Visions of Stonewall

by Jesse Monteagudo

Stonewall 25, the Twenty-Fifth of the Stonewall Uprising, was a major event in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Nation. A series of major parades, parties, conferences, cultural events and Gay Games drew millions to New York City in 1994. The 30th Anniversary of Stonewall, which takes place this June, will not be as memorable. Still, as an event and as a symbol, Stonewall continues to shape our lives, even those of a generation that was not yet born when the patrons of the Stonewall Inn defied the police.

When the Stonewall Uprising took place in New York City (June 27-28, 1969) I was sixteen years old, living in Miami, attending high school and still uncertain about my sexuality. I was not aware of the events that then took place in Greenwich Village until years later, when I accepted that I was gay and wanted to read more about it. One of the first descriptions of Stonewall I encountered was in The Gay Crusaders (1972), Kay Tobin (Lahusen) and Randy Wicker's collected biographies of gay activist leaders which became the cornerstone of my lesbian and gay library. To Tobin and Wicker, Stonewall was the "dramatic event" that changed the "homosexual or homophile movement" to the "gay or gay liberation movement": "Through the fifties and sixties, the movement had been the work of a dedicated few dozen people across the country. There had been pickets and legal challenges, but basically the movement was small in numbers and expanding slowly. Then, in June 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn, a bar on Greenwich Village's Christopher Street that was popular with male homosexuals. The bar's clientele took umbrage, and for the first time in history homosexuals fought back. The police were stunned. In the full-scale riot sparked by the routine raid, homosexuals were injured and so were police. Word spread of the spontaneous rebellion, and immediately the movement acquired a grass-roots appeal and began to burgeon. Many new activists consider the Stonewall uprising the birth of the gay liberation movement. Certainly it was the birth of gay pride on a massive scale."

By 1972 the Stonewall Riots, which Martin Duberman called "the emblematic event in modern lesbian and gay history", had become the symbol of lesbian and gay pride and resistance. It also marked the coming of age of a new generation of out-and-proud gays, intoxicated with the spirit of the sixties. To Donn Teal, whose book The Gay Militants (1971) remains the best description of Stonewall and its aftermath, the Riots "jolted awake… an only half-remembered outrage against straight society's bigotries in those older, generally conservative ‘Boys in the Band' who had been out of town on the weekend of the 27th-28th-29th tanning their thighs at Cherry Grove and the Hamptons. And, as a slur, it posed a challenge to and goal for those younger, $90-a-week gays who'd had to make do with Greenwich Village and who'd seen [the] action. It may have created the gay liberation movement." Lucian Truscott, IV, writing for the Village Voice, saw Stonewall as the "forces of faggotry" unleashed upon an unsuspecting world, while Dick Leitsch, writing in the New York Mattachine Society newsletter, called it "The Hairpin Drop Heard Round the World".

Though the Stonewall Uprising inspired a generation of young New Yorkers to new heights of activism, its effect on the rest of us was more symbolic than real. For one thing, Stonewall was not the beginning of the lesbian and gay liberation movement. Robert Amsel, then a member of Mattachine, later wrote that "the myth that the Stonewall riots gave birth to the gay movement is an insult and a discredit to all the men and women who fought for our rights at a time when it was not fashionable--and was even dangerous--to do so." Barbara Grier, then the editor of the Daughters of Bilitis' publication The Ladder, agreed: "If Mattachine and One and DOB and Tangents and SIR and West Side Discussion Group (NYC) and their ilk had not been around years and years ago, the slogan ‘Out of the Closets and into the Streets' most likely would have changed to ‘Out of the Closets and into your Graves'." It was Leitsch's much-maligned Mattachine that got the New York City law against serving liquor to homosexuals repealed in 1966, years before Stonewall. John Loughery was correct when, in his book The Other Side of Silence, he described Stonewall as the climax of a "maelstrom" year of gay resistance and activism. New York City is the capital of the American communications industry, and anything that happens in the Big Apple gets blown out of proportion. Yet, before Stonewall, Gotham was not the center of queer activism. The West Coast, primarily San Francisco and Los Angeles, had a history of lesbian and gay resistance that predated Stonewall by at least two decades. Most pre-Stonewall organizations, from the Mattachine Society, ONE, Inc. and the Daughters of Bilitis, to the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), the Council on Religion and the Homosexual and the Metropolitan Community Church, started in California. Nor was Stonewall "the first time in history homosexuals fought back." In Los Angeles (1967), gays took to the streets after the cops raided two Silverlake Bars, the Black Cat and New Faces. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, according to Duberman: "the successful fight against an attempted police crackdown on the bars in 1964-1965 slowly swelled homophile ranks. Matters culminated in 1966 with three major events: the appearance of Democratic party powerhouses John Burton and Willie Brown at SIR meetings to appeal for gay votes; a series of demonstrations in several California cities (and elsewhere as well) to protest the exclusion of homosexuals from the armed forces; and a battle between gays and the police in San Francisco that lasted for three nights following a police attempt to raid Compton's Cafeteria, a gay hangout at Turk and Taylor streets." (Beth Hughes called it "San Francisco's Own Stonewall")

I was not the only non-New Yorker who survived 1969 in blissful ignorance of the Stonewall Uprising. Though the New York media covered the Riots with various degrees of seriousness--the Daily News' headline, "Homo Nest Raided, Queen Bees Are Stinging Mad," speaks volumes about that paper's attitude towards homosexuals, out of town papers ignored the event. The Los Angeles Advocate, already the West Coast's gay newspaper of record, expressed the typical California view of the Riots by not covering them until the September issue, and then burying it on page 3. (Page 1 was devoted to the winner of the "Mr. Groovey Guy" contest, which shows that gay publications haven't changed much during the past thirty years.) As Loughery put it: "In reality, most gay men and lesbians in the United States did not hear anything about Stonewall until years later, if only because the media outside New York City did not cover the riot. For wealthy or middle-class gay men, the antic life of Greenwich Village queens was never a topic of interest, anyway, and their street activism didn't register as important in 1969--‘Not so much as a blip on the screen,' Marvin Liebman commented. Nor did a word about this riot reach Paul Monette that summer, teaching at a Connecticut prep school only seventy miles away... Others who later assumed important positions in the modern gay rights movement learned of the riot only after joining the various political groups that rose from the event. In Farm Boys (1996), Will Fellow's oral history of gay men from the rural Midwest, the word Stonewall never appears in a single interview. Indeed, in the 1990s, it is possible to meet gay men in many parts of the country who identify as gay and have always been in the life, but who have only the sketchiest associations with an incident they perceive as a much-hyped, slightly confusing Manhattan story."

For many lesbians, Stonewall and its aftermath made even less of an impact on their lives; as Grier wrote, the emergence of the modern feminist movement was a more important catalyst. To this day there is still doubt as to what role lesbians played in the Stonewall Riots, or whether or not there were actually any lesbians at the Stonewall. Lesbians were definitely in a minority in the two main post-Stonewall organizations, the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance. Eventually sexism on the part of gay men led many women to leave those groups and form new, lesbian-feminist organizations. Like any symbolic event, the truth about Stonewall lies hidden within myth and legend. To this day, the Uprising has been attributed to a variety of causes, from the full moon to Judy Garland's death (she was buried the morning before the Riots). According to Teal, "The doubtful had it, however, that the riot had been arranged by ‘the S.D.S., the C.L.U., the Black Panthers, the White Panthers, the Pink Panthers, rival bars, [or] a homosexual police officer whose roommate went dancing at the Stonewall against the officer's wishes." Even the names and number of the participants remain in doubt, with more people claiming to have been at the Riots than could actually fit within the Inn or its surrounding streets. Duberman did not help matters any by centering his book Stonewall around the lives and memories of Jim Fouratt, Craig Rodwell and Sylvia Rivera, which necessarily short-changed or ignored other Stonewall "veterans." None of the Stonewallers ever achieved the mythic status of Diego Vinales, the Argentine student who was impaled on a fence while trying to escape in the aftermath of a police raid on the Snake Pit, another Village bar (March 8, 1970).

Having said all that, one must give Stonewall credit where credit is due. Taking place in the summer of 1969, Stonewall was the culmination and the result of a decade of political activism and resistance. As John D'Emilio wrote, "The Stonewall riot was able to spark a nationwide grassroots ‘liberation' effort among gay men and women in large part because of the radical movements that had so inflamed much of American youth during the 1960s. Gay liberation used the demonstrations of the New Left as recruiting grounds and appropriated the tactics of confrontational politics for its own ends. The ideas that suffused youth protest found their way into gay liberation, where they were modified and adapted to describe the oppression of homosexuals and lesbians. The apocalyptic rhetoric and the sense of impending revolution that surrounded the Movement by the end of the decade gave to its newest participants an audacious daring that made the dangers of a public avowal of their sexuality seem insignificant." According to Neil Miller, "The gay and lesbian movement was the stepchild of all the radical social and political movements of the decade--the student movement and the New Left, the anti-Vietnam movement, radical feminism, the Black Panthers, hippies and yippies. It began in New York but became international in scope." Stonewallers like Jim Fouratt took their experience in both the Movement and the Counterculture to help create a new, more radical gay movement. Eventually, Stonewall and its aftermath accomplished their desired effect, as the New York Police Department ended its routine raids on gay bars. But the Stonewall Uprising's greatest accomplishment was its effect on the hearts and minds of two generations of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Though most heterosexuals remained firmly antigay, most queer people learned to accept and celebrate who we are. Thus it is significant that the anniversary of Stonewall became the date of the annual LGBT Pride celebration, not only in New York City but around the world. Allen Ginsberg, one of the fathers of our movement, saw the significance of Stonewall when, along with actor Taylor Mead, he visited the site of the Riots the day after the event: "Gay power! Isn't that great!... We're one of the largest minorities in the country--10 per cent, you know. It's about time we did something to assert ourselves."

According to Truscott, who accompanied Ginsberg, the poet "expressed a desire to visit the Stonewall--‘You know, I've never been in there'--and ambled on down the street flashing peace signs... I [Truscott] followed him into the Stonewall, where rock music blared from speakers all around… He was immediately bouncing and dancing wherever he moved." "He left, and I walked east with him. Along the way, he described how things used to be. "You know, the guys there were so beautiful--they've lost that wounded look that fags all had ten years ago."