Willis Bivins: A Veteran of the Stonewall Era

Often we don’t realize how close life-changing events are to us.

Case in point: the Stonewall riot on June 28, 1969, and the commemoration of Stonewall via the first Pride March in New York City in June 1970.

A veteran of that era lives among us. Willis Bivins, 79 as of January 22, frequented the Stonewall Inn before and after the riot. Moreover, he marched in that first Pride in 1970, jumping into the growing throng as it paraded up Fifth Avenue.

Currently Willis resides in long-term care at the A.G. Rhodes facility off Boulevard Avenue. While it’s hard to go see him, his scrapbooks do live at Emory University’s Special Archives and Collections in Emory’s Woodruff Library. It’s amazing to see how the first Pride came together, and that the participants wondered whether only a handful of folks would show up.

In gratitude in February 2020, the LGBTQ Caucus of the Georgia House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring Willis “for his commitment to social justice causes and his work toward seeking justice for the rights of all people.”

I’ve known Willis so long that I don’t recall when I met him. Always I’ve experienced his ferocity; he’s “an activist’s activist” as Barbara Joye of the Atlanta Democratic Socialists Alliance calls him.

Although muted now, Willis still wears rainbow colors and espouses our rights and our freedoms, even within the confines of a nursing home, in concert with the support of a lesbian staff person there.

Teased by his friends for being “anti-bourgeoise,” Willis says he loved going to the Stonewall in the late ’60s for its Bohemian atmosphere and customers. Although the Mafia crime family operated the Stonewall, Willis ignored the Mafiosi in favor of being able to slow dance with men. The Mafia looked the other way, although it was illegal to “serve drinks to homosexuals” in New York City, let alone let them canoodle on the dance floor.

Even so, Willis was never entrapped in a gay bar raid and was surprised to hear about Stonewall. That fateful night he was overseas conducting one of his many international tours, and he came back to discover that, whereas before “almost no one was out, now everyone was out.”

Whenever I see him I appreciate him, even as he shrugs off my schmoozing. Locally, Willis helped start Atlanta Black and White Men Together, Atlanta Men of All Cultures and the Atlanta SAGE chapter. On his shoulders we stand, even if we never heard of him.