Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50 at the New York Public Library is a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots. The exhibition features photographs, publications, and ephemera from the 1960s and ’70s that track the emergence of the LGBTQ+ Civil Rights movements and the “changing ways that LGBTQ+ people perceived themselves.” Strikingly introduced by a vertical neon sign reminiscent of the historic Stonewall storefront, it is organized into four themes: Resistance, In Print (referring to publications), Bars, and Love.
We start with “Resistance.” This section astutely demonstrates how the Stonewall Riots became a tipping point for gay liberation movements, but were by no means the start of such movements; it shows how the Stonewall Riots served as a springboard that existing gay and lesbian activist groups in the 1960s leveraged to catapult themselves and the visibility of the gay rights movement forward.
One of the exhibition’s key strengths is its organization of materials in each section into pre- and post-Stonewall categories, clarifying Stonewall as a pivotal moment that heightened the visibility of activists and the movement. Perhaps most striking are the photographs of protests before and after Stonewall; highly theatrical, organized protests of half a dozen people outside the White House and Pentagon in the mid-1960s grew to thousands of people occupying Central Park for the first “Pride” event in 1970, a year after Stonewall. The change that occurred over a few years is breathtaking.
“Resistance” highlights intersectionality in various early LGBTQ+ groups, such as the Gay Liberation Front, which was also active in anti-Vietnam protests — for example, with Gay May Day. The exhibition features bilingual fliers written in English and Spanish from the Third World Gay Revolution; Volume One of Pa’Fuera, the newsletter of a gay liberation group in San Juan; and substantial coverage of trans activists like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and the group they are most associated with, STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). STAR was the first activist group in the trans community to prioritize organized street activism in profoundly visible and radical ways. Rivera and Johnson are everywhere in the exhibition and in associated books (available for purchase in the library), both of which include some of their most iconic photos, in part because they were often photographed by renowned lesbian photojournalist Diana Davies, who donated her archive to the NYPL.
Love & Resistance is strengthened by its limited time frame, which allows extraordinary shifts in the scope of queer publishing and activism to be covered in fine detail. The NYPL has the most extensive collection of LGBTQ+ publications, photographs, and historical ephemera in the United States, much of it contributed by LGBTQ+ organizations and individuals over the years. Under the previous curator, Mimi Bowling, the NYPL was at the forefront of preserving queer history, getting a significant head start on other venerable institutions here in the US, in part because New York was at the center of so much LGBTQ+ activism in the early years the exhibition covers. The curator of this collection, Jason Baumann, told me that donations came early, drawn by the NYPL’s institutional strength: this was a place where documents were all but guaranteed to survive, and where sympathetic staff members were known to the local queer community. Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman, for example, organized the NYPL’s exhibition Stonewall 25 in 1994 — the predecessor to this show. According to Baumann, Stonewall 25 inspired a veritable flood of donations from organizations and individuals.
Because of the NYPL’s historical dedication to preserving and presenting queer history in their city, Love & Resistance includes materials both donated and independently acquired by the library. An iconic issue of Sinister Wisdom, a radical lesbian magazine on display in the “In Print” section, bears an NYPL intake stamp from 1978. “The librarians had the foresight to actually subscribe,” Baumann said. “We have at least an entire run of that magazine in our archives.” Other treasures include a rare issue of the journal Conditions: Five from 1979, featuring writing exclusively by queer women of color, including Audre Lorde and Pat Parker, as well as a copy of Leslie Feinberg’s 1980 book Journal of a Transsexual. Another highlight is the first issue of The Advocate, from 1967, a magazine which is still in print.
To see multiple copies of historical LGBTQ+ publications laid out alongside each other and amid such comprehensive documentation is a rare thing. I found the experience moving as well as intellectually challenging — and frustrating, as it begged the question, why haven’t I seen this before? For example, several issues of the iconic lesbian publication The Ladder are shown in sequence from the 1950s, when its covers featured women in silhouette, to a sunny 1966 cover image of short-haired Lilli Vincenz, bearing a wide smile and looking into the distance. To a modern audience, the 1966 cover looks downright conservative, similar to a typical Life magazine image from the time period. But at a time when all LGBTQ+ publications were marked “Adult Only,” because to be queer was to be pornographic, to put one’s face on the cover of such a publication was an incredible risk. And to present oneself as happy? This cover was radical.
“Love,” the exhibition’s final section, could be easy to gloss over: to a 2019 audience, photos of happy couples holding hands at protests or cuddling during activist meetings don’t look unusual. But in the 1960s this was not standard fare. Photos from this time by photojournalists Diana Davies and Kay Tobin Lahusen at the start of the “Love” section show gay and lesbian couples in silhouette, or engaging in PDA, but they are shot from behind, their faces obscured or turned away. Public intimacy, post Stonewall, became a radical gesture. It became powerful. Happy gay couples in public in the 1970s were potent protest images. Many types of love are shown, most focused on couples, but also the love between friends, activist groups, and families.
For LGBTQ+ people at the time it was a risk to show your face in public, smiling; a risk to smile on the cover a gay magazine. To refute the idea that to be gay was to be a sinner, that to be gay was (as the APA insisted until 1987) a mental disease, that to be gay meant being cut off from any chance at a fulfilling life that fused the private and public selves — these were all risks. Love & Resistance establishes the riots as one event of many through which barriers started to break down, forcing so many LGBTQ+ people to reposition themselves. It also shows how so many people during that time — and after — have been able to live more wholly integrated lives. I have a pennant on my bedroom wall that says joy is an act of resistance. This exhibition embodies that sentiment.
Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50 continues at the New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, 476 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan) through July 14.