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
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.
The Stonewall Inn: a nondescript two-story building at 53
Christopher Street, just off of Sheridan Square in New York's
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
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
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
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
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.'"
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Fade to black
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
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).