If a picture is really worth a thousand words, the New York Public Library's powerful exhibit, "1969: The Year of Gay Liberation," is the essence of our history as LGBT Americans, condensed into indelible words and images. For veterans of the early gay rights struggle, the images will carry more than a hint of nostalgia and bittersweet memories. For younger generations, the exhibit renders vivid a rich heritage that many of them may not realize is their birthright.
On June 28, 1969 -- at a time when homosexuality was considered a grave mental illness at best, and a serious crime at worst -- a group of drag queens and their friends did something unthinkable: When they were rounded up at the Greenwich Village gay bar the Stonewall Inn by a police force accustomed to submissive compliance from the city's beleaguered LGBT population, they fought back. The full-scale riot that ensued that night marked the beginning of what has come to be known as the gay rights movement, unifying and radicalizing the various factions of the LGBT community like nothing else could have.
Many of the photographs featured in the exhibit were taken by activist Diana Davies, who captures events such as a march by the Gay Liberation Front in Times Square and protests by gay NYU students for equal rights. Among the literally irreplaceable artifacts on display are original police reports, pamphlets, newspapers, and letters.
"This exhibition charts a historic and pivotal moment in history for gays and lesbians that goes beyond New York City," says Jason Baumann, curator and coordinator of collection assessment and LGBT collections at the New York Public Library. "The year 1969 marks the first time homosexuals united, demanded, and were willing to fight for full inclusion within American society. As a result of the actions taken during this time gays and lesbians marked a paradigmatic shift in the ways that not only they saw themselves but also how the world would see them."
The LGBT collection at the NYPL is among the most impressive and comprehensive in the country. It includes the archives and papers of pioneering LGBT activists, scholars, and authors including Martin Duberman, W.H. Auden, Virginia Woolf, and Joseph Beam, as well as archival holdings that encompass the history of the AIDS crisis, LGBT theater, and the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive.
For LGBT travelers to New York, the free exhibit offers another dimension to a Pride Month filled with riotous celebration of who we have become as a community. It offers a chance for a quieter contemplation of who we were and where we have come from, in the city where it all began. If owning the past is an essential step to claiming our own future as a people, then "1969: The Year of Gay Liberation" is an important mile marker on that road.
The exhibit runs June 1-30 in the Stokes Gallery (3rd floor) of the New York Public Library's Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. For more information visit www.nypl.org .