How gay was the New York gay march in the infancy of the gay rights movement almost 40 years ago?
Not very, according to The New York Times, which prescribed an older nomenclature.
“March Is Staged/By Homosexuals” read the headline on Page 21 of The Times that June 26, 1972.
And thereby, as they say, hangs a tale.
I was back on the metropolitan staff after two and a half years overseas. The war I had covered in Vietnam had come home, America’s streets the battleground. And among the revolutionaries in the three turbulent years since the Stonewall uprising were the Gay Veterans for Peace, the Gay Activists Alliance and the dwindling Gay Liberation Front, with its provocative echo of the Vietcong’s National Liberation Front.
I was assigned that year to cover what, since Stonewall, had become an annual commemoration, a march from Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village up Avenue of the Americas to Central Park’s Sheep Meadow. I accompanied the thousands of colorfully clad demonstrators as they paraded, chanting, “Out of the closet and into the streets!” Joining them was the renowned Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose child care book I and millions of other baby boomers had been reared on.
Tourists drawn by the spectacle and thrilled to be witnessing an impromptu Gotham ritual hoisted children onto their shoulders and prepared to cheer, only to go ashen-faced as the orientation of the throng became manifest. This was, after all, 1972.
In a nice bit of karmic resonance, the Times photographer that day was a young contemporary, John Soto, who was soon to discover his ethnic roots on a trip to his ancestors’ Puerto Rican homeland and change his name to John Sotomayor, a relation, he believes, of the later associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor.
My education that day began when I returned to The Times’s newsroom, then on West 43rd Street, to report to the editors for a space allocation on my article on the third annual gay march.
Three quarters of a buck. About 75 percent of a column, 600 words if I was lucky. But, oh, I was cautioned, it was not the gay march, it was the homosexual march.
The homosexual march?
I dreaded to write that. Even then it marked me as woefully out of step with the zeitgeist. There was a leaden quality to the phrase, a sniffy retrograde disapproval.
No, I objected, they call themselves gays.
Gays? Now it was an editor’s turn at consternation. Gay meant happy. Were they happy? No, they were homosexuals.
We went on like that for awhile. It was an argument I was destined to lose. Times usage was dictated by the paper’s stylebook. The stylebook was not on my side.
Still, I could use gays under one condition, the editor decreed. When it was part of a name or a direct quote. Even The Times wouldn’t presume to turn the Gay Activists Alliance into the Homosexual Activists Alliance.
And so it was. The article, to my mortification, intermingled the terms homosexual and gay. To the gays, they were gays. But to the newspaper and me, they had to be homosexuals (although gay, because it was a nice short word, crept into a subhead).
As I hammered out the article on deadline (on a typewriter, naturally), I waffled over one episode.
In the back of the line of march had been a contingent in black leather. I’d been curious and asked who they were.
“We’re the Eulenspiegel Society,” one told me. They took their name from a medieval prankster hanged for his mischief and immortalized in the Richard Strauss tone poem.
Well, he went on, they were a self-help group of sadists and masochists.
And which exactly were they? I asked.
Oh, he told me cheerfully, they were the masochists.
I had to ask. Why were they marching?
He delivered his answer deadpan.
“For better treatment.”
Somehow, that never made it into the article.