Stonewall Revisited

by Eric Marcus on November 30, 1999

I HAD A DREAM THE OTHER NIGHT. I was at a benefit performance of a new Andrew Lloyd Webber extravaganza, called "Stonewall: The Musical." It reminded me of "Les Miserables" (not a Webber musical, but this was, after all, a dream). The central character was a drag queen named Sylvia, and instead of the dramatic high point of the show taking place atop a barricade on a Paris street in a confrontation between government troops and a band of youthful revolutionaries, the climax in "Stonewall: The Musical" was set in Greenwich Village's Sheridan Square. To the beat of "Supermodel," a chorus line of Ru Paul look-alikes high-kicked in from stage left as a phalanx of goose-stepping New York City policemen - actually the 1970s disco group, the Village People, dressed in riot gear - marched in from stage right.

In the moment before the police started beating heads and ripping bodices, I stood up on my seat and started yelling that this wasn't the way it happened. Sylvia, who was at the center of the chorus line, stopped mid-kick, glared down at me from her ten-inch platform shoes (they didn't wear platform shoes in 1969!), dramatically rolled her eyes, and with hands on hips yelled back at me, "Honey, get over it. Everyone likes this story better." My friend John pulled me back into my seat and the show went on without further interruption. I woke up that morning with a splitting headache.

It's only been 25 years since the real riots broke out at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, but like a ridiculously long game of telephone, the Stonewall legend that's emerged from the end of the line is only an echo of the original event. It kind of reminds me of the lessons I learned in elementary school about "How The West Was Won." Great story, and even a fun movie starring Debbie Reynolds, but not nearly as interesting or complex as the real thing.

The story of what really happened at Stonewall has yet to be distorted and embellished beyond the point of recognition, but it's well on its way. The myth gets a boost every time someone writes about how "heroic drag queens started a riot at the Stonewall Inn, which marked the beginning of the gay rights movement."

After writing Making History, which is about the gay rights struggle from 1945 to 1990, and interviewing people who were at Stonewall Inn the night of the riot, and having read eyewitness accounts of what actually happened, the much-repeated telescoped myth makes me want to scream. Some of my friends have told me to give it up, that the tide is against me. But on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the riot at the Stonewall Inn, I thought I'd make one last effort to set the record straight about a remarkable event that marked a key turning point in the history of the gay and lesbian rights struggle. It also happens to be a great story. So pull up a chair, because it's a couple of minutes to eight, and the curtain's about to rise.

Act I

Location:

The Stonewall Inn: a nondescript two-story building at 53 Christopher Street, just off of Sheridan Square in New York's Greenwich Village.

Dawn Hampton, a torch singer and hat check girl, who went to work at the Stonewall when it opened in 1966, recalled that Stonewall Inn was "the biggest after hours gay dance palace in the city at that time. The place there now is much smaller than the original."

When Ms. Hampton first went to work there, you didn't just walk into the Stonewall, you had to be admitted. "You had to be identified by someone at the door who either assumed or knew you were of that life. I had worked at so many of the gay bars as a performer and hat check girl that I was often called to the door and asked, 'Do you know this person?' You see, at that time there was a lot of entrapment going on. Police would come to a gay bar and pretend that they were of that life. They would try to get someone to make sexual advances, arrest the poor fellow and later come back and bust the bar for allowing deviates and undesirables to be there."

As thoroughly documented by Martin Duberman in his book, Stonewall, the Stonewall Inn was opened by "three Mafia figures... who spent less than a thousand dollars in fixing up the club's interior." The late Morty Manford, who was a nineteen-year-old college student in 1969, recalled that the Stonewall was a dive. "It was my favorite place, but it was shabby, and the glasses they served the watered-down drinks in weren't particularly clean."

eyond the front door and past the coat room, where Dawn Hampton presided, the Stonewall had a main bar, a dance floor, and a juke box. There was another bar in back, with tables where people could sit.

The Patrons:

The Stonewall Inn attracted an eclectic crowd, from teenage college students like Morty Manford to conservatively dressed young men who stopped in with their dates after the theater or opera. "It was a different mind-set then," recalled Dawn Hampton. "On weekends, men dressed up. A lot of them were dating and they would dress in coat and tie."

There was also a sprinkling of young radicals, people like Ronnie Di Brienza, a twenty-six-year old long-haired musician who didn't consider himself gay or straight. "I must consider myself a freak."

The Stonewall Inn was not a generally welcoming place for drag queens, although as Martin Duberman notes, "...a few favored full-time transvestites, like Tiffany, Spanola Jerry, a hairdresser from Sheepshead Bay, and Tammy Novak... were allowed to enter Stonewall in drag..."

