NYPD Surveillance of Lesbian and Gay Power

The Stonewall Riots that took place in the West Village at the end of June, 1969 mark the beginning of a movement for the basic visibility and full equality of all Americans regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. The early morning raid on the Stonewall Inn was nothing new in itself, as the NYPD had been raiding and shutting down similar bars throughout the 1960s. Lesbian and gay New Yorkers had been increasingly responding to police harassment with acts of civil disobedience and activist journalism during the 1960s, but the scope of resistance at Stonewall was different. Another thing that was certainly different about Stonewall, though, was how it changed the NYPD’s views on gay and lesbian power in the City, as evidenced by their moving image surveillance logs. Before Stonewall, there is no mention in the NYPD records of film surveillance activities of groups agitating for gay, lesbian and transgender rights. After Stonewall, the NYPD began to identify not a specific group or individual activists for surveillance, but a broad movement that had begun to take hold: Gay Liberation.

Gay rights banner unfurled at an Anti-Vietnam War rally on August 2nd, 1969, only one month after Stonewall. NYPD surveillance film, NYC Municipal Archives.

The earliest instance of gay and lesbian rights appearing in the NYPD’s 16mm-surveillance footage occurred at an Anti-Vietnam War rally on August 2nd, 1969, only one month after Stonewall. Seen here is a Gay Liberation Front banner displaying the interlocked female/female and male/male graphics. It is important to understand that this film was shot by a plainclothes NYPD officer whose job it was to document potentially dangerous political groups. Although there are many other banners at this demonstration, the NYPD officer assigned to filming the anti-war rally took extra time to record these protesters. One month after putting down the Stonewall riot that lasted for days, the NYPD had come to see gay and lesbian activism as a potential threat akin to the Black Panthers or the Minute Men which they could not ignore.

Gay Activist’s Alliance (GAA) protest of the NYC Board of Examiners for refusing to grant teaching licenses to those suspected of being gay or lesbian, October 2nd, 1971. NYPD surveillance film, NYC Municipal Archives.

The first instance of the NYPD specifically surveilling and filming gay activists came on October 2nd, 1971. This protest was organized by the group Gay Activist’s Alliance (GAA), formed in 1969 by former members of the Gay Liberation Front. The group was protesting the NYC Board of Examiners for refusing to grant teaching licenses to those suspected of being gay or lesbian. Right away we can see in the film that the protesters are far greater in number than those in 1969 and they are there for one specific cause. Although the GAA was non-violent, NYPD officers responded with force as the barricades broke, shoving some to the ground with clubs and arresting them. It wasn’t just the NYPD that had taken notice of gay and lesbian activism, though. After the scene outside of the Board’s offices at 65 Court Street, organizers of the GAA expressed their indignation to crowds of news media that had gathered, eager to cover the event. As their activism had grown, so too had their visibility.

In 1972-3, politicians and the news media became targets of ire for the Gay Liberation movement, specifically the Inner Circle organization. The Inner Circle is an association of New York City journalists who write and perform a show parodying political figures at their annual charity dinner. On April 15th, 1972, the GAA “zapped” an Inner Circle event by giving pamphlets to the audience, rushing the stage and grabbing the microphone to list issues facing lesbian and gay New Yorkers. GAA member Morty Manford was struck while handing out pamphlets by Michael Maye, President of the Fire Fighters Association- and former Golden Glove boxing champion. Maye was charged with and later acquitted of harassment, but the experience motivated Manford’s parents to start PFLAG, or “Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays” in 1973. The film seen here is a protest of the Inner Circle one year after the incident.

GAA protest of the Inner Circle dinner in 1973. NYPD surveillance film, NYC Municipal Archives.

Depictions of lesbian and gay activism began to fade from the NYPD’s moving image surveillance as Stonewall fell further into the past, but the need for that activism only rose through the 1970s, 80s and 90s. As the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit New York especially hard, gay and lesbian voices began to disappear, amplifying the dire warnings of those who remained. Many founding members of the GAA passed away from AIDS-related complications (including Morty Manford). New activist groups that formed like ACT UP and the Silence=Death Project focused not on liberation, but survival. Many activists who remember that time still feel betrayed by the way the City made their communities feel unimportant and invisible.

WNYC-TV, 1991. NYC Municipal Archives.

Starting in the mid 1980s, the City’s municipal broadcast station, WNYC-TV began covering gay and lesbian concerns, bringing LGBTQ lives into living rooms throughout the five boroughs. In one episode of a five-part special, teens related their experiences of coming out to friends and family. The teens in this 1991 video are now in their early 40s. In their lives, they would have seen the development of medical treatments that dramatically reduced deaths from HIV/AIDS, the 2003 Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution protects same-sex sexual relations, the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, and the Stonewall Inn becoming a national monument, like the Statue of Liberty, in 2016. Yet all these highly visible milestones belie the very real, ongoing fight for fair and equal treatment. Sexual orientation is still a legal ground for discrimination in 26 states. Many activists who sought to advance the cause of Gay Liberation remain unrecognized and invisible in the eyes of history. The New York City Municipal Archives aims change this by expanding our understanding of New York City’s rich history and the contributions that LGBTQ residents have made to it.