Stonewall 50 – Minisode 4 – Craig Rodwell
We’re bringing you this special Making Gay History minisode thanks to the generous support of Christopher Street Financial. Since 1981, Christopher Street Financial has been helping members of the LGBTQ+ community make their important life and wealth decisions. Learn more about Christopher Street Financial at christopherstreet.com.
To learn more about Craig Rodwell, read this biographical overview from the LGBTQ Religious Archives Network and explore the notes that accompany our Stonewall 50 season episodes and our episode on Dick Leitsch here.
Eric Marcus Narration: Dateline: June 28, 2019, 1:20 a.m., New York City.
I’m Eric Marcus. This is Making Gay History.
Exactly 50 years ago, cops raided the Stonewall Inn, sparking riots that gave birth to a national struggle for gay liberation. We’re marking that milestone by releasing four bonus minisodes. I’m hoping you’ll carry these voices with you through Pride weekend and beyond.
We’re able to bring you these very special extras thanks to the generous support of Christopher Street Financial. Since 1981, Christopher Street Financial has been helping members of the LGBTQ+ community make their important life and wealth decisions.
Time to hear from Craig Rodwell. Craig dreamed big. While growing up in Chicago, he’d imagined an expansive, safe, and proud future for gay people, and he dedicated much of his life to transforming that dream into reality. From picketing in the Reminder Day protests starting in 1965 to being a part of the now legendary “Sip-In” a year later. Craig also opened America’s first ever gay bookstore in 1967. He fought for gay liberation in the streets of New York in 1969. And then he marked the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising by co-organizing the very first Christopher Street Liberation Day March in June 1970. I think it’s fair to say that Craig was a doer.
I interviewed Craig 30 years ago, at the second location of his shop on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. I was coming down with a miserable cold, and Craig had a train to catch, so we agreed to a short interview that day, with the promise I’d come back for a longer conversation another day…
Eric Marcus: Interview with Craig Rodwell, February 17, Friday, noon. Location: Craig Rodwell’s store, the Oscar Wilde Bookshop, New York City.
Craig Rodwell: Soon as I heard that all the queers lived in Greenwich Village in New York City, I literally started saving my money. I would walk to school every day, it was about a two-mile walk, walk home just to save bus fare. I always asked for money at Christmas and birthday. I opened up a savings account. And two months out of high school I was here, on a bus with two suitcases.
EM: First of all, how did you get the idea to protest? Was this an outgrowth of what you’d seen in the Black civil rights movement, was it—?
CR: I just wanted to start having protests, I didn’t care what we were protesting, just so it was something gay issue-related. But we were all so immature. I mean my crowd, you know, my friends. There was a group of about at least a dozen of us that hung out together. On the streets. I suppose it was the beginning of a Stonewall generation, even though it was 10 years before Stonewall. For one thing, we were here in Greenwich Village, leading openly gay lives. Like, on Greenwich Avenue, which was a major cruising area at the time. I mean, every night there’d be hundreds of gay guys sitting on cars and…
When you pass somebody and your eyes meet, it’s that, that glance that lasts just a split second too long to be more than, it has to be more than just a glance. But if a cop came along, everybody’d get up and start walking, and if you didn’t they’d come up and they’d poke you.
EM: What was everyone afraid of?
CR: Being beaten, or arrested, and I suppose ultimately of being publicly identified as a homosexual.
EM: What would that mean?
CR: Perhaps loss of job or, when they would raid gay bars, the publisher, the papers would publish the name and address and where they worked of the people who were arrested on the front page of the papers the next day. I mean, like they were mass murderers or something.
EM: But what motivated you to challenge the police?
CR: I had to. I mean, it was, I couldn’t complain about the problem if I was part of it. I mean, it was a vicious circle of nobody complaining about it and the cops, it was just an easy way for them to fill a quota, and at the same time harass the queers.
EM: And you were angry already.
CR: Well, sure.
EM: Do you think that it had a lot to do with the fact that you were a young person? You had nothing to lose by being openly gay.
