In the 1960s and '70s, amid a climate of political upheaval and civil rights activism, LGBT communities across the US were uniting for visibility and change. Events like the 1969 Stonewall riots, which saw LGBT activists rise up against discrimination in New York City, helped to galvanize this movement by bringing together a generation of queer young people under a banner of pride. And the work of photojournalists such as Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies brought this movement to the masses through their groundbreaking photography.
A new exhibition at the New York Public Library titled Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50 brings together the work of these two influential photographers, as well as periodicals, flyers, and first-person narratives from this pivotal moment in LGBT history.
The show is curated by Jason Baumann, the NYPL's assistant director of collection development. BuzzFeed News spoke with Baumann, who coordinates the library's LGBT initiatives, about how photography helped to shape the modern LGBT movement as well as the lasting legacy of Stonewall, 50 years after the riots.
Who were Kay Tobin Lahusen and Diana Davies?
Jason Baumann: Kay was one of the first LGBT photojournalists in the United States documenting LGBT political communities. She started her career photographing for a magazine called the Ladder in the early 1960s, which was the main magazine for lesbians in the US at that time. Before Kay, the magazine depicted people mostly through cartoons; if they were photographed, it was in silhouette or from behind to protect the identity of the people in the pictures.
She broke with this by placing out lesbians on the cover. A lot of these pictures are some of the first positive images of lesbians in American culture. There simply weren’t images of lesbians being depicted as smiling, happy, well-adjusted people before Kay made them. By the 1970s, she was documenting essentially all of the major activity and demonstrations that were happening.
Diana was another photographer who honed her craft in the 1960s, documenting the antiwar movements, the civil rights movements, as well as the jazz and blues music scenes. Then in ’69 she became part of this organization called the Gay Liberation Front and began documenting gay, lesbian, and transgender activists in New York City and around the country.
How was photography weaponized as a tool for LGBT activism?
JB: The exhibition and the book have this section on “love” that I think are most telling in this regard. You have these images that are always shot from behind or in silhouette — so you’re depicting the person but also protecting their identity at the same time. This was due to the fact that homosexuality was illegal in the United States during this era. In New York, you could serve three months in prison and in some states you could be sentenced to life in prison. You could be institutionalized, subjected to electric shock treatment, you could lose your job — so very few people are willing to be publicly depicted in this way.
Post-Stonewall you have a real emergence as part of gay liberation of trying to document these people’s lives. These photographers were a part of a movement of gay visibility with the objective of taking back public space. Part of the oppression faced by gay and transgender people in the ‘60s was being denied access to public space. A bar could be shut down if they had gay patrons, you could be arrested for cross-dressing during the time. So part of creating these images was to depict these individuals as full human beings.
What are some of the misconceptions about the Stonewall riots?
JB: The Stonewall Inn was a Mafia-controlled bar at the time that operated in the Village and was often raided by police. The riots happened at the end of June 1969, when the bar was raided one evening as part of a state crackdown on drinking establishments that did not have their liquor license — as well as the fact that the bar was serving gay and transgender people, who were considered criminal clientele at the time.
During the raid a lot of the clientele began to fight back, but what most overlook is that a lot of those who were fighting back were the people on the streets at the time: disenfranchised queer youths who were living on the streets of New York City and in the Village, many of whom had been kicked out by their families, had difficulty finding jobs because they were gender nonconforming, and this really became the core of the people who fought back against the police that night.
Many of the people who were participating in the Stonewall riots were younger people — youths who were influenced by American counterculture, antiwar movements, and who had very different expectations of what activism was about compared to older generations. This was a different ideological framework that was much more confrontational and influenced by anarchism, Marxism, and civil rights protests.
The problem with Stonewall is that people want to believe that this was the beginning of this movement, but it really wasn’t. Stonewall wasn't the first of these riots — there were a number of similar riots across the US in the 1960s as well as demonstrations and activism. Stonewall was more of a turning point in that movement. It’s when this became a mass movement — from groups of 10 to 20 people in every state to thousands of people coming out of the closet to change American society.
What do you hope people will take away from this exhibit?
JB: I’d like people to realize that this was a civil rights movement. That our society didn’t just change naturally, it changed because people got politically active.
I think that’s the trouble with how the story of Stonewall gets told — this idea that there was this riot at a bar, then magically there were gay rights. What’s not told is that there was this intensive civil rights activism that took place over the course of 50 years in the United States and that’s why society changed. I also want people to come away feeling empowered, knowing that people before them have made a difference in their society and that they can make a difference too.