Stonewall Inn riots lead to tranquil retirement for gays in Palmetto's Palms of Manasota

PALMETTO — In the summer of 1969, New York Penal Code required women to wear three "gender appropriate" articles of clothing to avoid arrest. Police felt up lesbians for stockings, bras and panties, to make sure they complied.

To the gay clubs of Manhattan, Jeanne Brossart wore jeans.

The bars were dark and dank, with boards on the windows and eye slits on the doors. Once inside, the 34-year-old nurse knew the protocol. If the lights blink, clear the dance floor. Sit down. Act straight.

Horror stories abounded. Police jeered and strong-armed and arrested at will.

"Nobody ever thought of fighting back," Brossart remembers. Until the hot early morning of June 28, when a swelling crowd of angry patrons at the Stonewall Inn finally revolted, hurling pennies, then beer cans, then bricks, parking meters and Molotov cocktails.

Brossart knew the moment was important.

What she didn't know was that 40 years later, at the age of 74, she would be sitting with her partner in America's first gay retirement community, owing it all to those street kids and drag queens who started the fight.

• • •

The Palms of Manasota can be described as the exact opposite of the Stonewall Inn. It requires no gates, no guards. Its houses and duplexes and triplexes sit right there in the Manatee County sunshine, painted the shade of a mango smoothie, with sliding glass doors that look out onto ponds and sidewalks safe for same-sex hand-holding.

All 60 of its residents were alive in the summer of 1969, but many were deep in the closet. Al Usack worked for the CIA, where gay agents were investigated and rooted out. Joan LeBlanc was a new mother whose ticket out of her hometown was to marry a man.

They had no need to escape to New York's Greenwich Village, a magnet for men too effeminate and women too butch to pass for straight — runaways and rejects from towns across the country.

Some residents of this retirement community didn't know, until years later, about the mob-owned bar called the Stonewall Inn, or the six violent days that turned into decades of nonviolent reform, which many now attribute as the birth of the gay rights movement.

Within six months of the Stonewall Rebellion, two gay organizations formed. Two years later, the first gay pride march was held, a tradition that will continue today in St. Petersburg.

And in 1994, a retired professor came up with a novel concept, a community where the pre-Stonewall generation could live out in the open.

Like the misfits of the Stonewall, the retirees found a haven at the Palms.

• • •

Ed Kobee and Al Usack lived through the worst of it — the failed marriages, the fear of losing their government jobs. Now they were together and ready to retire.

They traveled from Washington, D.C., to a community in Florida with a big, beautiful clubhouse and sat alone at a table of eight. A nearby table of women took notice. One approached the men, to investigate.

Quickly, the questions got personal. She asked if they were married. They said no, but that they were partners.

She turned around and hollered, "Hey girls, they're single!"

The following morning, they signed up for a home at another community — the Palms.

Now 74 and 79, everyone knows them as the couple that throws big birthday bashes every year and entertains side-by-side in their living room, in matching arm-chairs.

"Our relationship truly is a marriage," Kobee said. "A lot of straight people can't comprehend."

Wendy Brand wonders what might have happened if she hadn't moved to the Palms when she did.

Until two years ago, she and her partner, Emmy Royal, lived in a small Pennsylvania town where they didn't tell most of their friends they were together. Royal, a music teacher at a conservative boarding school, didn't want to jeopardize her job.

Tired of being viewed as just "buddies," they moved into the Palms in 2007. Then, last March, Royal died of cancer.

The community planned memorials. Residents took up a special collection and built a monument to Royal, a bench with a mosaic of black and white tile that forms a piano. When Royal used to play, neighbors would sit on their porches, just to listen.

Now, the bench sits outside Brand's porch.

On a recent morning, a neighbor was over, installing new shelves in Brand's office. Another popped in, just to say hi. Brand still cries when she hears recordings of Royal's music. They understand.

When Brand submitted Royal's obituary to that small Pennsylvania town, she finally referred to herself as Royal's "partner." But the newspaper's printed version listed her as a "friend."

• • •

Only one faded rainbow flag flies in the Palms of Manasota. Is it because the people here don't need it to express themselves? Or is it because they're still afraid?

Both, residents say.

Except for a few minor incidents of vandalism, acts of rowdy teenagers they can't link to homophobia, life at the Palms is serene. On a given morning, you'll see more dogs on the sidewalks than cars on its roads.

A toy boat regatta on the pond is the year's biggest to-do.

That the Palms even exists is a sign of how far gay seniors have come on the journey that began with Stonewall. In the future, its residents hope, life in a gay retirement community will be just one of many happy options, more of a cultural choice than a long-needed refuge.

John Dorr, a 79-year-old Episcopal priest, took refuge here.

For decades, he confined his sexuality to secret trysts in hotel rooms while his wife, kids and parish were back at home. The split within himself made him sick. He was hospitalized twice. He contemplated suicide.

"The closet is a very, very terrible place," he said. "Forty years in it ..."

In the late '90s, Dorr moved into the Palms with his partner, Bruce Wagener, establishing what they called a little monastery where they cared for the sick and the elderly.

For the first time in his life, Dorr's home, his sexuality and his religious calling all converged in the same place.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

About the Stonewall Riots

Because gay clubs were not granted liquor licenses, mob owners usually stepped in, providing watered-down drinks and overcharging patrons, then paying police off with the proceeds. Police chose earlier hours to show up at bars, to avoid bigger crowds. On June 28, 1969, they showed up at 1 a.m., a peak time for the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. Police entered, sealed the doors and lined people up, demanding identification. They had raided the Stonewall once before, earlier that week. As police dragged the struggling patrons outside, a crowd began to swell. They threw coins, then rocks, then bricks. Police retreated. Drag queens and gay runaways, joined by straight college students, would continue to riot for five more days, the first time they had ever fought against the strong-arming and corruption of the department. The event is widely recognized as the beginning of America's gay liberation.


If you go

St. Pete Pride will stage its seventh annual event today. The parade starts at 10 a.m. at Georgie's Alibi, 3100 Third Ave. N, St. Petersburg. The parade will wind through the Kenwood neighborhood before finishing up on Central Avenue near the Detour complex. The festival runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Central, between 21st and 28th streets, and features food, entertainment and more. Organizers say it's rain or shine. The official after-party is at G.Bar, which touts an appearance by model T.J. Hawke and DJ Greg Anderson and VJ Blake. No cover before 10 p.m., $5 after. G.Bar, 1401 E Seventh Ave., Ybor City. For information, go to stpetepride.com.

Stonewall Inn riots lead to tranquil retirement for gays in Palmetto's Palms of Manasota 06/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 29, 2009 6:00pm]

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