Kate Millett Speaking at Gay Rights Demonstration with Madeline Davis, Albany, New York, 1971 (Photo by Diana Davies) 1
Since its promulgation in 1934, New York State's Alcoholic Beverage Control Law has included a crucial provision that historically has given wide latitude to law enforcement to regulate licensed establishments and to quell any disorderly conduct. The statutory provision states: "No person licensed to sell alcoholic beverages . . . shall suffer or permit such premises to become disorderly." In the 1950s and 1960s, law enforcement officials around the state often stretched their construal of "disorderly" to include the mere presence of LGBTQ individuals within a licensed premise as a violation against public order and morality. As early as the 1940s, New York State courts had ruled that the State Liquor Authority (SLA), and by extension other law enforcement authorities, co uld legally close down bars and arrest patrons that served "sexual variants," making it permissible for the SLA and law enforcement to target members of the LGBTQ community.2
It was this interpretation that, in the years preceding Stonewall, sparked early LGBTQ activism by the Mattachine Society and their infamous April 21, 1966 "Sip-In." Showing a similar dedication and purpose as the civil rights activists in the 1960s who participated in "sit-in movements," these young men went from bar to bar that day with a note reading, "We are homosexuals. We believe that a place of public accommodation has an obligation to serve an orderly person, and that we are entitled to service so long as we are orderly." After receiving frictionless service at a number of establishments, the group eventually made their way to an establishment called Julius, where they anticipated resistance because of an incident the day before when the New York City Police Department had entrapped a patron for "gay activity." They sidled up to the bar, passed the bartender their note, and were immediately refused service. The next day, April 22, The New York Times ran an article with the headline "3 DEVIATES INVITE EXCLUSION BY BARS; But They Visit Four Before Being Refused Service, in a Test of S.L.A. Rules."
This period of social uprising and legal uncertainty lit a fuse that resulted in the explosive events of June 28, 1969, where at 1:20 a.m. the New York City Police Department, including members of the Public Morals Squad, raided the Stonewall Inn shouting, "Police! We are taking the place!" The Stonewall Inn was host to many members of the local LGBTQ community, and also served as an adopted home and safe haven for many LGBTQ youth, including many members of the community who lacked a place to live after being ostracized by family and friends. In many instances, these young individuals were not welcome at, or could not afford, other meeting places. Throwing bottles and anything else at hand, the patrons that night fought back against the New York City Police Department to preserve their ground. This courageous act of civil disobedience at the Stonewall Inn became the battle cry that announced a wave of new movements for LGBTQ rights.3
From Rioting to Political Action
In the wake of the Stonewall riots, and in a state like New York that is known for its activism, it did not take long for the bravery of the riots to translate into political action. On June 28, 1970, a year after Stonewall, the now annual New York City Pride March was conceived as "Christopher Street Liberation Day," an homage to the Stonewall Inn's address on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village. Several dozen dedicated advocates, led by "The Mother of Pride" Brenda Howard, had spent months planning the event and soliciting financial backing from several different groups and organizations. On the day of the march, thousands of young men and women marched from Sheridan Square to Sheep Meadow in Central Park. The founder of the Gay Liberation Front, Michael Brown, noted, "[We'll] never have [the] freedom and civil rights we deserve as human beings unless we stop hiding in closets and in the shelter of anonymity . . . We have to come out into the open and stop being ashamed, or else people will go on treating us as freaks. This march . . . is an affirmation and declaration of our new pride." The march extended for around 15 blocks, and its thousands of participants carried the banner of an important new civil rights movement that was swiftly taking shape.4
Activism Across New York State
While LGBTQ people in New York City were taking the lead on "pavement politicking," a group from Buffalo was taking the Stonewall movement directly to the seat of power within the New York State Capitol in Albany. By 1970, Madeline Davis was well-known as an early member of the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier and a participant in the group's Political Action Committee. She worked tirelessly to lobby the Buffalo Police Department to stop raiding gay bars and asked the Buffalo News to stop publishing the names of LGBTQ people arrested during those raids in an effort to shame them.
