In the late 1980s, Eric Marcus decided to leave his job at CBS and take a leap of faith to pursue a project that required creating an oral history of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement. The result would become first one, then two editions of the book Making Gay History. Today, Eric is a celebrated author, journalist, and podcast host. He is the founder and host of the Making Gay History and Those Who Were There podcasts. Revisiting his oral history archives, Eric’s work is celebrated as a profound deep dive into all corners of LGBTQ history.
Listen to the latest episode of All About Change as Eric discusses his favorite known and long-forgotten champions of the LGBTQ civil rights movement, and the importance of keeping LGBTQ history in the public discourse following recent Supreme Court rulings.
Eric Marcus:A friend called and asked if I would write this oral history of the movement. And I said, Rick, I don’t know anything about this history. I’m not an academic, why me?
Jay VO: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman and welcome to All About Change: a podcast, showcasing individuals who leverage the hardships that have been thrown at them to better other people’s lives.
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Eric Marcus:We think Rosa parks refuse to go to the back of the bus.Or Stonewall happened and we think that everything came out of that, but the story is almost always more complicated than that.
Jay VO: Today on our show, Eric Marcus: celebrated author, journalist, podcast host.
Eric Marcus:I have to explain that there was no such thing as the internet in 1988. And there also wasn’t a lot of books on LGBTQ history.
Jay VO: In the late 80s, Eric decided to leave his job at CBS and take a leap of faith to pursue a project that required creating an oral history of the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights movement.
Eric Marcus:I’ve often heard over the years from young people saying, I wish we could be a cohesive movement the way we used to be. It was never, it was never a cohesive movement. We are many communities.
Jay VO: The result was what would eventually become two editions of a book called Making Gay History.
Eric Marcus: It was very dangerous and remains dangerous to this day in many places for people to be out about who they are.
Jay VO: Many years later, in the midst of a career change, Eric came back to his oral history archives and decided to create a podcast that would become celebrated as a profound deep dive into all corners of LGBTQ history.
Eric Marcus:What I think I experience and people who listen to the podcast experience is a version of time travel. We get to go back in time and hear these people speak, many of whom are long gone, about their experiences in the 20th century.
Jay Ruderman: Eric Marcus welcomed All About Change. It’s an honor to have you as my guest on the podcast, and your work is fascinating and I’m anxious to delve into it.
Eric Marcus: It’s a pleasure to be with you and happy to answer any questions you might ask.
Jay Ruderman: So you had mentioned that you started these into interviews after getting fired.
Eric Marcus: Well, there are two stories here. One is how I came to do the interviews in the first place, which was thankfully not because I was fired. The second story is how the podcast came about, which was because I was fired. So I was commissioned in 1988 to write an oral history of what was then called the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights Movement.
I was, at the time, working for CBS morning news on a show called CBS This Morning. And the editor who was also a friend called and asked if I would write this oral history of the movement. And I said, Rick, I don’t know anything about this history. I’m not an academic, why me? And he said, I want somebody who’s fresh to the subject, which I certainly was, cuz I didn’t know anything about it.And he liked the way I did a dialogue. I said yes to the project and the central part of doing that project was doing oral histories, interviews. And thankfully, I thought to ask my boss at CBS news what kind of equipment his colleagues used at NPR? If I hadn’t, I would not have been able to mind my own archive decades later for the Making Gay History Podcast.
At the time, I thought that these stories would be important that many of these people had never been interviewed before and their stories hadn’t been recorded. So I thought someday someone, a scholar, somebody might wanna do an audio documentary or just use the archive for their research. And then, in 2015, when I was working for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, where I was in charge of all of the programs, rebuilding all of the programs for people who’d lost someone to suicide, I was fired.
And I had to figure out at age 55, what to do next. I wasn’t prepared to retire, certainly couldn’t afford to retire. And, I had given my entire audio archive and my video archive to the New York public library in 2008, with an agreement that they digitized my entire collection, which they did so long story short, I started, uh, working on an education project with an organization called History Unerased that developed LGBTQ-inclusive American history resources.
And my idea was to use clips for my archive to anchor lessons. I hired a producer who was my neighbor, a woman named Sarah Burningham, who came up with the idea of doing this as a podcast. She said, as she cut the pieces down, she said, “This sounds like a podcast.” And in 2016, we launched the Making Gay History Podcast. That’s nearly six years ago.
Eric Marcus: Hi, Eric Marcus here with the Making Gay History podcast. Each week we take a deep dive into my stack of decades-old audio cassettes to share with you the voices of LGBTQ history. In our first episode you’ll meet Sylvia Rivera.
