Let’s use our imaginations.
I want you to imagine you live in Greenwich Village, New York, in 1969. The rent is trash, the neighbors are loud but so are you, the hippies are still remembering the summer of love, some are your friends, perhaps some of them are lovers. The street food you can smell down the corner, and you know the best place to get a bagel and some empanadas. The mayor is John Lindsay, a Republican that you have some opinions on, but you can’t deny his involvement in the Kerner Commission, though you also do think some of it was grandstanding. The Vietnam War is becoming increasingly unpopular, and many are starting to get in scuffles with the police with unrest. You are a New Yorker, through and through.
You are also not straight.
You have not, in this particular story, really told anyone. You see, some years ago, after the end of WWII, McCarthyism struck the nation, a retaliation against the perceived loss of the prewar social order, enacted to hold off the forces of change. Along with the calls of communism (the “Red Scare”), there were now raised concerns over the sexuality of the populace, and a fear that the homosexuals would spell ruin for the average American (the “Lavender Scare”). You see, according to the accepted mental health professionals, homosexuality was a mental disorder, and needed treatment; the government was subsequently worried about the ‘emotional and mental instability’ of the homosexual in life and especially in the workplace. So they rooted out all suspected gays and lesbians, citing worries that they would be most susceptible to blackmail from anyone with un-American proclivities.
So you hadn’t said anything since you knew you were one of those who didn’t vibe with the straight side of life. You also knew of some groups (though precious few they were) that claimed to be part of the Homophile Movement, which attempted (often in vain) to convince those in authority that the homosexual isn’t a threat to normal life, that they are like anyone else. But doing so causes them to suffer with low social status and many times arrests, on charges of sodomy (which, excluding Illinois, was illegal in all of the United States). So you didn’t join those groups.
There was this bar, on Christopher Street, which wasn’t too far from The Village Voice offices, and also not too far from where you live, which you sometimes frequented, because, secret or not, you still needed to socialize, still wanted to go somewhere that allowed you to be yourself, and be with others like you, without the threat of potential imprisonment. Sure, you knew that cops would regularly raid places, especially since that bastard Wagner, Jr. cleared out most of the gay bars back before the '64 World’s Fair, but you also knew that the Mafia, who owned the bar (due to historical reasons – Prohibition made odd bedfellows of organized crime and closeted queer people), would regularly pay off the police so they wouldn’t be raided. Sure, the guys running the joint would often treat you like shit, water down your drinks, and never fixed the damn toilets – but the bar offered a dance floor, and a dark room you could take advantage of to be who you were with people you fancied.
You had to be careful, though; it wouldn’t be the first time that a cop was undercover in these bars, settling into conversation with someone, only to arrest them for solicitation when it was suggested for a night at their place. And you wouldn’t win the case, because lawyers wouldn’t take it, and if they did, they would give their representation fees back to the cops that arrested you in the first place.
What you may not know is that tonight, the night you’re heading into The Stonewall Inn (“the gay bar in the city”), police have finally (maybe) decided to close down this place permanently. Rumors that the wealthier clientele, often blackmailed by the Mafia grunts that run the bar, stopped giving enough to pay off the police, and the cops, in return, had enough of the games, and feel like putting it all to rest.
The night is late, on Friday, June 27. It’s been a long week, and you’ve headed into the bar, after presenting yourself to the bouncer looking through the peephole, and gotten a shitty, overpriced drink from one of the grunts. You’re dancing, enjoying the dark mood and the dancing lights. There are lesbians, there are gay men, there are drag queens, and there are those of many technicolor shades, and they are being people in the space. While mostly white, there are also Black and Hispanic clientele, and they are all enjoying the music. You are getting into the groove of things as the night turns to the next day, the weekend is in bloom, and for a while it seems you’ll be able to pass the night without a care (not a hangover, though, these drinks don’t have nearly enough alcohol for that).
