The Stonewall Myth

The upcoming premiere of the movie “Stonewall” (directed by Roland Emmerich and written by Jon Robin Baitz) has provoked calls for a boycott by the predicable crowd, since the central character is a gay white cis male.

As the negative comments to the trailer show, the myth of Stonewall is alive and thriving—that the bar was frequented by people of color and drag queens who started and led the subsequent riots. Alas, actual Stonewall veterans and real historians note that the Stonewall was, in fact, a mostly young white male kind of place. Photos reveal a clientele that, if not quite preppie was certainly more middle-class than lumpenproletariat, although local drag queens joined the riot once it got underway.

Back in 1999 IGF posted Stonewall Revisited by historian Eric Marcus, who noted, “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.” And in 2002, we ran The Myth of the Transsexual Stonewall by Dale Carpenter, who wrote: “It is wrong to characterize the Stonewall Inn as having been a sanctuary for genderqueers (unless that term encompasses non-transgendered gay men).”

Eric Marcus wrote:

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.” …

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…”

These posts sought to put historical fact above politically correct and fashionable narrative, to little success. And thus the calls to boycott the Stonewall movie for failing to show the fabled bar as it was not, but (for many) ought to have been.

When the legend becomes fact, print (or film) the legend?

More. Writing at Advocate.com, Stonewall veteran Mark Segal, now the publisher of Philadelphia Gay New, shares his views (and why he opposed the boycott). He writes:

Once Stonewall was raided and the crowd became angry and it looked as though something might happen, only drag queens, homeless kids, people like me who thought they had no future, and a few activists stuck around.

Who am I to argue with an eye witness? But I’ll just note that then-kids like Segal himself and other Stonewall veterans/instigators, such as Morty Manford and Marty Robinson, may have felt marginalized and that they had nothing to lose, but were in fact from white working- or middle-class families, college-educated if not actually still students. And, in the case of these three, also Jewish. So no, not all street people and drag queens of color.

Are New Yorkers Stonewalling Their Own Progress?

Twenty years ago, New York's highest court ruled, in Braschi v. Stahl Associates that a same-sex couple could be treated as a "family" under New York's rent control law. This was a landmark decision because at the time same-sex couples had virtually no legal recognition of any kind in New York - or any other state's - law.

I know about this because I helped Tom Coleman do legal research for a brief in Braschi that helped situate gay couples in the broad term "family" as we had just done the prior year in passing the first domestic partnership ordinance in Los Angeles. After the 1989 decision, we had every reason to believe New York would beat California in enacting statewide domestic partnership, and ultimately to marriage.

Two decades later, New York state not only does not offer domestic partnership to its homosexual citizens, it seems to have rejected any compromise other than full marriage rights, and doesn't seem interested in any political middle ground.

I hope they know what they're doing. Perhaps all the news reports are wrong, and they really do have the votes this time for full marriage equality. That would be terrific. Or perhaps they don't want to dilute the issue, keeping the arguments clearly focused on what really matters in the long-term.

But if they can't get marriage, how much longer will they leave New York state's same-sex couples with legal protections not that much different from their counterparts in Mississippi? Even New York City's same-sex couples can only claim domestic partnership rights that that include vendors licenses and visitation in NYC's prisons. One of the most vibrant gay communities in the entire world seems content, in 2009, with fewer legal rights than couples in Hawaii. Or Vermont. Or Maine.

If they pull this off, it'll be a tremendous, and long-overdue victory. But if they don't, they're making it look like the legacy of Stonewall is to do nothing but stonewall.

It’s Time to Stonewall Obama

It is starting to seem like a tautology that if the Obama administration is asked to weigh in on a question of gay rights, then it will come down on the wrong side.

It happened again last week.

Obama's Department of Justice crafted a brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act that used all of the arguments of the anti-gay Right. Heterosexual marriages are "traditional," it said. Denying federal recognition to legal state marriages doesn't hurt anyone, it said. States don't have to recognize gay marriages performed by other states just like they don't have to recognize a marriage between an uncle and his niece, it said.

