“It was my first apartment ever in my life, and I was in my 50s,” Jay Toole tells me. “Twenty times a day, I’d go to the mailbox and open it. Because I had a fucking key, you know. And I’d never had a key or a mailbox in my life.”
“Did you like getting mail?” I ask her.
“Oh yeah,” she says. “But it didn’t matter. Sundays, I’d be there. Because it was mine, and I could do that.”
We both share a laugh at checking the mail on a Sunday. Then she adds: “Now I’m looking for that again.”
It is no exaggeration to say that Jay Toole is a living legend. Born in the South Bronx in 1948 and kicked out of her family’s home at the age of 13 for being gay, she spent decades living on the street, surviving addiction, incarceration, and gender-based violence, before entering the New York City shelter system in the late 1990s. She eventually went on to become a co-founder of Queers for Economic Justice in 2002 and the director of the organization’s pioneering Shelter Project, where she spent a dozen years advocating for queer homeless people in New York City shelters. She is, in her own words, an activist, a storyteller, and a “Super Butch.” She’s a fixture in the New York City queer community; for years before I met her for this story, I was familiar with her, having seen her at countless meetings, protests, and parties. No matter the event, she always seemed to know everyone—including, often, the person next to me.
She is also a Stonewall veteran—a fact she points out no one in the mainstream media cared much about until this year.
“It’s annoying,” she says. “CNN, NBC, CBS, coming out of the woodwork and wanting to talk about Stonewall. Where were you 50 years ago? You were calling us names, that’s where you were. We were ‘degenerates.’ You didn’t give one fucking iota about us. Ten years ago. Last year! You didn’t want to talk to us.” Now that it’s the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Jay says, “everybody wants to talk.”
She shakes her head.
“You do nothing for my community. What I’m doing for you is boosting your ratings. No, you’ve had your way too long. It’s my turn now to say no.”
Jay Toole is 71 years old. She has a tight, silver crewcut—she tells me she’s been visiting the same barber in the Village for 40 years—and for our interview, she’s wearing a light-green men’s dress shirt and black jeans. She has one of the thickest New York accents I’ve ever heard (and like Jay, I come from several generations of Irish-American New Yorkers). When I tell her that I am working on an essay about my uncle who died of AIDS, and that I have often wished for more relationships with older queer people, she looks right at me and says with absolute sincerity, “Well, now you’ve got one. You’ve got an uncle.” She is talking about herself, of course, and even though it’s an intimate promise to offer within minutes of meeting a person, there is something about the way she says it that makes me believe her.
We are sitting in the living room of the small Kips Bay apartment where Jay has been living for the last year, and where I have come to interview her about her life as a queer activist and her experience during the Stonewall riots on June 28, 1969. Periodically, we go down to the front of the building so Jay can smoke a Newport, and along the way, everyone—her neighbors in the elevator, the security guard at the front desk, the middle-aged woman waiting outside for her son to pick her up—greets her with a smile and conversation.
“I like people,” she tells me at one point. “I like talking to people. I like meeting people.”
It’s a simple enough statement—but it’s striking, coming from a person who has been on the receiving end of as much violence and generally horrifying human behavior as Jay has in her 71 years. Jay was born to an alcoholic father who, along with her brother, raped her regularly, and a mother who was in and out of institutions with what Jay calls “severe mental health issues.” She estimates that she started drinking around the age of 6.
“My father used to bring me to the bar and he’d drink with the monsignor of the church,” she says. “And they’d sit me up on top of the bar and feed me sips of beer, sips of vodka.” She laughs. “So I had a real taste for alcohol.”
When she was 13, she met an older butch—a friend’s sister—who “brought [her] out.”
“What do you mean she brought you out?” I ask, even though I have a feeling.
“Sex,” she says plainly, laughing. (It’s clear, from the warmth in her voice, that the memory is a positive one.)
Florence, the older butch, and a friend took Jay down to Astor Place in the Village, where they got her a flat-top haircut and a set of boys’ clothes. When she came home that day, her father took one look at her and threw her out of the house.