CR: Well, I don’t think ever thought in those terms. To me, it was more of a positive thing. I had everything to gain by being openly gay.
EM: What did you have to gain?
CR: Well, just being me, being myself, being free, being a whole person. Not being afraid. I remember they used to say, “Well, you’ll never get a job, you’ll never be able to hold a job if they know you’re gay.” And I would say, “Well, I don’t want to work for somebody who doesn’t like me because I’m gay.” I don’t know, I’ll just go somewhere else. I’ll find something.
EM: Let’s talk about your bookstore a little bit. What year did you open your store?
EM: There were other gay bookstores?
EM: No. Yours was the first gay book store in the United States.
CR: In the world.
EM: In the world.
CR: Sure. Well, the most important thing about it is, it was going to be an openly gay, visible presence on the street. I’ve always firmly believed, and I think today it’s just as important as ever, that we always be visible in every possible circumstance. To me, it’s always been the nitty-gritty of the movement, what the movement really is all about. Not only as an example to younger gay people, but as a poke in the ribs to society in general.
EM: Do you remember how many titles you had? How many—
CR: When I first opened? I had eight shelves—even then spread the books out.
EM: How did you make a living with the store?
CR: Well, my rent was only $115.
EM: You started the, what came to be known as the Gay Pride March, which was an outgrowth of, and correct me if I’m wrong, Reminder Day. And that was a protest you started in 1965, July 4, in Philadelphia.
CR: Right, ’65.
EM: Ran through ’69. Do you still… Do you march with the Gay Pride March?
EM: You do?
CR: I mean, there’s been a couple years that I haven’t.
CR: I was particularly incensed, like the first year they brought it downtown, they joined up with this ripoff festival thing.
I used to dream about, daydream even, about millions of homosexuals marching through the streets openly and everything. And that’s come to pass in my life. So it was more than a dream. It was almost a vision in a way of the future.
CR: Yeah. We are the world. We really are. We’re bits and pieces of everything that exists in the world, and we’re… I mean, I’m convinced that in, maybe, two generations at the most, probably half the people in the world will identify as gay.
EM: We can, we can stop here.
CR: Okay. I have to get a train at a quarter to three, I have to do my banking and everything, too…
EM Narration: As I packed away my recording equipment and Craig pulled his stuff together to leave, we talked about my return visit, how I’d ask him about Stonewall, the march, and more. But after we said goodbye that cold February day, I never spoke to Craig again. I got swamped by deadlines and interviews for the book, and Craig got sick. He died of stomach cancer in 1993. So I never got to ask him the questions I’d hoped to ask.
But Kay Lahusen did. Kay, along with her then co-author John Francis Hunter, recorded an interview with Craig in 1970 as research for their book The Gay Crusaders. Just over a year after the Stonewall uprising, Craig told Kay what he remembered from that night in June 1969.
CR: Well, I was on my way home from playing cards at a friend’s house. And we’re passing through Sheridan Square. We notice this big crowd in front of the Stonewall and it was around midnight. Maybe a little after. This is Friday, June 27. And like other people in the area, we stopped by to see what was going on.
There was a police van out front, and a crowd of about 500 people, I would say. And it was very quiet at the time, just the crowd was gathered there, and a police van, and a few people at the door. But it was obvious what was going on. It sort of happened before you knew it, but slowly built up. I wasn’t the only one.
Pennies started being thrown, a few people’s chants went up. And large objects started to be thrown, bottles, beer cans. I didn’t throw anything. It’s not that I didn’t feel like it, I couldn’t find anything to throw. Even then I don’t know if I would have. Though the worst night of the riots wasn’t that night. But the police began to see that the crowd was hostile, it was mad and getting madder.
So they retreated within the Stonewall and locked the doors. I understand later they barricaded the doors from inside. And it was at that point that two or three people in the crowd went and got a parking meter, and also a trash can, and started using it as a battering ram at the door. I mean, it was like medieval, you know, cross the moat, try to break the castle doors down. And, meanwhile, all kinds of bottles were still being thrown.
