June 28th, 2009
Forty years ago today, in the very early morning hours of June 28, 1969, New York police attempted a raid on a Greenwich Village gay nightclub known as the Stonewall Inn. This wasn’t the first time New York police raided a gay bar, but this was the first time that patrons — for whatever reason; nobody knows exactly why — decided to fight back. The situation escalated into a full-blown riot that night, with more rioting breaking out again the next night and over the next several days.
To get just a small sense of the daily insults those patrons experienced back then, all you have to do is read the news reports about the rebellion. The New York Times buried its first day’s coverage to a very small article on page 33. If coverage was more prominent elsewhere, it was also more contemptuous. Kevin Neff at The Washington Blade posted this mocking report by the New York Daily News:
Homo Nest Raided
Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad
By JERRY LISKER, New York Daily News, July 6, 1969
She sat there with her legs crossed, the lashes of her mascara-coated eyes beating like the wings of a hummingbird. She was angry. She was so upset she hadn’t bothered to shave.
A day old stubble was beginning to push through the pancake makeup. She was a he. A queen of Christopher Street.
Last weekend the queens had turned commandos and stood bra strap to bra strap against an invasion of the helmeted Tactical Patrol Force. The elite police squad had shut down one of their private gay clubs, the Stonewall Inn at 57 Christopher St., in the heart of a three-block homosexual community in Greenwich Village. Queen Power reared its bleached blonde head in revolt.
New York City experienced its first homosexual riot.
Last Thursday, the New York Daily News ran a very different story about the Stonewall riots. This time, coverage was considerably more respectful:
Veterans of those 1969 riots outside of Stonewall – a then Mafia-run, Christopher St. bar that allowed gays to dance and drink – are still focusing on the fights ahead of them, namely legalizing same-sex marriage.
“The parallel is gay people are still fighting to be seen as full human beings and want someone to have and to hold. And the first place we were able to have and to hold is when we danced at Stonewall,” said Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, 61.
Lanigan-Schmidt, who was 18 when he left his parents’ New Jersey home with less than a dollar in his pocket, saw the Stonewall as a place where he could finally be free, a spot where he could slow-dance and socialize openly.
“You felt protected there,” he said. “It became a place that I was able to be myself.”
When a phalanx of police raided the place and broke down its double doors on June 28, launching days of protests outside, patrons had reached their breaking point.
“That night was a joyous night for a lot of us,” said Jerry Hoose, 64, who described the atmosphere as like Carnival, but with energy and purpose.
The great saga of the Stonewall Inn Rebellion has been told and retold like a great legend around the communal fire. It’s a story that would fill a book, and for some that book would be a very sacred one. Instead of trying to retell the whole story, I’ll simply refer you to the Wikipedia page, which is a decent primer on those pivotal events. Better still, look at the original police reports and first-hand accounts at historian Jonathan Ned Katz’s amazing OutHistory.
But like all creation myths told around the campfire, this one often presumes that Stonewall was where everything began, that before Stonewall there was nothing. Of course, we know that’s not true. Two and a half years before Stonewall, there was the Black Cat riot in Los Angeles, when patrons at the Black Cat bar fought back against police who tried to arrest them for exchanging New Year’s kisses. (Police charged one couple for kissing each other “on the mouth for three to five seconds.”) A year before the Black Cat riot, there were sit-ins that led to a riot in San Francisco when Compton’s Cafeteria, refusing to serve its gay customers, called the police. A year before the Compton Cafeteria riot, there were sit-ins at two restaurants in Philadelphia which led to their backing down from similar discriminatory practices. That same year and as a separate set of events, pickets first appeared in front of the White House and Independence Hall. And eleven years before Stonewall, a gay magazine managed to get the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in its favor as it fought indecency charges.
So if there was a birth of the modern gay-rights movement, it must be marked sometime before Stonewall. To refuse to do so would be to dismiss the remarkable achievements of those who resisted before. The Stonewall rebellion wasn’t much different from previous acts of gay disobedience, but it became different because it happened at a very crucial time.
The Stonewall rebellion caught the American zeitgeist in a way that the Black Cat riot missed, probably because the Black Cat riot, happening when it did in the first few minutes of 1967, was just ever so slightly ahead of its time. America went on to change dramatically between 1967 and 1969. The Summer of Love arrived just a few months following the Black Cat raid in 1967, two beloved leaders were assassinated in 1968, and by 1969 there was widespread campus unrest over the Vietnam War and demands for racial equality. So when Stonewall came around, it wasn’t just a rebellion against a repressive local police force; it became something much bigger because it happened within the context of a much larger set of movements challenging the status quo.
So like all creation myths, it almost doesn’t matter whether Stonewall was the first but only that it happened. It’s Stonewall that has become our touchstone, to stretch a metaphoric pun. And as a touchstone, Stonewall is global. The very word no longer needs translation. Simply utter “Stonewall,” untranslated, to anyone speaking any language today (In Russian for example, just say “Ð¡Ñ‚Ð¾ÑƒÐ½Ð²Ð¾Ð»Ð»Ð°,” pronounced “Stounvolla”), and people will know instantly what you’re talking about. I said Stonewall is our creation myth, but since many see it as the birth of the modern gay rights movement (rightly or wrongly), maybe it’s better to say that it’s our Nativity Story. We’ve divided our history between pre-Stonewall and post-Stonewall just like Christianity divided the calendar based on another historic Nativity. And as with that Nativity, Stonewall marked the arrival of a new era and nothing would be the same ever again.
But that metaphor — Stonewall as a Nativity story — is unsatisfactory as well. We’re not an ancient people seeking to understand where we came from, nor are we a people awaiting a long-promised messiah who will come to save us. We are American citizens claiming our birthright. While Stonewall is now a universal touchstone the world over, the story of Stonewall is, for us Americans at least, a solidly American story more than anything else. Because they fought back, the Stonewall Inn became our Lexington and the defiant leaflets which littered the streets in the immediate aftermath were our Declaration of Independence. Stonewall reminds us that this imperfect Union still has not delivered on its promises to all its citizens, and Stonewall spurs us on to make this Union more perfect. Stonewall is yet another milestone in our country’s ongoing journey to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity. That noble task is not yet finished.
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Prologue: Why I Went To “Love Won Out”
Part 1: What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Part 2: Parents Struggle With “No Exceptions”
Part 3: A Whole New Dialect
Part 4: It Depends On How The Meaning of the Word "Change" Changes
Part 5: A Candid Explanation For "Change"
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