We do not have a "friend in the White House."

We do not have a "fierce advocate."

What we have is an enemy.

He is, sure, a wolf in sheep's clothing, wearing a glittering costume embroidered with "Hope," "Change" and empty promises. He is master of doublespeak, saying that he is against DOMA yet not protesting when a Bush-holdover presses a poison dagger of a marriage brief into our chests; he says he supports the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, but has yet to issue a Stop-Loss order to keep hunted gays and lesbians in their military jobs.

Leave gay rights to the states, he says. Leave them to Congress.

Barack Obama is no longer hurting us with benign neglect. Barack Obama's administration is now actively attacking us.

If George W. Bush had responded this way to Don't Ask, Don't Tell and DOMA, we would be rising in the streets. We would be protesting in front of the White House.

Barack Obama is not our friend. He is not our fierce advocate. He is someone who used our vulnerability and hope to get elected.

Joe Solmonese, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, wrote a beautiful letter to the White House expressing just this sense of betrayal. "I cannot overstate the pain that we feel as human beings and as families when we read an argument, presented in federal court, implying that our own marriages have no more constitutional standing than incestuous ones," he wrote.

Barack Obama has forgotten, perhaps, that we are human beings with families. He perhaps has made the erroneous assumption that we will wait our turn humbly, hats in hand, until he decides to be beneficent in the waning days of a second term.

We need to show him that we will not.

The world is a different place than it was five years ago or even six months ago. Establishment Republicans - Dick Cheney! Joe Bruno in New York! - are now coming out in favor of gay marriage. A majority of Americans favor the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Gay and lesbian civil rights are no longer a fringe issue. And gays and lesbians are no longer a minority who will be placated with hate crimes legislation in lieu of full and equal rights.

There will always be urgent issues competing for a President's attention. That's what being President is. But those other issues shouldn't make us back down. In fact, they should make us fight harder.

Health care? DOMA might make it impossible for our spouses to be our dependents in a federal health care program. The economy? Our families would certainly be better off if the money we paid to Social Security could go to our loved ones if we passed before they did. The war? America would have a stronger fighting force if it stopped ejecting perfectly qualified, long-serving soldiers just because they are gay.

We must stop giving Barack Obama the benefit of the doubt. It is time to show him that we will not support a second term, that we will not support the Democratic Party, if this continues. We will not give a dollar of our money. We will not give an hour of our time.

We will Stonewall him and his administration. The time for being treated as the equal Americans we are has come, and we will not be pushed aside.

Stonewall, Schmonewall

There are a couple of things to say about the efforts to get the White House to issue a resolution on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.

First, I suppose there is some value in trying to get the President to do something -- anything -- to recognize the fact that lesbians and gay men are engaged in a civil rights struggle on his watch. But many of us voted for this President because we believed he would actually do something to change the laws that formalize and institutionalize discrimination against us: in particular DADT and DOMA. Resolutions, like their cousin, rhetoric, are honeyed words. If we have to expend resources - and still get resistance - on mere words, what does it say about our expectations for anything substantive from the President?

Second, while Stonewall was an important symbolic event in the history of gay rights - even a "watershed" in the words of a congressional resolution - it is high time that the gay community stopped viewing it in isolation. Stonewall came almost two years after the Black Cat riots in Los Angeles had established the model of public resistance to police harassment and arrests of gay bars. That well-documented series of events in L.A., in February of 1967, may or may not have affected what happened in New York a couple of years later, but there is no doubt that Stonewall followed the rise of open gay pride that was already well-established on the opposite side of the country - and gets far more credit for this revolution than, in my opinion, it deserves.

Stonewall has become the brand name for gay rights - even here in California we have gay organizations named after it. But the Black Cat riots showed how organized L.A.'s gay community was two years before New York stole the spotlight from us.