By 1971, the same year that New York State Assemblyman Al Blumenthal and State Senator Manfred Ohrenstein introduced the first legislative version of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), Madeline Davis was leading the charge in the 1971 March on Albany for gay rights. In a time-honored tradition that continues to this day, the 1971 March spent the first day protesting on the steps of the Capitol and the second day inside the building lobbying members of the legislature on behalf of the LGBTQ community. Feeling emboldened on her return to Buffalo, Madeline penned the song "Stonewall Nation," in which she wrote, "You can take your tolerance and shove it, We're going to be ourselves and love it, The Stonewall Nation is gonna be free." Madeline Davis would go on to teach "Lesbianism 101" at the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1972, and that same year would be elected to serve as the first out lesbian at the Democratic National Convention, supporting George McGovern in his candidacy for United States President.5
Don't Tread on Me, 5th Freedom, June 1976. See endnote 6.
Madeline Davis also helped to build up the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier. With the help of others within the group, the Mattachine Society began publishing Fifth Freedom, which would become one of Western New York's most prominent LGBTQ rights publications during the 1970s. The June 1976 edition featured an image of the rattlesnake on the famous Gadsden Flag from the era of the American Revolution with its motto "Don't Tread on Me."
That same year one of the first LGBTQ rights bills, which would have protected some members of the LGBTQ community from both employer and property owner discrimination, was introduced in the legislature. After a crushing election-year vote within the State Assembly that went against the bill by 94-35, the bill's sponsor, Assemblyman William Passannante of Manhattan, was quoted as saying, "Nobody tells you [that] you have to condone homosexuality. It's not our right to interpret anyone's lifestyle." While the group did not find early success, they were pushing the legislative envelope in strikingly original ways during the 1970s.6
Judicial Decisions Also Advance The Movement
As impressive as early engagement and crusading in New York City, Albany, and Buffalo may have looked, early LGBTQ rights in New York State would not be secured within the elected parts of state government, but instead by actions taken within the New York State Judiciary. In 1980, many decades before the 2003 United States Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which found that sodomy laws were unconstitutional pursuant to the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution, the New York Court of Appeals struck down the 1965 New York State law that made consensual sodomy a criminal misdemeanor. In People v. Onofre, the Court of Appeals voted 5-2 that "personal feelings of distaste," and even "disapproval by a majority of the populace . . . may not substitute for the required demonstration of a valid basis for intrusion by the State in an area of important personal decision protected under the right of privacy drawn from the United States Constitution."7
In the 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic ravaged the LGBTQ community, particularly within major urban areas, New York State's complex schemes for rent control and rent stabilization provided a fraught battleground for LGBTQ rights. In New York State, the battle between property owners and tenants was being decided based on a traditional definition of family based on marriage certificates and bloodlines that made succession rights inaccessible to LGBTQ couples. For years, the Division of Housing and Community Renewal and the legislature grappled unsuccessfully with a number of proposals to attempt to clarify the definition of family in order to identify who was allowed to keep a rent-controlled or rent-stabilized apartment upon the death of family members. At the same time, a number of cases were coming before the New York State Supreme Court where LGBTQ couples pleaded for equal treatment, and some State Supreme Court Justices found that succession rights were unjustly withheld from long-term partners. The only proposed legislation that provided rights to unmarried partners - ensuring protections for all unmarried co-habitants after five years - came in 1989 from then-Governor Mario Cuomo, and that measure died prior to getting any real traction.8
After a number of lower courts had begun providing relief to tenants, the New York Court of Appeals in 1989 finally stepped into the administrative and legislative void to consider the question of succession rights when reviewing the applicability of the state's rent laws to an unmarried LGBTQ couple. Leslie Blanchard and Miguel Braschi had met in 1976 and together enjoyed a highly coveted rent-controlled apartment. By May 1986, Blanchard was diagnosed with AIDS, and he died with Braschi at his hospital bedside in September of that year. Braschi expected to keep the couple's rent-controlled apartment because he believed he was a "family" member and protected by state law, but the property owner disagreed. Given the stigma around HIV/AIDS at that time, Braschi's lawyers specifically ensured that the papers filed with the Court were silent about his late partner's illness.
