50 years after bricks and bottles flew in New York's Stonewall uprising, locals recall life then in Ohio

In their U.S. history classes this spring, students at the Arts & College Preparatory Academy in Columbus learned about the Stonewall uprising, when bar patrons in New York fought back 50 years ago not just against another police raid but against all the indignities and oppression they faced as LGBTQ people.

Social studies teacher Amanda Waluzak has taught about Stonewall for 12 years now at ACPA, where about half the students identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual, and two in 10 identify as transgender, genderfluid or nonbinary. She tells students how Stonewall fits into the broader fight for civil rights — for African-Americans, for women, for Latinas and Latinos — and talks about the intersectionality of many who did the fighting.

But as the bricks and bottles flew in New York and ignited a movement, life for LGBTQ people in Columbus in 1969 was largely hidden from the view of families, workmates and non-LGBTQ friends.

“I don't remember the first time I heard about Stonewall,” said Steve Shellabarger, 74, who helped lead Columbus' evolution on LGBTQ rights but recalls what things looked like at the beginning. “We never thought about things changing. It never crossed our minds. We thought that was the way life would be forever.”

In a booth at Union Cafe, he sits amid the fruits of 50 years of struggle for civil rights and acceptance. A video screen scrolls through Pride events. The outdoor patio is empty at midday, but a man sits at the bar with his arm around his boyfriend. Light shines in, and lunch is served.

Shellabarger described the fear people lived with and the world they lived in. Laws were stacked against LGBTQ people. A Columbus ordinance requiring people to wear clothing associated with their gender had been on the books since before the Civil War. Ohio had a sodomy law dating back to the Victorian era.

Being outed could cost people their jobs. Shellabarger remembers seeing one of his professors from Ohio State University walking in the door of a party. “He saw me, turned white, and turned around and left,” he said.

A month before Stonewall, a 19-year-old man stood trial at the Franklin County Courthouse, accused of killing a 47-year-old “bachelor.” He confessed and also admitted stealing the man's wallet and watch, then high-tailing it to Florida in the man's car. But he said his victim had made “homosexual advances.” He was acquitted on all counts.

Shellabarger was a couple of years out of OSU in 1969, teaching history at Whitehall-Yearling High School. He was chosen to present roses to drag queen Dolly Divine at the Berwick Ball, an annual invite-only Halloween party begun in the mid-1960s as a holiday end-run around Columbus' drag ban.

Tradewinds was one of three or four gay bars in town. Located in the dilapidated Short North train station, its windows were covered and there was no sign. Patrons came in through the back.

Shellabarger doesn't remember police raids, but he remembers police coming in often.

“I don't think there was ever a night when police didn't walk through the bar,” he said.

***

Tony Haslett stands behind a curtain at the Tremont Lounge 30 minutes before his Sunday gig as Georgia Jackson, the drag persona he's donned for 47 years. On the other side, the big front windows are swung open and men are sitting inside and outside the bar on a bright afternoon.

He remembers his first visit to a gay bar during his senior year at Central High School in 1972. It was called the Cat's Meow.

Police coming into bars would send drag queens scurrying, he said. The Columbus law, which said, “No person shall appear upon any public street or other public place … in a dress not belonging to his or her sex,” was struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court in 1975. (The General Assembly rescinded the sodomy law in 1972.)

Haslett laughs over happy memories. “I look back at pictures and think, ‘Oh, my God. What a mess,'” he said. He met his best friend that night at the Cat's Meow.

But there are dark memories, too.

“There was a whole lot of gay-bashing. Guys would get in cars and wait outside bars to catch gay guys,” he said. “No one reported it. If they reported it, their families would find out.”

Was it frightening? “It was just reality,” Haslett said.

***

Jeanne Heald sits in her office at the newly renovated home of Stonewall Columbus, the LGBTQ center named after the uprising. She's the development director for the center, which is kicked into high gear for Pride week.

The 67-year-old moved to Columbus in 1969 from New Jersey with her high-school sweetheart after both won academic scholarships to Ohio State.

She and Susan are celebrating 50 years together this year. They've been married for five.

“When I first fell in love, I didn't think there was another gay couple in the world,” Heald said. “It wasn't something you shared. You just knew it wasn't quite the norm.”

She remembers gay people joking that the American Psychiatric Association considered homosexuality a mental disorder — it was changed to a “disturbance” in 1973 and not dropped entirely until 1987 — but said that type of view also kept people from thinking they had any right to be treated equally.

“It never occurred to me that I wanted to get married,” she said.

Still, Heald has been fortunate to find acceptance in her family. She and Susan never went through the typical charade of maintaining the appearance that they had their own bedrooms. They didn't announce their relationship to the world, but they didn't go through the effort to hide it, either.

“I never came out,” she said, putting the words in air quotes. “I didn't know I was supposed to.”

***

At the Arts & College Preparatory Academy, Waluzak will teach her history students about Stonewall again next school year. And for the first time, it might be part of the curriculum for every other Ohio high school student, as well.

The state Board of Education is expected to vote this summer on an updated social studies model curriculum that adds LGBTQ civil rights to the topics covered in American history classes. It was a recommendation from a group of teachers that included Waluzak.

“It's a very broad mention,” she said, but it includes the Stonewall uprising and the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 ruling on marriage equality.

“To me that was just a glaring omission,” Waluzak said. “An omission can speak volumes.”