The Myth of a Transgender Stonewall

The recent death of Sylvia Rivera, an activist drag queen who threw quarters at the police during the Stonewall riot, has prompted much guilt-laden commentary about how the gay civil rights movement has pushed aside "the people who started it all." The commentary is dubious as a matter of history and wrong about the policy conclusions it draws from that history.

Here is the standard story: "On the night of June 28, 1969, the New York City police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar that included a mix of drag queens and lesbians. Led by the drag queens, the patrons fought back, igniting the gay civil rights movement. Yet the new movement soon became overly image-conscious and pushed these brave heroes to the back of the bus. It's high time we repay our debt by fully including transgender issues in gay causes, including proposed legislation."

This fictionalized account of Stonewall and its aftermath has been repeated so many times by gay and transgender activists it now goes almost unquestioned. Typical of the genre is a recent Village Voice column by Riki Wilchins, executive director of GenderPAC. Wilchins describes the Stonewall Inn in 1969 as a "sanctuary" for "genderqueers," who were "unwelcome at the city's tonier gay bars."

Wilchins asserts Rivera "helped [give] birth" to the gay movement at Stonewall. Similarly, in his book The Gay Metropolis, Charles Kaiser says Stonewall was "sparked by drag queens." Despite these contributions, transgender causes are now excluded from the movement because, as Wilchins puts it, gay organizations are "determined to project an image of normalcy."

This is politics-by-guilt-trip, and it has been undeniably effective in redirecting many gay groups' priorities toward transgender issues. The National Gay & Lesbian Task Force has even withdrawn its support of the only federal legislation that would prohibit anti-gay employment discrimination because the bill does not include "gender identity" within its protections.

The standard tale is error piled on error. First, it exaggerates the undeniable importance of Stonewall as a catalytic event. As the careful work of numerous historians has demonstrated, there was an active gay civil rights effort underway long before Stonewall. Gay activists had organized the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles in 1950, and in other cities later; had supported an openly gay candidate for public office; had fought the closing of gay bars; had founded a national magazine, The Advocate; had marched in front of the White House for equal rights; and had picketed businesses that discriminated against gays.

Outside of New York, according to Stephen Murray in his book American Gay, gay activists initially paid little attention to Stonewall. Only through the annual pride parade commemorations that began a year later and spread significantly in the mid-1970s did Stonewall take on the singular importance in gay history it now enjoys. At the time it happened, however, the event simply did not carry the incredible motivating force we now attach to it.

Second, the centrality of transgenders to Stonewall is probably exaggerated. Eyewitness accounts of what happened that night vary, as they usually do, and we have no videotape of the event and very few pictures.

But one thing is clear. It is wrong to characterize the Stonewall Inn as having been a sanctuary for genderqueers (unless that term encompasses non-transgendered gay men). Murray writes that "men familiar with the milieu then insist that the Stonewall clientele was middle-class white men and that very few drag queens or dykes or nonwhites were ever allowed admittance."

But don't take Murray's word for it, consider what Sylvia Rivera herself told the historian Eric Marcus for his book, Making History: "The Stonewall wasn't a bar for drag queens. Everybody keeps saying it was. ... If you were a drag queen, you could get into the Stonewall if they knew you. And only a certain number of drag queens were allowed into the Stonewall at that time." The night of the Stonewall riot was the first time Rivera had ever even been to the bar.

If Rivera is right, it seems likely the Stonewall patrons who rebelled that June night in 1969 included many (perhaps mostly) middle-class, non-transgendered, gay white males. It's possible that the few drag queens present provided all (or most of) the rebellion while the others cowered. But there is no reason to make that assumption unless we indulge stereotypes about the timidity of gay men. So a description of the riot as an uprising of drag queens may be more politically correct, but as history it seems partial.

This point does not deny that drag queens participated in the riot. They did. It only makes the point that their centrality to the event likely has been exaggerated, probably for ideological reasons.

Finally, these historical disputes have no bearing - either way - on whether "gender identity" ought to be included in gay civil rights legislation. Even if Stonewall was the single casus belli of the gay struggle, and even if transgenders were the only people there kicking shins and uprooting parking meters, so what? And even if no drag queens were present that night, what difference would it make now?