More and more chants were becoming more and more vocal and more people were coming around. And then at one point someone squirted lighter fluid inside an opening in the window and tried to set it on fire and this firehose started coming out from inside.
This went on for like 10, 15 minutes, and then the TPF arrived in large numbers and they came in a wedge down Christopher Street from Greenwich Avenue. And they pushed the crowd back across Seventh Avenue. But the crowd just split up, went around the blocks, and just came back at it again, like, charging the police, meanwhile still throwing things and chanting.
John Francis Hunter: When did you first hear the chant “Gay power”? Was it that weekend?
CR: I think I was the first one to say it when Fred shut me up. Maybe somebody before had said it, I don’t really know. It really was amazing the police were as restrained as they were, and looking back on it, I think it was because they didn’t…
It’s a particular embarrassment of the police to have in the papers the next morning they had to use tear gas, any kind of force, against a group of homosexuals. It’d be like saying, “police club women,” you know. In the eyes of society, homosexuals are viewed much the same way that women are viewed. They’re expected to be passive, docile, you know, run—kind of thing. That was the whole turning point in attitudes of gay people.
JFH: What is the chief difference between the activist of yesterday in your long career and of that today?
CR: There’s a lot more of us. Just as I’m sure the difference five, ten years from now will be very different in the way young people are now. Anybody raised in our culture even today has to question themselves, has to question the values, the ideas, everything that’s been put into their head, for one thing to discover who they are.
We should rip all the facades off, the layers that we’ve been coated with from childhood. And I think and I hope, as more time goes on, there’ll be less of that to get rid of, is that people would be more into, you know, just being themselves. But also respecting other people who are different.
We live in a heterosexual chauvinist society where we’re presented continually with the idea that heterosexuality is not only better than homosexuality, that homosexuality isn’t even considered. I think we are a threat to heterosexuality. Not to heterosexuals but to heterosexuality, meaning the whole, all the rules and regulations that go with it.
CR: Yeah, I mean we are a threat to it. Well, theoretically and ideally, homosexuality emphasizes the equality of people in a relationship, the lack of role-playing.
My own particular interest and drive and energy, both philosophical and physical, is directed at changing what people think of themselves, basically.
JFH: And how do you propose to do that on a one-to-one basis like Mattachine of New York or…?
CR: Well, I do it on a one-to-one basis in the shop, when I’m talking to people. I help to do it on a large-scale basis with Christopher Street Liberation Day.
JFH: You envision this as an ongoing annual event, do you not? In New York…
CR: Oh yeah, not just in New York, for the whole country. Just an annual thing, the last Sunday in June. We would like all these groups to have observances in their own cities.
CR: I mean the most important thing in the movement is getting gay people together, especially at this point. The same idea, in unity there’s strength, is true of every, every group you can think of.
JFH: And you foresee it growing…
CR: Oh, yeah, every year. We’re expecting 50,000 people this coming June. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more than 50,000.
Kay Lahusen: But then your estimates were high last year, Craig…
CR: No, I was low.
KL: Oh, really?
EM Narration: You heard Kay chuckle at the end there, when Craig outlandishly predicted more than 50 thousand people for the 1971 march. You have to wonder what Craig would make of World Pride 2019. This weekend, 50 years after the riots, three million people—maybe more— are expected to fill the streets of New York City for multiple marches, protests, and celebrations. I’ll be there, at the Queer Liberation March, with my partner Barney, with my friend Jan who’s visiting from Denmark, and my friend Ann Northrop, who is one of the organizers of that march.
Making Gay History is made possible by support from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Calamus Foundation, Andra and Irwin Press, and Christopher Street Financial. Learn more about Christopher Street Financial at christopherstreet.com.
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That’s it from us for this landmark season of Making Gay History. I’d like to say “Hi and welcome” to the thousands of you from all over the world who have found our podcast. And if you’ve just found us, there are four previous seasons to listen to that bring LGBTQ history to life through the voices of the people who lived it.
We’ll be back in October with more of the history you wish you’d heard in school. Until then, I’ll close this season as we began it and say, Pride isn’t just for June and our history isn’t just Stonewall.
So long, until next time!