However, a little past one in the morning, you hear a shout from outside: “Police! We’re taking the place!” Some people start fleeing, many newcomers are confused and not sure what’s going on. You are caught off-guard – usually these raids are earlier in the evening, not nearly this late. You aren’t able to make it out before 4 dark-suited plainclothes, 2 uniformed cops, a deputy inspector, and a detective come into the bar. Lights are turned on, and everyone is asked to present their IDs – those who are found wearing clothes that don’t match their given sex are arrested and taken to jail, with people dressed effeminately taken by female officers into the bathroom to verify their sex personally. Usually this doesn’t take too long, but somehow today seems more restless. Perhaps it was the recent raid this past Tuesday, or the closing of 4 other bars and clubs recently; but there is something off.
Being let outside, your ID matching and you not having been too conspicuously dressed, you nevertheless stick around, partly due to concern over some of your friends inside, and partly because of that off feeling. As you left, you heard that some of the lesbians had been felt up by the police while they frisked them, causing justified anger and growing tension. You and about 100 other people are outside, half the number that had originally been in the bar, and more people from the street were joining, gathering to watch exaggerated salutes from detainees and applauding the view.
Soon, the first couple of patrol wagons arrive, and in that time, the crowd has grown larger, nearly double what it was when you came out. As the cops move some of the patrons into the wagon, you hear a rumor that there was a scuffle inside and that a woman was fighting with the police. Soon, though, you see her being led outside (others would describe her as “a typical New York butch”), and thrown into the wagon. She fights back though, and after being thrown in a second time and hit with a baton after complaining how tight the handcuffs were, she escapes again, shouting “Why don’t you guys do something?” (Some claim this was Stormé DeLarverie, but you aren’t so sure yourself – others also have conflicting accounts as to the identity of the butch lesbian.) When she’s picked up and tossed into the back again, you feel the crowd turn hostile, and nearly 500 people advance on the 10 police there.
They do their best to restrain the crowd, giving an opportunity for some of the detainees to escape (some claim this was purposeful, that some of the cops were sympathetic but had to appear dutiful in their job). Someone says the police were upset they didn’t get their bribe money, so coins appear in the air, flung at the cops in payment; beer cans join soon thereafter. The cops soon barricade themselves inside the Stonewall, taking some of the detainees with them, along with Dave Van Ronk – Bob Dylan’s mentor and known straight anti-war folk singer and activist who was in the area and joined up against the police in solidarity – and Howard Smith – one of the column writers for that very same The Village Voice .
When asked later, some would say the reason it got so violent, so impassioned, and so thoroughly real , was because some of the patrons were homeless gay youth without another place to call home. Others of the patrons simply had finally fed up with being ripped out of their place of belonging. Together, they felt they finally could express their frustration with being put down and silenced, lest they lose anything called a social life, or even a free life. “[T]he fact they had nothing to lose other than the most tolerant and broadminded gay place in town, explains why [they fought for it].” (This would be put in a newsletter next month, from one of those Homophile organizations, the Mattachine Society).
But back in the present, the crowd is growing more violent, with attempts to get back in the bar steadily boldening – bottles, cans, even bricks hurled at windows, trying to smash them in, to gain access. (Notable is that Marsha P. Johnson, who would show up later, was not the first to throw these, despite many attributing it to her – she herself denied these claims to her deathbed.) Things escalate further when you see a flaming garbage can thrust into the broken windows, finally catching the bar on fire, and smoking out the police, who pull their guns and threaten to fire. You can see, up the street a little way, flaming objects drop from the outward-facing barred windows of the Women’s House of Detention, and you can hear the women and (as you’d later come to know them) transmasc people inside chanting “Gay rights, gay rights, gay rights!”
And it is around this time that the Tactical Patrol Force (TPF) show up.
