The Stonewall Riot - The Beginning of Gay Liberation (June 28, 1969)
When homosexuals and transvestites took to the streets of Greenwich Village in the wee hours of the morning on June 28, 1969 to protest constant harassment and mistreatment by the NYPD, I was 12 years old and living in Pittsburgh. I was unaware of what was taking place - and who knows if the disturbance even received new coverage in the Steel City. And even if it was reported, I wouldn't have understood much since at my age I didn't even know what a homosexual was. (A few years later I'd learn a lot after sneak-reading my older sister's copy of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. The author didn't provide a very positive lesson, but it was a start.)
The only memory I have that has some connection to this seminal event was the death of Judy Garland the week before the riots. I heard the news on the car radio as me and my family drove to church. At the time my only association with her was as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and not as a gay icon. Legend has it that her death was a contributing factor to the riot as her funeral was held earlier that day (a stifling hot Friday) and bar patrons weren't in the mood to once again be harassed by police. However, this this link has since been more or less dismissed.
Not to digress too much, but 17 years later I was living in the belly of the beast, the West Village, just a few minutes' walk from Stonewall. On July 1, 1986 I participated in a sitdown protest that blocked traffic on Seventh Ave. South for an hour or so. It was in response to the Supreme Court's decision (Bowers v Hardwick) upholding Georgia's sodomy law. And so I had my own opportunity to participate in some civil disobedience.
Getting back to the disturbance at Stonewall, an event that ignited the gay rights movement, the account that follows was provided by Liz Solomon, a former co-worker of mine, who grew up in Greenwich Village. She kindly volunteered to recount her memories of that night. Take it away Liz ...
First off, let me say that the thoughts and language of this mini-memoir are those of 1969, not 2013. I cringe at some of the things we said and did back in those days. But more importantly, I'm a firm believer in historical accuracy trumping political correctness.
It's important to understand that the West Village of 1969 was a very different place than it is today. For one thing, it wasn't called the West Village, but rather "Downtown", "West Side", maybe "the Village". Furthermore, it wasn't the home of celebrities, models - and especially not the rich. It was a regular working class/lower middle class neighborhood with dock workers, butchers (the Meat Packing District actually processed meat back then!), truck drivers along with a scattering of white collar workers and government employees.
We always knew there gay people interspersed in the neighborhood, but it had yet to take on the "gay ghetto" vibe that came later in the 1970's. (When I was in high school and college, guys I dated from outside the neighborhood often gave me a hard time about walking me home when they learned where I lived because it might be bad for their "image" if the were spotted there!) Did we welcome those of different orientations with open minds? Much as I'd like to say yes, we were kids and it was 1969. But it wasn't a matter of thinking that homosexuals were deviant. No, they were just different, and there was getting to be more of them in OUR neighborhood and they were beginning to take over the docks after dark, previously the urban version of "lover's lane" for a neighborhood of frisky, hormonal teenagers.
No doubt some of the local boys felt a bit uncomfortable or threatened by overt displays of homosexuality (not that they would admit it), but any harassment, name calling, or even occasional fisticuffs was really more a matter of "turf", not orientation, and would have been worse had the interlopers been from, say, 17th Street.
Which brings me to that last weekend of June 1969. I admit I missed the first night entirely. The police raid on the Stonewall Inn happened after 1AM and at the time I had a curfew so I was long home under lock and key. The next day was Saturday and a family obligation kept me off the stoops and out of the loop until after dinner. The minute I could, I broke away. The air was buzzing with incredulous and somewhat amused chatter about how the gays actually fought back, throwing stuff, shouting about their rights and turning the tables on the police - at least for a while.
This animated discussion continued as more and more kids joined the "hanging out" group. Then someone suggested we walk over to Sheridan Square (two blocks away) to witness firsthand what was going on. It was about 9:30 and, WOW, was it ever crowded with an agitated throng shouting previously unheard messages of gay pride and solidarity. Cops were everywhere with their billy cubs in hand, ready to swing them. The tension was beyond anything I could remember in my young life. Anyway, we were just onlookers since this wasn't our fight. Except that anyone starting trouble against our tormenters from the 6th Precinct, who enforced truancy laws and chased us off street corners, was officially OK in the neighborhood kids' book. The enemy of our enemy was our friend, thus did some dispassionate teenagers get involved in the opening act of the battle for Gay Rights.
The group I was with was pushed to the other side of Sheridan Square towards West 4th St. Fires had been lit in garbage cans and there was considerable harassment (but restraint as well) on both sides. There was a lot of shouting, and a few outright beatings but, alas, once again my curfew loomed (plus a small grace period) and I had to make my way to the safety of home a few blocks away. Thus, my participation in civil disobedience, albeit in the periphery, came to an end.
The following year, on June 28, New York held its first Gay Pride Parade. It began with a nervous group of a few hundred, but as the parade headed north from Greenwich Village more joined, and by the time the throng entered Central Park it had grown to 2,000 participants. Since that day a number of other key moments in LGBT history have occurred in late June: the unfurling of the first rainbow flag at San Francisco's parade in 1978; the Supreme Court's striking down of the nation's sodomy laws in 2003; the debut of MTV's gay-themed cable network, LOGO, in 2005; the legalizing of same-sex marriage in New York State in 2011; and in 2013 the Supreme Court overturned DOMA.