Eric Marcus: Since then we’ve produced about a hundred episodes and have had more than 5 million episode downloads in 200 countries and territories around the world.
Jay Ruderman: One of the most powerful things about your podcast is we’re hearing stories told by people in their own voices. And maybe you can talk about why that is so powerful and, and maybe some of the favorite guests that you’ve had over the years.
Eric Marcus: It’s one thing to read someone’s words.It’s another to hear their actual voices. So I remember when I started revisiting my archive in 2015 and listening to these tapes, I’d forgotten what these people sounded like. I was familiar with their words.
I knew their stories from doing the oral history book, but to hear their stories and then to hear their voices, we feel like we’re hearing their voices in the middle of our heads. So when [00:04:00] you have your earbuds in, you’re hearing their voices. So they’re, it’s like, they’re almost literally inside you talking.
It’s very powerful to hear their voices and to hear their voices out of the past. And to hear people speak in ways that we no longer speak.
I interviewed, a guy named Wendell Sayers who was born in the early 20th century and he was 86 at the time I interviewed him. He was one of my favorite interviews.
He was sent to the Mayo Clinic in 1919 when he was 16 years old to be diagnosed as a homosexual. His father was concerned that he was a homosexual and to hear Wendell speak, he uses language and speaks in ways that we don’t hear people speak anymore.
Wendell Sayers: I grew up in a very segregated society, which kept me always aware that I was different. If anything went wrong in the town, it was always I who did it.
Eric Marcus: Here I was interviewing him in 1989, where he’s talking about stories dating back to the early 20th century. The most striking piece of the interview for me in making the trip from Western Kansas to Rochester, Minnesota, he and his mother drove his father was a lawyer.
They were an affluent black family. But they slept on the side of the road in a tent and bought bologna and crackers at gas stations because they couldn’t stay at hotels or eat at restaurants because of segregation. What I think I experience and people who listen to the podcast experience is a version of time travel.
We get to go back in time and hear these people speak, many of whom are long gone, about their experiences in the 20th century. I think that’s what makes it special. And because we don’t know this history, even for LGBTQ people, this is all new.
Jay Ruderman: Can you talk a little bit about how terminology has changed? Because I think that, historically, the narrative of Gay Rights Movement is centered on white gay men. And how has that changed and, and how have you adapted to that change?
Eric Marcus: The language we used today is very different from the language we used, even when I was growing up, we now refer to what I called the Gay and Lesbian Rights Movement to the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement. But in other parts of the world, it’s LGBTQI or IA +, which is meant to recognize the complexity of the LGBTQ communities.
And you also make the point that a lot of the history focused on white gay men, a lot of the movement was formed and led by white gay men, at least initially. And it’s easy to understand why. It was very dangerous and remains dangerous to this day in many places for people to be out about who they are.
So the people who have the most risk are the least likely to be upfront and in a leadership position. So you didn’t see many people of color or many women in the early days, you certainly saw some, but also the men who led the movement brought their prejudices to the movement like everybody else.
Eric Marcus: Were you scared?
Wendell Sayers: No, I had nothing to be scared about. No, I think I scared them worse than they scared me.
Eric Marcus: Why did you scare them?
Wendell Sayers: Well, I was the only Black one.
Eric Marcus: Oh, and probably they weren’t accustomed to having any contact with Blacks.
Wendell Sayers: They weren’t accustomed to having any contacts with Blacks.
Eric Marcus: And so for someone like Wendell Sayers, who was black, he got involved with the Mattachine Society in Denver, Colorado in the 1950s, he was one of the only black people in the organization.
And he said he didn’t know if people were uncomfortable with him because he was a lawyer or because he was black. So when I did my original book beginning in the late 1980s, I worked very hard at trying to find a range of voices, And it was very challenging to find people in the early history, people of color who were involved in the early history because they were so few involved.
Not that there weren’t, but there were not very many. They had all the more to risk. So in doing the podcast, we’ve really made an effort to feature a range of voices, I hope that we have represented enough of a range of voices to people, for people to feel that their stories are being told from across the spectrum.
Jay Ruderman: Is it my understanding that CBS really gave you the ability to go out, to interview the pioneers of the Gay Civil Rights Movement.
Eric Marcus: I had thought I would spend a lot of time at CBS. I had wanted to be a correspondent. Correspondents looked like they had the most fun, and they also earned a much better living than producers and I had a lot of college loans to pay off. So I knew at the time that the fact that I was out could be a liability. I’d been warned when I was in graduate school at Columbia, where I did my Master’s in Journalism, that being out could ruin my career. And I knew that nobody on air at any of the national news shows was openly gay.
