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Stonewall Days in Columbus

Wed, Sep 29, 2010

Image courtesy First Run Features
Image courtesy First Run Features

A police raid on a Greenwich Village bar, the Stonewall Inn, on June 28, 1969, and the riots that followed launched the modern gay rights movement. The new documentary film Stonewall Uprising, screening at the Wex on October 7–8, tells that story. But how did the movement get started and grow in Columbus? Douglas Whaley, Professor of Law Emeritus at Ohio State, offers these reflections. Professor Whaley is also among the speakers who will be participating in a public panel discussion after the film on Thursday, October 7.

The baby boomers began to flex their muscles in the late 1960s on many fronts. First came the civil rights movement to rectify hundreds of years of discrimination against African Americans, then the drive for women's rights, and protection for the disabled. Finally, in 1969, the Stonewall riots led to a nationwide push for protection of gays and lesbians.

In the early 1970s there were some small gay groups in Columbus, Ohio, about which little is known. One was called Gay Women Sapphonsified, but I can find nothing that explains its purpose or history. What little activity was going on was centered on the bars: Jacks was the leading lesbian bar, and the Kismet, the Tradewinds, and the Cat's Meow were the most prominent gay male establishments.

All over the country gay militant groups were formed shortly after the Stonewall riots, and the first of these arose in Columbus at Ohio State. It was called The Gay Activist Alliance. John Quigley, a brave straight OSU law professor, always willing to take risks to help an underdog, became its faculty advisor. Craig Covey, who would be a major player in the founding of Stonewall Union (later Stonewall Columbus) in 1981, was the GAA President from 1977 to 1979. He promptly changed the name to “Gay Alliance” so as to tone down the militant sound of the organization.

In 1973 the State of Ohio required all municipalities to revise their criminal codes to put them in line with a recent major change in state law, so Mayor Tom Moody created the Mayor's Commission to Revise the Penal Code. The redoubtable Professor John Quigley was appointed one of the 17 commissioners, and he promptly decided that gays should be protected from discrimination as part of the new code. In an email to me in March of 2003, John had this to say:
Some local groups lobbied the mayor to set up a broad-based commission, rather than do the revision in-house. As a result, Moody agreed to appoint a commission with representatives from various local groups, but with quite a few officials from various city agencies. There were 17 members in all. We met at a union hall on the east side. When I made the proposal about inclusion of sexual orientation in the penal provision on discrimination, one city official became apoplectic.

John Quigley (center) discussing the revision of Columbus Penal Code, 1973

The commission approved forbidding discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation in the areas of housing, public accommodations, and employment, and an ordinance doing so was passed by the Columbus City Council on November 26, 1973. It can still be found in section 2331.03 of the Columbus City Code. The Columbus Dispatch promptly published a very homophobic article about this part of the new Code, and there followed much public outcry at the sinfulness of it all, with an emphasis on the employment nondiscrimination portion. Mayor Tom Moody vetoed the bill creating the new Code the next day. The City Council was condemned by such groups as the Full Gospel Businessman's Fellowship (Bill Swad, President). The mayor said the proposed criminal revision of the ordinances was “95% good” but contained “a drop of poison,” meaning, of course, the gay protection segment. After some debate, the City Council passed a new ordinance in January of 1974, but it only protected gays on the first two grounds above—not employment. It would remain that way until the 1990s, when Stonewall Columbus, having first suffered a major public relations disaster in 1984 when it tried to have Council reinstate employment protection, finally sneaked such protection into the City Code with the covert help of Mayor Gregory Lashutka.

John Quigley, current day
John Quigley, current day

Protests for gay rights were stirring across Ohio in the late 1970s. There was a march in Cleveland in 1977 with about 300 people, Columbus sent a Greyhound bus (with a banner on the side saying “Gayhound Bus”) to the first Gay Rights March in Washington DC in 1979, and in the summer of 1981 some 130 marchers protested discrimination against gays by parading around the Statehouse with signs. The formation of Stonewall Union in the fall of that year created the first permanent gay civil rights organization in the city. A tiny group of both men and women in the beginning, SU could only dream of having any effect on the city. The first pride march it sponsored in June of 1982 drew 825 participants (we know because we counted them by hand). Compare that with the number at the June 2010 march, estimated at over 200,000, and you can see how very far we've come in what is really a breathtakingly short period of time.

Douglas Whaley
Professor of Law Emeritus
The Ohio State University
PARKING UPDATE: Construction at 15th and High. For more information click here.

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