On the surface, it seems pretty straightforward: it’s the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. In that light, this summer is a perfect time to reflect on all the challenges overcome by LGBTQIA+ folks in the years since — and there’s no shortage of them.
But while the symbolism of ‘Stonewall’ is undeniable and remains a hugely significant milestone in the collective fight for freedom of sexual identity, the story is actually much more complicated than that one much-heralded uprising. And that’s especially true in smaller, less metropolitan cities like Buffalo.
In response to those ideas, The Buffalo-Niagara History Project is staging two events to end Pride month that speak more specifically to the gay struggle right here in WNY during the same time period that Stonewall erupted downstate.
“We definitely wanted to do something to acknowledge Stonewall, but in a way that localizes it,” said one of The Buffalo-Niagara History Project’s co-founders, Adrienne C. Hill. “In this case, that means celebrating the Buffalo chapter of the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier, which was the first gay rights organization to crop up here.”
The Mattachine Society dates back to Los Angeles in the 1950’s, but chapters cropped up in Chicago and Washington DC before Buffalo began organizing in 1970.
“What happened in cities like Buffalo is qualitatively different,” Hill explained. “The community was responding to different circumstances in a city like this back then. We believe it’s crucial to study what happens in places like this because you can’t really understand how the movement became national without doing so and, therefore, can’t accurately educate younger folks about it either.”
In that spirit, Hill says that the pair of events the History Project has planned for June 27 and 29 are part of the ongoing Stonewall 50th celebration, while perhaps also working to de-center it as the singular, universally defining moment for LGBTIA+ folks everywhere that it’s often portrayed.
“We’re interested in asking what prompted liberation here,” she said. “Who were the players, and how was it different — not better or worse — than how the movement grew in bigger cities? How did Stonewall impact organizing on a local level?”
To that end, the first of the ‘Gay Liberation Now!: Buffalo Mattachine and the Myth of Stonewall’ events is a panel discussion being held at the Unitarian Universalist Church on Elmwood Ave. by the corner of W. Ferry — no coincidence, Hill said, as it was one of the early meeting spots for the Mattachine Society after their previous spot, a bar called The Avenue, got raided.
“The panel has been assembled to discuss the circumstances under which the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier was founded, to talk about its accomplishments and its legacy,” she said. “Most of these people still live here, but we conducted a few interviews with members that have moved elsewhere and those recordings will be interspersed. A big factor in how this fits with local history is the way that the gay rights movement was building as Buffalo was de-industrializing… many folks moved away for that reason.”
Included in the June 27 panel, both live and by remote interview, is a who’s who of gay Buffalo pioneers, including Bill Gardner (Bobby Uplinger’s lawyer, who took Uplinger’s case — a clear violation of constitutional rights— to the supreme court ; a podcast about it can be found here), Don Michaels (who went on to found the Washington Blade newspaper) along with renowned activist Madeline Davis, Greg Bodekor (design director for an early local gay paper called The Fifth Freedom, which ran from 1970-1983), Marge Maloney and LGBTQIA+ seniors/Silver Pride advocate, Rod Hensel.
“The event on June 29 is part march, part walking tour,” Hill said. “at 4:00 p.m., we’re meeting in front of the Erie County Public Library and we’ll move from downtown up into Allentown, touring sites that are central to the founding of the Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier and the growth of Buffalo’s gay rights movement.”
Hill went on to give an example, pointing out that Buffalo’s City Court Building is part of a land plot that used to house the aforementioned bar that got raided, The Avenue, which was never able to attain a liquor license (and so operated as a juice bar/coffee shop). This is where the first Mattachine Society meetings were held, apparently by candlelight because the electricity was not yet on. More on that story can be found here.
50 years ago, the concept of being “out and proud” was a far cry from the reality we know today. Raids and heavy-handed policing were not uncommon, particularly in smaller cities like ours. Reading up on Buffalo’s gay struggle might lead you to believe it was an unusually forbidding place, but Hill bristles at the idea of letting that notion stick without further qualifications.
“People here took powerful stands against that heavy-handedness, and did so under duress,” she said. “Together, they built the third-largest gay community center in the country, they managed to keep a paper running for about 15 years and built a massive peer support program with both a phone hotline and in-person counseling. All of those things helped folks keep it together amid constant oppression. So, I wouldn’t want the story to end on the idea of Buffalo having not been a very gay friendly place, but I also don’t want to gloss over the difficult work that got done… which is a large part of what the History Project serves to preserve and educate people about. ”
“Here, as opposed to larger city where people can remain strangers, your oppressors grew up with you,” she continued. “It’s just not that big of a place, and that heightens the fear around coming out and activism — people you know are going to find you. But that also provides different sorts of opportunities, and maybe later on you can leverage those relationships to carve out a better life for yourself. In a small town like this, you’re not fighting for an autonomous community. You’re fighting for integrity.”