She never went back, other than the occasional visit to check on her mother, when she would sometimes be recognized by neighborhood truancy officers and sent to group homes. (At one of them, she says, the nuns asked her if she was a lesbian. She told them no, even though she’d been living an out gay life for several years. “Because I didn’t know the fucking word,” she explains to me. “I thought it was [an ethnicity,] like being Irish.”)
Instead, she moved down to Washington Square Park in the Village, where she says a lot of kids who’d been kicked out by their families for being gay were living.
“The park was pretty safe,” she says. “The cops didn’t bother us too much. I’d say the ages were maybe 12 to early 20s. And we’d look out for each other.” Jay got by mostly on money she earned from small crimes—selling drugs, stealing cars, running numbers for the Mafia—and odd jobs. At one point, she got a job working security at the Bohemia, a lesbian bar around the corner from Stonewall.
“It looked like a regular bar,” she says. “But if you kept on walking to the back, you opened up this door and it was like lesbian nirvana. When the cops came, the guy in the front of the bar would hit a button, and a red light would go on in the back where I was sitting on the stage. I’d make sure there were no two girls dancing together, no two boys dancing together, hide all the alcohol, hope that everybody had identification. But the thing was, once the cops came in, somebody was going, and you just hoped it wasn’t you.”
By 1969, the year of the Stonewall riots, Jay had moved on from that job. But the police raid on the Stonewall Inn early on the morning of June 28 was by most accounts very similar to the raids that had been happening for years on the Bohemia and other gay bars—not to mention Stonewall itself, which had been raided just days before the riots. The difference that night, as historians have noted, was that patrons—and the many protesters who came from around the Village and beyond to join them—fought back.
Jay wasn’t there for the beginning of the riots, but she says “news in the Village back then spread pretty fast.” When she arrived with her friends, she says, the riots were already “in full bloom.”
“A lot of yelling, screaming, bottles being thrown, garbage cans, fires,” she says. “I had never seen so many people yelling at the cops except for that night.” The riots would span six nights in total, with the crowd outside the bar, fueled by the word-of-mouth network that Jay describes as well as local news coverage, sometimes swelling to the thousands. Protesters threw everything from bricks to pennies at the cops, defended themselves against nightstick beatings, and mocked the raiders with proudly queer theatrics like the now-famous “kick line” formed by some young queens, who faced the police with linked arms and sang, “We are the Stonewall girls / We wear our hair in curls / We wear no underwear / We show our pubic hairs.”
One year later, activists marked the anniversary of the riots with Christopher Street Liberation Day, an event that eventually became the New York City Pride March. Today, scholars often point to the riots as a watershed moment in the fight for LGBTQ rights; historian Martin Duberman, in the preface to his book Stonewall: The Definitive Story of the LGBT Rights Uprising that Changed America, describes them as the event “generally taken to mark the birth of the modern gay and lesbian political movement.”
Which is why I want to ask Jay the question that activists, academics, and journalists have debated for 50 years: What made Stonewall different? Why, after that raid, did queer people riot over six nights in an unprecedented, historic rebellion?
But I do not even get a chance to ask her the question, because she answers it before I get there.
“We were arrested all the time, so I don’t believe that’s what made Stonewall big,” she says. “It was because it was gay people, lesbians, trans people, people of color, drag queens, transvestites, Vietnam war protesters, beatniks, straight people, kids. Everybody was out there. So many different communities came together as one community that night to tell the cops: ‘Stop it. Enough is enough. The harassment, the arrests, the beatings have to stop.’”
“That’s how I think of Stonewall,” she says. “It was every form of human being, every shade of human being, every sexuality of human being, all coming together as one. It was just like, enough is e-fucking-nough.”
But when I ask her whether Stonewall was a turning point, her answer is nuanced.
