2 Dallas residents share firsthand accounts of riots that birthed gay-rights movement as community prepares to mark 40th anniversary of 1969 rebellion
‘Honoring Those Who Were There’
What: Fundraiser for the Million Gay March of Texas
Where: The Round-Up Saloon, 3818 Cedar Springs
When: 7-10 p.m., Monday, April 27
Admission: $15 per person, $25 per couple.
For more info on the fundraiser, call the Roundup at 214-552-9611 or go to www.roundupsaloon.com. For more on the Stonewall anniversary march, e-mail email@example.com.
Dallas resident Phyllis Guest said she was enjoying a drink with friends inside the Stonewall Inn in New York City on the night of June 27, 1969, when they heard a commotion out front.
Sensing there was trouble, Guest and her friends — two gay men — ducked out the back of the bar through a fire exit.
"I’m 5-foot-5 and 100 pounds, so you can imagine, I was not prepared to go up against the New York City cops," said Guest, adding that she also wasn’t really out as bisexual at the time.
"If I had known how significant it would be, being a writer by trade, I would have run around to the front of the building and watched the whole thing for the rest of the night," Guest said. "It would be like being a fly on the wall when Lincoln was shot or something. It would have been amazing. I’m sorry we just scampered out of there."
Forty years later, Guest seems to be making up for it.
Now 71, she serves as voter registration coordinator and a board member for Stonewall Democrats of Dallas, the LGBT Democratic organization that’s named for the riots credited with launching the gay rights movement. Spending her weekends manning registration tables in places like the Cedar Springs strip, Guest said she frequently boasts that she’ll outwork anyone in the group.
"I think if we just register enough people to vote, we can turn this state blue," said Guest, who didn’t become an LGBT activist until a few years ago and who speaks with the enthusiasm of someone half her age. "We can tamp down all this redneck stuff."
Guest, a Texas native who moved back to Dallas from New York in 1979, said she’s hoping her efforts — and LGBT equality as a whole — will get a boost from the upcoming anniversary of Stonewall.
A coalition of local groups, including Stonewall Democrats, is organizing a march and rally in Dallas on Sunday, June 28, to mark the occasion.
"It sort of brings things into focus," Guest said of the Stonewall anniversary, adding that she never thought she’d live to see the day when same-sex marriage was legal in four states.
"It serves to coalesce a lot of information and a lot of emotion, and hopefully, hopefully, it will tell younger people — one generation, two generations below me — ‘OK, you have a terrific opportunity. Now just take this and run with it.’ It’ll be all over the media and all over Twitter and Facebook, and I just think that kind of knowledge may help to energize people."
Guest, who’s retired, is one of at least two LGBT people from Dallas who were at or near the Stonewall Inn around the time the riots broke out. The other is 75-year-old Jess Gilbert, co-owner of the Bronx Restaurant on Cedar Springs Road.
Guest and Gilbert will be among those honored on Monday, April 27, at the Round-Up Saloon during a fundraiser for the Stonewall anniversary march.
Stonewall Democrats President Erin Moore, a member of the committee that’s organizing the march, said the fundraiser offers the LGBT community a unique opportunity.
"It’s so rare that we can actually meet and talk to and shake hands with our history," Moore said.
‘We have a short memory’
Gilbert, a native of the Bronx, had moved to Dallas in 1960. But he said he was visiting his parents in New York City during the summer of 1969 when he made a Friday night pilgrimage to the gay bars in Greenwich Village.
After getting off the subway at nearby Sheridan Square, Gilbert said he was walking toward a bar with a "more butch atmosphere" but couldn’t help but notice the ruckus outside the Stonewall.
Gilbert said police raids on gay bars were hardly unusual at the time, including in Dallas.
"I was pissed, but not to the point that I was willing to defy the police or get my name in the paper," Gilbert said. "It was the way of the world at that time."
Gilbert stopped briefly and watched the police haul people off to jail, and he followed the riots over the next several days in the media.
"As it turned out, and no thanks to me, it became something nobody had intended," he said.
"It’s rather amazing."
Gilbert, who would go on to open the Bronx Restaurant in 1976, said he believes 80 to 90 percent of LGBT people, including himself, were closeted at the time of the Stonewall riots.
"To be gay was vile and you didn’t have to be a religious zealot to consider it disgusting and perverted," he said.
Fighting back tears, Gilbert said he still bears the scars of living a lie for so long. He compared the experience to growing up black before the African-American civil rights movement.
Gilbert added that he believes much of the LGBT community still suffers from low self-esteem, and he criticized those who "waste a lot of time trying to look pretty."
Gilbert said he’s a shy, reserved person who was reluctant to be honored at next week’s fundraiser.
But he said the Stonewall anniversary is important, and he hopes the community takes it seriously instead of just "dancing it away."
"It’s not about me. It’s about what the other people did, and thank God for them," Gilbert said. "I’d like to see people appreciate what happened and what we have learned from that. We have a short memory."
‘An educational event’
Daniel Cates, a 29-year-old Fort Worth resident who serves as co-chair of the committee that’s organizing the Stonewall anniversary march, said he and others intend to honor Gilbert’s wishes.
Dallas and Fort Worth, which celebrate gay Pride in the fall, are well-positioned among major metropolitan areas to host a stand-alone commemoration of Stonewall. But Cates said the march won’t be anything like gay Pride.
"We’re trying to stay true to the spirit of the actual Stonewall riots," Cates said, adding that the event will be more like a protest than a parade. "It’s going to be an educational event … showing people what the issues are and what they can do about them."
The march likely will follow a similar route to Pride, traveling from Wycliff Avenue and Cedar Springs Road to Lee Park. But instead of beer vendors, the park will be filled with booths sponsored by local LGBT organizations. Speakers and entertainment will be in line with the theme.
The coalition that’s putting together the march represents a broad spectrum of the LGBT community, from Stonewall Democrats and Queer Liberaction to LULAC and United Community Against Gay Hate.
"We’re hoping to get every organization in Dallas on board with this," Cates said. "A lot of different groups have come together, so we’re really encouraged."
Cates said the committee, which has been meeting weekly, also wants the march to be geographically diverse, with people coming from not just Dallas but all over North Texas and beyond.
The Dallas event is part of a national effort called the Million Gay March, with one city selected as a host in every state. While Dallas’ march will be the same weekend as Houston’s Pride, Cates said he’s been invited to San Antonio to publicize the march, and the committee has heard interest from places like Oklahoma, which isn’t having a Stonewall anniversary event.
In the end, Cates said he expects the march to draw about 4,000 to 5,000 people, but he added it could be "bigger than we think." He estimated the march will cost $10,000 to $15,000, and any leftover funds will go to the Phil Johnson Historic Archives & Research Library at the Resource Center of Dallas.
Cates, who’s new to LGBT activism, said he decided to get involved after last November’s elections. And he said he hopes the march will be an opportunity for the rest of the LGBT community to "shake the feeling of complacency."
"We can’t move forward without remembering our past," Cates said.
"We’ve got to remember where we’ve come from. We’ve kind of forgotten how far we still have to go."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 24, 2009.