The nightly crowd at the Stonewall Inn did include, however, quite a few men that Dick Leitsch described as the "fluffy sweater" type. "It wasn't drag queens. They were sissies, young effeminate guys, giggle girls." Leitsch, who was then executive director of the Mattachine Society, a gay rights group founded in 1950, said you rarely saw people in full drag because "in those days you got busted for dressing up unless you were on your way to or from a licensed masquerade ball."

Sylvia Rivera recalled that if you were a drag queen, you could get into the Stonewall if they knew you, but he favored the Washington Square Bar at Third Street and Broadway. When he dressed up, Sylvia liked to pretend that he was a white woman. "I always like to say that, but really I'm Puerto Rican and Venezuelan."

If men dressed as women were an uncommon sight, real women at the Stonewall Inn were rarer still. More often than not, when Dawn Hampton worked at the Stonewall, she was the only woman there, yet felt fully accepted. "A lot of the kids called me 'Mommie.'"

The Mood:

June 27, 1969, was not an average Friday night at the Stonewall Inn. Earlier that week, on Tuesday night, the police had raided the Stonewall "to gather evidence of illegal sale of alcohol."

Ronnie Di Brienza later wrote in an article in The East Village Other, "On Wednesday and Thursday nights, grumbling could be heard among the limp-wristed set. Predominantly, the theme was, 'this shit has got to stop!' ...It used to be that a fag was happy to get slapped and chased home, as long as they didn't have to have their names splashed onto a court record. Now, times are a-changin'. Tuesday night was the last night for bullshit."

The late film historian, Vito Russo, didn't know about the Tuesday night raid, but he was in a foul mood on Friday night as he approached the Stonewall on his way home from work, because earlier that day he'd attended Judy Garland's funeral. He recalled, "The day before the funeral thousands of people had waited in the street to view the body. They were lined up all the way down Eighty-First Street and on Fifth Avenue by Central Park. They kept the funeral home open around the clock, and more than twenty thousand people filed through. It was a spectacle to behold."

There also happened to be a full moon on the night of June 27, 1969.

Scene 1: The Raid

Morty Manford was at the Stonewall Inn when several plainclothes officers entered the bar around 2:00 a.m. "Whispers went around that the place was being raided. Suddenly, the lights were turned up, the doors were sealed, and all the patrons were held captive until the police decided what they were going to do. I was anxious, but I wasn't afraid. Everybody was anxious, not knowing whether we were going to be arrested or what was going to happen."

"It may have been ten or fifteen minutes later that we were all told to leave. We had to line up, and our identification was checked before we were freed. People who did not have identification or were under age and all transvestites were detained."

Of the two hundred people ejected from the Stonewall that night, five who were dressed as women were detained. According to Village Voice reporter Howard Smith, as he wrote in an article entitled "Full Moon Over The Stonewall," "...Out of five queens checked, three were men and two were [transsexuals], even though all said they were girls." Smith had coincidentally been accompanying the police on the Stonewall raid that night.

Scene 2: The Riot

After being released from the bar, Morty Manford watched and waited outside. "As some of the gays came out of the bar, they would take a bow, and their friends would cheer." It was a colorful scene, Morty recalled, but the tension began to grow.

Howard Smith observed, "Things were already pretty tense: the gay customers freshly ejected from their hangout, prancing high and jubilant in the street, had been joined by quantities of Friday night tourists hawking around for Village-type excitement... Loud defiances mixed with skittish hilarity made for a more dangerous stage of protest; they were feeling their impunity. This kind of crowd freaks easily." The crowd grew to more than 400 people.

Lucian Truscott IV, who was also at the Stonewall that night reporting for the Village Voice, wrote that the scene was initially festive: "Cheers would go up as favorites would emerge from the door, strike a pose, and swish by the detective with a 'Hello there, fella.' The stars were in their element. Wrists were limp, hair was primped, and reactions to the applause were classic. 'I gave them the gay power bit, and they loved it, girls.' 'Have you seen Maxine? Where is my wife - I told her not to go far.'"

Truscott reported that the mood changed once the paddy wagon arrived and three drag queens, the bartender and the doorman were loaded inside. The crowd showered the police with boos and catcalls and "a cry went up to push the paddy wagon over, but it drove away before anything could happen... The next person to come out was a dyke, and she put up a struggle - from car to door to car again."

At this point Smith reported that the police had trouble keeping "the dyke" in the patrol car. "Three times she slid out and tried to walk away. The last time a cop bodily heaved her in. The crowd shrieked, 'Police brutality!' 'Pigs!'"

