How a party led to personal liberation

June 23rd, 1967 marked the 50th anniversary of Bradley Grant’s legendary tent party. On a steamy Friday night, in the heart of redneck Baltimore’s Dundalk, Bradley threw a party that attracted a huge crowd of Baltimore’s gay underground, including many drag queens, and set in motion events that led to one man’s pre-Stonewall defiance of the oppression gay people were routinely subjected to in the 1960s.

It was a bold move to hold such a party in that neighborhood. It was even more outrageous that Bradley held it in the home that he grew up in. Neighbors on adjoining houses were practically renting out lawn chairs to watch the arrival of Baltimore’s gay celebs! And it was predictably not well received by them.

Bradley’s mother died the year before, he had recently left the seminary, and he felt it was time to make a statement in his home stomping grounds. And a statement it was indeed! Reflecting 50 years later, Bradley explained his thinking to Baltimore OUTloud: “There was little family around for me to embarrass, so at 22 years old I decided to not just “come out,” I was determined to celebrate my gay life-style in a big way.  There would be no turning back!” Of course in 1967, practically no one in Baltimore (or anywhere else) openly displayed a gay lifestyle, certainly not in Dundalk.

The party was a raging success. Queens from all over the city converged on this Dundalk bungalow and made their way to the backyard tent. Music was blaring the Supremes and people were dancing and drinking and having a grand time. During that era, same-sex dancing and homo-affection were strictly forbidden and the only places that gay people could be so intimate were at private parties – and, oddly enough, Sunday excursions to a bar in North Beach, Maryland, called the Golden Key Club. Bradley’s party was a major event, an opportunity to really let loose, and for the drag queens to show off their latest and let their hair down.

And so it was that night until neighbors — very hostile neighbors — called the police. When the Baltimore County Police arrived there was pandemonium as the queens pulled up the sides of the tent and dashed out, high heels in hand, into the backyard and through a stream, Bread and Cheese Creek, to escape. The queens had to get away. During these repressed times, a man dressed as a woman might get arrested. There were only two or three days a year that drag queens could be seen in public – Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and the night of the annual Hairdressers’ Ball.

The arrival of the police did not just scare away the drag queens. In 1967, any lesbian or gay person could be fired, ostracized by family and friends, or become another victim of police oppression through an arrest on trumped up charges (no pun intended), merely for attending a gay party. The sudden police presence led to a mass exodus and an abrupt end to the Tent Party as most attendees chose to disappear as quickly as possible.

The Tent Party was Bradley’s dramatic coming out to his neighbors, people with whom he had grown up and attended elementary, middle, and high school. His next-door neighbors were particularly not pleased (see the picture of two men glaring as the events of the evening unfolded). However, their hate was not at all unusual at that time and it would become expressed in a far more dramatic way. For this act of defiance, the boy from Dundalk set in motion events that led to a shooting and a brave defiant response. The Tent Party was history but there was more to come.

The next year on his birthday, Bradley held an afternoon barbeque that once again stirred the ire of his neighbors. During the party his next door neighbor became very agitated, brought out a gun, and fired three shots, one of which wounded Bradley in the arm. Despite this outrageous, potentially fatal act, the police response was nearly as outrageous! Bradley was taken to the hospital for treatment and then arrested. That’s right; the victim of a shooting was arrested for disturbing the peace.

How, you might ask, could this possibly be? Well, back then Bradley, as a homosexual, was a non-person. And this action by his neighbor and response by the authorities were par for the course. Both the neighbor and the police were enforcing community standards–just one glaring example of the extreme oppression faced by gay people then. Vigilantly justice and police oppression were daily occurrences. Lesbians and gay men understood that we lacked basic rights – it was deeply ingrained in all of us. We were happy if we could enjoy our private times together and go unnoticed in the wider community.

As Bradley stewed about the outrageous treatment that he experienced, he did what few had the courage to do. He decided to fight back. He learned that the Mattachine Society of Washington had been staging yearly demonstrations on the 4th of July at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall. One can see the brave souls that took part in these demonstrations, called the Annual Reminder, in the documentary Before Stonewall. Bradley contacted the organizer of the demonstration, legendary gay pioneer Frank Kameny, and joined them in Philadelphia that July 4th, nearly a year prior to Stonewall. In some footage of that year’s demonstration Bradley can be seen on the picket line in front of Independence Hall with his arm bandaged, still not healed from the gunshot.

People may not be able to understand or appreciate now how much courage it took to stand up in 1968. To come out publicly was truly to risk everything. That Bradley had the backbone, the sense of self-worth and personal integrity to do so is absolutely amazing. He is truly a trailblazing activist for the cause of Gay Liberation.

What became of the gun toting neighbor, the man who felt justified to enforce the community’s hatred of homosexuals with violence? Reportedly, he lives in North Carolina and we don’t know what he thinks about his act of hate after 50 years. What we do know is that he was never held accountable and he has never apologized to Bradley. However, in a sign that we have made progress, his sister apologized to Bradley in 2002 for her brother’s actions and as a show of Bradley’s humanity, they have remained friends.

Courage certainly has its rewards, although it may be a long time coming and history requires time to provide perspective. Events– a party, a raid, another party, a shooting, an arrest, a demonstration– gain meaning in the responses. Our advances today required people like Bradley. They provided the foundation for Stonewall and what came afterwards.