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Queer Protest Poetry: 1960’s More than the Stonewall Uprising

Protest poetry can be simply defined as topical verse that aims to criticize and shed light on social and political events. Within the LGBTQIA+ community, poetry has long been a form to voice the struggles of the queer community with the government, with society, with itself. As the former United States Poet Laureate, W.S. Merwin, asserted about protest poetry, “where injustice prevails (and where does it not?) a poet endowed with a form of conscience…has no choice but to name the wrong as truthfully as [they] can” (p.94). In that, poets within the LGBTQIA+ community have used their art to “name the wrong” and assert the queer community’s right to not only exist, but to be celebrated and live fully.

The 1960s were a milestone for the LGBTQIA+ community with protests and riots that signified that the queer community was no longer going to hide or be stuck in the closet. These events, and the poetic works surrounding them, created an atmosphere where queer and trans people could see, even if society was not willing to accept them, that they were not alone. While this decade was a turning point for the LGBTQIA+ community, this change occurred amidst prejudice, violence, and government and police-led crackdowns on LGBTQIA+ people. It is necessary to note that the Civil Rights movement was also happening at this time. Thus, to be both queer or trans and black was especially dangerous. For someone like Bayard Rustin, a queer, black activist and organiser, being politically active meant having an FBI file declaiming him as a “sexual pervert” (FBI Records, 1966, p.6). LGBTQIA+ poets could no longer protest by simply composing poems showing queer and trans love as acts of quiet yearning. One of the poets leading the way in queer poetry was Frank O’Hara, who was publishing poems that were unabashedly camp and queer.

O’Hara, whose poetry collection Lunch Poems was released in 1964 by City Lights Books, wrote the poem “At the Old Place” in 1955. It reads:

Joe is restless and so am I, so restless.

Button’s buddy lips frame “L G T TH O P”

across the bar. “Yes!” I cry, for dancing’s

my soul delight. (Feet! feet!) “Come on!”

Through the streets we skip like swallows.

Howard malingers. (Come on, Howard.) Ashes

malingers. (Come on, J.A.) Dick malingers.

(Come on, Dick.) Alvin darts ahead. (Wait up,

Alvin.) Jack, Earl and Someone don’t come.

Down the dark stairs drifts the streaming cha-

cha-cha. Through the urine and smoke we charge

to the floor. Wrapped in Ashes’ arms I glide.

(It’s heaven!) Button lindys with me. (It’s

heaven!) Joe’s two-steps, too, are incredible,

and then a fast rhumba with Alvin, like skipping

on toothpicks. And the interminable intermissions,

we have them. Jack, Earl and Someone drift

guiltily in. “I knew they were gay

the minute I laid eyes on them!” screams John.

How ashamed they are of us! we hope

(Ford, 2015, p. 85)

Fig.1 Frank O'Hara on the phone (1965)

This poem describes the speaker and several other named and notable artists and writers leaving a bar at Button’s coded suggestion to “L G T TH O P” or ‘Let’s Go To The Old Place,’ a gay dancing bar in Greenwich Village, similar to The Stonewall Inn. The movement of the poem from the first bar, where the speaker and their companions are restless and wanting more, wanting to dance, to the excitement and transformation of tone within the gay disco is palpable. The longest stanza is the one depicting their arrival “[d]own the dark stairs” and “through the urine and smoke,” giving the reader this sense of not only the furtive nature of the queer community in the mid-fifties but also the unpleasantness that those seeking a place to belong in the LGBTQIA+ had to go through, to “charge to” as O’Hara puts it, as though it were a battle. This poem creates a moment of the clandestine nature of queerness, queer joy, and shame. It, like O'Hara, is unabashedly queer. Joe LeSueur, O’Hara’s longtime roommate, friend, and sometimes lover, noted that O’Hara “had never been in [the] closet,” which was uncommon until after 1969 (LeSueur, 2004). The openness of sexuality in "At the Old Place" is why the poem, although written in 1955, was not published until after O’Hara’s death in 1966.

