On September 20, 1970, a pleasant Sunday evening, we were holding our regular Gay Liberation Front (GLF) meeting at the Church of the Holy Apostles when Ellen Broidy burst into the room and asked for help.
Broidy was president of the Student Homophile League (SHL) at New York University. She had run the two miles from the university to the church. She told us that her group had contracted with the student council in charge of Weinstein Hall, the freshman dorm, to put on a gay dance in the sub-basement. The administration had gotten wind of the dance and told them it would not be allowed.
A bit of background: the students had gone on strike a year before and, among other things, won the right to run their own dormitories. The freshmen ran theirs, the sophomores theirs, and so on. Now it seemed that student’s rights were contingent on the administration’s approval. The dorm council and the SHL were conferring at that very hour, and the SHL was asking for our support.
Several of us followed Broidy back to the university. Once we had joined the student meeting, she explained that the president of the college had made an offer. He would hire a psychiatrist to declare that gay people were mentally disturbed. The SHL would hire a psychiatrist to present the opposite view. The president would listen to both sides and then decide about the dance.
Did he think we would be stupid enough to take him up on his offer, or that we would just slink away after such an obvious slap in the face? The dance was scheduled for Friday. After some discussion, and with GLF support, the dorm council and the SHL voted to hold it anyway.
Worried about how this was likely to play out, I spoke up. “Let’s say we advertise the dance for Friday night. Friday evening, there’ll be cops at the door and we’ll never get in. We have to occupy the sub-basement now and hold it for the rest of the week.”
All present agreed. Some of us from GLF ran back to the church to collect the rest. One GLF member hightailed it over to Alternate U., where they had a mimeo machine, with instructions to write up a flier that would be passed around campus, explaining our actions. Arthur Bell, who wrote for the Village Voice, waited outside the building. The minute we returned he would call the press.
As the GLF group marched back to NYU, some street queens joined us. Soon we were all camped out in the sub-basement of Weinstein Hall. We made ourselves as comfortable as possible. There were chairs, tables, vending machines, and a laundry room. For the young gays who’d been thrown out by their families and were struggling to survive on the streets, I imagine it was a relief to have a roof over their heads and not have to turn a trick that night. Back then I was young enough not to mind sleeping on the floor, and happy to share a blanket with another occupier, who had found it somewhere. Soon enough we were all huddling under whatever covers we could scrounge, because the administration turned up the air conditioning in an attempt to freeze us out. For six days we came and went for meals or work or to attend classes.
During this time, some of the freshmen upstairs were not happy about the invasion. We held another meeting, this one open to all of the residents of the dorm. I remember explaining that we weren’t just fighting for ourselves, but also to defend the right of self-governance that the students had won the previous year. This satisfied them.
On Friday I thought I might be catching a cold, so I went home for a hot bath—and missed the denouement. The administration called the police, who arrested everyone in the sub-basement. One of the street queens had been doing laundry and was naked except for a blanket, but the cops wouldn’t let her collect her clothes. They loaded her bare-assed into the paddy wagon.
Despite the bath, I caught the cold—and a case of crabs from sharing that blanket.
* * *
Sylvia Rivera was one of those arrested. I hadn’t seen her at GLF before, but she attended a meeting after the occupation and I had a conversation with her. The events had inspired her to form a new organization—STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). STAR co-founder Marsha P. Johnson, I learned later, also participated in the Weinstein Hall action, not inside the hall but picketing outside.
Later, I heard from another GLFer that some gay freshmen at Weinstein Hall were inspired by the event to come out.
Although we failed to hold the sub-basement that Friday night, the uproar we caused forced the administration to make its peace with a changing society, and a gay dance was held the following year. Now NYU has an LGBTQ+ Center, and this year, for the 50th anniversary of the occupation, they put on a panel discussion.
* * *
I missed getting busted at Weinstein, even though I was the one who instigated the occupation. However, I got another chance on New Year’s Eve, when a handful of women took over an abandoned welfare center on the Lower East Side, right across from the Fifth Street police station.
To be continued…