June 1, 2009 / 4:02 PM / 8 years ago

NY exhibit on gay rights hits amid marriage debate

<p>The Gay Liberation Front marches on Times Square in a 1969 photo. REUTERS/Diane Davies/NYPL, Manuscripts and Archives Division, Diana Davies Papers</p>

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As exhibitions go, the New York Public Library’s “1969: The Year of Gay Liberation” could hardly have chosen better timing.

With debate raging over same-sex marriage across the United States, the library in midtown Manhattan opened the exhibit on Monday to mark the 40th anniversary of the so-called Stonewall riots that triggered the modern U.S. gay rights movement.

Photos, documents, clippings from the gay media and other artifacts illustrate what was a shocking development at the time: homosexual men and women coming out of the closet to demonstrate for their civil rights, often at great risk.

The free exhibit will run at the main branch all of June.

“We tend to forget how radical these activists were. They risked their lives and safety for this cause. That’s what this exhibition is about,” said Jason Baumann, the curator.

Starting around June 28, 1969, the Stonewall riots refer to a week of violent clashes on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village between patrons of a gay bar called the Stonewall and police who had periodically raided the bar, arresting gays under morals laws of the era.

The crackdown was also tied up in a dispute between the mafia that owned the bar and corrupt police officers seeking payoffs for protection, but it unleashed a year of protests culminating with the first gay pride parade in 1970.

The exhibit chronicles groups such as the Gay Liberation Front, the Radicalesbians and the Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries who took to the streets at a time when protests against the Vietnam War were raging and the Black Panthers were fighting for African-American rights.

It also serves as a reminder of how far gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people have come in 40 years, to the point where now they are fighting for same-sex marriage rights.

Massachusetts approved same-sex marriage in 2004, and five other states have followed suit, although California’s law was overturned by a ballot initiative. Several states extend same-sex civil unions. [ID:nN26431060]

Further battles on the issue are expected across the country.

“It’s perfect timing. It’s topical,” Baumann said of the New York exhibit. “This is not a strategy by the library on marriage. But the library has taken a stand that this history is worth presenting. This is an issue people need to know about.”

Editing by Mohammad Zargham

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