In the early sixties, there were cases being heard by the U.S. Supreme court regarding unfair dismissal due to being gay (National Archives, 1961) and the state of Kansas’s seizure and potential burning of books was deemed obscene. Consequently, due to these court cases, the word ‘lesbian’ was used in the court’s history for the first time (Legal Information Institute, 1964). O’Hara’s now famous collection Lunch Poems was released in 1964 to critics’ decrying “frivolity” and “triviality” with one reviewer noting that O’Hara’s style of “late Victorian camp” was one of a minor poet (Perloff, 2015). One of the foremost critics of contemporary, modern, and avant-garde poetry and poetics, Marjorie Perloff, asserts that “Gay-bashing, conscious or unconscious, was clearly involved, even when, as in the case of Marius Bewley, the critic was himself gay” (2015). This collection was a favorite among the queer scene in New York and San Francisco. To date, many modern and contemporary queer poets list Frank O’Hara as an influence or poetic hero. However, to the established and academic, his collection was panned, and, as speculated by Perloff, this was likely due to O’Hara being out of the closet and having published a collection that was so open. O'Hara's friend and poetic contemporary, John Ashbury, notes in his preface to the 50th-anniversary edition of Lunch Poems, “I remembered how conservative and formal most contemporary American poetry was at the time…No other poetry collection of the ’60s did more to shatter the congealed surface of contemporary academic poetry” (2014, p. vii). O’Hara’s collection broke through the predominantly straight, cis-male American poetic world at that point. He openly acknowledged topics that the queer poetic community had built so clandestinely, and he could have only done that by standing on the shoulders of the LGBTQIA+ poets before him. The openness of O’Hara’s work helped set the stage for major swings in queer (protest) poetry.

Fig.2 Picketers outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia (1965)

On July 4th, 1965, outside Independence Hall in Philadelphia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there was, for the first time, a picket line of people protesting that people in the LGBTQIA+ community should be granted the same rights as cis-gendered, heterosexual people. There was even a dress code for the protestors so that they could be seen as “employable” and not “gawk[ed] at” because the messages on their signs were what they wanted people to “gawk at” (Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 2015). These protests were carried out yearly until the Stonewall Rebellion. This idea of their dress code and seeming 'normal' and employable can be seen in poems such as Adrienne Rich’s 1966 poem, “In the Evening,” in which she writes:

Three hours chain-smoking words

and you move on. We stand in the porch,

two archaic figures: a woman and a man.

The old masters, the old sources,

haven’t a clue what we’re about,

shivering here in the half-dark ‘sixties.

Our minds hover in a famous impasse

and cling together. Your hand

grips mine like a railing on an icy night.

The wall of the house is bleeding. Firethorn!

The moon, cracked every which-way,

pushes steadily on.

(Gelpi, A., Gelpi, B.C., & Millier, B., 2018)

Rich describes two people, a woman and a man, in a discussion that has reached an impasse. The image of the two people “chain-smoking words” creates this visual of something heard, as though they are going through word after word, stubbing each out, and not reaching a solution. These “archaic figures: a woman and a man” are old-fashioned. This image of woman and man is no longer the only apt romantic, sexual coupling. “The old masters, the old sources” can provide no answers as this is societal new ground. The impasse in the “half-dark ‘sixties” likely refers to the 60s as either being half over or to societal ignorance. The subject's hand gripping the speaker's is less of an affectionate gesture and more about using the speaker for balance; as if this conversation has made them unsteady or unmoored. It is not a gesture that is seeking the reciprocation of the speaker.

This poem takes what would appear 'normal', the 'employable,' and casts it through a queer lens. The straight couple is coping with the realization that one of them is queer or trans. The archaic figures of woman and man are no longer apt for the present. The moon, this feminine symbol and figure, is “cracked every which-way,/push[ing] steadily on.” The stalwart figure of the moon that governs the push and pull of the tide continues its nightly countenance even though the facade is “cracked.” This reads as a coming out poem within a relationship and the decision that must be faced as a result of this truth. The image of what was normal for a picket line and protest was about to change. The idea that queer or gender non-conforming people had to look the same as the rest of society looked was a holdover of the conformist era of the 1950s. In 1966, as a result of the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots, the image of the protestor would change dramatically.

Fig.3 Protesting anti-trans laws and laws against drag queens (Courtesy of Screaming Queens, 2005)

Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was a 24-hour diner in the Tenderloin district, an openly queer and trans part of San Francisco. Compton’s Cafeteria was a place where trans people, many of whom were people of color, could find safety off the streets. During this time, it was illegal to “impersonate a woman,” and the message from the police and lawmakers was one of gender and sexual conformity. This over-policing of the queer, trans, and black communities led to jail time due to arrests over minor infractions, police brutality and assaults, and even rape and murder. (Borchert, 2021) Felicia Elizondo, a regular at Compton’s Cafeteria described it as “the centre of the universe for a whole bunch of the queens, the sissies, the hustlers, the kids who were thrown away by their families like trash” (Homan, 2018). This was a safe space where, for the price of a cup of coffee, a queer or trans person could occupy a booth with squeaky vinyl seats. In August of 1966, a trans woman in Compton’s Cafeteria was being harassed by a police officer on account of how she was dressed. She refused to be arrested, and many claim that she threw a cup of coffee in the cop’s face. The community joined in to support her and what ensued was a protest and riot. The windows of a police car were smashed, a newsstand was lit on fire, chairs and dishes were thrown, and many described the event as chaos (Borchert, 2021). This spontaneous protest that had been building for years shifted the idea that queer and trans protestors had to look or behave a certain way to accomplish anything. What was seen that August day was a fraction of the violence and hate the LGBTQIA+ community received, and it was then that the city of San Francisco and the state of California began to change.