So I asked for a meeting with an executive at CBS at the time and asked whether CBS would ever put an openly gay person on camera. It was a little hard to get a straight answer, but the answer came back. No. They would not put an openly gay person on camera. So I left CBS, took a leap of faith and spent the next year interviewing people in various parts of the country. My budget was so tight that sometimes I would do two or three oral histories in a day. And these interviews were usually around two to three hours each.
Jay Ruderman: How did you determine who you needed to speak to?
Eric Marcus: I have to explain that there was no such thing as the internet in 1988.And there also wasn’t a lot of books on LGBTQ history. I had to create a timeline. There was no such thing. So I read the handful of books that were out there. And then I also went through every single issue of The Advocate, which was a gay magazine that published beginning in the late 1960s.
And also went through earlier publications, a magazine called The Ladder, which was published by a lesbian organization, founded in 1955, and ONE magazine, which was founded in the 1950s. So I created this extensive timeline, which I used to this day for my work, and cross-referenced all of it. And then I made a list of all the people I thought I might want to interview. it wasn’t always easy to track down the people I wanted to interview. So for example, there was a woman Edythe Eyde.
Edyth Eyde: Oh, I’m on?
Eric Marcus: You can test, and I’ll just…
Edyth Eyde: Oh, okay…
Eric Marcus: … you’re ready to warm up.
Eric Marcus: I only read her pseudonym, which was Lisa Ben, many people involved in the movement or wrote for magazines in those days used [00:10:00] pseudonyms because they knew they could be fired from their jobs or lose their families, or even be evicted if they were found out to be gay or lesbian.
Edythe Eyde Song
Eric Marcus: The reason I wanted to interview Lisa Ben is cause I had read about how she had produced the first magazine for lesbians on our office typewriter in 1947 RKO Radio Pictures in Hollywood, where she was a secretary. She did this on the side when no one was watching. To find her. I had to first find out her real name, which was Edyth Eyde, and then made lots of phone calls.It took about 25 phone calls before I tracked her down.
Edyth Eyde: I wrote Vice Versa mainly to keep myself company because I thought that although I don’t know any gay gals now, by the time I finish a couple of these magazines I’m sure I will. I was such a little optimist.
Eric Marcus: And when I did pre-interviews, I would have to determine whether someone was capable, even telling a good story, because, for an oral history, you needed people who could tell good stories.
So it’s really very much like a jigsaw puzzle. If you had seen my office at the time, I had index cards for all these different people. I needed geographic diversity. I needed all kinds of diversity to make this story work. So, when I put the book together, each person had to move the story forward over a period that initially covered [1945 to 1990.
Jay Ruderman: So it seems to me that, at the time that you were able to access people who were really the founders of the moment.
Eric Marcus: I was shocked. It was like the dinosaurs were still walking the earth. One of the first organizations founded, the first, I should say was in 1950. And there were five men who gathered in Los Angeles who found this organization. And I was able to interview, I think, three of them. And they were eager to be interviewed. Many of them felt that their stories would be forgotten, that no one would know the contributions they’d made. And I had the chance to sit with them. And almost everybody I interviewed has since died.
Jay Ruderman: Who, were, do you think were some of the most important figures that you were able to interview?
Eric Marcus: That’s a tough question. There were some great thinkers, people who had to first suss out what were homosexuals. Were we our behavior? Were we a class of people? I grew up in, in a Jewish community. It never occurred to me that I was anything other than a Jewish person. Growing up as a gay kid, I didn’t think of myself as a gay person for a couple of reasons. I irst didn’t understand exactly who I was or at least what my orientation was. Then I first learned that it was something sick and sinful that it was, that was behavior. It wasn’t an identity. there were people who had to first come up with the idea that we were a people that homosexuals were a people and Harry Hay, who was one of the founders of the, um, of the Mattachine Society in 1950 was one of those people as was Chuck Rowland.
As I came to discover, though, I didn’t like everyone I interviewed.That was an important lesson for me, that not everyone who was important was someone I would necessarily like.
Frank Kameny: So, I was called in and said that we have information that leads us to believe that you are homosecxual do you have any comments?
Another favorite was Frank Kameny, who was fired from his job in 1957, with the Army Map Service, he was an astronomer, a Harvard PhD.
Frank Kameny: I said, “What’s the information?” They said, “We can’t tell you.” And I said, “Well, then I can’t give you an answer. You don’t deserve it. And in any case, this is none of your business.” Which got them upset because bureaucrats never like to be told that something is none of their business.