If we learned the Stonewall police had busted up a meeting of gay white racists, instead of drag queens, we wouldn't say that should make us more attentive to the concerns of racists. These matters rise or fall on their own merits, not on the relative role groups played in distant and disputed events.

And speaking of the merits, drafting legislation is an immensely complicated task that involves putting together a coalition of supporters. Gay civil rights legislation would be stalled or effectively killed in many places if transgenders were included. The choice is often between a more inclusive bill that goes nowhere and a less inclusive bill that actually becomes law. It is not "transphobic" to make this point; it is pragmatic.

These are hard realities that some people do not want to hear. We should not feel guilty because we want to make progress, least of all because someone is telling us fairy tales about our past.

Stonewall Revisited

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).

Stonewall: Get A Grip

First appeared June 10, 1999, in the Windy City Times.

THIS YEAR IS BEING billed as the 30th anniversary of "Stonewall Riots" of June, 1969 in New York's Greenwich Village.

Hallowed in story and song, "Stonewall," as it is now called, was a weekend-long series of skirmishes between gays and the police that followed a bar raid, often taken to mark the beginning of the modern gay movement.

To be sure, a great deal of gay self-disclosure, activism and institutional development followed rapidly after "Stonewall."

But focusing on "Stonewall" as some sort of beginning or defining moment for the gay movement is deeply misleading. It blocks recognition of the important fact that there was a rapidly growing gay community consciousness in the 1960s, and that there was already a gay movement that not only grew rapidly but accelerated as the 1960s progressed.

Stonewall, we could say, was as much an effect as a cause.

As New York gay historian Jim Levin pointed out in a 1983 monograph on the gay movement, "Stonewall was the trigger for the gun, but the gun was so well loaded that any number of other events might well have fired it."

And veteran activist Frank Kameny comments to me, "I've always believed that our public demonstrations in 1965 and the subsequent ones in 1966, and at Independence Hall thereafter, created the mindset which made the 1969 public demonstration at Stonewall possible, and without which such a public demonstration would have been so unthinkable that it would not have occurred."

Although speculating about alternative history is risky, it also seems safe to say that even if no such catalyzing event as "Stonewall" had happened at all, gay progress would have continued from the 1960s on into the 1970s at an ever-increasing pace. It would simply have happened differently.

Let me give a generous dozen examples of pre-Stonewall gay activism and growth. Notice how the pace accelerates as the decade progresses.

  • San Francisco entertainer Jose Sarria, the first openly gay man to run for public office, received 6,000 votes in the 1961 race for city supervisor, the same office Harvey Milk won 16 years later.
  • Illinois in 1961 was the first state to decriminalize sodomy. Connecticut followed suit at the end of the decade.
  • The first gay business association, the Tavern Guild, was formed in 1962 by gay bars in San Francisco. Within five years, gay bars in other cities formed similar groups.
  • A gay magazine distributed in San Francisco's gay bars had a circulation of 7,000 by 1962.
  • Frank Kameny organized the first ever picket demonstration for gay rights in America in April 1965 at the White House. Six more pickets followed that year in Washington or Philadelphia, including a second White House picket in October that drew 65 people.
  • A national gay association, the North American Conference of Homophile Organizations, began holding meetings and coordinating local activist efforts in 1966.
  • Gays in San Francisco opened a community center in 1966. It was supported, of course, by a thrift shop.
  • A Los Angeles rally to protest gay bar raids in which patrons were injured drew several hundred gays early in 1967.
  • Craig Rodwell opened the first gay bookstore, Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookstore, in New York in 1967.
  • The first campus gay organization, the Student Homophile League, was founded at Columbia University by Robert Martin in 1967. It was quickly followed by gay groups at Cornell and two or three other schools.
  • Dick Michaels and Bill Rand founded the biweekly national gay newspaper The Advocate in 1968.
  • The Rev. Troy Perry founded the Metropolitan Community Church in 1968.
  • There were 15 gay organizations in the United States in 1966. By the spring of 1969, just before Stonewall, there were nearly 50.

