Buffalo's Stonewall moment, 50 years later

Jun 27, 2019

It's been 50 years since the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in New York City's Greenwich Village, an event widely considered to be the catalyst for the LGBTQ civil rights movement. It's also the 50th anniversary of Buffalo's first gay rights organization, founded out of a Stonewall moment of our own.

"Right now, everybody is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, but it's also the 50th anniversary of the founding of Buffalo's first gay rights organization."

Stonewall had long been the scene of police harassment and just after 1 a.m. on June 28, 1969, police descended upon the bar hoping to close it down for good. They roughed up patrons, but patrons fought back with similar force, bottles and stones until police retreated. The riot sparked days of protests nationwide by LGBTQ activists, demanding equal rights.

A couple embraces outside the Stonewall Inn, now a National Historic Monument.
Credit Mary Altaffer / Associated Press

Buffalo's Stonewall moment began at a bar called The Tiki, located at the corner of Franklin and Tupper streets.

"It was not a gay bar, technically. It was a beatnik bar, where gay men and lesbians hung out with artists and leftists," said Adrienne Hill, co-founder of the the Buffalo Niagara LGBTQ History Project. "This one happened to be owned by a gay man named Jim Garrow, who moved here from Florida, and in 1969 he tried to renew his liquor license on the place and he was not allowed because he was gay. This was part of the pattern that was happening in Buffalo at the time."

After what Hill called Buffalo's "thriving LGBTQ community" of the 1940s-1950s, the hammer came from then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. She said the police and state Liquor Authority were cracking down so harshly and quickly, no gay bar could stay open for very long. Garrow's defeat signaled, enough was enough.

"It wasn't a riot, per se, but people just got tired of not being able to gather with people like themselves and they decided they needed to start organizing," she said. "So what happened was Jim Garrow opened another venue, called The Avenue. It was at 70 Delaware Ave., a juice and coffee bar. He couldn't get a liquor license. And they were trying to figure out what to do, so they brought an activist named Frank Kameny to Buffalo."

Frank Kameny in 1971, when he was running for Congress.
Credit Buffalo Niagara LGBTQ History Project

Kameny was founder of Washington, D.C.'s Mattachine Society. He advised Garrow to start his own chapter - and so the Mattichine Society of the Niagara Frontier was born: Buffalo's first gay rights organization.

"Of course, the police had their eye on Garrow. They were surveilling The Avenue and they were none to happy to find out that the gays of Buffalo were organizing themselves," Hill said. "So in April of 1970, they raided the place. I think 11 people got arrested, including Garrow, 94 people got kicked out of the bar that night, and two lesbians in the group tried to defend the place and they just got brutally beaten."

She said that closed down The Avenue. Two years later it was demolished - the fate of many gay historic sites in Buffalo. The Avenue was replaced with Frank A. Sedita City Court, named for the mayor at the time and still standing. The Mattachine Society continued from 1969-1984.

Meeting of the Mayors Protest, 1972.
Credit Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York

"They really focused on building up the community and on providing internal support," Hill said. "The Mattachine Society of the Niagara Frontier worked with Crisis Services to develop a peer counseling program, so that people who were trying to come out, trying to find a community, could be counseled by people like them. They actually ran a phone hotline for years and years that was open several hours a day and was staffed regularly by volunteers. They ran a speakers's bureau. You know, they spoke on TV, they spoke in universities, they spoke to mental health professionals and clergy and what have you."

Hill said the group did a lot of education, including teaching people that homosexuality was not a mental disease. In order to do their work, she said the Mattachine Society built what was, at the time, the third-largest gay community center in the country. It also published the gay newspaper, the Fifth Freedom.

This history will be explored with the people who founded and led the movement during a "reunion panel" discussion Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo, where the Mattachine Society first met after The Avenue closed.

"We've gathered together eight activists who were part of Mattachine - some of them were instrumental in their founding - and we're going to have a panel discussion," Hill said. "They're going to be telling their own stories about how this movement was founded and how it developed."

Credit The Fifth Freedom / February 1980

Then on Saturday, there will be a two-and-a-half-hour walking tour beginning at 4 p.m. at Buffalo's Central Library and "with plenty of stops and cold drinks along the way." The tour will include The Tiki, The Avenue, Mattachine protest sites, popular cruising spots, areas that were heavily policed and gay bars that later flourished.

"Learn from your elders that you need to be willing to fight for what you want," Hill said. "Be thankful because of what they've done in past eras. We have information about the kinds of activism that have worked and the kinds that haven't. We don't have to reinvent the wheel. I think more information about how a movement has grown and survived is always better."

More about the Buffalo Niagara LGBTQ History Project:

The project began when Hill was working on her dissertation about early gay rights movements in the 1950s-1960s in big coastal cities. She started posting pictures online from the Human Sexuality Achives at Cornell University in Ithaca and it caught the attention of about 15 volunteers, who are now involved with the project.

"One of the things about a local history project like this is that it challenges dominant narratives about LGBTQ history," Hill said. "The dominant narrative is that the LGBTQ Movement was born in New York City, the Bay Area mostly, and as the movement became national, other cities did esssentially the same thing as those larger cities, but later and not as well. We want to challenge that narrative."

Hill insisted it is just as important to understand the uniqueness of how smaller communities like Buffalo formed an LGBTQ community, in order to understand how the national movement flourished.

"Buffalo has had an active LGBTQ community since at least the '30s and there are hints of it earlier," she said. "A story recently came out about a man named Harry Gorman. In 1904, he became part of national news because he was discovered to be assigned female at birth. He said, in response to being 'found out,' that he was actually part of a community like him in Buffalo."

Much more about this history can be found at the Dr. Madeline Davis LGBTQ Archive of Western New York at Buffalo State College, which includes information from 1920-2018 and is one of the largest LGBTQ archives in the country.

Credit The Fifth Freedom / February 1980

NPR's Bobby Allyn and Dani Matias contributed to this story.