Documentary to examine history of gay political and social life in New London
New London has a long, vibrant, political, artistic, multi-varied history of gay life. OutCT founder Constance Kristofik sought to memorialize it in a documentary coming out this year.
Kristofik’s documentary, "Holding Space for Each Other: New London's LGBT+ Community," focuses on gay history in New London beginning in the 1960s. She is the former director of New London Landmarks, and with the help of Don Presley, a member of the group, has been conducting dozens of interviews of gay people in New London in an effort to capture their recollections and access their perspectives.
Although Kristofik classified herself as an amateur filmmaker before making this documentary, it is a feature-length affair premiering at the Garde Theater in October. She plans for it to eventually be available for free online.
What started as an idea for a quick, cut and dry video about New London’s historic gay bars became more.
“This project pulls two of my passions together, the LGBTQ community and local history, so my personal interest drove the project,” Kristofik said. “We’ve had a strong history of gay bars. But I discovered that there has been so much more over the years, so it’s great for that story to be told. …. OutCT is almost 10 years old, and there’s people now who are out in the community and don’t realize the stuff we did in the beginning.”
Still, a big piece of gay life in New London was its gay bars, starting with The Corral in the 1970s. The documentary also goes into Mickey’s Make Believe Ballroom, the Salty Dog and Frank’s Place. One of the last remaining gay bars in New London, O’Neill’s Brass Rail, closed in 2020.
Kristofik said talking about these spaces is helpful for older people to remember what they had, and for younger people to acknowledge, ‘“Hey, you led the way. It was here before us. It existed.’”
Historically, gay bars functioned as underground meeting spaces throughout the 1970s and '80s. New London had its share of underground spaces during those decades, ranging from The Port of Entry Café, where Turning Tide, formerly Stash's, is now, to The Corral, a bar formerly located at the intersection of Bank Street and Montauk Avenue. Gay bars also operated as rallying points and political headquarters where gay communities gathered in the name of advancing LGBTQIA+ rights.
“With the gay bars, those who went to them in the 70s, they would enter a backdoor,” Kristofik said. “Navy investigators would occasionally show up at The Corral looking for gay sailors; you couldn’t be out in the service back then. The other patrons would try to protect them, like, ‘You’ve got to leave.’ There was still closeted-ness.”
And while these gay bars served as a safe place for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, Kristofik said national homophobic attitudes still took root locally. A portion of her documentary explores the AIDs epidemic in the area.
“One person mentions during the AIDS epidemic you didn’t even know if you could go to their funeral. You might have friends dying, but were you even welcome at the funeral?” Kristofik said. “You couldn’t talk about it at work with people. That was in the 80s and 90s. There’s definitely a shift through this film of, even though we had LGBT spaces, there was still this level where people were closeted. At least they had these spaces to go where they could be their authentic self.”
Kristofik found that the history of gay life in New London is inextricably tied to the history of New London. She pointed out that political action attracted gay people to the area, including in 1960, when an activist, Bayard Rustin, one of the forces behind the Black civil rights movement, and a writer and soon-to-be activist, Barbara Deming, came to New London for the same reason — to protest the building of a nuclear submarine.
The Committee for Non Violent Action came to New London during the summer of 1960 to conduct a program called Polaris Action. It was in opposition to the building of the Polaris submarine and the resulting increase in the nuclear arms race. Rustin, who was openly gay, was a co-founder of the CNVA and involved in the organization of the action. He visited New London that summer.
The group decided to stay in the New London area at the end of the summer, “which gave Bayard the opportunity to be here a lot more,” said Joanne Sheehan, an organizer, nonviolence trainer and educator. Sheehan has worked in the War Resisters League’s New England office in Norwich since co-founding it in 1985.
“They stayed, they rented a house in Norwich for a while, and then they bought a farm in Voluntown in the spring of 1962,” Sheehan said. “In 1962 they moved into a farm, which is now called the Voluntown Peace Trust. That would’ve been a place Bayard visited, he would’ve come up to New London, and then there was a very close connection between the CNVA and folks at Conn College, who became very active in Polaris Action.”
This connection with Connecticut College led to Rustin speaking at the school in 1963, the same year he was a top organizer for the March on Washington.
“Between 1960 and the speech at Conn College in 1963, he would come to Voluntown. He was in and out of Voluntown, which became a center for activity, trainings and gatherings,” Sheehan said. “It was very much borne out of New London. And their main focus was New London for a while. When it was first started it was called the Polaris action farm. They ended up in Voluntown because they couldn’t afford anything closer to the shoreline.”