I offer this dozen or so examples to make clear that during the 1960s there was a small but rapidly growing gay movement that helped ensure the continued growth of activism in the 1970s even had Stonewall not happened.

But to a certain extent people live by symbols, find meaning and structure for their lives in symbols, and Stonewall has become our symbol. Think of a symbol as a kind of mental shorthand -- a conceptual device we use to coalesce a large number of facts, beliefs and feelings into a single manageable package which comes to have some sort of meaning for us, apart from and greater than its constitutive elements.

Stonewall (the event) was an odd combination of guerrilla warfare, camp street theater, and New Age "happening." Noting the growth of avant-garde and experimental theater in New York during the 1960s, historian Wayne Dynes described Stonewall as "simply the most spectacular manifestation of the new funky theater, produced in improvisational style with unpaid actors, and the police playing themselves."

"Stonewall" (the symbol), however, now has come to stand for -- "to mean" -- the aggressive expression of gay moral legitimacy, gay self-determination, and gay assertiveness in the face of institutional (especially governmental) hostility. As a symbol it includes all the earlier activist claims and adds a kind of intransigent and militant posture, "Not with my life, you don't."

After the hostile response to the bar raid, in which a gay crowd kept police trapped inside the bar until reinforcements arrived, the slogans chalked graffiti-like on the sides of buildings included "Gay Power." No matter how imitative of "Black Power" that phrase may have been, for most gays it was a new and startling thought even as braggadocio.

Walking through the Greenwich Village neighborhood after the second night of the disruptions, gay poet and counter-culture icon Allen Ginsberg commented to a reporter, "You know, the guys there were so beautiful. They've lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago."

But "Stonewall" was not automatically a symbol. People chose to make it one because they wanted a symbol. Clearly many people were close enough to being ready to agitate openly for gay equality that it took only the small added impetus of Stonewall to make them take that further step.

It seems almost as if the gay movement was building up so it could take advantage of some event that could sell the gay liberation message of gay equality, gay openness, gay assertiveness to larger numbers of people in an imaginative way.

The Stonewall Inn was an unlicensed bar. It was seedy. The glasses were dirty. The drinks were weak. It charged exorbitant prices.

Seldom has such a sow's ear been made into such a silk purse.

My Pride Column:What Stonewall Means to Me

Originally appeared June 2, 1994, in the Windy City Times.

There was a note in my office mailbox from The Editor saying he wanted to see me. I walked down the long corridor past the offices of all the Assistant Editors until I got to The Editor's door. I knocked with what I hoped was the right mixture of assertiveness and respect.

"Enter," came the familiar stern voice. I entered.

The Editor was seated at his desk behind a tall stack of half-edited manuscripts, wearing a "Just Be You" T-shirt with a little yellow button that said, "Have a Nice Whenever." Pushed up on his forehead was his ever-present green eyeshade. Vivaldi was playing on the portable CD player.

"Good morning, Sir. You wanted to see me?"

"Where is your Pride Issue column, Varnell?

"Pride column?" I asked, all innocence and wonderment.

"Pride column," he repeated. "The Pride Issue is at hand. I sent a memo to all staff about this more than a month ago. We need an appropriate column."

I smiled a thin, cool smile, reached into my back pocket, and. ...

"Ta-dah!" I said as I handed him my column with a flourish.

He stared at it as if I were offering him a live snake.

"What does it say?" he asked suspiciously.

"It's about how proud we should all be to be gay," I replied. "How it makes us the truly wonderful, self-actualizing people we are. How it sensitizes us to the joy and beauty in the universe, gives meaning to our lives, and elevates our existence far beyond that of ordinary mortals."

"Oh, cut it out, Varnell," he said with a grimace. "You don't believe any of that. You've always made fun of gay pride. You always said being gay was a neutral quality, like having blue eyes and that it was only how people handled it, what they did with it, how they lived their lives, that could be a source of pride. Do I not recall correctly?"

