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People often think of the modern gay rights movement beginning in 1969, after New York activists clashed, violently, with police in what came to be known as the Stonewall rebellion. But in the autumn of 1968, a series of criminal trials on Long Island demonstrated that gay men could band together to resist police harassment. Jon Kalish has this report as part of NPR's yearlong series looking back at 1968.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: In 1964, Karl Grossman took a job at a daily newspaper called the Long Island Press, where he covered crime in the courts. He soon realized that, every summer, he'd get a call from the cops.
KARL GROSSMAN: Every year, there was this tradition, I found out, of police raiding the gay communities of Fire Island and arresting oh, 25, 30, up to 40 fellas and charging them with sodomy and other crimes.
KALISH: Fire Island lies off the southern shore of Long Island and includes a community called Cherry Grove Grossman was struck that the police were eager to feed him personal details about the gay men they had arrested there.
GROSSMAN: And not only was I given the names and the addresses but, also, where they worked. The cops very much wanted me to mention that one of them worked at this bank, or one of them worked at this library. I mean, clearly, the cops were after the jobs of these men.
ESTHER NEWTON: This was what we lived with back then.
KALISH: Esther Newton is a retired anthropology professor who wrote a memoir, titled "My Butch Career," and another book about the history of Cherry Grove. The Cherry Grove book chronicles the police raids, which began in the early 1950s and focused on a half-mile wooded area known as the Meatrack, where gay men congregated to have sex outdoors.
NEWTON: You weren't allowed to bring any lights. No lights. This was a strictly anonymous kind of thing, and it's similar to what was going on in gay baths. It kept growing. It was really popular.
KALISH: NPR was unable to locate any of the men arrested on Fire Island a half-century ago, but author Esther Newton recorded an interview with one of them for her book on Cherry Grove. That man, Nat Fowler, is now deceased.
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NAT FOWLER: After the bars would close, everybody was just going into the bushes. In spite of the fact that we might be caught, we would still go down to the rack. We were scared, but we still would go.
KALISH: In the recent documentary "Cherry Grove Stories," a retired lawyer named George Cabell recounted how he managed to avoid getting caught during a police raid of the Meatrack.
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GEORGE CABELL: I was out in the rack. And, all of a sudden, headlights just went on. I knew it was a raid, and I could just see my career going up in smoke if I got caught. So I headed for the bay, sat down on the muck and mud of the bay until the sun came up. I did not get arrested.
KALISH: An early gay rights group known as the Mattachine Society played a key role in organizing efforts to stop the police raids. Mattachine's president, Dick Leitsch, is now deceased. But before he died, he recalled in an interview that some gay men in Cherry Grove rebuffed volunteers from his group, who distributed fliers advising against pleading guilty.
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DICK LEITSCH: We were out there with thousands of them and handed them on the walks, and the queens got so hostile. What are you doing? Don't you dare do this. You're creating waves. Don't cause trouble.
KALISH: But some took the fliers and took them to heart. In late August, 1968, police arrested 27 men. A few of them pleaded guilty to consensual sodomy and paid a fine. But 22 men fought the charges with the help of a prominent Long Island lawyer retained by the Mattachine Society. In the fall of 1968, attorney Benedict Benny Vuturo demanded jury trials. Reporter Karl Grossman was in the courtroom.
GROSSMAN: Benny said there's terrible crimes on the mainland of Long Island - murders and rapes. And here the cops go, and they beat the bushes and try to find these gay fellows, who are not harming anyone. The juries, one after another, concurred, and they found the defendants not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. And that was the end of the police raids on Fire Island.
KALISH: Attorney Benedict Vuturo was hoping to lose one of the trials so he could challenge New York's sodomy law, but he won every case. The state's sodomy law was overturned 12 years later.
For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish in New York.
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