Before Stonewall, There Was a Bookstore

Networks of activists transformed Stonewall from an isolated event into a turning point in the struggle for gay power.

Craig Rodwell behind the counter at the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop
Craig Rodwell behind the counter at the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop (Kay Tobin / Manuscripts and Archives Division / The New York Public Library)

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series about the gay-rights movement and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising.

On July 4, 1965—four years before Stonewall—39 activists from D.C., New York, and Philadelphia marched on the place where the Declaration of Independence had been signed roughly two centuries earlier. They wanted to remind the nation that their rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” had been denied. Dressed in formal attire—the men in coats and ties, and many of the women in skirts and dresses—they carried signs that read Equal Treatment Before the Law and Homosexual Bill of Rights.

For the next four years, the organizer of that protest, Craig Rodwell, along with his comrades, Barbara Gittings and Kay Tobin Lahusen, marched in Philadelphia. Their demonstrations became became known as “the Annual Reminders.” But in the summer of 1967, Rodwell also decided to do something that was, in its own quiet way, more radical than marching. He wanted to open a bookstore.

Rodwell was the vice president of the Mattachine Society, a gay male political group. “I was trying to get the Society to be out dealing with the people instead of sitting in an office,” Rodwell had explained to Lahusen for an interview in her book, The Gay Crusaders. “We even looked at a few store-fronts. I wanted the Society to set up a combination bookstore, counseling service, fund-raising headquarters, and office. The main thing was to be out on the street.” When the Mattachine Society rejected Rodwell’s plans to open a bookstore, he resigned from the group and decided to do it alone.

The Stonewall protests two years later would draw broad attention to the struggle for gay liberation, but that struggle did not start in 1969. There were protests, and thriving gay communities, before that night in New York City—and Stonewall’s success was rooted in those earlier efforts.

Activists like Rodwell understood the value of visibility; he was among the architects of New York’s gay-pride parade. But some were struggling not just for rights or liberation, but for something still more revolutionary. They were fighting for what they called “gay power,” the authority to define their own identity. Their efforts produced the intellectual revolution that lent the Stonewall protests their power, and which helped ensure that long after the protests were over, the changes they wrought would endure.

The victories of Stonewall, then, had the unlikeliest of birthplaces: the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.

In 1967, there were no gay community centers, save San Francisco’s Society for Individual Rights, that offered cultural programming and recreational activities. There were no gay bookstores that included shelves of gay books. In fact, there was no such thing as serious gay nonfiction. Libraries had systematically cataloged homosexuality as a deviance or a disorder. There were the occasional novels—notably, The Well of Loneliness, published by Radclyffe Hall in the United Kingdom in 1928—but mostly there was pulp fiction and porn, and novels that had queer subtexts.

Rodwell wanted a bookstore that would provide LGBTQ people with intellectual engagement. He also wanted the store to offer psychological-counseling services because, in 1967, the American Psychiatric Association still listed homosexuality as a mental illness in its diagnostic and statistical manual. For many queer people in the 1960s, the search for books, which offered some clues about homosexuality, was how they navigated their way out of the closet. “When I first wanted to find out what it meant to be gay, after I first put the label on myself, being a reasonably well-educated girl, I thought, ‘Oh well, I’ll go to the library,’” Gittings later recalled.

Those who went looking typically came up empty-handed. Gittings found little about being gay, and the sources she did uncover rang false to her. “There was nothing about love,” she said. That was the void Rodwell set out to fill.

He boarded a bus and headed to Fire Island, a Long Island beach town that had become a gay hub, with the hope that he could earn enough money working as a bartender to open the store. Three months later, he arrived back in New York City. “The cheapest storefront in the Village that I could find was $115 a month, and they insisted on the first month’s rent plus two month’s security,” he later recalled. “That was $345, or one third of the money I had saved. But I did it!”

Rodwell opened the first-ever gay bookstore in the world at 291 Mercer Street, between Waverly Place and East Eighth Street. “I wanted a name that would tell people what the shop is about,” Rodwell said. “So I tried to think of the most prominent person whose name I could use who is most readily identifiable as a homosexual by most people, someone who’s sort of a pseudo-martyr. And Oscar Wilde was the most obvious at the time, so I called it the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop.”

Rodwell planned the official opening for a few months later, on November 24, 1967. His mother arrived from Chicago the day before and they stayed up all night setting up the store. His plan to offer counseling services never came to fruition, but the store itself proved unexpectedly radical. The few identifiably queer books that could then be found in libraries—by Hall or Wilde or any other queer writers—were scattered by differences in genre, nationality, and date of publication. As Rodwell and his mother placed books by queer authors on the same shelf, they redefined the meaning of homosexuality. It was no longer simply a deviance or a disorder. It was, instead, a coherent category—with shelves of books to prove it.

The bookshop became an immediate hit within the gay community. The store was packed, especially on Saturday afternoons, when Rodwell served free coffee and pastries. News of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop traveled around the country, and around the world. Gay readers wrote to Rodwell, asking for book suggestions and praising him for making LGBTQ novels, newspapers, and pamphlets available. Young men wrote, asking for advice on how to come out.

European tourists told their friends, who made it a point to visit the Oscar Wilde Bookshop on their trips to New York. American soldiers stationed in Vietnam ordered books and asked for magazine subscriptions to The New York Hymnal, a journal Rodwell founded and edited. A handful of Americans and Europeans wrote to Rodwell asking for help on how to establish their own stores, which led, for example, to the creation of Giovanni’s Room in Philadelphia. (The store title was taken from the title of James Baldwin’s 1956 homoerotic novel.) The bookshop had not only became a major touchstone for New Yorkers but also symbolized the promise of gay liberation to many others throughout the world.

