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Discovering the LGBT Library: The Firehouse

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While perusing the digital collections for pictures for my post on LGBT protest pre-Stonewall, I came across a photo that made me instantly happy:

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The sheer joy on that man's face is palpable and his shirt is pretty fabulous too.

The photo is in a collection from Diana Davies, taken in 1971. The photo caption reads: Dance at Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse.

Okay, what is the Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse and how can I find more about this delight-inducing place?

Turns out, before the LGBT Center was even a glimmer in anyone's eye, The Firehouse was established as a place for LGBT folks to come together to talk, organize and party.

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The Firehouse was established by an organization called the Gay Activists Alliance. In 1973, The Advocate cited New York's Gay Activists Alliance as a "good model of structure with flexibility." Writer Arthur Evans offered proof of this by saying,  "The leaders are personally and intimately known to the general membership and are elected by them."

By far the most popular events were the Saturday night dance parties organized by the appropriately named "Pleasure Committee." The dances even featured on NBC in a documentary about gay liberation.

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These dances were one of very few places LGBT folks could go to interact socially and politically.  Many of the gay bars at that time were owned by Mafia members who had complicated relationships with the police and who would often blackmail wealthy patrons, threatening to out them to their employers and families.  The Firehouse offered events for LGBT people organized and run by LGBT people.  Aside from being a top fundraiser for the GAA as well as an ideal outreach and recruitment tool, the dances offered a safe space for LGBT people at the time to have some fun without fear of persecution.

In fact, The GAA was so successful at accomplishing its goal of LGBT mobilization and change that it began to effect its membership.  A number of spin-off groups were formed, including the Lesbian Liberation Committee. The separate committees, while offering places for the minority groups within the LGBT communities, did pull members away from the GAA. The GAA also discouraged police harassment of legitimate gay establishments so effectively  that a number of modern and sophisticated discotheques began to spring up around the city giving competition to The Firehouse dances.

The Firehouse tragically met its end in a fire on October 15, 1974.  The fire set at The Firehouse was determined by firefighters to have been set by "insiders" of the organization who had a set of keys to the building and hoped to cover up the theft of $5,000 worth of electrical equipment (the electrical equipment was $5,000 of the GAA's total $9,000 in assets).  However, former president Morty Manford suggested that any of the 16 sets of keys to The Firehouse could have gotten into the wrong hands. Therefore, the arsonists were not necessarily members of the GAA.

No one was ever arrested for the crime, but The Firehouse had already made its mark as a trail-blazer when it came to the assembly of LGBT people and generation of equal rights. Though not a perfect place, the legacy and spirit of The Firehouse lives on in the many LGBT centers and spaces around the country today.

