June 28, 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which have come to represent a turning point in the movement for LGBTQ and civil rights in the United States. Fed up with discrimination and repeated raids on their bar, patrons of the Stonewall Inn confronted police officers and took to the streets in New York City, supported by their neighbors.
While LGBTQ people had faced discriminatory treatment for years, suddenly on a hot June night in NYC the community fought back. After Stonewall, there was no turning back on the road to equality.
Denis was born in Hudson, NY, grew up in the Bronx, and lived in and around Manhattan in the late sixties. Finding a welcoming place to drink, dance, show affection and simply be gay was a challenge. Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn, a dimly lit dive bar on Christopher Street, was considered a refuge for many who sought acceptance and freedom. Denis vividly remembers being at the Stonewall on June 28, 1969 when “in the wee hours of the morning, we got raided.” Because he and his friends were “tired of being bullied by the police and pushed around …we fought back.” There was fighting. There was rallying. There were arrests. But mostly there was comrardery and energy and the sense that people were finally able to shout out loud ‘I’m gay!’ Until that fateful night, the idea of collective action against discrimination was from far from anyone’s mind. However, according to Denis, “out of the negative came a positive.” The energy of that June night stayed with people and efforts led to the creation of the Gay Liberation Front.
Although Denis claims he “didn’t get involved with activism,” he joined the Gay Liberation Front for an organized march in the fall of ’69. Little did he know then that he would unwittingly become a face of the gay liberation movement thanks to a single photograph.
Denis (in the center, wearing the trench coat) was captured by American photographer Diana Davies in a now-iconic image found in numerous books and featured on the cover of Love and Resistance: Out of the Closet into the Stonewall Era, a powerful collection of images taken by Davies and fellow photojournalist Kay Tobin Lahusen.
Denis was honored by North Shore Pride earlier this year for his part in the Stonewall riots and for being one of the first members of the Gay Liberation Front. Locally, North Shore Pride’s annual festival on June 22 in Salem is honoring the Stonewall survivors with the theme “Looking Back. Marching Forward.” Denis will be the parade’s Grand Marshall, an honor that humbles him but also leaves him a little giddy.
A bit of a wanderer, Denis left the East Coast in 1980, traveling to San Francisco where he spent five years before moving on to Reno. He found himself back east in 1989, settling in Boston. He made frequent trips on the commuter rail to Salem simply as a tourist, and immediately “felt connected.” He says “Salem just felt right for me. The flavor, style, atmosphere. I knew I belonged here.”
He would come to town for the Hawthorne Hotel’s annual Halloween Ball and holiday buffets, and the staff began to recognize him as a ‘regular.’ Denis first booked a room at the hotel in 2007 – and remembers not only the room number (618) but also the clerk who checked him in. One of his early goals was to stay in each of the hotel’s 89 rooms, but he decided to rent an apartment and officially move to Salem before that could happen. Rooms 325 and 618 are his favorites.
Denis is now a fixture at the hotel, with his favorite seat at the bar, standing reservation for holiday dinners, and known by virtually every employee. A loyal patron, he recommends the Tavern to tourists he meets around town, hand-writes Christmas cards to Hawthorne employees, and isn’t afraid to post a picture of his gin & tonic on social media. Denis, who lives with his rescue cat Molly, feels “blessed” to be a part of the Hawthorne family. Although he may claim to have not embraced activism growing up in NYC, today he is active in LGBTQ advocacy and local politics (“We need to save historic buildings, we need more affordable housing.”)
Denis jokes that “when I die I’m going to have fun and be an instigator at the Hawthorne; I’ll shake anyone who sits in my chair at the bar … and the staff will smile and say simply ‘oh, that’s just Denis.’