Sylvia Rivera was watching the whole scene. "It was inhumane, senseless bullshit. They called us animals. We were the lowest scum of the Earth at that time... Suddenly, the nickels, dimes, pennies, and quarters started flying. I threw quarters and pennies and whatnot. 'You already got the payoff, and here's some more!' To be there was so beautiful. It was so exciting. I said, 'Well great, now it's my time. I'm out here being a revolutionary for everybody else, and now it's time to do my thing for my own people.'"

The tension continued to rise. Truscott writes: "Limp wrists were forgotten. Beer cans and bottles were heaved at the windows." Reporter Howard Smith retreated inside the bar along with Deputy Inspector Seymour Pine, and the police officers who had conducted the raid. Once inside the bar, they bolted the heavy front door.

From his vantage point outside the bar, Morty remembered seeing someone throw a rock, which broke a window on the second floor of the Stonewall Inn building. "With the shattering of the glass, the crowd collectively exclaimed, 'Ooh.' It was a dramatic gesture of defiance. For me, there was a slight lancing of the festering wound of anger that had been building for so long over this kind of unfair harassment and prejudice. It wasn't my fault that many of the bars where I could meet other gay people were run by organized crime."

Inside the Stonewall, Smith heard the shattering of glass, including at least one of the two large plate glass windows on the first floor. The windows, which were painted black from the inside, were backed by plywood panels.

There was pounding at the door and people yelling. Smith writes: "The door crashes open, beer cans and bottles hurtle in... At that point the only uniformed cop among them gets hit with something under his eye. He hollers, and his hand comes away scarlet... They are all suddenly furious. Three run out to see if they can scare the mob from the door. [Inspector Seymour] Pine leaps out into the crowd and drags a protester inside by the hair."

Outside, with the crowd still growing, Truscott observes, "At the height of the action, a bearded figure was plucked from the crowd and dragged inside... the crowd erupted into cobblestone and bottle heaving. The reaction was solid: they were pissed. The trash can I was standing on was nearly yanked out from under me as a kid tried to grab it for use in the window-smashing melee."

Ronnie Di Brienza, the long-haired musician picks up the story here: "A bunch of 'queens' along with a few 'butch' members, grabbed a parking meter, and began battering the entrance until the door swung open."

Inside, Smith and the police duck as more debris is thrown in through the open door. In response, Smith writes, "The detectives locate a fire hose, the idea being to ward off the madding crowd until reinforcements arrive."

Lucian Truscott describes what happens next: "Several kids took the opportunity to cavort in the spray, and their momentary glee served to stave off what was rapidly becoming a full-scale attack."

Smith grows fearful as the tension escalates. He observes, "By now the minds eye had forgotten the character of the mob; the sound filtering in doesn't suggest dancing faggots any more. It sounds like a powerful rage bent on vendetta..."

The crowd then heaves the uprooted parking meter through one of the plate glass windows. The plywood behind the window gives.

Smith writes, "It seems inevitable that the mob will pour in. A kind of tribal adrenaline rush bolsters all of us; they take out and check pistols. I see both policewomen busy doing the same, and the danger becomes even more real. I find a big wrench behind the bar, jam it into my belt like a scimitar... [Inspector] Pine places a few men on each side of the corridor leading away from the entrance. They aim unwavering at the door... I hear, 'We'll shoot the first motherfucker that comes through the door!'"

From outside the bar, Truscott recalls, "I heard several cries of, 'Let's get some gas.'" Smith notices an arm at the window. It belongs to a man whom Ronnie Di Brienza describes as a "small scrawny, hoody-looking cat." He is holding a can of lighter fluid.

A stream of liquid pours in through the broken window. Smith writes, "A flaring match follows. Pine is not more than 10 feet away [from the window]." Pine aims his gun at the shadows framed by the window. But he doesn't fire.

Smith writes, "The sound of sirens coincides with the shoosh of flames where the lighter fluid was thrown. Later, Pine tells me he didn't shoot because he had heard the sirens in time and felt no need to kill someone if help was arriving. It was that close."

Once reinforcements arrived, in the form of New York City's Tactical Police Force, the streets were cleared in coordinated sweeps of the area. According to newspaper accounts in the days that followed, thirteen people were arrested that night and three policemen suffered minor injuries. No mention was made of civilian casualties.

ACT II

Scene 1: The Aftermath

By the time Vito Russo happened on the scene in front of the Stonewall, the riot was over, although people were still out on the sidewalks yelling at the police. He recalls, "I didn't get to see a lot of the hysteria that's been described in the press because I got there too late. I went to the little triangular park across the street and sat in a tree on a branch. I watched what was going on, but I didn't want to get involved. People were still throwing things, whatever they could find, mostly garbage. Then somebody came along and spray painted a message to the community on the front of Stonewall that this was our neighborhood, and we weren't going to let them take it away from us, that everybody should calm down and go home. But that's not the way it worked out because there were constant confrontations for the next two nights."

