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David Carter, an author and historian on LGBTQ civil rights who is credited with writing the definitive book about the 1969 Stonewall riots that he said triggered a worldwide “mass movement” for LGBTQ rights, died May 1 at his Greenwich Village apartment in New York City. He was 67.
His brother, Bill Carter, said doctors believe the cause of death was a heart attack.
David Carter’s 2004 book “Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution” thrust Carter into the limelight as a leading expert on the June 1969 riots triggered by the now-infamous police raid on the Stonewall gay bar in Greenwich Village in which the patrons fought back.
Carter’s book was the basis for the PBS American Experience film “Stonewall Uprising,” which won a Peabody Award. He also played a key role working with the U.S. National Park Service to have the site of the Stonewall bar and surrounding streets designated as a national monument and a historic landmark.
Shortly after his Stonewall book was published, Carter began work on what he considered his next major project – a definitive biography of gay rights pioneer Frank Kameny, the co-founder of the Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C. in the early 1960s. For more than 10 years, Carter conducted extensive research on Kameny’s role as one of the first known pre-Stonewall activists who declared homosexuals to be a minority group deserving of full civil rights.
It couldn’t immediately be determined whether others might assemble Carter’s findings and documentation on Kameny, including recorded interviews with dozens of people who knew Kameny, into the book Carter was unable to finish.
Carter was born and raised in the Southeast Georgia town of Jesup. He graduated from the town’s Wayne County High School before attending Emory University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in religion and French, according to information provided by his brother.
During his junior year in college, he studied at the Paris-Sorbonne University in France. He later attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned a master’s degree in 1978 in South Asian Studies, a write-up prepared by his brother says.
Carter, who was gay, first became involved in the gay rights movement while a graduate student in Madison, his brother said in his write-up on Carter. Among other things, Carter organized a 1977 dance that raised more than $1,000 to support a Dade County, Fla., gay rights group that was fighting a campaign by anti-gay advocate Anita Bryant to overturn the Florida county’s gay rights law.
A short time later, Carter co-founded an organization in Madison that led a successful effort to prevent anti-gay advocates from overturning Madison’s gay rights law, making Madison one of the few places in the country in the late 1970s and early 1980s to stop an effort to repeal a pro-LGBTQ nondiscrimination law.
Carter later became involved in the successful lobbying effort that made Wisconsin the first state in the nation to pass a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
He moved to New York City in 1985 shortly before starting work as an editor at Chelsea House Publishers, a publisher of young adult multicultural books, according to his brother Bill Carter. The brother said the company accepted a proposal by David Carter that it publish two separate book series for young adults, “Issues in Gay and Lesbian Life” and “Lives of Notable Gay Men and Lesbians.”
After leaving Chelsea House, Carter began work on the Stonewall book and a separate book consisting of a collection of interviews of famed gay poet Allen Ginsberg that was later published as “Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews 1958-1996.”
“Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution” was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2004 with many positive reviews, including from the New York Times. In 1998, six years before the book’s release, Carter received a grant to put together material from his research on Stonewall to support an effort to place the Stonewall riots site on the National Register of Historic Places, where it was placed in 1999. A year later the site was named a National Historic Landmark.
In 2014, Carter served as the historic adviser to the National Park Service in the successful effort to have the Stonewall site become a National Monument.
Beginning in 2006, Carter began work on his planned biography of Frank Kameny. Although he didn’t live to complete that project, Carter talked and wrote about Kameny’s groundbreaking work in the early homophile movement in writings in the gay press and in lectures and other speaking appearances.
Carter talked about Kameny in D.C. in June 2019 before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which invited him to give a presentation on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. As members of the commission and a small audience listened intently, Carter provided detailed historical background on the discrimination and persecution LGBTQ people faced prior to the 1969 Stonewall rebellion.
He noted that contrary to the generally accepted belief that the Stonewall riots triggered the modern gay rights movement, Carter said Stonewall triggered a mass movement for LGBTQ rights that actually began as a civil rights phase of the “homophile” movement started by Kameny and his followers in the early 1960s.
The earlier phase started by Kameny, Carter said, made it possible for activists to convert the spontaneous street protests that followed the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village into a focused and effective political movement for LGBTQ rights.
“The Stonewall uprising is historic for one reason,” he said in his presentation to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. “It inspired the creation of a new phase of the movement for the rights of gay men and lesbians and later for bisexuals and the transgendered, and this new phase, the gay liberation movement, created a mass movement, making most of the gains over the past five decades possible.”
Following the publication of the Stonewall book, Carter appeared on national TV news programs, including on CNN and CBS and he has written on LGBTQ issues for CNN, Time magazine, the BBC, the Washington Blade, and the Gay and Lesbian Review.
Carter has told the Blade in the past that one reason for the delay in completing the Kameny book was the need to work full time in a regular paying job. Eric Danzer, Carter’s longtime friend in New York, said at the time of his passing Carter was working as a senior medical editor at Saatchi & Saatchi, a global communications firm.
“In his medical editing and his LGBT history work, he showed a passion for accuracy,” Danzer said. “In his LGBT history work, he was painstakingly methodical in assembling the facts, passionate about following them wherever they led to make sure that our history is recorded accurately.”
Added Danzer, “He had great respect for the subjects of his work and felt a great responsibility to preserve the legacy of subjects whose contributions were generally not well known, but should be, like Frank Kameny.”
Carter was preceded in death by his parents W. L. and Sarah Carter of Jesup, Ga. He is survived by longtime friend Eric Danzer; his brother William C. Carter and sister-in-law Lynn; three nieces, Josephine Monmaney, Sarah Davis, and Susanna Carter; and five great-nieces and great-nephews.
Arrangements were being made for David Carter’s burial in Jesup, Ga. A memorial service in Georgia and New York will be held at a later date.
This article originally appeared in the Washington Blade and is made available in partnership with the National LGBT Media Association.