Eric Marcus: He was fired because he was gay. It was during the 1950s during The Lavender Scare, which was concurrent to The Red Scare. President Eisenhower assigned an executive order in 1953, excluding homosexuals from federal employment, and thousands and thousands of gay people were fired, including Frank Kameny.
And he decided that he would fight the government and he came up with the idea of having public protests, of marketing gay people. Well, he founded that, his org, his chapter of the Mattachine Society in 1961, but in 65, along with Barbara Gittings and Kay Lahusen, they organized the first public protests in front of the White House and various other places. But he was very clear about how people had to dress, the signs they had to carry the slogans they used. One person accused him of trying to market gay people like toothpaste. And he said, “Yes.” That this is what we have to do. And he had a very clear vision that homosexuality wasn’t just, wasn’t simply not imoral that it was moral. The government didn’t have the right to regulate who we were and he never lost his focus. I’ll never forget interviewing him in his office in Washington, DC. It was in his house. He spoke to me as if I were an audience of 500 people.
Frank Kameny: My answer was, “We are the experts on ourselves and we will tell the experts they have nothing to tell us!” But it took a few years to get that across.
Eric Marcus: it took 14 years, but he got the federal government to repeal its discrimination against gay people in federal employment.
Jay Ruderman: I know there’s a feeling that in 1969, with the Stonewall Uprising, that, that was the start of the Gay Civil Rights movement. But what you point out through the podcast and your interviews is that that wasn’t the case there. Any people that came before that who were out in the front lines and, and really, you know, making a difference in moving forward, the movement.
Eric Marcus: Well, the Stonewall Uprising, which was a, it was a gay bar in New York city called the Stonewall. And the police typically rated gay bars in the 1960s and 50s. And even into the 70s. Most often gay people ran from the police. They were terrified of being arrested because their names could wind up in the paper.
They could lose their jobs and their families. But on this particular night, June 28th, 1969, when the police raided the bar, gay people fought back. And it proved to be a major turning point in the movement as the movement grew exponentially. Prior to Stonewall, there were between 40 and 60 gay rights organizations.
And within a year after Stonewall, there were hundreds of organizations across the country with thousands of young people who had joined the movement, many of whom brought their experiences from the Women’s movement, the Black Civil Rights Movement, and the Anti-war Movement. I often think Stonewall is overemphasized as talked about as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement or as the star or a pride began.
It makes me nuts. Even the New York times still sometimes makes that mistake. Even though I worked with an editor there to try to get the reporters to report accurately on this, that there was a movement long before. It began much earlier in 1950, there was an organization founded in Chicago in 1924, that was broken up by the police.
But we did an episode that dates back all the way to 1897. We did an episode about Magnus Hirschfeld, who founded the first gay rights organization in the world in Berlin and then founded a Sexuality Institute in Berlin in 1919. There was a very active Gay Rights Movement in Germany prior to the rise of the Nazis.
There’s a famous film of the, one of the first book burnings in Berlin and the Nazis took over and it was Magnus Hirschfeld’s library. No one points out that it was Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld’s Sexuality Institute that was attacked and sacked and his library was burned and who he was. So I had an opportunity [00:16:00] on the 150th anniversary of Magnus Hirschfeld’s birth to go to Berlin for a huge celebration of his birth.
We managed to do a whole episode without Magnus Hirschfeld but about Magna Feld who had been largely forgotten. I think it’s very important for people to know that this is not something new, that this is not a new movement.
And that it’s also possible for a movement to form and to be destroyed as it was in Germany. It says, really, a warning of what could happen here. If people are not diligent that just because we have won our rights and that we’ve made enormous progress doesn’t mean that these rights can’t be rolled back.
Jay Ruderman: Bringing us back to Stonewall what happened there? It was my understanding that a lot of gay bars in New York City at that time were owned by The Mafia and the police were raiding these bars, not so much to arrest gay people who were patrons of the bars, but more to shake down the bars and take money.
Eric Marcus:So, yeah, there was a whole ecosystem between the police lawyers and The Mafia controlled the bars or owned the bars at that time because, at least in New York state, it was illegal to serve homosexuals alcohol. And it seems a little crazy, now, but you couldn’t. So the bars were left to organize crime.
Typically the owners or the manager of the bar paid off the police, but also the politicians would run on a campaign of cleaning up times square or cleaning up the village. And that meant cleaning up the prostitution and arresting homosexuals. It was a routine. They would go in. Raid the bar. They would arrest the managers.
They would take all the alcohol. They might even impound the jukebox. And they would check people’s IDs. And, there was another ruleyou had to have at least three items of clothing on that were appropriate to your sex. If you didn’t, you could be arrested.
