Randy Gresham and Mark Gresham | 13 Jun 2019
A young man stands outside an inconspicuous-looking building in a seedy warehouse district of town. He looks around to see if he has been spotted. Seeing no one, he knocks on a door. A panel slides open and a set of eyes peer at him from within. “Mothah sent me,” the young man states. Seconds later the door is unlatched and the young man enters into a smoky, dimly lit bar filled with customers enjoying cocktails, music and chat. On what serves as a small dance floor in the corner a few couples dance. This is not a speakeasy in the 1920’s. This is a gay bar in the pre-Stonewall 1960’s. The young man knew how and where to find this place and how to gain entry only because those in the know had shared their secret information with him. Gay life, knowledge and culture in the days before Stonewall were passed by word of mouth. It was an oral tradition.
In today’s world of uber-outness, where young gay couples stride hand-in-hand up neighborhood streets, or with arms locked around each other’s waist, the gay world of the 1960’s seems unbelievable. Today gay bars have large glass windows and outdoor cafes filled with revelers. Every mainstream bookstore has a gay/lesbian section. Information-laden guides and newspapers are available in every coffee house. Gay characters on television or in the movies are as common as today’s diet plan du jour. Diversity is your next door neighbor. It’s hard to believe that not so long ago gay life was a completely underground culture.
The years following Stonewall changed all that. The now famous riots of 1969 gained an inordinate amount of publicity and an important discovery was made. The community learned that exposure, and not secrecy, was what would better serve its purposes. The word-of-mouth tradition was replaced by the written word and later exposure in the media. Gays and lesbians, and all of what would come to be called the LGBTQ+ community, established their own newspapers, produced books, literature, journals and later on, via the Internet, an ability to find out just about anything on any aspect of LGBTQ life or its members therein. Groups with their dialog and literature brought about a greater exposure to both the community and larger culture.
Fast forward through a half century of LGBTQ activism, acceptance, and advancement to today, when wide-spread celebrations mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising this month.
Among them, the Atlanta Freedom Bands will mark the occasion with its “Stonewall 50 Celebration” this Saturday, June 15th at The Church at Ponce & Highland – formerly known as Druid Hills Baptist Church, but which changed its name in 2015 as an expression of social inclusiveness.
The evening’s events begin at 6pm with something new for Atlanta Freedom Bands concerts: “Stonewall Stories – From Christopher Street to Peachtree Street,” a panel discussion of the history and influence of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising on the LGBTQ+ community at large and in Atlanta. Speakers will include Dave Hayward and Maria Helena Dolan of Touching Up Our Roots, Atlanta’s LGBT history project, and Willis Bivins, who was a regular patron of the Stonewall Inn and a participant in the first Pride March in New York in 1970.
Then at 7:30pm AFB’s 70-piece Concert Band will perform a concert of music by LGBTQ composers that speaks to the different facets and influences of the Stonewall Uprising, including two world premieres and an Atlanta premiere. Guest composer-conductor Justin Raines, artistic director of the Gay Freedom Band of Los Angeles, will conduct a new work he has written for the occasion. Another world premiere will be A Short Rhapsody for concert band and organ by Connor Sullivan. The program will also include the Atlanta premiere of a new work by Omar Thomas composed in honor of Marsha P. Johnson, one of the leaders during the first night of the uprising. Miss Priscilla Buffet will be the emcee for the evening.
The Church on Ponce and Highland is located at 1085 Ponce de Leon Ave NE, Atlanta 30306. Parking is available at the church and in nearby lots and streets. Tickets are $15 for general admission, $10 for seniors, and $5 for students and are available from Atlanta Freedom Bands. ■
Randy Gresham is an author, poet and playwright living in Chicago, Illinois. He has been involved with a number of LGBT organizations, is the founder of NewTown Writers and founding editor of Off the Rocks Literary Anthology. Portion of the above article are adapted from his essay-in-progress, “When Gay Culture Was An Oral Tradition, or, Where Have All the Aunties Gone?” Randy was born and raised in Atlanta and is a cousin of EarRelevant founder ans principal writer Mark Gresham.