Fifty years after Stonewall, Felipe Rose—“The Indian” from the Village People—remembers New York City’s Greenwich Village as the gay rights movement took hold.
Felipe Rose was just beginning high school in New York City when the Stonewall resistance kicked off in 1969.
A native New Yorker, he was living in Coney Island with his mother, and often took the subway with friends to hang out in Greenwich Village. In 1969, as he watched the riots unfold on television over five days, his mother told him, “I don’t want you to go there anymore.”
“But that didn’t work,” Rose says. “I started hearing a calling inside of me.”
The Village would quickly become a defining place in his life. Three years after Stonewall, he would come out as gay and move there after being kicked out of his home. And five years after that, Rose would meet a music producer in a popular gay club and become “The Indian” in the Village People (he’s the son of a Puerto Rican mother and a Native American father—Mescalero Apache, Lakota, and Cherokee, he says).
Today, Rose still performs music and he serves as a media spokesperson for God’s Love We Deliver, a charity founded in the mid-1980s that delivers meals to people living with AIDS.
Rose spoke with CityLab about Stonewall, how it ignited the nascent gay liberation movement, and his part in the movement.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You were still a school kid in New York when Stonewall happened. Did it inspire you to come out?
Felipe Rose: I used to go to the Village while in junior high school. I had friends that would go to the Village and they would tell me, “Oh my God, there’s great clubs and all kinds of people. It’s very bohemian.” So I was attracted to that first because I was involved in the arts, and then I started to realize… (laughs)
When I graduated from high school in ’72, I went to a two-year business college and I hated it, and then in New York I auditioned for a scholarship for a dance company. So I ended up getting a job as a dancer. My mother was totally against the lifestyle I was choosing. And she found out somehow—I ended up having a boyfriend and I did come out in ’72. And then she really didn’t like it, so she tossed me out into the street like so many young men.
I assimilated into a whole new lifestyle and started living very short periods of time in one apartment with somebody else and then another, and then ended up in Provincetown in the Arthur Blake bicentennial revue. They needed an Indian. But they were always dressing me up like that in school anyway for the Christopher Columbus parade and celebration.
What was it like living in the Village for you at that time?
During that time I would walk into the Village wearing my vest and my moccasins and my cut-off shorts and long hair and head bandana: very sort of native hippyish. And being in the Village, I met Marsha P. Johnson—Marsha “Pay-it-no mind” Johnson—and Sylvia Rivera [ed note: Johnson and Rivera were prominent LGBT activists. Johnson is oft-credited with sparking the Stonewall resistance].
Marsha, she was wonderful. You know she was just strange and odd in her ways. She had plastic roses on her head and glitter on her face.
I had the dance company, but I ended up working at the Anvil, which was one of the most notorious after-hours sex bars in New York. On a fateful night there in ’76, I met this producer [Jacques Morali, who died of AIDS in 1991] who approached me with the concept and an idea of a group, a singing group which I thought was really stupid. But he was French and he saw the male stereotype image very clearly in his head. He said, “This is going to be different. I’m going to create something.”
The first album dropped the summer of 1977 in June, during the Anita Bryant revolt. The album became the soundtrack of that summer. The song “Village People” was a call to rally:
Now is the time, People
Your fight is mine, Let’s fight for the right, People
Your freedom’s in sight, People
We can’t be denied. The signs are on our side now.
[In January of 1977, the Dade County, Florida, commission passed an ordinance banning discrimination because of sexual orientation. Miami resident Anita Bryant, a moderately successful pop singer and orange juice spokeswoman, launched a campaign called “Save Our Children” to repeal it, warning that gays had to recruit since “they couldn’t reproduce.” In early June 1977, her campaign helped get the gay-rights ordinance repealed by a 2-1 margin. It wasn’t until two decades later that a version of it was passed again.]
So the Anita Bryant anti-gay rights campaign in 1977 was really a backlash after a period of moving forward.
It was the first backlash. And going into almost a decade after the [Stonewall] riot, where we thought, we’re safe now and we’re starting to celebrate. We’re now a family. We’re walking down the street and we had safe zones: San Francisco, the Village, Fort Lauderdale, Miami. There were certain communities in Dallas, where gay people would gather and would live and would work. And so when this backlash happened, we were totally shocked and angered.