They have come to help free the trapped police, and begin to attempt to force transvestites (as they call themselves) into the patty wagons. The crowd you’re in resists, and the TPF form a phalanx to head you off. In response, of course, the crowd around you forms a kickline, with a mocking chorus being sung at the police to the tune of “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay”:
We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We don’t wear underwear
We show our pubic hair
The TPF, naturally, doesn’t respond to this well; they advance, attempting to scatter the kickline, using nightsticks on those they see, breaking some bones and dislocating knees. It’s around this time (about 2 in the morning now) that Marsha P. Johnson (a drag queen) shows up, who, along with Zazu Nova (another queen) and Jackie Hormona (a sex worker), become instrumental in leading the vanguard in the pushback against the police.
And boy, do they.
AFter some back and forth, police are being chased through the crooked streets by gays, lesbians, and other assorted queer folk, jeering the cops and yelling “Catch them!” The Stonewall is in flames, the streets are blocked off with upturned cars thanks to the mob. The night is electric. It remains electric even after 4am, when the streets finally got cleared. You’ve escaped arrest, but thirteen people did not, which, considering the events you’ve just witnessed and been apart of, you can only consider a good number. You, along with several others sitting on the curbside or on porches, catching their breath or just reflecting on the events, now feel like you can’t put anything back anymore, can’t hide away what you feel or who you are. After tonight, what’s the point of going back into hiding, when you’ve shown that in number, you are all strong?
And so, the next night, you return. You, Marsha, and many of the previous night’s patrons, and even more people, provocateurs or tourists or just gawkers, have all come to protest or watch. The newspapers this morning had told of the previous night’s happening, from The New York Times and The New York Post and even the Daily News , so people know all about it, and many have come to see what might happen. You notice that today, many are showing outward signs of homosexual affection, no longer bothering to keep it secret to the nightclub, no longer bothering to hide their inner selves. Today, thousands show up, and while you start in front of the Stonewall Inn (which had overnight reopened – the mob is industrious, you gotta give them that), soon the crowd is flooding Christopher Street onto adjoining blocks. You see people stopping cars and harassing the people inside until they show their support or exclaim their own queerness, and you even see Marsha P. Johnson, that absolute queen, climbing up a lamppost and dropping a heavy bag onto a police car, shattering its windshield. You can smell the smoke of the flaming garbage cans as they are lit by likewise flaming people, and you see so many more police show up. Around 2 in the morning, just a mere 24 hours from their last appearance, the TPF show up again, and with the second verse same as the first, the kicklines show up again and the cop chases happen again, too. Around 4am, yet again, you tire out, and are not the only one, with most of the action dwindled down.
For the next several days (excepting a couple due to rain), you participate in more organized protests and riots (including one on that following Wednesday in response to The Village Voice publishing a provocative slam on the events, calling you and your queers-in-arms such stuff as “limp-wristed” and more things that this narrator can’t put without violating site rules), reading some of the literature put out surrounding the events, and getting more involved in the growing movement – what some people will eventually call “the gay liberation movement.” (You’ll also learn that yours wasn’t the first riot of your kind – in Los Angeles in 1959 there had been a riot staged by gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people at the Cooper Do-nuts in response to police harassment; and then in San Francisco in 1966, a larger riot had broken out in Compton’s Cafeteria when police arrived to arrest male-presenting people dressed as women, what would later be considered to mark the beginning of transgender activism in San Francisco. Yours simply had the distinction of getting much larger coverage.)
And in a year, when it comes back around to June 28 (it’s 1970 and Lindsay is again the mayor, though now as a Liberal, strangely enough), you also join up in a march on Christopher Street that lasts for 51 blocks, and while you only finally got the permission to march two hours before it began, you were surprised to find that there was hardly any opposition. In following years, the march became a parade, and the history of the Stonewall Riots was solidified in the memories of those who participated. Those who would come after would consider the event on June 28, 1969 a watershed moment in gay liberation, a movement that would see many struggles continuing throughout your life, but one that hopefully will see itself through to acceptance on a national and international scale.
– Written by Unmighty Hezekon, sourced heavily from Wikipedia; see especially David Carter’s book Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution