Life

“It Was Like You Were in the Private Club”

Jeremiah Newton on being gay in the ’60s, the scene at the Stonewall uprising, and cruising hot Danish sailors on Christopher Street.

Jeremiah Jay Newton.
Jeremiah Jay Newton.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Benay Phillips Diana Davies, copyright owned by New York Public Library/Wikipedia, and Rhododendrites/Wikipedia.

As the LGBTQ community reflects on the 50 years since the Stonewall riots this Pride season, Outward wanted to chat with a group of queer elders about their experiences and ask what advice they have for the generations following in their footsteps. Hence, this special, weeklong LGBTQ edition of our regular series Interview With an Old Person.

Christina Cauterucci: How old are you and where are you from?

Jeremiah Newton: I’m 70 years old. I was born in Queens, and now I live in Manhattan.

When and how did you first realize you were gay?

I think I always knew something. I wasn’t like the other boys I knew, but I didn’t know anything about the word gay. It wasn’t used back then. There was nothing to read about it at that age, and they didn’t bring children to psychiatrists or anything. That was for wealthy families. My father was very conscious of me being different, and he was always criticizing me. My mother would fight with him a lot about it.

What was his criticism about?

He didn’t like the way I held my hands. I always put my hands on my hips when I was talking.
And he said, “A real man makes his hands into fists when he puts them on his hips.” And my cousin, Dorothy, gave me a dancing doll—a rag doll about the size of me. I could dance around the room with it like I had a partner. My father couldn’t stand that. He threw it out the window, and it landed on the tree across from my window. It was there for a couple years, just waving in the breeze. My father would get so angry at it, he wanted to hire someone to chop down the tree. He died when I was 10. And I was happy when he died.

Who was your first crush?

When I was in junior high, I put two and two together and figured out what the story was with me. And there was a Norwegian boy there named Arnie—he was the most popular, everyone liked him. He was tall, big shoulders, blond hair, dark blue eyes. I used to look at him all the time. And he finally figured out why I was looking at him. Sometimes, in shop class, he’d say, “Look under the table,” and I’d look, and he’d expose himself to me.

At that time, I had a stepfather who was very anti-gay. He was always threatening to have me locked up and put away. And I stopped going to school. I got in a lot of trouble with the authorities because of that. And they committed me.

How old were you at that point?

I was about 14. They put me in a mental hospital to evaluate me. But when an adult asked me a question about sex, I didn’t even know how to verbalize it or anything. And I felt they were all stupid anyway, and they probably were. When I got out of the hospital, my stepfather was still really nasty. But I had a probation officer—his name was Mr. Simmons. He was a really, really nice black man. I told him what was really bothering me, and he said, “The next time your stepfather does something, call me.” And I did, and he told my stepfather, “If you don’t stop harassing that boy, I’m going to have you arrested. Do you understand?”

Were you hooking up with boys at that age?

No. I knew very little. The first boy that I had was the nephew of someone who lived in my building. I was 14 or 15, he was 13. He was pretty mature, a very handsome Italian American. We fooled around on the roof and it was incredible. It just—I didn’t expect anything, the feelings and everything. And he stupidly told his uncle, and his uncle told my stepfather.

Oh no.

So, I got my teeth knocked out on one side of my face. And my mother left my stepfather. Mr. Simmons wanted to have him put in jail. Then, I went to a regular high school and had crushes on different boys. They were probably gay, and they wanted to be with me, and I didn’t want to be with them. I was frightened of people finding out and causing a real problem for my life. In those days, it was very difficult to find other people like you. There were no clubs. No magazines. No books I could get my hands on.

When did you first become aware of the gay rights movement?

Probably a year after Stonewall. A friend of mine, Jenny—she was bisexual. She said, “There’s going to be a rally tonight in front of the precinct,” the one that had put the orders to raid the Stonewall. I said I wasn’t interested. I just wanted to hang out in a bar with friends. She said, “You’re a gay man. You should do something.”

So I went. There were a couple hundred people there. The cops had closed the street in front of the precinct, which was a Victorian building with a spiked fence in front. Sometime later, there was a raid at a bar called the Sewer. A young guy there was arrested, and he was illegally here in this country. They took him to that precinct, and he was so terrified that he jumped out the window and landed on the spiked fence in front of it. There were pictures in the Daily News and the New York Mirror of him writhing on the spikes.

He was alive, but he was impaled. And the cops were outside laughing and picking their noses and being totally disrespectful. Those pictures made me crazy. In fact, about 10 years ago, I was going through a dumpster, and I found a folder with the newspaper in it. And it still made me mad. It made me furious. That’s what got me into the movement, those pictures. I thought, “They can’t be allowed to get away with it.”

