Opinion: There are two sides to every story and sometimes a coincidence is not just a coincidence.
The story of what happened in June of 1969 has been told innumerable times. The facts are that on the afternoon of June 27, Judy Garland’s funeral was held in New York City. Later that night, the riots at the Stonewall Inn broke out. That is just a coincidence, say some. Others say the two events are connected.
Prior to the Stonewall riots, the United States was a hostile and unsafe place for LGBTQ people. It was illegal to be gay. Bars could not serve a homosexual a drink. Behaviors like holding hands, kissing, or dancing with someone of the same sex were against the law. The mere gathering of gay people constituted “disorderly” conduct and those involved were subject to arrest. The American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a psychiatric disorder.
Bars like the Stonewall Inn were raided by police on a regular basis. Arrests of patrons not wearing gender-appropriate clothing, or dancing with a same-sex partner could ruin a person’s life, as their names and offenses were frequently printed in the local newspaper.
Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, Judy Garland emerged as a gay icon. In 1956, The Wizard of Oz had its first screening on the relatively new medium of television. In the 1939 film, “Dorothy immediately accepts those who are different, including the Cowardly Lion (in a very camp performance by Bert Lahr). The Lion identifies himself through song as a “sissy” and exhibits stereotypically “gay” (or at least effeminate) mannerisms. The Lion is seen as a coded example of Garland meeting and accepting a gay man without question,” writes Camille Paglia in a 1998 New York Times column titled “Judy Garland As a Force Of Nature.”
Asking someone “Are you a friend of Dorothy?” became a popular code for gay men.
Then came the concerts. Judy endeared herself as the ultimate concert performer, culminating with Judy at Carnegie Hall. Released in 1961, the live recording spent 73 weeks on the Billboard charts, including 13 weeks at No. 1. It won four Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year and Best Female Vocal Performance. The album has never been out of print. Looking at photos from that night, most of the people in the audience were men.
In 1963, The Judy Garland Show premiered on CBS. Many of the episodes were concerts with Judy alone on stage, singing in front of a live audience. This was the first time many gay men had a chance to see the now-legendary Garland on stage in concert.
The media had begun to notice the makeup of a Garland audience. A reporter, implying there was something negative about the makeup of her audiences, asked her about it to which she replied, “I couldn’t care less. I sing to people!”
On June 22, 1969, Judy Garland died in London. She was beloved by a group of long-suffering, persecuted people. She was the largest gay icon of the era. Five days after her death, 22,000 of her grieving fans, a great many of them gay, filed past her glass-topped casket to pay their respects.
Only a few hours later and four miles south at a bar in Greenwich Village, many of the mourners who had attended the funeral gathered at the Stonewall Inn. They shared stories about Garland and enjoyed a few adult libations. “Over the Rainbow” probably played on a loop on the jukebox.
Twelve hours after Garland’s funeral, a handful of New York City’s finest did what they had done countless times before: They raided a Greenwich Village gay nightspot. But unlike all the previous raids, the drag queens, lesbians, and gay men in suits fought back. In the 2015 film, Stonewall, a Garland record is playing as the police begin entering the bar. Refusing to turn off the jukebox, one of the characters proclaims, “Judy stays.”
Some historians dismiss the connection between Judy Garland’s death and the Stonewall riots. It was just a coincidence, they say.
The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the spark that triggered the start of World War I.
The murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012, and the subsequent not-guilty verdict of the man accused of his murder, led to protests across the nation and the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student, was beaten, tortured, and left to die near Laramie on the night of October 6, 1998. Widespread media attention led to rallies and protests against anti-gay crimes. The United States Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the legislation into law.
In summation, the death of an individual, be it famous or who has notoriety thrust upon them, can often be the spark to start a movement. On the night after Judy Garland’s funeral in June of 1969, the Stonewall riots occurred. Fed up and not in the mood to deal with police harassment, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn used their grief over Judy’s death to rise up and fight back, and the gay liberation movement was born.
A decade later, the Rainbow Flag became the symbol of gay pride. Garland’s signature song was “Over the Rainbow.” We can discuss whether or not that is a mere coincidence later. In the meantime, Happy Pride!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of the Montrose Star. Johnny Trlica is the editor of the Houston Rainbow Herald Facebook page and has been published in several newspapers and magazines. He grew up in Rosenberg, Texas, lived for over 30 years in the Montrose, and now resides in Galveston, Texas. He may be contacted at HRHeditor@gmail.com.