So-Called Stonewall Vets Squawk About Parade Grand Marshals

So-Called Stonewall Vets Squawk About Parade Grand Marshals

A group that is best known for its founder’s false claim that he was arrested during the 1969 Stonewall riots and his Cadillac was towed by police during that event is loudly complaining because it was not selected to be a grand marshal in this year’s march.

“It’s very clear that regardless of what anyone thinks of any Stonewall veteran, the reality is that the Stonewall veterans should have been picked as the leader of the pack,” Willson Henderson, formerly Williamson Henderson, the founder of the Stonewall Veterans Association (SVA), told Gay City News. “It’s a no brainer… Stonewall 50, you’re not going to pick the Stonewall veterans?”

The group’s exchanges with Heritage of Pride (HOP), the organization the produces New York City’s Pride Parade and related events, began on April 25 when Henderson called HOP to make demands for SVA’s participation in this year’s march, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of the riots that mark the start of the modern LGBTQ rights movement.

SVA demanded an “honorarium,” five convertibles for its contingent, and that the group lead the parade. HOP had announced the grand marshals, who lead the parade, for this year’s march on April 11, two weeks earlier. The Gay Liberation Front (GLF), an LGBTQ rights group that formed immediately after the riots, is one of the five grand marshals. The GLF members represent the community’s history and early radical spirit.

“Those were the three things and I told her that if all three cannot be met, we’re not interested,” Henderson said, referring to Zoe Gorringe, the HOP event coordinator who works primarily on the march.

In a series of emails, which Gay City News has seen, that followed that conversation, HOP declined to meet any of SVA’s demands. Maryanne Roberto Fine and David Studinski, the HOP co-chairs, responded with the studied tone that HOP staff and volunteers use when dealing with conflict.

“Members of SVA have also expressed concern as to the presence of participants in the Stonewall Uprising not being represented in the Grand Marshals,” they wrote in an April 29 email to Henderson. “We assure you that participants in the Uprising are among the contingent representing the Gay Liberation Front (GLF). With more than 700 groups in the March, we also fully expect individuals who participated in the Stonewall Uprising, along with many more Stonewall Era Trailblazers, will be present throughout this year’s March.”

The HOP officials described the process for selecting grand marshals as an “open, transparent system” that is “a careful deliberative process designed so that anyone in the entire community is able to engage if they so choose.”

Anyone can nominate and lobby for a grand marshal, and groups and individuals can nominate and lobby for themselves. The nominees are vetted by HOP then voted on in a public meeting. The vote on this year’s grand marshals occurred last October. Not every person or group that gets votes accepts a grand marshal slot so HOP volunteers and staff first ask the top vote getter to be a grand marshal. With a refusal or no response, the second-place finisher is asked and on through the list until HOP gets a “Yes.” SVA was nominated and received votes. That GLF is a grand marshal suggests that group received more votes than SVA.

Henderson has claimed since 1994, when the 25th anniversary of the riots was celebrated, that he was arrested during the riots and that his Cadillac was towed from the scene of the riots by police. Henderson also claims that SVA was founded in July 1969, the month after the riots. SVA was founded following the 25th anniversary celebration.

Henderson has no arrest record from 1969 nor does his name appear in the criminal court docket books from that time., a website administered by historians David Carter and Jonathan Ned Katz, obtained the police records from the riots. They list the people arrested and contain a complaint made by a Volkswagen owner who said her car was damaged during the melee. They do not mention Henderson or a Cadillac. Carter’s 2004 book, “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” the definitive account of that event, does not mention Henderson.

Henderson was arrested twice in 1978 during a dispute with his fellow tenants in an East 14th Street apartment building. Those charges were dismissed and the arrest records are sealed, but they are discussed in a 1978 article by playwright Robert Chesley in Gaysweek. Henderson discussed his Cadillac in that article, but said nothing about a 1969 arrest or the car being towed at Stonewall. He was also arrested for prostitution and coercion in 1977 under the name Chad Lawson. He pleaded guilty in that case.

The SVA members are also incensed by an encounter that Julian Sanjivan, HOP’s volunteer march director, had with Rusty Rose, an SVA member, on April 27 at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center where Sanjivan works. When pressed by Rose about SVA’s role in the march, Sanjivan, who uses the pronouns they, them, and their, apparently declined to discuss it saying they were at work.

“Being a QPoC does not exempt you from the dynamics of privilege, especially the intersection of gender and age,” Kelsie Jones, an SVA member, wrote in an April 29 email to Sanjivan. “As a masculine-presenting non-binary identifying young person, you need to check your privilege and your attitude when speaking with your elders, especially those who present and identify as female.”

Gay City News has observed Sanjivan in multiple public meetings for over two years when they or HOP were criticized, sometimes angrily. If they responded, it was typically with a polite, “Thank you for your feedback.” Beginning in 2018, HOP adopted a code of conduct for volunteers that requires them to conduct themselves with respect for others both inside and outside the organization. Sanjivan was a proponent of that code.

In their email, Studinski and Fine wrote that it was “inappropriate” for “Rusty to engage with Julian on a clearly HOP-related issue while Julian was at work, and to disregard Julian’s multiple requests that they continue the discussion when Julian was not at work.” Referring to the Jones email, they wrote, “We are extremely concerned by the tone and content of Kelsie’s ad hominem attacks on Julian in her follow up email, including references to their immigration status, gender identity and employment. These are not only inappropriate, but counter to the shared goals of our movement for respect, equality and liberation.”

The SVA members are unmoved.

“It’s a great insult to the Stonewall veterans and it’s making a mockery out of gay history,” Henderson said. “It’s rude, it’s ignorant, it’s disrespectful.”