Of Hippies and Homosexuals: Being Gay in Woodstock

Slide 1: Hippies and Homosexuals

Elliot Teichberg, his mother Sonia (Imelda Staunton) and father Jake (Henry Goodman) head off to the bank to forestall foreclosure on the El Monaco Motel.

During the summer of 1969, the gay rights movement that was born out of the Stonewall Riots and hippie culture reached its apex with Woodstock. But what did the angry gay men storming the streets of Greenwich Village on June 28 and happy hippies flocking to Woodstock seven weeks later have in common? Much more than you might think.

In Taking Woodstock, Elliot Teichberg (Demetri Martin) is a young man whose life during that summer of 1969 straddles the gay movement and hippie culture. He leaves his gay life in Greenwich Village to spend the summer of 1969 helping his parents run the El Monaco, a family motel in the Catskills—and a far cry from the Riviera. One day, he reads a headline in the paper: “Wallkill Pulls Permit on Music Festival—Mayor: ‘Hippies not welcome here.’ ” So, Elliot, seeing an opportunity to help the struggling family business, helps bring the music festival that would be known as Woodstock to his hometown of Bethel, N.Y.

Slide 2: The Danger of Hippies

The Taking Woodstock poster riffs on hippie rainbow iconography, which was later adopted by the gay rights movement.

Elliot is not a hippie, but he is a homosexual. And at the beginning of 1969, before Stonewall, gays were a hidden, largely closeted, minority, whose existence was scarcely acknowledged in America. Perhaps because the dominant culture was so concerned that America’s children were turning into hippies. As Time magazine observed, “To their deeply worried parents throughout the country, [hippies] seem more like dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics—if only they would return home to receive either.”

Slide 3: The Hippy is Born

Posters for “The Human Be-In,” the first Be-In.

Hippies comprised less a movement than a culture. They got their start in the San Francisco Bay Area. Derived from the Beatnik term “hipster,” “hippie” was first used in print on Sept. 5, 1965, by journalist Michael Fallon to describe the beatniks who moved from San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood to Haight-Ashbury. By the summer of 1966, about 15,000 young Americans had flocked to the Haight.

Slide 4: Drop Out, Be In

Hippies were known for shucking convention. “Be-In in Central Park”, one of the Summer of Love photos by Nathan Farb.

On January 14, 1967, about 20,000 hippies attended The Human Be-In, a fabled gathering in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The notion caught hold. On March 26—Easter Sunday—Lou Reed (who at the time was getting the Velvet Underground off the ground) and 10,000 other hippies attended the Central Park Be-In, which was later immortalized in the musical Hair. These Be-Ins were the prequel to what became known as the “Summer of Love.” In San Francisco, an estimated 100,000 young people from across the country came with “a flower in their hair” to enjoy the summer and its ethos of “free love.”

Slide 5: Hour of the Flower Power

Everything you wanted to know about hippies.

On July 7, 1967, Time magazine introduced its readers to the flower children phenomenon. In the cover story, “The Hippies: Philosophy of a Subculture,” Time reported, “Their professed aim is nothing less than the subversion of Western society by ‘flower power’ and force of example.” The article then went on to say that part of the “hippie motto” was: “Do your own thing, wherever you have to do it and whenever you want.” Further, Time said, “The key ethical element in the hippie movement is love—indiscriminate and all-embracing, fluid and changeable, directed at friend and foe alike. … What offends, perplexes and yet also beguiles the straight sector is hippie-dom's total disregard for approbation or disapproval. ‘Do your own thing,’ they say, and never mind what anyone else may think or do.”

Slide 6: Time for Homosexual Panic

The American homosexual gets his own cover story.

