Sitting on his sun-soaked porch in Vermont, Fred Sargeant prepares to tell me “the real story about Stonewall, as opposed to the nonsense that you hear today.” Straightforward, principled and smart, Sargeant is one of America’s foremost gay rights campaigners. Still active in the fight for equality, his lineage can be traced to the frenetic political agitating of New York’s Greenwich Village in the late 60s and early 70s.
With a quiet authority he recalls the time when the first great strides towards homosexual equality were made, when the apologetic organising of ‘homophile’ organisations gave way to the more radical gay militancy movement. Sargeant explains “it was natural for gay people to go to big cities and find themselves there – I did quite quickly.”
Sargeant soon met his partner of the time Craig Rodwell, a prominent campaigner and owner of the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, the first lesbian and gay bookshop in the world. Rodwell was already an experienced campaigner, having organised ‘sip-ins’ in an ultimately successful protest against licensing laws forbidding the congregation of homosexuals in establishments that served alcohol.
Early on the morning of 28th June 1969 the pair were passing the Stonewall bar when they saw lines of police and heard local lesbian singer Stormé DeLarverie shouting “why don’t you guys do something?” as she was being arrested, just some five or six feet away. As DeLarverie was bundled into the back of a police van the crowd erupted in anger.
The Stonewall bar was a mafia-run drinking den subject to raids by the police who were notoriously corrupt. Sargeant tells me he avoided it, adding “it would be charitable to call the place a dive; it was a dump.” The Stonewall riots were sparked by the belief that the homosexual clientele in the bar were being beaten by the police; this was a regular occurrence.
Fred Sargeant distributing leaflets to picketers at the November 1969 Time-Life building demo in NYC about a homophobic cover story. The demo led to significant changes in Time-Life’s coverage of LGB issues in April 1970.
“I saw behind the lines of protestors Marsha P. Johnson emptying a bag of trash over the windshield of a police car. But the drag queens and transvestites were separate to us; they didn’t really get involved in the riots or the campaigning.” This is at odds with the popular narrative, which seeks to rewrite both the identities of gay male transvestites like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, and the extent of their involvement in gay activism.
“When the riot happened Craig and I were well positioned because we had the bookshop. We had a mimeograph machine which is like having the only internet connection in town. So we were able to produce leaflets. We distributed these during the riots.”
Christopher Street Liberation Day poster from the New York Public Library collection
Sargeant has no regrets about refraining from engaging in the violence: “It wasn’t in our nature to throw punches. We were organisers, not combative souls.”
The Stonewall riot galvanised the struggle for homosexual equality; younger New Yorkers had lost patience with the staid and deliberately conservative tactics of groups like the Mattachine Society. Up until Stonewall there was a deliberate attempt to be conservative so as not to offend the sensibilities of wider heterosexual society. Sargeant recalls when “two lesbians on the picket line had left their assigned places in the line and were holding hands” the organiser “slapped their hands apart and said that there would be none of that.” Such behaviour enraged younger campaigners, and Sargeant and Craig “began working on the march the summer after the Stonewall riot. We teamed up with two lesbians from NYU’s Student Homophile League, Ellen Broidy and Linda Rhodes.”
“After Stonewall there was a vigil, in Washington Square Park and then people walked over to the bar. But the idea for a march that would proceed through downtown was Craig’s [Sargeant’s partner].”
The march was referred to as ‘Christopher Street Liberation Day’ (CSLD) and ‘Homophile organisations throughout the country’ were urged to show their support with parallel events. Exhausted by the administrative barriers but exhilarated by the prospect of making history, the CSLD march organisers had no idea how many people would attend. At the head of the march, Sargeant was carrying a bullhorn and wearing a violet marshal’s armband with the letters CSLD. He led the crowd in the chant: “Say it clear, say it loud. Gay is good, gay is proud.” Turning around, Sargeant “was astonished; there were thousands of people carrying signs and banners, chanting and waving to surprised onlookers.”
“We were concerned about what the police might do. In the US back then, when the police had disdain for you, they would turn their back on you to show it. All the police right along the route of the march had their backs turned to us.”
Homophile Youth Movement leaflet produced and distributed by Craig Rodwell and Fred Sargeant
Today the police have a very different relationship with Pride parades, decorating themselves in rainbows in an attempt to atone for a past of enforcing homophobic laws. But New York City (NYC) Pride, the march Sargeant was instrumental in founding, has banned police all together until 2025. This, according to organisers, is to “create safer spaces for the LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities.”
Sargeant is a former police officer, the first out gay man to join the Stamford Police Department. To him, the banning of police from NYC Pride is reminiscent of the enforced dress codes and sectarianism of the early homophile movement. He explains:
“I never would have even thought that I would live to see the day that Heritage of Pride, the inheritors of the Christopher Street Liberation Day Umbrella Committee, would introduce dress regulations, discrimination and division into the march. They’ve succeeded in making the march less relevant to the vast majority of LGB people, in service to a vocal, whiney minority.”
NYC Pride has become catch-all for trendy, woke causes, incorporating outrage at everything from police brutality and coronavirus to poverty. But in the early days the need for homosexual equality was urgent, and whilst Sargeant was personally sympathetic to other issues, including fundraising for the Black Panther Breakfast Program, the focus was necessarily laser sharp:
“Craig and I both felt that we had to do something just for gay people. There were people within different groups that had joined to get the march to be larger and more inclusive in terms of people in the radical community in New York. But we said, no – this is something that we have to do for ourselves.”
