Fifty years ago, I was a wholesome girl who had just had a ball at my senior prom. On June 22nd, 1969, I threw my graduation cap up with the rest of my class at Plainedge High School in Long Island, NY. That same day, Judy Garland died. When I was young, I’d jump on my bed and belt out “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” for my ears alone—Garland’s voice felt subconsciously special for this kid who always sensed she was a little different. June 27th was Judy’s funeral. June 28th, the Stonewall riots began. A quiet bell within me rang, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. During college, I joined Vietnam War protests and strutted to my favorite song, "Walk on The Wild Side," still ignoring the bell.
Flash forward to grad school. On April 1, 1975, the bell rang loud and clear, and I came out. A few months later, I moved to a place over the rainbow where I felt I fit in and belonged—New York City. I’ve lived here ever since.
In 1977, Anita Bryant, an orange juice–promoting beauty queen, launched a campaign called "Save Our Children" to repeal a Florida ordinance that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That really pissed me off, leading me to boycott orange juice and go to my first NYC Pride March, camera in hand. I developed the film and put it in binders, but never looked at it again for 42 years.
The march started further uptown than it does now; I took photos of people in Central Park and at the 42nd Street library, on the way down to Christopher Street. I photographed spiritual communities that supported gay rights—including Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the LGBTQ synagogue I eventually became a member of (and usually walk with at NYC Pride March to this day).
One of the photographs is of a beautiful person in a black dress, wearing flowers in her hair, walking with dignity and pride. People behind her are carrying signs of the times: "Anita Sucks," "Boycott," and "Remember Robert Hillsborough 1944–1977." Robert Hillsborough and his roommate Jerry Taylor were accosted and brutally beaten in San Francisco in June of that year by a gang of young men yelling slurs at them. Jerry recovered. Robert died.
The beautiful person in the black dress with flowers in her hair is Marsha P. Johnson, LGBTQ activist and one of the key figures in the Stonewall Rebellion. She, along with her close friend Sylvia Rivera, will soon be immortalized in a permanent monument near Stonewall that will honor their lives and devotion to human rights.
We’ve come a long way in the struggle for equality and dignity for LGBTQ people. We still have a long way to go. People are continuously discriminated against, assaulted, and murdered because of their gender expression, sexuality and whom they love, here in the USA and around the world. Our present USA administration is back-rolling LGBTQ, women and minority rights. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”. The rainbow is an arc. Together, we must continue to fight for equality and justice for all people. On June 30 th, I’ll be photographing and reporting on the NYC Pride March for again, in the next installment of this series. If you are in NYC, join us.
Meryl Meisler is an artist based in New York City. She is author of the internationally acclaimed photo books A Tale of Two Cities: Disco Era Bushwick and Purgatory & Paradise SASSY ‘70s Suburbia & The City. Meryl’s photographs are in the exhibit Letting Loose and Fighting Back: LGBTQ Nightlife Before and After Stonewall at New-York Historical Society through Sept. 22, 2019.