And you were at Stonewall during the uprising, right?

Yeah, I was there the first and the third day. I had gone earlier in the day to Riis Park, which was a gay beach. Nobody was there. And I realized they were all at Judy Garland’s funeral. So later, I was in the West Village. It was very hot that night, very steamy. And I was walking down Greenwich Avenue trying to shake off my depression about Judy Garland. She was only in her early 40s when she died. So I was thinking: What would happen to me? Would I OD sitting on the toilet somewhere? It’s funny because one of my boyfriends, that’s exactly what happened to him. It’s like I had a premonition of the future.

Anyway, someone I knew stopped me and said, “They’re raiding the Stonewall.” I said, “What else is new?” He said, “No, no, this is different.” So, we went up the block quickly and there were probably 100 people in the park across the street and on the sidewalk. The police wouldn’t turn their sirens off. They were putting booze into the back of unmarked cars. And every so often, the door of the Stonewall would open with a big clunk and the person that had been inside would cross the street and join the crowd who would say, “What happened? What’s going on? What are the police doing there?” They smashed all the toilet bowls, the bar, they broke the mirror. They were trying to frighten people.

There were a lot of officers in there, probably 20 or 30 young guys looking out the window through the little pieces of glass that were missing, and they had their guns drawn out. And if somebody had lit a match and thrown a Molotov cocktail—which was pretty standard at the time, people did it—they would have opened fire on the crowd and it would have been the Stonewall massacre.

There was a young cop guarding the front door. He kept swatting his billy club onto his hand and it would make a sound. And I thought to myself, “He’s stupid. He’s doing something very sexual and he doesn’t even know it.” And the queens in the crowd would say, “Oh honey, you want something to swat in your hand?”

Did you have any sense at the time that this would go down in history as a seminal moment in the gay rights movement?

No, no one knew that at all. If we could have looked into the future, people would have brought their camera with them, their Brownies, and taken thousands of pictures.

Yeah, it sounds like it. What was the first item of clothing that you wore when you first came out and really wanted to be seen and maybe go cruising or something?

Blue jeans or crushed velvet pants were de rigueur. Men’s clothes were so much more lovely than they are now. There was a style where people, kids, wore their mother’s silk scarves around their necks. I did it. But at the Stonewall, if you were that effeminate, they didn’t really let you in. If you were black, they wouldn’t let you in. If you were a girl, they wouldn’t let you in. If you were an old guy, they wouldn’t let you in. They kept to white boys under a certain age. At the end of the Stonewall’s long run, they may have been more open to transgender people, but they generally weren’t nice to transgender people.

The Danish fleet used to pull in at the corner of Christopher Street and the river. And all these blond guys would come to the Stonewall. God, they were fabulous, these guys. They were good-natured. They were sweet. They were lonely, and they wanted to know more about America. And when they moved where the boat was berthed, I felt really bad that something wonderful was leaving the Village.

What was your favorite age to be gay?

Well, I would love to go back to 1964 and 1965. Things were a lot more innocent then. There was no AIDS. It was like you were in the private club and it was fun spotting people like you. And in the ’70s, there was a sex explosion in the country and people were screwing everything that wasn’t nailed down. It was great. There was no shame about it

Where have you had the happiest gay moments in your life so far?

I had a boyfriend, the first one I really fell for deeply as a gay man. I was about 16, he was 15. He wouldn’t sleep with me, and I was quite an attractive boy. I don’t know what was wrong with him. But the first dance of gay Pride Week in 1970—I went to it. It was in a church. He was there with somebody, dancing. And I watched him, and he saw me, and he came over and he asked me to dance with him. We danced a slow dance. I remember, it was “Our Day Will Come,” by Ruby & the Romantics. It was a very romantic song. We made out, and I thought, “Oh, this is it. This is love.” And I never saw him again. But that night dancing with him, just for five minutes, made me happier than anything. I could have flown across the room.

Do you think there’s something special about gay relationships that straight relationships don’t have?

Yes—there is no purer love than the love between two men or the love between two women. Men really don’t understand women at all. It’s a very rare man that steps back and thinks about women, what they’re thinking. I think when two men are together, certainly they understand what they want from each other sexually—and then a step further, they understand what gay love is about, or they try to. I think they should teach classes in love. How do you love somebody? You begin by loving yourself and accepting yourself.

What advice would you give to yourself at a younger age?

Just make sure you have a tough outside. Toughen yourself up, kid. It’s a long ride.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.