By David Rosen
In the late ’60s, Michaelangelo Salcedo was one of innumerable young gay men who regularly hung out at the Stonewall Inn, the seedy mob-run joint on Christopher Street in New York’s Greenwich Village. “I went to the Stonewall to meet other young people,” he recalls. The Stonewall attracted a robust clientele of underage youths, lesbians, drag queens, transvestites, and other “less respectable” gays, especially people of color. Recalling the bar’s management, Salcedo laughs: “They let you sit at the bar all night, and all you had to do was go back to the men’s room and refill your glass with water—and make sure you kept your lemon!”
Salcedo, who recently turned 70, remembers the tumultuous days of the early gay rights movement as a period that profoundly changed his life. A Puerto Rican who grew up in New York’s Spanish Harlem, he earned a GED while in the U.S. Army and went on to receive a PhD in computer science. He spent the majority of his career as a tenured professor at the City University of New York (CUNY). Now retired, he has lived with his partner near Tampa, Florida, for the last 30 years.
To get out of El Barrio, Salcedo enlisted in the Army and, after basic training, was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado. Being away from home and meeting young men from around the country allowed him to start seriously exploring his sexuality. “Before then, I had occasional same-sex relations, but no one I knew self-identified as a homosexual,” he says. Conflicted about his attraction to men, he turned to a military chaplain, who soon after outed him as “queer.” He was forced out of the Army with an undesirable discharge (in 2011, the decision was reversed and his discharge was upgraded to honorable). He was court-martialed and given a one-way bus ticket home.
Back in the Big Apple, Salcedo started exploring his sexuality and the gay underworld that welcomed people of color. He checked out the scene at “The Deuce”—the sleazy stretch of West 42nd Street—but found it too scary. “It was a meat market!” he recalls. His life changed when he discovered Ham & Eggs, a long-forgotten 24-hour diner at 71st Street and Broadway, which attracted young gays from throughout the city. Proudly displayed inside the front door was a police warning that the restaurant was a raided premises. On weekends, with the street corner jumping, the diner attracted a number of older white men who were cruising the neighborhood with cash in their pockets. “It was the first place I went where people looked like me,” Salcedo says.
He continues: “In Spanish Harlem, homosexuality was very secretive. The only out homosexuals were the drag queens—and I didn’t want to be a drag queen!” He worried: “Is this my future?” At Ham & Eggs, a different gay persona dominated, the butch and the femme strutting their stuff. “I was mesmerized by the femmes; I guess I didn’t think I was beautiful or refined enough to pull it off.” He was searching for a different way to express himself.
Salcedo ventured into the Village after word-of-mouth suggested it was home to New York’s underground gay scene. He favored the Stonewall because it attracted people of color. He visited other Village gay spots like the Bali, the Cork, and the Sans Souci, but they tended to cater to older white guys, and he never felt welcomed.
Salcedo wasn’t at the Stonewall at 3 a.m. on Saturday, June 28, 1969, when the fateful riot broke out. But he showed up during the next couple of nights when the Village was a mini-battlefield, a witness to clashes between the old values enforced by police and the raucous new spirit demanding sexual freedom. “When I first started discovering the city’s gay scene,” he recalls, “I knew nothing about politics or gay activism.” His experience was not unlike that of many other young people. “I went to a Mattachine meeting and I was the only non-white, minority person there,” he says. “I felt out-of-sorts, like an alien.”
He recently celebrated his 70th birthday at a special get-together with friends at a Greenwich Village restaurant. With wine flowing and good cheer shared by all, each guest told heartfelt stories about the guest of honor. Every story added another piece to Salcedo’s complex and rewarding life story. Grinning like the legendary Cheshire cat, Salcedo admitted, “I’ve been on a spiritual quest my whole life.”
Reflecting on the ‘60s, he admitted, “Coming out took a long time, like peeling an onion.” He believes that Stonewall broke the barrier between the outside and inside of his (and other gay people’s) life. In the pre-Stonewall era, gay iconography consisted of stereotypes like drag queens and femme/butch personas. For Salcedo, Stonewall offered a new way to come out: as oneself. It was, he says, a way to “get in touch with who you are, of being who you really are.” For him and many of his pioneering generation, it’s a lesson well-learned—a steppingstone into living fully.