NEW YORK — Taken individually, the artifacts, photos and publications on display at the New York Public Library’s new exhibit, "Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50," do not immediately appear linked.
The show, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall uprising — the spark that ignited the modern-day gay rights movement — includes a 1955 issue of Physique Pictorial, a King Tut-themed invitation to a party at the famed Paradise Garage nightclub and personal photos of legendary lesbian activist Barbara Gittings.
But taken together, the exhibit shows how the power of the LGBTQ liberation movement was dreamed up, organized and deployed. It was a movement born in the streets of New York City, and "Love & Resistance" shows how a unique set of circumstances allowed for the formation of a true rainbow coalition to demand social justice for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people.
Jason Baumann, the exhibition’s curator, said, “The 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots is a unique opportunity to reflect on LGBTQ politics and culture.”
“The thing that I hope people take away from it is that they can be politically active themselves and make the world a better place and that they can change the world themselves,” Baumann said in an interview with NBC News. “These people weren't professional activists. They were just concerned people who knew that our society was unjust. And so they made a difference.”
Organized into four sections — “Love,” “Resistance,” “In Print” and “Bars” — the exhibit takes us through the ways LGBTQ activists, particularly those in New York City, began to recognize themselves as a community and moved to expand their political power.
At first, gay bars were some of the only safe spaces where this fledgling community could meet to organize, even as these establishments were also regular sites of police raids and often operated by crime syndicates, as was the case at the Stonewall Inn 50 years ago.
Bars like Stonewall attracted gay men, drag queens, lesbians and others in the extended queer communities, and the exhibit shows how authorities tried to flush these sexual and gender minorities out of public life. LGBTQ people were prevented from living openly by laws banning cross dressing, serving alcohol to “known homosexuals” and sodomy — some of which remained on the books in the state until 1980.
And lest a visitor think Stonewall was the point at which life changed for LGBTQ people in New York, raids continued for years: The exhibit shows this with artifacts from the Snake Pit, where a 1970 New York Police Department raid ended with a gay man impaled on a fence.
The exhibit's “In Print” section examines how these communities found one another in the pre-internet era, noting that “after Stonewall, there was an explosion of LGBTQ publications that reflected the new spirit of liberation.”
Original copies of magazines like The Ladder, RFD, Transvestia and Come Out! show how activists spread the word: “They were passed from hand to hand and distributed through small book shops and the mail,” according to the text boldly written on the exhibit's wall. The distribution of LGBTQ magazines was a legal battle in and of itself, and one of the first wins in the struggle.
The show's “Resistance” section examines how activism slowly morphed from “tightly orchestrated affairs with conservative dress codes” to a liberation movement modeled after those sweeping the world in the 1960s.
“LGBTQ political movements developed a range of demonstration tactics that were subsequently employed by AIDS activists in the 1980s and 1990s and continue to inform activist strategies today," the exhibit text states.
“Probably the greatest impact of LGBTQ activism has been the transformation in relationships for people of all orientations,” reads the introduction to the “Love” section. “By challenging sodomy laws and barriers to marriage, LGBTQ activists expanded the legal and personal options for love in the culture at large.”
"They embraced the radical idea that sexual desire and love could be grounds for totally transforming society."
The exhibit even lifts the veil on aspects of the LGBTQ liberation movement that are still taboo in today’s society: “LGBTQ people questioned the full range of possibilities regarding love, sexuality, and friendship,” reads an inscription in the “Love” section. “They experimented with open relationships, polyamory, communal living, erotic friendships, and cruising, and they even fought for the right to legal marriage. They embraced the radical idea that sexual desire and love could be grounds for totally transforming society.”
Baumann, the exhibit curator, said the exhibit draws upon a tiny fraction of the 100+ LGBTQ collections held by the New York Public Library, which include the papers of Truman Capote, ACT UP New York’s records, Diana Davies’ photographs and 79 linear feet of documents donated by Gittings and another lesbian activist, Kay Tobin Lahusen. He also pointed to the NYC Trans Oral History Project as an area where visitors can dive deeper into digital-only archives.
Alongside the exhibition, the library is publishing two books containing curated writings from LGBTQ activists as well as reprints of the exhibition items: "The Stonewall Reader" and "Love and Resistance: Out of the Closet Into the Stonewall Era."
"Love & Resistance: Stonewall 50" runs from Feb. 14 to July 14 at the New York Public Library in Manhattan. In addition to the exhibit at the main library in Midtown Manhattan, the New York Public Library plans Stonewall 50-themed programming at its 88 branches across Manhattan, Bronx and Staten Island.
This Friday, the library will host a "Love & Resistance"-themed After Hours event, which will feature exhibit walk throughs with Baumann, as well as an adult version of a crowd favorite, Drag Queen Story Hour.