On the night of June 28, 1969, I really was at the Stonewall Inn during the now-famous riots that opened the floodgates of the fight for gay equality. Being a part of that night was scary, and it affected me to my core. I looked in the eyes of a New York City policeman and screamed, “Shame! Shame on you!” as chaos swarmed all around me.
I went to sleep that night exhilarated, but never imagining the significance of what I had just been a part of.
When I returned to Philadelphia, I was determined to share this feeling with everyone I could to keep this conversation about equality going. I knew I couldn’t do it by screaming, but rather by using my theatrical background to bring all kinds of people together for fun.
That was one of the goals of my Halloween Ball, which began in 1968 and which I still throw every year. The statement on the poster back then was the same as it is today: Don’t Come As You Are, But As You Want To Be.
As the ball grew in popularity and as I became more active in Philadelphia’s scene, I found myself in a position to really make my voice heard. Though there were plenty of lessons to learn from the people who came before me, I did it my way. There was no instruction manual to follow. Once I was accepted as not too frightening, I found that I could have conversations with anyone about anything.
In 1970, I attended the first New York Pride March, which honored the efforts of those of us who rioted at Stonewall the year before. I’ve returned many years thereafter, as a singer and announcer, which led to many event opportunities in Philadelphia. Leading the Philly Pride Parade and Festival, emceeing Outfest every year, running the Mardi Gras, Lambda Awards, the Easter Parade, and many other events has been a joy.
My celebratory position (literally and figuratively on stages and floats) allowed me to gain a unique perspective into the many aspects of human nature more so than I would have as a member of the audience. It has taught me a lot about blending the gay and straight worlds together as easily as possible toward one goal — fun and fairness for all.
As the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots approaches, I’ve been reflecting on how my experience on June 28, 1969, and all the experiences I’ve had since have taught me so much about connecting with all kinds of people — gay and straight.
My advice to everyone is to get out. Come out. Make eye contact and talk. Ask questions. Talk. Be curious. Volunteer. Join a club. Get outside. Go somewhere new. Get off all screens. Being on the Stonewall float in New York and leading the parade in the Stonewall car has been an eye-opening and humbling privilege. Total strangers watching the parade yell out, “Thank you for what you did!”
At the 40th Stonewall Parade they didn’t tell us we would stop in front of the Stonewall Inn for a moment of silence and honor. It was so unexpected I was exhilarated, as I was on the night of the riots, but in a totally different way. As the float drove past the Stonewall Inn, it stopped to pay homage. I took off my hat, which I never do at a public appearance, and cried happy tears, understanding the significance of what I had been a part of years ago and how far we’ve come.