“I Was Very, Very Happy That Stonewall Had Happened.”

by Perry Brass

My name is Perry Brass, I’m originally from Savannah, Georgia. I realized I was gay, certainly by the time I was 15. And at that point I went through a real crisis. And like a lot of gay boys I tried to kill myself. When I awoke in the emergency having my stomach pumped and later after a few days of hospitalization, I came to a resolution. And that was that I would never allow anyone to drive me to suicide again. And I would be the person that I was no matter what I had to do to become that person. Next year I was a senior in high school and then after that I went to, at the age of just turning 17, I went off to the University of Georgia where I was studying art. And at Georgia, I was harassed horribly so I had heard that San Francisco was crawling with queers and that summer at the age of 17 I hitchhiked from Savannah, Georgia, to San Francisco and I lived there for about 9 months. I loved San Francisco a lot, it offered me a kind of freedom, at that point just unimaginable freedom, but I couldn’t find a job that would support me and I was tired of literally starving in San Francisco so I ended up in New York. The thing that is difficult with me living in New York is at that time New York was so abrasively difficult for gay men. We had entrapment, we had the Mafia controlling the bars, we had police harassment, and in fact a lot of gay men in New York didn’t go to bars. They did a lot of street cruising, we would go to places like Riis Park which is a gay beach, and a lot of men were scared of bars. But I had been used to going to bars so I went to bars and like I said I had been sneaking into gay bars since I was 17 and basically a month after I arrived in the city, I was barely 19, I was actually involved in a bar raid. And it was in a bar in midtown Manhattan that was a fairly swanky bar. And I was in the back room with a guy I met who I actually knew and we were told basically to freeze because the cops were in the front room where the bar itself was and there was a raid going on. Luckily, I found a back entrance to the bar and I was with this guy that I knew and we ended up in an alley. In Midtown there these alleys between buildings, and it was pouring rain and we were able to get out on the street. It was very scary to me. I was 19 years old, I had literally no money, I had a piddly job as a messenger at an art studio at that point, and the idea of being involved in a police action like that was terrifying to me. One night I was at Julius’ in the West Village which is this old former speakeasy and I liked to hang out there. I met my first lover there and in those days you would meet your friends at bars, I don’t know if that still goes on, but you would actually end up with a kind of a clique of friends, so I was there with friends, and it was a hot night in June. And suddenly the word got out, just ran through the bar that something was going on at Stonewall, around the corner from Julius’. And it kind of just went all the way through the bar and people said, “The cops had raided the Stonewall and the girls are really misbehaving”, these are the street queens. They were tearing up the place and causing a riot. But the second night which was a Saturday, things were still going on, and I did go to Sheridan Square, it was around 11:00 at night and this riot or rebellion or action was in full swing. What had been going on in New York, this constant harassment, this brutality towards gays, I hated it. And I didn’t have that attitude that a lot of people had which was, “Well, this is the way life is, we just have to accept it, we’re given our tiny bit of what I would call our ‘stylish freedom’”, in other words, if you had the money you could go to Fire Island, you could go to the Hamptons, and I knew some very stylish queens who did that and they thought this little opening of freedom was all they were going to get and they were just so happy to get it, and I didn’t have that attitude. I hated that. I really hated it. So I was very, very happy that Stonewall had happened. My story is very much the story of gay men, certainly from the middle of the 20th century to this time. I tell people that I come from four different identities that is being Southern, Jewish, growing up impoverished, which I really did, and gay. And the most primary identity that I have is that of a gay man. We have only scratched the surface, I don’t believe that we are the end of the story at all. We are at 20% of the story, I really believe that. I’d like to read just one sentence from my latest book, “The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love.” “An interesting phenomenon is the closeness of gay men to stories, perhaps because for so long most of us could not tell our own story out loud.” And that’s what I’ve been doing for I’m From Driftwood.

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