Sargeant still believes it is important that organisations exist just to support those who are lesbian, gay or bisexual. He regretfully notes the organisation local to him in Vermont is now staffed almost exclusively by people who identify as either trans or queer.
Fred Sargeant today
Sargeant refuses to lock step with today’s corporate-endorsed Pride marches. He has become a vocal opponent of transgender ideology, arguing that the addition of the ‘T’ undermined the rights of those who are LGB. He first became aware of the issue when invited to a number of speaking engagements in the run-up to the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
“I started to find an undercurrent in the interviews and I didn’t really understand the direction that the movement had gone into. I was invited by the association of gay journalists in Paris to attend The Out Awards. I was stunned by what I was hearing from the much younger people that were now the face of the movement; they had no idea what Gay Liberation was about.”
“They all thought that Stonewall was started by drag queens who were really trans; but those people had nothing to do with what we did. But Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera didn’t come to the first one because they didn’t think it was going to be anything. They only started showing up a few years later when they found out that there was a very large audience of thousands of people… In 1973 Sylvia Rivera took over the microphone from the scheduled lesbian speaker and went on this five-ten-minute rant. Rivera was obviously drunk or on drugs and the crowd were booing.”
After his experience at the awards ceremony in Paris, Sargeant went on to educate himself on transgender issues, from “June till December I read everything I could get my hands on; I read things by trans people, by anti-trans people, by people, just wanting to talk about the issue… It was it was a journey for me and a lot of study. I simply didn’t know what had happened but knew I needed to figure it out before I opened my mouth.”
Having worked closely with lesbians in the early days of gay liberation, Sargeant is aware of the strain transgenderism is putting on women.
“You rarely hear anything about gay men being transphobic because they won’t consider sleeping with a trans man. But you know women can’t even have a dating app without running into a man.”
He also has concerns about the increasing numbers of children put on a medical pathway when they experience discomfort in their bodies.
“Kids are being sold a manufactured lie that their problems can be solved by stopping puberty. Even the most confident kid has some kind of doubts about themselves. Afterwards they realise they’ve been sold a bill of goods.”
Outraged by what he’d discovered about the transgender take-over of LGB rights Sargeant took to Twitter.
“The first thing that happens when you speak out is you lose friends. When I started tweeting about this back in December 2019, I immediately got blocked by number of gay friends on my Twitter account, which I was sad to see, but you know that I wasn’t there to make friends.”
Sargeant quickly built a large following but had his account closed following complaints from transgender activists. He has lost his appeal against the Twitter suspension but has now started a website www.fredsargeant.com to tell the truth about the origins of the gay liberation movement in the US and to counter the anachronistic lie that transgender women of colour started the Stonewall riots.
“We agreed we need a movement that’s our own, for same sex-oriented people and not part of a large, conglomerate LGBTQ+ ad nauseam. I think we have to step back and look at this all over again. The large organisations like HRC, are now totally trans-centred. We haven’t left them, they’ve left us.”
Along the way he has had to threaten legal action following libellous attempts to smear him. In particular, an article by Vic Parsons for Pink News, picked up by Cecilia Barzyk for TGForum, accused Sargeant of lying about his role in CSLD organising. Sargeant challenged the inaccuracies, and TG Forum issued an apology and removed the offensive section. He explains: “I laid out step by step how their statements were defamatory, and how they were actionable and what they had to do to avoid a lawsuit and at first, they only wanted to just delete it.”
Others of Sargeant’s generation, those who have lived through and helped create the massive changes social and legislative changes in the lives of lesbian, gay and bisexual people, are also beginning to speak out. Sargeant mentions his friend Tim McFeeley who was a key figure in the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) for many years. McFeeley is now also actively pushing back against the sublimation of sexual orientation in favour of gender identity.
“We agree we need a movement that’s our own, for same sex-oriented people and not part of a large, conglomerate LGBTQ+ ad nauseam. I think we have to step back and look at this all over again. The large organisations like HRC, are now totally trans-centred. We haven’t left them, they’ve left us.”
As someone who was beaten-up for simply being gay, threats of violence and slurs from transgender activists online don’t concern Sargeant. Not content to settle into retirement, Sargeant both faces the online future whilst offering a link to history.
He tells me he is heartened by the many new groups springing up across the world to challenge transgender activism, looking particularly to the LGB Alliance in the UK. A little like back in the early days of gay liberation, activists are using pseudonyms to organise under the radar. It seems once again there is an attempt to frame homosexuality as shameful.
“There’s no reclaiming the likes of HRC and GLAAD, so we need to start again. We need a new movement of gay, lesbian and bisexual people; run for and by ourselves.”
But today as back in the days of CSLD, Fred Sargeant is proud to be ‘out’ in his opinions.
“I have always used my name because I have nothing to be ashamed of… across the world tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people are standing up and saying ‘no, enough.’ There’s no reclaiming the likes of HRC and GLAAD, so we need to start again. We need a new movement of gay, lesbian and bisexual people; run for and by ourselves.”
Sargeant is a man of startling honesty, and his legacy is not just confined to the CSLD of 50 years ago, it is in the bravery and integrity he still brings to the fight for equality and justice.
Top photo by George DeSantis, publisher of QQ (Queens Quarterly) Publications, for the only commemorative record of the Christopher Street Liberation Day march called Gay Freedom 1970.