So that allowed the police to arrest people who were gender nonconforming and arrest drag Queens. So on this particular night at the Stonewall Inn, the police arrived in the early morning hours of June 28th. Normally they arrived earlier in the evening when people hadn’t been drinking. It was a hot night in New York city.
There were a lot of people on the street. And the thing about the Stonewall Inn is it’s located across from Christopher Park. It’s a small triangular park where a lot of street kids hung out. And when I say street kids, I mean kids 15, 16, 17 years old, who are homeless youth, often gender nonconforming, often gay or lesbian or LGBTQ, and often hustling on the street for a living is they’ve been thrown out of their homes.
And there were also lots of people walking up and down Christopher street where Stonewall Inn was located because that was a popular place for gay men to cruise. On this night, when the police raided the bar, there were already a lot of people around and, for whatever reason, people decided to fight back and the police were cornered.
And it was a rare instance when the police ran from gay people, as opposed to gay people running from the police. The unrest lasted a total of six nights. And what most people don’t know is there was an enormous amount of organizing that went on right after Stonewall that helped channel all of the rage that was released that night.
So if not for the organizational structure that existed already, it would’ve been very hard for the movement to take off in the way that it did after 1969. I often say that it’s the organizers who will inherit the earth. You know, we look at these singular events, we think Rosa parks refuse to go to the back of the bus.
Or Stonewall happened and we think that everything came out of that, but the story is almost always more complicated than that. There had already been an annual protest beginning in 1965, at independence hall in Philadelphia called reminder day.
So it was an annual protest held every July 4th. There was a national meeting of gay organizations in July, just after the Stonewall uprising. In 1969. It was a national umbrella organization called NACHO the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations. They voted at that meeting to move reminder day to the anniversary of Stonewall in 1970, and also urged organizations in cities across the country.
To also mark that anniversary with a march. They didn’t call it the Stonewall March. They called it the Christopher Street Liberation Day March. They didn’t want Stonewall to be enshrined necessarily, a gay bar owned by The Mafia, enshrined as this important thing. Really the protest took place in the streets around Stonewall.
It took place on Christopher Street and the surrounding streets in Greenwich Village. So, what they did is they voted to hold this March on the last Sunday in June to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising and to do it every year thereafter and to do it in cities, across the country. In fact, the first pride March wasn’t in New York city, it happened the day before in Chicago.
So it was Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the first year. And it has since grown of course to cities all around the world. That mark. Anniversary, even though most people don’t know what Stonewall was. The main gay organization in the UK is called Stonewall UK. And I bet if you ask most people without the history of Stonewall, they wouldn’t know very much. Stonewall came to represent LGBTQ people fighting back against oppression.
Or if you want just one word to symbolize what Stonewall came to mean freedom, simply freedom from oppression.
Jay Ruderman: You do a beautiful job at sort of talking about the different types of people who were at Stonewall within the, the bar and where they stood and what they wore and how they interacted with each other. And we talk about the gay community, but the gay community is a very diverse community.So maybe you could talk a little bit about what Stonewall was like before the uprising.
Eric Marcus:I’ve often heard over the years from young people saying, I wish we could be a cohesive movement the way we used to be. It was never, it was never a cohesive movement. We are many communities. The point of intersection for all of us is that we are sexual minorities. It doesn’t mean that we have necessarily a lot in common.
If you had walked into the Stonewall bar in 1969. And first of all, it was managed as a private club, which was how they got around the law about serving homosexuals in those days. So you had to be admitted to the bar and you had to sign a register when you came in. There were a number of different groups of people at the bar at the front.
You might have the guys with button-down shirts and fuzzy sweaters coming from work. You also had guys in flannel shirts and jeans, the more Butch guys and in the back were the gender nonconforming kids, and drag Queens controlled the jukebox. And it was an unusual bar in that, that it had a dance floor and they were very few places in New York City where gay people could dance.
And that made it special. But it was a dive it didn’t have running water so that the glasses were washed in tubs of water. And rewashed so that there were outbreaks of hepatitis. The place had burned before it became the Stonewall bar. So when The Mafia took over, they just painted the whole place black.
It was a dump. People who visit the Stonewall Inn now, there’s a [00:23:00] bar in half the building of what the original Stonewall bar once occupied. And they walk into the Stonewall Inn bar that’s there now, which only opened in the early nineties. And they think that that’s what the Stonewall bar was, but it wasn’t.
All bars were subject to raids in those days, but it was a relatively safe place in a safe part of a neighborhood where gay people could gather and be themselves. So that made it special.