On Oct. 31, 1969, Time devoted it cover story to “The Homosexual in America.” According to Time “inverts” are divided into six “homosexual types.” Time reported: “Though they still seem fairly bizarre to most Americans, homosexuals have never been so visible, vocal or closely scrutinized by research. They throw public parties, frequent exclusively ‘gay’ bars (70 in San Francisco alone), and figure sympathetically as the subjects of books, plays and films. Encouraged by the national climate of openness about sex of all kinds and the spirit of protest, male and female inverts have been organizing to claim civil rights for themselves as an aggrieved minority. Their new militancy makes other citizens edgy, and it can be shrill. … Most straight Americans still regard the invert with a mixture of revulsion and apprehension, to which some authorities have given the special diagnostic name of homosexual panic. A Louis Harris poll released last week reported that 63% of the nation consider homosexuals ‘harmful to American life,’ and even the most tolerant parents nervously watch their children for real or imagined signs of homosexuality.”

Slide 7: The Hippie Faggot Appears

In Generation Kill, the HBO adaptation of Evan Wright’s Rolling Stone series, “The Killer Elite,” Sgt. Maj. John Sixta (Neal Jones) asks Cpl. Josh Person (James Ransone), shown above, “What are you, some kind of goddamn hippie faggot?” (Sitka was upset because Person had his shirt untucked.)

The late ’60s were a time of both “sexual revolution” and the accompanying counterrevolution. The Stonewall Riots in Greenwich Village gave birth to what was known as “gay liberation,” and “gay lib” groups sprang up across the country. Soon thereafter uber-patriots in what was then termed “straight” culture conjoined their distaste for hippies and fear of homosexuals. They coined the term “hippie faggot,” (Similarly, a synonym for hippie was “dirt faggot.”)

Consider these blog posts from angry knuckle draggers:

- Drew5337 asks: “Is Austin full of slack jawed hippie faggots like Boulder, or is it just ‘eclectic’?”

- Finski: “I’m still not really anti-whale so much as I am anti-whale hugging hippy faggot. Fuck those guys. I hope they all drown with a harpoon up their ass.”

- Marcus Halberstram: “It was such a big fucking deal that Geithner owed back taxes, while I'm sure a ton of these hippie faggot journalist probably do too.”

Moving away from anonymous hyperbole, in his 2003, Rolling Stone series, “The Killer Elite,” embedded reporter Evan Wright relates the following scene: “A few days before moving out of its desert camp in Kuwait to begin the invasion, [Cpl. Josh Person’s] unit was handed letters sent by schoolchildren back home. Person opened one from a girl who wrote that she was praying for peace. “ ‘Hey, little tyke,’ Person shouted. ‘What does this say on my shirt? U.S. Marine! I wasn't born on some hippie-faggot commune. I'm a death-dealing killer. In my free time I do push-ups until my knuckles bleed. Then I sharpen my knife.’ ”

Slide 8: Question Authority

Elliot on an LSD trip with a girl and guy he met at Woodstock.

It was a time when young people, like Elliot, began to question socially prescribed roles, particularly those dealing with gender. In Taking Woodstock, the music festival allows Elliot a chance to display his sexual preference outside of the gay ghetto he inhabited in New York, as when he publicly kisses Paul (Darren Pettie), the hunky carpenter who is helping build the Woodstock stage.

Slide 9: Gay Hippies

The Cockettes, a gender-bending San Francisco theatrical troupe. Members included the actor Divine and Sylvester, who would later find fame as a disco diva.

Hippies were at the forefront of questioning gender assumptions. “The hippie movement, the counter culture, offered, especially on the part of the male hippie, a softened view of masculinity, a nontraditional presentation of self,” says John D’Emilio, a professor of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Sex could be about love rather than duty and family. Their unconventionally in style of dress and their sexual values made hippie culture seem welcoming and tolerant, a safe space. For younger gay men who were coming of age, the counter culture was a place you could be your self and not have to hide and feel bad.”

And hiding was not something done by members of the Cockettes, a gay theatrical troupe founded in 1969 in San Francisco by hippies that attracted a loyal following in the three years of its existence. The term “genderfuck” was coined to refer to what the Cockettes did by showcasing men in drag with beards.

Slide 10: The Hippie Lovefest

This photo from an early gay rights march came to define a movement.

