Gay rights and history

BY TONY BOUZA

History is a funny place. It is said to be written by winners. I’m not so sure. I wonder if it isn’t the province of scribblers. In any case it is too frequently a distortion.
Over a very long career I was really lucky to have been a fly on the wall when interesting little events were taking place. One example is women in policing—whose history has yet to be written. When it is, I’ll insist they include references to its two pioneers—Gertrude Schimmel and Felicia Shpritzer of the NYPD. I have little hope this will happen; the place of women in the ranks is now so vast, established and unconcerning as to invite neglect as a subject of historic interest. Thus passeth earthly glory.
And then there are the twistings—and these can get pretty tortured. One such is gay rights. In this case we have apotheosis—a frequent temptation of self-promoters—Remember the Alamo?
The prevailing wisdom is that the gay men’s revolt originated in the clash between cops and gays outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwhich Village. Heroic.
Not so.
I was there—in the NYPD—and at the center of operations (but not at Stonewall itself).
These are the facts:
In 1965 John V. Lindsay, a patrician, liberal, former congressman (Republican, but he’d later run as an Independent) was elected mayor of NYC. He appointed Jay Kriegel—an Amherst grad, lawyer and brilliant behind-the-scenes operator—as his liaison to the NYPD. This meant Kriegel effectively, if remotely, ran the agency. The second Jewish chief inspector, Sanford Garelik, was named to lead the department, while a figurehead, know-nothing from Philadelphia served as police commissioner.
At this time, the ’50s and ’60s, the NYPD enforced morals laws vigorously. It sent attractive young men into gay bars to arrest gropers. The transit police had elaborately constructed viewing spots to check out liaisons in subway toilets (a truly ironic result of abandoning these tactics was the closure of all subway toilets by some faceless bureaucrat—forever).
Fully aware of the issues—particularly in the Irish-Catholic-Daily-Communicant environment of the NYPD—not a single word was said or written of the radical policy of abandonment of these practices. We just shifted the emphasis to gambling and alcohol (serving drunks or after hours and, yes, even moonshining) violations.  Amongst the sufferers were Harlem’s largest employers—the numbers runners.
And then came Stonewall, which was nothing more than a melee between cops and gays, greatly exacerbated by a police executive who—not having gotten the admittedly tacit message—escalated the conflict by calling for reinforcements.  An idiot.
Thus was the legend of a Gay Rights Revolt created, and no one was willing to point to the stupidity and lack of necessity of it all. Or even that it was a total aberration.
Lindsay and Garelik are not exactly heroes of the Gay Rights Movement. They aren’t even known—and very likely wouldn’t want to be.
A peek behind the curtain can be a salubrious act if one has a genuine curiosity for historical accuracy.
And, in delicious irony, the issue of gay-police tension was one of the major problems I was hired to fix in Minneapolis. The cops regularly raided gay bathhouses, even parading crude artifacts through the streets as the TV cameras whirred. The last such raid—ever—was on 2/10/80. I was sworn in on the eleventh, as gay activists burned the citations received the previous night in the Council Chamber during the ceremony. When asked, I responded it had been a short honeymoon.
In the end the bathhouses were closed, not by rabid, homophobic cops, but by AIDS.
In the ’80s the gays and cops even played softball together.

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1 Comment

  1. Ellen Lipschultz says:

    Interesting article, Mr. Bouza. Because you are an excellent writer, I believe there would be a reason for Mr Garelik’s religion being identified. I wasn’t able to figure out what it was.

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