Jay Ruderman: From what I understood that the initial protest was, “Okay. The police, you’re shaking us down. So we’re gonna start throwing pennies and nickels and dimes at you” and, and say, “Okay, well, you haven’t taken enough? We’re gonna throw our, you know, our change at you. How did it develop from…
Eric Marcus: …from there. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I love that detail because I had heard from a number of people about the crowds gathering outside the Stonewall Inn once the police had been chased inside the bar, they barricaded themselves inside the bar cuz they lost control of the situation. They were trying to shame the police by throwing change at them saying, you know, as you said, “You came through your payoff. And now here’s some more.”
It was a slow escalation. It grew from that to, as Morty Manford, who’s the son of Jeanne Manford, they co-founded PFLAG. Morty was there that night. He said someone then threw a rock and broke a window on the second floor of the Stonewall Inn. It’s no one thing that causes the crowd to erupt, you know, a riot. I interviewed a number of people who were at the Stonewall Uprising and each had a different perspective based on where they were in the crowd. Morty described a person throwing a rock. Another person talked about someone squirting lighter fluid, Another person talked about a number of people wresting a park parking meter and using it as a battering ram against the front door of the bar. And another person described a drag queen being thrown into a paddy wagon and beaten up and then seeing a foot come out of the paddy wagon a heel and kick a cop. So it wasn’t any one thing. It was a collective action. It was a mob. A mob that had grown sick of police harassment and police brutality and decided to fight back.
Morty Manford: For me, there was a slight lancing of the festering wound of anger at this kind of unfair harassment and prejudice.
Eric Marcus: And then what happened is because the police weren’t as familiar with the streets of the village as the street kids were. the police couldn’t figure out how to stop the kids from chasing them. You know, they chased the kids down one block, they go around the corner, come back behind the police.
And, eventually, the police sent in the, they sent in the guys with the helmets and the, uh, shields and the batons. And a number of the people I interviewed theorized that it would not have been the riot it became if not for the police sending in the riot crew and, actually, provoking the crowd. And we see that today, you know, it’s some things don’t change.
Jay Ruderman: Who were the leaders of the uprising? Cause I, I know we hear like Marsha P Johnson and, and Sylvia Rivera.
Eric Marcus: You know. You would think from, from the way Marsha and Sylvia are spoken about and Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera have become icons of the trans activist movement. Both ultimately identified as trans, although it’s complicated. Sylvia Rivera grew up in the Bronx was 11 years old when she left home and lived on the streets of New York. Marsha P Johnson at the time of the Stonewall Uprising was in her twenties and both made a, a living as best they could on the streets as hustlers. Sylvia Rivera, it turns out, was not actually at Stonewall, the Stonewall Inn the first night of the uprising even though she’s often associated with that.
And Marsha didn’t get there until two in the morning. And you would think from the stories that are told that they were the only two people at the Stonewall uprising. That wasn’t the case. They both became important figures in the trans rights movement in the years after the Stonewall uprising. But all kinds of people were at Stonewall.
There are only a few pictures of the Stonewall uprising. This is not like today where people had cell phones and took pictures. I think there’s one photo from the daily news of the first night of the uprising and just a few photos of the second night. And it’s kids, a range of kids, different races, ranging in age, probably from 15 to 17, 18 years old. And if you think about it, these are the kids who had the least to lose. They didn’t have jobs where they thought they’d lose their jobs or lose their families. And they were the initial ones to fight back against the police.
But then all kinds of people joined the fight. Martin Boyce, who was one of the young people who was there that night, who I interviewed, said he overheard to black men who, were, happened by as this riot was taking. And one of them said, “Let’s help them.” And his friend said, “Why?” He said, “This isn’t our fight.”
And the other man said, “Well, it’s because they’re fighting the police. So let’s join them.” It was two straight guys. So there are many people who claim to know what happened that night and exactly who was there, but it wasn’t reported on in the way that something might be today because we didn’t record things in the way that we do now.
And also it wasn’t seen as that significant an event. If you think about the context: 1969. The riots that had happened in the cities following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s murder. And the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, this was a small… I call it an uprising as opposed to a riot because nobody was killed.
It’s not like all the stores were looted in The Village. There were some broken windows. There was a taxi cab driver who died of a heart [00:28:00] attack whose cab was shaken up a bit. but it wasn’t on the scale of what we were seeing in the 1960s. But what made it different was that gay people who were thought to be weak and fearful fought back. In fact, Martin Boyce who I had just mentioned who lived on the, on the east side in New York, he said his father said to him the next morning, “It’s about time you fags fought back.” He meant it the most loving way possible of course.
Jay Ruderman: What was it like when you later interviewed Marsha P Johnson and silver Rivera and some of the other, you know, leaders at the time I listened to the podcast and, and they’re quite nformative and really entertaining.
