This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City. For many, this infamous clash between the trans and gay patrons of the Stonewall Inn and the New York City Police Department, which already had a long history of harassment against the gay community, signifies the start of the LGBTQ civil rights movement in the United States. Celebratory and educational events are happening throughout the country to mark this monumental event. The Making Gay History podcast, hosted by Eric Marcus, is dedicating their entire fifth season to stories on and around Stonewall. As important as Stonewall is to the movement, there are many other stories to uncover as we celebrate Pride Month.
This blog focuses on what was happening in the fight for LGBTQ civil rights on the other side of the country, right here in Los Angeles. Let’s meet Chuck Rowland, an outstanding but lesser-known LGBTQ upstander, who was active during the 1950s. Rowland, who was interested in challenging social norms from a young age, explored many avenues in his quest to help bring about social change. Not only did he join the Communist Party at a time when it was very controversial to do so, he also participated in the Hooker Study, “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual” (from last week’s posting). Rowland—along with Harry Hay, Rudi Gernreich, and Bob Hull—was a founding member of the Mattachine Society, one of the first homophile/homosexual groups in the U.S. and which helped popularize the view of homosexuals as a culturally-oppressed minority, a designation normally assigned to racial or religious groups.
Rowland was a non-apologetic, straight shooter who helped frame the debate on the legal and social status of gay people in the United States. In his own words,
“I don’t think or feel like a heterosexual. My life was not like a heterosexual. I had experiences, emotional experiences, that I could not have had as a heterosexual. I think, my whole person, my whole being, my whole character, my whole life differed, differs from heterosexuals, not by what I do in bed . . . ” Chuck Rowland (1989)
Identity is complex, complicated, and fluid. Not only does it change over time with new experiences or education, but how others perceive or react to our identity can vary greatly from how we see ourselves.
Chuck Rowland was clear and confident about his identity from a very young age. Consider the role identity played in his quest for gay rights. While listening to the podcast, create an Identity Chart for Chuck Rowland. If you are so inclined, consider creating an Identity Chart for yourself as well.
I created identity charts for both Chuck Rowland and myself.
It is an interesting experience exploring who I think I am versus who I think outside world thinks I am. It took me a few attempts to get my Identity Chart to feel right. The fact that I still am often perceived by negative stereotypes is disheartening, however, having dealt with this my entire life, it has had a defining effect on how I now identify. Having to maneuver being an outsider has made me more secure of who I am on the inside.
And, speaking of identity:
As we learned from Chuck Rowland, members of the LGBTQ community have had differing views on how gay people should identify to the straight world. What happens, though, when someone does not easily fit into conventional and established categories?
Stella Rush was one of many such people and as a member of and writer for the Daughters of Bilitis in the 1950s she had to face and challenge the narrow view of identity that the gay community tried to place on her. For a bonus this week, find out more about Stella Rush by listening to another episode from the Making Gay History podcast.
Share your thoughts in the comments below:
- What most struck you about Rowland’s identity?
- Did you have any reflections about your own experiences as rooted in your identity or perception of your identity by others?
Use the 50th anniversary to brush up on your knowledge of Stonewall, and its precursors in LA:
Watch this short video from the NY Times on Stonewall myths.
- Read a factsheet about Stonewall.
- Listen to the fifth season of Making Gay History to hear stories on and around Stonewall.
- Hold and record your own conversation with an LGBTQ elder as part of StoryCorps #StonewallOutloud.
- Read this post from our sister blog, Facing Today, Stonewall Was Important But Not Because it Was First.
- Learn more about LA before Stonewall with these articles from Los Angeles Magazine and LA Conservancy.