Dick Leitsch heard about the melee at the Stonewall on the radio and hurried downtown from his apartment on West 72nd Street. "Considering my position at the time as Executive Director of The Mattachine Society and being in charge of anything gay in New York at that time, I stopped what I was doing and headed down there."

Despite the fact that "things got out of hand," Leitsch remembers the first night as having had a fun and campy atmosphere. "This was uniquely gay. It was much different than the burning of the cities, which happened the year before, and the riots in Chicago at the democratic convention. This was more camp. It was more like satire. I think the funny, campy behavior made more of a point than just the trashing."

The next day, Inspector Pine tried to enlist Mattachine's help in calming the neighborhood. "We'd had a relationship with the police for years," Leitsch recalls. "We'd already gotten them to curtail entrapment and stopped the harassment of licensed bars." (The Stonewall was unlicensed).

Among gay people themselves, both the organized gay community and those who remained on the sidelines, there was intense debate over how to respond to the riot. On one side were those who wanted the riots and mass protests to continue, and on the other were many who wanted an immediate end to the violence and public demonstrations. One fear among those who wanted peace restored was that the police would retaliate with increased bar raids, harassment, and arrests.

Saturday night, the crowds gathered once again in front of the Stonewall, and this time included "onlookers, Eastsiders, and rough street people." Dick Leitsch recalls, "It was all these poor pitiful people who were still thinking that the revolution was going to come because they thought this was it - all the New Left and the tired old 1930s radicals who were waiting for the Communist revolution since 1917. Instead of just defying the cops, they got nasty."

But the majority of the hundreds of people who crowded onto Christopher Street and jammed Sheridan Square were young gay men. And despite some nasty confrontations with the police, there was plenty of humor and camp left over from the previous night. As Lucian Truscott reported: "Friday night's crowd had returned and was being led in 'gay power' cheers by a group of gay cheerleaders. 'We are the Stonewall girls/ We wear our hair in curls/ We have no underwear/ We show our pubic hairs!' ...Hand-holding, kissing, and posing accented each of the cheers with a homosexual liberation that had appeared only fleetingly on the street before."

Not every gay person was thrilled with the very public displays of gay camp and freely expressed same-sex affection. As Truscott observed, "Older boys had strained looks on their faces and talked in concerned whispers as they watched the up-and-coming generation take being gay and flaunt it before the masses."

New York City's Tactical Police Force returned again on Saturday night to clear the hundreds of protesters from the streets. Truscott reported: "The TPF...swept the crowd back to the corner of Waverly Place, where they stopped. A stagnant situation there brought on some gay tomfoolery in the form of a chorus line facing the line of helmeted and club-carrying cops. Just as the line got into a full kick routine, the TPF advanced again and cleared the crowd of screaming gay powerites." By 3:30 a.m. Christopher Street was once again calm, but a new era in the gay rights struggle had already dawned.

Fade to black

Curtain

Epilogue

Isn't that an inspiring story? So the streets weren't filled with drag queens in sequins and heels. So the Stonewall riot didn't mark the start of the gay and lesbian rights struggle. (It wasn't even the first time that gay people challenged police repression.) But gay people - fluffy sweater boys, dykes, sissies, college students, boys in chinos and penny loafers - did in fact challenge police repression. They were finally pushed to the point where they'd had enough, and they fought back.

We can all relate to the sense of frustration and indignity that the Stonewallers experienced. And we can take pride in the actions of those young people in 1969 who lashed out in a way that plenty of us have fantasized about. The notion of bashing back has great visceral appeal, even if it's rarely the appropriate response.

The violent challenge to police harassment and repression at the Stonewall Inn was more than enough to earn the riot a place in gay history - in American history. But the impact of the Stonewall riot went far beyond the confines of Greenwich Village and Manhattan island. For a variety of reasons, the riot was a key turning point in the gay rights struggle across the country. It led to a virtual explosion of activity and organizing, primarily among young people, in the months and years immediately following.

At the time of the riot there were perhaps four dozen gay organizations across the country. By the early 1970s, there were more than four hundred, ranging from college and university groups to chapters of the Metropolitan Community Church - and, the gay liberation movement erupted on the political scene in cities across the country.

As we honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Stonewall riot, there is no harm in celebrating what actually happened at the Stonewall Inn. The Stonewall myth has plenty of appeal, but the true story is far more dramatic, exciting, and inspiring than any tale, even if it's seven feet tall (in platform shoes).

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