“Some analysts or historians will say that the hippies were not as tolerant or non traditional as we think they were,” says D’Emilio, who is also the author of Intimate Maters: A History of Sexuality in America. “But that doesn’t matter because, at the time, a lot of time people thought they were non-traditional and tolerant. So if you think that and you are gay, the hippies are creating a welcome space for you. There is this iconic gay liberation poster form the early ’70s, a gay march or in New York, and if you took away the text and saw the men and women, it would look like a hippie lovefest. It makes you want to be there.”

Slide 11: A Woodstock Alumnae

Vernita Gray, a Woodstock veteran, celebrates Barack Obama’s election last fall.

“I can’t believe Woodstock was 40 years ago when I was two,” says Vernita Gray of Chicago with a laugh. Gray and her girlfriend Michelle Brody flew from Chicago to New York and then hitchhiked up to Woodstock. “We got a ride with an older Jewish gentleman who knew the back roads and lectured us on the dangers of hitchhiking,” she says. “We arrived on Friday just as the water ran out and on time for Richie Havens.”

Slide 12: Freedom to Be

In this, the only known photo on the first night of the Stonewall Riots, queer street kids tussle with police in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969. The riots continued for the next few days.

“We were totally hippies. I had an afro and didn’t want to conform to a lifestyle that was uncomfortable, wearing high heels, being someone I wasn’t,” says Vernita Gray. “It was also about getting in touch with my real self. We called it the counter culture. For me to be a hippie was to question my life—who I was, how I really felt. And it was about respecting differences. That was wonderful. To do your thing. To be who you are. If I had not been a hippie, I would not have been able to be a gay activist. Being a hippy allowed me to be free. And once I got in touch with who I was there was no closet for me.” Today Gray works as the Gay and Lesbian Liaison for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, a job working for “the man” that was unimaginable 40 years ago.

Slide 13: The Stonewall Connection

Stonewall Rioters take the streets.

Vernita Gray continues her story, “In 1969, I had just come out, and it was there at Woodstock that I first heard about Stonewall. Michelle found a muddy leaflet talking about Stonewall and gay liberation. And I told Michelle, ‘When we get back to Chicago we have to start a gay lib group.’ And we did.” The first two buttons they made read, “How Dare You Presume I Am Straight” and “Out of the Closet and into the Streets.” “We were hippies—gay hippies,” she says. “To commemorate the first anniversary of Stonewall in 1970 we came up with the first gay pride march—120 hippies marching down State St. This past year there were more than 300,000 people in Chicago for the march.”

Slide 14: Stonewall Generation

Gay poet Allen Ginsberg, shown here in 1969, was inspired by the Stonewall Riots.

Upon hearing of Stonewall, poet Allen Ginsberg, who lived down the street remarked, "Gay power! Isn't that great! ...  It's about time we did something to assert ourselves." And upon visiting the seedy Stonewall Inn for the first time, he told the Village Voice’s Lucian Truscott, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful—they've lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”

Slide 15: The Journey to Woodstock

Woodstock traffic jams.

Not everyone who went to the festival arrived. Karla Jay, a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University in New York, tells her Woodstock story. “I tried to get there with a neighbor of mine,” she says. “We went up there somewhere and it got dark, and somehow he turned on to some dirt road and the car went spinning down an embankment. We got these hippie farmers to come with a tractor and get us out of there. I remember them saying, ‘That must have been some pot.’ The car was kind of smashed up and we never made it to Woodstock. I wish he had been stoned, then there would be a logical excuse for his driving.”

Slide 16: Gender Reassignment

A long-haired Karla Jay, second from left, with long-hair hippie friends.