"Well, I'm selling out," I said grandly. "I've decided to tell people what they want to hear. They want to hear that life can be simple and uncomplicated; that life presents few demand and that it is enough just to 'be.' They want to hear that the universe is benevolent, that they can be wonderful without effort, and that living involves no pains, no trade-offs, no compromises, no agonizing dilemmas.

"I am telling people it is enough to be proud and everything else will just fall into place. I reassure them that being gay involves no moral or intellectual obligations, that they can keep on being however they are, that wherever they are is the final stage of personal development."

"Oh, for pity's sake, Varnell," he burst out. "Can't you do anything right? When you sell out you're supposed to do it for money or for power or something. But here you are selling out - as you call it - but you aren't getting anything for it at all."

"Oh, I am, I am," I insisted. "I'm gaining popularity, regard, affection. People want to read things they already agree with, that reassure them about themselves, however they are. People love this sort of thing and they love the people who tell it to them - ministers, politicians, therapists, even writers.

"And people will love me. They will write me fan letters, speak of me in reverential tones, buy me drinks at bars. I will be famous and esteemed."

"No doubt!" he said. "But this is all irrelevant. This year's Pride topic has nothing to do with Pride."

"It doesn't?" I gasped, taken aback. "How is that possible?"

"If you'd paid attention to my memo" - he pulled a piece of paper out from the middle of a pile and waved it at me - you'd have known that this year's theme is 'Stonewall 25.' I don't know why I even bother to write these things if no one reads them. ..."

His voice trailed off. Then he looked at me sternly.

"Your deadline is 4 o'clock. Dismissed!"

I made an "about-face" I learned in Boy Scouts and marched out, wondering what I could say about diversity that was not already cliche'd, hackneyed, tired.

On the way out, I stopped by the office of Aspasia, one of our young Assistant Editors.

"You'll never guess...," I began glumly.

"I know!" she said. "You need a new column." She grinned guiltily. "The intercom was on - just a teensy bit."

"Well, what are you writing about?" I asked.

"I'm writing about the most important events since Stonewall," she said. "You know, Bowers v Hardwick, Anita Bryant, the psychiatrists voting that we're mentally healthy - that kind of stuff. I'm learning a lot," she added.

"What do you think was the most important event of all? I asked.

"Most important event?" She looked off into space for a moment. "You know. I really think the most important event was when I came out."

I must have looked startled.

"Oh, I don't mean that my coming out was the most important event for everyone else, just for me. What I mean is that for each of us the most important event since Stonewall is that we ourselves came out.

"Think about it," she went on. "That means that each of us at some point summoned up the courage to be honest with ourselves about ourselves. And we managed to do that even knowing there would be some risks and losses if we did it. But we valued truth and integrity enough to face those risks. It's kind of an achievement."

She smiled brightly.

"I don't mean it's a stopping point," she added. "And that doesn't mean it's easy from then on. But it does mean that each of us was willing to throw ourselves into that existential void and take on the burden of beginning to work out life's same old problems from a new and uncertain starting point. It's an achievement that gets us up to square one, but somehow it gives us some momentum as we pass through that point on into the rest of our lives. And I suppose it gives us the experience of knowing that honesty and courage and self-knowledge have some cash value in our mental economy."

"But that's just my opinion. I suppose other people would think differently."

A glimmer of an idea stole into my mind.

"Are you writing about this?" I asked as casually as I could.

"Oh, no," she said. "It's not my topic. Besides, people would just laugh at me if I tried to explain it."

"Well, it's been good talking with you," I said. "But I've gotta go work."

And I rushed off to my word processor.

Luxuriating in Victimhood

A lesbian college professor writes about today’s LGBT-PC student culture:

A non-binary student critiques a faculty colleague of mine in class for using the term “drag queens” to describe the self-identified drag queens who resisted at Stonewall. My colleague, who is 35, queer, and teaching Sociology of Sexuality, is informed that this is an incorrect and insulting term.