On June 28, 1969, Rodwell was walking home from a bridge game with a friend when he heard noise coming from the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar that had been owned by the Mafia and frequently raided by the police. At first he ignored it, but then he noticed that a crowd had formed around the police wagon; people were resisting being handcuffed by the police. Rodwell climbed onto the steps of the highest stoop and yelled, “Gay power!” and “Christopher Street belongs to the queens!”

Rodwell was hardly alone. Take Barbara Gittings, who marched with him in Philadelphia. Gittings served as the editor of The Ladder from 1963 to 1966. She used the paper, which had originated as a means of increasing membership in the Daughters of Bilitis, to construct an intellectual community, connecting readers from San Francisco to Cleveland to Philadelphia. The paper ran stories on the psychological profession’s emphasis on men and the “blackout on female homosexuality,” featured forums where readers debated the merits of books by Betty Friedan and Mary McCarthy, and ran interviews with lesbian thinkers and activists.

Gittings featured a black woman, Ernestine Eckstein, the vice president of the New York City chapter of the Daughters of Bilitis, on the June 1966 cover of The Ladder, at a time when racism plagued the LGBTQ community. Gittings signaled her ambition for the paper by adding the subtitle, “A Lesbian Review.” Her successors advanced this mission, and in 1969, when Barbara Grier was editor, she proposed to make The Ladder into the “Atlantic Monthly of Lesbian thought.”

After stepping down from The Ladder, Gittings remained committed to the power of books to advance LGBTQ activism. By 1970, the excitement ignited by Stonewall led to an explosion of new groups, from political organizations to professional and academic associations to gay churches. While hosting a weekly 15-minute gay-news segment on the New York radio station WBAI in 1970, Gittings came across a reference to a gay group that had grown out of the American Library Association (ALA). Despite not being a librarian, she asked to join, and was welcomed. She was then tasked with organizing a bibliography of all the books that positively promoted homosexuality. Her list included 32 books. At the annual meeting of the ALA in Dallas in 1971, the gay group gave a book prize, set up a kissing booth to attract attention to their cause, and organized sessions such as, “Sex and the Single Cataloguer: New Thoughts on Some Unthinkable Subjects.”

Creating a bibliography and organizing panels at the ALA radically transformed the definition of homosexuality. Like Rodwell’s work at the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, Gittings and others in the ALA challenged the clinical and criminal meaning of the term, and illustrated how homosexuality could also refer to books positively. More to the point, homosexuality, they asserted, was not just a term that medical, legal, or religious authorities assigned to gay people, but one that gay people could publicly, politically, and professionally define for themselves. It was an intellectual revolution, one that changed who got to use the term, how it was used, and what it meant.

In 1972, Gittings agreed to be on a panel at the American Psychiatric Association to discuss the medical profession’s insistence that homosexuality was a mental illness. The panel, “Psychiatry, Friend or Foe to Homosexuals, A Dialogue,” included Gittings, Frank Kameny, and two psychiatrists. The problem was that the gay activists scheduled to be on the panel weren’t psychiatrists, and the psychiatrists weren’t gay. Having Gittings and Kameny speak to an audience of medical professionals was, indeed, radical. Since the medical profession’s invention of homosexuality as a category at the end of the 19th century, queer people had not been able to formally participate in discussions about their identity.

Yet Gittings felt it would be more effective to have a panelist join the discussion who was both gay and a psychiatrist. The APA agreed with her suggestion and asked her to find someone. She eventually did. The doctor wanted to remain anonymous during the presentation. So he wore a wig and a mask, used a microphone that disguised his voice, and appeared on the program as “Dr. Henry Anonymous.”

The day of the session the room was packed. Gittings and Kameny disputed the standard theory that gay people were “sick” as a result of “the absent, distant father, and the all-encompassing mother.” That theory had no basis in evidence, Gittings argued, but was nonetheless “ballyhooed to the public” and the medical profession as scientific truth. Dr. Anonymous, who later revealed his identity as John Fryer, said, “As psychiatrists who are homosexual, we must know our place and what we must do to be successful. If our goal is high academic appointment, a level of earning capacity equal to our fellows, or admission to a psychoanalytic institute, we must make certain that no one in a position of power is aware of our sexual preference and/or gender identity. Much like the black man with light skin, who chooses to live as a white man, we cannot be seen with our real friends, our real homosexual family, lest our secret be known, and our dooms sealed. There are practicing psychoanalysts among us who completed a training [as] analysts without mentioning their homosexuality to their analyst.”

Gittings later recalled that the session “went off marvelously!” The next year, in 1973, the APA voted to remove homosexuality from its list of mental illnesses.

While Gittings, Rodwell, and others continued to define homosexuality on their own terms, refusing to allow those in positions of authority to be the sole authors of their identity, the revolution was not over. Discrimination continued. Decades of activism lay ahead. But the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising offers an opportunity to remember the courageous work of Rodwell and Gittings, and other activists like them. There were thriving gay communities and public protests that preceded Stonewall, fighting for, in their words, “gay power.” The Stonewall uprising amplified the work that Rodwell and others had been doing before 1969. And it was those networks of activists, and the intellectual revolution they set in motion—reclaiming and defining their own identity—that transformed Stonewall from an isolated event into a turning point in the struggle for gay liberation. The protests themselves eventually ended, but the books and articles these activists published endure, and continue to inspire new generations.