Eric Marcus:I had never met anybody like Sylvia Rivera before. I come from what I call the Iowa of Queens, Eastern Queens. We came to Manhattan twice a year and I didn’t go out to, to gay clubs where I would come in contact with drag Queens. Um, like Sylvia Rivera. Sylvia would describe herself at the time. I was still naive.
So when I went to interview Sylvia at her apartment in Tarrytown, New York. It’s on the, a small river town in, uh, on the Hudson. Sylvia buzzed me into her tenement building. And I remember standing at the bottom of the stairs and I was dressed in my preppy drag as I’ve [00:30:00] now come to understand it, but I just thought of it I was just dressed like, like me. I was wearing green quarter rice, penny loafers, button, blue button-down shirt, and a orange puffy, um, down jacket. Sylvia was, uh, under a bare light bulb and full makeup. Her hair was out. She was wearing some women’s clothing and just looked terrifying. And I thought, how am I ever gonna interview somebody like this?
But she invited me into her kitchen, introduced me to her best friend Reny who was as butch, as Sylvia was fem, and introduced me to her boyfriend. And she was making a pot of chili on the stove and we had a conversation. It was one of the lessons for me about my work is that I co I brought all my preconceptions as well to these interviews and just listen to Sylvia’s story, which was a very painful one of growing up as a gender nonconforming kid and having to leave home at an early age.
Sylvia Rivera: The only reason that I left home at such an early age was because my grandmother came home crying one day with the tears in her eyes and says, “They’re calling you ‘pato.’” Which means “faggot” in the Spanish language. And it hurt her so bad because they were doing this to me. And she knew where I was coming from. She knew. I had that much respect for my grandmother. I didn’t want her to suffer.
Eric Marcus: My interview with Marsha P Johnson was somewhat accidental. I don’t think I knew who Marsha P Johnson was at the time I interviewed her and she, of course, was not the icon she’s become. Since I went to interview a man named Randy Wicker, who was an important figure in the 1960s Gay Rights Movement, and Randy had a lamp shop and he didn’t want me to interview him at the store, which is what the original plan was.
He said, I wanna go back to my apartment in Hoboken and you can interview me there. And Marsh P Johnson stepped out of the kitchen. Marsha was making dinner, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. And I don’t know for a fact that this was the case, but Marsha seemed as stoned as Randy was high on speed, at least that was my impression.
Randy spoke a mile a minute, very important figure, but a mile a minute. I could barely keep track of what he was saying. And Marsha spoke like it was like a 78 RPM record and a 33 RPM record played slow. So Marsha was draped on a chair talking very slowly and not always coherently and Randy, and they, they, there was a lot of back and forth between the two of them.
Randy Wicker: Randy: Marsha’s the only one, she’s the only one everyone agrees was at the Stonewall riots. [There were a lot of other people, but everyone agrees that Marsha was there, so…]
I was uptown and I didn’t get downtown until about two o’clock, because when I got downtown the place was already on fire.]
Eric Marcus: Marsha has become such an important figure in the year [00:32:00] since, and there are so few actual interviews with her that this was an exceedingly important episode to produce.
Jay Ruderman: Let’s talk about coming out during the time of AIDS, which I remember very well because, you know, I’m somewhat a contemporary and, and I remember the AIDS scare and there was no treatment for AIDS at the time. And maybe you could talk a little bit about what was that like for you?
Eric Marcus: At first, I didn’t pay attention to it because the guys who were getting sick lived in the very fast lane.
They spent a lot of time on fire island. They went out to sex clubs. [00:33:00] They had lots and lots of partners far more than I did at the time. But once I became aware of what was going on by 1982/83, I volunteered for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which was an organization founded to, begin looking after the people who had aids because the government had not stepped up to take care of people.
It was absolutely terrifying. I very quickly realized that I had had sexual relationships or had had sex with men who were infected. I’ll never forget the phone call that I got from my mother. My mother, who was not a typical Jewish mother, somehow managed to still do the typical Jewish mother thing. She had a friend who was Jewish, who had a gay son and they thought, “Ah, we have two, we have two gay sons who are Jewish.Let’s introduce them.” So I went on a couple of dates with this guy and we did his young men do, did in those days at least, um, slept together a couple of times. But it didn’t go anywhere. We were, I, I was from the upper east side by then. And he was from Chelsea and we were very two very different gay types.
People think that all gay people are alike. We’re not. He was a very nice person, but we were, we were not appropriate for each other, but several [00:34:00] months later, my mother called me and she said, “Have you seen Bob lately?” And I said, “No. Um.” I said, “Why?” And she said, “Because he has that new gay disease.” This was in 1983.
