Can We Talk About…? The Gay Guy Who Made Woodstock Happen 50 Years Ago

Elliot Tiber had a very special summer in 1969. He was not only at Stonewall, but also helped facilitate the most famous music festival in history.

Can We Talk About…? is a weekly series really pulling for Grace and Karen to iron shit out.

Woodstock has long been resigned to the fading memory of straight white baby boomers as the last gasp of their idealistic youth. Over the course of three days in mid-August 1969, rock gods like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, and The Grateful Dead performed for the counterculture set that had wholly embraced their sound on a dairy farm in Bethel, N.Y. But without the help of Elliot Tiber, a gay rights activist who secured the farm for the festival, Woodstock—which turns 50 this week—may not have happened at all.

Tiber died in 2016, but before that he penned two memoirs about the legendary festival, one in 1994 and another in 2007, the latter becoming the basis for Ang Lee’s 2009 film Taking Woodstock, in which Tiber is portrayed by comedian Demetri Martin.

A former yeshiva student from Brooklyn, Tiber helped run his parents’ Bethel motel, El Monaco, on the weekends and served as president of the small upstate New York town’s chamber of commerce. During the week he worked as an interior decorator in Manhattan, where at night he would frequent the gay bars, a habit that two months before placed him squarely in another watershed moment of history: the Stonewall uprising.

Tiber’s design career took a hit when he was charged with decorating a nightclub owner’s birthday party on a cruise ship. Out came the rented palm trees and “a bevy of muscle boys covered in gold body paint,” but before you could say, “Hey, Daddy, where are the quaaludes?,” Tiber found himself hunkered down with not just a gay icon, but the gay icon. The New York Times recounted the incident in his obituary:

During the cruise, a fight broke out at the bar, then spread to the dining room and beyond. Mr. Tiber cowered behind an overturned table with Judy Garland, an idol of his since childhood. The palm trees ended up in the river. Left holding the bill, Mr. Tiber retreated to Bethel.

By the time organizers of what would become the Woodstock festival went sniffing around town, Judy was dead and the fight for gay civil rights had begun. Those organizers, however, existed in a world apart, and they just wanted to find a spot to bring their peace, love, and rock ’n’ roll.

Wallkill, N.Y., was unresponsive to the idea of long-haired, unwashed, hippie kids invading their tranquil hamlet. But as president of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, Tiber was in the position to approve the festival permit, and offered up El Monaco as HQ for the performers.

Though Woodstock is often considered a straight domain, the hippies’ mantra of free love seemed to extend beyond traditional labels. In fact, one of the most iconic images of the flower-power ’60s features an 18-year-old queer man named George Harris greeting rifles at the 1967 March on the Pentagon with carnations.

Bernie Boston/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Harris, performing under the name Hibiscus, was a co-founder of the psychedelic gay liberation theater collective The Cockettes, which formed in 1969 in San Francisco, the nexus of both the hippie and gay movements. Tiber, for his part, certainly benefited from the sexual and queer liberation that proliferated the air in the summer of ’69.

“Those six weeks? Wow. These people were so enriching to my life,” Tiber said of organizing Woodstock in a 2008 interview with The Miami Herald. “They opened up whole new worlds to me. I didn’t feel fat, I didn’t feel ugly. It enabled me to meet all kinds of people, to enjoy myself. I got used to that.”

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat