A Bar in Greenwich Village and the Birthplace of a Movement
by Joey Saunders
The Stonewall riots were the brick-throwing, cop-brawling, movie-inspiring sparks that exploded into the modern-day gay rights movement. Like most Americans, you may have only the vaguest idea of what Stonewall is; in fact, it wouldn’t be surprising if you’d never heard of it at all. I think it’s important to understand where you come from and who you are, not just in the context of your own lifetime, but as the beneficiary of years and years of fighting for what is right. This is American history uncensored. The bits that were stripped from the history books when kids like you and me needed it most. The Stonewall riots are as important to U.S. civil rights as Susan B. Anthony or the Montgomery Bus boycotts inspired by Rosa Parks. If you’re still drawing a blank, don’t beat yourself up. I’m happy to bring you up to speed.
Stonewall is as much a landmark historic event as it is a literal historic landmark, which is to say: it’s a bar and it’s still around. The event, an incendiary bar fight, took place at 1:20 a.m. on Saturday, June 28th, 1969. The bar, The Stonewall Inn, is still a functioning gay bar in Greenwich Village, Manhattan, New York City. I first saw it in March.
I was in New York mostly visiting old friends, and to pay for the trip, I’d accepted a tiny part on a campy Fox TV show called “Gotham.” The casting director assured me that the shoot would only last about 12 hours, so I made plans to meet a personal hero of mine, Michael Cunningham, who had become a kind of pen pal over the last three years. Cunningham is a novelist, Yale professor and screenwriter whose book (one of my favorites), “The Hours,” won a Pulitzer prize and was made into an Oscar-winning film that was nominated for Best Picture, among other things. Cunningham suggested a bar, The Monster, down the street from Stonewall, and we’d made plans to meet a couple hours after I was scheduled to wrap. Of course, “Gotham” was about four hours behind schedule, and cast members weren’t allowed to have our phones on set (spoiler alert: Bruce Wayne ends up being Batman), so I politely explained to the Second Assistant Director that I needed to go because it’s typically not recommended that you stand up prolific writers. Luckily, miraculously, they released me a scene early and still paid me. Unluckily, a thunderstorm was raging and my phone had died when I picked it up from wardrobe. I took a train from the location, in Gramercy Park, to Times Square and ducked into a Verizon store. Quickly, I Googled directions on a display phone, memorized them, dashed back underground and jumped onto the first subway heading toward the West Village.
I made it, soaking wet and, under my peacoat, still in a suit and lipstick-smeared dress shirt I’d needed to wear on “Gotham,” managing to somehow look simultaneously overdressed and disheveled. Cunningham was tall with twinkly eyes and silver hair. He entered wearing a smile, an earthy Henley and a sturdy pair of jeans. For someone who can call Meryl Streep a friend, he was refreshingly down-to-earth. I tried to apologize for my phone, my appearance. He quipped that my waterlogged ensemble, complete with storm-strewn hair, was actually not a bad look, like the way you might imagine the romantic lead of an Austen novel looking as he confessed his undying love to the heroine just when all hope seemed lost.
The Monster, we decided, didn’t feel right. We went to a nice little place with food. He’d warned me that he had plans in about an hour, but our chat had gone incredibly well so he urged me to join him. He had to leave for Paris the next day, part of his book tour for his latest novel, “The Snow Queen.” I was staying with a dear college friend, Shannon, who is as kind as she is prone to worry, which is to say: very. Fearing that my deceased phone and the thunderstorm may have sent Shannon into cardiac arrest, I promised Cunningham I would have one drink with him at the next venue, but then, sadly, I needed to get back to Shannon. The next venue happened to be The Stonewall Inn.
Cunningham was going to see his friend’s one man (woman?) show, a drag performer’s staged reading of, of all things, “’night, Mother,” a play about suicide that had won the Pulitzer for drama in 1983 and was adapted into a widely panned movie starring Sissy Spacek a few years later. Anyway, on the short walk to the bar, it hit me just how bizarre and surreal this all was. En route, Cunningham asked if I knew much about Stonewall, its significance. I said, yes, but conceded that I wasn’t exactly an expert. I’m still not an expert and being in the physical space wasn’t exactly life-changing. It was smaller than I expected, and I hadn’t realized it had an upper level (where the performance would be). I’m glad it was shabby and not much had been done to update it.
Any older gay man who has ever given me the low-down on Stonewall Inn has described it as being seedy but homey. A kind of island of misfit toys. The 1960s were tough on America, and with growth comes growing pains. The ’50s had been a hyper-conservative era, and homosexuality was considered a mental perversion. The harassment and public humiliation of LGBTQ people was often condoned and sometimes encouraged. In 1956, psychiatrist Evelyn Hooker released evidence from her study that purported that self-identified gay men were just as happy and well-adjusted as straight men. Still, homosexuality remained in the DSM, classified as a mental disorder, until 1973. Stonewall, like many gay bars in cities like New York, represented a place LGBTQIA folks could intermingle and feel accepted.
The surrounding neighborhood, The Village, had attracted many gay men after World War I and several prohibition-era speakeasies had gay clientele. The repression of the 1950s only incited cultural outrage in places like Greenwich Village where Beat poets, like Allen Ginsberg, wrote bold, gay work. While many respectable bar owners discouraged anyone but straight, white patrons, gangsters saw an opportunity. Mobsters controlled many gay bars, including Stonewall Inn. They sold watered-down drinks for exorbitant prices, but patrons didn’t care because the gangsters paid off police to avoid raids.
Stonewall was turned into a gay bar by the Genovese family in 1966. No fire exits, no liquor license, but it was the only gay bar where dancing was allowed. The place became fabulously popular. Weekly, an officer would pick up cash as a payoff. It drew a diverse crowd: a variety of races, effeminate men, butch lesbians, male prostitutes, all mixed in with those who might typically pass as straight in their day-to-day lives. The bouncer worked through a peephole, and while transvestites were allowed in, the numbers were limited to avoid attracting a lot of obvious negative attention.
Saturday, June 28th, 1969, was only a few days after Judy Garland died. Managers at Stonewall had received a tip that there would be a police raid, but it was so unusually late that they chalked it up to misinformation. At 1:20 a.m., eight police officers raided the bar. These raids were essentially legally sanctioned forms of harassment as well as an easy way for officers and lawyers to make money off of people many viewed as dregs of society (fags, dykes, trannies, criminals, coloreds, etc.). A couple hundred patrons were packed into the bar when the raid began. Typically, the LGBT community took this in stride. Though there were impassioned writers and the occasional peaceful protesters, many LGBT people tried not to draw too much attention to themselves because of the life-destroying ripple-effect that being outed could cause in those days. That night was different, and that’s why it’s important. Because that night we fought back.
Supposedly, Stonewall’s manager and its mobster owners were blackmailing wealthy, closeted patrons. Some were Wall Street guys who could be pressed, not just for money but, for negotiable bonds. When police didn’t see a kickback from these dealings, this raid was intended as a way to retaliate and close the bar for good. Police stormed in, shut off the lights and the music, and barred the doors, trapping everyone inside. As the officers lined patrons up to check IDs, policewomen had planned on taking male patrons dressed as women into the bathroom and forcing them to verify their sex. Males would be arrested. But they refused to go with the policewomen, and many people in line refused to show their IDs. The plan was to confiscate all the liquor and transport it via patrol wagons. Backup hadn’t arrived with the wagons, so everyone had to wait for 15 minutes or so. Police released around 150 people, intending to arrest the rest when backup arrived. The released patrons lingered outside of the bar instead of fleeing the scene. The crowd attracted bystanders shouting, “Gay power!” and singing, “We shall overcome.” Rumors were spread that police were beating people inside. One officer shoved a transvestite outside the bar, the crowd booed, and the transvestite countered by hitting the officer over the head with a purse.
The crowd became enraged when a lesbian woman, allegedly complaining that her handcuffs were too tight, was struck over the head by an officer’s baton. The woman pleaded, “Why don’t you guys do something?” as police threw her into the back of a wagon. The crowd threw pennies, bottles and bricks at the wagon. Police attempted to restrain the hostile crowd, knocking people down, inciting a furor. In the scuffle, some of the arrested escaped. Even with backup, the police were outnumbered as bystanders from the village united into a crowd of around 600 people. Ten officers barricaded themselves in the bar for safety as the impromptu protestors tried to overturn the wagons. A parking meter was torn from the ground and used as a battering ram. The windows were shattered by bottles, rocks, garbage cans, bricks – anything the crowd could catapult at the cowering cops.
The Tactical Police Force was called to rescue the officers. By 4 a.m. the streets were cleared and only 13 remained arrested. Some of the crowd were hospitalized, and four officers were injured. The message was clear: LGBT people were mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore.
More rioting ensued the next night, complete with looting and garbage-can fires. By that Wednesday, nearly a thousand protestors assembled for a street brawl with police. The riots attracted enormous press coverage and protesters started assembling, generating informational leaflets and less violent protests.
On the night’s first anniversary, the first gay pride parade was held. Things had shifted. People were letting themselves get angry and standing up for themselves. They were deciding to be proud enough of their true selves to fight back against inequality.
Those are the basics, the blurb that should be in American History books but isn’t because history books tend to skew things in favor of straight, white men. Still, things are looking up. In 2013, President Obama mentioned the Stonewall riots in his inaugural address, “We, the people,” he said, “declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still. Just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall.” Still, as is my refrain at the end of most of these articles, we need to keep fighting. And discovering new heroes, looking back at acts of courage that helped forge a new, better world, can only strengthen us.
‘Stonewall,’ the controversy
The Stonewall riots have inspired “Stonewall,” a new film that was released Sept. 25, but the only thing this new film seems to be inspiring is controversy.
The flick is directed by Roland Emmerich, who is known for poorly reviewed visual effect extravaganzas and disaster movies like “2012” and “The Day After Tomorrow.” His film “Stonewall” is accused of white-washing history by focusing its narrative on a fictional young, white gay man. While it’s difficult to confirm, a black, trans activist, Marsha P. Johnson, is often credited as being one of the first police-resisters in the Stonewall riots of June 28, 1969. Early trailers for the film made it seem as if she had been erased, giving the spotlight to the fictional handsome white guy instead.
Johnson is in the final film as a secondary character, and the project boasts two major Stonewall historians as consultants. Still, critics remain nonplussed by Emmerich’s involvement and his decision to center the plot on a fictitious character when there are so many real-life personas who may have served the film’s historical accuracy and also shed light on queer people of color as unsung heroes.
– Joey Saunders