She denounced the lifestyle and said that we were all just despicable and this and that. And so everyone just came out of the closet that summer: in San Francisco, Florida, and New York, predominantly, but also across the country.
That summer the Christopher Street parade was still not a parade. It was a rally and a cry for the fight. So it was a really scary time. The police weren’t trained for it. We were always on guard in case anything would happen, they would immediately would have attacked us.
That was the first backlash, and then of course the second one came with the epidemic and the plague. And that was a different kind of fight because that fight took it to city hall and to Washington. We weren’t equipped for that. We became adults at a very young age, in the prime of our lives burying our community.
Were you still living in the Village in the 1980s when the AIDS crisis began?
I had left the Village and moved to New Jersey, because once the second album came out and then going into the third, it was too much. People were recognizing me everywhere I went, so I decided it would be better to move away and then concentrate on my life and concentrate on touring.
And then of course I would come home to friends to catch up, to find out what’s going on: “Oh, there’s a rally here. Here’s a candlelight vigil there.” And that’s pretty much what we did the entire 1980s into the ’90s. I believe I still have a couple of phone books where there’s so many people that I lost that I just had to put the book away.
There are so many people that I wish were here like me, and I’m blessed that I’m here. I used to go out with Freddie Mercury to clubs in New York like the Saint. He always wanted to stay until the next day. But I was one that never liked daylight. If I was out with you at night and 5 or 6 in the morning would come around, I didn’t care what we were doing. I was leaving.
So many people lost their lives to the AIDS crisis. How do you reflect on surviving that era?
Well, one man that I believe I owe my life to, his name is Federico Gonzalez. He used to work for the Board of Education and he hated the job, so when the group dropped the second album he said: “I’m gonna work for you. You need an assistant.” So I hired him and he did help me with my bills and my scheduling and this and that.
And then about four or five years later he said, “I’m quitting because I’m gonna go work for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.” I said: “What is that?” He said: “Well, that’s what we’re going to call it and I’m writing the proposal for funding because there was obviously something really wrong and I need for you to swear to me that you will always wear a condom, because there is a disease attacking gay men.” He was one of the people that didn’t make it because he ended up contracting the virus.
Did you feel that the Village People were ever particularly under attack from anyone for your representations and actions?
Well, we had our moments of defiance, not just from straight people but also from other gay men, that the group was a sellout. I wanted the rest of the group to think like me—a lot of them didn’t. Because again we were put together by a producer, so we were never friends like some other groups.
I used to have political activists say to me: “You were just on Merv Griffin. Why didn’t you stand up and put your fist in the air and say, ‘I’m gay’?” Because at the time it was show business and I had to separate my political view with what I was doing. But I was also young and not knowledgeable that it wouldn’t have hurt me. Maybe it wouldn’t have, maybe it would have.
How did the Native American community respond to you?
Well, we’re called two-spirited people. In tribes, two-spirited people are revered because it is said that you have the man and the woman’s spirit inside the body. And they have a role to play—they take care of the children and they take care of the elders. The culture just really, really accepts it and doesn’t shun and throw out the person into the streets or off their reservation. They embrace the lifestyle, whether a man is a gay man or is dressed like a woman or is transgender. They embrace it and that’s what I love about the Native lifestyle and Native community across the country. They hold that close to their hearts.
What are you doing for the 50th anniversary?
I’ll be on the float with God’s Love We Deliver. I’m passionate about them—supporting them for years, and now I’m their spokesperson. I found out about them through Joan Rivers, our lady, friend, and colleague, because we worked in Vegas together. Then I’m at the VIP concert for Grace Jones. We’re old friends.
Many people are saying, “oh my God, it’s going to be a great party.” Yes, it’s going to be a great party, but let’s remember and understand the history. Because by not knowing your history, you will not know what the future is going to be. The fact that I’ve survived and then here I am as a grown man at 65 to witness 50 years of Stonewall, it’s just a blessing to me. But there are many mixed feelings of sadness and then remembering happiness and joy, and being proud of all the steps that we’ve made. Yet, at the same time, things are being turned back, so once again we’re still not out of the woods.
So, on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, it’s a melancholy feeling, but also I’m filled with pride and joy.