Did Judy Garland’s Death Really Spark the Gay Liberation Movement?

Judy Garland would have turned 100 this week. But the Hollywood darling died at age 47 on June 22, 1969. And her premature passing was mourned worldwide — most famously at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

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Being a gay icon, it was supposedly grief over Garland’s fatal overdose that inspired the Stonewall patrons to riot in the streets: a historic event that kicked off the LGBTQ+ movement on a mainstream scale. But more than fifty years later, that story is contested. So let’s take another look at the death of Judy Garland and consider its true cultural consequence.

The Early Life of Judy Garland

Judy Garland’s life was defined by the heights of success and the pits of addiction. She was born Frances Ethel Gumm in 1922, Garland hailed from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. As part of a musical family, her talent was noted early on. By the time she was four years old, the whole family had relocated to California dreaming of stardom for the Gumm sisters, who began going by a new name: the Garlands. Garland’s mother, reportedly, pressured her daughters on the Vaudeville path to the point of full-on abuse. In 1967, Garland told Barbara Walters: “[My mother] would sort of stand in the wings when I was a little girl and if I didn’t feel good, if I was sick to my tummy, she’d say, ‘You get out and sing or I’ll wrap you around the bedpost and break you off short!’ So I’d go out and sing.” (Garland even called her mom “the real Wicked Witch of the West.”)

When Judy was only 13, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer offered her a contract after a single screen test at the eager behest of MGM head Louis B. Mayer. (The infamous movie man also sexually harassed, and possibly abused, young Garland for years.) At first, Garland was marketed as a more realistic alternative to her glamorous Hollywood contemporaries. She often played the girl-next-door type opposite co-star Mickey Rooney. This unique identity would eventually color her take on A Star Is Born; during her comeback era, Garland would star in the original remake of this 1937 classic.

But the “ugly duckling” marketing-led Judy Garland to become seriously self-conscious. Her teen years marked the beginning of mental health issues that would plague Garland throughout her life. The stress was heightened by performing nonstop and intensified further by MGM’s dangerous and shocking malpractice. The studio relied on amphetamines, .a.k.a. “pep pills,” to power performers throughout exhausting shoots. Wanting to come down from the high and fall asleep, these actors typically sedated themselves later with barbiturates. But before Garland even signed with MGM, it’s believed that her own mother, Ethel Marion Milne, hooked her on this deadly habit The actress’s cyclical reliance on drugs is explored in the Oscar-winning biopic Judy, starring Renée Zellweger.

‘The Wizard of Oz’

For her unparalleled breakthrough role as Dorothy, Judy Garland cemented her place in movie history and earned her only Academy Award: the Academy Juvenile Award honoring her 1939 work on both The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms. Garland was just 16 years old when filming the timeless fantasy tale that still defines our collective imagination.

Judy Garland’s Personal Life

Following the smashing box office success of The Wizard of Oz, Garland began collaborating with the director Vincente Minnelli — who was the second, and most prominent, of Garland’s five husbands. (Garland had first married David Daniel Rose when she was 19 years old. They divorced in 1944.) Minnelli directed his wife in Meet Me in St. Louis and the couple had their only child, daughter Liza Minnelli, in 1946. Soon after, Garland starred in Easter Parade and Summer Stock.

When Minnelli and Garland divorced in 1951, the actress married Sidney Luft one year later. Luft became Garland’s manager and they had two children together, Lorna Luft and Joey Luft. But in 1963, Garland divorced him on the grounds of mental cruelty and physical abuse. Two years later, she married her tour promoter, Mark Herron. During their years together, Garland’s health and career were deteriorating. She eventually wed her final husband, night club manager Mickey Deans, in February of 1969. But their marriage would last only four months. In June of that year, Judy Garland was found dead in their London home.

The Death of Judy Garland

Judy Garland’s rise to fame might have seemed like an American fairy tale. But her sad death illuminated just what a toll the lifestyle took on Garland. Never quite able to enjoy her fame and fortune, Garland was surrounded by conniving show business types and tormented by substance abuse. 12 days after her 47th birthday, on June 22, 1969, Mickey Deans found Garland dead in the bathroom. The coroner identified the cause of death as an overdose of barbiturates. Believing the death was accidental, Garland’s doctor noted that she used the barbiturates as sleeping pills and another bottle of 100 barbiturate pills remained unopened.

At the time, Garland was practically broke. Liza Minnelli was left to pay off her mother’s monumental debts with the help of family friend Frank Sinatra. As a result, most of what was recorded in Judy Garland’s final will could not be bequeathed.

Her body was embalmed and her remains traveled to New York City. On June 26, 1969, an estimated 20,000 New Yorkers came to pay their respects at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan. Two days later, the LGBTQ community gathered and the Stonewall Uprising erupted — purportedly to honor to the tragic end of her life.

Re-examining the Legend of the Stonewall Uprising

Judy Garland was a certifiable gay icon — thanks to not only her solidly camp status but also her publicly troubled history. Becoming something of a character herself, the actress was sympathetic while remaining supremely talented. When asked about the gay fandom phenomenon in 1965, Garland said simply, “I couldn’t care less. I sing to people!”

But today, most historians disagree that Judy Garland’s death is truly what galvanized Stonewall: a watershed moment in the gay liberation movement. The gay dive bar was packed with people on June 28, 1969. Undercover police officers, known as the Public Morals Squad, then stormed the establishment. Then, as the story goes, drag queen activist Marcia P. Johnson incited a full-out frenzy by throwing a cocktail glass. But witness accounts, including testimony from Johnson herself, have debunked that theory.

According to The New York Times video, “The Stonewall You Know Is a Myth. And That’s O.K,” the first glass could be likely thrown by another gender non-conforming person: Stormé DeLarverie. Similar confusion surrounds who threw the first “brick,” and whether, even, any bricks were actually thrown! Regardless, the police raid fired up the crowd who fought back. Protests escalated on the surrounding streets, arguably to the point of riots. In the following weeks, demonstrations were held around the country in solidarity.

The only written account from the time that connected the death of Judy Garland to the events at the Stonewall Inn was penned by Walter Troy Spencer, a right-wing Village Voice columnist meaning to belittle the movement. And since Spencer’s motive was to trivialize the pain and physical harm faced by gay people, many experts view Garland’s connection to the historic protest as laughable. In the New York Times video, the queer writer Tourmaline poses the question: “Historical erasure is real. How do we tell a history of something when our lives aren’t in archives?”

Fifty years later, certain inquiries like “Who threw the first brick?” are still complex. But as for the question, “How much did Judy Garland factor into it?” the answer looks like very little. It seems that word of mouth alone formed a place for Judy Garland within the timeline of gay pride zeitgeist.

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