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Ga

Memories & some rant: Born in NJ, I was part of the "bridge & tunnel" gay boyz who use to queer it up in the big city; you could drink in NY at 18 and we would take our local bus line to avoid the cops waiting for drunk kids who were driving on their way home from the Lincoln. It all started in high school actually, as we took the chance to "sneak" into village gay bars at 15/16 (!); they were all mafia run and the village was a sure bet. So, after telling our folks a whopper of a story (I once said I was going on a school trip to see HAIR on Broadway) we would leave our Prep School in Newark at the last bell and catch the "tubes" to 33rd still in our uniforms. We would then hoof it over to Port Authority, this is where you caught the bus back to jersey, to change in the bathroom (creepy as it was since it was troll city!) and put our gear, books and all, in the lockers. Yes, there were still lockers then and for a quarter, as long as you didn't loose the key, we were "ready," in our hip huggers and moccasin boots, to subway down to Julius' (W. 10th) to get a burger and hope that the "after work crowd" would sneak us a beer (it was still daylight). After crusin' around the village and looking at all the black light posters and trying on clothes at the "leave one/take one" shops, we would get back to W. 10th, it was dark by then, and flirt our way into THE bar of bars, the Ninth Circle. What a place, with the Janis Joplin poster on the wall and an outdoor patio and the best juke box in the village...what more could a jersey kid ask for!! It really was all very innocent; we had to cab it back to Port Authority and catch the last (11:30ish) bus back to our West Essex Co. rural homes. We would BS with the other boyz we knew from neighboring NJ boroughs or villages and make the straight ones JEALOUS. They never managed to get in a drink and they never managed to get any info out of us as to where we "scored" (this was like '69 guys and jersey is to this day very closeted). On one of these outings I managed to miss the last bus out. After getting a "whopper"" past my parents I called a guy in the village I kinda "knew." I had met him at a Lou Reed concert once when I went to the Fillmore East with my best (straight) friend and his hippy sister & her husband; that's how I got to "know" him. I made it down Christopher, he lived by the tobacco shop on 7th, and decided I was going to,ask him if he could sneak me into a bar on that block, as I didn't know any of the doormen in that part of the village. I was glad that he was home and he was glad to see me and he was furthermore more then willing to grab a beer so off we went. I never went that close to the river, the "trucks" we're down that way and I was just a young jersey kid after all. Since he was "older" like 19/20 (!) I was cool with it and actually went to my first leather bar that night, the one at the very end of Christopher (it began with an "H"); that was some education. As we were leaving, he stuck by me at the leather bar, we began to walk back to 7th when we suddenly heard racket, a lot of racket; something was going on. We crossed 7th and then saw it...masses of guys past Sheridan Sq. in the streets and yelling and throwing bottles and they were all queer! Yup, that was the night of Stonewall, another Christopher St. bar I had never been to, a "drag" joint, whatever "drag" was (?); and that really was some education for the both of us! I never saw him again but it's one of those affairs of youth that seem to mean so much and one always remembers...this one I remember ever single gay pride. Well off to see the USA I went and I went, eventually, to college. Every trip "home" was always a trip back to the very places I went THAT night; maybe I was looking for my pal, the guy who stuck by me at the bar by the trucks and who cheered with me at THAT drag bar and with whom I spent a very wondrous AM. On one of these thrip, like in '73, no longer having to sneak into a bar (often helping another gay boy who was on the "sneak" like I use to be) I saw a poster (no longer black light) for a Friday night dance, it had caught my eye because there was a huge "lambda" on it, an original gay activist alliance symbol for the "movement." Again I hoofed around the city, this time to WOOSTER ST., what we called the Bowery back then (SOHO now!), following a lambda sign here or there...what a place for a dance I thought. Then I saw another crowd of queers, this time no bottles (except on the inside) and THE Firehouse. Gone was the doormen & the mafia & any sneaking; open and proud and we never looked back; never looked back. So here is the rant, as if the above was not enough! I have struggled so many times with the exponential expanse of the LGBT (& now Q) community and what it means to be queer in the 21st century; what is and what should be important to us. As I stumble upon this post I remember the Ninth Circle & that bar at the river and that first of many Stonewall prides and I ask myself what was it all worth? What were any "firsts" worth if I get more joy from the BS on a bus ride "home" with my hippy straight friends, more certainly than I get from the business that is now "gay." I followed a link to this post which brought me, I thought, down memory lane where other queers were commenting on the joys of those extinct NYC city bars... I thought. One post particularly pissed me off. It was from someone who obviously was too young to remember anything about the joints where we grew & learned to spread our gay wings. He entered the chat, I think it's called trolling (not the Port Authority kind!), to ask "...is Julius' still, there?" It was a place he had "heard" of and remembers passing. He called it a "sleazy" bar, a place, even though he heard had great hamburgers, he could never get himself to enter... too sleazy for his taste. This about a bar in one of the most mellow and lovely parts of the West Village, a place which had a rich gay history, well before I, at like 16, went. One of the "after work" guys who always snuck me a beer told me about that history. It seems during the war, that would be WW II (!), all the guys in uniforms took their gal dates there for a village nightcap. They would politely excuse themselves, as if they were going to the john, go through the back bar door (the place was a speakeasy in the 20's) and meet up with fellow homosexual soldiers on the other side and make a quick date for "later on." The place was never sleazy, just butch! You could tell that by all the signed photos of prizefighters & famous jockeys that graced ever inch of the wall behind the bar. So was it worth it?, all this rich history comes down to a place not being "fancy-smancy" enough for an (I might add) anonymous comment on what should be seen as the rich history of bars bygone, before there was a Starbucks on every corner next to the "appropriate" gay establishment serving mint tea with your croissant. We might want to ask a guy like "The Normal Heart" Larry Kramer.. I read that he was invited , he doesn't know by whom, to a huge anniversary party at GMHC (Gay Men's Health Crisis), the place he co-founded; NO ONE knew who he was, NO ONE said hi. They were all too busy, these young professional queers, patting themselves on their cooperate backs for the wonderful job THEY did toward Gay (HIV) Health. I WONDER IF THEY WOULD HAVE EVER GIVEN A SECOND GLANCE TO THE ORIGINAL GMHC; a place ever so more "sleazy" than Julius' Bar on W. 10th. I guess I answered my own questioning. YUKK!!

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