While not specifically ruling that Braschi was entitled to succession rights, the New York Court of Appeals cut through the inaction of the Division of Housing and Community Renewal and the legislature, finding that family "should not be rigidly restricted to those people who have formalized their relationship . . . in the context of eviction, a more realistic, and certainly equally valid, view of a family includes two adult lifetime partners whose relationship is long term and characterized by an emotional and financial commitment and interdependence." Braschi never anticipated being a pioneer, and he passed away from AIDS only a year after the Court of Appeals ruled in his favor. Yet his legacy would sustain the succession rights of countless members of the LGBTQ community going forward.9
An Out Gay Legislator, And Legislative Progress
On the heels of the Braschi decisions, additional changes were stirring within the New York State Legislature. The 1990 election of Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, who was the first out gay member of the New York State Assembly and who campaigned on an election platform dedicated to the passage of the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, was a turning point for legislative action on LGBTQ rights in New York State. Within three years of Glick's election, SONDA would pass the New York State Assembly, in February of 1993, by a vote of 90-50. While Glick was now at the forefront of advancing LGBTQ rights in Albany, it would take until December 17, 2002 for SONDA to pass both houses of the New York State Legislature and then to be signed into law by Governor Pataki.
By 2004, marriage equality rights for the LGBTQ community were in the balance in Hernandez v. Robles. After an impressive back and forth between the parties, Supreme Court Justice Doris Ling-Cohan found that marriage equality was a constitutional right. But the Appellate Division, First Department subsequently reversed her, finding, "Deprivation of legislative authority, by judicial fiat, to make important, controversial policy decisions prolongs divisiveness and defers settlement of the issue."
The process for getting to the Court of Appeals took three long and difficult years. After an unprecedented oral argument, where 44 same-sex couples and 17 lawyers took part, the litigants and their counsels waited with cautious optimism. The legal briefs were strong, the oral arguments were persuasive, and the litigants were certainly aggrieved by a deprivation of basic, fundamental rights and protections. On July 6, 2006, Judge Robert Sherlock Smith issued the decision for a 4-2 Court, writing that the "New York Constitution does not compel recognition of marriages between members of the same sex. Whether such marriages should be recognized is a question to be addressed by the Legislature." Marriage equality would eventually come to New York not by the courts, but by the committed focus of the Executive and Legislative branches many years later in 2011.10
While marriage equality was eventually secured in New York, the struggle for long-sought rights and liberties for LGBTQ New Yorkers continues to motivate social activism and political struggles, leading to some important recent victories. Most recently, in 2019, New York State finally enacted the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), which protects transgender individuals from discrimination. GENDA was first introduced in 2003 and first approved by the Assembly in 2008, and subsequently passed in that house every year for 10 years, but each year died in the Senate.
The process for passing the bill was tortured and hard fought. LGBTQ advocates had explored every option working with the Executive and Legislative branches, business groups, and other stakeholders to expressly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression under the state's Human Rights Law. The Executive branch advanced regulations to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression, but advocates continued to fight to enshrine those protections in law. Finally, after approval by the Senate, the bill was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo on January 25, 2019.
Today, upon the 50th anniversary since Stonewall and the birth of the LGBTQ rights movement in New York State, we should celebrate the history, the struggles, and the progress of the movement. New York remains one of the leading states for LGBTQ rights, specifically because of a tradition where our fellow citizens actively engage with each branch of our government. While New York State has often taken up the mantle of LGBTQ rights, significant questions still exist at the federal level, including the right to be free from discrimination at the workplace, the right of transgender individuals to serve their country in the armed forces, as well as the right to have equal access to public accommodations. We recognize there is significantly more work still to be done, and as we look ahead to challenges on the horizon we continue to be inspired by the events in 1969 at a Greenwich Village bar.