Rustin was one of many well-known activists who participated in the Polaris Action. Famous folk singers Joan Baez and Pete Seeger visited New London in the early 60s as well, as it became a recognized regional hub for anti-war work. Sheehan tells a story about how a historic international demonstration originated in New London.
Polaris Action organizers sat down in the Hygienic when it was a restaurant. They were discussing the fact that Electric Boat workers they’d spoken with said to, “Go tell it to the Russians,” meaning that if Russia would not commit to disarmament, why should the U.S.?
“They decided to do a peace walk from San Francisco to Moscow sitting in the Hygienic, then they did it!” Sheehan said. The walk began in 1960 and ended in 1961.
Sheehan mentioned that the War Resisters League once sent Rustin to an international demonstration, and he brought home with him the peace symbol, which was first created in England in 1957 for a nuclear disarmament demonstration.
“A Black, gay man brought this back, and people in New London were some of the first people to use it,” Sheehan said. “There are a couple of books on the peace symbol that have been written, both of them have pictures of southeastern Connecticut.”
Kristofik found other examples of community among gay people in New London aside from the bars. Her film examines, for example, the New London People’s Forum, an LGBTQIA+ group/event that met weekly and led discussions in the 1980s and 90s. She also goes into PFLAG (Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) of Southeastern Connecticut, which she calls a resource and support system for queer people in the area.
When Kristofik first moved to the area, she said she used Yahoo Groups for local LGBTQIA+ meet-ups. There was also a group that started out of Pfizer, called Mystic Women, because a lot of them lived in Mystic, “And that was a monthly thing for bi and lesbian women,” Kristofik said.
The documentary also has an up-to-date accounting of politics, religion and social justice related to gay people, and includes interviews with Curtis Goodwin and Daryl Justin Finizio, two gay New London politicians, as well as current Mayor Michael Passero. Kristofik said the movie will have a section on the art community in the city as well.
She said gay people are “integrated into everything” in New London. Not only that, but she found from her interviews that different gay subcultures existed simultaneously and without much separation in the city.
“There’s so many transplants, and there’s this common thread that people really liked how diverse and inclusive it was and it is,” Kristofik said. “They could go to the gay bars back in the past and it would be everyone, whereas if you went to New York or Boston, it was really segmented, it was the women, it was the men, it was the leather scene, it was the people of color scene, it was so broken down. But in New London, it was just everyone.”
While Deming and Rustin converged on New London in 1960 to protest the building a nuclear submarine, they had vastly different experiences that led them to the city. She was not out publicly when she first arrived in New London. And while Rustin was a lifelong activist, Deming’s political contributions were mostly through her writing. Her visit to New London in 1960 became the impetus for her activism later in life.
Sheehan met Rustin multiple times, but she said she knew Deming better. Sheehan vociferously read her writings.
“She was a big influence on a lot of us who were young feminists at the time in the non-violent movement,” Sheehan said.
Deming had been to Cuba and India before traveling to New London, and she became interested in non-violence, as she was reading Gandhi.
“Someone gave her (Deming) an article in Liberation Magazine, and she saw an announcement about a 16-day training taking place in New London, Connecticut,” Sheehan said. “She decided she would come up for a day to see what was going on. … She came and she stayed for the whole thing, and it changed her life.”
Deming wrote for The Nation Magazine that she “had expected to be unimpressed by the people I would find in New London. I assumed blandly that if they were, in fact, impressive, I should somehow have heard about them before this.” She found quite the opposite.
The CNVA became Deming’s political home in a lot of ways, Sheehan said. Deming and her partner, Mary Meigs, used Meigs’s father’s money to buy the farm where the Voluntown Peace Trust still exists today. Sheehan herself lived on the property between 1976-80.
“Within less than two years of her coming to this training, she gave a significant donation to buy the farm. That’s one real way of looking at how close she became to the people in southeastern Connecticut,” Sheehan said. “She was continuing to work with all of these people who were very steeped in this work.”
Sheehan noted “massive connections to one another” among activists.
“These folks developed personal relationships and that’s where you see this integration of Black and white, LGBTQIA+ folks and straight folks, a community of folks who shared a common set of values around peace and justice issues and a commitment to non violence,” Sheehan said.
Kristofik’s documentary, a kind of oral history of gay life in New London, premieres at the Garde Arts Center on Oct. 11, which is also National Coming Out Day.