn’t realized that these women were German, but they’d spotted me as a Jew and were letting me know what they thought of our kind. I left immediately. It was a long time before I could bring myself to enter a bar again.
* * *
In November 1967, when I was 23, I found my way to a Daughters of Bilitis meeting. The DOB rented a suite in an office building, inexpensive but in a reasonably safe area, with nondescript office furniture and no decorations on the walls. Like the bars, we kept a low profile.
Our DOB chapter had monthly business meetings during which we folded and addressed the newsletter. It included a calendar of events: a dance, a psychologist who would give us a talk about why we gays weren’t crazy, or a middle-aged lesbian couple who lived in suburban New Jersey and would tell us how to make our relationship work. There were about 200 women on the mailing list, though only a handful showed up for events.
Jean Powers and Eleanor Kravitz, the couple who ran the New York chapter, were in their early 40s, both tall and stout. While Jean always attended meetings, Eleanor rarely came to the office, and I never got to know her particularly well. She was Jewish, and disabled from having survived polio.
Jean was from Oklahoma. She once told me that she was eligible to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, but I don’t think she would have fit in. She had been hounded out of the Defense Department, suspected of being gay, and in any case too big, too smart, and too well organized—qualities that would get a man promoted to manager, but that men found threatening in a woman. She used her managerial skills to keep our chapter running, and during the day she had some kind of computer job. Despite our differences—she was a Republican and I was far to the left of Democrat—we seemed to like each other.
Jean and Eleanor saw that they could make use of my youth and enthusiasm, and asked me to run for treasurer. I was honored until I realized that I was recruited because no one else wanted the job. I recorded income and expenditures in a black composition notebook, including the times when I borrowed 15¢ for carfare and reimbursed the treasury when I got my paycheck.
After two months Eleanor reviewed my work. “These are the screwiest books I’ve ever seen,” she said. “It took me a week to make head or tail out of them. But I’ll give you this: you didn’t steal a penny.”
What did she expect? I thought. “Nobody ever taught me how to keep books.”
Eleanor took the job back. She and Jean then tried me out as chapter president. That didn’t work well either. I had no idea what the duties were, and they hadn’t given me a to-do list. Finally, since I was a frequent and articulate participant in our group discussions, they asked me to be the public spokesperson. In order to speak for DOB, I had to research the literature so as not to make a fool of myself. I had to be willing to be out in public. Perhaps because McCarthyism had been discredited, perhaps because I hadn’t invested years in a career that could be destroyed if I were known to be gay, perhaps because I was young and immortal, I said yes.
* * *
One evening in the spring of 1968 I went to a DOB party and, after a few drinks and turns around the floor, went home with my dance partner. She was in the kitchen making coffee when I awoke, a little fuzzy but still in post-climactic bliss. I think she said her name was Allison, I thought. She lived in Englewood, New Jersey which, if you’re not from the area, is about a 20-minute drive across the George Washington Bridge from the Upper West Side apartment I shared with a friend. That was the beginning of a passionate summer for us.
Allison Jennings was Irish, with red hair, and was employed as a tech writer. She was 41 but told me she was 39, so as not to scare a 24-year-old off. (I wouldn’t have cared.) What I also didn’t know was that she and Jean Powers had been lovers for many years, and I never did find out why they broke up. They were still good friends, though. Allison was from Toledo, had voted for Goldwater in 1964 and, like Jean, had worked for the Defense Department—specifically, for the nuclear program. Unlike Jean, however, she hadn’t been forced out. One day she came across a document that referred to “megadeaths.” She asked her supervisor if that word meant what it sounded like. He said yes. She found another job in the civilian sector and resigned.
Allison wasn’t an activist. But she brought Marion Youers into my life, and Marion was my political mentor during the Gay Liberation Front years. You’ll hear more about her in the next post.
That was a time of many passions. The Vietnam War raged on. Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, Robert F. Kennedy in June. At the Democratic national convention in August, young antiwar and anti-establishment protesters were met with a police riot. The police clubbed and tear-gassed indiscriminately, assaulting peaceful demonstrators, onlookers, and residents of the neighborhood. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/ng-interactive/2018/aug/19/the-whole-world-is-watching-chicago-police-riot-vietnam-war-regan) Allison and I followed the reports from Chicago. We were both infuriated. By this time she had ceased voting Republican, but the Democrats didn’t give us much of an alternative.
At the Democratic convention, the party honchos chose former V.P. Hubert Humphrey—a so-called “liberal” who had committed to carry on LBJ’s war and who hadn’t competed in any of the primaries. Humphrey was a nebbish, a party hack without an appealing platform. The inner-city riots after MLK was assassinated, antiwar demonstrations on college campuses, and police riot in Chicago frightened many Americans—particularly whites and older voters. Richard Nixon, Humphrey’s opponent, declared himself the law-and-order candidate who could end the tumult, and who also had a “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. He got a plurality of the popular votes—segregationist George Wallace peeled off 13.5%—but an overwhelming majority in the Electoral College. (His slogan, “Nixon’s the One,” may remind you of Trump’s tweet, “I am the only one who can fix this.” And the Democrats once again have picked a nebbish of a former V.P.—one whose slogan appears to be “nothing substantial will change.”) I’d been on many antiwar demonstrations and didn’t believe a word either candidate said. Nixon’s victory only reinforced my determination to speak out against injustice, whether the victims were Vietnamese peasants—or people like me.*
That August I quit the Welfare Department. I’d become more and more disillusioned with the bureaucracy, but the last straw came when a guy came in begging for help to feed his children, and my supervisor told me to make him get IOUs from everyone who’d lent him a fiver since he lost his job. I refused to humiliate the guy so I walked out. I still needed to pay the rent, though. The liberal arts B.A. that I’d worked so hard for hadn’t led automatically to a professional career, but I could always fall back on my clerical skills. The employment agency found me a secretarial job at Barnard College.
I had no idea what I was getting into.
To be continued…
*An update: today, July 28, 2020, during the worst pandemic in over 100 years, the DNC rejected the Medicare for All amendment introduced by longtime single-payer advocate Michael Lighty by a vote of 36-125 during a virtual meeting Monday. The committee also voted down separate attempts to include support for expanding Medicare to children and dropping the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 55. Very much like the Humphrey platform of continuing the Vietnam War.