On June 28th, 1969, the New York Police Department conducted a raid on the most popular gay bar in NYC, the Stonewall Inn, the second raid that week, on the grounds of the establishment not having a liquor license. Initially, the customers cooperated and left while the police arrested the people working the bar. However, the police began to ID the patrons of the bar, and “female officers escorted cross-dressing individuals to the restrooms to verify their sex, which led to several arrests. After seeing several gay men and women being arrested, the crowd gathered outside of the bar became increasingly agitated” (NYC Data). It was still a crime to be queer or trans in New York State at this time, and while the police stated they were concerned about the patrons' liquor licenses, these arrests were being made regardless. The patrons of the bar started throwing coins, then bottles, and shouting “Gay power!” (Leadership Council, 2009). This rebellion lasted six days. On the third day, the queer poet Allen Ginsberg and actor Taylor Meade visited the scene, and Ginsberg remarked, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful – they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.” When they reached Cooper Square, before leaving, Ginsberg waved and shouted, “Defend the fairies!” (Allen Ginsberg Project, 2011).

Fig.4 A Stonewall patron, outnumbered by police, defends themselves (1969)

These protests shaped the poetic world and what would become queer poetics and studies. They changed what could and could not get published. Frank O’Hara’s poem “At the Old Place” was written in 1955, but it was not published until November of 1969. Joe LeSueur recounts, “Frank couldn’t have gotten that published if he tried, since in those days, the unenlightened fifties, there was no place to send it. Significantly, it first saw the light of day a few months after Stonewall…” (LeSueur, 2004). It was not simply queer poets changing that created more overtly queer poetry. It was also that there began to be more outlets that would publish such “overtly gay” work (LeSueur, 2004).

These queer protests, while not the only movements of this time, are reflected in the queer protest poetry. Queer poets were able to be more open about their sexuality and gender, and as a result of the protests of the 60s, they were able to more closely examine what it meant to be queer or trans in spaces not made for them. The intersection of what it meant to be both queer or trans and a person of color was able to be further explored by poets such as Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, and Gloria E. Anzaldua, among others.

Bibliographical references

Allen Ginsberg Project. (2011). Stonewall anniversary. Allen Ginsberg Project. Retrieved 18 June 2022. Borchert, A. (2021). Compton's cafeteria riot. L.A. Public Library. Retrieved 18 June 2022. FBI Records. (1969) Bayard Rustin part 01 of 07. FBI Records: The Vault. Retrieved 18 June 2022. Ford, M. (2008). Selected poems by Frank O’Hara. Borzoi Poetry. Gelpi, A., Gelpi, B.C., & Millier, B. (2018) Adrienne Rich Selected poems: 1950-2012. W. W. Norton. Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (2015). Before Stonewall, a reminder. Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 18 June 2022. Homan, J. (2018) A Vietnam veteran on growing up transgender. Repeller. Retrieved 18 June 2022. Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights. (2009). Stonewall riots: The beginning of the LGBT movement. Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights. Retrieved on 18 June 2022. Legal Information Institute. (1964) A quantity of copies of books et al., Appellants, v. State of Kansas. Cornell Law School. Retrieved 18 June 2022. LeSueur, J. (2004). Digressions on some poems by Frank O'Hara. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Merwin, W. S. (1963). A checklist of the writings of William Stanley Merwin. The Princeton University Library Chronicle, 25(1), 94–104. National Archives (1961). Petition for writ of certiorari - number 676 - Kameny v. Brucker. Supreme Court of the United States. Retrieved on 18 June 2022. NYC Data. (n.d.) Disasters: New York City Stonewall Inn Riot - 1969. Baruch College. Retrieved on 18 June 2022. O’Hara, F. (2014). Lunch poems: Fiftieth anniversary ed. City Lights Books. Perloff, M. (2015). Reading Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems after fifty years. Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 18 June 2022.

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Author Photo

Seán Griffin

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