Jay is the co-editor of the 1972 anthology, Out of the Closet: Voices of Gay Liberation. “There really was a strong connection between hippie and gay culture, particularly the values of free love and the idea that people should have multiple relationships and not be monogamous,” she says. “The second connection was an androgynous look that had been taken from the hippie movement, men were supposed to wear long hair, wear beads and look feminine. And women were to look more boyish, and sometimes in the radical gay movement people were actually criticized for looking like their birth gender. My co-editor Alan Young had a beard and liked to wear boots and people thought that was too masculine. And I used to have long hair and when I cut it short people thought I was making a political statement, it was just that my hair was too long.”

Slide 17: The Problem with Orgies

The Angels of Light perform in drag singing William Blake’s “Nurse’s Song” at the Psychedelic Venus Church, in Berkeley, California, in August 1971. (Photo: Mark Green.)

Not everything was hunky dory for gay men in hippie culture. Orgies were particularly problematic. “There was some bias against gays, particularly in the free love part of the movement,” says Jay. “When people had orgies, lesbian activity was acceptable, and heterosexuality was acceptable, but male-male activity was often frowned upon. In the Sexual Freedom League in San Francisco, for example, some members of that group were looking for non-homophobic alternatives, and one of the alternatives they formed was the Psychedelic Venus Church in Berkeley.” Marijuana was the sacrament of “the church” which was founded in 1969, and met until 1972. Each orgy began by men and some women licking honey off of the private parts of a woman who was chosen to be the Venus for the meeting.

Slide 18: A Big Dysfunctional Family

Same hippies, different Gay Liberation Front poster.

“The Gay Liberation Front was a big dysfunctional family,” says Jay, who is also author of Tales of the Lavender Menace: A Memoir of Liberation. “We operated as a very loose organization, and our political views were very radical. We weren’t focused exclusively on gay issues. Today’s organizations are very structured, very much like corporations. They tend to have a single focus. I am not saying that is bad. I’m just saying they are very different and the times are very different.” But then, she is not exactly saying that it is good.

Slide 19: Different Gay Tribes

Gays, including Randy Wicher, looking as straight as they come, picket the White House in 1965.

It takes all types to make a movement.

Back in the day, gay lib wasn’t every girl’s idea of a tea party. In 1965, Randy Wicker had marched in the first gay picket line in front of the White House. Yet he watched the riotous Stonewall punks and was not amused. He told Martin Duberman, “Screaming queens forming chorus lines and kicking went against everything that I wanted people to think about homosexuals ... that we were a bunch of drag queens in the Village acting disorderly and tacky and cheap.”

Slide 20: Hippies Not Welcome

Out in Berkeley, California, the only gay bar in the city, the White Horse Inn, refused to serve hippie faggots. Nick Benton writes in the recent anthology, Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation, “A picket line [was] thrown up in front of the bar by some gay radical brothers and sisters, protesting the fact that long-haired, hippie type gays were not welcome in the bar and that touching was, naturally in that day, also prohibited.” Such discrimination is not unusual within freedom movements. In their drive for mainstream acceptance, the gay and lesbian movement, like the civil rights movement before it, has been divided over how much to compromise in efforts to gain mainstream acceptance. Older gay men, for whom just being able to go to a gay bar was a huge step forward, were understandably worried about loosing their toehold on propriety by associating with social outcasts like hippies or drag queens, both of whom were pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior.

Slide 21: Straight Gay

Two kinds of peas or two different pods? Jarrett Barrios, GLAAD’s new president, and Sasha Baron Cohen sashaying as Brüno.

Likewise, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) saw Brüno and did not find it funny. Denouncing Sasha Baron Cohen’s farce, GLAAD released a statement by Jarrett Barrios, a former insurance industry executive who had just been hired as the organization’s president. “I can’t help but think of all the teenage kids already getting bullied, beat up and ridiculed for being—or for being thought to be—gay. For these kids, this movie will give their tormentors one more word in the anti-gay lexicon of slurs: Brüno,” said Barrios. “[T]hose of us at GLAAD, find it frustrating and discouraging to be confronted with a movie that wants to increase America’s discomfort with homophobia, but which for much of America, seems likely to decrease its comfort with gay people.” And increase the discomfort of those who hippies would have called “straight” gays?

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