While in recent years certain groups in the LGBT community have been trying to put the all the focus on Sylvia Rivera and Marsha Johnson who were participants in the Stonewall Riots in 1969 during PRIDE, we continually overlook one of the most important gay activists of that era without whom the gay rights movement and PRIDE would not even exist. I am talking about Craig Rodwell a true forgotten hero of the gay rights movement.
Rodwell was born in Chicago, IL in 1940 and a former Christian scientist, He later studied ballet in Boston before finally moving to New York City in 1958. It was in New York that he first volunteered for a gay rights organization, The Mattachine Society of New York.
Rodwell opened the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in 1967, and began the group Homophile Youth Movement in Neighborhoods (HYMN) and began to publish its periodical, HYMNAL. Rodwell helped conceive the first yearly gay rights protest, the Annual Reminder picketing of Independence Hall held from 1965–1969; and the Homophile Youth Movement rallies in 1967.
On September 19, 1964, Rodwell, along with Randy Wicker, Jefferson Poland, Renee Cafiero, and several others picketed New York’s Whitehall to protest the military’s practice of excluding gays from serving and, when discovered serving, dishonorably discharging them. This is the first recognized gay rights protest in American history.
On April 18, 1965, Rodwell led the picketing at the United Nations Plaza in New York to protest Cuban detention and placement into work camps of gays, with about 25 other protesters.
On April 21, 1966, Craig Rodwell, along with Mattachine President Dick Leitsch engaged in the infamous “Sip-In” at Julius, a bar in Greenwich Village, to protest the (NY) State Liquor Authority rule against the congregation of gays in establishments that served alcohol. Rodwell had at an earlier date been thrown out of Julius for wearing an “Equality for Homosexuals” button. Rodwell and the others argued that the rule furthered bribery and corruption of the police. The resultant publicly led eventually to the end of the SLA rule.
Rodwell who is verified as being present and a participant at the Stonewall Riots in 1969 said of that fateful night:
A number of incidents were happening simultaneously. There was no one thing that happened or one person, there was just… a flash of group, of mass anger. There was a very volatile active political feeling, especially among young people … when the night of the Stonewall Riots came along, just everything came together at that one moment. People often ask what was special about that night …
There was no one thing special about it. It was just everything coming together, one of those moments in history that if you were there, you knew, this is it, this is what we’ve been waiting for.”
In November of 1969 just five months after the Stonewall Riots, Rodwell proposed the first gay pride parade to be held in New York City by way of a resolution at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations meeting in Philadelphia, along with his partner Fred Sargeant (HYMN vice chairman), Ellen Broidy and Linda Rhodes. The first march was organized from Rodwell’s apartment on Bleecker Street.
That the Annual Reminder, in order to be more relevant, reach a greater number of people, and encompass the ideas and ideals of the larger struggle in which we are engaged-that of our fundamental human rights-be moved both in time and location.
We propose that a demonstration be held annually on the last Saturday in June in New York City to commemorate the 1969 spontaneous demonstrations on Christopher Street and this demonstration be called CHRISTOPHER STREET LIBERATION DAY. No dress or age regulations shall be made for this demonstration.
Craig Rodwell continued fighting the rest of his life for gay rights and died in 1993 of stomach cancer. His determination, persistence, inspiration, and understanding, have made people aware of their power through activism.