And I just about fainted. I didn’t tell my mother what was going on at the time. I didn’t tell her that, that Bob and I had slept together. And there was no test for HIV. And the incubation period, no one really knew at that point, they thought two years, three years. When I got to the three-year mark, I thought, oh, I’m safe but then they said, well, it could be five years. Then it could be up to 10 years. And then they were also recommending that you not get tested that because there was no cure for it. There was no treatment that you could further suppress your immune system if you knew you were going to die. So I didn’t get tested with my then partner until 1988.
So, between 83 and 88, every cold, every sniffle, every swollen gland I thought was the end. And, during that time, friends started to die and I started taking care of friends who were dying. I still think about it. I just will have a random thought thinking. It’s a miracle that I’m here that I survived. And that helped also guide who I interviewed for my book and when I interviewed them. Because, by 88, a lot of people had already died who I’d wanted to interview, but I knew there were people I wanted to interview who had AIDS, like, uh, Vito Russo, who was a key figure in the movement. Um, his partner had died three years prior and he was one of the first people I interviewed in 1988 because he was so important for the history. And he died before the book was published.
Jay Ruderman: This is a very poignant recording where you talk about waiting three weeks from being tested… to finding the results and the relationship that you develop with the person who was, I guess, the counselor..
Eric Marcus: That test was so vivid for me because we, we decided to get tested after reading about AZT, which was one of the drugs that they thought had some effect on slowing, at least slowing the progression of the disease. And we decided to get tested. And if you can imagine, you know, in those days, it’s hard to imagine that if you found out you were positive, the odds were, you were gonna die.
And the woman who gave me my test results, her first name was Solveig, S O L V E I G.
Eric Marcus: She delivered the news that I was, that I was negative, which was just an………it’s like I went from thinking, you know, I’m gonna die to thinking, oh my God, I’m not gonna die. Actually. I need to start saving money now that I’m not gonna die.
So I hadn’t been saving up to that point. My then partner was being, given his results in another room at the same facility on 28th and ninth avenue in Manhattan at the New York City Public Health Clinic. And we met up in the lobby and didn’t know what each other’s results were. And I remember we started giggling and realized each other was that we were both negative.
And Solveig had come up behind me. I didn’t realize this. And she said, “Come with me.” And she wanted, uh, she and my partner then partner said, well, why? And, and I said, I don’t know why, but she just wants us to follow her. So we followed her down a hallway. She couldn’t find an empty office. We went to the end of the corridor.
She took our hands and she said, “I deliver bad news all day long. I just wanted to share in this moment of happiness with you.”
Solveig: I am so grateful for all the people like yourself that I tested and, and, um, that I had the opportunity to connect with. I am the lucky one…
So all I had from her was a card with her first name Solveig, and also my code. Cause we didn’t use our names when we got tested, because it was, again, the prejudice and the stigma attached to it.
These were anonymous tests. I saved that card all these years. And when I did our season on the history of The AIDS Crisis against the backdrop of my own coming of age, I tried to track Solveig down. This is 1988 when I last saw her. I saw her once. Using social media and a researcher, I found Solveig and interviewed her.
And I could tell you, we both cried through the interview. We were so happy to talk to each other again. She, of course, didn’t remember me specifically because she talked to hundreds of people, but for me, I had never forgotten her. And it was such a joy to be able to talk with her and relive that moment. Thank goodness she had an odd name.
Eric Marcus: you, um, have stayed with me all of these years.
Solveig: We never know, you know, like, how we affect people or what… We don’t ever know how fortunate I am to know that I did something that was meaningful.
Jay Ruderman: It’s fascinating. Eric, I feel like we’ve just scratched the surface of the really groundbreaking work that you’ve done and the podcast is continuing to do. And I wish [00:40:00] we had so much more time, but it was a pleasure talking to you. I am very proud to have gotten to know you and, and, and the work that you’ve done because I think it’s, gonna have a long-lasting impact on our society.
So thank you so much for being my guest today on All About Change and I wish you to go from success to success.
Eric Marcus: Thank you, Jay. Pleasure speaking with you.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you so much.
Jay VO: All About Change is a production of The Ruderman Family Foundation. This show is produced by Yochai Maital, Jackie Schwartz, Matt Litman and Mijon Zulu.
If my conversation with Eric has you looking for more, I urge you to go check out – making Gay History. We’ll link to his podcast on our website and in the episode description.
As always – be sure to come back in two weeks for another inspiring story. In the meantime you can go check out all of our previous content – live on our feed and linked on our new website – Allaboutchangepodcast.com
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