“For some in the community, it felt like a turning point,” she says. “For homeless street kids, for me and the folks that I was hanging out with, it didn’t. Because we had to still survive on the streets, and nothing really changed for us.” She tells me that when the LGBT Center first opened on West 13th Street in 1984, she thought it might be safe to sleep on its front steps—but they chased her away every morning.
Throughout our conversation, Jay’s comments have been rapid-fire—she’s a raconteur who never seems at a loss for words. But her pace slows now, and it seems that she is answering my question more deliberately than any question I have asked her yet.
“The queer movement, going forward from that night, left a lot of communities behind. It left people of color, it left trans people, it left the homeless. I think on the 50th anniversary, we need to remember the communities that were left behind. And were they left behind on purpose? When we were all out there together, all fighting for one thing… so many of us were left behind.”
Jay traces her survival back to the moment in 2000 when she met Áine Duggan, an activist with Partnership for the Homeless (Duggan is now CEO of the organization). Jay was staying at the New Providence Women’s Shelter, newly clean and sober, when Duggan met her there and invited her to a panel at the LGBT Center—an event which would eventually lead to the founding of Queers for Economic Justice.
“That one queer woman, Áine Duggan, put her hand out to me and I grabbed it. And I still hold onto it,” Jay says. “And I want to make sure my hand is always out there to help another queer. It doesn’t matter what part of the community you’re from. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for another queer helping me. So who the fuck am I to be prejudiced to anybody?”
She wants to see the LGBTQ movement prioritize inclusion and solidarity. “Why didn’t certain populations in our community embrace trans people, people of color? Why weren’t they embraced and brought along with this movement? Was it too big of a scope? Too hard of a fight? Was gay marriage easier?”
In a moment in which queer people are often marginalized within our own community, at a time when the concept of unity might seem naive, Jay Toole is unwilling to throw anyone out.
“I believe in one community,” she tells me. “I didn’t live to be 71 to leave anybody behind.”
This year, in addition to marking the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, New York City was host of WorldPride, an international celebration of LGBTQ pride that travels from city to city. Some 4.5 million spectators were expected to attend the official Heritage of Pride March, which organizers predicted would be the “largest LGBTQIA+ Pride event in history.”
Jay Toole, however, wasn’t there.
Instead, she participated in the Queer Liberation March and Rally. That march, which followed the original route of the 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Day March, was organized as an alternative to the HOP march. Reclaim Pride, the coalition calling for the event, describes it as a “people’s political march,” with no police participation and no corporate floats.
“There’s two events. One is a parade,” Jay says, referring to the Heritage of Pride March. “And one is a march. To me a parade is when everybody has their rights. We’re still marching.”
And about that mailbox key: For the past two years, Jay hasn’t had one. The apartment where I’ve been visiting her belongs to the mother of one of Jay’s former interns at Queers for Economic Justice, but the woman is moving.
In the elevator on the way downstairs for one of Jay’s cigarette breaks, I ask her what she’ll do when her host moves. “I don’t know,” she tells me. “I’m not sure what’s going to happen.”
Queers for Economic Justice, the organization where Jay was a co-founder and director of the shelter program for more than a decade, shut its doors in 2014 because of funding problems. Since then, her income has been minimal; she earns some money giving queer-history tours of the Village, but that income mostly covers her medication. She’d like to go back to running support groups in the shelters, she says, but she’s not sure her health is up to it.
Walking out of the apartment building after our four-hour interview, I can’t help but think of Jay’s comments about whom the queer movement has left behind. During her lifetime, LGBTQ people have been elected to public office, won the right to marry their partners, and found themselves represented in advertising for just about every corporation in America, from Budweiser to Bank of America. A gay mayor from Indiana is even running for president.
And yet one of the community’s most beloved elders, a survivor of the historic event to which many queer people trace the history of their liberation, could once again be homeless in the fall.
“Everybody gets dragged along,” Jay told me at one point, describing her vision for true queer liberation on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. “Everybody is at the front of the march. I want to see it in my lifetime.”
I want to see it in her lifetime, too.