Diana Davies: Revolutionary Photographer

Day 8 of the Pride 30 Project for Pride Month, 2018.

hotographer Diana Davies participated in gay liberation and the Women’s Movement from behind her camera. She was one of the primary photojournalists, along with Kay “Tobin” Lahusen, documenting the American social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, including the Civil Rights Movement, the Peace Movement, Gay Liberation, and the Women’s Movement. Davies participated in, and photographed, some of the most significant actions of the American Gay Rights Movement in the post-Stonewall period including the Gay Liberation Front’s 1969 picket of Time, Inc.; Christopher Street Liberation Day (1970 and 1971); the Lavender Menace zap staged at the Second Congress to Unite Women in 1970; the 1970 demonstration at New York University’s Weinstein Hall for the rights of gay people on campus; and the 1971 protest for gay rights in Albany, New York.

Her photographs depict many of the main players of early Gay Liberation including Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, Ellen Broidy, Rita Mae Brown, Jim Owles, Martha Shelley, and Reverend Troy Perry. Davies also took several iconic images of the Stonewall Inn, located on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, following the landmark riots of 1969, which catalyzed the modern Gay Rights Movement. Though Davies’ images of the Gay Rights and Women’s Movements have achieved iconic status, little is said about the woman behind the lens.

Born in 1938, Davies was raised in the northeastern United States. Her grandparents were union organizers, and she credits her own work as an activist to their early influence. She dropped out of high school at the age of sixteen and moved to Greenwich Village where she supported herself by working in coffeehouses. She became interested in photography and taught herself how to develop film and print photographs. In the 1960s, she worked for Broadside magazine, a small independently produced publication documenting the folk music scene, where she developed an interest in human rights. She worked as a photographer in a variety of settings including night clubs, weddings, and for major media outlets such as the New York Times. In addition to photography, she was involved in the punk rock movement of the 1970s.

Davies began photographing social movements at a time in American history when to be lesbian or gay in the United States meant that one most likely lived a closeted life unless they found their way to cities, such as New York City or San Francisco, that had gay enclaves. To participate in a gay rights demonstration, and to be photographed doing so, was tantamount to a public “coming out.” Among Davies’ most compelling and significant photographs are those documenting the activism of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), a radical, but short-lived, leftist organization modeled after the Black Panther Party and founded only a few weeks after the Stonewall Inn Riots. Unlike early homophile organizations such as Mattachine, the GLF sought to bring about collective — not only sexual — liberation by dismantling existing social structures and institutions, not integrating within them. Their mission statement asserted: “We are a revolutionary group of men and women formed with the realization that complete sexual liberation for all people cannot come about unless existing social institutions are abolished. We reject society’s attempt to impose sexual roles and definitions of our nature.” As GLFer Ellen Broidy later explained:

“We didn’t want a piece of the pie. We wanted to reconstruct the whole damn bakery.”

GLF members played an important role in the establishment of Christopher Street Liberation Day, the precursor to today’s modern Pride parades. On November 2nd of 1969, GLF members Ellen Broidy and Linda Rhodes, along with Craig Rodwell and his partner Fred Sargeant, co-authored a resolution to create an annual demonstration in commemoration of the Stonewall Riots, which they presented at the Eastern Regional Conference of Homophile Organizations (ERCHO). This new demonstration would replace the Annual Reminder Day, a picket of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall held on July 4th as a reminder that gays did not enjoy the benefits of first-class American citizenship. The resolution received unanimous support, albeit from the Mattachine Society, who thought the community should not draw unnecessary attention to itself through highly visible events.

Christopher Street Liberation Day was intended as a demonstration in the form of a march, not a parade. As Ellen Broidy later explained, “a march is a political statement; a parade is a celebration.” The first Christopher Street Liberation Day took place on June 28th of 1970. Participants assembled west of Sixth Avenue at Waverly Place with their hand-lettered signs and marched down Christopher Street, calling out to others to join them as they moved up Sixth Avenue into Midtown Manhattan. The 51-block march culminated in a party at Sheep Meadow on the west side of Central Park, a location known as a gathering place for demonstrations and social movements.

Davies also photographed the GLF’s 1969 picket of Time, Inc., in response to the magazine’s October 31st, 1969 issue that included a feature entitled “The Homosexual in America.” The article, while acknowledging gays’ newfound visibility following Stonewall and an emerging sense of lesbians and gays as an oppressed minority deserving of civil rights, perpetuated cultural stereotypes, reinforced the narrative of homosexuality as a “sickness,” and posited that acceptance of homosexuality was a symptom of social decline. “The challenge to American society,” the article stated “is simultaneously to devise civilized ways of discouraging the condition and to alleviate the anguish of those who cannot be helped, or do not wish to be.”

GLFers, including Ellen Broidy, Jim Fouratt, and Linda Rhodes, descended on the Time-Life building in Manhattan bearing signs spray painted with slogans such as: “Time, Inc., I Am a Human Being”; “Time, Inc., Don’t Dictate Morality”; and “I Am a Sexual Being.” Another sign, bearing the message “Time distorts fact. We demand an end to the exploitation of human sexuality for profit!” spoke to the consensus among GLFers that the magazine featured a story on homosexuality for purposes of titillation, not education.

The GLF, including transgender activists Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson, and the affiliated group Radicalesbians staged a five-day-long sit-in at the Weinstein Hall dormitory of New York University, after the university cancelled a GLF dance upon discovering a gay organization was hosting the event. While today a gay dance might not seem like a revolutionary event, in 1970, gays, lesbians, drag queens, and gender nonconforming people had few spaces to congregate that were not controlled by the Mafia, who used gays’ relative cultural invisibility as an opportunity to turn a profit.

The sit-in participants decided to hold a dance on September 25th of 1970. NYU’s Dean, Harold Whiteman, called in New York City’s Tactical Police Squad to disperse the protesters — an action that led to a series of demonstrations against the university for their anti-gay policies. Gay activists eventually won the right to use the venue. The Weinstein dormitory sit-in, in which street queens of color played a central role, also led to the formation of STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), founded by Rivera and Johnson as a way to organize homeless trans street youth. “STAR was for the street gay people, the street homeless people, and anybody that needed help at that time,” Rivera said.

The history of gay liberation would certainly feel less tangible if not accompanied by the photographs of Diana Davies. Today, she resides in Northampton, Massachusetts. Her photographs are archived at the New York Public Library, the Smithsonian Institution, and in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. The ethos of Davies’ social movement photographs can be summarized by the following slogan, inked onto the sign of a protestor at the 1970 Weinstein Hall demonstration:

“Gay power Black Power Women power Student power All power to the people.”

Queer History For the People

QHFTP aims to make LGBTQ history and culture available, and accessible, to all. We cannot work effectively for change unless we know where we've been and the history of those made invisible by mainstream narratives.

Jeffry J. Iovannone

Written by

Scholar-activist; Queer thinker; Primary writer for Queer History for the People; Columnist for Th-Ink Queerly. E-mail: QueerHistoryFTP@gmail.com

Queer History For the People

QHFTP aims to make LGBTQ history and culture available, and accessible, to all. We cannot work effectively for change unless we know where we've been and the history of those made invisible by mainstream narratives.