On This Gay Day: The Brunswick Four were arrested

The Brunswick Four are arrested in Toronto

In 1974 four women took a stand against homophobia in Toronto Canada. Adrienne Potts (now Adrienne Rosen), Pat Murphy, Sue Wells, and Heather (Beyer) Elizabeth were charged with disturbing the peace at Brunswick House, a working class beer hall.

During an amateur singing night, the four took to the stage and performed a parody version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song I Enjoy Being a Girl. The tune is from the musical Flower Drum Song, the women changed the lyrics of the tune and sang “I enjoy being a dyke.”

Eight police officer attended the venue and arrested the women. The women were not charged by police, but in protest of their arrest they refused to leave the police station. Police forcibly injected the women from the station, assaulting Potts by punching her in the back of the head and throwing her to the ground.

The women returned to the tavern to seek witnesses to their arrest, and were arrested by police a second time. During their second visit to the station the women were subjected to physical and verbal abuse by officers.

Three of the women were charged with disrupting the peace. Wells was not arrested, Elizabeth and Murphy were acquitted at their trial and Potts served three months probation.   

The quartet became known as the Brunswick Four. Their arrest was the first time gay rights were given significant coverage in the Canadian press.

The three women filed charges of assault against the police officers, but because unbeknown to the women, the officers had swapped their hats and badges between each other, so when the incident came to trial the case fell apart.

When the court ordered ‘all rise’ the three women refused to stand up and were found in contempt of court. Potts and Elizabeth apologised to the court a few hours later, but Murphy refused and was sent to prison for thirty days.

Murphy and Elizabeth would later give evidence at a Royal Commission into police practices.

Choreographer Alvin Ailey was born on this day in 1931

Influential American choreographer Alvin Ailey was born on this day in 1931. He would become a celebrated choreographer, director and activist.

Ailey was born at the height of The Great Depression in America’s racially segregated south, his father abandoned his family when he was three months old and he was raised by his single mother.  When he was 10 years old the family moved to Los Angeles.

When he was 18 he began studying dance, while at the same time studying romantic languages at University. In 1951 he relocated to san Francisco to continue his academic studies.

He formed a cabaret act with friend Marguerite Johnson, the two performed as ‘Al and Rita’. His friend would later change her name to Maya Angelou, and become one of the world’s most celebrated authors and poets.

Ailey returned to Los Angeles and continued study dance, joining the dance company of choreographer Lester Horton. When Horton died suddenly in 1954, Ailey took over the running of the company.

In the mid 1950’s he moved to New York and began working on Broadway as a dancer and choreographer. In 1958 he founded Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a company focused on honouring black culture through dance. The organisation would become acclaimed around the world, and is still presenting works today.

In collaboration with another famous choreographer, Pearl Lang, he founded the a dance school that became one of the most prestigious training grounds for dancers in New York, today it is named The Ailey School.  Once of the thousands of students who have passed through the centre is music star Madonna, who received a six week scholarship to study under Pearl Lang in 1977.

Ailey’s company travelled the world, and is credited with popularising modern dance. His most recognised work Revelations told the African American story from slavery to freedom. The work is still performed regularly.

During his life Ailey acknowledged his homosexuality, but is relationships were not in the public eye.

Ailey passed away in December 1st 1989, World AIDS Day. He died from an AIDS related illness, but at the time of his death it was reported as  terminal blood dyscrasia because Ailey wanted to shield his mother from the stigma associated with HIV. He was 58 years old when he died.

In 1988 he was recognised at the Kennedy Center Honours, and in 2014 President Barack Obama posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Nelson Mandela announces HIV/AIDS as his son’s cause of death

Today is also remembered as the day that in 2005 former South African President Nelson Mandela announced the death of his son Makgatho Lewanika Mandela was due to an AIDS related illness.

When Makgatho’s second wife Zondi passed two years earlier in 2003 it was announced that she had died from pneumonia. With is son’s passing Mandela said it was important to state the true cause of death to break down stigma.

“Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness like tuberculosis, like cancer, is always to come out and say somebody has died because of HIV/AIDS, and people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary.” Mandela said.

Mandela’s declaration is credited with raising awareness of HIV and breaking down stigma surrounding the virus.

Graeme Watson, This post was first published on 5th January 2020. 

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