Fifty years ago this month, police raided a gay bar in New York City called the Stonewall Inn.
It was a common occurrence at the time, but on this night, patrons – trans women of color, lesbians, drag queens and gay men – said “enough.” The raid ignited six days of protests and became known as the Stonewall Riots – largely credited with sparking the modern gay rights movement.
At StoryCorps, Alexei Romanoff, an 82-year-old gay rights activist, remembers growing up in New York in the 1950s before the Stonewall uprising. He recounts a mentor who taught him the value of gay pride — long before he organized demonstrations at a gay bar in Los Angeles, marched in pride parades or served as LA Pride’s Grand Marshal.
Romanoff met the mentor as a teenager in New York City’s Bryant Park, where he and his friends would hang out because they were too young to get into bars. Back then, he says, he was self-assured but private about his sexual orientation.
“He was about 86 years old and to this day, I don’t know his real name. All I know him by is what we called him — Mother Bryant,” Romanoff said.
Mother Bryant would tell the group stories about living as a young gay man in the late 19th century. He’d been beaten by the police and felt forced to move to New York City, “where he’d be anonymous,” Romanoff said.
“Here was a man that openly spoke out about being gay, and I was needing that kind of tutoring to feel good about myself,” Romanoff said. “I was never ashamed of being gay but, I gotta admit, I hid it.”
In the mid-1950s, faced with discriminatory housing practices, gay men would often lie and call their partners their brothers, Romanoff said. When he planned to move into a new apartment in New York City and was confronted by the landlord, his mind flashed to something Mother Bryant once told him.
“He said, ‘When you’re ready to leave this Earth, as I am, if you haven’t left your community in a better place than you found it, then you haven’t lived.’ And I wanted to live,” Romanoff said.
Romanoff took Mother Bryant’s lesson to heart.
“So I said, ‘He’s my partner and my lover’… And the landlord looks at me, says, ‘OK, here’s the key,’ ” he said. “I got goosebumps and I looked up and I said, ‘Thank you, Mother Bryant. I will never lie about being gay again.’ And I haven’t to this day.”
After all these years, Romanoff said, he hopes he’s like Mother Bryant. “He was responsible for making me proud of who I am.”
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren and Liyna Anwar.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.