David Carter, noted author and historian of the LGBT civil rights movement, has died in New York City. He was 65. An immediate cause of death was not disclosed.
Carter’s groundbreaking 2004 book, “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution,” was the basis for the PBS “American Experience” documentary film “Stonewall Uprising,” which won a Peabody Award. The book is a history of the six days of riots that began on June 28, 1969, after police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village.
At the time of the riots, “homosexual” sex was illegal in every state except Illinois, and New York’s laws were among the most severe. As Carter wrote, “By 1961, the laws in America were harsher on homosexuals than those in Cuba, Russia or East Germany, countries that the United States criticized for their despotic ways.” The Stonewall riots led to the gay-rights movement and the formation of the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance.
For several years, Carter worked closely with the National Park Service to have the Stonewall Inn declared a historic landmark.
Throughout 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, Carter lectured and spoke often about its impact as the foundation event of the modern LGBT civil rights movement. Carter also served as a consultant on numerous exhibitions and documentaries related to LGBT civil rights issues and appeared on national TV news programs on CNN, CBS and Al-Jazeera. He had written for CNN, Time Magazine, the BBC, the Washington Blade, and the Gay and Lesbian Review.
Carter was born in Jesup, Georgia. He earned a B.A. from Emory University and an M.A. from the University of Wisconsin.
Prior to writing “Stonewall,” Carter compiled and edited “Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958–1996, a collection of gay Beat poet Alan Ginsberg (1926–1997).” Ginsberg is best known as the author of the 1956 poem, “Howl” which survived censorship trials to become one of the most-read poems of the Beat oeuvre. He was a winner of the National Book Award for Poetry.
Carter first met Ginsberg in the mid-1970s when the poet was giving a reading at Emory University. He later interviewed the poet for a gay cable show in Wisconsin in the 1980s. Carter and Ginsberg remained in touch and Carter compiled the interviews for his 2002 collection. The interviews include Ginsberg’s conversation with the conservative William F. Buckley on PBS to his testimony at the Chicago Seven trial to his passionate riffs on Cezanne, Blake, Whitman, and Pound.
The New York Times Book Review said of Carter’s collection, “Readers of this collection may find that they are no longer the same after having encountered [Ginsberg] in its pages.”
At the time of his death, Carter was working on a biography of LGBT civil rights pioneer Dr. Franklin Kameny, through a fellowship at Washington College. Carter said Kameny’s arguments for lesbian and gay civil rights were “founded on the basic principles of our democracy as articulated by its founders in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Kameny was effective in large part because he wrote in the tradition of our nation’s greatest founders, combining passion, wit and intelligence with great skill in argumentation and exposition.”
While at Washington College, Carter also worked with students conducting an oral history with leaders of the LGBT rights movement and led a student field trip to lower Manhattan exploring the history and legacy of the Stonewall Uprising.
Carter researched Stonewall for more than 10 years, interviewing 91 people, including 70 witnesses to the riots. Don Gorton noted in “Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide” that Carter “has produced the first work that can be considered a comprehensive factual rendering of the Stonewall riots.” In the book, Carter provides a history of the Stonewall Inn, from its beginnings in the 1930s as a horse stable and bakery to its place in Beat culture. He describes how Greenwich Village evolved into a bohemian enclave and Christopher Street, where the Stonewall Inn is located, established itself as the center of gay culture in the 1960s.
In “Stonewall,” Carter details how a major draw of the Stonewall Inn was same-sex dancing, illegal in most bars at the time.
Gorton said that Carter “has written what is likely to become the definitive history of this event in the struggle for [gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender] … liberation. Both scholarly and highly readable, the book deserves attention from all who have benefitted from the historical events it so faithfully recounts.”
In addition to the books on Stonewall and Ginsberg, Carter authored biographies of Salvadore Dali and George Santayana. He also directed a documentary, “Meher Baba,” about the Indian spiritual master.
Carter is survived by many friends and colleagues and by his older brother, William C. Carter, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus, University of Alabama at Birmingham and the definitive Proust biographer.
Memorial services are pending, due to the coronavirus pandemic.