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Straight Allies 101: A History Lesson

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Monday Jan 27, 2014

One of the most encouraging aspects of the fight for equality has been the willing enlistment of what are called "straight allies." From the worlds of pro sports to entertainment, politics to business, these enthusiastic heterosexual supporters have become an integral part of the gay rights movement.

Across the board, organizations have been setting up divisions to enlist, abet and direct straight allies. The Human Rights Campaign, Movement Advancement Project, Log Cabin Republicans, National Stonewall Democrats and Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund have put together an "ally's guide."

Heterosexuals, however, are doing it for themselves. Straight for Equality and Swish are just two organizations begun by and whose membership comprises straight men and women. Yes, straight men, who years ago would have sooner died than be associated with gay rights, are happily becoming as prominent - if not more so - as their female counterparts. Swish was formerly called Straight Women In Support of Homos, but when the gals found that so many of their boyfriends and other guy pals wanted to join, the group dropped the acronym.

While we celebrate a year of victories, capped off by marriage equality in Utah and New Mexico, let us take time to reflect on a man who may have been the first straight supporter, albeit an accidental one, in the history of the modern gay rights movement.

Who it is and how it all came together will surprise and delight you.

Unless you are a hardcore aficionado of the 1960s Greenwich Village blues-folk-rock scene, you've probably never heard of Dave Van Ronk. Until recently, that is: Joel and Ethan Coen's latest film, "Inside Llewyn Davis," is loosely based on Van Ronk's life. The film, in wide release this month, has inspired new interest in Van Ronk, including a reissue of a three-CD retrospective, a stream of one of his performances, and a new documentary.

First, a little background: Dave Van Ronk was born from old Dutch and much newer Irish stock in Brooklyn in 1936. After flirting with jazz, Van Ronk found his true métier in the Mississippi blues revival that was just getting under way in the 1950s. That interest inevitably led him to Manhattan's Greenwich Village and the folk music revolution that was centered in the bohemian neighborhood.

Before long, Van Ronk was associating with artists who soon entered into the American mainstream consciousness, and a few who would become superstars, in particular Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. At one point, Van Ronk was considered for the latter, but fate decreed that "Peter, Dave and Mary" was not to be.

As for Bob Dylan, Van Ronk often expressed more than a bit of bitterness that the scruffy young man from Hibbing, Minn., made it in the wider world while he remained a niche player. When the young Dylan heard Van Ronk's rock-blues arrangement of a traditional New Orleans ballad about the child of a whore inevitably drawn back to the bawdy houses of his youth, Dylan "borrowed" it and made "House of the Rising Sun" one of his signature songs (pretty much the same arrangement became a monster hit for a British group, the Animals).

Nevertheless, many of the folkies who rose to fame have cited Van Ronk as an important influence. Joni Mitchell has said that his gravelly-voiced adaptation of the much-covered "Both Sides Now" is her favorite version.

Now, on to the part Van Ronk played in the LGBT equality movement. Van Ronk not only was present at the seminal event in the modern gay rights movement, the riot at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969, but he was also caught in the police roundup and arrested!

I'll let David Carter, author of the definitive historical account, "Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution," pick up the narrative:

"Two female friends had taken him out for dinner and drinks at the Lion's Head, Van Ronk's favorite watering hole, just two doors down from the Stonewall Inn. Sitting in the dining room of the basement establishment, he heard the wail of the departing police cars but, being a New Yorker, thought nothing of it.

"But then he began to hear 'a lot of yelling and screaming' and saw people running in the street, though from his limited view out of the basement window he could see only feet and legs from he knees down. His curiosity piqued, he decided to step outside. His companions tried to discourage him, but he assured them, 'I'll be right back.'

"Once outside he asked a man in the crowd what was happening and learned that the Stonewall had been raided. 'Somebody was yelling out that they didn't pay off the cops. But then somebody [else] said, "Let's pay them off!" and started to throw change at them.' The rain of coins began with pennies, which made pinging sounds as they hit the pavement and the Stonewall Inn's windows, accompanied by jeers and the shout of 'Dirty Copper!'

"While the heterosexual Van Ronk had never thought much about gay rights, he did not side with the police. 'I had been involved in anti-war demonstrations where the police descended on us like armed locusts. What I saw was yet another example of police arrogance and corruption. As far as I was concerned, anybody who'd stand against the cops was all right with me, and that's why I stayed. The cops had made themselves fairly unpopular over the years with tear gas, with dogs. Every time you turned around the cops were pulling some outrage or another. I reached in my pocket and tossed a quarter or just some pennies and around that time the heavy artillery cut in. I assume that some of the street people in the park had decided to join the fray because beer cans started flying over our heads.'"

Carter goes on to describe how more and more objects were hurled at the police. Van Ronk headed back, deciding he'd seen enough with which to regale his friends safely back inside the Lion's Head, when a policeman grabbed him. Van Ronk resisted arrest, whereupon the police wrestled the six-foot-five-inch folkie to the ground and handcuffed him to a radiator inside Stonewall, where they were holed up against the crowd.

Van Ronk thus became one of the 13 people arrested and booked on that fateful night. The New York Times reported that he was paroled on his own recognizance for assaulting a policeman. He was subsequently charged with a felony assault in the second degree. He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

Unlike so many who were present at the creation of the gay rights movement, Van Ronk declined to dine out on the event. He didn't join the group of "Stonewall veterans" and didn't even discuss the incident in his posthumous memoir, "The Mayor of MacDougal Street." Nevertheless, however much he may have played it down later in life, Van Ronk will forever remain a footnote to the Stonewall Riots.

At a time when we are honoring the straight allies who have contributed so much to our movement, it's only fitting that we should all raise a glass (or two) to one of the reluctant witnesses to history, a man who is finally getting his due and who, being a good Irish-Dutch soul, enjoyed his whiskey as much as political protest.

Sláinte!How the real-life Llewyn Davis fought in the stonewall riots.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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